I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time in the garden lately, where I victoriously harvested 6 whole green beans yesterday, after defending them from bunnies and groundhogs and deer.
In getting closer to all sorts of plants, I’ve learned a lot more about roots. Some are shallow and easily disturbed, like the green beans. Some are deep but singular, like Queen Anne’s Lace or dandelions. And some are full of surprises, vigorous and resilient: mint has escaped into my yard, wild thyme carpets the field, and false indigo springs up yards and yards from where the original was planted.
This week I had the chance to see some of my own roots on display. I have been nominated for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, and in spreading the word about elections a few wonderful developments ensued. Many allies have emerged, and beyond that, generous and encouraging advocates. Though I attended the smallest school at the University in the middle of my life, it turns out my roots are both deeper and wider than I realized.
This all has me reflecting more generally on the nature of our roots, ties of kinship and friendship and community that run below the surface of our lives. Some friendships are like the wild indigo, sprouting up surprisingly, far from the original. Some are like dandelions, stretching so deep that they will come back even when the surface is disturbed. And some are like the wild thyme, spreading bit by bit across time and space in a great connected web.
Dear ones, on this weekend of reflection for the United States, let’s take a moment to examine our roots. Which connections are surprising us? Which have stood the test of time? Which are mostly quiet, but hold us up in our time of need?
In this strange time, full of disruption, it is a great comfort to know that under the surface, our roots still hold fast.
* If you happen to have Harvard ties — please vote if you are an alum of any part of the University, and please consider spreading the word to friends so that turnout is as representative as possible. This is a vital time for all institutions, and for our world, and I would be honored to bring my cumulative life experience to this role. You can read more about the election process here.
* And, we are expecting the proof copies for Month of Sundays to arrive this week! A few final edits and it will be launched out into the world… just in time for our summer reading stacks.
In this time of isolation, time has stood still and flown by, all at once. Somehow we are already coming up on the 4th of July holiday in the United States, which called me to review the excellent catalog of Jacob Lawrence from the Peabody Essex Museum. A footnote to one of his American Struggle works led me down a small rabbit hole and before I knew it, I was reading the Declaration of Independence.
If you attended grade school in the United States, you doubtless have memorized this passage near the start:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But have you made it to the end? This is the grand finale:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
I have lived all my life in this country and never connected the beginning of this statement with the end. Our national founding was deeply flawed in essential ways, but look at this aspiration at its core: We pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to those truths – that all are created equal, and that our rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In declaring independence, we were really declaring interdependence.
Friends, as we debate the balance of individual and collective rights, as we somehow turn even basic public health courtesy into a twisted political test, let’s review the promise we made so long ago:
A mutual pledge for life.
Dedicated to my dad, who shows us every day that honorable citizenship still exists.
And, our new book is coming soon! We’ll be sharing some previews here over the next few weeks.
This month I’d planned to gather with dear college friends for our reunion – which, of course, was not meant to be. Nonetheless, I’ve been in a nostalgic mood, with odd scraps of conversations and small flashback movie reels coming back to me.
One classroom moment popped up the other day, as I was listening to some government officials interpret economic data. I suddenly was back in Econ 102, listening to Professor Goldman talk about the theoretical folly of a minimum wage. Much to my surprise, mid-lecture, I heard myself pipe up and say, no, that’s wrong!
This was the first time I’d openly disagreed with a professor. It might have been the first time I openly disagreed with anyone in authority. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back. Who knew what consequences would come my way? But I had just spent the summer working 3 part time jobs for $3.35 an hour, alongside parents who were working those same jobs and trying to make ends meet.
Here is the amazing thing that happened: he listened.
Professor Goldman paused, turned, and asked me to explain my views, to give evidence for my commentary. And when I’d done so, he said, well that’s a fair point, and incorporated my objection into the class discussion. He didn’t tell me the 1000 ways that my view was incomplete. He didn’t pull out his econo-jargon and PhD and dozens of credentials to bully me with them. He didn’t dismiss my evidence because it was based on personal observation.
Dear ones, even when we know something for sure, even when we’re the experts, we don’t know so much in the end. May we be willing to see the gaps between our theories and our realities. May we be willing to consider that our most cherished ideals might still be works in progress. May we always be willing to listen, with open minds and open hearts.
Coming soon! A new book, Month of Sundays, based on this series of Sunday Bests. Look for more details in the weeks to come, and follow @mofsundaysbook on your favorite social media platforms to stay in the loop.
Earlier this week, I found a moth bashing up against the window screen. She was a little worse for the wear, wings a bit tattered, and a voice in my head said, “Pandora.”
You know the legend, how Pandora’s jar was opened up and all the evils of the world were released. But there was one last creature left in the jar when the lid was replaced: Hope, squashed but still fluttering at the bottom of the container.
I have been using the language of multi-layered crisis to describe our current conditions – health crisis, economic crisis, environmental crisis, justice crisis – yet this is incomplete. Intertwined with all of these, there is Hope. And it’s not a weak and fluttery thing.
I see millions of people rising up to care for others who are ill, despite the risks to their own well-being.
I see entrepreneurs creating new solutions for these changing times, and communities rallying around local points of exchange.
I see skies clearing and gardens sprouting, everywhere.
I see peaceful protest and sold-out books and open-hearted action and painful reflection and deep listening.
None of this might have been needed if times were more ordinary.
None of this might have been possible if times were more ordinary.
Dear ones, we are swimming in a sea that can’t be seen, because we’re in it. Our arms are tired and our eyes are stinging and our breath is ragged. But the winds are shifting.
Who knows what they might bring?
When I first had a patch of ground to plant, I had visions of lush gardens, layered with flowers and fruits and majestic trees and with cute little bunnies who never ate the tulips. That first year, I planted a few trees, and quickly turned over a patch of grass to plant some fast-blooming annual flowers.
The flowers were immediately stunning. I was so proud of the giant blooms and the quick results of my labor, and all of my visitors complimented the new garden. The trees, on the other hand, were just sad-looking sticks, with every new leaf nightly eaten by deer. And I had not consulted any local experts, so half of my choices were ill-suited for this place, and had no chance of survival. My visitors laughed and the pitiful sticks, and I rolled my eyes and turned back to the showy annuals.
The following season, the grass and dandelions started to repopulate the flower patch, and I did not have so much time to tend it. The new flowers were still pretty, but without constant investment, they were much less impressive, and subject to luck, as a late frost took out half of the plants. Luckily I’d started listening to people who knew more about this place and this soil and this climate, who helped me to learn about better choices for both the planting and the tending.
Fast forward a few more years, and the little stick-trees are stunning, branching way over my head with blooms and fruits and beauty. A middle layer of perennials and shrubs has fully formed, gorgeous steady plants that return each season. And because the rest of the garden is healthy, the annuals are easy, a small simple accent, easy to tend.
Friends, for so long we have treated our most serious needs, both individual and collective, as if they are annual flowers, as if quick thoughtless investment should produce stunning results. It’s like a crash diet, or cramming for a test – for a moment we might succeed, but there’s no lasting foundation. To maintain any results, every day will require more crashing, more cramming.
We need to tend the soil.
We need to listen to those who know.
We need to plant every layer with care.
Not just this season, but forevermore.