Whose Questions Are You Answering?

We ask and answer questions every day.  When a colleague or supervisor asks about the status of a project, that’s (usually) a straightforward question deserving of a straightforward answer.

That’s not the type of question that’s been on my mind in recent weeks.

There are much more difficult questions that are pointing toward important — even life changing —decisions.  Should I move?  Is it time for graduate studies?  Where should we send our children to school? Am I spending my money wisely?  Should I consider a job change?  Is it time to reach out to a colleague or friend who is struggling?  What is the right response to today’s political environment?  When is the right time to retire?  How should I deal with an aging parent?

Questions

Too often I find myself facing those types of questions as framed by someone else.  We are — in effect — asking and answering someone else’s questions.

“Many of us are busy and anxious. We are social animals: We listen for the culturally normative thing to do among our friends and, most often, follow it. This is what Aristotle, and later a lot of Internet evangelists, called the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and what Hannah Arendt might have called the ‘banality of evil.’”

In listening for and following the culturally normative thing to do among our friends, we make decisions about where to live, the best schools for our children, how to spend our money, where we work, when to provide advice, how to vote, and on and on based on what others are telling us.  I find myself doing this all the time.

But there are some questions that should force you to decide just whose values you are adopting.  The writer Courtney E. Martin frames it as, “…there are certain decisions, I’m realizing, that should make my heart ache, if not break.”  She notes that at least one friend of hers had a breakthrough when — while agonizing over a decision — someone asked her the simple question, “What is your work here?”

As you face the questions in your life that really matter, think about what your work should be in that context.  And make sure you first understand just whose questions you are answering.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Raised on Cornbread and Recollections

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak, Home of William Faulkner

Earlier this month, I joined other members of the National Trust on a memorable trip from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta.  Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in places such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms.  His remarks were a masters class in the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.

At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.”  As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.

We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.  Both the site and writer are reminders of the importance of recollections and history to life today.  Historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  I often say that “the period of significance is now” with historic sites to point to those intersections.  You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, which goes, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration.  (To that last point, Faulkner has another famous line which suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.”  He enjoyed his Four Roses.)

At its best, memory is a poet and not a historian.  But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother. Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of the trip was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955, setting off events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement.  Visitors are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.”  It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 – 1950.  In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till.  One of our National Trust Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections as a young African American woman in the Delta who was only five years older than Till.  This is a historic site that exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward.

Sumner Courthouse

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi

 

Site of Till Murder Trial

Site of the Emmett Till Murder Trial in Sumner, Mississippi

You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story.  I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson — the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute  — last week, and was reminded of the work we all have to do when he said “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”  If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present.  Historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Look Up

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this little gem of a film entitled Have You Ever Really Seen the Moon?  The premise of this three-minute video is simple:  a guy wheels his telescope out into the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles and invites people to look at the moon.  The reactions restore faith in our ability to be awed.

“What is that, bro?” a guy on a bike asks.

“It’s a telescope,” says Overstreet. “Do you want to check out the moon?”

The offer is made over and over to a cross section of passersby in a cross section of places across greater L.A. And one by one, they put their eyes to the viewfinder and gaze upon what they’ve looked at a million times yet never seen.

Interestingly, Overstreet and Gorosh show us very little of the actual moon. No, what holds your eyes, and lifts your soul is the way these different people in different neighborhoods all respond in precisely the same way — with gasps and shouts and whispers of naked wonder at the sudden nearness of lunar soil.

. . .

“I’m looking at the moon,” says a young, cap-to-the-back white guy into his phone. “Hold on real quick.” Then he puts his eye to the viewfinder. “Oh, my God,” he says.

“Oh. My. God,” breathes a black man in a hoodie.

“Oh, my God,” says a little kid, laughing.

“Oh, my God,” says a guy with a mane of gray hair.

“Oh!” says a woman, as if startled. “Oh, my God.”

There is something quietly profound in their awe, something that stirs you somewhere deep within like a light breeze moving among tall grass.”

The Moon

The Moon (credit space.com)

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. captured the essence of this work in a recent piece.  In viewing the movie and reading this column, I was reminded of how — back in the pre-smartphone days — preservationists would tell their fellow citizens to “look up” at the buildings along Main Street to see beyond the (often altered) storefronts. Even then we would get so absorbed in our own tunnel vision that we’d forget to see what past generations had built and the possibilities those buildings had for today and tomorrow.  That tunnel vision has increased exponentially with smartphones, where so many have all but stopped looking beyond that small screen as they walk through a downtown or in a beautiful natural setting.  Have You Ever Really Seen the Moon should remind us of the wonder around us.  Stop, look up, and take some of it in.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

A Few Words on Advice

Parker Palmer, a writer I read frequently, had the following to say about advice:

“Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.”*

Advice

How often do we give advice when simply presence and acknowledgement is required?  I was thinking about this after a trip last week where I visited our historic site Belle Grove and spoke with a class of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  We found ourselves in a very good conversation about how we should “hear, understand, and honor” diverse stories from our past and present at both places.  Presence and acknowledgement are being used effectively at Belle Grove in the response to diverse perspectives and stories.  At UVA, there was a back-and-forth with the students around hearing, listening, and engagement.

One of the students suggested that we change our name to the “National Trust for Historic Engagement!”  I immediately warmed to the idea, as I like the thought of engaging the past with the present.  Much of our traditional way of telling and interpreting history has to do with the self-interest of the interpreter, as opposed to interest in the other’s needs, much less the true story.

You may think these Monday posts fall into the “giving advice” category, which could lead you to see this entire commentary as self-contradictory.  However, I appreciate the way one of my colleagues responded, when she wrote that with her passion for personal growth it was meaningful “to be invited to pause on something so grounding.”  That’s exactly the intent: as an invitation at the beginning of the work week to pause and reflect.  If I’m doling out advice in the future (which I’ll occasionally do), I hope I can now stop and think first about whose interest is driving the conversation.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* At the risk of giving you advice, I recommend this post by Palmer — a regular writer for Krista Tippett’s On Being project — where he recounts the story of a friend who had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the well-meaning advice received from others.

Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One

Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During a 2013 vacation where each family member chose an activity close-to-home for us to share, my wife’s selection was a day at a local retreat center.*  Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the center had created a labyrinth in the woods.  Labyrinths have come to have a special place in my heart.  A dear friend of our family who died in his early 20s was memorialized with a labyrinth designed for people of all physical abilities.  Andrew had spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair, but that never constrained his spirit. Back at the retreat center, “walking the labyrinth” became my activity for the morning.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust:  A History of WalkingAn early chapter is titled “Labyrinths and Cadillacs: Walking Into the Land of the Symbolic.” (I told you it was a wonderful book!)  Solnit, who describes herself as “having been raised as nothing in particular by a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew,” found herself walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco one evening and then muses on the “rules” and “moral” of the practice:

“…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.”

Trinity Church Labyrinth

Labyrinth in Memory of Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA

Walking in symbolic space doesn’t require any particular spiritual or religious practice, but it strikes me that thinking about these truths are useful for everyone. We take journeys in work and life and the path is seldom straight. Short cuts often lead to dead ends. As Solnit notes, “Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them … Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys.”

I hope you’ll take some time to think about your journeys, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* You may not be surprised that for my selection in 2013, I stretched the idea of staying in the region and chose a family weekend in Pittsburgh to see the Pirates, cross another baseball stadium off my bucket list, and work in a return visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  My daughter’s choice had us spending three days at the beach, while my son picked out four ethnic restaurants around DC where we expanded our culinary palates.  When you have 21-year old children and you’re paying college tuition, this “make your own” vacation is a good alternative to a couple of expensive weeks out-of-town.