All posts filed under: Monday Musings

Thoughts to start off the work week

History and Hope in the Midst of Denial and Darkness

Harry S. Truman famously said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Each day we are facing a crisis that some describe as “unprecedented.”* Serious? Absolutely. Life-changing? Unquestionably. Worthy of all our attention? Definitely. But unprecedented? Thankfully, historians are speaking up to help make sense of what we are facing today, and to provide hope for what can come. John M. Barry — who, in Rising Tide, wrote one of the best histories I’ve read of how a disaster changed our country for the better — has also written a book that is invaluable in understanding our current crisis. Barry’s 2004 work, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, makes him the historian who arguably knows more than anyone about the 1918 flu influenza that is the public health event most often compared to today’s outbreak. Barry writes that in that year, “a new respiratory virus invaded the human population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people — adjusted for population, that would equal …

Reflect. Reconsider. Reset.

Navigating through difficult times is both a personal and communal journey. As we each  chart our course through this particular crisis, it is important to concentrate on the ways we can show love and live with hope. Inspiration for my journey comes from a cross section of writers, historians, thinkers, theologians, poets, activists, and friends. One of my personal favorites is Rebecca Solnit.  “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” In a 2016 interview with The On Being Project’s Krista Tippett — posted on the project’s website as one of the “conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now” — Solnit speaks of how the world wants to categorize and pigeonhole love. But coming from a place of abundance, where there is room for everyone, Solnit said, “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” That resonated with me. I had returned to Solnit …

Competency. Credibility. Empathy.

A crisis can be illuminating. It can strip away the façade of what we say we believe and expose our true natures. We can use a crisis to step into being our best selves. Or we can take a different route, such as acting out of cold-hearted self-interest to stockpile more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and attempt to profit from a pandemic. Along with illumination, a crisis can bring a moment of reckoning. In 2020, America is coming face-to-face with the dire consequences of a well-funded campaign that began in the 1950s to denigrate, hollow-out, and ultimately destroy good and competent government along with the maintenance of a strong and empathetic social contract. Our current crisis has brought those decisions front and center. That reckoning is at the heart of Anne Applebaum‘s recent article in The Atlantic magazine: The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff.  Moments of stark illumination and national reckoning also tell us a great deal about our leaders. When it comes to leadership in a crisis, it turns out — surprise, surprise — that …

Servant Leadership

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Max DePree, the long-time CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, wrote those words in his small but influential book Leadership is an Art, and they’ve stuck with me through the years. In the early 1980s, as I was preparing to take my first leadership post as the executive director of a nonprofit organization, I read Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1977 book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. A humanities major without any background in management or business, I was looking for guidance on how to lead, motivate, and manage people. Greenleaf’s words resonated with me, even if I didn’t come close to fully understanding their implications. “The servant-leader is servant first,” he wrote. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” I went on to study other management and leadership theories, attended a Harvard Business School executive …

Remembrance, Not Regret

Birthdays that end in 0 are much easier for me to handle than the ones that end in 5. I came to that rather trivial realization sometime over the past year. Approaching 30, 40, 50, or 60? No big deal. In fact, for that last one I used the occasion to gather 60 lessons I’ve learned over six decades. It was great fun. The ones that end in 5, however? Umm…they seem to be more problematic. Perhaps it is because I’m suddenly closer to the next 0 and the next decade than to the one in my rear view mirror. At 35 most of us finally realize, if we haven’t already, that we are no longer a kid. At 45 you can claim with some degree of persuasiveness to fall in the middle age bracket, but that has its own set of challenges. (Mortgages, anyone?) By the time you hit 55 you are conscious of the fact that few people live to be 110, and you are face-to-face with all that implies. And at 65? …

Tribalism and the Abandonment of Democracy

What do the Houston Astros have to do with the state of our democracy? Let’s see. Baseball—rightly or wrongly—has long been compared to life, or vice-versa. Washington sportswriter Thomas Boswell’s first book was a 1982 collection of essays entitled How Life Imitates the World Series.* In the essay that gave the book its title, Boswell makes the observation that the pressures in baseball differ from those of other sports. It is a pressure that ebbs and flows, day-by-day, over the length of a long season played out every day as opposed to the once a week or twice a week rhythm of the games in football, basketball, or hockey. Yet baseball pressures are heightened at key tipping points, such as during a pennant race, when one’s true character and strength comes through. Just like in real life. What’s more pressure-packed than a World Series? Or an impeachment trial? Recently, it struck me that Boswell’s premise was perfect when the subject—as it often does these days—turns to the future of our democracy. To see how baseball and life …

Saving the Past Has a Past

It is surprising that a field that has focused so much on the preservation of history has an unfortunate blind spot to its own history. Historic preservation is one of the longest-lasting examples of community development, land use reform, and public history in the United States. The stories of the past efforts of our fellow citizens to ensure that parts of our history are with us today and tomorrow are varied and fascinating. Yet many, both inside and outside preservation, tell themselves a simplistic and usually inaccurate story of how we came to value parts of our past in a country that too often only values the new and what’s over the horizon. The recently released second edition of Giving Preservation a History, edited by Randall Mason and Max Page, is a strong attempt to reverse our trend at historical amnesia in the preservation field. Through seven essays retained from the first edition, six new essays prepared for the 2020 book, and two concluding chapters to wrap both works together, the editors have endeavored to put forward …