We’ve all heard that saying “give someone enough rope…” What if we gave someone enough rope, and support, feedback, help, and love? Rather than meeting their own demise, would they build a ladder to help themselves up and out of their situation? And could that ladder ultimately lead to their evolution, to them becoming the very best version of themselves? What would happen to the world if we stopped expecting the worst and did everything within our power to help people be and do their best? That’s the world I want to live in.
This just in: History is alive and well at President Lincoln’s Cottage
“The past suggests what can be, not what must be. It shows some of what’s possible.” -Howard Zinn
This weekend I took a walking tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage. It’s located in the Petworth neighborhood of D.C., just north of where I live. My friend, Matt, told me about it. American history was one of my majors at Penn, and I’d never heard of this cottage even though President Lincoln spent 1/4 of his presidency living there with his family. He commuted to the White House every day during that time, often evading his cavalry (the Secret Service of the time) and passing Walt Whitman’s home. Whitman often emerged from his home to tip his hat to the President.
Visitors to the Cottage can stand in his bedroom where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. We gathered in his living room where he entertained guests and colleagues and on the lawn where he enjoyed a good game of checkers (he was a master of the game!) and read many books, comforted by the cool breezes there. From the porch, we saw the hills of Virginia where so much of the fighting of the Civil War happened. And if we peeked carefully through the trees, we saw the Capitol dome which is now being refurbished and was under construction during President Lincoln’s term. The ground there is sacred; the decisions and actions taken on that lawn drastically changed the course of history for our country.
The Cottage is off the beaten path, and well worth the visit. Throughout the house, visitors get a feel for the enormity of his task and times as well as a glimpse into what a complicated, conflicted, and thoughtful man he was. The accompanying museum is filled with interesting video footage, photos, and stories, many of which are little known to most of us. For example, President Lincoln took office with only 40% of the popular vote and his close friends such as Frederick Douglass kept him strong and on track during his many difficult moments of doubt. He was also nearly assassinated on his way to the White House once before the fateful day at Ford’s Theater. However, he firmly believed that no one would ever be so angry with his political decisions that they would actually kill him.
After leaving the cottage, I walked along Rock Creek Church Road, the dangerous route that President Lincoln traveled every day between the White House and the Cottage. I wondered what he would think of our country today with all of its challenges, many of which he faced and feared 150 years ago. I wonder how our nation would be different now had he lived to fulfill his second term, if somehow John Wilkes Booth had been stopped from firing that gun less than a week after the official end of the Civil War. Would our nation be in better shape? Worse shape? Maybe the same. That’s the funny thing about history—it’s full of chances and what if scenarios that can never be answered, it’s something that provides with so many more questions than solutions. And those questions are some of our very best teachers.
My picture gallery from the cottage:
This just in: The one word I want on my epitaph
“Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise.” ~Maya Angelou
Last night I had a long talk with my friend, Sara, who is one of the most inspiring, passionate people I know. She walks the path with me in good times and bad. I’ve had a particularly difficult couple of months, and Sara suggested that I put the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown in my queue. “Unsinkable” is a word that gives me a lot of comfort. It’s something I aspire to be. When I look back on a long life, many years from now, I hope that’s how I see myself. As someone who continued to rise no matter what life served up. I’m going to adopt “unsinkable” as my mantra for year 39. Thanks, Sara.
This just in: Rock bottom is a strong place to start
“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ~J.K. Rowling
There’s something amazingly strange and eventually wonderful about starting from rock bottom. Rock bottom’s a blank canvas, an empty room. It’s space, and within space, we can create something we love.
This quote from J.K. Rowling has been running through my mind this week as I prepare to change everything in the coming days. I’ll pack a few suitcases into my Mini, put Phin in his carrier in the front seat, Fedex my small amount of remaining items, and away we’ll go, headed straight for a new adventure in Washington D.C.
Rock bottom has such a negative connotation, but we don’t have to think of it that way. Rock bottom is solid, stable, unwavering. There really is no better place to build from. I’ve scraped down the walls of my life, removing the old chipped paint to reveal something fresh and new that is ready for color and beauty. I’ve stopped trying to make the best of the old parts of my life that no longer fit. I lovingly and gently packed them up and gave them away to make room for the new and extraordinary.
If you’d like to read the entirety of the speech that Rowling gave at Harvard that includes this quote, click here.
Inspired: I see the stars in Florida
Stargazing was one of my favorite activities when I was a kid. I looked at the stars for hours and they carried me away into my imagination. Were there creatures up there, out there, looking at Earth the same way I looked at the stars and planets? Did they know things I didn’t know? Did they have magic powers that I could only dream of? Maybe. Definitely.
In New York City there are hardly any stars. The city has too much ambient light and that light hides the stars from us. They’re up there of course, but New Yorkers can’t see them, or at least can’t see them very well. Here in Florida, they’re out there in brilliant abundance every night. They carry me away exactly like they did when I was a child. They remind me that I am only one very small speck in an enormous universe that is awash with secrets, truths, and discoveries yet to be made.
The sight of the stars in Florida keeps me reaching, and for that I’m grateful.
Inspired: What I Learned from Maya Angelou and Walter Mitty
“I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” ~ Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou and Walter Mitty taught me about the importance of taking action. Maya Angelou’s life is an example of the beauty that unfolds when we learn to sing after the most horrific of storms. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty shows us how a man’s life unfolds if he thinks about what he wants to do and his life if he actually does what he wants to do. Action is everything. Absolutely everything.
We must get our ideas out of our heads and into the world. If they stay locked away inside us, they are no good. When we release our words, we free ourselves. By freeing ourselves, we free others. Action creates freedom. The one thing we all want, wherever we live, whatever we do, whoever we are, is to be free. And the best part is that we have the power to free ourselves through our actions. Freedom is a choice we can always exercise.
Inspired: Get Angry and Take Action
I want you to get angry, and don’t wallow in it. Use it. Anger is energy and it’s fueled incredible changes: the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, gay marriage, and every nonprofit with a passionate mission. Some of the very best things I’ve ever done in my life started because I was angry – Compass Yoga, Sing After Storms, Chasing Down the Muse, my education. Anger builds fire and fire transforms everything around it. Let it motivate and inspire you to build a better world.
Inspired: The Un-branding of Matthew McConaughey Built Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey was on CBS Sunday Morning to talk about his un-branding. In a world where branding in all its many forms seem inescapable, it was refreshing to hear someone talk about chucking it all out the window and what’s come of his efforts. Known as a guy’s guy / romantic lead, McConaughey is nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club in which he plays a homophobic rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. He meets, befriends, and starts an illegal business with a transsexual who also has HIV. In Texas. Based on a true story. What?!
While Dallas Buyers Club is now a contender for several Oscars, for a long time it seemed destined to never see the light of day. 137 potential producers turned it down over several years before it found the funding, and the week before shooting was set to begin, they still didn’t have all the money they needed. They pushed on anyway. They just wouldn’t give up.
McConaughey was committed to the making of this film and the remaking of his own career in the process. For two years he turned down everything that fit the image that made him famous because he wanted to send a clear and persistent message that he would only take challenging roles that scared him. He wanted a complete career shake-up. While that was a personal choice, he certainly didn’t want to be largely unemployed for two years. Yet, that’s what it took. Two years of no work to prove that he was serious about taking his career in a new direction.
When I first heard this I thought, “Big deal. He’s probably got so much money that if he never works again he and his family will be just fine. Was he really taking such a big risk?”
And then I thought about what a shark tank the world of work can be, to say nothing of the world of work in Hollywood. He could have kept right on doing what worked, what he was good at, and raking in the money in the process. No one would have batted an eye at that and he would have gotten plenty of pats on the back for a job well done. Instead, he risked failing in a big way and throwing away an image and a career that have served him well that couldn’t have been recovered. They just didn’t feel good to him anymore, so he tossed them in favor of the unknown, something that made him feel alive again. Dallas Buyers Club is the result of that work. Was it worth it? All signs point to yes.
Inspired: Work On the Thoughts That Won’t Go Away
Have you ever had an idea for a project literally follow you around? That’s what happened to be with my play, Sing After Storms. I wrote it because the characters wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t stop thinking about them so I had to work on their story. And they’ve been with me ever since. I turn their decisions over in my mind the same way I analyze my own choices. I never get tired of that project because those characters and the world they inhabit keep me endlessly fascinated. To me, they live and breathe as much as I do.
Maybe you have a project like that – something you want to do or make or try that just won’t leave you alone. You think about it, dream about it, constantly tinker with the idea of it. That’s what you need to work on. Maybe you’ll make some money with it. Maybe it will just have to be a labor of love. But don’t let the money, or lack there of, make your choices for you. There’s a bit of magic in things and thoughts and actions that nag at us, they force us to hear them and recognize them for what they. Let them be your focus for a while and see what comes of it. Give them a shot.
Inspired: Sochi Winter Olympics
If you need to reach me for the next two weeks chances are I’ll be immersed in all things Sochi. I’m an Olympics freak because every athlete in every event is there for one reason: raw passion for their sport. It’s an incredible testament to the power of focus, commitment, and determination. If you need a shot of inspiration over the next few weeks, flip on the TV to NBC and you’ll find all the motivation you need to reach for your own dreams.