Trying to Read in a Crisis

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Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay

When the thought was raised of “physical distancing,” that sounded like heaven for a reader. And maybe it has been for some.

Not so far for me, and it may be you see less reviews from me. Typically, I’ll end up reading about 120 pages a day most days. This past week, if I can read 30, I’m doing good.

Some of it is work-related. I work in a collegiate ministry where we are making a rapid shift from face-to-face to digital. I happen to lead one of the digital areas of our ministry, and lots of time has been spent in Zoom calls figuring out how to do that. I just finished a nationwide call with university faculty trying to figure out how to convert their courses from face-to-face to online. We were using the some of the same software they will be using–and learning from each other in the process.

Some of it is just getting our household in order. We had the chance to move up a bathroom remodel. Now I wonder if a week later it would have even gotten done. In recent weeks we had been stocking up at the grocery–before the long lines. We had a sense this was coming, but there has been some extra time just getting our ducks in a row.

But a good part has just been distraction. I find myself checking the news reports more than is good for me and commenting with others online. Apart from finding out what the latest mandates are from our state, I don’t need to do too much more. I know it is going to keep getting worse for a while. I know I have to stay home and stay clean and not touch my face. It’s like it was in 9/11, except this won’t be done for awhile. The news coverage can draw you in, and agitate your thoughts and depress your heart. And it can distract from enjoying a good read.

Probably the best thing is to check in with my nightly news once a day, and stay away from news coverage the rest of the time. Sometimes I leave the phone in a different room so I’m less tempted to check it. Someone mentioned getting out for a walk. Haven’t done much of that recently, and I find that always clears my head. I sleep better and focus better. Replace screen time with walk time!

And maybe I just need to accept that my page count will drop for awhile. Maybe as things settle in that will change. I suspect in all sorts of way, this is a time where we need to be gentle with ourselves as well as with each other. It might even be a way where to get liberated from some compulsions. Some people waiting for me to review a book may have to wait longer. Right now, in the big scheme of things that doesn’t seem important.

These days, I find myself giving thanks that I’ve been preserved through another night, and at night through another day. I’m thankful to take a breath of air outside my door and scent the coming spring, which gives me hope. I give thanks for meals enjoyed at home. I give thanks for the quiet around me as I write. And when I can, I give thanks for the minutes I can spend with a book and a cup of coffee. The present crisis reminds me that all these things are gifts, gifts with which I may have become far too familiar.

Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

man in white shirt using tablet computer shallow focus photography

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I live in Ohio, and have been quite grateful for the leadership of our governor, Mike Dewine, and the director of the Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton (who grew up in Youngstown!) during this Covid-19 pandemic. During Dr. Acton’s briefing yesterday, she made a point that caught my attention. Quoting someone else who she did not name, she mentioned that it might be better to call what we need right now as physical distancing rather than social distancing.

Physical distancing is one of the critical measures we need to take to “flatten the curve” to avoid a surge of cases that overwhelm our health system, as occurred in Wuhan, Iran, Italy and elsewhere. This could mean doctors would have to make decisions of who gets respirators and who will not. In the same briefing, we learned that 60 to 80 percent of our state’s respirators are already in use, without Covid-19 cases. In addition to staying six to ten feet away from others and avoiding all physical contact, it has meant, in our state and many others, closures of schools and universities, bans on gatherings of over 100, closure of bars and restaurants except for take out purchases, bans on visitors to nursing facilities and prisons, cancellations of sporting and other events attracting crowds. Most religious bodies have cancelled services and gone to online streaming. Physical distancing could protect you from infection, or protect you from infecting someone who is vulnerable.

Social distancing. What we need to think about at this time is not becoming distant socially from one another, but rather finding new ways maintain and strengthen our social ties during an extraordinarily stressful time. On Meet the Press yesterday, David Brooks made this observation:

I looked back and read about all the different pandemics over centuries. And you think people come together in a crisis? They do in some kind of crisis. But in pandemic, they fall apart. The reporting from every crisis for the last thousand years of this sort is that neighbors withdraw from neighbors. You get widened class divisions. Out of fear you get a spirit of callousness.

The other day, I was talking to someone about the crazy hoarding of toilet paper, and he commented, “I’m stocking up on ammo.” His remark brought home to me that we face a question of what kind of society will we become in the next several months. We may choose a survival of the fittest ethic, fighting each other for toilet paper, food, or even a place in the line to get tested. Or we can choose to be a society seeking to recognize our connectedness. While we physical distance, we can reach out in other ways.

  • We can check in on the health and welfare of neighbors and those in our faith community.
  • We can use Nextdoor to learn of needs in our neighborhood. If you have a stash of toilet paper and learn of others with a need, you might consider helping.
  • Someone on quarantine or isolation (which can happen suddenly) legally cannot leave their home. Food, books, games, videos on their doorstep (let them keep them) might lift spirits in important ways.
  • We can particularly be aware of those who are alone, especially the elderly, and stay in contact.
  • We can pay attention to ways we may volunteer as appropriate to our health and age. In our area, voting is taking place. Most poll workers are over 65, putting them in a high risk group. If you have been laid off or work from home and are younger and in good health, you might help in their place.
  • One of the things that did not exist in the earlier pandemics is online technology. We can phone, text, message, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, email, WhatsApp and more. In the last days I’ve been reached out to and reached out to others on many of these media. Religious communities can meet online. People can collaborate in all sorts of ways. Instead of using social media to engage in endless barrages of argument and fingerpointing, we can use it to stay in touch with friends, even share a laugh.

None of our countries will be the same when this ends. David Brooks observed that after the 1918 flu pandemic, people avoided talking about it “because they were ashamed of how they behaved.” This pandemic could rend the fabric of our society even worse than it has been in recent years. Or it could re-focus us on what is important–the ways in which we are mutually dependent upon each other and every human being is of value. Are we going to hoard toilet paper and ammo, or invest in strengthening our social connections? While we practice physical distancing, will we focus on our social connectedness? You and I will make decisions in these next days and weeks that not only affect the health of millions but the fabric of our society. How will you choose?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Youngstown Air Reserve Station

Fairchild C-119

Fairchild C-119B-10-FA Flying Boxcar, U.S. Air Force Photo, Public Domain

If you were outside and you heard the roar of those engines overhead, you looked up to watch the “Flying Boxcars” winging their way to the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, connected to what was then Youngstown Municipal Airport. The plane was used as a troop and cargo transport during the Korean War and into the 1960’s when the 910th Troop Carrier Group was first established at the Youngstown Air Force Base.

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F-84 Thunderjet. USAFNational Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Public Domain

The beginnings of the Youngstown Air Force Base goes back to the early Cold War. In 1951, the Air Defense Command negotiated with Youngstown to establish a base for defense of the north-central United States in the event of a nuclear attack from Soviet bombers. Originally, the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron flew F-84 Thunderjets. Later, they upgraded to the F-102 Delta Dagger. which the 86th flew until moved in 1960. Also in 1955, the 79th Fighter Group was assigned to Youngstown.

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F-102 Delta Dagger, United States Air ForceDonald, David (2004), Public Domain

Also stationed at the Air Force Base in those early years was the Air Force Reserve’s 26th Fighter Bomber Squadron, a reserve unit flying the T-33 Shooting Star, a subsonic jet trainer, and very briefly the F-86H Sabres, a transonic fighter bomber.

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The April 1958 issue of Buckstone Carrier (the Youngstown Air Force Base periodical) features a sketch of a C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” tail number 0133, in flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Mr. Eric M. White, Public Domain

In 1959, the 86th was pulled out and the 26th inactivated. In 1960 the 79th was deactivated. The coming of the 910th in 1963 signaled the beginning of what is now a 57 year history. Over the years the mission changed from transport to air support special operations (1971-1973), a fighter group (1973-1981), and Tactical Airlift since then. Once again the loud roar of aircraft engines can be heard near the airport with the arrival of C-130’s. These aircraft can carry 92 troops, 64 paratroopers, and 45,000 pounds of cargo. The 910th has also had unique mission as a large area fixed spray operation, used in killing mosquitoes and other disease carrying insects. Currently, Ohio’s congressional delegation is working to get the latest version, the C-130J for the Youngstown Air Reserve Station.

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C-130 over Youngstown Air Reserve Station, U. S. Air Force, Public Domain

Hopefully, the valley will continue to hear the sound of those C-130’s overhead for many years to come.

Review: Running For Our Lives

Running for our Lives, Robb Ryerse (Foreword by Brian D. McLaren). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: A northwest Arkansas pastor decides to run in a primary against one of the most powerful Republican representatives in a grassroots campaign to restore a say in government to ordinary citizens.

Robb Ryerse was a political junkie. He was also a pastor whose developing ministry led him to political views at variance with many of his fundamentalist counterparts. It led him eventually to launch a counter-cultural and inclusive church in northwest Arkansas. It led to weeping when the nominee of his party was elected president in 2016 and joining others who were concerned about the way our political process was going.

All this led to Ryerse being recruited by Brand New Congress to run a grassroots campaign oriented around the common good of the everyday American. He went to a “Congress Camp” with a number of candidates from both parties including Antonia Ocasio-Cortez. What is striking is that Ryerse went as a Republican running against a Republican incumbent. He finds himself at variance with his party, not with the philosophy of governance, but rather with positions on healthcare, climate change, and immigration that have become immigration. He discovered that for all their disagreements, he could find common ground by focusing on the common good with those at Congress Camp who did not share his party affiliation–something they all wanted to take to Washington.

One of the key issues he explores is the issue of campaign finance. He argues that you will only have a Congress responsive to everyday citizens when they, and not big donors fund the campaigns, something Antonia Ocasio-Cortes was able to do. The challenge: this will probably take a constitutional amendment unless Americans refuse to support candidates funded by big money interests.

He traces the high and low points, the latter including a party dinner in a remote part of the district where his name was mispronounced and no one would talk to him. On the other hand were voters dissatisfied with the direction of the party who listened. A documentary crew follows his run from when he pays the $15,000 entry fee set by the party, his early high hopes and his increasing realization that he just didn’t have the votes. He ended winning 15 percent of the vote.

He ended the race a changed person. He reached a position on gun control that focused not only on the right to bear arms, but the “well-regulated” character of a citizenry who did so as a basis for gun legislation that did not take weapons away, but did govern how they could be obtained as part of a package of common sense gun legislation. Most of all, he became even more convinced of the need for a movement that focused on the electing of everyday people by everyday people committed to the common good. So when the invitation to become executive director of Brand New Congress to continue this movement, he said yes.

I suspect a number of people who read this review would not agree with all of Ryerse positions. I don’t. But what strikes me is that Ryerse argues for the kind of politician that I think we need to change the character of our legislative branch — people committed to seeking the common good of our citizens. What Ryerse does not answer is what it takes for such candidates to unseat a heavily funded incumbent on a shoe string. His support from everyday people, which he prided himself on, only amounted to $30,000, a paltry amount compared to his opponent. He can pride himself that he ran a principled race all he wants, but the truth is, he didn’t even come close to being elected. Nor did he generate enough of a movement of “everyday people” to even make the race competitive. Does that say something?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Bibliophiles in an Age of Social Distancing

woman wearing face mask

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com. [Comment: Advice is that masks should only be used by those who suspect they are infected, not the general population]

The rise and rapid spread of Covid-19 (coronavirus) has brought a new phrase into common usage–“social distancing.” This is the practice of literally keeping your distance from other people. It means avoiding large crowds or close contact with people, especially anyone manifesting symptoms of being ill. If one has been exposed to someone with the illness, it can mean self-quarantines, usually of 14 days, and longer, of course if you contract the illness. In some parts of the world (e.g. China, S. Korea, Italy), “lockdowns” have occurred enforcing social distancing on everyone. This is possible in any municipality, something most of us have never seen but probably ought prepare for. One piece of advice has been to stock up not only on essentials and non-perishables, but also on entertainment, including books.

I suspect for most bibliophiles, this is not a problem with our burgeoning TBR piles, although we are glad for the excuse to stock up (even though this is one “essential” we already have enough of). We might even whittle that pile down.

For most of us, “social distancing” is not a problem either. We have been using books for social distancing (particularly if we’re introverts) for most of our lives. Having our nose in a book usually is tantamount to hanging a “do not disturb” sign around your neck, except for the oblivious few who ask, “what are you reading.” Even then, all you have to do is hold up the cover or spine and show them (making an impromptu bioshield as well!).

I don’t want to make a self-quarantine or a lockdown sound like a “snow day.” But staying healthy includes emotional health, which is probably not enhanced by listening to constant news coverage about the virus. This can even prevent you from sleeping well or getting out and getting fresh air and exercise in the open air. If your state health department is on the ball, their daily bulletins are probably all you need (and we all probably can recite the basic guidelines in our sleep). You can take the rest of that time spent and instead of feeding the 24/7 news cycle to do all the other things I mentioned, plus work from home–and read!

This can be a time to find friends online, whether on Facebook or via video calls to talk about books we like. Pull up your computer, and a glass of wine, or other favorite beverage and chat with friends about books you like.

It may also be a time to explore new books you want to read. Look up your favorite review sites (hopefully including Bob on Books!), and make your list to reserve at the library, or order from your favorite indie (which may be struggling during this time). Put that “want list” together.

Some of us like film adaptations of books, especially those we have read. Perhaps you can make a plan to read or re-read the book, then watch the film and see how it measures up. Netflix subscriptions make this easy.

Reading can be a good way to practice both self-care and care for others during this time. We readers have long known that you don’t have to travel on a plane or car to travel the world (as well as other imagined worlds). Nor does physical isolation require social isolation. As long as we are in good health, we can interact with others in various online media, and turn our love of books into a shared love.

Stay safe out there, friends.

Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in BrooklynBetty Smith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2018 (originally published in 1943).

Summary: A coming of age story told through the eyes of Francie Nolan, about a girl’s life and ambitions in a struggling family in Brooklyn.

Published in 1943, this was one of those “books that went to war,” a special edition of which was carried in the rucksacks of soldiers in World War II as a reminder of home. Many wrote Betty Smith to tell her of what it meant to them.

The question one asks is what the abiding power of this book is. My sense of the answer is found in the sheer determination and grit of the character through whom the story is told, Francie Nolan. We first meet her as a young girl on a third floor fire escape, reading one of the latest books she has taken from the library (withdrawn in alphabetical order), looking over the patch of dirt out of which a tree had grown, “neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew upon green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas….No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky….It grew lushly, but only in the tenements district.”

I’m convinced that Francie is that tree–having a peculiar beauty, a resilience that thrives even under the toughest circumstances, struggling to reach for the sky and the stars, growing lushly amid the tenements of Brooklyn. She tells of her and her brother Neely, collecting rags and scrap, to bring home the pennies that help the family survive on their alcoholic father’s sporadic wages as a singing waiter and their mother’s cleaning work.

Smith vividly portrays the life from penny candy shops, to indifferent librarians, to brother-sister spats, loving her father’s voice, confirmation and first communion–and a terrifying attempted rape. Katie, Francie’s mother provides the steel that holds the family together while Johnny brings both the fun and the tragedy. Katie insists the children read a page of the Bible and Shakespeare each night, and imparts to them the importance of an education she never had. Francie picks this up, first lying her way into a better school, later longing to go on to high school and even college. When a teacher marks Francie’s compositions down despite her writing skills, rather than write the sweet drivel the teacher wants, Francie stops writing and takes a lower grade.

Johnny Nolan dies short of 35 and the family’s struggle for existence becomes yet more precarious, not only because of Johnny’s death, but also that he left Katie pregnant with Laurie. Wages from McGarrity’s bar help some. Then comes a painful scene where Katie decides upon Francie and Neely’s graduation that Francie would work while Neely goes to school. In spite of her disappointment, she holds a number of jobs, becoming the family breadwinner, even taking summer college courses. We watch a girl become a young woman, both with a determined sense of self and longings for love.

In the backdrop of her story are Katie’s twos sisters, Sissy and Evy. Evy’s husband seems a pitiful excuse of a man. Sissy goes through a series of “Johns” with whom she lives, in the quest to bear one live child until she finally meets a John named Steve. Through the conversations of these sisters the paradox of how good men are hard to find, men like McShane the policeman and aspiring politician with a sickly wife, and the attraction of men who end up not making good husbands. Most of the women whose characters are fleshed out are strong characters, even while they lack the formal power of men.

The other strong character in the book is Brooklyn itself. Smith evokes a sense of what the place was like in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the character who takes center stage is Francie. When America’s entry into the war is announced, this is how she reacts:

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere–be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

I’ll leave you to discover if Francie realizes all her dreams and is the “something” to which she aspires. What I will say is that the tree about which we’ve heard nothing through most of the narrative recurs in the final pages. Chopped down, it does not die, but rises again. “It lived! And nothing could destroy it.”

 

Review: Unsettling Truths

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Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Why I Still Love Youngstown

Suspension BridgeOne of the things I’ve discovered in writing about Youngstown over the years is that it may be forty years or more, but many people formerly from Youngstown still love the city as they remember it. That’s not true for all, of course, but I’ve reflected on why so many still have a special place in their hearts for Youngstown. I feel that way even though I moved away for work after college in 1976, and have lived longer in my current home than I lived in Youngstown.

Maybe it is just how people feel about their home town, no matter what. Could be, but I find people from Youngstown seem to light up when they have a chance to talk about what was special about home. We make pilgrimages to remind ourselves of what we loved–the Canfield Fair, the original Handel’s, Mill Creek Park, the Butler, or even New York City to ride the old Idora carousel.

If I had to come up with one reason for this love, I think it is simply because, for so many of us, the Youngstown of our memories was a good place to grow up–not perfect, but pretty good. It was a city of families–often extended families living within blocks of each other. It was a city that worked hard, and sometimes partied hard–particularly at weddings and wakes. It was a city that was both gritty and beautiful–with both mills and Mill Creek, blast furnaces and the Butler, both neighborhood garages and grand family-owned department stores. In many parts of town, most of the necessities of life were within walking distance.

Of course there was the food, and the endless quest of Youngstowners to find anything so good elsewhere, whether pizza or pizzelles, halushki or Handel’s. The Recipes of Youngstown cookbooks are a treasure trove for those who lost grandma’s recipe for one or another great Youngstown recipe. Sometimes the best food in the city could be found in her kitchen and her recipe box a family treasure.

The more I’ve delved into the people and history of Youngstown, the more I’ve been impressed by so many who loved the city and gave back and made it the rich place I enjoyed as a child–Volney Rogers, Joseph Butler, Anson Campbell, P. Berry Ross, William Rayen, Reuben MacMillan, the Warner Brothers, the McKelvey and Strouss families, and so many more. I didn’t know most of these stories until recent years, but those stories wove the fabric of my life and that of so many others in the city. They made it a good place industrially, commercially, educationally, culturally, and architecturally. Knowing these stories has deepened my love for such a historically and culturally rich place.

We love it for all our memories–family gatherings, first communions, first dates, first jobs. Some of us married there, and whether those lasted or our spouses survived, we remember. Many of us have buried our parents there. Even if we haven’t visited for some time, we remember our favorite places, whether the beauty of places like Crandall Park, skating on Lake Glacier in winter, the grand old houses around Wick Park and Stambaugh Auditorium.

I could go on, but all the posts I’ve written over the years are really an extended love letter for the city. And I would love to hear about the things you loved, and still love about Youngstown.

 

I’d Settle for Modest

architecture art clouds landmark

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?