Category Archives: Hallowed Hall

The Detroit Institute of Arts

When people ask me why I planned a vacation to Detroit, I think about my night at the DIA:

A Bonjour concert

I do my best to talk about my experience, but it’s hard to describe this setting in words: 1920s Beaux-Arts building, 1930s Diego Rivera murals, and an experimental stringed ensemble from New York led by French expat Florent Ghys. It was everything I’d imagined Detroit could be: cultured and complicated.

Built in 1927, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a fine example of Detroit’s grand past and it’s one of the few world-class institutions in this city that has maintained its status. The building itself is a beautiful example of twentieth century beaux-arts and the American City Beautiful movement. It’s a symbol of a time when wealthy residents and cities boldly invested in their culture and their future. In the spring,  you might find tulip trees  blooming and the sun shining on manicured lawns.

This is not how most people picture Detroit:

Of course, I immediately fell in love. When we first walked in, my dad and I ate dinner at CaféDIA then settled into our seats in Rivera Court just past the main entrance to the museum. Every Friday night, the DIA exhibits a musical guest for a free live performance. For us, the museum hosted the modern stringed music of Bonjour. In this old stone hall of Diego Rivera murals, the New York chamber music ensemble played Thursday Afternoon and other innovative stringed arrangements.

The museum, in large part funded by the wealth of the automobile industry, has also fiercely defended the Rivera murals which depict faceless humans and infinite assembly lines.

The infinite assembly line and anonymous worker

It’s one of the artist’s greatest surviving works in America and it’s ironic to be associated with the family and fortune of Henry Ford. Ford, the icon of the American automobile revolution and Rivera, a Mexican artist associated with communism and the revolutions from below. The murals are both grand and subversive. In Detroit, they’re perfect.

Today, the future of the DIA is in question. When the filed for bankruptcy, creditors began eyeing the art at the DIA and scheming its potential sale. Everything that is great about this museum also makes it one of the city’s most valuable assets. If all the art were seized and sold, it would certainly be a chilling moment in museum history. What’s incredible about the current spirit of Detroit is a “nothing to lose–nothing to hide” attitude. Unfortunately, in the case of the DIA, the city does have something to lose. The question is whether to hold onto an institution from the past or fully embrace a new and more innovative future.

The future of the DIA is the future of Detroit.

For more, check out my “Places” tab for Detroit.

Our haunted selves

Back in February, I wrote that I had begun to see each of us as “haunted houses.” I had been reading through Isaiah when I realized that, if each of us is the house of God, we are definitely houses with cob webs in the windows and dubious stories. We are haunted houses, I thought, and we need to be able to embrace ourselves, to walk the dark hallways and revisit the old “memories that haunt the mind.” After all, when you finally get the courage to walk through a haunted house, you realize that your fears, while not unfounded, were overstated. We have pasts, we all had a childhoods, but we are merely human.

At the same time that I wrote these posts and processed these thoughts, I was also reading Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. It really is an excellent book. In it, he spends only one chapter actually listing the individual disciplines, and only three pages on the discipline of solitude, but that is not a marker of its importance. “Solitude frees us, actually,” he writes. “This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines. [emphasis added]” It was so odd to read this because I had always been taught that reading the Bible (study) and prayer were the most important disciplines. Ironically, in this American brand of Christianity, I was taught that the two most important spiritual disciplines were two of the “disciplines of engagement” rather than “disciplines of abstinence” such as silence and frugality. And even then, the word “abstinence” doesn’t usually have a good reaction among people who were raised in the church.

But indeed it is solitude, writes Willard, that prepares the heart for engagement, not the other way around. “It takes twenty times more the amount of amphetamine to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups.”

But there is also a dark side to the discipline of solitude and this is what brings me back to my thoughts about haunted houses. “In solitude,” he writes, ” we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others. Thus,

Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted'” (Louis Bouyer).

And so I began to connect the dots between my own times of solitude this year and my newfound understanding of myself and my past. I was so social for the last eight years of my life, always moving from event to event, that I didn’t stop to see myself. I knew that there was stuff I didn’t like, but I didn’t slow down long enough to see past the surface. When I finally did, when I saw the depth of my depravity, I began to see everyone’s depravity. I took everything more seriously: every act, every word spoken, every story, every choice. While I began to believe more seriously that we are incredibly valuable, I also began to realize more profoundly that we are incredibly self-destructive.

And why? I think that much of it stems from our desire to ignore ourselves. Willard writes about solitude like it’s dangerous. He writes that many of us will not be able to embrace extended solitude in a healthy way because we still feel the need to have other people around for guidance. Sometimes, the pain of solitude can be too great and we have to respect ourselves and each other in the process. In my own life, I believe that solitude is actually a process of detoxification. When I am alone, the same old songs play on repeat in my head, I start to stress about the future, and I start to wish I were more comfortable. In these moments, I don’t think of myself as distracted, but instead I think I’m just slowly getting rid of all the habits that I’ve learned in my time with others during the day. All the gossip, all the comforts of life, all the habits begin to emerge.

In solitude, our humanity is restored in ways that are both painful and empowering. While we don’t always like what we find, at least we are finally giving ourselves some time and attention. Solitude, writes Willard, “is the primary place of strength” because we are left to reconcile life and to remember what we believe to be true. In solitude, we engage our haunted selves, but we also remind ourselves, quite plainly, that we are not of our communities and we are not of this world. We are not trapped by our surroundings and we are not limited by our own lives which we begin to see in sharp clarity without the noise of conflicting opinions.

This is where Willard claims we are to start our Christian walk, but this is actually a radical shift from much of what I hear today. He is saying to do this one thing before you worship, before you read, before you give, or go: give yourself some time to breathe and space to think. Just sit in silence and wait.

The rest of life can wait as well.

Movement and Moment

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been writing my way through a bunch of different thoughts and ideas and the result has basically become the entirety of this blog. At the same time, I’ve also been gradually trying to connect the dots with one underlying theme: that life is all about circulation and significance, the movement as well as the moment.

Since my words don’t always make a lot of sense, I’m constantly trying to find new ways to explain myself and share what I think is interesting about the world: examples of circulation and significance in our daily lives. Most of these places are either what I consider Highways (circulation) or Hallowed Halls (significance). Today, I get to write about a place that embodies both of these characteristics and the tension that exists between the two.

I recently visited the Negro Burial Ground just east of downtown Richmond in Shockoe Valley. My approach to this site was across a VCU parking lot and through a tunnel under Broad St. As you walk through the tunnel, you emerge onto a huge empty field of beautiful grass that was once yet another parking lot in downtown Richmond. In recent years, the asphalt was removed and this area was designated “A Place of Contemplation and Reflection.” I appreciate this area mostly because it’s a complicated place. There aren’t physical buildings that most people would consider “historic,” but what happened on this one piece of ground (the public execution and careless burial of enslaved and free people) is considered enough to make the place significant today. Once a place of fear and violence, it has been restored to the people of Richmond as a place of silence and careful thought.

While I think the site itself is certainly worth visiting, what I really care about is a place located just above the actual burial grounds. From this vantage, you can see that less than 50 yards away from this place of contemplation is Interstate 95 in all of its glory. The cars and tractor trailers fly by on this crazy asphalt slingshot that shoots cars straight through the heart of my city. Like all highways, it’s a totally anonymous no man’s land where you don’t walk, you don’t slow down, and you don’t typically notice the historic burial grounds nearby. When you’re on a highway like this, you don’t care much for where you are because you’re more focussed on where you’re going. That’s essentially the nature of movement.

To get the photo above, I climbed up a little hill to the foot of the Broad St. bridge I had previously walked underneath. For a while, I just sat up on the hill and watched the disinterested movement of the highway next to the contemplative stillness of the old burial ground. I realized that we need both the movement and the moment, but I think sometimes we feel like we have to make a choice: You have to be either ambitious or thoughtful, motivated or lazy. When I experience a place like this, it reminds me that we should be aware of both aspects of life. It also makes me a little more hopeful that my writing is still relevant. What I have learned through writing this blog is still teaching me and making the world a more interesting place.

While I was looking out on the scene, I realized that photos and words are limited media for describing ideas such as movement and moment. So I filmed a brief and simple video (below) that might help to further explain this relationship. It’s much more about the idea than the video itself … and I recommend muting the video sound and listening to Lisbon, OH by Bon Iver while you watch it.

As always, more to come.

P.S.  to Gwarlingo for the movement/moment pairing … it used to be found in their explanation of the meaning of the word Guarlingo which is Welsh for the sound a grandfather clock makes before it strikes on the hour, “the movement before the moment.” Of course, my blog is about the movement and the moment, but I thought it was an interesting side note.

Tree in Stone

About two weeks ago I was driving out of Hollywood Cemetery with my housemates and I saw this tree that had grown in the cobblestones beside the rode.

A tree in stone.

I don’t want to get too heady, but I think it’s really interesting to think about the life of the tree and the death of the area. Grown from the stones, the tree ascends into the sky and leads the eyes away from the ground and upward to the beauty of nature. I don’t think the picture is really anything special, but it’s definitely my favorite from the trip.

That is all.

C is for Cemetery

Cemeteries are memory personified.

They are the tangible outcome of the human desire to be remembered. The desire to last beyond our death. They are the pyramids of the masses; each grave a person’s last chance to make their case for God and men. Cemeteries are also a halmark of civilized society … not everyone receives the dignity of a headstone. And because not all headstones are created equal, they’re also a tangible and public investment in the future of the family name.

In his book, The Language of Towns and Cities, Dhiru Thadani writes an entry for cemeteries that includes two photos of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. “Authentic towns and cities have cemeteries,” he writes, “and space should be planned to accommodate this essential component when designing new towns.” When I read this, I appreciated Thadani’s attention to the value of cemeteries in modern life. I also considered it a bit of a coup for Richmond considering the other noteworthy cemeteries in America. Then again, it’s completely justified.

There is something so basic and yet remarkable about the time and care that was taken in the planning and development of Hollywood Cemetery. It’s no wonder Richmond’s aristocracy used to picnic on the hills of Hollywood overlooking the James River. They escaped the smoke of the city, tidied up their family plot, and caught a cool breeze on warm summer days. Since the cemetery was first planned, it has been maintained, improved, and today remains a destination in this old American city. A brick walkway was added to create “President’s Circle” where two former US presidents are buried. The cemetery stands, in part, as a testament to the longevity of power and tradition in American society.

Another remarkable cemetery in Richmond, one that is not highlighted in Thadani’s epic, is Evergreen Cemetery. I visited Evergreen four days before I visited Hollywood and, as anyone would tell you, the difference is stark. Where one has improved, the other has declined. Where one is prominently placed on the hills overlooking the James, the other is beside a highway in Church Hill. Where one is a testament to power, the Other is a testament to the longevity of systemic stigmatization and shame.

At one time, Evergreen Cemetery must have been a place of prominence in the black community. At least a generation of leaders, their family and friends were buried in this place. The most noteworthy resident is of course the famed Maggie L. Walker: the first American woman to “charter a bank in the United States.” Her grave, like many others, is now shaded in the canopy of a forest that has grown where there was once a field. Mausoleums have been raided, pathways are hidden by brush, and the lives of black Richmond are gradually being lost to time.

With cemeteries, it’s always difficult to understand who is responsible for upkeep. The children of the deceased, the businessmen who sold the plots, or the society at large. The more fascinating question to me, of course, is not who, but why? At its most fundamental level, the maintenance of graves is actually a maintenance of one’s personal identity and heritage. In the case of Hollywood, this is both American and Confederate heritage. In both cases, the members of these groups seem totally unashamed of their pride. They live boldly in their past and work tirelessly to maintain the vestiges which prove it’s legitimacy.

In contrast, the people who would have maintained a place such as Evergreen were a vastly more manipulated and displaced group in the twentieth century. The successful class of black Richmonders, once confined to the city, were proud to erect monuments and sustain traditions that defied the white power structure’s condescending narrative of black inferiority. Once segregation was overthrown, however, many left the city behind and perhaps coincidently left behind their heritage as well. Of course, this is true of nearly every American who left the city in the twentieth century. And yet, one cemetery shines and the other is being slowly eroded by time.

“Segregated at Death” was a title that I considered for this post, but I decided that  it wasn’t the message with which I wanted to lead. I decided that it would be more worthwhile to simply present these two cemeteries and hopefully develop more of a holistic understanding of both (and cemeteries in general) in the context of the other. Thadani’s omission of Evergreen is unfortunate, but not unexpected: his work is often more concerned with aesthetic than politics. For me, I believe that if if we’re going to talk about cemeteries, we ought to at least consider both sides of the American color line to get the full story.

If anyone else wants to start tearing down trees at Evergreen let me know! I still think it can be saved and I would love to be a part of clearing the brush from old Richmond graves. The task is daunting (if you’ve been there, you know), but I think would be worth it.

Perhaps the more we work the more we will know why.

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This post is a part of a series I’m putting together on my RVA page.

He came and dwelt among us

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, was the deadliest day in Richmond since New Year’s Day. Last night, I got the following text from my housemate:

“Don’t know if y’all saw the news or not but two people were killed and a 2 year old girl was abducted a few blocks [from] our house tonight. Be praying for our community tonight and throughout tomorrow as we reflect on what the birth of Christ and the hope of his return means.”

Later, I heard that there were three murders in the same day — a reminder that we humans are not the kind and simple species I like to imagine. I was so thankful that the sad news came with a charge to take Christmas more seriously.

If there were ever a Hallowed Hall, it was the stable in which Jesus was born. Amidst the chaos of an ancient Hebrew city — multiplied by the Roman census — God created room for His holy and audacious command: “peace on earth.”

This day is a tradition that exists to remind us that, with reckless abandon, the God of the universe “came and dwelt among us.” He spoke human language, followed human traditions and respected the full range of human experience: Contentment, excitement, trust, affection, doubt, betrayal, and loss.

Into such a world, this incarnation brought a peace and hope that allows us to give of ourselves and be satisfied.

When we follow a higher calling, the most simple human places become holy. I pray that this year we will hear the Christmas story and appreciate how absurd it sounds: A baby that is God, a new star in the sky, a mother that is a virgin, a stable that is a maternity ward, and a peace that surpasses human understanding.

That ancient city became an unlikely intersection, a place worth remembering, and the origin of a hope found in the person of Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas.

A is for Agricultural Urbanism

Tricycle Gardens is a local organization that has taken to transforming parking lots and empty space into beautiful, collaborative, and interactive green space. Dhiru Thadani would describe their work as specifically: Community Gardens, Allotment Gardens, and Container Gardens. I usually describe them as fun for everyone. Here are some examples:

This is the first post in my, “Cataloguing Richmond,” series saved in “RVA.”