All posts tagged: Rebecca Solnit

My 2018 Year-End Reading List

As 2018 draws to a close, I’m sharing this list of the books I read over the past twelve months.  Since returning from sabbatical early in 2016, I committed to reading more, and to seek out a wider range of works beyond my normal histories and biographies. Here are the treasures I found on my reading shelf this past year. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I began the year with a work of fiction. 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. Tears …

Connections

When I was a freshman in college, I waited tables at a local restaurant and bar in Nashville. Waiting tables is hard and humbling work, which I highly recommend.  Once you’ve experienced it you’ll forever be mindful of 1) how you treat wait staff, and 2) how to tip properly.  When I was leaving at the end of the school year, the manager, Bill, and his sister Ruth invited me over for a drink.  At the end of the night, Ruth gave me a hug and said, “Have a good life!”  This was the pre-Facebook/email/Instagram days, and she meant it as a heartfelt farewell to someone she’d probably never see again.  I stuck that sentiment in the back of my mind. But to paraphrase folksinger Arlo Guthrie halfway through the 17-minute-long Alice’s Restaurant, this isn’t a post about waiting tables. This is a blog post about the emotional and intellectual value of personal connections. One of our staff members had her final day at the National Trust coincide with the last day of our 2018 …

How Do We Know What We Know?

In recent weeks, a friend acquired a book by Rebecca Solnit, an author I admire.  I immediately offered to read it at the same time, in order to discuss it together.  Having read the book several years before, why return to this one when I had so many unread books in piles around the house? The answer comes in understanding how we know what we know.  That’s been on my mind recently as I’ve thought about topics as wide ranging as cultural norms, untold histories, political divisiveness, and generational perspectives. Just how do we—as humans—shape our personal world view? In rereading Solnit’s book, I came to the material at a very different time in my life and that of our country. I had vaguely remembered parts of the book from my first reading, but frankly there were whole sections that seemingly had escaped my notice or understanding the first time through.  But I also realized how much more of the book aligned with my current “model” of how the world works. And I don’t think …

Sometimes the Only Way is the Long One

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 Walking.  An 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 …

Celebrating International Women’s Day

I made a resolution in 2016 to return and read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me once or twice a year, just to keep that clear voice and perspective front of mind.  International Women’s Day seemed to be a special moment this year to act on that resolution. I took time today during my lunch break to read, once again, of the silencing that occurs when men talk over women.  As Solnit phrases it, “Being told that, categorically, he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light.”  We are living in an age when our civic discourse shows just how serious the impacts of this silencing can be.  Solnit ends the postscript to the original essay by noting, “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.” I think about this dynamic a great deal.  When I’m learning from and celebrating the accomplishments of women, I am …

Joy is a Fine Initial Act of Insurrection

Over the past 15 years, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit has written three collections of essays that have recently been published (or republished) by Haymarket Books as a trilogy for our times. This inexplicable week we’ve just experienced seems as good a time as any to consider Solnit’s thoughts on hope in the face of despair, and to take the long view which she favors. In the first of the series, Hope in the Dark (originally published in 2004), Solnit talks about the demands of hope and then notes that joy is a way to support the work which hope demands. “Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.  And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Though initially written during the Iraq war of 2004, I thought of how much more our politics in 2017 aspire to make us fearful, alienated, and isolated — seen most recently with Donald Trump’s Long Island speech about cities as “bloodstained killing fields.”  Hope and …

Perfection is a Stick With Which to Beat the Possible

A poem by Kilian McDonnell for a midsummer Monday. Perfection, Perfection I have had it with perfection. I have packed my bags, I am out of here. Gone.   As certain as rain will make you wet, perfection will do you in.   It droppeth not as dew upon the summer grass to give liberty and green joy.   Perfection straineth out the quality of mercy, withers rapture at its birth.   Before the battle is half begun, cold probity thinks it can’t be won, concedes the war.   I’ve handed in my notice, given back my keys, signed my severance check, I quit.   Hints I could have taken: Even the perfect chiseled form of Michelangelo’s radiant David squints,   the Venus de Milo has no arms, the Liberty Bell is cracked. We’ve all known grumpy perfectionists “who hold that anything less than total victory is failure, a premise that makes it easy to give up at the start or to disparage the victories that are possible.  This is Earth.  It will never be …