The Healing Powers of Connection

Soiund of a Wild Snail Eating

“The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

Several years ago Candice was recovering from a severe concussion and was home bound for several months. During that time a friend gave her a small book, thinking she might relate to Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s story of isolated recovery from a mysterious illness. We had not thought about that gift for a long time until I went looking for a short read to pack on a recent trip.  I happened upon Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and was immediately captivated by this strange yet reassuring tale.

To summarize the book might lead friends to question your reading choices. Bailey – an active and curious woman of 34 – contracts a mysterious disease while vacationing in Europe and finds herself bedridden and unsure that she will live.  A wild snail arrives in the bedroom where she is convalescing, brought in by a friend and placed in a pot of field violets. Over twelve months – and 178 pages – Bailey watches the snail explore its terrain, eat, sleep, eventually hatch 118 offspring, and return to the wild.  The book is filled with fascinating snail biology (they can mate with themselves!) and links to more snail literature than I could ever have imagined existed.

More than a natural history of gastropods, however, this meditation focuses on the healing powers of connection.  “Survival,” Elisabeth Tova Bailey writes, “often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility.”  In her case, the key to survival from her mysterious virus lay in the sound of a tiny mouth – with more than 2,600 teeth – munching. One of my favorite lines in this witty memoir relates:

“I found myself experiencing tooth envy toward my gastropod companion.  It seemed far more sensible to belong to a species that had evolved natural tooth replacement than to belong to one that had developed the dental profession.”

To survive, Bailey reminds herself – like the snail – to “think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day.”

Snail (Algonquin Books)

Snail (credit: Algonquin Books)

It strikes me – especially in these times – that connections do have the ability to heal and get us through to the place where we need to be. The work of preservation connects people to place and people to the stories of other people.  Both are important.  Throughout this thoughtful and marvelously written book, Bailey makes the case eloquently and simply that connecting helps us get to where we belong and where we can thrive.  She quotes Edward O. Wilson from his Biophilia, noting that “The crucial first step to survival in all organisms is habitat selection.  If you get to the right place, everything else is likely to be easier.”

Here’s to a good week of connections.

More to come…


The Preferred Pre-Inaugural Concert

Lovett Hiatt Tickets

My ticket in the nose bleed section at Strathmore

Earlier this evening, I joined a full house at Strathmore Music Hall as we made our choice for a different  pre-inaugural concert from that on the national mall.

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt are two of the best songwriters and (especially in Lovett’s case) song interpreters in the Americana field.  The beautiful sound and setting at Strathmore was perfect for their two-and-one-half hour acoustic set on Thursday evening.

They played their hits.  They played unrecorded new songs.  They bantered.  They played songs by other songwriters. And they did it with such ease and obvious affection for each other that the time flew by.

Hiatt’s voice is getting older and doesn’t hit the notes like he once did.  But that really didn’t matter in this setting.

Here’s a video of a tune they played tonight, Lovett’s “She’s Not Lady.”  Enjoy!

More to come…


Nothing can be Changed Until it is Faced

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Last week, President Obama named the A.G. Gaston Motel (a National Trust National Treasure), the 16th Street Baptist Church (site of a bomb attack in 1963 that killed four young girls), and other places near them as part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.  Made on the eve of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the president’s designation was a good reminder of the importance of why we protect places that tell difficult stories from our past.

A few weeks ago I finished reading a powerful book that harkened back to the work and writings of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a work that demands a response from the reader and is not easily dismissed.

In the book’s foreword, Cornel West alludes to the link between Alexander’s work and Dr. King’s core beliefs.  King called for us to be “lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.”  It is the work of King for the poor and vulnerable in places like Alabama that led President Obama to designate this new National Monument.

Michelle Alexander’s last chapter is inspired by the writing of James Baldwin.  Coincidentally, the Washington Post recently included Baldwin’s writing in an article about a new Memorial to Peace and Justice.  Better known by its common name of the national lynching memorial, this place has been envisioned by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by Bryan Stevenson, who also is its executive director and spoke at our PastForward 2015 conference.  That piece in the Post includes this powerful line from an unfinished book by James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

When we talk about sharing the broad story of the American experience, not all of it will be positive, yet all of it informs our present.  That line from Baldwin is a powerful reminder to us. We can help shape a better future, but we cannot change anything – in our personal lives as well as in our national experience – unless it is first faced.

As we give thanksgiving for the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are well served to keep Baldwin’s admonition in mind.

A.G. Gaston Motel

A. G. Gaston Motel (photo credit: City of Birmingham Archives)

Have a good week.

More to come…


A Bit of Shenandoah Valley Musical Magic in the Big Apple

T&B Opus 65

Taylor & Boody Opus 65 at Grace Church NYC

Even in New York City, it doesn’t take much to realize how small the world can be at times.

Candice and I had a flashback to our wonderful 15 years of living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when we realized that Grace Church – just four blocks from our friends’ apartment in Greenwich Village – is home to one of the most astounding Taylor & Boody organs (Opus 65) I’ve seen.  (More on that in a minute.) George Taylor and John Boody are longtime friends as well as world-class organbuilders, and as soon as I found this on the Grace Church website, it was clear where we would be on Sunday morning.

It all started coming back as we entered the church.  Candice and I had watched this organ being installed through John Boody’s Facebook page.  Kate Harrington – our friend and the wonderful daughter of dear friends Jim and Constance Harrington – was one of the pipe makers for this organ and helped with the installation.  Andrew, when he was at Brown University, stopped by to see the organ being installed and chatted with John and George.  We knew this organ.

So today was book-ended by two wonderful services of music on a magical organ.


North chancel case

The north chancel case

This morning, we went to a Eucharist and heard the choirmaster and organist – Dr. Patrick Allen – take the instrument through its paces with a beautiful prelude and postlude, a wonderful improvised intro to In the Bleak Midwinter as well as a thoughtful rendering of Lift Every Voice and Sing in celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

We returned this afternoon for an hour-long organ “meditation” (part of Grace’s gift to the city, six days a week).  And this is where this beautiful, 77-stop instrument was allowed to really  shine.

Dr. Patrick Allen at the console

Dr. Patrick Allen at the console of Opus 65


Candice and Patrick Allen with Opus 65

Patrick Allen demonstrates the different pipe voices to Candice at Grace Church

Patrick (by this time we had met him following the morning service and were on a first name basis), had programmed a Sunday afternoon meditation that called on different eras of music and different colors from the instrument.  Pieces by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Johann Pachelbel, J.S. Bach, Gerre Hancock, and Louis Vierne were featured.  Bach’s “Präludium und Fuge in e-moll, BWV 533” sounded right at home on this organ, while the “Air” by Gerre Hancock – a composer I was not familiar with* – was quiet and meditative: a perfect fit for a late afternoon respite in the bustling city.

Opus 61

Opus 61 – a continuo organ – at Grace Church NYC

As we talked with Patrick and looked at the two beautiful instruments at Grace (they also have a small continuo – Opus 61), I began thinking about how many of the 73 (to date) Taylor & Boody organs I had seen in my lifetime.  While I won’t try to see them all (this doesn’t equal my quest to visit all 32 major league baseball stadiums), I still am off to a good start.  Here’s the list so far (with the ones I’ve heard live in bold font):

  • Opus 3 – Westminster Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, VA
  • Opus 11 – St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Beaufort, SC
  • Opus 24 – Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Staunton, VA
  • Opus 27 – St. Thomas Episcopal Church Fifth Avenue, New York City, NY
Opus 27 at St. Thomas

Taylor and Boody Opus 27 at St. Thomas 5th Avenue in NYC (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

  • Opus 34 – Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (The organ in our home church in Staunton, which includes some walnut from a tree that we cut down in our side yard and donated to the project – we visit “our” organ every time we stop in at Trinity.)
Taylor and Boody Organ in Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

Taylor and Boody Organ in Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA (photo credit: Taylor & Boody)

David Tannenberg Organ

The restored 1800 David Tannenberg Organ in Old Salem

  • Opus 47 – 1798 David Tannenberg Organ, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Opus 61 – Grace Church in New York City, New York City, NY
  • Opus 65 – Grace Church in New York City, New York City, NY
  • Opus 72 – Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, MD
John Boody points to features on Opus 72 following the inaugural concert at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church

John Boody points to features on Opus 72 following the inaugural concert at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church

Which makes 10 out of 73…and some I haven’t seen are pretty easy to visit (such as Opus 70 at the Virginia Theological Seminary).  Perhaps I’ll set a goal to see one-quarter of these instruments in my lifetime.  That sounds like a good bucket list number.  And as long as George, John, and their talented staff of organbuilders continues to turn out beautiful instruments, I’ll just keep stretching that goal.

South chancel case and console

The south chancel case and console of the Grace Church NYC organ

Thanks George, John, Patrick and all for a wonderful gift to Grace Church, the city, and two travelers who got a bit homesick for the valley while in the Big Apple.

More to come…


*After posting this, Andrew texted me to say  that Gerre Hancock was one of the best improvisers and American organists ever and the long-time organist at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.  Several friends of Andrew studied under him.

Who Tells Your Story

"Hamilton" Playbill

“Hamilton” Playbill

The full story of America can be seen, told, and appreciated at so many places and on so many levels…if one only cares to stop and listen.

Candice and I are in New York City for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.  New York is the poster child for how our rich national story is a blend from so many different people, both ordinary and extraordinary, and it is timely to be here this weekend.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is among the most powerful examples of an extraordinary person who fought to ensure that the full talents, opportunities, and stories of all Americans would be supported and recognized.  In the first 24 hours in the city, we saw, heard, and thrilled to various aspects of the story that it truly American.

We are staying in Greenwich Village, which counts among its many notable former residents Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and urban activist Jane Jacobs.  Neither was seen as anything other than ordinary, until they put pen to paper, spoke truth to power, and changed the American story.

Last evening we went uptown from the village, as we were fortunate to have tickets to the extraordinary musical Hamilton, at the Richard Rogers Theatre.  And yes, to quote the reviews, it really is that good.

Stage of Hamilton

Stage of “Hamilton: An American Musical” which looks like a period-appropriate tavern

“A show about young rebels grabbing and shaping the future of an unformed country, “Hamilton” is making its own resonant history by changing the language of musicals. And it does so by insisting that the forms of song most frequently heard on pop radio stations in recent years — rap, hip-hop, R&B ballads — have both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure. So are Aaron Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette….But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. For one thing, they’re black or Hispanic. And when they open their mouths, the words that tumble out are a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address….And you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another. In mixing a broad range of references and rhythms in one percolating style, Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, music and lyrics of “Hamilton,” which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography — does what rap artists have been doing for years. It’s the immoderate language of youth, ravenous and ambitious, wanting to claim and initial everything in reach as their own.

Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation.”

History has seldom been told in such a lively, thrilling, and “oh-so-appropriate for the moment” way.  We buzzed about the show and its meaning until well past midnight (and well past our normal bedtime), so this morning we slept in late and then walked a few blocks to the West Village for a brunch at Joseph Leonard.  Candice and I felt right at home – because other than us, all the other patrons were just about Andrew and Claire’s age!  (We joked with our waiter that we got a table because it was still before noon…and most 20-somethings were just getting out of bed on a Saturday morning.)

 As we looked out the window in this wonderful neighborhood gathering place, I realized we were at Christopher Park, and right across the street from the Stonewall Inn.

Christopher Park

Christopher Park and the Stonewall Inn


Stonewall National Monument

Stonewall National Monument

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, supported President Obama’s designation of Stonewall as the nation’s first gay-rights National Monument last year.  Because of the actions of those patrons of this ordinary-looking place back in 1969, millions of Americans gained the freedom to love the person of their own choosing, and to tell their stories proudly as part of the fabric of American life.

Hamilton at the Rogers Theatre

The crowd gathers for Hamilton, as we waited in anticipation of hearing new voices tell the American story

The last song in Hamilton “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” – had such resonance with both Candice and me last evening.  Why?  Perhaps because the relevance would come up so quickly today when – at the beginning of the MLK weekend – civil rights hero John Lewis was attacked in another of the tweets which are becoming all-too-familiar, in an attempt to silence his story.  We were reminded in real time why we must stand strong in ensuring that our American story is told truthfully and fully.

More to come…



John Schuerholz was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame a few weeks ago.  (For those who don’t care about baseball, stick with me…this really isn’t about baseball.)  Schuerholz, as general manager (GM) of both the Kansas City Royals and the Atlanta Braves, took both teams to World Series titles.  GMs are the puzzle-masters of baseball, hiring the talent both on and off the field while negotiating with the owner to build a successful franchise.

Schuerholz began his career as a high school grammar, composition, and geography teacher. It was there – according to writer Joe Posnanski – that Schuerholz learned the importance of clarity. “This was the great gift of John Schuerholz, the commanding instinct that helped make him one of the most successful general managers in baseball history. He sought clarity. He demanded clarity.”  Posnanski notes that great teachers seek clarity.  “There is the well-reasoned answer and the chaotic flood of words meant to obscure the fact that the student didn’t do the work.”

Last week I wrote about the wandering mind while today I’m focused on clarity.  Both, I believe, are critical to success.  (As F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”) The wandering mind helps foster creativity. At the National Trust, we use one-page plans as we seek to provide clarity in defining organizational, departmental, and personal success.

Clarity is so important to understanding.  Friedrich Nietzsche once said,

“Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.”

In looking ahead to 2017, let’s strive for clarity.  Have a good week.

New glasses

Clarity is more than a pair of new glasses, but they help: Andrew and Claire with new perspectives on life, December 2016

More to come…


A Wider, More Generous, More Imaginative Perspective: Preservation in 2017

DJB in Cedar Mesa

The Bears Ears National Monument (thank you President Obama) in Southeast Utah

(Note:  This post originally appeared – in a slightly edited form – on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Forum blog.)

2016 was a time of reflection and anticipation for many Americans, including preservationists. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, but we also used this year to anticipate the future. Moving past those milestones, we have the opportunity—some would say the obligation—to rethink preservation and seek our place of relevance in the changed political and social climate of 2017.

Many people contributed to our convenings on the future of preservation. Out of those conversations, we envisioned a preservation movement that grounds its work in human needs and aspirations:

“A people-centered preservation movement empowers people to tell their stories and to engage in saving the places that matter to them; plays an increasingly important role in creating sustainable, resilient, equitable, and livable communities; and works collaboratively with a wide range of other fields to fulfill fundamental human needs and achieve essential social goals.”

Change is one of the constants of our work, and it happens at every level. In his new work, RETHINK: The Surprising History of New Ideas, Steven Poole speaks to the art of rethinking and rediscovery. While it is easy to picture ideas as static packages of thought that can be definitively judged, Poole explains that is not very accurate:

“If we are not constantly rethinking ideas, we are not really thinking. As the French say, “reculer pour mieux sauter”—if you step back first, you can jump further. The best way forward can be to go in reverse. And the best new ideas are often old ideas.”

What might this mean for rethinking preservation? The creation story for contemporary preservation turned from a focus on high-style architectural landmarks to a grassroots and activist movement in the mid-20th century. Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village, Barbara Capitman in Miami Beach, and others led tens of thousands of citizens across the country to push to control the nature and pace of change in their neighborhoods. And while that instinct to shape the communities we want—instead of accepting what others conceive for us—remains, many do not connect it with preservation practice today.

Seattle PiP Launch

A People-Centered Preservation Movement

To democratize preservation—to build a people-centered movement—we must move the protection and reuse of older and historic environments away from the purview of select experts and back to work that all of our citizens can embrace. And to empower people to tell their stories and engage in saving the places that matter to them, we must work in different ways and perhaps outside our comfort zone.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his work has included the telling of difficult stories. In the introduction to his 2014 book, Just Mercy, Stevenson explains the need for proximity by quoting his grandmother: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” As our nation tries to understand recent events and reconcile them with our full story as Americans, it is easy to decide to step away. But as people who care about what the past can tell us about the future, we have to get close, and we have to accept the challenge Bryan Stevenson issued in his remarks at PastForward 2015:

“I think that our efforts to concretize, to mark, and to indicate what is important about who we are … are critical not only to our history and our understanding of that history, but to the issues that we are dealing with on a daily basis. I believe very strongly that identity matters. And you can tell the identity of a space, of a nation, by what they preserve, what they honor.

 One of the challenges I see in this country is that we’ve actually done a very bad job of creating an American identity reflected by our landmarks, our memorials, our spaces, that tells a very honest story…. It’s like the struggles that created all the issues we are still dealing with don’t matter…. There is power in identity, and I believe we can say something to the rest of this country about what’s important that can help this nation move forward.”

 A number of participants in our future of preservation convenings spoke to the need for connecting our work to wider community objectives and goals that extend beyond design and aesthetics. The challenge is to involve preservationists in something bigger—and, conversely, to show those working to shape the future of our communities the range of what preservation brings to the table.

I have been reflecting on the subject of connections in an age of specialization since finishing Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, which looks at the growth of science in the Romantic Age. Holmes tackles this broad topic with a blend of history, biography, art, science, and philosophy. He has said that he wrote this book because:

“The old, rigid debates and boundaries—science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics—are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.”

I love that idea of a “wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.” As the old African proverb states, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Making those broader connections in our age of specialization—and repurposing old ideas for today’s times—are critical to building a new, people-centered preservation movement.

This is work we each must do. Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And, just as Bryan Stevenson looks back to the wisdom of his grandmother, I never forget the times that my own grandmother told me: “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental!”

Rethinking preservation for 2017 and beyond is useful work that we all can do together.

More to come…