Anna Sale: Radical Vulnerability

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If you’ve ever driven across America, then you probably know just how big it really is. The state of Kansas alone is well over 400 miles across. And while it’s not as flat as as reported, it is a whole lotta nondescript prairie: grass and dirt and sky for miles.

It is a landscape made for radio; an open canvas for the mind’s eye.

Little wonder, then, that my love of Public Radio began there, hurtling along Interstate 70 towards Colorado in my $900 used Nissan Sentra. The year was 1991. I was a sophomore in college with a tent, sleeping bag, acoustic guitar, some traveler’s checks and the ambition to drive from Philadelphia to San Diego and back again. (I made it.) 

My REM and U2 cassettes had grown tired, and the staticky pop and country radio was too saccharine, vacuous and repetitive. Which is when I met Susan Stamberg, Scott Simon, and Nina Totenberg. Suddenly, the miles began to slip away. And suddenly, by just listening, I was a citizen of the world.

Just over a decade later, Chris and I stepped into NPR’s Washington, DC, headquarters like it was Oz: eyes wide, mouths agape. This was our Mecca, our Graceland. We asked our new friend, NPR Membership Coordinator, Gemma Hooley, to snap our photo in front of the logo in the lobby. Our 45 minutes with NPR Legend and Fred Rogers Collaborator, Susan Stamberg, was like an audience with The King. Elvis, that is.

Public Radio’s history of outstanding, substantive and thoughtful reporting is second to none. Its line of outstanding, substantive and thoughtful reporters is too: Stamberg and Totenberg, Cokie Roberts, Terry Gross … and Anna Sale.

Anna is a public radio star. As the creator and host of WNYC’s “Death, Sex & Money,” she has built a thriving community around “the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” I have been a listener from the beginning. Because Anna not only engages and excels at difficult conversations about breaking up, breaking down, losing work and gaining weight, but also because she does so with nearly unparalleled grace and tenderness. She goes there. And it’s powerful stuff.

Anna was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia. She attended Stanford, then returned to her hometown where she was a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Anna moved to New York City with her film student husband, and hustled her way to WNYC where she reported on politics. She launched “Death, Sex & Money” in 2014, and has had hundreds of challenging, deep and simple conversations since.

And now, Anna has a brand-new book.

In Let’s Talk About Hard Things, Sale employs memoir, reportage on real Americans and their very real challenges, and expert opinions to show why having tough conversations is so important —  and how to do them in a thoughtful and generous way. 

Anna is nothing if not generous. 

A few weeks ago, emboldened by my conversation with Kara Golden, and energized by the adrenaline rush of leaping from my former day job, I DM’d Anna — a perfect stanger — name-dropped a few colleagues in common, and asked her to be on our show.

Despite the rigors of an all-virtual book tour with two daughters and a husband at home, Anna said yes. And we began where I’ve so often sought common ground: Fred Rogers.

For nearly a decade on “Death, Sex & Money,” and with her new book, Let’s Talk About Hard Things, Anna reminds us that, as Mister Rogers said, “What is mentionable is manageable.” 

There are no true solutions, resolutions or amends without stepping into that great, gray ambivalence, where good and bad are inextricably and irreversibly combined.

Because we’re all Tony Soprano, Anakin Skywalker or Walter White. We are all, all of the things.

And there are no true solutions, resolutions or amends without listening, curiosity and empathy. And without the willingness to be moved — not just in our hearts, but in our positions, in our long-held beliefs about ourselves and one other.

In words AND deeds — her laughter, tenderness, curiosity — Anna models that for us, with the precision of a surgeon, the healing of a therapist, and the empathy of a friend.

And in confronting the impossibility of tidy, neat or perfect outcomes, she grants us the space to find new meaning in those apparent loss for words; without hard conversations, and the lessons embedded in the words and the silences in-between and after — there simply is no “next.”

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