All posts tagged: Rebecca Solnit

Hearing feedback

Stop talking and listen

Old habits can be very hard to break. Case in point: my difficulty in breaking out of the mold of being a stereotypical male. I’m reminded of this far too often and in many different ways. However, one of the more consistent occurrences involves listening. Or, to be more accurate, not listening. The stereotype is that men are encouraged, and even trained, to be the center of attention. It is a stereotype, in this case, because it is usually true. Studies show that boys are called on more in school, that boys grow up to become men who talk more in meetings, and that we interrupt women more than we interrupt men. Most of the time I fall into this pattern of interruption because I’m not thinking. But a few times I do it knowingly and with the best of intentions. That was the case earlier this year when I found myself talking over a friend to “help her” explain something that I thought might be difficult to articulate. Not because she isn’t a smart, …

Lincoln Memorial

All men are created equal, except . . .

Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter in 1855 to Joshua F. Speed that became famous for the future president’s stand against the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party. Lincoln and Speed met during the 1830s and remained friends even though their views differed on slavery. Speed grew up on a plantation and owned slaves. A turning point in Lincoln’s life that rekindled his interest in politics was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and opening the territories to slavery. It was in this context that the 1855 letter was written. In referring to the nativist Know-Nothing Party—which came out of a secret society in the 1850s and was primarily anti-Catholic, xenophobic, and hostile to immigration—Lincoln used his letter to make his point of view very clear: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. . . .Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except …

Nats Rainbow

Cynicism vs. hope

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve. Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays).  Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head. “Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.” Change and progress require hard work, and cynics …

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 …

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 …

Lunch in Claremont with Claire

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 …

Trinity Church Labyrinth

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 …