Last Saturday marked my 20th anniversary at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about hope in the context of life’s milestones. Not a greeting card kind of hope or optimism, but “hope that’s kind of gritty…the kind,” as described by songwriter and author Carrie Newcomer, “that gets up every morning and chooses to try to make the world just a little kinder (or better) in your own way.”
The thought that “hope is grounded in memory” has influenced the work of another writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit. In a recent interview, she notes that “We think of hope as looking forward, but…(if) you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, ‘people have the power’….(P)eople have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things.” Knowing history gives me hope.
To be fair, hope is hard. Cynicism – where I have gone on occasion – is easy. But in thinking about 20 years of work at the National Trust, sharing experiences and losses and triumphs with some incredible colleagues, I have a hope that comes from our past and looks expectantly to the future. When the individuals came together 50 years ago to propose what became the National Historic Preservation Act, they were working against the very powerful forces of urban renewal. Forces that wanted to erase community, who said that the past didn’t matter. Now 50 years later, thousands of communities, in various ways, recognize the people who came before, and why their lives and work and places matter today and for the future. In thinking about where preservation goes in the next 50 years, we are facing different but equally powerful forces that again want to erase what came before. But my hope for the future comes from seeing what’s happened in the past 20, the past 50, the past 100 years.
I like the idea of hope being grounded in memory. Hope as a sense of uncertainty and coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, but we have memories that show us that good things — powerful things — can happen.
But hope doesn’t always have to be grand work and gestures. It is a choice. A practice. To illustrate, let me end with a story.
I have a clock in my living room that is part of my earliest memories from childhood. The clock sat on the mantle in a bedroom in my grandparents’ home in Franklin, Tennessee, and when I visited I slept in that room. The first night I was frequently awakened by the ticking of the clock and the ringing of the chimes. Soon, however, they became comforting sounds that only registered in my subconscious. We’ve had the clock in our house now for more than a decade and it continues to provide accurate time and comforting rhythms to our lives.
I hadn’t thought much about my routine of winding the clock by hand each week until I recently read several thoughts from E.B. White about hope. White — the author of wonderful books for children such as Charlotte’s Web and countless New Yorker essays — knows that hope alone will not carry us forward. (Or as many consultants say, “Hope is not a strategy.”) We have to act as well. So White will “Get up on Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”
As I reflect on this, winding my grandparents’ clock is a way of looking ahead expectantly. When I turn those cranks, I am reminding myself — through the memories of all my parents and grandparents accomplished — that there is another week ahead to do the good work we are asked to do. Or, as my grandmother would say, “To make yourself useful as well as ornamental.”
We live in a surprising world — which should give us hope. So follow E.B. White’s advice: “Hang onto your hat. Hang onto your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
More to come…