Earlier this week, the New York Times published a sampling of reflections from those who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many of them propelling the American civil rights movement through civic levers like education, the law, politics, and peaceful protest. It was both heartening and instructive to absorb the notes of caution, hope, encouragement, and pragmatism emanating from these veterans of justice toward today’s movers and shakers agitating for change. This particular thought from Bernard Lafayette stood out:
The next thing that we need if we’re going to have a movement that is going to sustain itself—we need music, OK? Once you get those artists singing songs about change and the movement, that helps to stimulate people and bring them together. There is nothing like music to bring people together.
This week at Breaking Ground, we published a meditation titled “Verse Lines When the Streets Are on Fire,” by poet and professor James Matthew Wilson. In the midst of traveling through “the vast emptiness” carved out by the COVID-19 pandemic, then jumping into the nerves of a societal reckoning overdue but for which we were nevertheless unprepared, Wilson encourages all of us not to forgo contemplation, especially contemplation of the eternal. It can feel unnatural in the midst of so much drama, luxurious in some ways and stressed in others, but “we need the experience of poetry to remind us of our natures. . . . Poetic form brings the permanent into our evanescent lives so that we may contemplate it, be nourished by it, be transformed, and so live in some sense more wisely and fully.”
Who is bringing the permanent into this “moment”? There is so much anger—however justified and important—being expressed through fleeting forms. Where are the psalmists, the poets of national conscience? The musicians and painters to confront us and exalt us? Institutions and policies solidify permanence of a moral arc, yes, but it is art that often makes straight the way. Not unlike love. Not unlike God.
It is also art—and literature and the humanities writ large—that have the power to make meaning of our fears and our confusion, in part by setting both in a context of a much broader whole. As Dorothy Day once wrote,
[Here are some] books [to read] in wartime: Labyrinthine Ways. To the End of the World. Kristin Lavransdatter. Master of Hestviken. Jeremiah. 1 Kings.
People live, eat, sleep, love, worship, marry, have children, and somehow live in the midst of war, in the midst of anguish. The sun continues to shine, the leaves flaunt their vivid color, there is a serene warmth in the day and an invigorating cold at night. Turn off your radio. Put away your daily paper. Read one review of events a week and spend some time reading such books as the above. They tell too of days of striving and of strife. They are of other centuries and also of our own. They make us realize that all times are perilous, that men live in a dangerous world, in peril constantly of losing or maiming soul and body.
We get some sense of perspective reading such books. Renewed courage and faith and even joy to live. And man cannot live long without joy, without some vestige of happiness to light up his days.
May your weekend and these soon-to-be-summer days invite moments of this kind of joy, this kind of renewal. We hope that what we’re creating and curating at Breaking Ground is helping to nudge you toward this capaciousness, perhaps even stretching your strength.