Melissa O’Brien

I had the privilege to speak to the Shelburne-Charlotte-Hinesburg Rotary last week. It was so much fun, such a lovely surprise to go behind the scenes, if you will, at an organization I’ve known of forever and never had a clue what it was or what its purpose is.

The first thing I learned is that the folks who show up for that early morning breakfast meeting laugh a lot. Total surprise. I expected a bunch of tired Rotarians, not quite awake enough yet to hear me describe the differences between the two Charlotte newspapers (three, several years ago). These folks were having way too much fun for a 7:30 a.m. meeting.
I’m always grateful when someone gives me a microphone, an audience and the opportunity to talk about anything I want to talk about. I mean, let’s face it, that’s a lot of freedom. There’s a little risk involved for the inviting organization.

I did not, however, take any liberties. I drank my coffee and then got up to talk about two things: The Charlotte News and curiosity.

I talked about how the word “Yes” has gotten me into some very interesting situations in this life: Yes turned me into a writer, photographer, pastor and news editor, to name a few.

I talked about how I so admired George Plimpton when he was alive, how I loved his participatory journalism style. George immersed himself in places most of us wouldn’t dream of going: professional football and hockey and boxing. He played for the New York Philharmonic and did stand-up comedy at Caesars Palace. Also, he was the unofficial Fireworks Commissioner of New York City. Who doesn’t want to be that? That guy knew how to have fun. He allowed his curiosity to propel him forward into all kinds of interesting things, and then he wrote about it.

Standing in front of the kind and attentive members of the Rotary, I told the story of how I had once said yes to an invitation to lead a worship service even though I had never done it before. Saying yes requires a willingness to fail at something. Lots and lots of people are afraid that that might happen: that they will try something new and find they aren’t much good at it. But can you imagine a life filled with never trying at all? Failure is as important in our our stages of evolution as success.

When we are young we’re naturally curious about everything. I heard a statistic recently that the average 4-year-old girl asks something like 250 questions a day, but by the time she’s in school full-time that number has dropped off drastically—because in school the emphasis is on the answers, not the questions.

When I was teaching second grade about a hundred years ago I set up something called the Invention Center in our classroom. Nothing was being invented, really. Kids brought appliances and small electronics in from home (this was pre-computer, pre-cell phone) that were (hopefully) broken and took them apart, ostensibly to build new things with the parts. But what they loved the most was the taking apart. They loved seeing what was inside a toaster or a hair dryer. One time I put a microscope on the table thinking they might want a tool to see the really tiny parts and within about 10 minutes — the time it took me to place it on the table and walk back to my desk to start taking attendance — they had completely dismantled that thing.

Curiosity is a fabulous thing. And so important in the lifelong development of our brains. We know a lot more about neuroplasticity than we used to. There is a good chance our brains are being reshaped by our addiction to our phones and computers. There is a good chance, I told those attentive Rotarians, that we are becoming a wholly different kind of people.

And that, I closed my talk with, is why we need to stay curious. Why we need to lift our faces from our screens and have a look around. Why we need to stay curious about how things work and what our neighbors are doing. Why we must keep caring about what’s happening in the world around us.

Which is why, of course, we need small town journalism and wonderful organizations like the Rotary more than ever, to keep us informed and connected. All in all it was a terrific morning and a fine reminder of how much good and light we have right here in our little corner of the world.