Steven ~ The Value Project // Hillsborough, NC
“The whole point of most of the work that I do is about trying to bring more respect and kindness into the world. To provoke people in conversation about matters that affect all of us is really what I’m passionate about. It brings me a lot of contentment and I seem to have found my voice with that.”
I had met with Steven on a previous occasion to talk about The Value Project and what my time with him would look like. We had spent some time just getting to know each other that day and I was impressed by the intentional way in which he listened to my vision and the encouragement he offered. I thought about that as I prepared for our “conversation.” Walking up to Steven’s home, I was greeted by Zoe’s barking, informing him that I had arrived. We headed up to his office and I smiled as I took in the light gently filtering in through the windows. Its a quiet, contemplative space. Thoughtful and purposeful, much like the man himself.
“I’m writing columns for The Washington Post and USA Today just about every week. I like to bring what some people see as a very arcane practice of advice giving or etiquette advice, into politics. There’s always a political underline to what I do. I wish that I could say that I had a master plan; That growing up I said, ‘Oh, I want to be an advice giver.’ That did not happen. I did want to become a journalist. That DID happen and allowed me to get into the line of work that I do. I didn’t have a master plan. I think the real answer is serendipity.”
“I half jokingly, half truthfully base a lot of what’s happened in my professional career on the worse blind date ever. In my twenties, I had been diagnosed with cancer, so a friend thought that she would match me up with another guy in his twenties with cancer. We had dinner and there was no chemistry. We still had a lot in common, (I had my collection of etiquette books, he had his collection of cookbooks going back one hundred years) so we started to establish a friendship. About a month later, he called me and said, “I’d like you to do this book of gay etiquette.” That was completely out of the blue and I feel really fortunate to have had that blind date. The whole experience with David really taught me about serendipity and being open to serendipity.”
“I’ve been cancer free for 32 years… I was cured after 5 years, but I think for anyone who has ever had cancer, it never entirely leaves your consciousness. For better or for worse. There’s always that fear of recurrence and there’s also just the ways that it changes you. It did change me and it almost continues to in different ways. I remember at the time I was diagnosed people saying that there’s this type of cancer personality that wins and then another personality that dies and I was like, I don’t have any idea who I am. I was very scared to learn to trust myself; to look beyond what was in my brain, which was where I was really comfortable and more into my instincts and feelings as a way to maneuver through all of that. In the past few years, my mom has developed lung cancer. That’s helped to create a new, different bond and holds a lot of meaning for us. She’s being treated in the same hospital that I was in New York. It sounds weird, but in a way it’s very comforting for both of us to be there together, because we had been there together a long time ago in completely different roles. Now I have become the care giver and the guide. I did not anticipate it when she was first diagnosed, but I think that I’ve found ways that there’s been light in it.”
As I’ve mentioned before, the interview aspect of the project is both my favorite part and also the part that I most struggle with. As I stumbled through it, Steven took each question in stride. When I questioned him about the concept of value, he paused for a long time, deeply pondering his response.
“Reader response is one of the ways that I feel that my work is valued. I was having dinner with a relative last year and I was possibly ruing the fact that we had not had any children and he said, “you have such an impact on the people who read you and listen to you, but you don’t even realize it.” I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but I started paying more attention to what he said and I did come to think that. I do have correspondences and relationships with a lot of the people who read me and they care enough to to tell me what they think, to stay engaged. Even when people don’t agree with me (I’d say that’s about 50% of the time that they don’t) that’s fine. In a professional sense is all I could ever ask for; For people to be thinking about what I’m trying to say and having a dialogue. I think that’s true for most writers and I feel really fortunate that it’s happened. I also feel valued by my husband. He manages a lot more than 50% percent of the day to day stuff in our lives, which allows me the peace of mind and the gift of time to do so much of what I’m able to do. That kind of support really matters and has had a huge impact on our life here in Hillsborough and also on my own work. It has allowed me to not worry so much about leaving my job in New York and has fulfilled my desire to write and create more. “
“In my life, I’ve often been afraid of making certain decisions or doing certain things. I’ve had a very good friend in New York for about 20 years and through conversations with him, he has gently guided me towards the idea that there’s not always a right or wrong decision, but it’s important to make a decision when you’re at a fork in the road. You really can’t stand there forever. I sometimes have a natural instinct to be paralyzed. The idea of moving forward regardless, the larger metaphor from that is not being paralyzed by fears, but taking them apart in some way; Stepping over them, stepping around them. they may still exist, but try not to let the fear guide your path. I’m still learning it.”