These words describe big ideas that matter. Once you start paying attention to them, they seem to show up everywhere. But sometimes the ideas they encompass are so big or so complicated, or are used in so many ways by people with such wildly divergent views that they lose their meaning or make it hard to tell where they hit the ground in our real, every-day world.
In a group conversation about where the concept of the commons can be found in our daily lives, Wier Harman, a hero of mine who has managed to keep Town Hall Seattle hopping each year with between 350 and 400 events across a wide spectrum of ideas and culture, first thought of groups that form around pre-schools.
But then he focused on what, given the general direction of his politics, he called the “unlikely,” emotional impact of standing at a Rotary meeting with a roomful of Rotarians wholeheartedly singing patriotic songs together at the start of their meeting. He noted that at work he puts a lot of time and energy into arguing for Town Hall as a space that allows for profound differences.
With his Rotary singing as a backdrop, he added, “We must find a way to stay in the same room.”
• • •
These words retain the quiet power today that they had for me in 2011. I hang on to the aspiration they express at least as tightly now as I did then. I keep my notes from that conversation handy and find I’m pulling them out more and more often.
The question of how we do it continues to haunt and provoke me.
After spending the first hour of the day letting friends know about new pieces added to my blog (a task that gives me a satisfying sense of completion), I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.
I walked a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a neighborhood coffeeshop, where I also read through past notes for a complicated piece I’m trying to write. Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles of steep, winding streets and views of the Cascades, I stopped for coffee at a tiny coffeeshop where I struggled to find a path through the ideas in the writing. I didn’t actually pull out my computer, but I found at least a preliminary place to begin and started out again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t walked before and then headed straight east toward the Aboretum.
Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffeeshop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to actually begin before I left. By the time I walked out, clouds covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with pines at the start and hollies toward the end. The treat at the end of the trail was a bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made pretty good progress in my writing, at least getting a few thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.
A bit later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. The straight line I’d walked before reaching the park was level, this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on one specific block – a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy of the walk continued and I worked for another hour or so.
The piece I’m writing is far from done, but the day convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are another requirement of a satisfying time away.
(A forewarning . . . this is the kind of piece that grandmas have permission to post.)
We have many reasons, of course, to do what we do. But we often talk about wanting to leave the world a better place for future generations. This is, indeed, a grand aspiration. I hold it too.
In the close-up fabric of my life, however, these “future generations’ are embodied, tangibly, in my grandkids. I’m lucky enough to share two – Livia and Henry – with quite a handful of other grandparents. A few moments from the past few years reinforce Grandma Anne’s commitment to working for a better future.
A trip to the locks in the summer.
A water taxi ride to West Seattle.
Dancing in Grandma Anne’s former home in the last hour she lived there (2013).
As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I’m holding what for now we’re calling “office hours.” Tea time, coffee break, happy hour, chitchat, heart-to-heart, or even consultation – these conversations can take many forms. Artists and anyone else can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. One-to-one or in small groups, we can talk about anything. I’ve reserved two afternoons a month for “office hours” at Artist Trust.
You can sign up by selecting a slot here. (Thanks to Artist Trust for setting up this scheduler.)
Like so many other people my age, I seem increasingly to be asked for advice, for stories about the “old days,” or simply for the chance to puzzle over a problem together. I think of these as two-way exchanges because I always learn something in the process. Let’s talk!
I’ll soon be setting up “open door office hours” at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design. Information will be posted in “office hours” under the References menu on my website’s main page.
One thing I’ve learned in my 10 months of blogging, or as I like to say “writing in public,” is just how much any site, even a fairly quiet one like mine, attracts spam comments. Ads for medical treatments, sexual aids, long nonsensical posts where I suspect someone is being paid by the word, and many offers of help – to generate more traffic, solve technical problems, or improve the content of my site. You don’t see these comments because an internal process lets me “cut them off at the pass,” so to speak.
Every now and then, they make me laugh. My favorite so far is a comment posted to the page where I give some background on myself, “About me.”
I’m pretty sure of my source, though she still surprises me.
But the “conclusion”?
Well…I try not to pretend it won’t ever come, but ultimately it remains one of those big mysteries.
In August 1991, the Headlands Center for the Arts1 gave me a room, a food stipend, and most importantly about a week and a half away from the constant demands of my office.
I arrived with the intention of mulling over questions of artists and economics that had been on my mind for several years. Many of my thoughts on the subject had been prompted by specific writers, and at the Headlands I took time to re-introduce myself to their work. I carried a pile of books with me and used a computer that was considered “portable” in its day. I lived and worked in one room of a big house full of other artists on their own journeys.
Every day I took at least one long walk, to Rodeo Lagoon and the ocean beach on the other side of the sand bar, or up and over the low windswept hills, past cliffs and coves, decommissioned officers’ quarters and sites of former military installations, to views of San Francisco across the bay. I especially loved the smell of the head-high wild fennel.
But except for the walks and time out to prepare my meals, I buried myself in the books, mostly resisting the temptation to join the other artists in community-oriented activities. Every day of reading and writing was precious.
The books I took with me examined economics from a range of perspectives. They included: Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985) by Jane Jacobs, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) by Lewis Hyde; Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work, and Family Life (1984) by Dolores Hayden; If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (1988) by Marilyn Waring; an anthology edited by Paul Ekins, The Living Economy: A New Economics in the Making (1986); a short book, Behind the Veil of Economics: Essays in the Worldly Philosophy (1989) by Robert L. Heilbroner; and Economics in Perspective: A Critical History (1987) by John Kenneth Galbraith. Because I was intent on exploring ideas about artists and economics not just by writing but also by finding ways to take action in my own life, I also used a few experiences from my own life.
I recorded my engagement with these writers’ ideas in a paper, Artists and Economics: Notes from the Headlands, that contains short excerpts from their writing, paraphrases of their ideas, and some of my own thoughts, especially about artists and economics, that the writers provoked. The first book I considered was Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs. That section is posted on this site as “Jane Jacobs – Economics and messy inefficiencies.”
The paper remained open-ended and, for 10 days’ work, it felt finished enough. At the end of my time there, I made a few copies and presented them to a small group of artists and others at a gathering organized by the Center.
All in all, it was a very satisfying time away.
1 Headlands Center for the Arts offers residencies and other programs to artists in all disciplines to support independent and collaborative work. The Center took over the property in the early 1980s and since then has rehabilitated its historic buildings through artists’ commissions. Much has happened since I was there.
About the photos. In 1991 I didn’t carry a camera in my pocket as I do now (that is, my phone), so I have no images of the Headlands that I took myself. I’m grateful to the website of the Headlands Center for the Arts for the photos here. Even though taken several decades later, they bring back the spirit of the place I experienced.
Sometimes a sentence or a phrase jumps out of context and stands on its own. As I read an opinion piece in the New York Times recently, a sentence did exactly that. In a very short time it has settled into my mind as a useful signpost, pointing me to possibilities beyond the current moment. “A forgotten story,” the author wrote, “teaches history’s most beautiful lesson:
The world we know is not our only option.
In the column, historian Jon Grinspan wrote of the days in the 1830s to 1900 when young people in the U.S. voted in droves, “speechified,” and rioted in wild elections. “Reading 16-year-olds’ diaries,” he said, “you can see the way they bundled political involvement with their latest romance, their search for work, and the acne on their foreheads. Public participation soothed private anxiety. Youth politics worked because it was so messy, blending ideology with identity, the fate of the country with ‘fun and frolic’.” The forgotten story is captured in the title of his book, The Virgin Voter: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century. “One of our political system’s weakest links used to be the strongest. Young people did vote. They could do so again.”
“The world we know is not our only option.” In more ways than youthful voting alone, the future opens up if we are convinced as we face it that new options are possible and that we have a part in creating them.
Photo by Anton Trötscher, Houston, “Butterfly plant”
Jon Grinspan is a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. His column in New York Times, “Virgins, Booze, and Politics,” ran on April 10, 2016.
Last month, my granddaughter Livia and I visited the Suyama Space, an amazing, one-of-a-kind space for artist installations, located in the heart of an architecture firm in downtown Seattle. The installation in the space was “Seattle Floor,” by Viet Stratmann, currently living in Paris. What would you do if you walked in?
Or maybe . . .
Or . . .
Or maybe you’d inspire one of the architects to join you.
With many thanks to Viet Stratmann and the folks at Suyama Space!