Author, screenwriter, playwright and nationally syndicated columnist Mitch Albom is coming to Temple Beth-El, in Providence, on Nov. 21 as part of his book tour for “Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family.”
The new book by Albom, the author of five consecutive New York Times bestsellers, tells the story of Chika, a young Haitian orphan whose short life would profoundly change his heart – and the hearts of readers everywhere.
Jewish Rhode Island recently interviewed Albom about Chika’s influence on his life, the role of faith in his journey and his writing process.
Q: The very first page of the book is touching and surprising. Did the beginning come to you right away or did it come later?
A: I didn’t want to write a traditional narrative because I knew people are sometimes scared of books in which they know a child dies. The deeper in they get, the closer they’ll get to an ending they don’t want to see, and so they put the book down. I wanted to take the horror out of the story.
By writing on the very first day that she had already died, and yet showing readers that she came back to me and was visiting with me, took all the scary parts out, so we can focus on her and her legacy and who she was.
Conversation was one of the best parts of her existence. I wanted to show readers how Chika spoke. Her asking me to tell her story the way she asked me everything else in life was representative of the relationship. In [his earlier book] “Tuesdays with Morrie,” you needed to hear how he [Morrie] spoke, and the same thing is true with Chika.
Q: There’s a defining moment at the orphanage when Chika seems to go from a little isolated to experiencing herself as part of a big family – the people of the orphanage –during the gospel singing and prayers of devotion. Did you ever feel like an outsider?
A: When I first got there [Have Faith Haiti Mission, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti], I couldn’t speak the language. I was just helping out the first couple of months I was there, but I can’t say I ever felt like an outsider. Our kids are the ultimate at making you feel like an insider. They’ll jump into your arms, put your arms around them. Everyone’s kind of an insider.
Q: When the children first get to use the showers installed by your volunteer crew, you describe it “as if experiencing the Lord’s first rainstorm” and you use the words “epiphany” and “divine.” It sounds like being around these children, even before Chika, opened you up to sacred ways of experiencing everyday life. Can you say more about that?
A: I think there’s something to that. I think we are rarely closer to God or faith than when we are entrusted to take care of children and we marvel at children’s faith. There’s something to be said for that, the way a child can believe in their hearts. Chika was like that, and our kids are like that. They remind you what it is to be pure and believe in things purely. When I’m around the kids, I feel closest to doing something I’m meant to do in the world, and therefore closer to God as well.
Q: Every day at the orphanage you faced the limitations of what you could do – that you had to turn some children away, you couldn’t completely protect the children in your care from disease or accidents or their early losses. How did your religious or spiritual understanding help you accept these limitations?
A: Of course, I’m not God, and I can’t save everybody, and I knew that. I knew that every time I said yes to one kid, I had to say no to 10 other ones. I could focus on the 10 I had to say “no” to, or focus on the one I could say “yes” to.
I just prayed that someone else somewhere was running an orphanage, and the ones we couldn’t take could go elsewhere and find a home.
Humility allows you to take heart in the accomplishments in the smaller things, rather than expect to have the answers to all the big things.
Q: Did your understanding of God, or “The Lord,” as you say to Chika, change over the course of Chika’s life? How?
A: There were times I certainly questioned the lord’s motivations and his logic. There were times I felt very angry with God. I couldn’t understand. I still can’t understand how a child has to suffer like that. She was born three days before an earthquake. And there were worse things still in store for her. Her mother died. Still worse things were in store for her, being taken away from her brother and sister. Still, worse things were in store for her. I got angry with God.
Q: You quote proverbs: “Surely there is a future, and hope will not be cut off.” What role did religion or spirituality play in your grieving process?
A: A great deal. First of all, finding comfort in accepting that God has a plan, and you may not understand it, but it’s still a plan. The biggest thing is that she had some place to go, she was in heaven; she was with God. And she wasn’t gone from us 100%. We can still dream of seeing her one day again. That dream sustains my wife and me in many a tough moment.
Q: You flew to Haiti monthly; in fact, I believe you still do. That’s a huge commitment. Did it always feel like it was a joy and privilege, or were there times you felt resistance? What kept you going back?
A: Ever since I’ve been going, since 10 years ago, I’ve always been excited to go. When I took over the orphanage in 2010, it wasn’t like, “Oh I have to go,” but “I need to go back.” I look forward to it. Seeing kids growing up. They need someone to talk to, a father figure to talk to. I never look at it as a burden.
It’s too far away, too hot, too poor. There are all kinds of reasons you’d give up on it if it didn’t take over your heart. In my case, it’s already taken over my heart.
Q: It’s a big decision to take over running an orphanage – and in a foreign country, no less. It sounds, though, like the offer just came out of your mouth spontaneously. Can you describe where it felt like that impulse came from and how it felt to offer?
A: Well, I still don’t know why I said that. I guess the idea, the reason I went down there in the first place, is the same reason I came back the second time. I couldn’t accept that children should have to pay the brunt of a bad circumstance. It’s not their fault. It wasn’t their fault they were living in a place where there was an earthquake and there wasn’t any food for them. It wasn’t their fault that the person who started the place – and promised to take care of them – was out of money and couldn’t do it. They were being robbed of a trust they deserved to have.
I felt like an injustice was being done and the kids didn’t deserve that. I think that’s why I blurted that out.
I could do something about it. It’s like how I feel on the street and someone in front of me is homeless and needs money. How can I walk away from this? That doesn’t mean I can help every homeless person in the world, but if this person is in front of me .…
That’s how I felt. How can I walk away now that I learned the kids are in trouble?
Q: Chika connects you to nature and a sense of wonder at the natural world. Did she remind you of yourself as a child?
A: No. She was much braver than me. She had to endure a lot more than I did. I was more quiet, introspective, and I had a mother and father who doted on me. My brother and sister were around all the time.
Maybe it was knowing she didn’t get what I had that made me so empathetic towards her.
Q: One of Chika’s lessons for you was to rejoice, “Revel in the funny business.” The pull of work, being productive, particularly during a book tour, can be demanding. How are you integrating Chika’s lessons during your book tour and rejoicing?
A: The rejoicing I get during the book tour is when I’m telling her story. I do a lot of speeches and I get to play videos – we have about 30 videos to choose from. I get to hear her voice. I get to hear her sing again. I get to rejoice in those moments there.
It’s very easy in a bad situation, like when your child’s sick, to think of everything as bad. Like, we’re having a good moment, but we’re not going to get 10 years of this.
Chika didn’t know how sick she was. She didn’t want to know how sick she was. Her bravery and her toughness inspired us and we were able to rejoice when she rejoiced; we should be happy in it with her.
It’s a good lesson, and something I wish we wouldn’t lose from when we are children and become adults, but it seems that we do.
LISA TENER, of Saunderstown, is an author and award-winning book-writing and publishing coach. Mitch Albom answers questions about his writing process on Lisa’s writing blog. Read that interview here.