“Yearning for the seemingly impossible is the path to human progress.”
– Bryant H. McGill
I’m hearing a lot of discouragement lately, particularly about how we’re not living up to our potential as a culture. We want our country to be a safe place filled with fairness and opportunities to prosper, while the news is filled with stories of danger and inequality.
I hear the cries: We’re supposed to be a culture of freedom, and equal rights, and opportunity. We’re supposed to be able to speak our minds, to debate big ideas, to elect our government without interference or corruption.
Every day, I see people giving up. They throw up their hands and say: It’s no use. I have no agency in this situation. We’re all going to hell in a handbasket.
But wait …
Free speech is an ideal, and we haven’t fully achieved it yet. Equality is an ideal. “The shining city on the hill” is an ideal. Comfort, and safety, and living in community with others are all ideals we aspire to, and it’s frustrating when we collectively fall short. But despair is not the answer.
We act as though we’ve attained those ideals, and now are backsliding, but that was never the case. The “founding fathers” created a list of aspirational freedoms to guide themselves and future generations toward (what was then thought to be) an ideal society. We’ve changed and amended those goals over time, but the fact remains: they are goals. We’re not there yet, and perhaps we never will be, but we must be guided by principles that are instructive toward building the best community possible.
And to those who complain about “kids these days” – you must not know the same kids that I do. My students at Western Michigan University are some of the most optimistic, ambitious, and determined young people you would ever want to meet, and they are going to accomplish great things. They care, and they’re not giving up anytime soon.
I think they’re going to succeed where previous generations have failed, and I can’t wait for the future they’re going to build.
It’s a rare experience to finish a book and to be sad when it’s over. I wasn’t expecting this.
I’m familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love, and Committed) and her nonfiction (Big Magic), but I had never read any of her fiction. Before she achieved fame as the author of EPL, she was primarily a writer of short stories and novels, and in Signature, she returns to those roots.
The book tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist in 1800s Philadelphia. It begins with her birth, ends with her nearing death, and in between, covers the sweeping scope of an extraordinary life. Alma is a woman of education and achievement, in a world that does not value those qualities in females. In the story, we accompany Alma on a lifelong journey of learning, seeking love, and finding meaning.
It’s a long book, and can seem slow at times, as it is very character-driven. For the first 2/3 (maybe 3/4) of the book, Alma rarely leaves her home estate of White Acre. In late adulthood, she embarks on a quest that takes her to Tahiti, and later, to the Netherlands, where she meets her mother’s family. While she has adventures, the story is mostly focused on her inner life, much of which consists of unfulfilled longing.
If you are looking for a good long, deep read that will move you emotionally, I recommend this book. I’ll remember Alma Whittaker for a long time.
You can find more of my book reviews on goodreads.com
Hello lovely friends,
I’ve been off work for two weeks, and today, I’m back in the office and trying to reintroduce structure into my life. I think it’s going to take a few days to get back in the daily habits of reading, writing, lesson planning, teaching, and entering the world as a scholar.
It’s a good life. I’ve had jobs in the past that I hated. My current occupation draws on my mind, heart, and talents in a way that makes it feel more like a calling than a “labor.” I get paid to read, write, think, and engage in community with others. What could be better?
The book is coming along. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever attempted, so it’s proving to be a challenge, but I’m remembering that you only have to see as far as your headlights to complete the journey.
Holding you all in my heart, and sending up special prayers for Gerri, Susan, and Scott. Be well.
In the Intercultural Communication course, we talk a lot about history – how it’s passed on, who gets to tell it, whose voices are included, and whose are missing. We consider “absent histories” (which, as far as we know, were never recorded) and “hidden histories” (which are/were known, but have been suppressed, left out of the historical canon).
While looking for discussion materials for class a few years back, I ran across a fascinating article about my own town, Kalamazoo, and some little-known history from the Gibson Guitar company during World War II. During the war, the factory was staffed with women, and during those years, official Gibson company accounts stated that production had ceased on the “Banner” guitar so that all the company’s assets and person-power could go into the war effort. Except … they didn’t stop producing Banners during that time. They produced over 9,000, and today they’re considered some of the finest vintage guitars ever made.
They were built by women.
So why did it take until 2012 for this story to become a topic of public interest and lively discussion?
There are theories. One is that Gibson didn’t want the public to know that their production during that time wasn’t 100% war-related – a public-relations, face-saving thing. Another is that Gibson didn’t want the public to know that these guitars were built by women. But when the guitars from this era – when they supposedly weren’t being made at all – started to be recognized for their superior quality, collectors of vintage musical instruments started asking why.
Which brings us to another theory. Is it possible, maybe, that female crafters had a different method, a particularly refined touch, in assembling these instruments? Is it possible that these guitars are special because of their makers, along with the factory from which they came?
Guitar connoisseurs will continue to debate those questions, and for purposes of my class, we don’t need those answers. What we do need to consider is a series of questions that the critical mind should ask when previously-hidden history comes to the surface of public discourse:
Why hasn’t this story been told?
Who is served by telling it, and who is served by keeping it hidden?
Who gets to decide how, and when, a story is told?
Whose voices are included, and whose are marginalized?
In the Humanities disciplines, it’s widely accepted that much of history was recorded by the literate, white, prosperous, male. This was the segment of society with the time, means, and education to write, print, and distribute accounts of human activity. And while we should be grateful for the accounts that we have, it’s also useful to consider what may be missing – whether there are “holes” in the story, and whose accounts might be able to fill them.
One of my favorite books of all time is “Women Who Run With The Wolves” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
My original copy is dog-eared from repeated readings, so a friend gifted me a newer copy. This book is rich with myths and stories that have been passed down through the oral tradition, mostly by (and among) indigenous women. These stories, many of which were never written down until modern times, tremble and pulse with wisdom, with heart, with the flesh that lies behind what we usually read on the pages of history books.
Life is rich and complex and full of mystery. Let’s consider that the histories we know, the ones we were taught, might not tell the whole story. Let’s consider that as today’s events unfold, we still aren’t getting the full picture, because some voices go unheard. Let’s have the insight to realize that someone, somewhere, might be deciding what we get to know, and when, and how much.
And that some of our brothers and sisters are never invited to speak at all.