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

Responding to Anger

Anger

Anger

Our recent national conversations too often seem soaked in anger. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t become angry.  It is a trait we all seem to share.  What differs is how we respond to anger:  our own and others.

Over the winter holiday, our family visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Last Friday, our divisional management team toured the Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at the National Trust Historic Site Montpelier.  Both cultural institutions showcased the many ways a people oppressed have responded to anger held against them by others as well as that held inside themselves. While at Montpelier, I picked up Michael Eric Dyson’s book Tears We Cannot Stop, a powerful call for recognition and redemption which brims with this Baptist preacher’s righteous anger.

In her collection of essays No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin has a two-part piece on anger. The first half looks at public anger, while the second focuses on our private anger.  I thought of the first in the context of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach.  Dyson asserts — and King’s own writings demonstrate — that King’s teachings came from an anger against racism that never abated but which led to his life’s work against injustice.  Le Guin notes,

“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger.  It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice….Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.  Nursed for its own sake, valued as an end in itself, it loses its goal.  It fuels not positive activism but regression, obsession, vengeance, self-righteousness.  Corrosive, it feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.”

Mere Distinction of Colour

The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit at James Madison’s Montpelier (photo credit: Montpelier Foundation)

Le Guin shifts from public anger, political anger, to a more personal experience.  And what she sees is troubling.

“…though I want to see myself as a woman of strong feeling but peaceable instincts, I have to realize how often anger fuels my acts and thoughts, how very often I indulge in anger….Certainly an outburst of anger can cleanse the soul and clear the air.  But anger nursed and nourished begins to act like anger suppressed: it begins to poison the air with vengefulness, spitefulness, distrust, breeding grudge and resentment, brooding endlessly over the causes of the grudge, the righteousness of the resentment.”

I think we have all seen this type of smoldering anger, and I would suggest it is what we are seeing in today’s national conversations.  Le Guin compares it to a weapon that we don’t know how to stop using.

“Perhaps the problem is this: when threatened, we pull out our weapon, anger.  Then the threat passes or evaporates.  But the weapon is still in our hand.  And weapons are seductive, even addictive; the promise to give us strength, security, dominance . . .

“Looking for positive sources or aspects of my own anger, I recognize one:  self-respect.  When slighted or patronized, I flare up in fury and attack, right then, right there.  I have no guilt about that.

“But then so often it turns out to have been a misunderstanding—the disrespect was not intended, or was mere clumsiness perceived as a slight.  And even if it was intended, so what?

“As my great-aunt Betsy said of a woman who snubbed her, ‘I pity her poor taste.’

“Mostly my anger is connected less with self-respect than with negatives: jealousy, hatred, fear….If I’m in an angry mood and aware of it, I can ask myself, So what is it you’re afraid of?  That gives me a place to look at my anger from.  Sometimes it helps get me into clearer air.”

That’s a lot to unpack and I recognize that much of the anger of the oppressed is the result of experiencing systemic discrimination, not mere slights over self-respect.  But with that caveat, this passage—and the entire essay—hit home with me.  Thinking about that dogged pursuit of justice in our public anger and the questioning of why we use anger as a weapon in our private lives are good places for me to reflect upon during this week when we celebrate the life of someone who moved beyond anger toward justice.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Of Love and Loss

It is a special mind that can take a sliver of historical fact and spin out an imaginative and totally unexpected tale of love and loss as intriguing and captivating as George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo

“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

In this at times perplexing yet ultimately satisfying novel, Saunders builds off the fact that in February 1862, just a year into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies of typhoid fever.  It is known from contemporary accounts that the President went several evenings to stay in the crypt with his son’s body in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.

Saunders takes that bit of knowledge and turns it into a rich story populated with dozens of spirits who reside in the Bardo, which is the Tibetan Buddhist name for a transition period between death and rebirth.  They are the primary narrators of Lincoln’s visit, which in Saunders’ telling occurs all in one night.  In the first half of the book, the supernatural narration goes on a bit too much, and some of it is superfluous to the story.  However, Lincoln’s grief, as seen by the spirits (especially those who inhabit him on occasion), is very real and brings the loss of his son…and all the other sons and daughters being killed as a result of the Civil War…into perspective.  Both President Lincoln and Willie, as well as the spirits, grapple with questions of love lost and how to move past that pain.

One of the things that makes this novel work are the intriguing characters. An elderly cleric plays a primary role as an observer — and explainer — of what is happening in the Bardo and why it matters to the souls of all involved. The New York Times reviewer noted:

“…(the voices of the supernatural) gain emotional momentum as the book progresses. And they lend the story a choral dimension that turns Lincoln’s personal grief into a meditation on the losses suffered by the nation during the Civil War, and the more universal heartbreak that is part of the human condition.

The ghosts are a motley lot, reminiscent of the dispossessed and disenfranchised characters in Saunders’s short stories. They include a soldier, a murderer, a disgraced clerk, a rape victim, a hunter who’s killed more than 30 bears and hundreds of deer, an aggrieved scholar, a mother of three girls, a young man who tried to kill himself after the man he loved spurned his affections, and an older man who was struck in the head by a falling ceiling beam and died before he could consummate his marriage to his pretty young wife.  Together, these voices create a kind of portrait of an American community — not unlike the one in Edgar Lee Masters’s 1915 classic, “Spoon River Anthology,” which was set in a fictionalized version of a small Illinois town.”

The perspectives of these spirits and of President Lincoln shine through in Saunders’ hands.  This is an introspective work that I found well worth the reading.  Recommended.

More to come…
DJB

Respect is a Decision

No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

We are heading into a season when generations will mix together with more frequency than they may at other times of the year (around a dining table for a holiday meal, for instance.)  While we interact with people of a variety of ages at work, the differences in generations are often much wider when we move outside the office. I was thinking of the clashes that often arise during these gatherings as I was reading a new book of essays by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin entitled No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Le Guin is 88 and, in this delightful and insightful book, she is not shy about saying she is old.  In fact, don’t suggest otherwise.  As she notes, “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires.  Fear is seldom wise and never kind.  Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow?  Is it really the geezer?”

But what got me to thinking about relationships between generations, and the importance respect plays in all of our dealings with each other, is when Le Guin states that kids “who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are.”  They don’t see you.  And if generations do encounter each other, it is often with indifference, distrust, and animosity.  This is where the importance of respect comes into play.

Le Guin writes that showing respect is a decision, not an opinion.

“Respect has often been overenforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc.). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding.  It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification.  Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all.  Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death.  The acceptance of that takes courage.  Courage deserves respect.”

Respect for others can be hard, and it is often easy to only respect those who share our interests and opinions.  But I like Le Guin’s suggestion that respect “creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.”

Ursula Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you chose to celebrate.  If we’re lucky, we’ll have kids, geezers, and everything in between together over the next two weeks sharing times of understanding, appreciation, and, yes, even affection.

More to come…

DJB

Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB