Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One

Wanderlust

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

During a 2013 vacation where each family member chose an activity close-to-home for us to share, my wife’s selection was a day at a local retreat center.*  Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the center had created a labyrinth in the woods.  Labyrinths have come to have a special place in my heart.  A dear friend of our family who died in his early 20s was memorialized with a labyrinth designed for people of all physical abilities.  Andrew had spent the majority of his life in a wheelchair, but that never constrained his spirit. Back at the retreat center, “walking the labyrinth” became my activity for the morning.

I was reminded of this recently while re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful book Wanderlust:  A History of WalkingAn early chapter is titled “Labyrinths and Cadillacs: Walking Into the Land of the Symbolic.” (I told you it was a wonderful book!)  Solnit, who describes herself as “having been raised as nothing in particular by a lapsed Catholic and a nonpracticing Jew,” found herself walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco one evening and then muses on the “rules” and “moral” of the practice:

“…sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.  After the careful walking and looking down, the stillness of arrival was deeply moving.”

Trinity Church Labyrinth

Labyrinth in Memory of Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA

Walking in symbolic space doesn’t require any particular spiritual or religious practice, but it strikes me that thinking about these truths are useful for everyone. We take journeys in work and life and the path is seldom straight. Short cuts often lead to dead ends. As Solnit notes, “Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker.  They unfold in time as one travels along them … Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys.”

I hope you’ll take some time to think about your journeys, and have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* You may not be surprised that for my selection in 2013, I stretched the idea of staying in the region and chose a family weekend in Pittsburgh to see the Pirates, cross another baseball stadium off my bucket list, and work in a return visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.  My daughter’s choice had us spending three days at the beach, while my son picked out four ethnic restaurants around DC where we expanded our culinary palates.  When you have 21-year old children and you’re paying college tuition, this “make your own” vacation is a good alternative to a couple of expensive weeks out-of-town.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I made a resolution in 2016 to return and read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.  International Women’s Day seemed to be a special moment this year to act on that resolution.

I took time today during my lunch break to read, once again, of the silencing that occurs when men talk over women.  As Solnit phrases it, “Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.”  We are living in an age when our civic discourse shows just how serious the impacts of this silencing can be.  Solnit ends the postscript to the original essay by noting, “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

I think about this dynamic a great deal.  When I’m learning from and celebrating the accomplishments of women, I am reminded of how important it is to have these basic rights. To hear from this experience and knowledge. To hear of these stories and perspectives.  When I find myself speaking over women in conversations or in meetings, I am reminded (often too late) of the position of privilege that I – a white male – often take for granted.

Solnit’s is a powerful voice, and I recommend you read anything by her you can get your hands on.  I went on a Solnit reading binge several months ago and found myself both humbled and enlightened.

I was also working on a presentation today which included a quote from The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray.  That quote brought her story back to my mind: that of an African American member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” a poet and writer, the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint. Pauli Murray is one of the great, underappreciated women of the 20th century who is rightfully celebrated today.  The quote — which is featured on a mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina — is as relevant today as it was the day she said it:

“True Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity.  It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

Wonderful words to remember on International Women’s Day…and every day.

More to come…
DJB

I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been

A Wrinkle in Time

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a big week in our household, as we acquired a new hip and celebrated a birthday.*  As a small child, you may have received a new puppy on your special day.  Others years may bring clothes for college or gifts for the new apartment. Later, you might rejoice with a new child or a special trip abroad. On occasion one might celebrate a birthday with a broken shoulder.  Now that we’re in the new hip stage (for a second time), I’m comforted by this thought of the author Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what ‘putting away childish things’ means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and ‘be’ fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

Living through what you know and who you have been from the years of life is a way to understand current circumstances and embrace new possibilities. The quote popped into my head as I was thinking of Madeleine L’Engle and the buzz about the new A Wrinkle in Time movie that will be released later this week. The folding of space and time is at the core of the story, as is the power of love over evil. My children both read the book when they were young, and it remains among the most influential of their lives. Candice took a week-long writing class led by L’Engle some 25 years ago and returned with a copy of “Wrinkle” signed by the author to me.  I pulled it out last weekend when a colleague said she had been encouraged by my earlier note to “read when it is inconvenient” and — in the midst of our recent board meetings — began to re-read the book before the movie’s launch.  I was equally inspired by her enthusiasm, and quickly finished re-reading this wonderful tale late last week.

Signed copy of A Wrinkle in Time

A prized copy of “A Wrinkle in Time”

As Candice continues her recovery from surgery, I’m using the time to think anew about what it means to be three, thirteen, twenty-five, forty, and (ahem) more all at the same time.  L’Engle’s push to retain a child’s awareness and joy seems like a great place for all of us to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Just to be clear, the two things did not happen to the same individual.  Candice acquired the new hip (her second). I celebrated the birthday and acquired two new baseball-themed ties.  While adjusting to the new hip is an all-in family activity, I suspect that I’ll be the only one wearing the baseball ties.

Writing, Briefly. Writing Well.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

I am a frustrated writer.  Not the kind who needs to work on The Great American Novel (or TGAN)*.  If I wanted to write fiction — great or otherwise — there are plenty of models to follow, such as Flannery O’Connor’s habit of three-hours of writing first thing every morning, or advice to be found in places like Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life  and Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty response (be forewarned) to a young aspiring writer.  No, I want to be able to write essays, blog posts, magazine articles, reports, letters, and speeches that pull people in, make them care about the topic at hand, show a bit of my personality, and only say what needs to be said and nothing more.

If you have similar aspirations, you may not want to take advice about writing from a computer programmer, but let me suggest that Paul Graham — a programmer, writer, and investor who helped co-found Y-Combinator, a new type of startup investment firm — should be the exception.

In a tiny essay entitled Writing, Briefly, Graham lays out his thoughts on the importance of writing.

“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”

I agree.  “Let’s see how it writes” is my favorite instruction to our management team after we’ve talked through a topic.  Writing helps you generate and think through ideas.

So after this opening, Graham proceeds, in one very long sentence, to outline how to write well.  Here’s a flavor to whet your appetite:

“As for how to write well, here’s the short version: Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut;

. . .

print out drafts instead of just looking at them on the screen; use simple, germanic words; learn to distinguish surprises from digressions; learn to recognize the approach of an ending, and when one appears, grab it.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire Graham essay at the link above. It will take less than two minutes. I suspect you’ll think differently about computer programmers — and writing — once you’re finished.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* The very wise — and recently departed — science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has an interesting essay on the topic of The Great American Novel, where she posits that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is the book that will tell you the most about what is good and what is bad in America, but in the very next essay she writes that “Who cares?” is the correct answer to the question about what is TGAN. (Since this is a digression, I have placed this in an end note at the bottom of my blog post, per Graham’s advice.)

Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

Grant

Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!

 

Read When It Is Inconvenient

For the past week I’ve been carting around the new Ron Chernow biography of Ulysses Grant.  Chernow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) and Grant were companions on my cross-country trip last week and they will be companions on my Metro ride for at least another week or two.  (Did I mention that it was 900+ pages?)

As the son and brother of librarians, reading has been a large part of my life for more than sixty years.  However, when I returned from sabbatical in 2016 I made a renewed commitment to drop some of the things that had begun taking up large portions of my life (like television) and replace those time-wasters with reading.  (This is one reason I’m pretty clueless when it comes to pop cultural references.)  The most frequent question I get about these Monday blog posts is “how do you find time to read so much.”  Well, I read almost any chance I get.  I read when it is convenient, and perhaps when it isn’t.

Beach reading

Read every chance you get

I recently came across a blog post by a 20-something about the importance of reading for her generation, and much of what she said rang true to me even though I have 40 years on her.  (Since the title includes a word not appropriate for work or family blog posts, I’ll just include the link.)  She builds the post off a Mastin Kipp quote:  “Be willing to live as other people won’t, so you can live as other people can’t.”

The blog’s author then adds:

“I think of this most days, but mostly I feel this way about reading. Reading has shaped me, unshaped me, bothered me, and taught me. I healed because I learned to think as other people wrote.

If you want to make the most of your 20s, you need to exit the rat race that is trying to prove that you are having the most fun, or becoming the most settled, or whatever. Right now, your psyche is still malleable. You’re relatively unattached. You always have the potential to actualize yourself, but now you have the most opportunity.

When you have a spare hour, when you get stood up, when you get dumped, fired, when you’re falling in love, when you’re falling out of love, when you’re feeling lost, when you’re panicking for no reason, read. Read articles, books, Twitter feeds of smart people.”

. . .

“Most people aren’t willing to read when it’s inconvenient.”

“But a book you read this weekend could change the way you think for the next five decades. It could have an irrevocable impact on your entire quality of life. There is a quote that goes something like, ‘I don’t remember every meal I’ve eaten or every book I’ve read, but they are all still a part of me.’”

No matter your age, words and books have the power to change your mind and life.  Figure out what is unproductive that’s eating up your time, then consider replacing that activity with reading.  Maybe like me, you’ll start reading books about science for the first time since high school, or you’ll find a new fascination for fiction, if you are a non-fiction type.  (Lincoln in the Bardo and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing are two works of fiction I’ve read recently that are worth the time and effort simply in the way they expand the mind.)

Yes, if you are analog in nature and you get hooked on reading, you’ll quickly run out of book shelves.  But there are worse problems in the world.

Have a good week reading…even when it is inconvenient.

 

More to come…

DJB

Practicing

Practicing by Glenn Kurtz

“Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music” by Glenn Kurtz

Over the holidays I returned to a book I first read some ten years ago.  Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing:  A Musician’s Return to Music is, in its simplest form, a memoir of a young child prodigy on the classical guitar who attends the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and then quits playing in his early 20s when he realizes he won’t be the next Segovia.  Fifteen years and a career change later, Kurtz returns to the guitar and finds, in the process, a richer love for music.

But like all good memoirs, Practicing is so much more than a simple life’s story.

Kurtz has been practicing since he was eight years old, but it isn’t until he returns after his hiatus that he begins to understand all the richness of the various aspects of preparing for performance, or life.

“Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on….From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.”

When we hear of practice, we tend to think of artists, but Kurtz makes the point that practice is universal.  “Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.”  Because we will never reach our mind’s ideal, we take a risk when we stretch.

“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”

“Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.”

However, Kurtz continues.

“When you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue….Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3

My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3…the guitar where I don’t spend enough time practicing (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

In his return to music, Kurtz found his limitations but then began again to push.  To continue.  We all have routines that make up our work, but if we approach them with the story of who we are and what we wish to be, they can be turned into a route for our lives.

Here’s to focusing beyond the inevitable disappointments and looking to the route that gives meaning to our work and our lives.  Here’s to practicing.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB