60 Lessons From 60 Years

Here are 60 things I’ve learned in my (now) 60 years of life:

1.  Discipline is remembering what you really want.

2.  The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them. (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and others)

3.  Baseball is (much) better than football.

4.  I have been lucky in love.

5.  Few things sound better than a solo acoustic guitar played by Doc Watson (Deep River Blues), Tony Rice, (Shenandoah), or Norman Blake (Church Street Blues). Or, if you want to go next generation, Bryan Sutton (Texas Gales).

6.  Good things can come from bad situations, if you’ll stop wallowing in your sorrow and seek out the good.

Tom Brown 1948

Tom Brown, 1948

7.  I have become my father.  I repeat many of the same stories. (Did you know that I paid more for my last car than for my first house?)  I read funny articles from the newspaper out loud at the dining room table, sometimes to the consternation of my wife and children. I cackle when I laugh. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Southern liberal who believes that government can make our life better, and I have TVA to prove it. I have good-looking legs, even at age 60. I can’t see worth a damn without my glasses and – if you ask Candice – my hearing is suspect. I think Molly Ivins (God rest her soul) and Gail Collins tell more truth in one short newspaper column than any politician tells in a book-length campaign bio. I love to read. Body and Soul and the St. Louis Blues – the only two songs my father could play on the piano – are still among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.  I wish I had more of my father’s faith and compassion, but I still have 30 years to work on that and catch up with him.  I think it is pretty neat, at age 60, to have a father who turns 90 this year – especially when that father is Tom Brown.

8.  I will cry at the movies, so I need to bring a handkerchief.

9.  Neckties are a highly overrated – and in my case an increasingly irrelevant – piece of clothing.

10.  All things considered, I’d rather live in a community full of old buildings.

Downtown Staunton

Downtown Staunton, VA

11.  The movie Selma was not – in my opinion – the “Best Picture” of the year in 2015, but it was the most important.  Everyone (and especially Southerners) should see it. We forget too quickly how difficult it was to attain rights for all, and how much pressure there is, even today, to restrict or even take away those rights.  We are nowhere near a post-racial society.  I grew up in the South in the 1960s. I remember those images on the television. I saw how blacks were treated then.  It was terrible. In some ways, it is still terrible. After seeing Selma, Southerners should also visit the High Church of Doing the Right Thing – otherwise known as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  We can do better.

12.  A colleague gave me this big, 1950s-style ashtray for my office with a quote attributed to Amelia Earhart that says, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” He thought it sounded like me, and I couldn’t agree more.

13.  Stephen Carter, in his book Civility, captured much that is wrong in America today when he said, “The language of the marketplace, the language of wanting, of winning, of simply taking – the language of self – (has supplanted) the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens.”  The best description I’ve read of Libertarians – who epitomize the language of self – is that they’ve politicized the protests of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

14. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”  (Jane Jacobs)  I love old buildings.  I always have.  We grew up in an early 20th century house on Main Street in Murfreesboro, and I loved visiting my Grandmother’s Victorian-era house on Second Avenue in Franklin. Candice and I renovated two old houses in Staunton, where we spent the first half of our married life.  Old houses are especially nice for putting you in a physical and spiritual continuum – there were people in that house before you, and you realize you are just a steward of this place for the next generation.  You can connect with the joys and hardships of those who came before, and you can prepare the house for those who come after.  The best places I’ve been in life have a real connection to the past, and yet feel remarkably livable for the modern world.

WWJJD T-shirt

Andrew’s WWJJD (What Would Jane Jacobs Do?) t-shirt

15.  Education, experiences, and travel trump “things” hands down. When you have a limited amount of money to spend, go for the things that feed the soul and widen your perspective, not the things that will collect dust in your house or take up more space in your garage (or, God forbid, a storage bin).

16.  “Baseball is like church; many attend but few understand.”  (Wes Westrum)

17.  Take the train whenever possible.  It is civilized and, short of walking and riding a bike, it is the most environmentally friendly way to travel. I am writing this right now on a train home from New York City.  In a few minutes I’ll wander back to the cafe car. I ride a train to work every day.  Even with Amtrak working as a second-class citizen when it comes to transportation systems and the Washington Metro suffering breakdowns from lack of funding and maintenance, train travel still beats the alternatives.  Unfortunately, American mass transit is dying. Imagine how well our transportation system could run if people demanded, and politicians funded, train travel.

18. Try to see yourself as others see you.  In more than half of my career, I’ve worked with an executive assistant.  The good ones – who are perceptive and honest – see you in a myriad of situations and understand you in ways that few people do.  One of the best I had the privilege of working with wrote what I took to calling a “Users Guide to DJB” when she left.  It was rather eye-opening to read.

19.  When you buy something you plan to keep for a while (shoes, cars, a home), buy the best quality (not necessarily quantity) you can afford, without overextending your budget.  This approach is why Candice and I tend to keep our (one) car for a decade or more, and why we raised two children in a house with about 1800 square feet. Oh, and you need much less “stuff” than you have.

20.  Those who accept life and their own limitations are likely to find more in life.

21.  The 9th inning of the 5th game of the 2012 NLDS never happened.

22.  If YouTube had existed when I was young, I don’t know if I would be a better guitar player, but I know I would have saved myself a lot of trouble picking up the needle and putting it back (and back, and back) in the grove to try to learn that special lick.

23.  “Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental” is good advice I learned from my Grandmother.  (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown.)  My Grandmother worked hard her entire life, but as you can see in the picture below, my Grandmother was very pretty as a young bride.  Naturally, I inherited my big ears from the Brown side of the family.

Grandmother and Granddaddy Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my Grandmother and Grandfather

24.  Fear isn’t a solid foundation for any healthy relationship.  So why is so much right-wing fundamentalism based on a fear of God’s wrath?  In my experience, She cares for all her children, not just the ones who have drunk the Kool-Aid.

25.  Speaking of fear, Kris Kristofferson hit the nail on the head about hatred of things we don’t understand in Jesus Was a Capricorn. Truer words than “Reckon we’d just nail him up if he came down again” were never spoken. Thanks to Darrell Scott for resurrecting this song (pun intended) on his wonderful Modern Hymns CD.

26. Don’t you just love it that 2015’s Super Bowl (#49) was hailed by many (I’m looking at you Sally Jenkins) as the “best Super Bowl ever.”  What did it feature?  One confirmed concussion, and one probable concussion that the Patriots covered up.  (The Onion had a telling headline:  “Super Bowl Confetti Made Entirely From Shredded Concussion Studies.”) A horrendous arm injury by one player.  Oh, and a fight in the end zone on the next to last play.  Yep, that about sums up the NFL these days.

27.  I think Wondrous Love is just about the best hymn ever – in either version (traditional as heard below from Blue Highway, or reworked for the Episcopal hymnal).  I hope my family remembers – when I’ve gone to my reward – that I want it sung at any service/celebration in my memory.  And remember to sing the last verse (in the Episcopal hymnal) a cappella“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on” sounds incredible when unaccompanied.

28.  The intelligent mind is able to live with paradox.  Such as the paradox of why I’m proud to be a Southerner. (Read this piece from The Bitter Southerner, as it sums up my views on the subject pretty well.) Yes, we have this awful racial history that continues to this day, which I wish our region could overcome. And yes, we have bourbon.

Bulleit bourbon (photo credit: The Adventures of Sarah & Derrick)

(Photo Credit: The Adventures of Sarah and Derrick)

29.  Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.

30.  When you are paying the bill at a restaurant out of your own pocket, tip at the high-end of the scale – 20% – unless the service is awful and the server is rude.  If the service is great, consider giving a bit more.  This is especially true at breakfast.  Many people don’t understand this idea, and it is generally because they have never waited tables.  Waiting tables is very hard work, when done right.  I did it for a year almost 40 years ago, and I still remember the long hours on my feet, the late nights, the times when you do a terrific job and the diners still stiff you.  It never hurts to thank someone, and tipping a bit more than expected is a way of saying thanks.  (The tip up to the norm is payment for service.)  This lesson doesn’t apply in places like Copenhagen, where they pay service staff a living wage. But I think I’ll go to my grave in the U.S. with service staff just scraping by.  Many waiters and waitresses are working two jobs (or more) just to cover basic costs of living.  Tipping at the high-end of the scale is one way I can help them out.  (And while it is a little different, I also recommend tipping street musicians – or buskers – when they are good.)

NOLA Street Musicians

A New Orleans Jazz Trio

31.  If you are going to share a car with someone for more than two weeks, it would be hard to beat Claire as a traveling companion.

Claire and DJB at Glacier

Hiking in Glacier National Park with Claire as part of our two-week cross-country trip in 2014

32.  “I believe that ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth.” (Molly Ivins)

33.  Chris Thile is from another world.  There is no other explanation.

Chris Thile at Merlefest 2012

Chris Thile with the Punch Brothers at Merlefest 2012

34.  The Christian Right is neither.

35.  I definitely “married up.” Candice is very intentional about our life together, as a couple and as a family.  I would probably miss half (or more) of the wonders of our time together, but she has helped me see the little grace notes that make up our life.  Almost thirty-three years later, I would do it all again.

Candice and David celebrate their 32nd anniversary in Copenhagen, March 20, 2014

With Candice, on our 32nd anniversary, in Copenhagen (March 2014)

36.  Visiting all the Major League Baseball stadiums is a worthy bucket list goal for any red-blooded American.  I’m proud  to say I am more than halfway there.

37.  Everyone should have the chance to be surrounded by – and learn from – passionate and talented people at least once in their lifetime. My entire work career has been one when I’ve been surrounded by such individuals.  However, on the personal side, I was lucky in my “earlier life” to sing as part of the Shenandoah Valley musical group Canticum Novum.  I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano as Custer LaRue, who was one of our eight-to-twelve singers (depending on the gig).  Among other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (I should probably add that she sang a solo at Claire and Andrew’s baptismal service!) I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie, Lucy, Kay, Peter, John, and Dick, (plus others) under Carol Taylor’s direction.

38.  We have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”  (Daniel Kahneman)

39.  “Bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?” You should watch the movie Bull Durham twice a year – in February/March, to get your juices going, and in November, to put the season you’ve just lived through in perspective.  Best. Baseball. Movie. Ever.

40.  I still miss my mother every day.

41.  Barbecue is a gift from the gods.  One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to travel to cities all across the U.S.  When I can, I eat at great barbecue places, such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City and The Rendezvous in Memphis.

42.  My father (as he nears age 90) likes to say that growing old is not for wimps.  I’m beginning to worry that I understand what he means.

43.  Nineteen years out of twenty, the lowliest man on a World Series-winning baseball team can give better quotes than the Super Bowl-winning coach.  Baseball players and managers speak with eloquence and  intelligence (even if it is Yogi Berra-type eloquence).  Football players and coaches either talk gibberish (“We used the cover 2 and flex”) or just grunt.

44.  One thing I have not figured out in life is how I happened to have such wonderful, talented, and thoughtful children. It is a mystery. Andrew and Claire taught me so much before they turned 21, and I continue to learn life lessons from them.  I feel blessed and humbled every day.

Andrew and Claire's 21st Birthday

Andrew and Claire’s 21st Birthday

45.  There are many things said in churches that I find hard to believe.  What I do believe is that love is more important than doctrine.

46.  World War II was shorter than the NBA playoffs.

47.  I was fortunate to grow up in a town where I could walk or bike to school, church, the grocery store, and my job.  It was a great way to live as a child.  I have since lived in three towns that were compact, walkable (or had great transit), and human-scaled. My children can get around major cities all over the world because they learned to walk, bike or take the bus and train here in Washington. I feel we have given them a great perspective on how to live in community.

48. When someone needs help – a word, a card, a lift, a meal, a changed tire – try to be there for them. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of each of these things, and I can tell you how much they mean to both the giver and the receiver.

49.  “Cowardice is easy. Courage is hard.” (Ron Johnson, Missouri Highway Patrol, after his work in Ferguson)

50.  “There is no substitute for excellence – not even success.”  (Thomas Boswell)

51.  There is no crying in baseball.  Oh, and there should never be a pitch clock.

52.  It is wonderful when your children take up your interests.  I have always loved photography and music.  So I was thrilled when Claire showed a real talent for photography (especially black and white) and Andrew likewise showed a talent for music.  We do our job as parents when we open up the world’s possibilities to our children.  I simply count myself lucky that among their many talents are two that I can understand and appreciate.

Lake at Mohonk Mountain House by Claire

The Lake at Mohonk Mountain House (Photo credit: Claire Brown)

53.  I have been loved by some wonderful people. All I can say is thank you.

54.  Never underestimate the impact one person can have on the world. Dean Smith, the famous basketball coach for the North Carolina Tarheels, died last month. One of the most amazing things I heard about Coach Smith through the many tributes that poured out in early February is that the Baptist Church where he worshiped and that shaped his advocacy for minorities was booted out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 for licensing a gay man to minister.  (Being booted out of today’s SBC wins “bonus points” from me, and I grew up a Southern Baptist.) His former pastor said of Smith, “He was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church – being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation.”  I also read a great appreciation in the Washington Post by John Feinstein.  After asking Smith to provide more details about his helping to desegregate lunch counters in North Carolina in the 1950s, Feinstein recounted that Smith asked him who told him the story.  Told that it was his pastor, Smith responded that he “wished he hadn’t done that.”  Feinstein replied that Smith should be proud of that work. And here was the kicker: Feinstein wrote, “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.’” 

55.  There have been times when I did not get something I thought I really wanted.  But in most cases, I found something better.  (Or, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, “You can’t always get what you want…but you just might find, you get what you need.”)

56.  I have always enjoyed a wide variety of music.  I’ve been privileged to play bluegrass and to sing Josquin des Prez…and lots of things in-between.  I subscribe to the words of the immortal Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music.  Good music and the other kind.”

57.  I am fine with the fact that not everyone wants to hear my opinion and is eager to know what’s on my mind. Opinions are like noses…everyone has them.

58.  I believe in the Church of Baseball.

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. Thank you.

60.  Savor every moment. It passes faster than you can ever imagine.

(With hopefully much) More to come…


Wise Women Writers You Probably Don’t Know (But Should)

Writers Block

(Note:  This post was updated on March 10, 2018)

I came to a realization last evening that the writers I most enjoy reading on the web are (almost) all women.

And once I came to that realization, I began thinking about my favorite writers you probably don’t know, but should.  Five names quickly popped into my head and just like that, this blog post was born.

These women are very different, but there is wisdom to be found in each one’s work.  I have regular communication and interaction with three but have met all five. Three are teachers (and one of the three teaches writing in Hawaii, Havana, Paris, and Washington – I’m assuming she doesn’t get paid much, but there are other benefits!). One is a colleague at work who is early in her craft. The other is my former Rector.  All five make a living – one way or the other – with their writing. Four of the five have blogs, which you’ll see to the right under my (new) category of Reading Well:  Writers I Enjoy.  (I would have titled this blogroll category simply Writers I Enjoy, but in the WordPress formula of listing all categories alphabetically, that put it after what I wanted as my last category: Whatever Else Tickles My Fancy.)

So let me introduce you – alphabetically – to these five wise writers.

Elizabeth Bobrick has made an appearance before in More to Come… when I came across one of my favorite sports essays that isn’t really about sports.  Her Oriole Magic is a terrific piece of writing about a PhD classics student at Johns Hopkins (Bobrick) who stumbles across the endlessly fascinating game of baseball in the midst of a Baltimore Oriole drive to the World Series and – in the process – discovers something about herself.  Our family had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth and her husband at Wesleyan University, where she is now a classics professor, while the twins were on the college search. We’ve sent an occasional email back-and-forth over time. Elizabeth received her PhD in Classical Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Fiction, Salon, Creative Nonfiction, in the anthologies The Anatomy of Baseball and The City as Comedy, and other publications. She has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Missouri, and Wesleyan University.

Elizabeth’s website can be found here.  You should take the time to read Oriole Magic, an excerpt from a forthcoming memoir entitled The Myth of the Moonand a wonderfully funny piece of Elizabeth’s entitled Die Santa! Die!  This last one fits perfectly with my world view (we even had the same remedy to Santa, which is to emphasize St. Nicholas Day), and you’ll get a taste of it in this excerpt:

“The once innocent saint who put candy in children’s shoes on Dec. 6th and encouraged secret acts of kindness has long since become the incarnate spirit of getting. He is a debased pusher for that peculiarly American idea that you get more things, more toys, more clothes, more candy, because you are “good,” not because it just turned out that way due to matters of chance, such as what kind of job, or values, your parents have.

Case in point. Last year, we were visiting friends a few days after Christmas. ‘Look what Santa brought me!’ cried the sole child occupant of the household, gesturing toward her playroom, an Ali Baba cave of new toys. Our eldest daughter, then 7, mentally compared her own ample but relatively modest stack, and sighed, almost to herself, ‘I guess I wasn’t that good this year.’

You could have knocked me over. ‘You’re not that good any year!’ I wanted to shout. ‘Neither is Lily! No kid is!’

Where had our daughter gotten the idea that if she’d been better behaved, she’d get more presents? Not from my husband or me. We’d never waged an active anti-Santa campaign, but neither had we ever told her that being ‘good’ made you Santa’s special friend. We left her on her own to figure out what she’d like to believe about Santa. Big mistake.

Now Mr. Ho Ho Ho had made my daughter feel bad. This brought on the mother bear response, one which I could growl only internally: ‘Die, Santa. Die.’

But what could I tell her? The truth? ‘Lily has more presents than you do because her daddy walked out on her mommy and feels guilty; her mommy is trying to show her that life without daddy will be just as nice; and her mommy’s mommy and her daddy’s mommy are trying to show who’s the best grandma.’ Or should I just let it go with a Mae West-ian ‘Goodness had nothing to do with it.’”

Every now and then I just pop Elizabeth’s name into my Google search and see what comes up.  It is always worth the time.

Janet Hulstrand is a dear friend who is a writer, editor,and teacher based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her essays and articles have been published in Bonjour Paris, the Christian Science Monitor, International Educator, Smithsonian.com and many other publications.  Since 1997 she has created, directed, and taught literature courses for the Education Abroad programs at Hunter and Queens Colleges of the City University of New York in Paris, Hawaii, Florence, and Cuba: she also teaches literary and cultural classes at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC.  Janet is the co-director of The Essoyes School, and she blogs at Writing from the Heart, Reading for the RoadJanet has recently joined the Brown family for Christmas Day dinners, and this is a tradition that – from our point of view – we hope she continues for a long time.  Talking with Janet – even when you haven’t seen her for months – is always a joy.  She is so thoughtful, and her worldview is so wide.

Janet’s most recent blog post is a wonderful remembrance of her friend – the ex-pat Parisian poet – James A. Emmanuel.  Janet struck up a friendship with Emmanuel when he would come and read to her students.  This is a lovely, and loving, tribute.

I’ve also enjoyed talking with Janet about her recent trips to Havana to teach a course entitled Cuba: A Literary Adventure.  My experience in Havana dates to November of 2001, when I spent a week in the city with several preservation colleagues to meet with Cuban officials and discuss conservation issues in the old city.  Janet’s essay, Lessons Learned in Cuba takes as its jumping off point a comment made to her by a client just before her first trip:  “You’ll love it, and it will break your heart.”

“Some of the lessons you learn in Cuba can’t really be learned until you are home again.

Then, when you have been home  less than 24 hours, you realize that you have just spent three weeks in a place where you have heard hardly a cross word, no fighting at all, and have experienced the notable absence of most of the ugly sounds of urban life you are accustomed to as part of the daily background of your life. You realize you have spent three weeks in a place where there is just much less ambient tension in the air than what you’re used to.

That is because you realize that in the space of the past hour your body has tensed up, as you absorb the negative energy of an aggressive driver practically running you off the road, laying on his horn as he tears past you; that the couple arguing angrily as they close up the iron grate of a store you are walking by, has caused a kind of general fear of imminent violence, and tension, to reenter your life. You can feel your breathing becoming labored, your heart racing. You realize that this life is no good for you, or for anyone.

It is then that you remember what one little Cuban boy chose to say, when asked by one of your students what message he would like to send with her to New York. ‘Aqui nosotros no estamos tan bien: pero estamos felizes.’  (‘Here, we’re not doing so well: but we’re happy.’)

Coming from a country where the reverse is so often true–we are awash in wealth and everything that money can buy, and we’re still not happy–these words go right straight to the heart.

‘You’ll love it and it will break your heart,’ one of my clients said to me a few days before I left on my first trip to Havana.

I wasn’t sure what he meant by the second part of that statement, but  as it has turned out, his words were true. I do love Cuba, and it does make me sad.”

Read the entire essay.  It is thought-provoking, as all good writing should be.

The other thing I like about Janet is that she regularly comments on posts I put on More to Come…. I only wish I could write as well as these five women, but I tend to dash off my posts without taking the time to polish them, and I don’t have the innate skill that let’s me get away with such sloppiness.  But Janet – bless her heart – always has a kind word that just makes my day!

Deborah Meister is the former Rector at St. Alban’s Parish in Washington, DC, where the Browns have been members since 1998 and Deborah was Rector from 2011 – 2017. She is the former Rector of Christ Church in New Brunswick, N.J. and a graduate of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.  And while her title was Rector – and she does all the duties associated with being in charge of a large urban parish admirably – I also thought of Deborah as our own “writer in residence.”

When Frank Wade – one of the great preachers in the Episcopal Church (or any church, for that matter) – retired after more than two decades at St. Alban’s, I thought I’d never again have the opportunity to read and hear thoughtful, challenging, and serious sermons and essays from one individual on a regular basis again in my life.  For let’s face it, many priests (and certainly most “preachers”) are Johnny one-notes with a limited worldview. But when Deborah entered our life more than two years ago, it was clear that we had landed a remarkable talent who – on top of everything else – was a very good writer!

Deborah’s sermons are consistently strong and often terrific. She has an economy of language that those of us of a certain age sitting in very hard pews appreciate.  She can be very funny, as with her opening paragraphs of this December 1st, 2013 sermon:

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ (Ps 122)

Yesterday, a ritual took place in my old home of Alabama. It began early in the morning, or even before the first light, when men woke to prepare the sacramental foods: chili, grilled meat, and cold beer. It continued with women and children putting on ceremonial vestures in shades of crimson and burnt orange. Together, they packed their cars, then headed in droves for congested highways, traveling for hours to the sacred (or unholy) town of Auburn.

When they arrived, thousands opened their vehicles, gathered around their tailgates to partake of the ritual meal and it’s attendant libations, then streamed into the house of worship, sang stirring music that gathered them together into one people before the start of The Offering.They plunged in wholeheartedly, hanging with bated breath upon the fortunes of their brothers upon the field of honor, crying out with a mighty roar when they saw moments of excellence or of tragedy. For a few hours, they were One People, with one common purpose, united in heart and mind and strength — and when they went home, they went renewed (at least if they were from Auburn).

I still remember my surprise when I moved to Birmingham. I thought (with some anxiety) that I was moving to the Bible Belt, where they worshiped Jeezus; I found I had moved to the Gridiron Belt. I learned that 20,000 people came to watch the high school games in my town (that’s 20,000 out of a local population of 20,300), that we needed to tape a football schedule to every computer monitor in the parish so that we didn’t accidentally plan something at church against a big game. Parish legend told of a time that a wedding had been scheduled against the Iron Bowl; the church was booked, the reception planned, the invitations in the mail, when the groom realized what they had done — and changed it to another day, service and reception and all. (A note to any of you planning to get married: if your future spouse tries anything like that, think twice!) But the groom had realized one thing: that on Iron Bowl day in Alabama, the wedding wasn’t going to be anyone’s first priority — not even his.

Priorities, of course, are what I’m talking about. What drew half the state to Auburn yesterday is the same thing that drew ancient Israel to gather themselves to the Temple three times a year for the great holy festivals of Israel: those gatherings gave them their identity, welded them together into one people, lifted them from the petty concerns of their lives and made them part of a great people united around a common purpose — to be the people of God. They were God’s team– the ones who wore God’s fringes and played by God’s rules and won God’s battles against the teams of other gods.

We don’t like to use language like that today; it sounds jingoistic, as if we’re saying that other people are not God’s team. (That’s not what I’m saying; we’ll come back to that later.) But there’s a lot in that framework that rewards examination…”

One day after the classic Iron Bowl game (remember, this was the game that Auburn won by returning a field goal attempt 107 yards on the final play), she had captured it perfectly and set us up for a lesson.

Deborah’s sermons are very good and I’ll often go back and read excerpts, but I really enjoy reading her shorter posts such as she now posts in her blog Seeking the Sacred. One posted in 2013 in the parish blog, entitled Trust is a good example of how, in a few short paragraphs, she challenges my assumptions and makes me think.

“Last Tuesday, I woke long before dawn to catch a plane and travel to Boston, where I was going to make my annual retreat. I had not slept well the night before, and was pretty bleary-eyed by the time I got to security, which may explain what happened next. The TSA agent looked at my ticket and muttered something like, ‘Are you acquainted with TSA pre-check?’ Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go again. The pulling aside, the pat-down, people going through my luggage, looking at my private things…. ‘Uh, hunh,’ I muttered, and moved on.

When I came toward the body scanners, the TSA agent called out, ‘She’s pre-check!’ and they waved me through. I stood there a few minutes, waiting for someone to come to me with a wand and conduct the search, but nobody paid me any attention. Finally, I shrugged, collected my things, and continued to the boarding area, where I flipped out my smartphone to try to figure out what had just happened. It turned out that pre-check was a status that got you out of being searched. I sat there in shock, imagining all the bad people who might now be able to get onto a plane. Finally, a word drifted into my mind, a word I do not usually associate with travel: trust. I was reeling because I had been given trust.

It came to me then that our world is not ordered by trust, or for trust. Our travel, our commerce, even our marriages, all seem to have been taken over by contingency planning in case we fail one another or do not meet our obligations. We have pre-nuptual agreements, lawsuits, security screenings — all designed to hold us accountable for the malice in our hearts.

How does this culture shape the way we think about God? Too often, perhaps, we imagine God as The Enforcer, a kind of psychotic Santa Claus who makes lists of every mistake we make, every bad thought we have, so that he can present us with an eternal lump of coal on the great Day of Judgment.

But what if God’s not like that at all? What if God is not an Enforcer to be feared, but an admirer to be loved? What if God trusts us, really trusts us, and is making lists every day of all the ways we have been hurt, of all the extenuating circumstances in our lives, of all the ways we can be let off the hook? What if God has already decided to embrace us, just because God loves us?

Then you’d have to call him Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.

God with us. Think about it.”

Deborah, along with the final two writers, also had a recent post about the snow and winter. I want to share all three posts so you can see how different viewpoints can come together around one topic.  Here is Deborah’s recent Snow Day:

“When I was a child, I prayed for them. Lazy days with heaps of snow, enough to make snow men and snow angels and to flying down the big sledding hill in Chinquapin Park.

When I got to college, I realized — to my shock — that there were none. If you lived on campus (and pretty much all of us did), there was no reason not to hold class. We made up for it, though, with the Freshmen Snowball Fight: hundreds of us out on the lawn between our dorms, and snowballs flying every which way, hitting it-mattered-not-whom. And the laughter, it revived the heart.

Many years later, when I moved to Connecticut from LA, that first good snowfall I walked for miles with my dog in the darkness, all the sounds muffled, the trees and lawns and porches sparkling like diamonds in the streetlights. It was a kind of coming home.

Today, the streets were empty in DC, the schools shuttered, the government offices empty. Driving out early to run a necessary errand that took me out into the Maryland countryside, it came to me that snow days are the closest thing we have, these days, to Sabbath. They confront us with the limits on what we can do, sideline us from our daily activities, help us to see that the world really does go on without us for a day. They liberate us from the insistent clamor of voices telling us what we ‘must’ do, ‘right now.’

For some people, of course, this was no day off. The plow drivers, the EMTs in the ambulances, the emergency room staff, power company workers, all of these found that their work was crucial. Give thanks for them. But, if you are not one of them, savor your time. It is a gift.

It is always a gift, of course. That’s what days like this one show us: the great grace just to be alive, that we do not have to earn it by the sweat of our brow, that it is God’s wish that you enjoy your days on this good earth.

What did you do with your empty hands, your empty time? Did you savor the gift?”

Our mission statement – and coffee cups – at St. Alban’s say that “We welcome the faithful, the seeker, and the doubter….” I often find myself in those last two categories, but I appreciate the fact that Deborah’s words – written and spoken – still have meaning for me.

Julia Rocchi is a young colleague of mine at the National Trust for Historic Preservation who writes and edits for our PreservationNation blog.  Her personal tagline is “Big hair, big mouth, big plans.” And while I haven’t seen the middle attribute, I admire Julia’s passion and love for life and her writing.

A graduate of Syracuse and a current graduate student in writing, Julia – like me – has a personal blog where she can contemplate life outside of work. Unlike me, she works on her craft and posts regularly.  When I take the time to browse through her recent posts, I always find something that makes me stop and think.  Julia writes under the Italian Mother Syndrome moniker and explains her malady as follows:

“Italian Mother Syndrome, more commonly known as IMS. To my knowledge, I am one of the only young women out there afflicted with this rare, untreatable disease.

I was diagnosed with IMS as early as high school. Symptoms included doorway-wide hips, a moustache like my mother’s, and my persistent clarion call of ‘Eat something!!!’ My friends started to suspect something was amiss when I kept getting cast as mothers, old women, and tough broads in school theatrical productions. Thank God they were paying attention–I thought all young women with any sense acted this way. Turns out I was wrong.

In the years since, I’ve slowly come to accept my situation. True, I worry about everything and everybody constantly. I fawn over every baby that crosses my lap. I will prepare fresh, healthy food for anyone whose stomach makes so much as a peep. I adore hugging people, and then smacking them. I was recently cast as a 40-year-old woman in a community play. (The man who played my 18-year-old son was 10 years older than me in real life.) I would rather be married than date. And I will never be a size 2.

But when all is said and done, IMS isn’t such a bad thing to have. It’s made me passionate, earthy, loving, and dedicated. Nobody’s complained about all the free meals and hugs. I’ll take it.

Now for god’s sakes, mangia. (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what am I gonna do witchoo …”

My wife came from a family with an Italian father and an Irish mother. (A mixed marriage!)  I get it.

Julia’s recent Poem for a Snowy Day is the second of three winter-themed posts I’ve included:

The Snowflakes’ Exhortation

We’re urging you to please hang up the day.
Yes, leave it there, beside the entranceway,
no bother if it puddles on the floor.
Hang up your schedule, your to-the-minute plans,
come back outside and downward drift with us
instead, come join our dainty slam dance.
Wind, all tug-of-war tyrannical,
will bellow, try to grab our thin barbed arms
but fail: You can’t contain the infinite.
Our invitation’s in the whispered whoosh,
our rushing, hushing hurtle toward the earth
that never ends in craters or kabooms.
What comes down can’t go up, we like to say.
Accumulate with us, then. Settle in.

Prayer #270: Snow Day

No quiet like snow quiet, an icy genteel finger landing on your lips to signal you to hush. Hush your worries, hush your fears, just watch … watch the swirling curling, the disorderly design, the tiny specks that mine what little light is left and stir dim hours.

May peace be to our hearts what snow is to our eyes — chaos frozen to magnify perfection.


The prayer at the end is one of Julia’s touches that I enjoy most about her writing.  She puts her thoughts together and offers them up. Like most of the women writers I enjoy, Julia tackles the mundane (e.g., why she hates to frame pictures and hang them on the wall), love (e.g., the dating contract), and life in a way that imparts some wisdom along the way.  When I’m reading Julia I have a sense (but just a sense, as she’s a bit older) of what Andrew and Claire are going through as they grow into adulthood.  Having worked with Julia for a while now, I just hope Andrew and Claire approach their lives with the same passion and wonder.

Robyn Ryle and I have met only once, briefly, when she was the speaker at the final session of our National Main Street Conference in Baltimore. Robyn is a sociologist who has written for the Boston Literary Magazine, Little Indiana Quarterly Magazine, and Offbeat Families, among others, and is the author of the textbook Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration which grew out of her teaching experiences at Hanover College.  I can’t tell you how many “gender” discussions we’ve had with Andrew and Claire around the dining room table over the past four years (the number is higher than I can count on two hands), so I’m thinking I should pick up the new edition of Robyn’s textbook that comes out this spring.

The main reason I return again and again to Robyn’s blog – You Think Too Muchis because I was hooked on her writing through the wonderful talk she gave at the Main Street Conference:  The Corner Store and the Coffee Shop:  Sociological Reflections on Place.  She says what I always want to say in my work and writing – only Robyn is much more articulate.  You owe it to yourself to read the entire essay, but here’s a snippet:

“Thank you all so much for having me here today.  It’s good to be in a room full of people who love place, appreciate place and are working to build great places.

I’m here because I’m a sociologist who studies places and community.  But I’m a sociologist who studies places and communities because I’m personally obsessed with places and people and the connections between those things.  I loved places long before I loved sociology, and in fact, my love for places is part of what led me to sociology.

I’m a placist.  This is a word invented by a friend of mine-Sara Patterson-who is a historian of religion and is also obsessed with place, but with place and religion…with sacred places.  Placist is not in the dictionary….yet.  I give you all permission to start using it freely.  There is a word in the dictionary that describes love of place.  Topophila.  Topophilia is a good enough word, but I think topophilia sounds like a disease.  Like something you contract or a kind of madness.  ‘I’m sorry, I can’t come today.  I’ve come down with topophilia.’  Or, ‘I’m a topophiliac.’

I like placist instead.  It is an ideological stance.  It is a conviction, a passion, a movement you choose to align yourself with.  It is an ‘ist.’  My students today are very scared of ‘ists’ and ‘isms,’ but I believe we need more ‘ists’ in the world.  I am a feminist.  An environmentalist.  An anti-racist.  A place-ist.  I am unapologetically committed to places.  My love for them sometimes makes me inarticulate, so let me warn you.  Sometimes I think there are no words good enough for places and what they do.

It’s the end of the conference, and I’m sure you’re on the brink of information overload, so I’m not going to stand up here and summarize sociological research for you.  Instead, I’m going to talk about my own experiences with places and how those experiences are informed by my sociological perspective.  As a sociologist, I’m interested in how places shape social life.  So, I ask questions about how places shape our social interactions and the kind of communities in which we live.  I’m interested in how places create or contribute to existing inequalities and in how places shape our identities, the way we understand who we are and how we fit into the world.  So I’m going to start with the place I’m from and end where the place I live now and consider some of the sociological questions raised by these locations.  I want to think about what the places we create, and the places we preserve and the places we love say about us as people.”

Robyn goes on to describe how an old corner store, since demolished for a parking lot in her hometown, shaped her – and her story reminds me so much of the grocery store that was in a converted church building just down the street from my grandmother’s house in Franklin.  I’ve referenced that store in talks I’ve given over the years and even in a More to Come… blog post, but never as effectively as Robyn does here.

Now it would be nice to include Robyn because she happened to write something once that touches on both my professional life and personal history…but that wouldn’t be enough to get her into my Wise Women Writers post.  Nope, she’s here because she has these great little vignettes on You Think Too Much that perfectly capture life in a small town.  Robyn lives in Madison, Indiana, one of the country’s great Main Street communities.  For fifteen years, I lived in Staunton, Virginia, another of the country’s great Main Street communities and a place I miss about once a week.  I get what Robyn is writing about in her Madison Monday posts.  And there is a lot of wisdom in these often humorous tales of life away from the coasts.  Just read the short piece on driving the speed limit, and you’ll probably be hooked as well.

“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?”

In Five Reasons Why This Winter Will Be the Death of Me, Robyn takes a little harder-edged look at snow than the earlier posts by Deborah and Julia…and I love her for posting a picture of a snow-covered tree with the caption “Okay, this is gorgeous, but the rest sucks.”  Of course, our snow will eventually go away (maybe) here in DC.  In the Midwest, you are in it for the long haul. Robyn’s five reasons?

“- The house smells like cabbage and probably will until April. My husband’s idea for our winter salvation was a slow cooker, which I’m all behind. The problem arises from a marked difference of opinion on the subject of cabbage. I feel it’s the scourge of the vegetable world. He does not. Regardless, I’m stuck with the smell of cabbage until we can open the windows again–April if we’re lucky.

– A little part of me dies every time I sit down on the ice-cold toilet seat. A friend did direct me towards this solution, which I’m seriously considering.

– Our child might never go to school again. And, you know, I’m totally concerned about how this affects her education and her own sense of well-being. The social deprivation and all that. But mostly, I’m just worried about how I will hold onto my sanity. The beautiful thing about schools is that they take your children away for big chunks of the day, and this is good for everyone. I’m considering giving the road crews my phone number and offering to help.

– Everything is harder in winter. There are whole weeks when I can’t open the back door to my car. Buckling your seat belt over a bulky coat and four layers of clothes becomes a not-very-funny physical comedy routine. My husband and I can’t hold hands when we walk around town for fear one of us will slip on the ice and pull the other one down with them. It takes 30 minutes to get your car scraped and warm enough to move anywhere.

– I almost stopped writing and, yes, I blame it on winter. And maybe the form rejection I got from my favorite literary magazine. And that horrible feeling you have when you know your current work in progress needs yet another edit, and will need another edit after that, and another–you get the idea. All of this seems harder to bear in winter, especially a winter with no end in sight.

But, thank god, this isn’t Game of Thrones, and the winter will end eventually (right?). And I have not stopped writing. Like a car in subzero temperatures, it takes a little longer to get going, but I putter along. In the meantime, if you see me and catch a whiff of cabbage, you’ll know why.”

A woman who hates cabbage and can even throw in a Game of Thrones mention – what’s not to like!

There you have it: five very different writers, at different points in their career, but who all have something to say.  Thanks to Elizabeth, Janet, Deborah, Julia, and Robyn.  And keep writing.

More to come…


This Holiday Season: Buy Locally

I have never been one to rush out to the local mall on the so-called “Black Friday” after Thanksgiving.  With a day off, and the opportunity to connect with friends, food, and football, what’s the point?

But for the past several years we’ve returned to the beautiful Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Virginia, where we lived for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, to spend the holiday with good friends.  We make all those connections above (except for the football – our friends don’t have cable) but we add in lots of live music so it makes for a terrific respite.

And we’ve taken to spending a good part of Friday in downtown Staunton.  I know this part of town intimately, having worked with the local merchants, property owners, residents and city officials to preserve it for 13 years.  My office was in the Wharf Historic District and our home was only 4 blocks away in the New Town Historic District.  Downtown Staunton is a National Trust Great American Main Street Award winner as well as a 2001 National Trust Dozen Distinctive Destination.  And I’m here to say that even in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, this Main Street is hanging in there and even thriving.

So with the family and Oakley, our host, we took off for a wonderful day on the town, buying locally (we still think of Staunton as one of our homes) as we visited with old friends and neighbors.  Our first stop, of course, was  Fretwell Bass Shop, where Oakley and I got to salivate over 20 or more acoustic basses and play some beautiful Huss & Dalton guitars (top-of-the line guitars made – you guessed it – right here in Staunton).  The rest of the family left us to our bliss, while they took off to see the parts of downtown they cared about.  After we’d played a variety of instruments, Oakley and I caught up with the family.  Over the course of the next four hours we checked out the Roots Music offerings for the weekend at Mockingbird, then stopped in to visit and do a little shopping with Dana Flanders at Crown Jewelers.  (Our friend Dana was featured in a great Thanksgiving Day piece in the local paper about cooking locally – with all her ingredients coming from within a 100-mile radius of Staunton.)  We saw the annual Arts for Gifts show (yes, with gifts made by local artisans) in the beautifully restored R.R. Smith Center for History & Arts, had a great lunch at the tasty Shenandoah Pizza (where the owner is a big Allman Brothers fan),  shopped at the very busy Sunspots Studio while Andrew & Claire watched the glass blowers, did a little shopping with Dana’s sister-in-law Kelly at Byers Street Housewares, picked up a coffee next door at Blue Mountain Coffee in the Wharf, bought a couple of bottles of wine from the Wine Cellar down the street, and ended up shopping at Pufferbellies Toy Store while Susan Blanton, the store’s owner, swooned over how much Andrew & Claire had grown since she read to them at Children’s Hour in the Staunton Public Library some 15 years ago.

It was a fun day with family and friends.  But it was also an important day for downtown Staunton.  Because the Browns, like hundreds of other families in Staunton yesterday, decided to buy locally.  Why is this important, you ask?  Well, the Staunton Downtown Development Association has the answer for you:


  • 60 cents out of every dollar you spend comes back into our community ~ That’s $60 out of every $100!
  • Strengthens the local economy through taxes ~Downtown restaurants generate 60% of the City meals tax! Downtown hotels generate 48% of the City lodging tax!
  • Creates jobs ~ Over 1800 people work downtown
  • Circulates your dollars throughout the business community ~ Independents support each other by purchasing services and products for their businesses; 80% goes back into the community!
  • Promotes freedom of choice ~ Merchandise buying decisions based on the wants and needs of local customers, adding diversity to shopping options!
  • Protects our own unique Staunton culture and history ~ Preserves & recycles existing architecture for future generations!
  • Supports local nonprofits ~ Independents donate 350% more to nonprofits than national chains!

So this holiday season, buy locally.  You’ll have a great time, you’ll avoid the crush of the malls, and you’ll do something for your friends and neighbors.

More to come…


I Believe Thanksgiving is my New Favorite Holiday

I’m not sure what has been my favorite holiday, but I think Thanksgiving has now taken over the top rung on the ladder.  I think it may be the fact that big business hasn’t yet figured out a way to commercialize it.  Or perhaps it is the fact that food plays a big role.  I like the focus on the act of being thankful for all we have in a country that’s been abundantly blessed. Then again, maybe it is just that we’ve figured out how to get together with people we really enjoy and have a very relaxing time.  Whatever the reason, it is my new favorite holiday.

Candice and I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving.  For many years we traveled over the mountain from Staunton to a wonderful inn, Prospect Hill, for a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner.  It was especially meaningful to us because we honeymooned at Prospect Hill while we were very poor graduate students.  Little did we realize that just a year after our wedding we’d move to Virginia and be an hour away. 

With the coming of twins it became more difficult to pack up and go to a great restaurant/inn that was 2+ hours away for Thanksgiving (even though we gave it a try one year).  That’s when our wonderful friends Margaret and Oakley invited us to join their extended “family” for Thanksgiving in Staunton…and we made the first steps to Thanksgiving becoming my new favorite.  Random thoughts on why I have come to enjoy Thanksgiving:

I love the slow pace of a Thanksgiving meal.  You talk, eat, drink, play a little music, eat some more, drink some more wine – and all of a sudden it is 11 p.m.  The pace gives you time to digest (and I’m talking about more than just food).

The friends we share with Margaret and Oakley Margaret and Oakley at Thanksgiving 2008are neat people.  And, of course, Margaret and Oakley are the neatest of all!  They moved from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in DC to Staunton a number of years ago, and have this great urban/rural/Minnesota/Dylan/gourmet/ natural foods/spiritual vibe that’s great to share.   I’m sure you see all of that in the picture.

When we go back to Staunton, it is like we never left.  We can begin conversations that began 15 years ago and that are ongoing. 

One of the great things about community is that people accept each other EVEN though they know all the faults.  One of mine is that I hear better music in my head than what comes out when I play.  But guess what?  The good musicians in our group still let me play and have a good time, even when I can’t remember the lyrics or get the chords right.  That’s cool.

We love the small town of Staunton, where we lived for 15 years.  It is always great to spend 4 hours wandering through the downtown to visit new shops and run into old friends.  We did a lot of both this past weekend.  This year it was even better because there’s this terrific new bass shop in town, called Fretwell Bass.  When I walked into a store with 25 or so upright basses for sale, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  My dream of playing an upright bass just came into focus!

Staunton’s restaurant scene is also improving.  On Friday Margaret and Oakley joined us for dinner at the Staunton Grocery, a wonderful restaurant where we enjoyed the food and company.   Candice and Margaret – the former catering partners – sat opposite the picture window looking into the kitchen and kept up a running commentary on the dishes as they were prepared and served.   How can you beat two nights in a row of great food, wine, and conversation?

So Thanksgiving is now my new favorite holiday.  During our music making on Thursday evening, I was reminded of the great Stephen Foster song Slumber My Darling.  Our friend Constance has a beautiful voice which mesmerized us all as she sang this tune.  Since I was playing guitar at the time and not filming the performance, I’ve instead posted this wonderful video of Alison Krauss.  And while Constance didn’t quite have the backup band of Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, and Yo Yo Ma that Alison enjoys, I’ll remember this highlight from Thanksgiving 2008. 

Sleep well darlings.

More to come…


The Best Places to Raise Your Children…Murfreesboro Edition

Murfreesboro CourthouseBusiness Week magazine just included Murfreesboro, Tennessee as one of the best places to raise your children.  Well, if they’d just asked me I could have told them that a long time ago.

For years now, I’ve been using a little vignette about growing up in Murfreesboro as a part of a talk I give about the livability of towns and cities.  While Business Week focuses on Murfreesboro as a recession-proof college town, I believe there’s a lot more to it.

When I think of home, I remember 407 East Main Street in Murfreesboro.  I grew up in Murfreesboro when it was a city of 35,000 people.  My parents bought a simple 1880s-era home on Main Street because it had an apartment where my grandmother could live with us.  Over the course of twenty years, four generations of our family lived under this roof.

Murfreesboro has a history that was very real and very present to me as a child.  I could walk four blocks to the town square, where the 1850s courthouse (see photo above) served as a reminder of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 1862 raid on the city.  In a time before Murfreesboro’s streets were given over completely to cars, I often bicycled out to the Stones River National Battlefield on the edge of town, because I was fascinated by the story of that terrible battle around New Year’s Day in 1863.  As I grew older I could walk to my job at Martin’s Drug Store on the square, or stop in for lunch at the City Café – both located in buildings that had a history.

My high school was two blocks away in the opposite direction.  This 1960s building was located on the site of the Tennessee School for Women, an early educational institution in a town where education was important.

The core of Murfreesboro – what today has been identified as its “historic district” – was very livable.  We were one block from our neighborhood grocery store, where the bag boys like my younger brother Joe could often be seen carrying groceries home for the older residents in our neighborhood.  Mr. Clardy, who ran that grocery store, also managed what was then called a “guest home” three doors down from our house on Main Street.  This fabulous Queen Anne style mansion was a home-away-from-home for businessmen traveling to the city.

I was three blocks away from the Baptist Church and its early 20th century building, where I spent a good deal of time, but I could have been just about any denomination and still walked from my house to the local congregation’s home.  The public library, where my mother was the children’s librarian for many years, was five blocks away in a renovated post office building.  Today we call this adaptive reuse.

“Main Street” sounds like the fashionable residential location for most communities, and it was true that we had our share of large Victorian mansions as neighbors.  But next door to our house was an apartment building – which was not the only one on the street.  We lived one block from what today would be called “affordable or workforce housing” and our neighborhood was mixed both racially and economically.  Until I stopped growing, I was a baseball and basketball junkie, and spare hours were spent on the school fields and courts with kids of all races and economic groups.  Our banker lived in our neighborhood.  But so did college fraternity boys, shopkeepers, housekeepers, and the wide range of people who made up Murfreesboro at that time.

We all went to school together, and the public schools in Murfreesboro were the pride of the state.  The community cared about its children, from providing good schools to providing an environment where my grandmother – and others of her generation like Mrs. Roberts and Mrs. Todd – could nurture us, help us feel safe, and receive care and love in return.

You may think that I am painting an idealistic picture of my childhood in Murfreesboro.  I will admit that we had our share of problems to address.  However, Murfreesboro at that time was designed in such a way that we had to work out our problems and we had built-in support structures that made such communication possible. 

And the Murfreesboro that I knew was not so much different from other communities in America built prior to World War II.

My father grew up on Second Avenue in Franklin, Tennessee, in a wonderful Victorian-era cottage.  I remember the house fondly from visits I made to my grandparents.  Like me, my father could walk to school, church, the grocery store, and the town square.  As a college student at Vanderbilt, he caught the Inter-urban bus from Franklin to Nashville daily – a transportation system that had evolved from an earlier streetcar line where my grandfather served a stint as a conductor.  As a young boy I would walk to the store one block from my grandmother’s house and pick up her groceries, which were kept on a tab until she stopped in to pay it later in the week.  That grocery store was in a converted church building, for once a building had moved beyond its original use it didn’t necessarily have to be torn down to remain productive.  My older brother Steve and I would be visiting my grandparents and hear the train whistle at the depot, which was at the end of the block.  We would both tear out the front door and make it down in time to look at the long trains moving through the town.  If we were lucky, the train stopped and we would talk with the engineers and conductors and hear about life on the railroad.  As a young boy, I loved exploring Franklin as much as I enjoyed exploring Murfreesboro.

Why is all of this important?  Because we have now raised an entire generation of citizens who have no idea what a wonderful and enriching place a city or town can be, especially for a child.  We are not building “communities” that connect our past and future anymore and many citizens no longer feel they have a “home.”

The way of life lived in my father’s generation – and I was lucky enough to get much of the same type of life – was inexpensive and fostered a sense of community.  Elderly people like my grandmother served as neighborhood watchdogs.  Children like me could be independent – riding our bikes or walking throughout the neighborhood – while still being observed by adults who knew our parents.  The middle class, poor, working class, and upper class patronized the same schools, stores, and public places.  We knew each other and everyone had a stake in maintaining public order.  And though my father no longer owns 407 East Main Street, it is still the house that I think of when I hear the word “home.”

So Business Week got it right…but they don’t know the half of it.  Children need community – places like Murfreesboro and Franklin and Staunton, Virginia – all places I’ve lived and loved.  But there are great communities in cities, like in Silver Spring, Maryland where we currently live, where great neighborhoods are within walking distance of a revitalizing downtown and beautiful Sligo Creek and a short metro ride away from downtown Washington (which has its own share of great neighborhoods).  So even if you don’t have children, look for real communities.  They’re the best places to live!

More to come…