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I Hate to Say Goodbye, So I’ll Just Say So Long

Speaking at the Ryman

Speaking from the pulpit at the Ryman Auditorium: The Mother Church of Country Music

NOTE: The following is adapted from a message I wrote to my staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the Monday of my last week as the EVP and Chief Preservation Officer with the organization.

In a typical three-point sermon from the Baptist church of my youth, the preachers would:  1) tell you what they were going to say (the introduction); 2) then say it (the sermon); then 3) tell you what they had just said (the conclusion).  To keep up the symmetry, the sermons themselves often had three points.  The last of my Monday morning emails will be my personal three-point sermon.

The Introduction

 I’m going to expand my audience beyond the Preservation Division and write to the full Trust staff along with a number of friends outside the organization.  In doing so, I’ll use the first part to explain a bit about these Monday emails.  Second, I want to say a few words about what the past twenty-two-plus-years at the National Trust have meant to me, both professionally and personally.  Finally, I’ll end with information about how we can stay in touch after Wednesday, my last day in the office.

DJB in Cedar Mesa

The Bears Ears National Monument in Southeast Utah

Point 1: So What Is the Purpose of These Monday Emails?

As I returned from sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome in 2016, I began sending an email every Monday morning to the staff in the Preservation Division as a way to connect personally with these 200+ individuals located all across the country. The topic was not always preservation. In fact, it seldom was.  Instead, I used this forum to mull over conversations I’d had with colleagues and friends, comment on things that were on my mind, reflect on events in the broader world, share stories from my experience in leading teams and organizations, and provide recommendations from my reading list.  I often said that I wrote about things that I needed to hear.

Over time, these Monday emails were passed around and people asked to be added to the distribution list. Now about a quarter of those who receive them are outside the Preservation Division and the National Trust. I began repurposing these emails on my personal blog site under the category of Monday Musings. If you want to go back and read several of the top ones in terms of views, here they are:

  • Let’s Start It Up and See Why It Doesn’t WorkA story from historian and NTHP Honorary Trustee David McCullough on the ways that failure can lead to the unpacking of assumptions, new perspectives, the acquisition of knowledge, and new paths to success.
  • Hope Is Grounded in MemoryThis little meditation, written on the occasion of my 20th anniversary at the Trust, revolves around the idea of hope in the context of life’s milestones.
  • Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination – I wrote this post after launching the National Treasure campaign at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the striking sanitation workers.
  • Be Present When Serendipity StrikesI received wonderful (and often humorous) feedback from this story about the time I (finally) woke up on a flight home from Nashville, only to realize I was sitting next to Muriel Anderson, one of my guitar heroes.
  • Kindness – This is a post I wrote in January about the response I received after announcing I was stepping down from my position at the National Trust.

If you are simply interested in finally figuring out how my mind works, the best place to look is the 60 Lessons From 60 Years post that I wrote on the occasion of my 60th birthday a few years ago.

Seersucker Day

Seersucker Day at the National Trust

Point 2: These Past 22+ Years

I became a member of the National Trust in 1975, and working for the nation’s largest preservation nonprofit was a long-held dream. It has been the privilege of my professional life to help the National Trust do its vital work over the past 22 years, working alongside and learning from so many of you. I won’t name any names because I will inadvertently leave out someone who is very important to me. But I will say that together—and with partners and others outside the Trust—we saved some of the country’s most important places that continue to link past, present and future generations together—or as the poet Remo Fasani phrased this—having “the past live in the present and in the future both, to have time again vibrate as one.”

TN Main Street Contingent

With the Tennessee Contingent at the 2008 National Main Streets Conference. I’m the only one wearing a tie!

Together we shared and celebrated stories from America’s past that opened up new understandings of the nation’s history and why we are the people we are today.  Together we have worked to make the Trust a leader in the fight to ensure that old places are part of our individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time, to create community and national identity. Together we have shown that there is a future for our past.

DJB during an interview on Hawaii Public Radio

Interview with Hawaii Public Radio on Saving the Natatorium

I have also shared personal milestones and events with many of you over the years, including a great send-off party earlier this month.  In a 1994 commencement address at Vassar College, Bernadine Healy, M.D. said the following;

“As a physician who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret.  People facing death don’t think about what degrees they have earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated.  At the end, what really matters is who you loved and who loved you.  The circle of love is everything and is a good measure of a past life.  It is the gift of greatest worth.”

Studio A Press Conference with Ben Folds - Photo Credit Rick Smith

Saving Music Row (Photo Credit: Rick Smith)

Point 3: Not Goodbye, But So Long

I don’t plan to retire, but I do plan to take some time to travel, reflect, and figure out what’s next. Am I finally getting a gap year forty years after graduating from college, or having an encore career? Who knows? One of our trustees recently stepped down from a high-profile position. Building on that experience, she told me, “Don’t be afraid of some blank days or weeks (on your calendar).  It’s where the good things begin to happen.”  That sounds like good advice.

The Conclusion

Here is one final story of mine from 2014 that is about children, but is—in reality—about life:

“I was in the line at the pharmacy this morning, waiting to drop off a prescription.  A mom with a set of boy-girl twins was in front of me, with the children in their two-seater stroller.  (The heavy equipment phase of child-rearing, as we used to describe it.)  The kids were beautiful, and they were having the most wonderful conversation about shoes.  The mom was so patient and kind.  It was a joy to simply stand there and watch the love. After passing along their prescription, the mom gathered her things to leave.  I asked about the twins age.  She replied that they were two-and-a-half.  I smiled, and said I had 21-year old boy-girl twins, and this brought back many memories.  The mom asked if I had any advice.  I replied simply, ‘Savor every moment.’”

As roots musician Tim O’Brien says so eloquently, “I hate to say goodbye, so I’ll just say so long.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

A Great Send-Off

Farewell bourbon

Several of the nice bourbons and whiskeys from friends and colleagues

Last Friday, my colleagues at work hosted a wonderful send-off party.  There was a “B” theme to evening, as we had barbecue (Rocklands, my local favorite); bourbon (with gifts of several very nice bottles of whiskey over the course of the week); and bluegrass (the latter supplied live by the By-and-By Band). The band was even kind enough to let me sit in with them on a spirited rendition of Sitting On Top of the World!

Friends, former and current colleagues, and partners came in from as far away as Los Angeles to celebrate. I used the occasion to say a few words (no surprise there), beginning with the observation that I was finding that almost anything that was said in the office brought to mind something that happened 10, 20, or 30 years ago—what I’ve dubbed the Old War Stories part of my transition.

By-and-By Band

Playing Bluegrass with the By-and-By Band. DJB is the guy in the middle trying to hang with this talented group of musicians!

I knew everyone would be thankful if I kept it short, so I brought notes.  On the occasion of my 60th birthday, I composed a post entitled 60 Lessons From 60 Years and I used the send off to call out five of them.

Lesson #2: The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them. This lesson is always a good reminder that no one is indispensable, so while I appreciated the many nice accolades that came that day, I pulled this one out in order not to get too big for my britches.

Lesson #8: I will cry at the movies, so I need to bring a handkerchief. It was an emotional day and I brought along a handkerchief, just in case. However, I used it more to wipe the sweat from my brow than for wiping tears from my eyes.  It was an unseasonably warm late winter day in Washington.

Lesson#10. All things considered, I’d rather live in a community full of old buildings. I have lived in five Main Street communities during my life – including two that won our Great American Main Street Award at the National Trust. Somehow, old buildings and walkable communities are in my bloodstream.  I joined the National Trust in 1975 and attended my first Trust conference in Philadelphia in 1976. As a young professional, I carried my back issues of the Trust’s newspaper from the 1970s and 1980s—Preservation News—through 3 moves.  Suffice it to say that it has been the privilege of my professional life to help the National Trust do its vital work over the past 22 years.

Lesson #59: A few years ago I became intentional about saying “thank you” to someone every day.  It is one of the smartest things I ever did. I thought about so many people I could thank, but that would take much too long if I were to touch on all the people who have touched and supported me.  So I simply want to thank my Executive Assistants—the individuals who live with me during the work day and do so much behind the scenes to make me look good.  In many ways, these individuals taught me a great deal about how to be a good boss:

  • Kaye Garris—My first assistant when I moved to Charleston to be the director of the Southern Regional Office.  Kaye was the voice of the talented, young Southern staff (when we were all much, much younger).
  • Liz Welsh McGonagle—The first assistant at the Trust that I hired. Liz, a wonderfully kind and friendly Minnesotan, set the standard for the type of “public face” I wanted my EAs to have with other staff and the broader public.  I went to see the Minnesota Twins at Target Field with Liz and her husband Dave and my daughter Claire on our cross-country trip back in 2014.
  • Susan Neumann—Susan helped me set up the Executive Office as Chief of Staff and died much too young.
  • Erin Dowling—When I was managing the capital campaign at the National Trust, Erin was my EA on the development side.  She now works in the real estate business in Colorado, where I see her on occasion.
  • Amelia Sams Whittington—Amelia could write in my voice better than I could, so she quickly took on composing letters, notes, and even speeches for me.  She works in development for a theatre troupe while her husband continues his life’s work as a chef in New Orleans.
  • Leigh Ivey—While only with me for a short while, due to a death in her family, Leigh was the first EA I had to make me feel old.  Her mother went to our high school—with my younger sister!
  • Kelly Schindler—With an interest in museums and historic sites, Kelly worked as my EA until a better opening / opportunity came up in our historic sites department, where she continues her admirable work today.
  • Lisa Thompson—Lisa had worked as a Main Street Manager and for a local preservation non-profit, so when she came to work as my EA I knew I wouldn’t have her for long.  Sure enough, she left in 2018 to be the National Register Coordinator for the Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office.
  • Chelsea Lundquist-Wentz—Chelsea is my current EA and combines many of the great traits I like from some of her predecessors. She is, quite simply, a gem.

If you do the math, you can see that I keep assistants for 2-3 years at a time.  That’s because I want to hire smart people, help them move along their chosen career path, and support them after they leave.  Amelia recognized the pattern and began what is officially called the Chief Preservation Officer (CPO) Operational Guide but what I took to calling The Users Guide to DJB.  It is 6-7 pages of single-spaced directions on setting up “the prefect trip,” organizing meetings, writing letters, and the like.  The last two pages are a grab bag with the subtitle “Miscellaneous DJB Facts and Preferences,” and I want to share a few of them with you (to see what these individuals have to put up with!

  • David’s wife’s name is Candice. Everyone spells it Candace, which is incorrect.
  • David likes to drink unsweetened iced tea at lunch, and bourbon (on the rocks) or red wine at happy hour.
  • David does not like beets or olives (and Lisa later added “and avocados – except in guacamole”)
  • David likes honesty.
  • David dislikes rumors and confidentiality breaches. You are going to hear a lot of confidential information. It will be tempting to spill things you know, even a little bit.  Don’t do that.  Keep it all to yourself, and you’ll be the most valuable assistant around.
  • David is on a quest to visit every major league baseball stadium in America. When thinking of trips, make suggestions of those he could visit while on work travel – he’ll love you for it!

Now you know how Liz and I ended up together with our families at Target Field in Minneapolis!

Lesson #60: Savor every moment. It passes faster than you can ever imagine.  Enough said.

More to come…

DJB

Change is the Only Constant

BaseballMarch is one of my favorite times of the year.  The longest month—February—is past. Winter is nearing an end here in DC. Baseball players have reported to spring training camps. Hope springs eternal.

Speaking of baseball, I have my own spring training ritual every year. Up first is a viewing of Bull Durhamthe best baseball movie ever—followed by reading a new baseball book.  Together the two get me in the mood for the season.  I can report checking off both of those training regimens this year well before Opening Day.

I actually read two baseball books recently, although one may not count because it is entitled The Is Not Baseball BookYou have to love a book which begins with a first chapter of “Sports Is Not a Metaphor.  It’s a Symbol.”  Afterwards it jumps into all matter of things, including pataphysical management systems leading to “self-learning” teams.  That’s for another time.

It is the second book, Smart Baseball:  The Story Behind the Old Stats that are Ruining the Game, The New Ones that are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law, that took me into thoughts about change.  Baseball, that most tradition-bound and statistically-drenched of sports, has undergone a fundamental change over the past two decades in how the game is understood, played, and coached. That happened because a few people had the insight to challenge the conventional wisdom about the game.  Baseball has so many statistics going back over a hundred years that it is possible to model what happens in thousands of situations (such as when a runner tries to steal a base) and know the (statistical) outcome. The insights turned basic baseball knowledge on its head.  Part One of the book takes on some of the sacred statistics of baseball and shows why they are firmly rooted in “baseball’s irrational adherence to tradition.”  Law begins with that old standby, the batting average*, and uses a close-to-home example to demonstrate why the holder of the league’s highest batting average in 2015 (the Marlins’ Dee Gordon) was not the “batting champion” as these players are generally identified. Looking at performance through all manner of new metrics, Gordon—even though his average was three points higher—didn’t come close to being as effective with the bat that year as then-Nationals player Bryce Harper.  Baseball got it partially right in that Gordon was dubbed the “batting champion” but Harper was the unanimous choice for Most Valuable Player.

Baseball is only one area where change is afoot. Change in any situation can be difficult to handle, but I believe in the old axiom that “change is the only constant.”  We all have to adapt to change. As I leave my position at the National Trust at the end of this month, change will occur for many of you as well as for me.  Other transitions are underway in the organization and in the preservation field as well.  But as I noted in a recent presentation to our board of trustees,

“For a movement that appears resistance to change, the way we save places keeps changing—and that’s a good thing. The Main Street program began in the 1970s as a push against both modern mall development AND traditional preservation practice.  As an example of the latter, Main Street buildings like the Franklin Theatre in my parents’ hometown weren’t the crown jewels of American architecture—but they were places that mattered to the local community in ways that went well beyond their architectural style.”

To help focus my mind on change, I’ve had the following quote from management guru Peter F. Drucker as my computer screen saver for years:

“People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”

We need the past to ground us in memory, continuity, and identity.  We need to accept change as a constant in our lives.  And yes, that’s a paradox. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind.”

Have a good week, and more to come…

DJB

*Batting average in baseball is derived by taking a player’s hits, dividing them by that player’s at bats, and rounding it to three digits.  In the modern era, batting averages have typically fallen in the .200 to .400 range

Self-Sacrifice

Stephane Audran

Stephane Audran (credit: The Oscars In Memoriam)

When watching the In Memoriam segment of the Oscars last month, I learned that the French actress Stéphane Audran, who played the title role in the Danish film Babette’s Feast, passed away in 2018.  Babette’s Feast—and Audran’s performance as the chef who moves from Paris to the desolate, western coast of Jutland in 19th century Denmark—are among my all-time favorites.  (Babette’s Feast also ranks as Pope Francis’ favorite movie, but I’ll bet he hasn’t watched Bull Durham.*)

Here is a short synopsis (spoiler alert:  you will find out all the basics, but none of the real nuance that makes this such a wonderful film):

The movie begins in a small Protestant village that has been led for many years by a very rigid pastor. The beliefs of the congregation are extremely Puritan, making the village a drab, grey place where there is hardly any joy. After the pastor has died, his two elderly daughters are forced into leading the older, dwindling congregation. They had hoped to marry when they were young and beautiful, but their father was staunchly against marriage and turned away all suitors.

One day a French woman, Babette, comes to the village as a refugee with a letter of introduction from one of the long-ago suitors, now a famous opera singer.  When the sisters say they cannot afford to pay her, Babette says she will work for free. Over the course of 14 years she cooks for them, improves their bland meals, and earns their respect.  One day Babette discovers that she won a Parisian lottery worth 10,000 francs.  Instead of using the money to return to her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette’s appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice. Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal.

There are twists and turns (and more beautiful shots of food than you can imagine). Eventually the congregations’ vow to eat but not comment on the joy of this “sinful” feast is broken.  “Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.”  Upon learning that Babette has spent the entire lottery winnings on the meal, one of the sisters says to her that she will be poor the rest of her life. Babette simply replies, “An artist is never poor.”

Many commentators have spoken to the power of Babette’s Feast, which won the 1987 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. While some see it very much in religious terms, it moves me because of the sense of self-sacrifice, outside of any one set of religious beliefs, that leads to that “mystical redemption of the human spirit” in others. Self-sacrifice is often scorned in today’s world; it is for “suckers.” Most of us don’t regularly face situations that call for self-sacrifice.  The last time we responded to such a situation as a nation, some 400,000 U.S. service men and women died in WWII. I believe we are rapidly facing a time where, in response to climate change, society will have to face decisions that call for individual and national self-sacrifice.

But there are situations when we give up what we may want for the larger community. Parents regularly sacrifice for the good of their children.  Exceptional leaders, writes Erika Anderson in Forbes, “do things that are personally uncomfortable or even risky for the good of the enterprise, or to protect the people who follow them. . . . They often make decisions they know will put an extra burden on them—emotionally or in terms of time and energy—in order to benefit their followers or their customers. And most important, they make ethical choices that may not be comfortable or lucrative—but are the right thing to do.”  The author Stephen Carter speaks to something similar, writing about the loss of “the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens.…”  Self-sacrifice moves us past our own ego and self-absorption into the language, and life, of community.

At the end of the movie, one of the sisters says to Babette, “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”  Rest in peace, Stéphane Audran. Your performance showing a way to reclaim and redeem the human spirit, remains.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Bull Durham is my favorite movie, and not only because it is (somewhat) about baseball.  With that recommendation, I’d be surprised to find out that you care what I thought of the 2018 Best Picture nominees, but if you are so inclined, feel free to click through and take a look.

Humility Is the New Smart

Research shows that “more than 85 percent of a message we communicate to others is conveyed not in the words but in the tone and manner in which they are delivered.”  I saw this first hand in a recent meeting when one of the participants made it very clear—in body language, tone, and language—that she was going to be disagreeable.  Arms crossed, with no attempt to bring others into her point of view other than by sheer force and with every sentence beginning with a negative, she ensured that her point of view was going to be heard.  It was tiring and not very satisfying for others trying to participate in the conversation.

This non-approach to communication was highlighted in a book I’ve been reading entitled Humility Is the New Smart:  Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine AgeIn an era when the best research indicates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by technology within the next ten to twenty years, authors Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig make the case that humans must change how we think, work, and communicate to survive and thrive. McKinsey & Company research suggests that not even the highly skilled/highly paid are immune, as current technology could be adapted to replace at least 20 percent of a CEO’s work activities. Smart machines will have “no biases (except through human design), no egos, no emotional defensiveness, and no fears of making mistakes or looking stupid or not being liked.”  In order to compete effectively and complement these smart machines, humans will need to overcome our “cocoon of self-absorption.”

Humility Is the New Smart

Humility Is the New Smart

Humility is often confused with modesty. Humility is not being meek, subdued, or thinking that you are not a worthy person. In fact, someone who is self-deprecating is often making a show on the surface of modesty while in reality their statements are hyper-focused on themselves. In place of that approach, the authors define humility as “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”  Interestingly, the idea of humility as a key to continuous learning is an old one, going back at least to the philosophers of ancient Greece.

To excel in areas such as critical and innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement with others—skills that are not (yet) among the things technology does well—we need to move beyond a response to the outward world that is inwardly focused and self-protective. The authors note that humans often “operate more like a defensive closed system than a system open to disconfirming information, differing opinions, or new information.” One way to move beyond this defensive posture is by quieting our ego.  Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, explains how that innovative company deals with ego and self-absorption:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. . . (Likewise) our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather.  But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.”

Quieting your ego, managing your thinking and emotions, reflective listening, and emotionally connecting and relating to others are all keys to a humble approach to learning—an approach that in the words of the book’s authors, increases the quality of our thinking and learning, decouples our beliefs (not values) from our ego, opens us up to continually testing our beliefs about how the world works, and learns from our mistakes as we try out new ideas and approaches to problem solving.

As I face milestones in my life, this book has me thinking a great deal about my approach to learning and communication. Continuous learning and insatiable curiosity seem to be critical to ongoing growth and engagement with the world around us.  We can get there by quieting our ego and letting humility take over.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Failing Forward

We all fail.  Even those who go to great lengths to demonstrate that they are always right, never are.

Rather than fear failure, what if we accepted failure’s inevitability yet used the outcomes to our advantage? Marcel Schwantes, Founder and Chief Human Officer at Leadership From the Core, wrote the following to encourage the “practice of failing forward”:

“If you’re the type of person who gives up too soon after failing and you just can’t bounce back from a setback, you’re missing one of the greatest lessons of every successful person: Failing is part of the journey that will lead to success. Accept this fact early on so that when failure comes knocking and tries to scare you away, you stare it down with confidence and embrace it, learn from your mistakes, and try again a different way.”

Schwantes’ comment struck me in two ways.  First, I believe he’s right about learning from setbacks.  It isn’t that we should try to fail, but rather that we should recognize—and build on—the inevitable.  More importantly, this is an attitude that one should try and adopt early in life.  Once you have decades of life experiences, you’ll come to recognize that we all fail and that we should learn from that failure.  But Schwantes is suggesting that we accept this point of view early in life, when we have the most time to take advantage of the lessons learned.  Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has written that when we look back at the nation’s past, failing and learning from that failure has been a very American approach to problem solving.

I was fortunate to learn the value of failing forward early in my professional life.  It was painful at the time, but in retrospect I see how it shaped me going forward. As the executive director of a statewide preservation organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was trying to lead our alliance in a fight against development interests with deep pockets.  Battlefield preservation was a hot topic in Virginia, and developers created a well-funded property rights-based “grassroots” campaign aimed at the General Assembly and designed to weaken preservation protections.  If you drive today from Washington to Culpeper (or Manassas to Brandy Station in Civil War battlefield terms), you will see what has become of a historic cultural landscape and once-beautiful Virginia countryside. The development interests succeeded.  We were outgunned, certainly, but more importantly the coalition I led was out-smarted in terms of tactics and messaging.  Several years later we wanted to go back to the General Assembly to enact a state historic rehabilitation tax credit.  This time our coalition was prepared with a two-year plan, media strategies, targeted messaging, an economic study, better lobbyists, and high-level legislative sponsors.  The bill passed overwhelmingly. Now if you drive through many Virginia cities and towns you can see how some of the approximately 2,400 historic properties rehabilitated since the program’s inception in 1997 are centerpieces of successful revitalization efforts.  I do not know if we would have succeeded in gaining a state tax credit without learning the lessons of the failure of the property rights/battlefield protection campaign. And those lessons about long-term vision and preparation helped me at the Trust as we began work on saving the federal Historic Tax Credits a full five years before an actual tax bill passed Congress.

There are many reasons we may not want to embrace failing forward, with fear and worry sitting right at the top of that list. They are debilitating traits.  To get around that challenge, the software company Intuit has built a learn-by-experimentation culture that encourages failures as pathways to ultimate success.  In fact, they avoid using the word mistakes so that employees won’t fear making them.  In its place, Intuit refers to the unexpected results as surprises.

No Fear

No Fear

Think about how you would approach your work differently if you began to “fail forward.”  How would you approach your life differently if your mistakes became surprises?

Sometimes old wisdom is the best.  If at first you don’t succeed, follow your grandmother’s advice and “try, try again.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

The Deep Rhythms of Life

If you are a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

I try and remember that old adage when I consider things I read or hear.  Given my career, training and perspective, I often see historical overtones, even—perhaps—when they don’t exist.  So with that grain of salt, I’ll note that over the course of a recent weekend, I took part in three conversations that all struck me as narratives somehow important and related.

The first was not really a conversation. But it felt as if I was on the listening end of one as I went on a Friday night to hear Lucinda Williams and the Drive By Truckers in concert.  Both were great, but it was the music and between-songs patter of Lucinda Williams—her stories, if you will—that made me think about the way in which we can break out of our pasts and stand out from what is expected. Williams has been writing and performing emotionally devastating lyrics for four decades. But she also takes courageous stands against racism, sexism, and hate in the context of a history (Southern) and a musical genre (country) where such political points-of-view can get you ostracized. The next afternoon, I was at Politics & Prose, our local independent bookstore, to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.  Pitts is a powerful writer who regularly calls on history—and our willful ignorance of much of that history—in both his novels and his weekly columns for the Miami Herald.  He did so recently when noting that a willful ignorance of black history is directly responsible for some of the recent headlines coming out of Virginia.  I had a conversation with Pitts after his talk, and we discussed the challenges and benefits of writing for different genres while still rooting his work in history and story. Understanding history, deeply and fully, is critical to Pitts for an understanding of life today.

It was the conversation held between these two encounters that I found most intriguing. I was in a Takoma Park coffee shop for our regular Saturday morning family coffee/catch-up.  We sat at the common table and soon a young woman in her early 30s sat across from us.  In the course of conversation we learned that Brittany was a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for Hospice.  In response, I told her what hospice had meant to our family when my mother passed away, in her own home, after a two-year battle with cancer.  Sitting at that common table, we had a long conversation that ranged across millennials’ spiritual practices, living in community, and the changes over time in how society treats sickness and death.

When describing her past, Brittany mentioned that her family’s home in Rockford, Illinois, had been a type of hospice, as both her great-grandmothers, her grandmother, and her great aunt all died there.  Brittany fully expected to follow the same course, but another aunt sold the house and it went out of the family’s hands.  That aunt remained active as a local hospice volunteer, and was surprised one day when a 16-year-old came to her office. This teenager was the youngest volunteer, by far, in the local hospice chapter.  When asked what led her to step forward, the young girl said she had always felt a special calling to this work.  As the girl’s mother was paying for a training course, Brittany’s aunt happened to look at the address on the check.

It was their old family home.

When Brittany told this story, I immediately said, “place matters.”  I fully believe that in this particular case, the love and care that permeated the home—the fullness of life—carried forward to a new family and new generations. Writing in Two-Part Invention, author Madeleine L’Engle speaks of such an attachment to place when she says, “I get to Crosswicks (her country home) whenever I can, to relax in the deep rhythm of the house, filled with the living of over two centuries.  That richness of experience permeates the rooms, life lived to the utmost, birth and death, joy and grief, laughter and tears.” And even when death arrives, none of the fullness of life is lost.  It simply becomes part of the rhythm of the house.  Emotions flow through places, and saving those places is a little understood key to our emotional health as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.

Northern Ireland Farm

The Rhythm of Life (credit: Claire Brown)

A Southern country singer with a history and a strong literary bent* that leads her to call out our transgressions as a nation. An  African American writer who calls on history to remind us that in troubled times—as theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes—“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  And a young hospice chaplain who calls on a personal story of the power of place and people to heal even in the face of death.  All three are saying, in different ways, that places from our past—and the stories they tell—matter.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Lucinda Williams’ father, Miller Williams, was an American poet who passed away in 2015.  One of his poems was read at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.  Throughout that Friday evening concert there was a conversation ongoing about the connection between history, what we’ve been given, and how we chose to take that past and live our lives today.  Storytelling is clearly in her genes.  You have to love a performer who, playing before a huge crowd of millennials (and the occasional out-of-pocket fan like me), takes the time in an introduction to a song to riff at length on Flannery O’Connor and give a shout out for Wise Blood—O’Connor’s first novel which was turned into an eccentric and acclaimed (yet seldom seen) film by John Huston.  Enjoy this video of Lucinda’s classic Drunken Angel.