The Deep Rhythms of Life

If you are a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

I try and remember that old adage when I consider things I read or hear.  Given my career, training and perspective, I often see historical overtones, even—perhaps—when they don’t exist.  So with that grain of salt, I’ll note that over the course of a recent weekend, I took part in three conversations that all struck me as narratives somehow important and related.

The first was not really a conversation. But it felt as if I was on the listening end of one as I went on a Friday night to hear Lucinda Williams and the Drive By Truckers in concert.  Both were great, but it was the music and between-songs patter of Lucinda Williams—her stories, if you will—that made me think about the way in which we can break out of our pasts and stand out from what is expected. Williams has been writing and performing emotionally devastating lyrics for four decades. But she also takes courageous stands against racism, sexism, and hate in the context of a history (Southern) and a musical genre (country) where such political points-of-view can get you ostracized. The next afternoon, I was at Politics & Prose, our local independent bookstore, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.  Pitts is a powerful writer who regularly calls on history—and our willful ignorance of much of that history—in both his novels and his weekly columns for the Miami Herald.  He did so recently when noting that a willful ignorance of black history is directly responsible for some of the recent headlines coming out of Virginia.  I had a conversation with Pitts after his talk, and we discussed the challenges and benefits of writing for different genres while still rooting his work in history and story. Understanding history, deeply and fully, is critical to Pitts for an understanding of life today.

It was the conversation held between these two encounters that I found most intriguing. I was in a Takoma Park coffee shop for our regular Saturday morning family coffee/catch-up.  We sat at the common table and soon a young woman in her early 30s sat across from us.  In the course of conversation we learned that Brittany was a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for Hospice.  In response, I told her what hospice had meant to our family when my mother passed away, in her own home, after a two-year battle with cancer.  Sitting at that common table, we had a long conversation that ranged across millennials’ spiritual practices, living in community, and the changes over time in how society treats sickness and death.

When describing her past, Brittany mentioned that her family’s home in Rockford, Illinois, had been a type of hospice, as both her great-grandmothers, her grandmother, and her great aunt all died there.  Brittany fully expected to follow the same course, but another aunt sold the house and it went out of the family’s hands.  That aunt remained active as a local hospice volunteer, and was surprised one day when a 16-year-old came to her office. This teenager was the youngest volunteer, by far, in the local hospice chapter.  When asked what led her to step forward, the young girl said she had always felt a special calling to this work.  As the girl’s mother was paying for a training course, Brittany’s aunt happened to look at the address on the check.

It was their old family home.

When Brittany told this story, I immediately said, “place matters.”  I fully believe that in this particular case, the love and care that permeated the home—the fullness of life—carried forward to a new family and new generations. Writing in Two-Part Invention, author Madeleine L’Engle speaks of such an attachment to place when she says, “I get to Crosswicks (her country home) whenever I can, to relax in the deep rhythm of the house, filled with the living of over two centuries.  That richness of experience permeates the rooms, life lived to the utmost, birth and death, joy and grief, laughter and tears.” And even when death arrives, none of the fullness of life is lost.  It simply becomes part of the rhythm of the house.  Emotions flow through places, and saving those places is a little understood key to our emotional health as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.

Northern Ireland Farm

The Rhythm of Life (credit: Claire Brown)

A Southern country singer with a history and a strong literary bent* that leads her to call out our transgressions as a nation. An  African American writer who calls on history to remind us that in troubled times—as theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes—“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  And a young hospice chaplain who calls on a personal story of the power of place and people to heal even in the face of death.  All three are saying, in different ways, that places from our past—and the stories they tell—matter.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Lucinda Williams’ father, Miller Williams, was an American poet who passed away in 2015.  One of his poems was read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.  Throughout that Friday evening concert there was a conversation ongoing about the connection between history, what we’ve been given, and how we chose to take that past and live our lives today.  Storytelling is clearly in her genes.  You have to love a performer who, playing before a huge crowd of millennials (and the occasional out-of-pocket fan like me), takes the time in an introduction to a song to riff at length on Flannery O’Connor and give a shout out for Wise Blood—O’Connor’s first novel which was turned into an eccentric and acclaimed (yet seldom seen) film by John Huston.  Enjoy this video of Lucinda’s classic Drunken Angel.

Quest for the Best (Picture), Once Again

Has it really been seven years since we decided to try to catch the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards show?  Indeed it has. Truth be told, this has been an up-and-down process.  There are years when I’ll see 7 of the 8 or 9 films nominated.  Then, there are times such as last year when we took in four on one weekend…and that was it.

This year was really different, in that I’ve seen all 8 of the films nominated, plus a few more that could have been in the running. 100 percent!  That’s a first.

Film Reel

As in years past, I’ll provide the caveat that I’m no movie critic, so these are totally personal views without any understanding of the nuances of filmmaking. I’ll also list these in the order I ranked them, which is where I get the most comments.

So, my best picture award would go to If Beale Street Could TalkWait, you say, it wasn’t nominated!  Well, that’s not my fault; it should have been.  This was a beautiful and powerful movie, with incredible cinematography.  It is based on a strong story by one of America’s great writers, James Baldwin. Barry Jenkins won the Best Picture Oscar two years ago for Moonlight—another powerful film—and this one is just as good in my estimation. The theme—loving while black—is incredibly relevant today.  If you haven’t seen this movie, go.

Now, for the films that actually were nominated, my top choice is Roma. Set in Mexico and focusing on one family and a young indigenous woman who works for them, this movie has a majestic scale while featuring an intimacy that captures the viewer’s attention from the beginning and never lets go.  I found the pace worked well, and the story had depth and meaning.  I don’t care if the Academy is mad that Netflix plays with their business model . . . I don’t know enough about that to have a meaningful opinion, so I’ll just stick to the film.  I’d watch this one again.

BlacKkKlansman surprised me.  The premise—a black undercover cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan—seemed so outrageous that even though it was true, it couldn’t be serious.  However Spike Lee’s movie, from my point of view, was terrific.  Very original, with a great deal of heft to make the viewer think.  And goodness, the ties to life today are too close for comfort (and Lee makes them clear at movie’s end).  This is another one on the list I’d go see again.

Black Panther was the last one of the eight I saw, and frankly I didn’t know what to expect.  I’m not a fan of superhero or sci-fi movies, but I knew this film was somehow more than that.  In the end, I loved it. The characters are strong and the production values are amazing.  I came away understanding more of why this movie is a defining moment for black Americans.  Leonard Pitts, Jr. was singing the praises of Black Panther at his book talk at Politics & Prose last week, and his point of view is one I admire.  Again, I’m not sure I can see a superhero movie as Best Picture, but this was darn close.

Fourth on my list is The Favourite, a dark comedy set in the court of Queen Anne (circa 1710). I very much enjoyed this movie, and as everyone says the acting, costumes, and script are all wonderful.  Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, and Rachel Weisz are terrific in their roles…which, unfortunately come off as an 18th century version of Mean Girls.  Best picture?  It doesn’t quite get there for me.  Would I see it again?  Definitely.

I fully expected to rank A Star is Born before Bohemian Rhapsody, but when I saw the Queen biopic earlier this weekend, I had such a good time that I couldn’t push it further down the list.  Rami Malek, as the dynamic lead singer Freddie Mercury, was incredible, and is very deserving on a Best Actor award. The movie’s pace and energy held up throughout the full show, ending—as most everyone knows—with the band’s breathtaking Live Aid performance.  There are quibbles (such as the fact that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis is moved to a more dramatic point in the story from real life), but hey, if you get your history from movies you get what you deserve!  Others have complained about the director’s personal life (a real issue) and the soft-peddling of the gay story line (some people will complain about anything.)  I’d definitely go see this one again…and that’s saying something from a person who gave up listening to rock and pop in the early 1970s.

So I’ll put A Star is Born next.  I loved Lady Gaga in this picture. Bradley Cooper was good as her musical and love partner.  Shallow is a terrific song that I hope wins Best Song this year.  But the movie drags in the middle, and you almost lose interest until it picks up again near the end. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’d go see it again.

Green Book was a disappointment to me.  I went in expecting to see a film with some serious civil rights and social justice commentary, and instead got a buddy road trip between two guys without a touch of nuance (to quote one reviewer).  If I want buddy road trips, I’ll go watch Thelma and Louise. And seriously, the fried chicken-eating scene was one step too far.  I know it ended on a happy note and everyone melts with all the feel good stuff at the end (beginning with the cop pulling them over in the snow), but it didn’t make up for this movie’s sins for me.

Finally, my vote for least appealing Best Picture nominee goes to ViceYes, Christian Bale in the title role and Amy Adams (I love her) as Lynne Cheney are terrific.  But who the hell wants to see a dark comedy about one of the worst Vice Presidents in history who helped lead us to our current political polarization?  Not me.  The filmmaker has all sorts of gimmicks and techniques that he clearly thinks are very clever.  They aren’t, and they don’t help in making the (obvious) point that Dick Cheney is a heartless individual who has spent his entire life trying to amass power and take it away from anyone who doesn’t agree with him.  Let’s don’t celebrate that with comedy (even dark comedy).  Let’s take it for the tragedy we are living in here in 2019.

And that’s all folks.  Jump in with your favorites, argue with mine, and let’s enjoy the Oscars next Sunday evening.

More to come…

DJB

Let’s Do This

A friend, momentarily flummoxed by the varied scale and relative importance of several tasks to be completed over a recent weekend, struggled to develop a schedule.  I tried to be helpful and, as a result, our conversation soon led me to think more broadly about the well-known—and often dreaded—“To-Do” list.

I suspect that there are tens-of-thousands of articles and books on how to construct a useful To-Do list.  (Google says there are 10.6 billion!)  After reading dozens, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one way to organize your time effectively.  We are all so different—and the things we value are so different—that to simply proclaim one system the best is foolish.  My interest in this question has become much more relevant as I put together a list of tasks to be completed each day before I transition out of the job I’ve occupied here at the National Trust for more than two decades.

Let me begin with a couple of big-picture thoughts.  First, a significant step towards effectiveness and efficiency is to determine what you are going to stop doing.  That’s a longer term project, but it is worth the effort.  Second, understand that in the best of worlds, much of what you do today should be building blocks for weekly, quarterly, or life-time goals.  No one scales Mount Everest in a day.  Likewise, to achieve the larger things in life we want—writing a book, running a 10K, becoming a senior manager in your organization, starting your own business—requires that we take countless small steps to get there.  Robert Glazer writes,

“While one person contemplates all that they have going on in their life that’s preventing them from accomplishing their goal, another person just starts working toward it. It’s hard to underestimate the value that these small “deposits” of energy have, even over just 90 days. While one person gets on Facebook for 30 minutes a day, another chooses to invest that same time writing a book. At the end of three months, the first person is much wiser about their friends’ vacations and the food people are eating whereas the other person has drafted the first 30-40 pages of their book. . . .[F]or just five days, track how you spend your time every hour of the day. I’ve done this and I was very surprised to see where it really went. I had been telling myself seemingly harmless white lies that were hindering my ability to get what I wanted most out of my life.”

With that context, here is the DJB Method® of creating the daily To-Do list (number 10.6 billion + 1).

  • First, there is never enough time in the day, so plan accordingly — You cannot do 13 tasks a day, unless your list consists of brushing your teeth and lacing up your shoes.  I’ve begun limiting my tasks to 3-5 (at most) per day.  This was one challenge my friend—feeling overwhelmed with 8-9 tasks—faced.  We talked through which ones had to be done that day (more on that in a moment), and which ones could simply go on a separate list with less stringent time requirements.
  • Second, begin with the end in mind — A 2014 Harvard Business Review article by Ron Friedman suggests you take the first ten minutes of your day and ask yourself this question the moment you sit at your desk: “The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?”  Do you really think you’ll feel that sense of accomplishment if you’ve spent most of the day checking emails or listening to voice mails?
  • Next, understand what matters the most, and know that all else is noise — President Eisenhower had a system (since duplicated by Stephen Covey) that put tasks in one of four categories or quadrants.
    • Urgent and Important: Things that are important to do and need to be done now.
    • Urgent and Not Important: Minor tasks that are time-sensitive. It feels good to check these off our lists, but they aren’t really critical.
    • Important and Not Urgent: Things that need to be done but don’t have to be done immediately.
    • Not Urgent and Not Important: These tasks are neither important nor time-sensitive.
    • Tackle the “Urgent and Important” tasks first.  Then before taking on other urgent tasks, focus on the “Important and Not Urgent” items.  Do everything in your power to stay out of the “Not Urgent and Not Important” quadrant.
Journals

Journals, which can be a key part of planning

  • Put your To-Do list on your calendar — If you keep a calendar or daily journal, figure out how long it will take to do the task and then schedule it.  Leave a little space on your calendar for the unexpected.  My experience is that calendars tend to get filled up with “Urgent and Not Important” items if you don’t set aside time for what matters to you.
  • Keep a longer list of things to do, but review it on a regular basis — Go back to point #1.  What happened to the other 4-5 things on my friend’s list?  When I’m faced with that problem, I put them on my task list in Outlook (and because I tend to be a “belt-and-suspenders” type of guy, they also end up in my bullet journal). Next, I give them a timeframe for completion.  Then I forget about them, because they are on my list. When setting up each day’s work, these items are where I turn for identifying my tasks.  However, if I have rescheduled something three times, I stop and have a conversation with myself about the relative importance of that task.  Is it a “Not Urgent and Not Important” task? Sometimes it becomes clear that I don’t really need to complete this one item, so I drop it.  Other times I realize that I do need to complete a task (say, get the piano tuned), but I can wait and do that when April arrives and I’m both literally and figuratively cleaning out my home and mental closets.
  • Finally, there is always more to do, so don’t beat yourself up if today doesn’t go quite according to plan — Life intervenes. Every single day. That’s especially true if you have children. Or you have a partner/parent who needs care. Or out-of-the-blue a great opportunity (or challenge) comes along that requires you to say Yes!  As I’ve said before, don’t let the dirty dishes in the sink get in the way of paradise.  Life’s a journey, not a destination.  Treat it that way.

That’s it.  Don’t plan to accomplish too much, but plan to accomplish the right things. So let’s do this…and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

History is a Teacher

Why do we care about history?

Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Mark Twain took a more humorous approach with, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  Over the weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that read “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”  Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman—co-host of the history podcast BackStory and author of The Field of Blood:  Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil Warsays simply that “History doesn’t repeat, but it teaches.”

My executive assistant (a former Capitol guide) recommended The Field of Blood, and for the past week or more I have been absorbed in the riveting tales of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! During the turbulent and violent three decades leading up to the Civil War, bowie knives and pistols were regularly drawn on members by other members.  Duels happened with alarming frequency, including one that led to the death of one representative at the hand of another. All involved, with the exception of the poor victim, were handily re-elected.  Slavery, and its future in America, was the key issue that led to this bullying, fighting, and total breakdown of civil discourse.

Field of Blood

“The Field of Blood” by Joanne B. Freeman

In a delightful and raucous (for a history book) presentation at Politics and Prose, Freeman points to the modern echoes of our own time.  As she notes, the book tells the story of:

  • Extreme polarization
  • Fundamental disagreements about what kind of nation the United States would be
  • Splintering political parties
  • New technologies skewing and scattering the news, and complicating politics in the process
  • Conspiracy theories being spread, North and South, as the nation’s crisis unfolds
  • Panic about the impact of free speech in that fraught environment
  • Rampant distrust in national political institutions as well as rampant distrust of Americans in each other

If you agree that history is a good teacher, we can look at today’s environment in light of the decades from 1830 to 1860 and worry about our future.  No one is suggesting that we are moving towards a civil war; however, we are playing with figurative fire due to the extreme polarization of the electorate, the spread of conspiracy theories, the loss of trust in our national institutions, and the use of rapidly changing technology to transform the way news is spread. Freeman notes in her book that “Democracy is an ongoing conversation between the governed and their governors; it should come as no surprise that dramatic changes in the modes of conversation cause dramatic changes in democracies themselves.”

Conversations among our fellow citizens are critical to our civic health, which is why I so strongly support the work to tell the full history of the nation.  That work is part of this conversation.  In her epilogue, Freeman writes of the awful consequences of polarization and a lack of conversation,

“When the nation is polarized and civic commonality dwindles, Congress reflects that image back to the American people.  The give-and-take of deliberative politics breaks down, bringing accusations, personal abuse, and even violence in its wake. National political parties fracture.  Trust in the institution of Congress lapses, as does trust in national institutions of all kinds, and indeed, the trust of Americans in one another.  At such times they are forced to reckon with what their nation is, and what it should be.”

I agree with the author Lewis Lapham that “what joins Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination.”  We do that work through elections, through kitchen table conversations at the places where history happened, through historical scholarship, through civil discourse even when we strongly disagree with another’s position. Bullying and violence are—unfortunately—part of the American story and, shamefully, part of our character. Freeman shows in The Field of Blood, just as we see it in today’s news feeds, that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.

What happened more than 150 years ago may not repeat itself, but it can certainly teach us today, if we are willing to listen.  And that is one more reason to care about history.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB