Friday, May 26, 2023

What if? The Magic of Choices And Unplanned Outcome



    (Sometimes writing these newsletters can be relatively easy. I have some thoughts and ideas in my head, I sit down and the words just flow. I love it when that happens, but it isn't always that way. Sometimes I have an idea, I start working with it, and it just goes flat; the words just lay on the page and don't seem to have any life. Or I read what I wrote and think, "Boring!" Such was where things were today when I sat down to write. There was just nothing there. 

 Often when that happens I scroll through the dozens of newsletters I have written before and wait for something to catch me. Sometimes things click when I do that. I am planning on going to the Philadelphia Art Museum again soon, and I came across a newsletter that I wrote in 2016 that has to do, somewhat, with works of art. I read through it, liked it, and made a few changes. And here it is.) 

What if? 

“What if?....If this had happened rather than that?..- always two great ways to start a story.”  

 writer Lawrence Block 

I think there is often a 'what if'” proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels"   

writer John Irving 

    I was having a cup of coffee with some friends a few mornings ago, and somehow the subject of our conversation turned to “What if?” and “If only this had happened.” One person started talking about it, but it quickly involved all of us. It became a fascinating and somewhat intense conversation that had all of us looking back at our lives and the various ways we got to where we are in our lives. We all started talking about choices we had made, some of the ways those choices had affected us, and ways they helped lead us to who and where we are today. This is something that is often in the back of my mind, but I don’t regularly talk about it out loud. So it was great to share ideas and thoughts about this with a few friends. Some of it was a little painful and humbling, of course; most of us easily mentioned choices which we now regretted and wish we hadn’t made. We all embarrassed ourselves a bit when we shared some of those things. But we were also able to recall a couple of choices that turned out to be very good and important ones-major ones in leading us to who we became and how we turned out. In some cases these were conscious choices- things that we did willingly in response to a situation that presented itself. It could have been responses to situations parents gave us, things friends faced us with, or something that life unexpectedly threw at us. We had to make choices, and we consciously did. In other cases, though, there were a lot of decisions we made without really thinking about them or realizing what we were doing. At the time we just made them, and we were totally unaware of how important they would turn out to be. Some of those were choices that had long range effects, for better or for worse, but we were totally unaware of that at the time. There were definitely a lot of those occurrences in my life, and it was interesting to reflect on the effect some of those specific decisions had on my life. 

   Of course, this often leads to ideas of ‘chance”, “fate, "or God. Were the things that happened to us just the result of coincidence, or was there some force or power guiding and planning things? Or was there some mixture of both? This was especially fascinating for me, because some of the most meaningful and important things in my life seem to have “just happened”; I seemed to have just stumbled into them, followed where they took me, and, “BOOM!”-I was somewhere else. These things did not come from my planning or intention; they happened, I responded, and my life changed. Take me long teaching career, for example. I did not set out to be a teacher, but I did a guest seminar on Jazz and the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance for a professor friend’s freshman lit class at Temple in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of high school kids auditing that class, and they invited me to give that seminar at this new experimental high school, Alternative East. I did that and I was invited to do a few other seminars. I got to meet the kids and the other teachers, liked them and the experiences I was having, and suddenly, somehow, before I knew it, I had quit my regular, well-paying job and become an underpaid part-time English and history teacher, something it turned out that I was quite good at and thoroughly loved. And it took off from there; that was my career for some 40 years. I just stumbled into it, and it was one of the greatest stumbles of my life. 

  Visiting the Philadelphia Art Museum as a junior high and high school student also led to some major changes that have had long-lasting effects on my life. I started going to the Museum with some friends to see art by Black artists such as Henry O Tanner and Jacob Lawrence, and modern masters such Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, and Joan Miro. But I also stumbled onto Impressionism, and in particular, the seaside and country road scenes painted by artists such as Pissarro, Monet, Eugene Bodin and especially, Giovanni Boldini. This was totally new to me, and it just stayed with me. There was something amazing about the way those artists painted the sky, the clouds and trees that totally captured this kid. I would return again and again to the museum to look at those wonderful paintings, especially Giovanni Boldini's Highway of Combes-le-Ville. When some of them were moved or temporarily taken down, I was upset. When they were restored, I was excited. And I still go to see those paintings each time I visit the museum. 

It was those paintings that led me to become fascinated by clouds and weather and skies: to start looking up and out at the natural world. They were a big part of what led me to birdwatching, hiking and surprisingly, camping. Somehow this row-house raised, urban, West Philadelphia kid has been a camper and birder for nearly half a century. And a lot of it got started with stumbling onto Boudin, Boldini, Pissarro and those amazing trees and skies. Even now when I go to the Art Museum, I have to see some of those paintings. They still mean plenty to me. 

  So that morning coffee conversation was a great experience for me, and I think for all of us. I know it was good for me to take the time to look back, think about how I got to where I am, and to marvel and be grateful for the many twists, turns and plans, both successfully carried out and not, that have helped me get to where I am. And it definitely made me more aware of and appreciative of unexpectedness and chance and the roles they play and have played in my life. Often people in US culture like to think that we are pretty much in control of our lives-we lay out and follow our goals, go to the right schools, invest wisely, marry the right person, envision and plan for retirement, etc, etc, etc. And those things we plan definitely make a difference in our lives, no doubt about it.  They put into place many of the things that play a part in our lives; I was able to retire when I did in part because I planned for it. But if we take a careful and as dispassionate as possible look at the whole of our lives, we have to acknowledge that a lot of our lives took place way beyond our plans and way outside our control. We were affected by things both beneath and beyond our consciousness and control. And they have affected us as much as, if not more than, our planned things. 

 I believe we need to notice that fact and appreciate it-to know that much of our world and our lives are really beyond our control and that that is not scary. That is relaxing and refreshing for me. It is important for me to know that I am not in total control of everything, and that I do not have to be in total control. If I can let go of that need to have control, then I can get to be aware of and enjoy coincidence, surprise, and chance. And stumbling. Those things have already often provided some much better things than I would have had I been making all the plans, and they may very well do it again. “What if?  "If this had happened rather than that?” There can be a lot of beauty and wonder hidden within those phrases if we just give them a chance to play out 

(Here are links to the complete works of Eugene Boudin: Eugène Boudin - The complete works - Page 17) and to Giovanni Boldinni's Highway of Combes-le-Villle

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Power and Necessity of Libraries



“Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.”   

                    Ray Bradbury, writer   

“A society-any society-is defined and measured by its set of mutual benefits and duties embodied most visibly in public institutions: public schools, public libraries, public transportation,.....”   

                    Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich   

"Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library."   
                  Historian Barbara Tuchman   

     One of the things I love about April is that it is a month of wonderful becomings. So many of the trees and plants are blooming now, and walking the neighborhoods is truly joyous. Rosebuds, Cheery trees, daffodils, tulips and more have survived the recent overnight freezes we had, and are bringing bright colors to streets, yards, and in planters. The planet in many ways is seemingly being re-born, both in the earth and even in the sky. There was a full moon on Thursday, April 6, a hybrid eclipse in the Southern Hemisphere on April 20, The Lyrid Meteor Showers on April 22-23, and a chance to see Saturn next to the moon overnight on April 15 and 16. Both the planet and the sky were especially active last month.

It is fitting that April is also a month of numerous faith celebrations that speak of glorious births, renewal, and continuances. It is a time in many belief systems for reflection, re-commitment, and going forward in a renewed way into the world. Easter and Passover happen this month, and they both are about the miraculous birth of belief systems, their renewal, and their continuance. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism also have holidays and observances that speak to these important concepts. The idea of “emerging” is deeply rooted in each of these traditions. We go inside, and through this process are able to emerge renewed.  

For me, April also has important observations on the societal front that call for us to reflect and then move forward. It can be a time for us to come together and pay attention to things that have probably not been at the front of our consciousness. April features National Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, National Child Abuse Awareness Month, National Earth Month, and more that speak to Robert Reich's old-style notion of a society that involves citizens in working together and looking out for and helping each other. There are the types of problems for which we need a village working together in order to make progress in our society. It is how important progress has been made throughout our history.  

Two of the most important of those type of observances to me are National Library Week, April 23-29, and National Library Workers Day, April 25, especially considering what is going on now in so many places in our country. People who know me and/or read this newsletter know that books, libraries, museums and such are things that have been big part of my life since my childhood, and that they have helped me become the person I am today. Quite simply, I am a library guy. I got my first Philadelphia Free Library card when I was in 2nd grade, and over sixty five years later, I still have, and regularly use one. When my wife and I retired in 2015 she re-opened a public-school library at the Kelly School in Germantown. I no longer volunteer there, but it is still going strong. And I regularly donate to the Philadelphia and New York City public libraries, for libraries and their workers have been quiet mainstays of my life.

 Libraries matter to me, especially public ones.  They were where I first discovered many authors, artists, and musicians that I have come to love and think of as life-long friends. I would read the names of writers, musicians, artists and songwriters in newspapers, magazines, in books, on book jackets, or on recordings. I would then go to the library to read them or hear them, and a new love affair would start. Maps, art history, poetry, history-whatever I became interested in, the library was there with materials and, very importantly, librarians who helped me delve into and encounter new ideas and ways of thinking about and viewing the world. That continues today.  

  The library is often one of those things that people tend to take for granted, but it is often one of the very first institutions to positively respond to the things going on in society. It almost always interacts with us in powerful and supportive ways. Nothing proves that more than how they have responded to the COVID pandemic over the last three years. They have found ways to allow people to reserve, borrow and return books and materials, even if they were not openThey have provided numerous Zoom and streaming Meet the Author Events, classes, webinars, storytelling sessions, and more. They have increased links to online reference books, movies, and articles. They have found ways to maintain important special interactions with public schools and they have provided special educational resources for kids who are being home-schooled. How they have adapted to and kept themselves available for use during this crazy time has been nothing short of remarkable. They have managed to add computers, ebooks, homework clubs, digital platforms, after-school programs, English learning classes, tax help, help in looking for a job and much, much more.  

     I am thinking about this now as the news is full of accounts of politicians actively working to limit what people, particularly teens and young students, have access to and can learn and hear about. Books in some places are being banned and removed from school and public libraries. This type of censorship is not new or unique to the United States. But it has been some decades since it has been as upfront and widespread as it is nowOne of the unfortunate things that all authoritarian rule does is try to seize control of and change institutions-limiting or changing what they are allowed to do. Throughout history civilizations often repeat their mistakes. And we seem to be doing that again, particularly with our public schools and libraries.   

   Libraries are, to me, one of the greatest institutions we have in any civilization. All civilizations have had them, going way back to ancient times. If you have been positively affected by the library and/or if your kids have had important experiences there, I urge you to donate to your local library and to take a role in helping them fight the political winds that are turning curiosity and learning into political hand grenades. Let’s celebrate National Library Week and Library Workers Day by showing how much they mean to you. They need us now, and we have to be part of Robert Reich’s mutual support so that we continue to have a full past and a variety of possible futures.   

To donate to the Philadelphia Free Library: