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.
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…
*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.