Category Archives: Significance

Crying Over Spilt Rilke

I’m thankful for the Adam Lauver sharing his thoughts on this Rilke letter and the rest of the collection which I own, but have still not finished. Maybe this is the encouragement I’ve been needing 🙂 I’ve reblogged his post here for anyone else who is interested in a little encouragement today. It’s not an answer to your questions, it’s a new metaphor for your life.

During my first year of college, I struggled a good bit. On the outside, I was effortless: taking upper-level seminars, making friends with the president. But on the inside, I was asking big, fundamental questions about myself and about life. And I was, for the first time, on my own. During this time (as with much of my life since then) I began to reach out for life preservers—little bits that I could cling to for hope and assurance in the “goodness” of the future.

One such bit of wisdom was “Letter 4” from Ranier Maria Rilka written to a young poet. The interim chaplain at the time emailed the piece to me and I will never forget reading it one night while “studying” in the library. I read the words “Live the questions now” and my eyes began to open to a new perspective on life and a new peace I had never previously comprehended. Rilke continues, “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

The Narratician

“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was…

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Racial Demographics in the US

For the past few days I’ve been playing with an amazing map developed by a team at UVA attempting to display census data in a more accessible way. Take a look at Richmond:

Racial demographics in Richmond

Chicago:

Chi Town

New Orleans:

NOLA

Houston:

Houston

St. Louis:

St. Louis

The Bay Area

Bay Area

NYC and surrounding region:

NYC Region

And the Whole Shebang:

USA

How People Grow

“At some point, having owned the issues, people need to let go of debts, feel sadness about the past and losses they can’t change, and receive forgiveness for what they have contributed. This is often a sign that they are well on the road to resolving a particular issue, as grief means they now have enough love inside them to tolerate letting go of someone or something they have lost.”

How People GrowThis book is for people who want to grow and for people who facilitate growth in others. It’s also from both the perspective of Christian doctrine and psychological research which I appreciated. I think I was a little ahead of myself reading it, but it will definitely be on my shelf for future reference. There are so many amazing takeaways from this book that I can’t list them all, but one of the biggest lessons for me was that it all starts with acceptance.

Here’s to truth and growth and life.

*Quote from p. 360, How People Grow

Watercolor Richmond

I just stumbled upon an article in Good about a program that produces interesting maps of your favorite places all over the world. Considering how much I love maps and cities, this site made my day.

Here’s a watercolor of Richmond:

Richmond Watercolor

While I was at it, I also made one of Detroit:

Detroit watercolor

Here’s Tyler:

Tyler

And just for fun … Istanbul:

Istanbul

And Copenhagen:

Copenhagen

Names and implications

Excerpt from “The Power of Names” by Adam Alter:

“The German poet Christian Morgenstern once said that ‘all seagulls look as though their name were Emma.’ Though Morgenstern was known for his nonsense poetry, there was truth in his suggestion that some linguistic labels are perfectly suited to the concepts they denote. ‘Dawdle’ and ‘meander’ sound as unhurried as the walking speeds they describe, and ‘awkward’ and ‘gawky’ sound as ungainly as the bodies they represent.

When the Gestalt psychologist and fellow German Wolfgang Köhler read Morgenstern’s poem, in the nineteen-twenties, he was moved to suggest that words convey symbolic ideas beyond their meaning.”

I feel like this research is connected to a post I wrote the other day about how important names are to our identity and our connection to a place. I don’t believe that our potential is completely limited to our names, but I do believe that names influence the manner in which we walk through life each day.

Naming New Worlds

Behind the house where I grew up there is an undeveloped lot of trees and grass. As a child, my neighbors and I often climbed over the back wall into this untamed world. We constructed imaginary realms and a gateway to the outside. We even gave it a creative name: Trocourba.

Always fair (even as children), I remember we pulled the name from fragments of each of our respective school mascots: Trojans, Cougars, and Braves. As children, we saw this lot as an empty palate for us to fill with our imagination. Much of what we built has been lost, but I still walk through those woods when I’m home and remember the days spent claiming and naming that empty space.

***

This post is about the attitude of the explorer: the belief that discovering a place makes it “new.” And if it’s new then it’s never been named. We name things every day in order to claim them and make sense of them. In order to understand a place, we give it a name. It makes it familiar.

What first started me thinking about the idea of “naming and claiming” was a conversation I had with my high school students last year. I was teaching the “pre-European” section of a class on Richmond history and we started to discuss the word “savage.” This post is a follow-up to my fascination with the word “savage” over a year ago.

The concept and conviction of savagery, I realized, is a necessary precursor to the process of “naming new worlds.” There are two primary steps in this process. First, discovered lands are proclaimed “new” simply because nothing there is familiar and, second, the existing names for that land (and all inhabitants) are deemed illegitimate. In my class, we discussed the British invasion of present-day Virginia, but that’s not the only example of “savage” places being invaded. Many years after the US gained independence from the British monarchy, the kingdoms of Europe made similar claims on land in Africa. Much of this continent was subdued by the military might and shameful brutality of early Europe. As tribes and kingdoms in Africa fell, new nations were formed.

It was time for some new names:

Many of these names have been changed in the past 50 years of independence, but the legacy of colonization, of course, lives on.

In my search to understand this connection between mapmaking and empire, I remembered one of my favorite sections in the play, Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a play about a man that seems superhuman in his ambition and his strength. In one scene, Tamburlaine discusses the growth of his kingdom by using the metaphor of a map and a pen:

“Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land,
Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.
I will confute those blind geographers
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate”

(Marlowe, Tamburlaine, I, iv, 72-79).

Here Marlowe conveys the dreams of a new map for a new kingdom with a new king. Tamburlaine connects the map of the world to his goals for military conquest and his desire for increase. With these words he boldly speaks the future into existence. He, like many leaders throughout history, desires to claim the earth as an extension of himself and his power. His kingdom will be as large as his desire because his strength will not be stopped in his pursuit.

This confidence is not unique to Tamburlaine or fiction at all. There are many examples of powerful men looking over other people’s land with greed. These days we all understand this idea of a “nation” as if it is the way that we’ve always structured the world, but that is not the case. As we shifted to nations from the former powerful families, kingdoms, and empires, many voices of dissent were silenced as neat maps were drawn by powerful hands. Here’s a few examples (with dissenting factions in parenthesis):

  • The United States of America (The Lakota, The Sioux)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (The Banyamulenge)
  • The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)
  • China (The Uighur, The Tibetan)
  • Iraq (The Kurds)

In America, we expanded our borders with military victories and the conviction that God Almighty had ordained our growth. In other nations, it was a colonizing force that created new borders with little regard for indigenous territories or cultural differences. While the colonizing or invading forces subdued, they claimed the land and it’s “inferior” inhabitants. In nearly every single case, it went something like this:

“Sorry, that place you call home isn’t your home any more. Oh, and stop calling it that. It’s not called that any more. You’re pronouncing it wrong. How could you be so stupid?”

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This is the power of names. When a name is given, it becomes familiar. When the name of a place is changed, natives become foreigners. Dignity is stripped. Identity is lost. And there is a deep unquenchable resentment that lives on in hearts and minds.

We are all a part of this legacy. We are all naming or being named.

Smelling Magnolias

When I worked at a high school in Richmond last spring, I drove the bus in the morning before going in to teach. Each day, I dropped my students off at the front of the building then drove around the corner to park. Several times on my way back to the entrance, I walked past a small magnolia tree covered in blooms:

Walking by that tree, I would stop and lean in for a minute or two to smell an old, familiar smell. It’s completely cliche, but magnolias will always make this southern boy think of home. For that brief moment, I was there: climbing in the magnolia in front of the house where I grew up.

Memory is, of course, powerfully connected to smells and I have noticed this more intensely in the past few years. Maybe I’m more aware of the smells or perhaps I’m becoming more aware of the memories. Either way, smelling magnolia was a comfort on those mornings before walking into school and trying/failing to teach.

In recent months I’ve begun to move toward “nostalgia” as a topic of interest. During this time, I’ve remembered moments of nostalgia in my own life as I’ve also found it referenced in books and articles. Nostalgia is intimately related to the themes of this blog. As we propel ourselves forward we’re also liable to make an occasional backward glance. Also, nostalgia reminds me that “leaving” is not always as complete as we wish. We are all building on the past and it surely composes much our future.

I can’t always predict when I’ll come across a magnolia to remind me of another place or another time, but I hope I’ll stop to smell and remember. As my brain visits old synapses and makes new connections, I will be content to rest in the moment. And then, to take a step back and be thankful for the past and the present.

Magnolias grow in the most unexpected places.