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May 2018

The Path

Fahrney's, the magnificent pen store in DC (where I've obtained most of my fountain pens for over 20 years) is having a contest in honor of next Tuesday's National Handwriting Day.  This is what I'm sending:

Dear Fahrney's,

    You ask about my attitude to New Year's resolutions.  The last  time I made one would have been 2001.  I resolved that in the coming year I'd write one good essay.  I'd recently been named editor of the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, for which I wrote four editorials a year.  When the New Year came around again, I felt that at least one of those 2000 word essays had met my criteria, so I had no need for more annual resolutions.

    This is not to say that I've achieved everything I want to.  Far from it.  But  the struggle to be the best man I can be Fahrney is a daily one.  If I only took stock of my successes and failures once a year, I'm afraid I would be a rather sorry mess.  So for the last four decades, since my early twenties, I've started my day with a bit of writing, sometimes at the keyboard, but more often with pen and paper.  I comment on the day just past and outline what I hope to manage in the day to come.

    The Lakota believe that every person has their own path to walk and one tries to walk it the very best they can, sometimes slow and deliberate, sometimes dancing.  There is no destination, there is only the path.  My daily writing is my attempt to make sure that my feet are where they need to be.

    Thanks for asking,


Handwriting is difficult now.  Slow, and usually a little painful, but rewarding all the same.  My hands feel stiff, weak, and they are always tingling, as if being rained on by tiny pins.  In the first months after transverse myelitis I kept writing in a journal, but my handwriting was slowly becoming more cramped and less legible.  By September of 2013 (10 months after I was felled), I could no longer manage the journal.  I didn't have enough strength in my wrist and arm to hold my hand steady when I got to the edge of the page.  I started writing on single sheets of G. Lalo medium.  With my hand resting solidly on the desk, I could keep the pen steady enough.  For over a year I kept the journal that way.  Lynn bought me a beautiful lidded box just the right size for stacking the finished sheets.  After a time I graduated to large Moleskine journals; still pretty flat, but raised up a bit.  Josie would give me notebooks for Christmas or my birthday, fairly skinny ones, but thicker than the Moleskines and over time I could manage those as well.  This past September, I went back to the small Roma Lussa journal that I'd abandoned four years earlier and began writing there again.  A couple of weeks ago, having filled that one up, I started in a fresh, full sized Roma Lussa, my favorite journals for many years.  It's still slow, it's still painful, the last few lines of each page get shaky as I struggle to keep my hand steady, but I manage.  It is extremely satisfying.

It's part of what it means for me to walk my path.  Around 1990, as my marriage was breaking up, I came to realize that at some point in the preceding years I'd stepped off my path.  I didn't go in the wrong direction, I didn't get lost.  It was as if I was just standing to the side of it.  Not moving.  Maybe afraid, maybe uncertain, maybe confused about what the path meant and where it was leading.  It took some time, and some work, to return to what I'd understood years before, that all that mattered was to walk my path as best I could.  To invest each step with as much truth and humility as I could muster.  To find the beauty there.

Is there an irony here?  That the metaphor that I've used to guide my life is one of walking, and here I am now unable to walk at all unaided?  No.  The metaphor just gets richer.  The universe is showing its sense of humor.  Isn't it true that whenever we take our very best and truest and most significant steps, we do it only with assistance?  We may take each step very much alone, but we are always bouyed up by the countless others who make our lives possible.  

Each morning, with coffee clearing sleep away, a fountain pen in my quivering hand, I still dance along my path.


It Wasn't About #Oprah2020

Years ago, when Lynn was doing a lot of public speaking, she'd give inspiring, fact-filled, entertaining talks where she'd outline tactics for meeting the challenges of managing electronic information and the key roles librarians ought to play.  Inevitably, among the people coming up to the podium to talk to her afterwards would be a few saying some version of, "That was wonderful!  Can you come and talk to my administrators?"  Back in our hotel room, she'd be exasperated.  "I've given them the information they need!  I've given them the tools!  They don't need me, that's their job!"

I'm feeling that same exasperation reading all the chatter about the pros and cons of a Winfrey presidential run.  Certainly, if she chooses to run, she'll be a credible candidate.  I don't know if I'd support her, but I'd listen carefully to what she had to say, comparing it to what will surely be a very full field of competitors.

But in January of 2018, that isn't the point.  It's depressing that this is all so many are talking about after the speech.  It certainly isn't what she was talking about.

She was reminding us that there's a lot more work that all of us need to do.  That it was 35 years after the first black man received the DeMille award before the first black woman did -- a signifier of how deep our racism and sexism still runs.  That Rosa Parks went to bat for Recy Taylor 11 years before she sparked the Montgomery bus boycott -- and that she was not successful in getting justice for her.  We've made great progress towards fulfilling MLK's dream, but more than 50 years after that speech, the events of the last year certainly demonstrate how far we still have to go, how fierce the backlash continues to be.

The power differentials that have allowed sexual harassment and assault to go on so often unchallenged for so long are deep in the culture.  #metoo has been inspiring and reassuring for many and that's a good thing.  But remember that Rosa Parks was not just a weary maid who couldn't take it any more.  She was a trained activist who was carefully chosen to spark what her colleagues hoped would be a lever for significant cultural change.  She was part of a movement that was carefully thought out, that had a strategy and that was in it for the long haul.

Oprah said, "Their time is up."  But that's aspirational, in the way King's dream was aspirational.  She said she wants all the girls watching to know that "when that new day finally dawns" it will be because of a lot of "magnificent women" and some "pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody has to say 'Me too' again."

That they become the leaders. The young girls watching, because of the work of all of us watching and listening and talking and figuring out how to fight to make that change.

These are generational changes, not accomplished during one season's exhilarating moments of partial awakening.  

"Oprah2020" is a fine cathartic emotional response at a time when many are hungry for inspirational moments.  I feel it myself.  But putting Oprah -- or anybody -- into the White House isn't going to make the change we need.  Fixating on it is a diversion.  What's needed is the steady work of each of us.  Every day.  For the long haul.  For the generations to come.