Joy is a Fine Initial Act of Insurrection

Hope in the Dark

“Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit

Over the past 15 years, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit has written three collections of essays that have recently been published (or republished) by Haymarket Books as a trilogy for our times.

This inexplicable week we’ve just experienced seems as good a time as any to consider Solnit’s thoughts on hope in the face of despair, and to take the long view which she favors.

In the first of the series, Hope in the Dark (originally published in 2004), Solnit talks about the demands of hope and then notes that joy is a way to support the work which hope demands.

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.  And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

Though initially written during the Iraq war of 2004, I thought of how much more our politics in 2017 aspire to make us fearful, alienated, and isolated — seen most recently with Donald Trump’s Long Island speech about cities as “bloodstained killing fields.”  Hope and joy are definitely needed in response.

Solnit begins the foreword to the third edition of this collection with the following observation:

“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win.  Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t just enough reason to hope.  But there are good reasons.”

Hope, as Solnit makes clear, is not naive optimism.  Instead, it “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act….Hope is an embrace of the unknown.”  In twenty-one wonderful essays, she touches on topics as wide-ranging as “False Hope and Easy Despair,” the “Indirectness of Direct Action,” and “Getting the Hell out of Paradise.”  This last one is a call to let go of perfection and to look instead to the possible.  And it contains the wonderful quote from Eduardo Galeano,

“Utopia is on the horizon.  When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking.”

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

The second book in the trilogy, Men Explain Things to Me, came out in 2015. I wrote about this collection of essays earlier this year when I focused on the essays around gender wars and male privilege, the use of violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more.  It is an impressive and thoughtful collection of writings that extend beyond the well-known title essay.

Finally, Solnit’s most recent collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions, provides commentary around feminism and silence that is as fresh as today’s headlines and yet built upon our full history as a nation (if not all of human history).  The introductory essay touches on the question that all women face about families, babies, and motherhood. It is a question that assumes that there is only one proper way for a woman to live, which is – of course – absurd.  But it is often asked (or affirmed, in other instances, such as online comment boards) because it is based on logic “that refuses to recognize the limits to men’s rights or the existence of women’s.”

These are questions to which the questioner only sees one possible answer, and whose aim is “enforcement or punishment.” In this and other essays in the book, Solnit notes that perhaps “part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong thing of ourselves.”  This is not truly a commentary on motherhood but, instead, on happiness.

“Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is  Are you happy?…Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like.  Happiness is often described as the result of having a great many ducks lined up in a row—spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences—even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.”

The Mother of All Questions

“The Mother of All Questions” by Rebecca Solnit

The longest essay in the collection is on silence, a topic Solnit has addressed in earlier works.  As with the two earlier works, it is chock-full of wisdom and perspective that needs a wider audience.

I love her ending to the first essay, because it touches on so much of what Solnit’s writing has brought to my thinking (and hopefully, my actions).  The story is told about a time when she was speaking as part of a tour around her book Wanderlust.

“I did finally have my rabbinical moment in Britain.  After the jet lag was over, I was interviewed onstage by a woman with a plummy, fluting accent. ‘So,’ she trilled, ‘you’ve been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge.’ The implication was clear: I was an exceptionally sorry specimen on display, an outlier in the herd. I turned to the audience and asked, ‘Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?’ They laughed with me; in that moment, we knew that we were all weird, all in this together, and that addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others is part of the work we’re all here to do.  So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things.  There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer.” (Emphasis mine)

This is a perspective we all need to grasp to live together successfully.  At a time when so many in our political world are trying to push us apart, this trilogy of almost two decades of writing is worth our time.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Perfection is a Stick With Which to Beat the Possible

A poem by Kilian McDonnell for a midsummer Monday.

Perfection, Perfection

I have had it with perfection.

I have packed my bags,

I am out of here.

Gone.

 

As certain as rain

will make you wet,

perfection will do you

in.

 

It droppeth not as dew

upon the summer grass

to give liberty and green

joy.

 

Perfection straineth out

the quality of mercy,

withers rapture at its

birth.

 

Before the battle is half begun,

cold probity thinks

it can’t be won, concedes the

war.

 

I’ve handed in my notice,

given back my keys,

signed my severance check, I

quit.

 

Hints I could have taken:

Even the perfect chiseled form of

Michelangelo’s radiant David

squints,

 

the Venus de Milo

has no arms,

the Liberty Bell is

cracked.

We’ve all known grumpy perfectionists “who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible.  This is Earth.  It will never be heaven….A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”  The same essay with those observations also quotes the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano* who says “Utopia is on the horizon.  When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back.  I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away.  What is utopia for?  It is for this, for walking.”

Oxfords

Walking shoes

You have probably seen people for whom the vision is never right and never met. The plan is never followed and therefore is never fulfilled.  The steps forward are never enough.  They use perfection as “a stick with which to beat the possible.”

I’ve always been pragmatic, but I see streaks of perfectionism rise in myself every now and then. I think I’ll turn in my notice on perfectionism and instead enjoy the walking towards a better world.

Have a good week.

DJB

*It has nothing to do with this post, but the favorite quote I found from Eduardo Galeano is, “The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.

Hope Demands Things That Despair Does Not

In her essay “False Hope and Easy Despair,” historian and author Rebecca Solnit speaks to how hope requires action. “Hope” she quotes author Ernst Bloch, “is in love with success rather than failure.”

That seems obvious, but Solnit drives home her point by noting that failure and marginalization are safe. Despair has many causes and varieties.  Denying one’s power and possibility allows us to “shake off” our sense of obligation. We can make our point too easily when the point becomes “the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results.”

On the other hand,

“Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity.  To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal…”

Dayspring Retreat Center

Looking through the mist at Lake of the Saints (Photo credit: Dayspring Retreat Center)

I have spent recent weeks studying strategic plans, business models, trends in nonprofit organizations, and other materials that look backward to history to make sense of what’s ahead. They begin by looking backward because, as I’ve said earlier, hope is grounded in memory.  I’ve written my self-assessment as part of our performance review process at work and prepared my personal strategic plan.  In every instance, the best of these documents are built on a hope that demands something of those who would implement them.  As the title of this email suggests, “Hope demands things that despair does not.”

Let’s look to a hope that is in love with success.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Lamenting the Lost Card Catalog

The Card Catalog

The Card Catalog

Earlier today, my brother and sisters and I received an email from our older brother Steve.  He had just read a book review in the Washington Post concerning a new Library of Congress book entitled The Card Catalog:  Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures.

It brought back memories, and I’ll let Steve’s note to the four of us take it from here.

This story took me back to all those days in libraries…Cookeville and Murfreesboro public, at Tennessee Tech & Western Michigan (where I almost lived while doing my thesis– I even had a private cubicle!), and the 2 church libraries. I spent lots of time at the one in Cookeville where Mom was a one-woman staff for a long time. I would help bind books, glue return card pockets, and watch her type cards for the ubiquitous card catalog. I loved all that. Now I read on my pad and search online, rarely going to an actual library except to find a book old enough to not be available digitally. This article reminded me of how much I’ve lost, and how much I miss Mom.

Being just three years younger than Steve, I have many of the same memories (although the colleges are different).  Our mother was a librarian and a lover of books, and she imparted that love to all of us.

Helen portrait

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom – as a young woman. She began her career as a librarian after my parents married and moved to Cookeville, Tennessee

Writing the review in the Post, Michael Lindgren captures it well:

“This book about card catalogues, written and published in cooperation with the Library of Congress, is beautifully produced, intelligently written and lavishly illustrated. It also sent me into a week-long depression. If you are a book lover of a certain age, it might do the same to you.

“The Card Catalog” is many things: a lucid overview of the history of bibliographic practices, a paean to the Library of Congress, a memento of the cherished card catalogues of yore and an illustrated collection of bookish trivia. The text provides a concise history of literary compendiums from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerized book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye.

For someone who grew up in and around libraries, it is also a poignant reminder of a vanished world.”

I haven’t read this book (heck, I don’t even own it yet), but you can bet I’ll buy it soon (and not the digital version…I still like the tactile feel of the book cover and paper in my hand when I read on my train ride to work every day.)  But just the fact that someone would lament the late, great card catalog is reason enough to put this book on the recommended list.

When you see me seriously depressed for a week, you’ll know I’ve finished The Card Catalog.

More to come…

DJB

Let’s Start It Up and See Why It Doesn’t Work

Last week I referenced historian David McCullough’s most recent book The American Spirit, a compilation of speeches over the past three decades. There’s a great deal of wisdom in these talks, including this gem from a speech in 1994 to the graduating class at Union College in Schenectady, New York:

“Once, in the last century, in the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after working for months to build an unorthodox new machine for steel production, the engineer in charge, John Fritz, said at last, ‘All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.’ It is with that very American approach to problems (McCullough adds) that I think we will find our course.”

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

I love the sense of experimentation that’s at the core of this story. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing a program where our metrics were not (yet) reaching our goals.  We both saw the challenge as a way to push us to dig deep.  To understand that failure can lead to the unpacking of assumptions, new ways of looking at things, the acquisition of knowledge, and finding new paths to success.

When we look up to find that programs (or our ways of working) are static, we may need to build some unorthodox new machine and then “start it up and see why it doesn’t work.”  In this land where the whole idea of our country is an ongoing experiment, what could be more American?

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

An Aid to Navigation in Troubled, Uncertain Times

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

The July 4th weekend turned out to be the perfect time to read historian David McCullough’s newest book The American Spirit:  Who We Are and What We Stand ForThis compilation of 15 speeches spanning the years 1989 through 2016 brought renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the elder statesman of America’s historians (and honorary trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).  The fact that it includes McCullough’s October 20, 2001, speech at the National Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island—the most memorable of several David McCullough speeches I’ve been privileged to hear in person—is an added bonus.

Some would note that optimism is in short supply in today’s world. That was certainly the case just six weeks after 9/11.  Yet in 2001, McCullough used the setting of the First Baptist Church in Providence—one of the nation’s most historic houses of worship—and the scholarship from his recently published biography of John Adams to make the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he says in this book’s introduction.  He spoke then to the importance of authentic places in helping to make a “physical, tactile contact with distant human beings. To “feel their mortality.” To “feel a common bond” with all humanity.

We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence).  We think we have worries.  We think our leaders face difficult decisions.  But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed.  But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Speaking in 1994 at Union College, McCullough touched on this same theme when he said,

I think what most of us want—as most people everywhere want more than anything—is to be useful.  This and to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves.  What is needed now…is a common understanding of what that larger something can be.  What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition….Beware the purists, the doctrinaires.  It has been by the empirical method largely, by way of trial and error, that we have come so far.  America itself is an experiment and we must bear that always in mind.

This is a good time to remember the power of history.  The power of story.  And it is an especially good time to work to ensure that the story of who we are and all that we have been through to reach our achievements as people and as a nation is not lost in the uncertainty of the present.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Spend Some Money on a Closer

I was at Nationals Stadium on Wednesday evening with a co-worker.  Beautiful evening.  Low humidity.  Stephen Strasburg on the mound for the home team.  Nats are playing the world champion Chicago Cubs.

And 10,000 seats are empty.

Nats v. Cubs

Nats vs. Cubs on a beautiful night at the ballpark

What the heck is going on? I certainly asked that question.  But today’s Washington Post had the full story.

The Nats and Lerners—according to writer Barry Svrluga—were price gouging, in hopes of making an easy buck at the expense of long-suffering Washington sports fans.  Plain and simple.

“Nationals officials clearly saw the four-game Cubs series as an opportunity to draw large crowds at high prices. Last year, when Chicago played a Monday-Wednesday series at Nationals Park in mid-June, the crowds were 37,187, 41,955 and 42,000 — and the environment was perhaps the best of the regular season.

This year, the four Cubs games were listed in the preseason pricing structure as “Diamond” games, the highest of four tiers of pricing the Nationals offer. The only other Diamond game on the schedule was Opening Day. Even the annual Fourth of July game, this year against the Mets, is a step down.

That means there were higher prices across the board for the Cubs series. The July 5 game against the Mets, for instance, is in the “Regular” tier of pricing — the lowest. The most expensive seat is $370. A dugout box seat is $90. The cheapest advance-purchase ticket is $12.

But for the Cubs games, the increases were significant. For Thursday’s series finale, the high-end Delta Sky360 Club seat runs $450. The dugout box seats are $140 apiece. And the right-field terrace seat — that cheap ticket that is the price of the movie less than a week from now — is $35.”

What is it about real estate developers that makes them think that all of life is a deal and they can make people pay unreasonable prices just to line the developers pockets?  The Lerners need to put some of their billions into hiring a decent closer.

A modest proposal for the Nats:  until the team wins multiple playoff series and gets to the World Series under this ownership team, the “Diamond” level pricing should go the way of the Edsel.

More to come…

DJB