Freshman Reading Program to deal with mental illness, love of music, each other

Jared Morgan

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Photo Illustration by Sami Eshaghi / Assistant Photo Editor

As part of the Fall 2009 Freshman Common Reading Program, CSUN will adapt, “The Soloist,” the account of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez’ encounter and sustained relationship with Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless man with schizophrenia and a love of music.

Lopez chronicled the encounter for the Times in 2005. He explained the difference between that work and the “The Soloist.”

“The columns are just in the moment and the book has a beginning and a middle and an end,” Lopez told the Daily Sundial. “And it begins with our first encounter and explores the entire odyssey and many of my highs and lows and moral dilemmas and enduring conflicts … and whether we should be doing columns or books … so it’s (a) much more personal and complete take on the first two years that I met with him.”

Ayers and Lopez still remain in close contact.

“He was at my house on Sunday,” Lopez said. “He came over for a swim and barbecue and he brought five instruments and played every one of them. He played the violin, the cello, the trumpet, the flute, the clarinet, he swam laps, he ate two cheeseburgers and he just had a good time.”

Because Lopez was on the road, he expressed dismay at not being able to accompany Ayers to the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday where Yo-Yo Ma, a former classmate of Ayers, was set to perform.

“And he was going with a member of the L.A. Philharmonic, a violinist by the name of Robert Gupta,” Lopez said. “So, he’s got a very active social life with a lot of friends … he’s doing reasonably well; he still has a lot of challenges.”

Ayers still isn’t taking any medication, something that people often want to know, Lopez said.

“He is still in the same apartment that he was in when the book ended and he recently went with me to San Francisco to retrieve an award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And that, I’d have to say, was … one of the highlights of this whole experience. He was really flattered, and he was mobbed in San Francisco by people at the convention who wanted to meet him and get his autograph and pose for pictures with him. So, he’s got many challenges ahead and we’re never sure what’s coming tomorrow or next week or next month or next year, but at the moment he’s doing reasonably well.”

A lot of people are oblivious to people like Ayers, Lopez said, who deal with the stigma of mental illness.

“To have somebody take an interest in you and express a desire to be his friend is like a lifeline and I think he appreciates having a community of people like that who support him and care about him and (are) there for him,” Lopez said. “So that’s an important part of anybody’s recovery–to be treated with dignity and respect, but it’s not just about me doing for him. I’ve just learned so much from him about courage and faith.”

The most inspirational part about Ayers, Lopez said, is how his passion for music has carried him through such a challenging life.

“You know, few people ever find their passion in life and Nathaniel found it. And it’s been there for him, he’s been loyal to it,” Lopez said. “When I met him he was on the street with a violin that was missing half its strings and he was still finding a way to play music and find some enjoyment in it … I’ve learned so much through him about public policy on mental health and homelessness that I now have a chance to go around the country like I’m doing right now, to talk to people about the things that I’ve learned and about what kind of outreach works. The supportive housing model that Lamp Community uses in L.A. is what worked around the country. We know that it works, we just need more of it.”