Handwriting and Handwringing

Last weekend, the hubs and I were in New York City to visit the Morgan Library & Museum so I could clap eyes on the original manuscript for Jane Eyre, my all-time favorite book. The exhibit, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, is well worth seeing if you’re in or near the area, and it will be at the Morgan through January 2, 2017. Here are a few snapshots I took while we were there.

 

 

There were several other wonderful exhibits there, including Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It, too, was a fascinating collection, well curated and solid in scope. From it, I learned a great deal not only about Luther himself but also the men who helped get his message out and the printing press, that revolutionary machine that democratized the Christian faith in Europe.

 

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In between exhibits, we went super fancy and had high tea. Total “pinkies up” experience for both of us.

 

We finished our day by visiting Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 library, divided into the North Room and West Room—both of which I was too busy ogling to take pictures of—and the amazing East Room that took my breath away.

 

But it was in the rotunda, a dazzling space of marble and light that divides the libraries, that I came across something unexpected: a letter written by George Washington on December 25, 1777. As you can see by the paragraph below the document, this wasn’t a document of great import. It wasn’t penned to celebrate the victory at Trenton, the loss at Brandywine, or the British surrender at Yorktown. It was simply a letter written to Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Second Continental Congress, requesting that plans be drawn up for the campaign that would take place at winter’s end. It’s the 18th century equivalent of an inner-office memo, but it stopped me dead in my tracks.

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I viewed this document on Saturday, October 8th, less than a 24 hours after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video surfaced and only a few days after Wikileaks dumped emails from John Podesta detailing the inner workings of the Clinton Campaign. Up until that moment, I had been floating on a cloud, five hours removed from the outside world and happily ensconced in a beautiful building surrounded by erudition and polite, dignified people. For a moment, I’d forgotten about the ugliness of the world outside the Morgan’s doors, especially the nefariousness that has been the 2016 election season. But, looking at this letter, I couldn’t help but be confronted by it all over again in a way I never expected.

Consider this. Washington was the United States’ first president and served two terms. He did so not because he wanted to but because he felt he must, and when his time of service was over, he surrendered power for the second time and walked away.

Imagine a president doing that now. Imagine Trump or Clinton surrendering authority, doing something for the greater good of the United States. Yeah, I know. It’s disheartening.

Washington was born into a farming family in Virginia and though he was fairly well educated and prosperous, I always get the sense he felt himself an outsider in many ways. Hence, he was always mindful of his manners and comportment. So much so, in fact, that in 1814 Thomas Jefferson said, “may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”

There’s evidence of it in the letter at the Morgan. I wish my photo of it was high-res so you could see for yourself, but believe me when I say his handwriting was immaculate. Each line was perfectly straight, every letter was exact. All leaned in the same direction and at the exact same angle. Any letter below the line had identically-sized loops. And he did this on a portable writing desk or rickety table in poor light, likely after a long day. Where did he learn such perfect penmanship? Like so many things, at school and through tireless repetition.

When he was sixteen, Washington’s schoolmaster had him copy 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, and it was a text that informed much of what he did as a soldier, a gentleman farmer, and a politician. As this website says: “Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly. It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs and quills, but they reflect a focus that increasingly difficult to find. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today. Fussy or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together. These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.”

Consider just a few of the bits of wisdom Washington lived by:

Number 40 — “Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.”

Number 48 — “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.”

Number 49 — “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.”

Number 56 — “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.”

Number 58 — “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘is a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”

Number 65 — “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.”

Number 110 — “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

You get the idea.

Thankfully, this man set the standard other men (and perhaps one day women) should strive for as president.

As bio.com writes, “George Washington proved to be an able administrator. He surrounded himself with some of the most capable people in the country, appointing Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He delegated authority wisely and consulted regularly with his cabinet listening to their advice before making a decision. Washington established broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. In doing so, he set a standard rarely met by his successors, but one that established an ideal by which all are judged.”

And today, less than 300 years later, we have two candidates who refer to the American people as a “basket of deplorables” and insist that when you are a star, you can grab women by the p***y and get away with it.

But Trump and Clinton didn’t force themselves on us. Both are products of a country who relinquished its ideals, who allowed ignorance to be celebrated rather than rejected, and who stopped actively participating in the grand, messy experiment that is the United States of America. Both he and she fall so short of the standard we should expect of a president–and of ourselves–that I stood before that humble, prosaic letter in the Morgan and cried. For Washington, for myself, and for this beautiful country.

The road back to those standards is a long one, and the return journey will be hard and full of bickering. But walk it we must because it’s our responsibility as a free people. Because as Washington said so beautifully in his first inaugural speech, “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

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If you would like to read other letters by Washington, I highly recommend this page created by the University of Virginia. This site is also very interesting.

 

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Because Muffins Don’t Bitch

A co-worker and I once had a lengthy discussion about how wonderful it would be to own a bakery/coffee shop in a small town square, one where patrons came each day to get a cup of well-made joe and one or more of our homemade baked goods. In our version of the story, everyone was whistling, walking or driving to their own joyful place of business, or taking it easy on a lazy Saturday morning in our establishments, reading the paper (either in print or on their laptop…using our free WIFI access provided for customers of course!), and generally enjoying life. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? What could be better than doing something you enjoyed, something that made the lives of others more pleasurable, and then being home by 3:00 PM? After all, I could use that time to write, to participate in local theater, and to volunteer at church to help others. My time would always be spent doing something useful and that would, I’m sure, make the world a better, happier, and shinier place.

This thought was only strengthened and reinforced during a recent weekend trip to Memphis, Tennessee. Wayne and I chose to splurge and have breakfast both mornings there in a little cafe/diner known as Cockadoos rather than the cheaper and more pedestrian options like Denny’s or any analogous variations of it. While there, we gorged ourselves on chocolate chip pancakes, cathead biscuits and sausage gravy, a pulled pork omelette, sweet potato hash browns, and a Memphis special known as “The Shag”–an Elvis inspired dish made with two pieces of French toast filled with peanut butter and bananas and topped with whipped cream and blueberries.

I can’t imagine what kind of dietary seppuku I committed that weekend by beginning each day with the food there, but I didn’t care. (Granted the other places we frequented–Gus’ Fried Chicken, the Rendezvous, and the Peabody Hotel bakery among others–likely didn’t help either!) It tasted great, the service was fantastic, and we were able to mingle with locals and fellow visitors before our day began.

Just click on the link and look at the place; I dare you. From the decor to the food to the attitude, this is exactly the kind of place I’d like to own and run each day for both breakfast and lunch. Everyone there was happily working, eating, and talking, including the kitchen and wait staff!

Oh, and did I mention that the place was completely and utterly PACKED both mornings!? Really, I think they bordered on a fire hazard on Saturday because there were so many people sitting around waiting to eat or who were engaged in the act at a table or at the bar. The place is making money; it has to be. Imagine that!? They simply use their creativity and work ethic to create a pleasing place filled with quality food, and people reward them as we did–by becoming repeat customers and spreading the word to others. There’s something beautiful to that for someone in my situation. Their rewards are immediate and tangible after all. People pay them in cash and in praise for their efforts, and as long as the results are the same each time, that cycle of unmitigated awesomeness will continue to repeat itself into perpetuity.

The thought is positively intoxicating and leaves me high on a sugar and blueberry fueled endorphin rush each and every time I allow myself a moment to think about it. And that isn’t often. I liken it to a bright bird in a pet store left looking out the shop window at its fellow aviary friends happily eating birdseed under a park bench. Why think about something you can never have or torture yourself with dreams about life outside the bars that define your world? Paul Laurence Dunbar captured the impulse perfectly in his poem “Sympathy” in which he, as a black man in a white world, identifies with a creature that’s told it must deny its innermost self and be content with its restrictive lot. Granted, I am by no means oppressed. I do not live in fear of lynchings or of being barred from doing something because I’m X instead of Y. However, I do understand the concept of a gilded cage. I am relatively safe–my job makes me a solid living, I occupy an apartment in safe (albeit painfully vanilla and WASP infested) town, and I am never required to go without basic needs like food and clothing. Do I have everything I want? No. But I cannot complain, and that is why I feel truly guilty each time I do.

At the risk of sounding like Quint in the town hall meeting in Jaws, “You all know me, know what I do for a living…” Yes, I teach, and I do so in a place where I am the living embodiment of a fifth wheel. In a nutshell, I teach English in a technical college. Please know that I am a firm supporter of the technical college system; I think it is a valuable place for an ever-growing populace in America. People who come here get training for work that more Americans need to be doing if we ever want to get back to our roots as a nation, one that knows how to get things handled and make things that last. Our soul is in that which is technical.

However, ENG 1101 and 1102, the two classes I teach, are often the barrier that stands between them and that job training. Often, I am nothing more to them than a hinderance and a nuisance, something that must be checked off a required list of classes, and that, I must say, can sometimes be hard on someone who does love the subject. Yes, there are many students who enjoy my classes and who thank me in some small way for my help over the course of a quarter, but they are rare. There are a great deal more who come to me with only complaints, excuses, and threats than there are with praise and thanks. I work long hours grading, lecturing, and handling other forms of paperwork and minutiae that I don’t plan on elaborating on here. (That’s a blog for another time.) In short, I make a living, but I rarely feel alive in my chosen career. More often than not, I’m going through the motions and trying to do the best I can.

Is there any wonder then in the fact that I often fall prey to the siren song of my imaginary muffins sitting on the shelf in my equally ephemeral cafe? After all, as I’ve said to others, muffins don’t bitch. They don’t send you to pointless meetings or require you to earn continuing education credits; they don’t question your motives or your knowledge and why they need it. Muffins simply wait in their elemental form for you to mix them in the correct proportions and slip them in to rise, like gooey fruit and chocolate filled phoenixes, from their own floury ashes.

I know what you’re thinking–Jamie, you’re not thinking of the early mornings, the customer complaints, or the other problems ranging from product delivery to paperwork and taxes. Your glass is unfairly half full. And you’d be right–I’ve worked in a restaurant, but I have little knowledge as to how to actually run one effectively. And I am certain that if I did undertake such a business now that it would be doomed to failure no matter how good my recipes were or how cheerfully I crafted them. I am a realist in this regard. However, as Jane Eyre says in the novel by Charlotte Brontë:

I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication; for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude!’

In this scene, Jane has been working for eight years as a teacher at Lowood School where she herself was taught, and as she looks out the window of her room to an open road, one she has never travelled, she begins to think of a new career as a governess. Like her, I’m not asking for perfection, for true freedom to be whatever I wish whenever I wish it. I only desire a change of scenery, a new world of work built on different expectations and principles that I can use to challenge myself and see just how successful I can be.