The Friday Poem selection for this week is Julia Alvarez’s ‘How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry?’ As we reimagine our priorities ‘after’, framed by our experience in the ‘before times’ and pandemic isolation, where will art reside?
It’s August, an intermission before the commotion of fall. Except this has been an August, a summer, like no other. There is no certainty, other than the world at a distance of six feet.
In this time, ‘The Friday Poem’ returns after a few ‘fits and starts’, with ‘August’ by Mary Oliver.
We have lost spring, snug in our ‘stay at home’ place or serving on the front lines as essential workers. Summer is passing, offering the gift of a journey outside – breathing fresh air, splashing in a brook, climbing a tree, standing in the rain – away from our workplace for a moment.
Poetry and art will sustain us.
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
the thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
the happy tongue.
So, the virus went viral, and nothing may ever be the same – job offers on hold, online classes the new norm, home the new workplace.
You may hear comparisons to 2008 or the dot com bubble of 2001 – 2002. There’s no comparison. We’re all pioneers in this new reality of social/physical distancing.
What to do?
First, reach out to the resources available to you through your network. There are a lot of unknowns. But you can only plan around the things you can control.
Second, go for a walk. We can still do that – at a six-foot distance.
Third, add something new to your day that connects you to others (with six-foot spacing). For me, that means joining a virtual book discussion of War and Peace: #TolstoyTogether. Writer Yiyun Li in partnership with @APublicSpace is reading 12 pages a day. (Just started – anyone can join). Robert Macfarlane (Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge) is also leading a global Twitter Reading Group, #CoReadingVirus, discussing ‘The Living Mountain’.
Fourth, contingency plan. #1 plan – the ideal job, #2 plan – other ways to gain experience in the same field, from a different angle, #3 plan – ways to have income, while seeking a permanent position.
It’s ok to be a bit scared. But to quote Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”
What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks flew in circles around your head? What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and became your advisor? What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all you needed to do was ask them and they would fill the bowl? What if the brook slid downhill just past your bedroom window so you could listen to its slow prayers as you fell asleep? What if the stars began to shout their names, or to run this way and that way above the clouds? What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang from its painted branches? What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money? What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day and every day – who knows how, but they do it – were more precious, more meaningful than gold?
While you were away, the U.S. commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the effort to rebuild Notre Dame began in Paris. In New York, members of the Business Roundtable considered a new definition of the purpose of a corporation and Ava Duvernay continued to challenge conventional wisdom. It was a summer of cathedral thinking, blue oceans and questioning expertise.
These are the stories of folks who went to work every day, extending the definition of work and workplace beyond traditional boundaries to solve problems and create a vision of the future.
Here’s a sampling of articles from the Summer of 2019:
“In this moment when government is viewed by so many Americans as being unable to dream as big as it did in the 1960s, whether the dream is traveling the solar system or forestalling the calamitous effects of climate change, understanding how NASA got us to the Moon the first time is both important and inspirational. The Apollo Moon landings were an extraordinary undertaking, but they were the work of ordinary people back on Earth. We need exactly that kind of effort to tackle some of the problems we face today, from economic inequality to climate change. The Moon can show us the way.“
“The two key pieces that were the astronauts’ home during their lunar trips were built on opposite sides of the country. The Apollo capsules rolled off the assembly line in Downey, Calif., a small city 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, NASA owned a 160-acre swath of Downey — the size of two Disneylands — that was home to factories, offices and test facilities.
The story was almost the same in Bethpage, N.Y., on Long Island. That was the headquarters of Grumman Aircraft, which won the contract to build the spindly spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon.“
In April, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris came close to being destroyed by fire. This summer The New York Times created an interactive site to document the event and the story of those who saved the cathedral.
“That Notre-Dame still stands is due solely to the enormous risks taken by firefighters in those third and fourth hours. Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral. “There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” said Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, home to the cathedral, “and that Notre-Dame could be lost.”
On August 19, the Business Roundtable issued a new statement on the purpose of the corporation.
“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to: – Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations. – Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect. – Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions. – Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses. – Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.“
We learn from the wisdom of others and this summer, writer, producer and director Ava DuVernay leads on innovation.
“Conventional thinking in red oceans is why blue oceans go undiscovered.
New markets are found when someone stands in a spot that gives them a point of view distinctly their own.
DuVernay has shown us what the work of discovering blue oceans looks like: It is claiming that spot in the world where only you stand, even if that means leaving rooms where you’re being dismissed and marginalized. It is gathering your crew, those who share your commitment and purpose and will work to create new truths. It is finding the communities that can share your vision and scale it. These are unconventional ways to lead. Leaving. Social. Sharing. They seem counterintuitive and even wrong to those who lead red oceans. But they are how growth and progress and innovation happen. It’s what explorers do to chart new territory.”
The last article from the summer continues the conversation on expertise and how we are all being asked to ‘do more with less.”
“By 2020, a 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted, “more than one-third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations” will not have been seen as crucial to the job when the report was published. If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? “You shouldn’t!” he replied. As a rule of thumb, statements out of Silicon Valley should be deflated by half to control for hyperbole. Still, the ramifications of Sullivan’s comment unfurl quickly. Minimal manning—and the evolution of the economy more generally—requires a different kind of worker, with not only different acquired skills but different inherent abilities. It has implications for the nature and utility of a college education, for the path of careers, for inequality and employability—even for the generational divide. And that’s to say nothing of its potential impact on product quality and worker safety, or on the nature of the satisfactions one might derive from work. Or, for that matter, on the relevance of the question What do you want to be when you grow up?“
Summing up the summer recap: ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. You just need to find your unique scenic view of the world, an employer who values your contribution, and an ability to adapt.
Photo credits: Moon Landing – NASA, Notre Dame worker – Patrick Zachmann for Magnum Arts
For the first ‘Friday Poem’ of 2019, I’ve gone back into the Workthoughts archives to reprise Miller Williams‘ poem ‘Of History and Hope’ delivered at the Inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton in 1997.
The Washington Post obituary for professor Williams, who died on New Years Day in 2015, included an excerpt of an interview with the Oxford American magazine. In the interview the poet shared the intent behind the words.
“…he wanted the poem to be a “consideration of how a look at a nation’s past might help determine where it could be led in the future.
“I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted it to be true, understandable, and agreeable…”
The words of the poet, recited from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, 22 years ago, speak to us in this current place that is American, 2019.
“We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.”
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where. In ceremonies and silence we say the words, telling the stories, singing the old songs. We like the places they take us. Mostly we do. The great and all the anonymous dead are there. We know the sound of all the sounds we brought. The rich taste of it is on our tongues. But where are we going to be, and why, and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know. We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how except in the minds of those who will call it Now? The children. The children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row— and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not. Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot. We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become— just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet— but looking through their eyes, we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
It’s a popular talking point among pundits to observe we live in a ‘post-truth’ age: an era defined by the Oxford Dictionary as one “in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Pulitzer prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks described this place we now find ourselves in her poem ‘truth’.
“And if the sun comes
How shall we greet him? Shall we not dread him, Shall we not fear him After so lengthy a
Session with shade?”
And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?
Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.
Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘Blacks’ Third World Press, 1987
The Friday Poem this week is ‘August’ by Helen Hunt Jackson. The poem was published in the August 1876 issue of The Atlantic. Ms. Jackson was a poet, historian, author and childhood friend of Emily Dickinson. As an activist, she would go on champion the rights of Native Americans.”
In 1884 she published ‘Ramona’, a fictionalized account of the plight of Southern California’s dispossessed Mission Indians, inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.
The Friday Poem – because we all “Hath need of pause and interval of peace.”
Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic, summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom and lay bare her poverty.
Poor, middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!
How many times have you heard that those who succeed ascribe their advancement to going beyond the parameters of their job description? What does that mean?
In some cases it might be asking for additional responsibility or supplementary assignments. But if we step back from a particular job, maybe it’s about being prepared for the bigger picture of your career. It’s the curiosity/lifelong learning thing that connects the dots as you progress as a professional. It’s recognizing a painting in a new client’s office and beginning a conversation, not based on a sale, but a shared interest.
It’s about being multidimensional.
To help on this aspect of professional development, we add a new category this week to ‘workthoughts’ – ‘Not in the Job Description’.
“Over my many years of reviewing, I’ve often been asked for advice from newcomers to classical music, people excited by what they’ve heard, and eager to hear — and to learn — more.
Naturally, I urge those exploring classical music to find out whatever they can. Yet I’ve found that many people assume that knowledge of the art form is a prerequisite to appreciation. Newcomers to other performing arts, like theater or dance, don’t seem to feel this level of intimidation. I’d encourage those who are curious to just go to a performance and see what they think. A symphony orchestra program — or an opera, or a piano recital — is not an exam. It’s an escape, an adventure, an enrichment.”
Just to emphasize his point. When adding a new dimension to your portfolio think of it as “an escape, an adventure, an enrichment”.
Mr. Tommasini goes on to answer questions in his article, including his definition of ‘classical music’.
“Labels can be problematic in any field; “classical music” especially so. One complication is that music history refers to the years from roughly 1750 to 1825 as the “classical” period, when Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven achieved their glory. But in a broader sense the term classical music has been adopted as a way to describe the continuing heritage of music mostly written to be performed in concert halls and opera houses by orchestras, singers, choruses, chamber ensembles and solo instrumentalists. Another characteristic is that composers in this tradition have been drawn to larger, structured forms. Still, the term is far from ideal, but no one has come up with a good alternative — yet.”
The article includes links to sample recordings to get you started, including clips of Maria Callas’ 1953 performance as Tosca at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
In addition to following the dots presented by Mr. Tommasini, add a visit to an opera house or concert hall the next time you are planning a trip out of town or out of the country. Identify reviewers and critics that seem to match your tastes and follow them on social media. You will be amazed and delighted as you trace the links connecting the variety of performance.
Where will you begin your new adventure – ‘not in the job description’?
It’s been a difficult time for those who go to work as teachers in America. Many are on strike, not just for a living wage, but for supplies and improvements to the physical spaces that foster learning. Many have faced threats and continue to teach in the aftermath of mass shootings.
Pundits are fond of quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The Friday Poem this week is ‘An Old Man’s Thought of School’ by Walt Whitman reminds us that we have always struggled with the value of education in our society.
In 1874 poet was recovering from a stroke at his brother’s home in Camden, N.J. At a public school dedication in early November he challenged his fellow citizens of the post-Civil War era:
“And you, America, Cast you the real reckoning for your present? The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.”
An Old Man’s Thought of School
An old man’s thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know you.
O fair auroral skies – O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping, like a fleet of ships, immortal ships!
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the Soul’s voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?
Ah! more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais’d his warning cry, “Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these
dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all—the church is living, ever living souls.”)
And you, America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
This Union multiform, with all its dazzling hopes and terrible fears?
Look deeper, nearer, earlier far—provide ahead—counsel in time;
Not to your verdicts of election days—not to your voters look,
To girlhood, boyhood look—the teacher and the school.