Emotions Flow Through Places

Root Shock

Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove, M.D.

It will surprise no one that I read a couple of baseball books and watched several games while on vacation.  But it may surprise you to know that the best piece of writing I read which included baseball as its subject came from the opening pages of psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s 2004 book Root Shock:  How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About ItShe begins chapter one with several powerful paragraphs.  I’m going to quote extensively from those two pages.

“Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic.  One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hard-working people enjoyed baseball.  That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field.  It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and there that ‘Shorty’s Sym-Phony Band’ tortured the opposition.  Words like ‘raucous’ and ‘zany’ are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity, and the uniqueness of what went on.

In 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles.  The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of the fans. ‘I felt like a jilted lover,’ recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life.  Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Fields and in particular, to try to take us into its magic.  This is the real essence of ‘nostalgia,’ an emotion that is in one second bitter and in another sweet, as the remembrance vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss.  Enduring sorrow and untampered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘I never rooted for them again,’ says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.

Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site.  People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there.  And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished.  Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray.  The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.

But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth largest city in the United States (were Brooklyn independent of New York City)?

The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places—buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations—are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter.  Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them.  When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams.  Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food.  The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad.  Try to find the shortcut you use to take to your best friend’s house and it is your feet that will carry you there.  The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them.  We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people.  We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care.  When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”

Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field (photo credit: A Slice of Brooklyn)

People and places are intertwined.  It is why, when discussing preservation’s future, so many people we spoke with over the past two years focused on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings.  In these six paragraphs, Dr. Fullilove captures that connection in an eloquent and personal way. I began my preservation career in August of 1977, and coming out of a vacation four decades later I’m still excited to have the opportunity to help people see, understand, and honor the places that awaken our “sinews and bones, where the days of our lives have been recorded.”

Have a great week.

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

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

Ideas. Relationships. Adventure.

Brown University 2015 Graduation

A scene from the Brown University graduation of 2015…you can guess who the guy is in the middle with the sunglasses and big smile.

This is a time of year when many of us have either completed school terms or have celebrated the accomplishments of children or other friends/family members at commencement ceremonies.  Scholar and author Warren Bennis was thinking about this time of transition when he wrote the following in his landmark book On Becoming a Leader:

“If I were restricted to three words in any commencement speech, they would be:  Ideas, Relationships, and Adventure.  Ideas are the basis for change, for re-invention, for, yes, intellectual capital.  Relationships have to do with outstanding people working in harmony and openness, where everyone feels empowered, where all members feel included and at the center of things, where they feel competent and significant.  And Adventure has to do with risk, with a bias towards action, with curiosity and courage.”

The challenge for organizations and their leaders is, as Bennis states it, to “create the social architecture where ideas, relationships, and adventure can flourish.”  That isn’t easy, especially in light of challenges facing us today, but those who “choose to succeed must have the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failures.”

It is my belief that building the type of social architecture to ensure that ideas, relationships, and adventure can flourish is a collaborative effort that never ends.  Each of us plays an important role.  How we model behavior from our own perspectives and positions is as important as written statements of organizational or personal values.  When it comes to the organization where I work, I’m glad to be traveling that path with a group of talented and committed colleagues who are eager to continue that work together.  It is the only way we’ll succeed.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

New Perspectives

The Next Level

The Next Level by Scott Eblin

In his book The Next Level, Scott Eblin warns against being too myopic, which can lead to silos in organizations or businesses. We all understand our organization or business, but often only from one seat or perspective.   I bring this up because of a conversation I had last week with one of our senior staff leaders in my organization, the National Trust. We were discussing ways in which we could help individuals on our team who become too closely identified with one program, their work in one city or region, or expertise in saving one type of historic resource. It reminded me of my own experience.

Several years ago I was working with an executive coach.  After receiving 360 degree feedback on my work, she asked to see my resume, which listed my various preservation jobs since I entered the field. Once she reviewed the resume, my coach had me undertake what I thought at the time was an unusual task.  I was to rewrite my vita without using the words “historic preservation” or without the name of any of the agencies or organizations where I had worked.  In other words, she wanted me to take a fresh perspective as to who I was and my capabilities at the professional level.  That led me to think about my eight-year stint as executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, for instance, in terms of skills and accomplishments without relying on the jargon of my profession.  No “I led an effort to enact Virginia’s historic preservation tax credit” for this exercise.  Instead I had to talk about coordination of a network of supporters, communication of key concepts to the media, collaboration with partners to reach new audiences outside my professional field, and providing effective testimony before legislative committees.

It was an eye-opening experience. I had become so identified in my own mind with my preservation career, that I simply never put much thought into how the skills required to do my job translated into a broader world of possibilities.  This exercise, along with several others she had me do, forced me to look at my career, skills, and life with a new perspective.

When one becomes myopic, you don’t step back to think about the type of skills you may bring to other work where you could be a valuable team member. Similarly, you don’t think of areas where you may want to seek training to broaden your expertise. Let me encourage you, as you think about your work and what you bring to making a difference in this world, that you think bigger and try a fresh perspective every now and then. I suspect you will be surprised at what you find.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB