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

What’s the Rush?

Oxfords

Walking shoes – to move at the speed of life

Spring is a season when the pace quickens. To snap out of the winter doldrums, we feel the need to rush.  Projects are suddenly due.  Deadlines appear to be on top of us every day.  Travel demands increase. In the rushing rhythm of the days, I find it necessary to maintain my perspective if I’m going to keep my equilibrium.  Thankfully, I came across an essay which helped me put the pressure to rush in perspective.

Robyn Ryle is a sociologist and writer who I first met when she spoke at our National Main Street conference.  Robyn lives in Madison, Indiana — one of the country’s great Main Street communities — where she teaches sociology, writes books on changing notions of gender, and blogs about place (among other topics) on the web site You Think Too Much.  There is wisdom in her tales of life away from the coasts.  As I read her essay on driving the speed limit, I immediately felt myself slow down.

“Today I picked up my book of daily yoga and read, ‘Today, drive the speed limit.’ That was all.

It wasn’t very profound compared to other days when I’ve contemplated gratefulness or stated out loud my intention for the day or cultivated my inner child. Just, ‘Drive the speed limit.’ I guess if you’re coming up with a different yoga meditation for every day of the year, you might very well run dry by October, I thought.

I am not what you would call a speed demon. I certainly drive faster than my husband. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m riding with him I stare at the speedometer pointedly, and he is kind enough to ignore me. I am one of those people who is annoyed if the person in front of me on the road is driving the actual speed limit. ‘Who do they think they are?’ I wonder. ‘Don’t they know that you’re supposed to go at least 5-10 miles over the speed limit? It’s, like, a rule.’

But my book of daily yoga has not led me astray yet, so I got in the car and drove the speed limit. Thirty miles an hour on 2nd Street downtown, which was not so hard. Thirty miles an hour on Main Street was harder, but I did it. I slowed down. And I thought.

When someone drives slow in front of me, I get angry. I feel they have violated some inherent right of mine to go fast. To get to the next place. To move on. To get it over with and on to the next thing. Driving the speed limit it occurred to me that this is crazy.

First, I have no god-given right to go fast and, second, why do I want to? What’s the rush?”

What’s the rush, indeed?  A quote incorrectly attributed to John Lennon makes the point that “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”  Taking the time to move at the speed of life — and think — is counter-intuitive to how we should address our over-crowded schedules and pressing deadlines.  But it works. Rushing to finish up projects to get to the next thing doesn’t make them better and often makes them worse.

Traffic School

Slow Down

It was Edward Abbey who memorably said, “Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

Take the time to travel at the speed limit. Take the time to travel at the speed of life. And have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

More to come…

DJB

Our Year in Photos – 2017

Browns at the Christmas Day Dinner

The Browns at the St. Alban’s Parish Christmas Day Dinner 2016

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I continue my tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come… We have much for which to be thankful in 2017.

This has been another difficult year in our country, as we break into tribes and as the growing income inequality pushes us farther apart. We forget that the American experiment is built around ideas, not tribal groups, and that a sharing of common opportunities and challenges is important to being a citizen.  That experiment survives only if we celebrate all our fellow citizens and embrace the full American story.  We have not always succeeded, but we must keep trying in the year ahead.

Candice and I were thankful that Andrew and Claire were home for the Christmas break late in 2016. Some of the errands and visits were more mundane than others—such as shopping for new glasses—but this one made for a good opportunity to take a picture of our two favorite children!

New glasses

Clarity is a pair of new glasses: Andrew and Claire, December 2016

In January, Candice and I were fortunate to spend the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in New York City, where we saw the amazing musical Hamilton. It truly lived up to the hype.  (Our selfie-taking abilities…on the other hand…leave much to be desired.)  Andrew was also “on stage” in January as one of the three kings at St. John’s Lafayette Square’s traditional Epiphany celebration.

Hamilton Selfie

In line to see Hamilton in New York City

 

The Three Kings

Andrew (left) as one of the Magi during St. John’s Epiphany celebration

We were back in New York State not too many weeks later.  Thirty-five years ago in March, Candice and I began our life journey together.  To celebrate, we had a relaxing and restorative long weekend at Mohonk Mountain House, one of our favorite places.

35th anniversary dinner

Celebrating our 35th Anniversary at a snowy Mohonk Mountain House in March 2017

While we were in the snowy northeast, Claire was enjoying California, her home for the past six years. She has always been our lover of the great outdoors, and during the first half of the year she went hiking and camping in the beautiful Joshua Tree National Park, visited the Grand Canyon with Southern California friends, hosted Andrew during her last couple of months in Los Angeles, and gathered together for a reunion with her Episcopal Urban Intern Program housemates.

Joshua Tree at sunset

Joshua Tree at sunset (photo by Claire)

 

Claire at the Grand Canyon

Hiking the Grand Canyon

 

EUIP Housemates Reunion

Claire’s reunion with EUIP Housemates

Baseball season began in April, and that can only mean one thing:  Let’s Go Nats!  David made it to Opening Day for the first time in his life, and Andrew went along to help kick off the new season.  (Andrew ended up going to five games on both coasts, perhaps joining Dad and Claire as true-blue baseball fans.)

Old Glory at Opening Day

Old Glory at Opening Day

Celebration was in the air in May and June for all types of special family events:  Mother’s Day, weddings, Andrew and Claire’s exploration of LA, and Father’s Day.

Mother's Day

Celebrating Mother’s Day

 

The family gathers to celebrate life and love

The family gathers to celebrate life and love with Erin and Jonathan

 

Claire and Andrew in LA

Claire and Andrew explore LA

 

Father's Day at Jack Rose

Drinking whiskey at Jack Rose on Father’s Day

 

Andrew and Claire in Sarasota

Andrew and Claire look very stylish in celebrating a dear friend’s wedding in Sarasota

Claire was home for a month between July and August, as she transitioned from living in Southern California to attending graduate school at Berkeley. She took time to hang with Andrew, Mom, and Dad and attend a beach weekend with close friends from Pomona College.

DJB with ABB and CHB at Nats Park

Dad does his best to make baseball fans of the next generation

 

Pomona Friends reunion

Pomona College friends reunion at the beach in Maryland

The entire family was able to come together in August for a week in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod.  It was a nice time of relaxation, exploration, and—of course—eating well.

Puzzle masters

Finishing up a puzzle – a Brown vacation tradition

 

ABB with Alison Bechdel

Andrew meeting author Alison Bechdel during a book tour event in Wellfleet

Fall has been a busy season, with another family wedding, Claire beginning her new adventure in graduate school, Andrew’s singing career stepping up to a new level, celebration of holidays, and traveling across the country.

Ghattas wedding cousins

David and Emily Ghattas celebrate with their cousins from around the world

 

The Browns and Crockers

Candice and DJB enjoy Chicago with David’s sister Debbie and her husband Mark

 

First days for Claire

Claire – on the first day of kindergarten and the first day of graduate school. Time goes by much too fast.

 

DJB at Pink Martini

David at Pink Martini Headquarters in Portland, OR

 

Claire's new haircut

Claire – new glasses, new haircut, ready for a new home in the Bay Area

 

Andrew summer 2017

Andrew ready for the next move in his singing career (© 2017 | Kristina Sherk Photography | http://www.Kristinasherk.com)

 

Pumpkin carving time

Pumpkin carving time with Andrew and Candice

 

Andrew for the Mozart Requiem

Andrew sings the Mozart Requiem at the Mexican Cultural Institute for El Día de los Muertos

 

Dinner at Chez Panisse

Dinner with Claire at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse

 

Hammock view

Claire’s view from her back porch hammock in Oakland…life is good

 

Wine tasting in Sonoma

Wine tasting in Sonoma

As you can see, it has been a busy and fulfilling year. During this Thanksgiving season, we give thanks for you, our wonderful friends.

Meal at Wellfleet

Enjoying one of many wonderful meals on Cape Cod

Have a terrific Thanksgiving holiday with friends and families.

More to come…

DJB

To Learn Something New (About Old Places), Bring in New Partners with Different Perspectives

Cooper-Molera Garden

Garden View at Cooper Molera prior to the beginning of rehabilitation (credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation)

At the National Trust for Historic Places, where I work, we believe that historic sites are fundamentally places of intersection. When we allow them to share their stories, historic sites are dynamic spaces where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  One very important way they intersect is with community.

About ten days ago, I visited Cooper-Molera, one of our National Trust historic sites where delight and enjoyment are at the heart of our community intersections.  Cooper-Molera is a two and one-half acre property in the heart of downtown Monterey, California’s historic commercial district. There we are implementing a new model that combines commercial uses and interpretation in creative ways.  We will have a bakery, restaurant, and event center in adaptively used historic buildings operating in collaboration with museum uses in one of the adobe residences to reinvigorate the site, sustain it financially and engage audiences that might never visit a historic site or house museum. Those are the people we should all want to meet at this intersection.

We call this a shared use model for historic sites, because the commercial, for profit, museum, and nonprofit entities all share the same space and support each other.  This shared use model itself is an intersection with the local community, developed through intense engagement with local preservationists and long-time supporters of the site and with unexpected partners including a for-profit developer and community institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Rehab at Cooper-Molera

Rehabilitation and New Construction underway at Cooper-Molera

 

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

Rendering of Cooper-Molera as a shared use site

There is a great story that emerged from one of our recent conversations with a group of Latino leaders in Monterey.  The “Cooper” in Cooper-Molera was an American sea captain, John Cooper, who moved to Monterey when it was part of Mexico and developed a robust business as a trader and merchant.  In the past, we would have focused almost exclusively on his story and we were surprised when this focus group of Latino leaders said we should focus on it again as one of the main stories we tell.  But they had a different spin on it.

John Cooper, they reminded us, immigrated from the US to Mexico when he came to Monterey and he did so without papers—as an undocumented immigrant.  He came in search of economic prosperity, he converted to Catholicism and married a woman named Encarnación Vallejo, who was the sister of General Mariano Vallejo, arguably the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.  He and Encarnaciόn had children and in 1830, John Cooper became a naturalized citizen of Mexico. We’ve been telling this story for years, but never framed this way.  Our focus group urged us to tell this old story in a new way that would highlight its ironies in the current political climate, focus on the central role of Encarnaciόn de Vallejo Cooper, and allow Latino audiences multiple ways to see themselves in the history of this place.

As is true in so many aspects of life, we never fail to learn something new—in this case about old places—when we bring in partners with different perspectives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Bubbles. Lots and Lots of Bubbles.

Mohonk Mountain House

Mohonk Mountain House

On a visit to Mohonk Mountain House earlier this year, I took the opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Nina Smiley.  Nina has the wonderful title of Director of Mindfulness Programming at this Victorian-era resort that has been in the Smiley family since 1869.  I first met Nina almost twenty years ago when she was serving on the board of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America, and she remains one of the most thoughtful, perceptive, strong, yet gentle people I know.  Talking with Nina is—to put it simply—a joy.

When we spoke in March, the topic turned—naturally—to mindfulness.  As the author of The Three Minute Meditator, Nina believes that mindfulness can be just minutes away if we give thought to how we communicate with ourselves.  That often requires recognition that our self-talk can be taking us away from the moment and leading us into a negative rut.  In the course of the conversation, Nina suggested as an exercise taking a simple task that you do multiple times a day—such as washing your hands—and using that as a cue to bring your thoughts back into the moment.

Three Minute Meditator

The Three Minute Meditator

It seems that finding a cue that works for you is key. Shortly after my conversation with Nina, I found myself at a wash basin in an airport restroom. I clearly wasn’t focused on the task at hand, but this time the outside intrusion helped bring me back to the moment.  Around the corner, I could hear a father speaking to what was clearly his very young son.  The dad’s instructions went something like this:  “Let’s begin with the water.  Now add some soap.  Begin to rub your hands together and create bubbles.  Lots of bubbles.  Lots and lots of bubbles….now rinse the bubbles off your hands.  Finally, let’s dry those hands.”

It was a simple and charming 20-second exchange. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.  It was the cue I needed to take something simple and use it as a way to reconnect to the moment.  It is an exercise, if you will, to move closer to mindfulness, which Nina and her co-author (and twin brother) David Harp, define as “a mental state characterized by clarity, insight, compassion, and serenity, no matter what is going on around you.”

Clarity. Insight. Compassion. Serenity.  Those traits appear to be in short supply in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by outside stimuli.  Perhaps you have your own cues to bring you back to the moment.  If not, feel free to do as I do, and think “bubbles” as you stand at the wash basin.  It may lead to a small step back to mindfulness.

View of MMH

View of Mohonk Mountain House

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Observations from the Road (Or The “I’ve Been Everywhere” Edition)

Rook Coffee

Dad Hat from Rook Coffee (photo credit: Rook Coffee)

Life on the road can become a blur.  I began writing this from the Molly Pitcher Inn’s dining room which overlooks the Navesink River in Red Bank, New Jersey. Candice and I have come here to celebrate the 40th wedding anniversary of her cousin Mary Beth and husband Greg.  It is the second time we find ourselves in Red Bank in three weeks, as we were here earlier in the month to celebrate with family and friends the life of Candice’s aunt and godmother, and Mary Beth’s mother, who passed away at age 90.

June is perhaps a bit more than typical in terms of travel (16 out of the first 24 days spent on the road), but only at the margins.  Good thing that I enjoy it.  In June alone I’ve not only visited Red Bank twice, but I’ve also been to Madison, Wisconsin (one of prettiest small college cities in America…in the summer); Athens and Atlanta, Georgia (my God, they never stop building highways); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a gem of a city with much to recommend it and work to be done); and Hampton, Virginia (home of Fort Monroe, Freedom’s Fortress). And there’s still a week to go before we hit the 4th of July weekend!

I’ve thought so many times of writing a blog post on this or that subject, only to drop the idea as I rush to a meeting or another airport.  So this “Observations from…” post will be very short (dare I say Twitter-like”) comments on several things swirling around my travel-addled mind.

Rook Rocks—The waitress at the Molly Pitcher on Friday morning commented on my big cup of Rook Coffee. I told her I just had to try any independent coffee shop with the guts to locate next to a Starbucks, as is the case with Rook in downtown Red Bank’s wonderful Main Street.  She replied, “Oh, you’re not from around here.  In these parts, Rook so out-performs Starbucks.  After a few sips, I knew why.

Independent Coffee Shops (and bookstores) are holding their own—I’ve come to seek out those independent coffee shops no matter where I go.  When in Madison, stop by Colectivo Coffee on the Square. Their baristas  rival Rook in their friendliness (and they have that Midwestern Nice vibe going for them).  Jittery Joe’s is a tasty find in Athens. And on that rare occasion when I’ve been in DC, I took the time to stop by my favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose, where Candice and I enjoyed a late-night coffee recently at The Den after stocking up at the store’s member sale.

Everyone (and every thing) needs refurbishing now and then—I have stayed in just about every type of hotel imaginable this month. Most have been great.  A couple have been a bit long in the tooth.  Just like people, hotels need the occasional refurbishment every now and again. Let’s begin with those electrical outlets. (I’m looking at you, Molly Pitcher Inn!)

If I keep up this level of travel, I’m going to have to break down and get the MLB network—In June I’ve been to the ballpark once (but have a second game next week to see the World Champion Cubs and our Nats) and have only caught about five games on television. While I have enjoyed catching up with some other teams, I miss seeing my Nats on a regular basis.  And I really like our announcers—Bob and F.P.—after sampling home team announcers in other cities.  Truth be told, however, I don’t miss the heartburn that goes with the all-too-frequent Nats bullpen meltdown.  Come on, Rizzo, please go find a closer.  Thank God for yesterday’s laugh-fest blowout against the Reds!  And I want to have a renaissance like Ryan Zimmerman!

I have to drive HOW FAR to go see the Braves—Even though I don’t need to visit the new Atlanta Braves stadium to add another one to my bucket list, I gave serious consideration to taking in a game one evening while I was in town.  Then I Googled the distance from my mid-town hotel.  Then I drove a bit in Atlanta.  Then I watched the game from the comfort of my hotel room.  What a dumb way to build a broad base of support for a sport that’s already seen as too old and white…build a new stadium way out in the northern suburbs to make sure that the city’s African-American fan base (real and potential) can’t get there.  Jeez.

If I bite my tongue any more, part of it will fall off—I try to keep politics out of my blog. For now.  But with so many things happening to endanger our American experiment in democracy, I may have to throw caution to the wind.  I’ve traveled in both red and blue states this month and I’ve spoken with people from across the political divide.  We need to face some hard facts as a nation.

Celebrate family and friends—Candice and I were talking today about all the interactions with family and friends we’ve experienced in recent months.  Funerals.  Weddings.  Wedding Anniversaries (our own and others). Birthdays.  Celebrations of Mothers and Fathers. Dinner parties. Picnics on our saint’s day at church.  We’ve traveled for as many of these as we’ve celebrated at home in Washington.  When family isn’t nearby, you lose something by not making the effort to see them on a regular basis.  And friends expand the family circle.  We are blessed on both counts.

Father's Day at Jack Rose

Drinking whiskey at Jack Rose on Father’s Day with Andrew

Is anything better than bourbon and baseball for Father’s Day—That’s a trick question.  Nope.  Well, yes there is.  It would have been even better if Claire had been here in D.C. with us.  Andrew and Candice took me to Jack Rose Dining Saloon for a Father’s Day feast and some mighty fine bourbon last Sunday. (Largest bourbon selection in the Western Hemisphere!) Claire and Andrew are buying me a Nats jacket in anticipation of those October playoff games.  What could be finer?  (Another trick question.) Woo hoo!

Even in very busy and often challenging times, it is important to remember the wonder of travel, the joy of seeing new places, the lifetime pleasures of staying connected with family, the unexpected moments of delight that come from an expanded circle of friends, and the satisfaction of seeing (and being) people living their passion.

More to come…

DJB