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

A Few Words on Advice

Parker Palmer, a writer I read frequently, had the following to say about advice:

“Advice-giving comes naturally to our species, and is mostly done with good intent. But in my experience, the driver behind a lot of advice has as much to do with self-interest as interest in the other’s needs — and some advice can end up doing more harm than good.”*

Advice

How often do we give advice when simply presence and acknowledgement is required?  I was thinking about this after a trip last week where I visited our historic site Belle Grove and spoke with a class of graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  We found ourselves in a very good conversation about how we should “hear, understand, and honor” diverse stories from our past and present at both places.  Presence and acknowledgement are being used effectively at Belle Grove in the response to diverse perspectives and stories.  At UVA, there was a back-and-forth with the students around hearing, listening, and engagement.

One of the students suggested that we change our name to the “National Trust for Historic Engagement!”  I immediately warmed to the idea, as I like the thought of engaging the past with the present.  Much of our traditional way of telling and interpreting history has to do with the self-interest of the interpreter, as opposed to interest in the other’s needs, much less the true story.

You may think these Monday posts fall into the “giving advice” category, which could lead you to see this entire commentary as self-contradictory.  However, I appreciate the way one of my colleagues responded, when she wrote that with her passion for personal growth it was meaningful “to be invited to pause on something so grounding.”  That’s exactly the intent: as an invitation at the beginning of the work week to pause and reflect.  If I’m doling out advice in the future (which I’ll occasionally do), I hope I can now stop and think first about whose interest is driving the conversation.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

* At the risk of giving you advice, I recommend this post by Palmer — a regular writer for Krista Tippett’s On Being project — where he recounts the story of a friend who had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and the well-meaning advice received from others.

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.

What Do You Think About in the Shower

I began a recent conversation with, “I was thinking about this earlier today in the shower.”  You may think that’s too much information to share at work, but I believe that the time we use to think in the shower is critical to our productivity and creativity.  Paul Graham goes further to say “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”

I have certainly wrestled day after day with issues, becoming disheartened over time. It takes different ways of thinking at different times to push through the fog. Hard problems don’t lend themselves to easy analysis.  And yet, one day you’ll find yourself walking, daydreaming, or — in this most recent case — in the shower, and the path becomes clear.

When I am most productive, I find that the issues that are top of mind are the fundamental ones to my job or life. When I’m flailing, my top of mind issues are unimportant or, even worse, distractions. I have found that by being aware that my mind is wandering off into unproductive territory, there are some things I can do to pull it back into focus on the thing that matters.

Graham, founder of the venture capital firm Y Combinator, notes the challenge:

“I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind. . . .You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.” (emphasis added)

Disputes and slights are one of the primary areas that Graham identifies as dangerous territory for your thoughts.

“Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.”

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

Think about your shower this morning and the idea or ideas rummaging around your brain.  Was it the most important focus for you, a key to getting ahead and accomplishing your goals?  Or, are you giving up valuable real estate in your brain to undeserving distractions?  Are you letting others control your life? Are you letting the wrong things become critical to you?

Think about that the next time you step into the shower.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

What’s the Rush?

Oxfords

Walking shoes – to move at the speed of life

Spring is a season when the pace quickens. To snap out of the winter doldrums, we feel the need to rush.  Projects are suddenly due.  Deadlines appear to be on top of us every day.  Travel demands increase. In the rushing rhythm of the days, I find it necessary to maintain my perspective if I’m going to keep my equilibrium.  Thankfully, I came across an essay which helped me put the pressure to rush in perspective.

Robyn Ryle is a sociologist and writer who I first met when she spoke at our National Main Street conference.  Robyn lives in Madison, Indiana — one of the country’s great Main Street communities — where she teaches sociology, writes books on changing notions of gender, and blogs about place (among other topics) on the web site You Think Too Much.  There is wisdom in her tales of life away from the coasts.  As I read her essay on driving the speed limit, I immediately felt myself slow down.

“Today I picked up my book of daily yoga and read, ‘Today, drive the speed limit.’ That was all.

It wasn’t very profound compared to other days when I’ve contemplated gratefulness or stated out loud my intention for the day or cultivated my inner child. Just, ‘Drive the speed limit.’ I guess if you’re coming up with a different yoga meditation for every day of the year, you might very well run dry by October, I thought.

I am not what you would call a speed demon. I certainly drive faster than my husband. I’ll admit that sometimes when I’m riding with him I stare at the speedometer pointedly, and he is kind enough to ignore me. I am one of those people who is annoyed if the person in front of me on the road is driving the actual speed limit. ‘Who do they think they are?’ I wonder. ‘Don’t they know that you’re supposed to go at least 5-10 miles over the speed limit? It’s, like, a rule.’

But my book of daily yoga has not led me astray yet, so I got in the car and drove the speed limit. Thirty miles an hour on 2nd Street downtown, which was not so hard. Thirty miles an hour on Main Street was harder, but I did it. I slowed down. And I thought.

When someone drives slow in front of me, I get angry. I feel they have violated some inherent right of mine to go fast. To get to the next place. To move on. To get it over with and on to the next thing. Driving the speed limit it occurred to me that this is crazy.

First, I have no god-given right to go fast and, second, why do I want to? What’s the rush?”

What’s the rush, indeed?  A quote incorrectly attributed to John Lennon makes the point that “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”  Taking the time to move at the speed of life — and think — is counter-intuitive to how we should address our over-crowded schedules and pressing deadlines.  But it works. Rushing to finish up projects to get to the next thing doesn’t make them better and often makes them worse.

Traffic School

Slow Down

It was Edward Abbey who memorably said, “Life is already too short to waste on speed.”

Take the time to travel at the speed limit. Take the time to travel at the speed of life. And have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Have the Courage to Change Your Mind

By the time I first met John Buchanan, he had finished his eight terms in the U.S. Congress as a Republican representing Birmingham, Alabama. This third generation Baptist minister was long past the time when he was targeted for defeat in 1980 by the Moral Majority.  He was even past his term as the founding chairman of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way.  When I met John and his wife Betty in the 1990s, they were the loving and selfless grandparents to a granddaughter who was in a youth group with our twins.  However, their intellect, courage, sense of public service, and generous spirit were still very much in evidence in everything they touched.

Congressman John Buchanan

The Honorable John H. Buchanan, Jr. (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Betty died in 2011, and I was thinking about our connections and their lives after I heard the news of John’s passing on March 5th at the age of 89.  John had the courage to change his mind, even at the cost of his political future.  First elected in the Republican wave of 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, John began as a conventional Southern conservative.  But Ellie Silverman’s obituary in the Washington Post described the changes that took place in John over time.

“At first, Mr. Buchanan had a conservative record and voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his experience at the biracial Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest Washington led to a shift in his views.

‘When you’re deeply involved in a biracial entity, you think of people as brothers and sisters,’ he told The Washington Post in 1976. ‘Then the denial of rights of my brothers and sisters becomes an infringement of my rights as well.’”

As he moved away from his traditional political orthodoxy on civil rights issues, John supported landmark legislation such as Title IX, which required equality for women in college and university programs, including sports, and he called for full voting rights for residents of Washington, D.C.  The irony of having this Baptist minister — the son and grandson of Baptist ministers — successfully targeted for defeat by the Moral Majority was not lost on many who knew him.

I’ve quoted the writer Maria Popova before, who suggested that we should allow ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our mind.  In John’s case, changing his mind was more than an uncomfortable luxury. It was courageous and — because he acted on his convictions — it came with consequences.  However, as with many difficult decisions which are based on the stories we tell of our American past and how we treat our fellow citizens, the effect can be liberating. Silverman describes the effect on John in her obituary.

“’I’ve become more emancipated as I’ve gone along,’ Mr. Buchanan said in 1976, describing the evolution of his political views.  ‘I’m at the point in my political career where I’d rather lose . . . than fail to do what I think is right. I won’t compromise on civil rights any more. I can’t do it, I will not do it.’”

All of us face our own challenges in work and life.  It is good to be reminded that we can follow the example of those who have gone before and have the courage to change our minds when that’s the right thing to do.

Rest in Peace, John H. Buchanan, Jr.

DJB