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.

Farewell 2018, Hello 2019

It is that time of year, dear readers, when I look back over the past twelve months, assess progress (or lack thereof) against my goals, and think ahead for 2019.  Careful readers know that for several years I have worked with a set of life rules (rather than annual resolutions) for living the next third of my life.  This review is just one small part of an exercise to have an honest conversation with myself, so I’ll be able to have real conversations with the larger world.  We don’t do enough looking at our uncertainties and vulnerabilities, sometimes choosing as an alternative getting angry at others—which hinders real understanding.  Steve Almond, in the book Bad Stories, asserts that’s true because we take our grievances seriously but not our vulnerabilities.  In the 2017 essay “Facing the Furies” (found in the collection Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises and Essays), Rebecca Solnit frames it this way:

“. . . more often, lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry made people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy.  In other words, anger may make people miserable, but is also makes them more confident and crowds out other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability.  We’d rather be mad than sad.”

2018 was another strange year in America, where anger and grievances (real and perceived) took center-stage in too many instances.  You know it is a strange year when Dave Barry can’t make-up fake year-in-review anecdotes that are any funnier, scarier, and/or weirder than real life.  But worse than strange, the year brought actions that lead many to question whether we’ve completely lost our way as a country.  I have to go with Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., who recently wrote “This was a godawful year . . . and that leaves me full of hope.”

“. . .hope, one hopes, will breed new activism and involvement, will help people who may not have considered politics before to realize that they have the ability and the responsibility to create government that looks like all of us and reflects the majority’s values. Maybe this, in turn, will breed more waves of youth, femininity and color, as more of us decide to take America at its word about forming that more perfect union.”

While 2018 at home and work was a time of tremendous transition, I also head into 2019 with hope.  Hope for the people I love and for the causes and country that are important to me.  Hope that I will continue to understand more about what brought me to where I am today and where I want to go in the future.  Because, of course, hope demands things that despair does not.

Brown family (credit: John Thorne)

The Browns – looking forward to 2019! (photo credit: John Thorne)

So, how did I fare on my eight life rules I stare at every morning on my computer wallpaper?  Here is a short summation.

1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate.  Every Day.  Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day, and that simple habit has made me richer in spirit.  In 2018 I kept up that habit and made progress in being more intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion. Being grateful, thankful, and compassionate is, to me, about equality. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are all in this life together.

2.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. Last year I wrote that I was going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you: 1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”  In 2018 I built a daily ritual of long-distance walking into my mornings which has been very satisfying.  But I have to focus on Rule #5 for this to really have an effect.  My health has to become more of a priority in 2019.  Period.

3.  Listen more than you talk.  This is a tough one to measure, as few people will give you honest feedback (and few people have the same standard of what is too much talking).  So I’ll just repeat what I wrote last year:  “It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit.  While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…an act that one never regrets.”  I do know of a number of instances this past year when I really listened, and for that I am grateful.

4.  Spend less than you make.  2018 was (yet) another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars! Seriously, I think I did well in this area, although when I do spend (e.g., good restaurants, good wine) I tend to treat myself and others well. I continue to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future.  I’m also thinking more about what to give away.

5.  Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  Well, I failed here. Bigly. When I go to “My Fitness Pal” and look at my weight trend line for the year, I had a very good first quarter, and then saw it slowly but relentlessly rise over the last three quarters.  Several years ago I successfully gave up drinking sodas (I had a several-Diet Cokes-a-day-habit), and now I have to get serious about some other things to give up completely.  See Rule #2 above.

Play more music

Play more music

6.  Play music.  I continue to believe that the world is a better place when I play music.  My music is better when I play with others.  However, when I look at my tracking charts for 2018, I only pulled out my guitars 2-3 days/week.  While I may not make it to every day in 2019, I’d like to open those cases and hear those strings sing at least five days a week.

7.  Connect and commit.  Over the years since I set these rules, we made progress as a family in gathering people together on a regular basis.  While that slipped some in 2017, I was able to get together more with colleagues from work in 2018.  Next year, I want to add more friends outside work to this equation. I’m going to push myself not just to think of getting together for dinners, but focus on talks over coffee and other less demanding yet ultimately satisfying connections.  I’m going to take some of my own recent advice when I find myself not knowing how to break the ice.  I’ll “simply walk up and say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ (a.k.a. the only icebreaker you’ll ever need.)”

8.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life! This is not a concern on a daily basis, but more of a reminder that it can be easier to lose the joy of life as one moves through the years.  I’ve certainly seen my elders who have handled this coming period of life with grace and happiness, and others who feel entitled, bitter, and—yes—grumpy. During the winter months, I work very hard not to let my SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) symptoms show through to others. I also spent time this past year thinking about how much I still had to contribute in a range of life’s activities.  Others helped me remember—as Madeleine L’Engle has written—that “you are every age you’ve ever been.”  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. That’s my goal in 2019 and beyond.

So there you have it.  2019?  Bring it on!

More to come…

DJB

Raised on Cornbread and Recollections

Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak, Home of William Faulkner

Earlier this month, I joined other members of the National Trust on a memorable trip from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta.  Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in places such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms.  His remarks were a masters class in the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.

At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.”  As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.

We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.  Both the site and writer are reminders of the importance of recollections and history to life today.  Historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.  I often say that “the period of significance is now” with historic sites to point to those intersections.  You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, which goes, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration.  (To that last point, Faulkner has another famous line which suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.”  He enjoyed his Four Roses.)

At its best, memory is a poet and not a historian.  But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother. Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of the trip was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955, setting off events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement.  Visitors are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.”  It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 – 1950.  In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till.  One of our National Trust Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections as a young African American woman in the Delta who was only five years older than Till.  This is a historic site that exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward.

Sumner Courthouse

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi

 

Site of Till Murder Trial

Site of the Emmett Till Murder Trial in Sumner, Mississippi

You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story.  I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson — the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute  — last week, and was reminded of the work we all have to do when he said “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”  If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present.  Historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Look Up

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this little gem of a film entitled Have You Ever Really Seen the Moon?  The premise of this three-minute video is simple:  a guy wheels his telescope out into the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles and invites people to look at the moon.  The reactions restore faith in our ability to be awed.

“What is that, bro?” a guy on a bike asks.

“It’s a telescope,” says Overstreet. “Do you want to check out the moon?”

The offer is made over and over to a cross section of passersby in a cross section of places across greater L.A. And one by one, they put their eyes to the viewfinder and gaze upon what they’ve looked at a million times yet never seen.

Interestingly, Overstreet and Gorosh show us very little of the actual moon. No, what holds your eyes, and lifts your soul is the way these different people in different neighborhoods all respond in precisely the same way — with gasps and shouts and whispers of naked wonder at the sudden nearness of lunar soil.

. . .

“I’m looking at the moon,” says a young, cap-to-the-back white guy into his phone. “Hold on real quick.” Then he puts his eye to the viewfinder. “Oh, my God,” he says.

“Oh. My. God,” breathes a black man in a hoodie.

“Oh, my God,” says a little kid, laughing.

“Oh, my God,” says a guy with a mane of gray hair.

“Oh!” says a woman, as if startled. “Oh, my God.”

There is something quietly profound in their awe, something that stirs you somewhere deep within like a light breeze moving among tall grass.”

The Moon

The Moon (credit space.com)

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. captured the essence of this work in a recent piece.  In viewing the movie and reading this column, I was reminded of how — back in the pre-smartphone days — preservationists would tell their fellow citizens to “look up” at the buildings along Main Street to see beyond the (often altered) storefronts. Even then we would get so absorbed in our own tunnel vision that we’d forget to see what past generations had built and the possibilities those buildings had for today and tomorrow.  That tunnel vision has increased exponentially with smartphones, where so many have all but stopped looking beyond that small screen as they walk through a downtown or in a beautiful natural setting.  Have You Ever Really Seen the Moon should remind us of the wonder around us.  Stop, look up, and take some of it in.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB