Hope and Redemption

This Wednesday features a coming together of events that cannot be a coincidence.  For those who believe in romance, the 14th of February is, of course, Valentine’s Day.  On the same day, Christian believers — especially of the liturgical persuasion — will observe Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent leading up to Easter.  And for those like Annie Savoy* and me who worship at the Church of Baseball, February 14th is when, as spring training begins, we hear those magical words “pitchers and catchers report” that take ever-optimistic fans into flights of fancy about the prospects for their favorite team.

I’m going with the thought that this particular February 14th is a harmonic convergence of Hope and Redemption.

I was thinking of those two themes and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading  Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.


Grant by Ron Chernow

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee.  The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.  In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.” When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*You’ll have to watch Bull Durham if you don’t understand the reference.  And if you do, this will be your reminder that it is time to watch it again!


Mr. Hatch, Old Dogs and The Beatles

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch is a favorite Valentine’s Day book in our family.  To quote from the dust jacket,

In a little town on a wintery day, a postman delivers a mysterious package tied up with a big pink bow to a lonely man named Mr. Hatch.  “Somebody loves you” the note says.

“Somebody loves me,” Mr. Hatch whispers as he dusts his living room.  “Somebody loves me,” Mr. Hatch whistles as he does errands in town.  “Who,” Mr. Hatch wonders, “could somebody be?”

This is a wonderful children’s book that sees Mr. Hatch come alive after learning that someone loves  him, and then deflated when the postman returns weeks later to say he had delivered the package to the wrong address.  That’s not how the story ends, as you might expect.  The town discovers the reason Mr. Hatch has returned to his solitary ways and they let him know that plenty of people really do love Mr. Hatch.  We read the book aloud last evening during a family Valentine’s dinner and our kids became 4-years old again.

Today a friend gave us a gift that reminded us – in several ways – of the joys of giving love.  She had read my blog about saying goodbye to Lilly, our Sussex Spaniel who died last December, and bought the book Old Dogs are the Best Dogs for us as a way of remembering Lilly. I had quoted from the book’s opening essay in my post, so she guessed – correctly – that we’d love it.

On the way home today, Claire read aloud from the book and I was struck, once again, about the joys of giving love.  The section Claire read went like this:

Some years ago, a humor contest in The Washington Post invited readers to come up with Item One from an underachiever’s to-do list.  First prize went to:  1.  Win the respect and admiration of my dog.

It is no big deal to love a dog, they make it so easy for you.  They find you brilliant even if you are a witling.  You fascinate them, even if you are as dull as a butter knife.  They are fond of you even if you are a genocidal maniac:  Hitler loved his dogs, and they loved him.

We all laughed, but it reminded me of all the love that’s come my way – deserved or not – through the years.  Valentine’s Day is a good day for those memories and also a good time to recall those words of the famous philosophers Lennon & McCartney:

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Tell someone you love them.

More to come…