Q&A: Mitch Albom Talks Kindness Through the COVID Crisis and the Nicest Place in America
We sat down with Tuesdays With Morrie best-selling author and moral voice of America Mitch Albom to discuss the COVID crisis, advice Morrie would give to a divided nation, and this year's Nicest Place in America. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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Jeremy Greenfield: I read your serialized book Human Touch and this line near the end really got me because it dovetails so closely with what we’ve learned over the years with Nicest Places in America and I’ll just read that to you now. “They were more than neighbors now. The crisis had made them a community.” Was this a lesson you wanted to impart when you started writing Human Touch or was it discovered in the process?
Mitch Albom: Little bit of both. I knew writing the book to begin with, I wanted to make it about community. I wanted to make it about how a small community changes, maybe suffers, but ultimately endures. I think I knew in the end that the street corner, which is featured in Human Touch, would be altered as a result of the virus and even some parts would be lost. If you read the whole thing, you know one of the main characters dies from the virus by the end of it, but that it would still endure and go on. I don’t think I had that sentence in mind at the beginning when I was writing—I didn’t have anything in the end in mind when I was writing at the beginning, I was just trying to stay one week ahead of the readers. But I think by the end I had verbalized what I had thought at the beginning.
JG: One of the things that I felt with Human Touch, and I’m guessing that you intended this, was that it was meant to be a microcosm of things that were happening all over the country. When you said that the community changes, maybe suffers, but ultimately endures, it also makes me think about the country as a whole. Was that what you were thinking? That you wanted the four corners, the families, to be representative of things happening everywhere?
MA: Exactly. I set it in my own backyard because I know Michigan and the details of it the best. But it was certainly meant to be reflective of America and when I first set out to write something and announced that we were going to do it, I got an extraordinary number of messages from people around the world saying, “Please write something hopeful.” We need something with hope in it and they felt that that’s what I do in my other books. I took that to heart. I am a hopeful person by nature anyhow and I do think that the best of us ultimately prevail, but I thought in particular with this story, I didn’t ever envision an ending where, something like, “there were millions and millions who died and all that was left were ruins and people wondering, ‘what did we do wrong.’” That’s an apocalyptic view of this and I’m sure there will be somebody who will do a story like that and probably do it well. And there will be movies like that, but that’s not me. I wanted to have something that looked up at the end, not down.
JG: The character of Little Moses was my favorite character. You did a very good job tugging at my emotions with him and I’m sure many others experienced the same thing. You’ve said in other interviews that Little Moses is based partially on Knox, a Haitian boy who is living with you now.
MA: Yep. I sent him off to the park two minutes before you got on the phone.
JG: What is it like having Knox with you during this momentous time and do you see America through his eyes? What do you see?
MA: He’s been nothing short of a lifesaver for us. First of all, we’re locked down here in the house and I think to have yourself locked down with an eight-year-old force of nature, who is just eminently happy and upbeat, he doesn’t know from coronavirus, he doesn’t know from how the world shut down. He just sees America as this miraculous place, where you have backyards and driveways, and you can turn on televisions and electricity working all day long, and you don’t have to be in darkness for half the day or half the night, and you can have food in your refrigerator which works because you have electricity, and you don’t have to go scrounging for food every day. So, he’s a constant reminder of how good we have it here in America, even when we’re under our most dire conditions.
That perspective has helped us with everything. Having a child, and the energy of a child in your home, who just wakes up happy and runs downstairs to just grab you and hug you, “Good morning, Mr. Mitch!” every day is like an adventure for him. It enables you to keep everything in perspective. We have it so good in this country that even when we have to step back, what we feel is a significant step, we don’t come close to countries that have it “bad.” I’ve known that anyhow because I’m in Haiti every single month for the past ten years, so it’s a monthly reminder for me, just landing and making the trip from the airport to our orphanage, I see more abject poverty and suffering and hunger and homelessness than we ever have to contend with here, even in dire situations and tough-hit places in America.
He’s a daily reminder of that and I wanted to work that spirit into the book, and it wasn’t hard because he was next to me most of the time I was writing it. He plays on the floor and colors and made all these drawings. I have a folder inches thick of drawings that he’s made. He says, “give me a challenge,” I think I must have taught him that word, he says, “I can’t draw without a challenge.” So, I say, “OK, make Shrek inside a library with Sonic the Hedgehog trying to throw him a rope and Ms. Jeanine outside in a balloon.” And he absorbs all that and then he draws these incredible pictures and then, of course, within ten minutes he’s got it done and he says, “give me another one!” So, that was what it was like to try to write the book. He was here all the time doing that, but whenever I needed to create his voice, he was talking to me, so his inflection and the way he mispronounces words, his enthusiasm—all that was easy to capture in his character. Having him voice the character in the audiobook was just icing on the cake.
JG: Something you said answering my last question about people coming to you about the book—they wanted a story that was hopeful. I feel like you are exactly describing what we do with Nicest Places in America and why we’re doing what we’ve been doing over the past four years, so I would just love to hear your thoughts on Nicest Places in America. Editor’s note: Albom was a member of the Nicest Places in America advisory council for 2020.
MA: The reason I’m attracted to it and the reason I agreed to participate is because it emphasizes the positive. We sometimes have a proclivity in America to focus on the negative, despite all the positivity that’s around us. I don’t know why that is. As someone who travels a lot around the world, I see how America is held in such high regard in terms of—forget about politics, it doesn’t matter who is in the White House at any given time—just the way we are able to live, the advanced level in which we live, the technology with which we live, the beauty of our country, and I see it more sometimes in the faces and words in the people who don’t live here than the people who do live here. We have these friends who live in Belgium, and they try to come once a year to America and see something that they haven’t see before. They always say to us, “This year, we’re focusing on Savannah.” And then they rattle off all this stuff about Savannah that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know. I didn’t know any of that stuff. They say, “How do you not know this? This is in your own country! It sounds like such an amazing place. We are so fascinated by it.” We’re all guilty here in the States of not appreciating just how special our country and the places in our country are, and I’m almost embarrassed when that happens with them. I think nobody outside our country should know about special places in America than we Americans should know. So, I like the idea of what you’re doing, and I like the fact that you’re talking about how united we could be, being just a better country. Because that’s something you also don’t find in a lot of other countries. The sense that we need to be better and I think America was forged in something like that. The documents that forged this country, as perfect as they may seem in hindsight, they still spoke of an aspiration. America was founded on aspiration. It wasn’t founded just on putting our flag in the ground. It was founded on, “We want this experiment to be high-minded and we want this experiment to yield amazing societal results.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Those kinds of sentences as the founding of a country are pretty unique around the globe. I can’t speak for every country, but I’m pretty sure most countries didn’t begin with that as the concept. I think we have an obligation in America constantly to always be aspirational and to always try to be better. The Nicest Places project emphasizes that and that’s why I think it’s a good thing.
JG: When we gave you all of the different finalists to look at, we wanted your insight into which one’s you thought should have their stories told in the magazine and sort of memorialize forever in that way. You chose Buchanan, Michigan, which ended up being our Nicest Place in America 2020. What drew you to that story?
MA: You couldn’t have come up with a better place. The two things that they cited when they were nominated I think are very significant. Number one: you have what is very common here in Michigan, in a small town. A sense of love of America and a patriotism and frequently, that means soldiers, people who have served the country, who have volunteered to serve the country and in more recent years, who have been drafted or served in previous wars before. There’s a great sense of patriotism in small towns in Michigan. There is sometimes a sense in this country, I think wrongly, that those who are patriotic or those who celebrate military heroes are somehow going to be intolerant when it comes to racial justice or racial issues. I have found that that is not the case. Living in a city like Detroit, which is overwhelmingly African American, I have found that not to be the case and living in a state like Michigan, I found that not to be the case. You discovered a town in which that is personified. Where the parade got canceled and they adjusted, and they came up to a great solution to basically turn their lampposts into a parade. If the lampposts could march, they would be marching down the street in the parade and they’d have all their heroes displayed as they did it. And yet, some people might say, “Oh, I know that kind of a town. That kind of town is just interested in the military and patriotism and love it or leave it kind of America. They would never support African Americans or race issues or would probably look the other way at the George Floyd thing.” And as you can see, nothing could be further from the truth. The whole town came together, including police, and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. They personified the ability to love your country and also love all different members of the country. We do that here in Michigan. It didn’t surprise me. I’ve been to countless of these towns because I live here, and I see it. And I get a little annoyed when I see people from the coasts trying to characterize what a small midwestern town is like because they tend to stereotype it as if it is somehow intolerant and nothing could be further from the truth. Our geography does not make us intolerant. Being in the middle of the country doesn’t make anybody intolerant. Intolerance is in your heart and you can have it whether you live in the biggest city on the east coast or the west coast or anywhere else. So, I’m glad that you showcased a midwestern town that loves its country, loves its history, loves its military but also loves and understands racial injustice and the need for racial justice and isn’t afraid to, literally in this case, to take a knee to demonstrate that.
JG: If it’s OK with you, I would like to ask you about Morrie. If you could get a message to him, wherever he is now, and you knew he was watching everything happening right now in 2020, what would you say to him? If you could ask him for advice, what would it be? Editor’s note: Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie, is an international phenomenon. It has sold 14 million copies worldwide in 42 languages and has been adapted for both stage and screen.
MA: I already know what his advice would be. I spent months sitting alongside him and at the time there was a lot of strife going on in the country. In 1995, which is when he died and when I was visiting him, was the OJ Simpson trial, and it was on a Tuesday when that verdict came in. We were together. The country had a divide in it even then and was facing challenges even then and Morrie’s stated line from a favorite poet of his, “Love each other or perish.” And I’m sure he would say the same thing right now.
JG: Morrie seemed to take a wider view of things than maybe most people do as they watch the news. Even so, do you think he would make any kind of commentary about what’s going on in our country right now?
MA: I think he would say that nothing surprised him. He lived through times when people were scared before. He lived through times where the country was challenged before. He lived through a world war. He lived through times when fighting for civil rights and justice was the norm. Morrie was a professor on a very active political campus in the ‘60s. He endured and was part of sit-ins and protests and marches. I don’t even remember what they were protesting, but one time they took over one of the buildings, and Morrie was such a beloved professor that the students protesting asked him to deliver the message to the administration. He had to crawl through the window. I remember he told me they had to lift up the window for him to crawl inside the window and then they gave him the list of things that they wanted and then he crawled out through the window and went back to the administration. Morrie was always interested in making the best peace. I think he would reiterate the lesson he said to me many times over: “We are all more alike than different.” When we recognize that, we realize we have much more we have in common than our differences suggest, and you overcome that. You realize that you’re human first and everything else second.
JG: We’re at the beginning of the second half of the year. I think a lot of people would agree that 2020 has not been the best year in recent memory. In that context, what words of advice or comfort would you like to give to America?
MA: We will endure this. We are a nation built on endurance. We have overcome many things and many challenges before, and the good news is that we already know how this can end. We didn’t know how wars would end. We didn’t know how even the last pandemic was going to end because we didn’t have technology and medicine like we have now. We know this is going to end. There will be a vaccine and there will be an end to this. Anytime you can say that we’re suffering, but we know our suffering will be finite and our suffering will have an end, you are already infinitely better off than so many people in the world whose suffering begins when they’re born and doesn’t end until they die. There are people on the planet who are living like that right now and we need to keep that in mind and keep this in perspective that we are fortunate in our own way and that we do know how this is going to end. We just need to be patient and resilient until we reach that ending. In the meantime, we need to care for one another. Love one another. And watch out for one another. We have a good history of doing that and I believe that we will do it again.
Get a copy of Mitch Albom’s latest book, Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family.