October 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s & Updates on What to Expect from Here

Friends,

It took some time to figure out what our next group assignment should be.

On the one hand, I wanted to lean in to the election-year “PERSON X VERSUS DEMOCRACY” messaging that pervades our collective consciousness. On the other, I wanted to run — far, far away from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to make better decisions after I learn from my fear rather than avoiding it. So, in the spirit of that acknowledgement, this month I’d like us to read one or both of the following:

1) Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century masterpiece, Democracy in America. Find a translation that works for you. Mine is from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and edited by J.P. Mayer (1969). If this is also your version, do yourself a favor and read the Forwards for an interesting bit of historical context — for then, and sadly, for now.

and

2) Tim Marshall’s A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols (July 2016). This book was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, just prior to our last presidential election. That we are reading it this month is absolutely by design. I trust this is not lost on you. And I hope you find more than one way to think about things a little differently before we have the responsibility of voting again.

Then, about the second half of this post’s title: where we go from here.

No, I don’t mean the country — though believe me when I say that this is very much on my mind and heart — I mean this group. It has been a huge honor to lead our small collection of readers through the first six months of a little book club I launched at the height of a pandemic. I intend to keep our momentum going. But, as with any responsible leader, I must also recognize when things don’t serve us well anymore, and make plans to adapt. So let’s talk structure, shall we?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the structure of this little group isn’t serving all of us as well as it could. While I’d like to leave ample room for folks to have and continue conversations, both on- and offline, I am not convinced that we need my guided responses at the end of each month. Unless someone has another idea, what I’d like to propose is this:

  1. In the first week of each month, I will still post our books and themes for the month ahead. So, we are in the first week of October now, and I have just shared our October reads in this post. Hopefully that part is self-evident.
  2. In the last week, I will post my much-abridged responses and/or questions as comments to that original post, probably from my other blog account, liftingthevale. This will replace the separate response posts I had been sharing, for several reasons. First, because I grow tired of hearing myself speak (that was never the intention here, and I already know what my own thoughts are); second, because separate responses clutter up the category and tags (web site management is also crucial for what I do); and third, they make it harder to be in true conversation with dedicated readers like you, who are currently asked to respond in a democratic, but messily non-centralized fashion. This can be much improved. I am hopeful the changes I propose will encourage greater, still democratic, engagement for all us.

Again, if someone has another idea for how to make this work, I’m all ears. Can I ask a small favor, though? Let’s deliver feedback about the structure of this group as comments below. It’s good practice for the end of the month anyway, when we’ll meet again to discuss our thoughts on the reads we’ve just picked up. That way, we can make a use-informed decision about how it works (or doesn’t) for the months ahead. Sound like a plan? Great! I’ll see y’all back here in the last week of October. Much love — and bravery — until then. Lord knows we need it.

Once More unto the Cubicle, Dear Friends: A Pseudo-Shakespearian Response to the Dying American Office

First of all, in order to understand the reference I’m making, you’ll need to have read a famous speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, which I’ll link here via Poetry Foundation. Now that we’ve crossed that item off our collective to-do lists, and potentially had flashbacks to high school English exams *shudder*, we can get right to the point — which, as any “good” businessperson will tell you, is “good.”

Long before the age of COVID-19, but long after the age of King Henry V, and later, Ferris’ setting of the dot-com bust, the American workplace began a-changin’. A catalyst? The “open office.” Contrary to its name, this structured work environment has in fact led to very expensive closures. Closures of minds, of jobs, of work in general. Here’s why: it’s a carefully orchestrated mirage, an unhealthy illusion of progress that takes time, energy, and resources away from making meaningful change where it actually matters, which is to say, in the workplace itself.

If you’ve worked in an “open office” for any length of time, you already know. Capital K, know. You know that removing walls doesn’t encourage collaboration. It takes people to do that. You know that removing cubicles doesn’t suddenly un-silo entire business lines. It takes people to do that. You know that creating shared work/play spaces doesn’t lead to greater inclusion, better job performance, or even bolstered company morale, because yep, you guessed it, it takes people to do that. And more often than not, if the places you work for struggle with these issues, it’s people who are the problem, not walls or rooms or any other architectural or design element. Hiding behind expensive space or hierarchy retrofits is like sooooo two decades ago. Now it’s twenty-freaking-twenty and “the office,” however closed or open, has never been a more fluid concept. It’s high time we spoke clearly about what we’ve seen clearly for a long, long time.

BUT WHOA THERE, WAIT A MINUTE!

I see your passion, it’s just that we’ve got to get ready before we rally the troops! And a significant part of those preparations is being able to honestly evaluate ourselves FULLY, FIRST. Why? Because as any real leader will tell you, NO ONE WHO REFUSES TO DO THEMSELVES WHAT THEY ASK OTHERS TO DO AS WELL IS WORTHY OF LEADING, EVER, ANYWHERE. If someone around you in a “leadership position” isn’t a leader, then welcome to the American workplace. And also, you can still show them how it’s done, but that brings me back to my earlier point. We’ve got work to do first.

STILL WITH ME? Good. But hold on real tight because this partnership’s gonna get much worse MORE VULNERABLE before it gets any better CLOSER TO COMFORTABLE. And we’re gonna start by answering some questions. Both of us, believe me.

With the lens of your own experience and after reading Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End:

  1. How would you describe your pre-COVID role in the American workplace? I don’t mean your job title or accomplishments. When I say “role,” I mean your over-arching contribution to the culture of work in America. Great if you come up with a few positive “marks,” but you’re doing it wrong if you can’t also come up with at least one devastating moment of oppression. That’s step one. Step two is to make both things right. Relative to the successes you claimed, turn around and directly thank the person or people who helped you achieve them. Meaningfully. And relative to your lapses in judgment, carry out an appropriate atonement, recognizing that the person/people/places you’ve hurt owe you exactly nothing, and may actually prefer that you make amends by doing work on yourself to avoid becoming or remaining a repeat oppressor.
  2. How would you describe your during-COVID role in the American workplace? Same parameters as above, but pay attention to where your answer shifted and/or stayed the same in this new time and set of social norms.
  3. What do you desire for your post-COVID role in the American workplace? Understand, of course, that if we weren’t in control of our destinies before this year, we are even less so now, which is why I asked about your desires instead of your expectations.
  4. Spend some additional time unpacking your reaction to that last statement, however you might have reacted to it. No, seriously. Spend some time thinking about the fact that you are most definitely not in complete control. How does that change the nature of what you expect to happen for/to/around you?
  5. Relatedly, what are you prepared to lose, and what are you unwilling to accept losing, in the future of the American workplace? How have your changing (or unchanging) roles affected or inspired those things? Would anything be different if your roles were?
  6. And finally, having now owned more of your personal impact on the past, present, and future of others around you, what would you like to see change in the American workplace moving forward? Dream as big as you can, for as long as you can. That’s YOUR list and that’s great. Here’s the deal though. You’re just one person. There are LOTS of other people out there with lists of mountains they’d like to see moved. Choose one person, choose an area of need that they’ve shared with you, and bless them by fulfilling that need where/when you are able. Don’t presume you know these needs or solutions, and don’t solicit them, either. Just listen. Close your mouth, open your mind and heart, and listen. That’s where the true work starts, no matter what the office of tomorrow looks like.

August 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends of The LibraRYAN,

Welcome back! I hope whatever efforts you undertook to examine your homes and your roles within them were productive. I also hope you’ve come to appreciate why a guided response from me at the end of July might have interrupted or overly influenced that important work. Either way, thank you for showing back up to continue this journey with me.

One of the things I found myself considering in July was what — if anything — of the pre-pandemic, pre-uprising past we might be returning to in the months and years ahead. As our nation and the world begins to grapple more closely with the idea of these “returns,” I imagine that more things will be reinvented than simply reinstated, and that includes the American workplace.

For those of you who’d like one last return to the water cooler as we knew it, I offer our August 2020 Reading Group pick: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, which was published in 2007 by Hachette Book Group USA of Little, Brown and Company.

Good luck out there, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

Like it or Not: An Examination of Something You Probably Weren’t Expecting, in Ways You Weren’t Expecting, and I Don’t Just Mean The Book.

You’ve met an Ove before. Perhaps your Ove has not been a man. Perhaps your Ove has not been Swedish. Perhaps your Ove has not been a neighbor. Perhaps, instead, your Ove looks and sounds and behaves quite differently than the Ove we read about this month in A Man Called Ove. But you’ve met an Ove before.

The question isn’t whether you’ve met one. The question, Dear Readers, is how you’ve responded to that Ove. I mean both in your private thoughts, and in your public words and actions.

Did you figure everything out about that Ove, using information that someone shared with you or information that you so astutely learned or perceived all by yourself? Did you know exactly what you were going to do about that Ove? How you were going to, dare I say it, treat that Ove?

Or rather, did you know nothing about that Ove? Did you realize this right away or did it take time? Was it a slow awakening to the reality that perhaps, just maybe, everything you thought was true turned out to be at least halfway wrong, halfway off-base, halfway totally-and-completely-missing-the-point?

You answered at least one of those questions, didn’t you? Yeah, guess what? You’re an Ove, too. Hence, I return to my original statement. You’ve met an Ove before.

And, if as we’ve just determined, you’ve met an Ove before, mightn’t we all be a little slower with our judgments and a little more empathetic in our responses? From there, accountability becomes easier, and when that happens, love becomes a way of living rather than just a way of feeling. It ceases to be something we just preach and it transforms into something we strive towards doing with great intention. We should all be better Oves.

Let’s put that into more concrete terms. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s been judged too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. But we’ve all also been — whether we like it or not — the person who’s passed judgment too soon, or perhaps incorrectly, or perhaps both. We’ve all been — whether we like it or not — fallible, wrong, off-base, and desperately and painfully human.

And you know what?

Being human has a funny way of re-grading the moral high ground.

Whether we like it or not.

I know, recognizing this is hard work. Choosing to shift our gaze and revise our action plan(s) after the fact is even harder. But here’s the thing: none of us ever know someone else’s full story — hell, sometimes we don’t even know our own stories — and so, we should not allow ourselves to think or act as if we do.

Does this leave room for making judgments? Yes, of all kinds! The important thing is that we recognize when, where, how, and why we are making them. And then, we must have the humility to recognize when the ways we think and act must change.

How America responds to its systematized racism and the many injustices that creates is the chief “present” example I’m guessing many of you are thinking about, but let’s also acknowledge right now that it’s not a “new” example. It’s just newly relevant to a bunch of folks who, you guessed it, are being called upon to change alongside the rest of us.

(NB: knowing about this for a longer period of time does not necessarily make you a better person. It might in fact inspire some interesting questions in your direction, depending on what you’ve chosen to do with that knowledge. Meanwhile, as we strive to hold each other accountable through love, we must all learn to both accept and allow some grace. This is very important work and we all need all the help we can get.)

For now, that’s all I’ve got to say. And besides, with a book of little stories full of big lessons, what a mistake it would be to clutter up my response. Instead, I’ll open the floor to all you beautiful, bitter, broken Oves out there. Feel free to use the discussion guide after my sign-off if you want some ideas for places to join the conversation, or pick another starting point of your own.

And meanwhile, know that if you have a lot on your hearts and minds, then here I am, a mangy cat, ready and willing to be here for you, even and especially when you think you’re doing just fine on your own, thank you very much.

May 2020 Reading Group Discussion Guide:

  1. What do we make of the juxtaposition of seemingly insignificant details against heart-wrenching, life-altering information throughout the book?
  2. Think of a time where something truly significant happened in your life. How did it change you? How did you stay the same? Then, compare/contrast your experience against Ove’s. Why do you think your stories align or separate where, how, or when they did?
  3. How many protected groups of people can you identify in this novel? Notice how they are portrayed, both positively and negatively. Think about why that might be the case.
  4. Find somewhere you can observe the world around you for at least five minutes. More is great, but not necessary. Your space can be an indoor room, a shared outdoor space, really any place where you can notice and record details of quite literally any variety. Set a timer for your predetermined allotment, get comfortable, and get noticing. Record what you see and try not to filter your thoughts or reactions. When the timer goes off, read what you wrote, sketched, or otherwise notated. What did you observe about your observations?
  5. Can you identify a time when you misjudged a person, place, idea, or situation? If so, what influenced you to reach your initial conclusion? What might have helped you reach another? Forget for a minute the idea of whether that alternative would have been “right” or “wrong.”
  6. If someone were to write a vignette about you in the least flattering manner possible, what would they have to say? Try to shy away from knee-jerk, interview-y responses to this question. Sometimes, even the “incorrect” perceptions people have about us still point to areas in which we are meant to grow.
  7. BONUS Question for Companion Read, In Five Years: Time plays an important role in both books we read this month. Contemplate singularly or discuss with others the effects time has on the main characters. If you’re struggling with where to start, consider how time affects relationships with others they encounter. Feel free to take your answer another direction as well!

May 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

Hard to believe that we’ve rounded the corner into our third month with this little venture. Apologies for the late post!

This month, we’ll be tackling A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012). Figured we could use a little levity after a couple of heavy months (and reads).

Additionally, it should be noted that this month is significant in two other ways:

(1) We’re — finally, some of you are saying — reading about a man; and

(2) We’ve — finally, I am saying — got a companion read recommendation! Someone in my orbit let me know that In Five Years, which you might have seen featured on my IG stories earlier this month, is indeed a great book to pick up in May!

Those who are willing/able to read one or both of these spectacular books should feel empowered to do so, and while we’re starting a little later than usual (yikes, two weeks!), I challenge all your beautiful minds to join us. I’ll be better about minding the (totally arbitrary) post deadline(s) in the future!

P.S. Has the sun finally come out where you live, too?? I hope so.

I’ll be reading outside if you need me.

The “LibraRYAN:” A New Monthly Reading Experience Curated by Yours Truly

Friends,

As some of you know, I am writing a fiction series. The first book is currently at the self-editing stage, the second exists as an outline, and the third is more concept than reality at this point in time. If you know an agent who loves all things girlboss, food, and unconventional love, then I’m that agent’s person and it would be great if you could introduce us. I have a feeling we’d have fun conversations. For now, I’m so grateful for the privilege this lifestyle affords — creativity, the ability to make my own schedule, and having my time valued as much at home as it is by society — whether or not my work finds commercial success.

Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t all been sunshine and daisies. There are days I have writer’s block so bad I can’t see straight, there are days I am fully capable but still dread writing (usually when a scene hits too close to home), and there are days I feel like I could write for days but then, invariably, life has other plans. This is all normal, I’m learning, and that learning is at least half my enjoyment at this stage. The other half is a mixture of generalized giddiness and an acute sense of purpose. I am blessed beyond measure.

There is, however, one thing about which I am constantly in conflict — unhappily at that (yes, it’s possible to have conflict and also to be happy, and no, this is not one of those times). As part of my early writing process, I’ve become exceptionally selective about what I read. That’s the political way of saying I haven’t done much reading at all — not if you don’t count the the things I’ve read as research for the series I’m currently writing. That’s work … and that’s different.

Those who know me will find this shocking. Those who don’t may also have some questions about my choice — and with good reason. While I’m generally not here for making people feel like they have to justify every decision they make, in this case, an explanation is 100% warranted, so I’m bossing up and sharing it. Here it goes:

I am first and foremost an empath. This means when I experience something, I tend to absorb it right down to my core. This is true whether the object of my concern is connected to me superficially or on the deepest levels. So, as a measure of both professional responsibility and as a way to guard my tender heart, I decided to step back from the heavy work that is losing oneself in the midst of others.’

At the time of this decision, I was all-too-caught-up in the security blanket that reading afforded me. Under the heading of “reading” all I’d really been doing was silencing myself, like I’d been doing for as long as I can remember, just under different titles and pretenses. Thankfully, with some chutzpah and an incredible support network, I put a stop to that behavior, hard as it was to do.

Come to think of it, taking reading away from myself was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make. Necessary, but incredibly difficult. Especially because I had no idea when, if ever (it felt like), I’d allow myself to have it back in the same way — voracious reading, selfish reading, all-hours-of-the-day-and-night reading, the kind of reading people spend lifetimes reading and writing about.

My decision might be controversial, but it definitely paid off, because here I am, book one nearly done, looking ahead to the future, and having trouble deciding if I want to smile or cry from the sense of pride and accomplishment I didn’t know I could feel.

Then there’s the matter of what else this means.

Now that I have a strong handle on my own writer’s voice, and what I’m able and willing to contribute to this strange blue planet, I know I can trust myself to move forward, uncompromising in the special nature of these gifts, but flexible enough to allow myself back in to the metaphorical sandbox of life’s many wonders.

Looking ahead, past the heaviness of actually doing this life, I have a lighter, companion ambition in mind. The first order of business is to restore my reading privileges — though believe me when I say I’ll be monitoring myself for the types of behavior that inspired me to take my earlier hiatus (self-doubt, being overly self-critical, obsessive editing for no good reason, etc.). Those of you who know me in real life, please continue helping me in this regard. You’re all trailblazers — especially those of you who, without any promise of recognition, unwaveringly stand alongside me as I do the messy, uncoordinated work of clearing paths in the first place.

Now we get to the fun part!

Starting this month, there will be a new category on this blog. I’m going to call it The LibraRYAN, a playful reference to both my name and my love for reading. Each month, I’ll select a topic or theme, pick a few books that fit into that category, and share my experiences with them. To be clear, the resulting posts will be more personal essay than book review, and that is by design.

I do more “review-y” work through the Reading Words category, and that will remain a space dedicated to thoughts on specific works, presented one at a time, with the near sole intention of promoting that good work. I stand by that category, and will hopefully have reason to populate it with new content soon, but its greatest strength is also one of its greatest limitations — it leaves no room for you. The conversation basically begins and ends with “there is this great thing, and I want to make sure you know about it, because it is a great thing.”

At this point in my career and life, that feels pithy. I’m not in middle school. I don’t do book reports anymore (there’s a time and place for that, it’s just not here or now). I’m also not a book critic, in personality or by choice, so instead of making my singular commentary meatier and/or more cutting, I’d like to elevate the blog overall by including more voices, more frequently, in the hopes of building (or maybe simply inspiring?) a stronger community. If indeed you’ve read this far (a large ask, I’m aware), you’re probably wondering, “great, Ryan, but how will you do this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you.

The answer: The LibraRYAN.

Many of you are readers — or else, why would you be here, certainly at this juncture in a long blog post. As far as I’m concerned, there are endless opportunities to connect through this shared identity, and the internet can feel like a super isolating place, so I’d like to address both of those points in one swoop. With The LibraRYAN (a new category on this blog, not a new standalone project), we’ll get to read some neat books together, which we’ve chosen together, and then, together, respond. Other than timeline and topic specificity, and my request (insistence, actually) that we keep things civil (differences of opinion never need to degenerate into attacks of any kind, ever), the rest can evolve as we do. Here’s how I see this starting at the very least:

At the end of each month, I’ll select a topic or theme to guide our reading and conversations for the month to come. I will announce that here, on the blog, as well as on social media (@rvmcgonigle). Once that happens, I’m happy to consider all thoughtful recommendations for what we could read until the first day of the month we’re intending to read them. By the end of that week, we’ll have our list of possible reads. You may choose as many or as few as you like from the list. No matter which books we choose, we’ll all have the rest of the month to read them and reflect on our experiences (pictures, essays, drawings, the options are pretty endless). By the last week of the month, I’ll post an essay, and you’re welcome to either share or guard your individual response, whatever makes you feel happy and safe. Either way, the cool part is that we’ll have already shared these specific experiences, and by extension, made the world a little bigger and a little smaller at the same time. Think about that for a minute … pretty neat, right?

Since I dislike procrastination, let’s kick this off right now, with March 2020 being our “starting month.” Welcome to The LibraRYAN Reading Group, loves. I’m so glad you’re here.

The LibraRYAN: March 2020 Reading Group

This month, we’ll focus on love and/or marriage. Suggested works may include both topics or just one. I’ve gotten us started by selecting two nonfiction books from authors whose work I don’t already know, Molly Millwood’s To Have and to Hold (2019) and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women (2019). At least one more book would complete my rotation. Who has the right fit (or several)? If it moved you, challenged your thinking, or both, I’d love to hear about it. Ideally it’d be written no earlier than the past decade (2010-forward), so that it will be accessible to most folks in a variety of places; however, I’m not opposed to considering recommendations that fall outside this boundary where a thoughtful case can be made. You’re game? Great! We have until March 1st to solidify our shared reading list. Let’s make it happen, shall we?

TIME’s “Special Issue on the American South”

“[…] I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music.”

Edward Felsenthal

Editor-In-Chief, TIME

From the Editor,  August 8 / August 13, 2018 Special Issue on the American South

This weekend I sat outside on our not-quite-level, not-quite-presentable, not-quite-sittable porch. Plastic patio furniture and a small outdoor rug made this possible, covering its loose paving stones and the holes between them in a setup that functions less as a disguise and more as a bandage until we can fully address the brokenness.

That the porch is falling apart isn’t a reason for us not to be there. We love it and we know it will take time to shore up its foundation. Even as we’re cursing the coffee that doesn’t sit, the chairs that can’t help but rock, the ankles that won’t do anything but roll, we find joy in this part of our home. It’s broken, but it’s ours. And that means something.

We’re aware of this all the time. But this weekend, as I sat there with my magazine, TIME’s Special Issue on the American South, I was even more tuned in to the irony of my porch enjoyment. The physical experience of sitting on our busted porch is about the closest analogy I can draw to what existing as a native Southerner up North feels like. It’s really hard. And also full of holes that subject people to destabilization, consternation, and occasionally, grief.

Go ahead, chuckle, that was intended. However, the after-effects of my busted porch and Southernness (that I’m a Southerner with a love for porches is not lost on me) can be unsettling, and it would be gauche to laugh at that reality. What reality am I speaking of? It’s complicated, but here’s the short answer.

Best case? People offer unsolicited advice about ways I can improve it (the porch, me), hide it (the porch, me), and maybe — if I’m really, really lucky — manage to convince the powers that be that it (the porch, me) never actually existed in its current state. Worst case? When I am silent, I am complicit. When I speak up, I must be complaining, ungrateful, or — my personal favorite — just not adjusted yet.

Sure, some of my views are unpopular. This is, I believe, largely because they’re uncomfortable. But Heavens to Betsy, if they are uncomfortable, that’s because they are intended to be. As uncomfortable as my opinions may seem to others who seek to silence them, I promise, it is much more uncomfortable to live the experiences that spur their development.

I wish more people would open their eyes to this reality, not so that I am pitied (please, spare us all from that), or that I’m cast aside (one person’s discomfort does not make another’s experiences less valid), but so that we can continue to dialogue and grow in our capacity for solidarity and love. Together. This is important work on the larger scale, but it cannot begin until eyes, hearts, and minds are open to doing it, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, even when “likes” and “followers” and “retweets” are on the line.

I acknowledge that this is difficult in our post-modern, teched-up, brand-obsessed, lightening-speed world, a world where you’re only as good as your last win or your competitor’s last loss. I fully see that. I too live in that world. Which is why I know it’s so hard. But I implore us, dear readers, to push past the pressures we put on ourselves, in order to do the work we’re capable of doing once we opt to actually do it. That’s part of why this blog exists, to lean in to those challenges, and to address them from a place of love. Because in the long run, love wins. Every time. Every. Damn. Time. Sometimes, it just takes awhile longer.

What keeps me going? Knowing I am not alone, however alone I sometimes feel. Friends. Family. Neighbors. Occasionally, strangers. Many of whom will go unnamed or unrecognized by the larger world, because these people are here to do the work, rather than get recognized for something that cheapens or exists by proxy of it.

You know proxy work when you see it. It’s what’s done when the right light is shining, at the right time of day, in the correct month of the opportune year, when it’s sexy and exciting and, like, so on-trend. You also know when actual work is being done, which is basically any time the former isn’t. You probably won’t read about it or hear about it. But if you look around, you’ll see it in your everyday lives. Small acts of resistance. Small acts of courage. Small acts of love.

Where can you find them? Get off the internet, first of all. Get out into the world. Form and keep loving, supportive relationships with people and places that you are willing to love and support in return. That, my friends, is one of the greatest privileges any of us will have in our short lives.

Never underestimate the power this brings you. Not just the power of social capital, but the kind of power that exists when you have real humans in your real life who really love you, through whatever ups, downs, successes, failures, opportunities, or challenges come your way. In this may you be blessed — and, of equal importance, may you also realize your blessings.

And then honestly? Sometimes you don’t find blessings, they find you. In this case, TIME’s Special Issue found me, by way of a loving and supportive husband, who knew what I needed in this season of my life. The magazine — by all accounts a national (read: Northeastern) authority, provided a surprise blessing this weekend. I was surprised to get it, sure, but the contents were just as arresting. Boasting inclusions by Jesmyn Ward, and about Stacey Abrams and 31 other incredible humans, all of whom are Southern, it rocked me to my core.

Why? This South wasn’t a South of people who traveled to it or through it, looking only for reasons to react to it for one brief moment in time, on a short assignment or for periodic gain. No, it was a South of Southerners, in all their complexities, however beautiful, turbulent, or painful. Even more importantly, it was a South of Southerners in their own words. Edited, I’m sure. But in their voices just the same.

Please, stop and contemplate the magnitude of that reality. Someone in New York City, the cultural capital of the Northeast (or, as many New Yorkers will tell you, of the world), decided that this was something worth pursuing. Which means that someone in New York City thought that New York City wasn’t the only place with opinions worth hearing, stories worth telling, histories worth teaching.

I assure you, this is radical. It’s also just. Which is exactly why, through most of my Saturday afternoon spent reading on that old, busted porch, I cried. I cried tears of relief and exhaustion. Tears of acceptance and renewal. Tears of knowing that, for one brief shining moment, someone in New York City suggested that, perhaps, the South deserves another read, and for reasons that may surprise its readers.

This is an important moment in our cultural history, America. And, contrary to what we’re taught in school, our history is not over. In fact, it is constantly unfolding, and we are the actors. We are the ones who will decide what our children and their children and their children learn. What do we want them to remember? Why? With whom? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Many already do, and it shows in their work, whether or not the rest of us are aware of it yet.

Meanwhile, we can do more to help this work come into focus, and garner the attention and support it deserves, in all its forms and places. That’s the other part of why this blog exists. I sincerely wish that more people knew about the forward motion already in progress — and, to clarify, this work is far from new. No single person has “the answer” to any of our most intractable problems, just as no single person can take credit for our most glorious successes. It is our responsibility to recognize good work around us, and to give credit where it’s appropriately due, especially when that work is not our own.

I’m talking about the work incredible humans have done over decades, over centuries, to elevate our understanding, further our conversations, and improve our treatment of each other. Oftentimes, this work comes from places that “mainstream” America might not have guessed. Politicians and academics, sure, but also chefs, nonprofit founders, novelists, struggling neighbors working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you name it. And again, to be perfectly clear, it’s not always White, Middle-Class Men in these roles. The people changing history are not always those in positions of power.

If you’re wondering whattttt?, then I encourage you to dig a bit deeper in whatever learning or research you may have already started. Once you do, you’ll find that the examples are too numerous to count. To reduce them to a list here would be to miss the point almost entirely.

First, I’m not in the business of ranking people. Second, I’m not in the business of prescribing explicit instructions for anyone’s journey through life. I am in the business of asking questions that could inspire journeying in the first place. Especially knowing how transformative journeying together can be.

To that end, I hope this space is not your destination, but your beginning, or perhaps your renewal. We are all here to learn, to listen, and to love greater than we did the day before. If this space takes us even one small step forward, then I will have succeeded. This is  — and I am — a work in progress.

And I know I cannot do this alone. So, I would like to issue a commendation, share a thank you, and offer a prayer that this good work continues. Not just with TIME, but with other people who find the courage to present stories that are complex (be wary of the term “real”). It must continue, but the work must also grow, it must welcome new voices, it must act in fact how it purports to believe and do elsewhere.

Make no mistake. This is difficult work. It comes with as many scuffs and bruises as it does medals and successes. But that is where the magic happens. In that uncomfortable, unruly, unpresentable growth. Not just when it’s timely, not just when it’s relevant, not just when it looks good. But now, because it’s critical, and because it always has been.

Before we go, I wish for you: a profound, abiding love for your roots, wherever and however deep they grow. May you also know love for the roots of others. May you recognize that love takes work, but may you also possess the courage it takes to practice it daily. Because that alone is a blessing worth examining, worth protecting. No matter where you call home. God Speed.

***

P.S. To find this Special Issue, visit TIME’s website here.

To discover why TIME created this issue, read Edward Felsenthal’s From the Editor here. You might recognize the opening quote from this piece if you read his.

And, if you don’t know much about Mr. Felsenthal, here’s some more information from TIME’s Media Kit. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a Southerner.

Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

***

P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.

Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

***

P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzer+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Walt Whitman’s Birthplace

Yesterday, we hit a beautiful 80 degrees on Long Island.

Unfortunately, days like this won’t last long. As we round the corner from spring to summer, time outside will be limited to beach-faring and BBQing, when it’s too hot to even think about doing much else. With that in mind, I decided to get out and do something fun.

I’ve known about The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center for about a decade. A college professor shared news of this under-the-radar gem in a literature course, but until now I haven’t lived close enough to easily go visit.

Looking back on my short trip, I’m so glad I finally went! The grounds boast a museum, charming outdoor space, oodles of period details (like a desk from Whitman’s time as a teacher), and a first edition of Leaves of Grass (poetry fans out there, you’ve gotta see this!).

The only catch? It’s definitely well-nestled in its surroundings. So well-nestled, in fact, that I almost missed the turn into the small parking lot, which accommodates about a dozen cars at once.

Historic site signs help guide your journey from major highways, but local street signs are small and hard to read. Add that to the fact that the address says Huntington Station, but locals call it West Hills, and woof. But never fret, if you get lost, the site is minutes away from the Walt Whitman Mall. (Un)fortunately, you can’t miss that landmark. And remember, finding a new place is half the fun of going!

Once you’ve arrived, I’d recommend investing in the guided tour, as that is what allows you to go in the house. Tickets are only $6, and the docents are highly knowledgeable and great with kids. That alone is worth the ticket price. Of course there were also fun things to see, try and learn along the way.

For instance, did you know that the Whitmans had a private water well a couple dozen yards from their front door? This would have been a luxury in their time. It was actually operational until the mid-20th century, when rapid development in the area shifted the water table so dramatically that it completely dried up. I won’t go on the environmental rant I’m super tempted to start right now, but suffice it to say that there are opportunities to reexamine our footprints on this earth all the time. And they’re closer to home (wherever you live) than you might expect.

Another added bonus? Because my tour group was small, we had more time to ask fun (annoying?) questions of our docent. Ask about the Prussian Blue paint or why the closets on either side of the fireplace are such a big deal, if and when you go. They both get interesting answers!

Guided tours not your thing? Check out their additional programming, which ranges from the artistic to the academic. Did you know they have poetry readings and research-quality libraries? Yeah, you might have guessed that. Ok, what about art shows? Or writers-in-residence? Or meeting spaces? Pretty cool, huh? More than a few reasons to make the drive! Here’s the address in case you’re ready to ask Google, Siri, Cortana or Alexa for directions:

The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center

246 Old Walt Whitman Road

Huntington Station, NY 11746

Still on the fence? Check out their website!

Want some additional reading? Try this article from the Long Island Press (2013), or this one from the New York Times (1992), about Whitman’s Long Island roots. Needless to say, there’s room for more voices in this conversation. Who’s up for the challenge?

Ready …. go.

P.S. Extra credit for anyone who knows what Paumanok means!