The Power of Words

Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend.  When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word.  Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,

 “a word after a word after a word is power.”

According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.  It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”

Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores.  I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score.  It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”

We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest.  With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation.  Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous.  Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.  Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.

 

Steinbeck Monument

Steinbeck Monument on Cannery Row

 

Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.

If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.  It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

It’s Hard to Remember Not to Rely on Your Memory

Storytelling

Storytelling (photo credit: visme.co)

In a recent email exchange with some colleagues, I made the mistake of relying on my memory for a budget number instead of first checking our documents.  When the mistake was corrected by another on the email trail, I made the excuse that I was working from memory, and added that I should remember not to rely on my memory.  A colleague with a very dry wit responded with the quip, “It’s hard to remember not to rely on your memory.”

He had me there.

I’ve written in the past that, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”  When you need things like budget numbers, we call upon the historian part of the brain, to make sure the figures are correct.

But in many instances memory—and especially the poetry of memory—is crucial.  Max DePree writes of the times when memory and storytelling come together in powerful ways.  He does so to differentiate between what he calls scientific management and tribal leadership.  “Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers.  The penalty for failing to listen” to these storytellers, says DePree, “is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.”

I have heard several excellent examples of storytelling in recent weeks that helped me understand the historical context that was at the heart of the message.  At last week’s Main Street Now conference, Bill Peduto—the mayor of Pittsburgh—spoke in easily understood language that told you about the city he leads and loves.  When he says, “The city of Pittsburgh produced more steel in World War II than Japan and Germany combined,” one learns so much more than just the annual steel production numbers in western Pennsylvania.  You learn about the character of the people.  Stuart Graff, the CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, was engaged in tribal storytelling at the celebration of the Painted Desert National Treasure two weeks ago when he said that Wright stressed that one should “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you.”   Stuart—speaking primarily to a group of conservationists and preservationists—was  making the counter-intuitive case for taking a different perspective when looking at modernist structures in natural settings, such as national parks.  My National Trust colleague Tom Mayes, in his Why Do Old Places Matter? series, participates in a type of tribal storytelling to remind us of the values around the work we do.  It’s not just about the buildings.

There are times when we will all be called upon to reflect on people, work, and values we hold dear.  Remembering (if we can) to rely on the poetry of our memory helps us turn those reflections into storytelling, which then helps us connect to our history, our historical context, our binding values.

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

Exploring Savannah’s Gem of a Cathedral

Lafayette Square in SavannahA week would generally be enough time to explore large sections of a city the size of Savannah, Georgia. Time to linger among the live oaks and Spanish moss in the historic squares, eat at the growing list of restaurants, visit the museums, and share stories with friends and strangers in the coffee shops and bars scattered throughout the downtown.

Plenty of time…unless one has a conference to run.

Well, run is actually much too strong a word.  While technically responsible for ensuring that last week’s PastForward 2014 – the National Preservation Conference went off without a hitch, there are many staff members who carry a far heavier load as we worked to reach that goal.  Much of my oversight actually took place over the past 18 months.  Once the week of the conference comes, I just “enjoy the field trip” as Candice – the former elementary school teacher – says at times like these.  At the conference, I often have my day structured by others: be here to welcome this group, then go there to say thank you to the folks who made it all possible, to be followed by a pre-arranged dinner with colleagues and partners.

But it all means that I had  precious little time to really explore Savannah.  That is just the nature of my job, and I am not complaining, as I get to see and experience so many wonderful places.  Candice – who was traveling with me to the conference – took a half-day bicycle tour of the city among other jaunts and still had time for 6-7 of the conference presentations.  Me? I was able to catch glimpses of the city while traveling between sessions and meetings.

So when I found myself with 90 minutes on Friday afternoon, between the closing luncheon and a scheduled tour of historic homes, I decided to stretch my legs and visit the church whose two spires were visible every time I opened the drapes in our hotel room.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Spires of St. John the Baptist Cathedral

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a gem of a building in the historic district and the mother church of the Savannah Roman Catholic Diocese.  It sits on Lafayette Square, and the outside of the building dates from the late 19th century.

The inside was rebuilt following an 1898 fire, and the results are beautiful.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Interior

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist - Organ

I’ve visited Savannah on multiple occasions since the 1980s, but have somehow missed seeing the interior of this gem of a cathedral.  Earlier in the day, I had the chance to listen to my colleague and friend Tom Mayes speak to a full house about the place of beauty in preservation.  His blog post on the topic is a highly recommended and wonderful read that includes the following:

President Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our National past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.”

I’ll take it as a bit of grace that 90 minutes popped open on a very busy schedule during this trip to allow for reflection about the beauty of this space and the beauty of the world I get to work in every day.

More to come.

DJB