Build a bridge.
October 2021 Newsletter, FALL BOOK CLUB details, and a recipe!
Bipartisanship is dying in the United States Senate, Lee Drutman wrote this week for FiveThirtyEight. “Congress is in full-on chaos mode” as politicians refuse to work across party lines.
Why is this? Drutman considers a few different reasons. For one, much of our political discourse has been nationalized. Senate elections used to focus on local issues, but these days, voters care far more about “national culture-war issues” (and about which party controls Congress) than they do about roads and bridges.
Democratic and Republican parties have become geographically polarized, as well: there’s less and less “purple” to be found as the United States is increasingly defined by its bubbles of red and blue. These days, “there’s minimal overlap in the interests and values the parties represent.”
Most Americans “are sick of all the partisan fighting in Washington,” Drutman notes. “They are, in one widely cited phrasing, part of the ‘exhausted majority’—i.e., the two-thirds of Americans who are ‘fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society.’” Yet, while many of these exhausted Americans say they want compromise and bipartisanship, they struggle when theory meets reality.
I’ve lived in a red state and in a blue one, and spent lots of time in rural and in urban America. I love both “bubbles” dearly. Last year, I saw many communities split apart. It felt like families, friendships, and churches wouldn’t be able to bear the strain of political disagreement. A death of bipartisanship isn’t limited to Congress; it’s impacting all of us.
But I think—and hope—there is a role to be played by people who want to be bridge builders: by those who have their feet in two increasingly divergent and separate worlds, and want to love and serve in both. There are many ways in which we’re polarized these days. But perhaps there are just as many ways in which we can find common ground.
I’ve compiled some thoughts below—from a decade of writing about and living in two different places, and seeking to build friendships across political, religious, and socioeconomic divides. They’re the beginnings of my brainstorming on what it might mean to build bridges. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas, as well.
Grow in your ability to be an “ambassador.” An ambassador here, in my mind, means being a charitable, thoughtful, and empathetic advocate for your community, your faith, or your beliefs, while eagerly and respectfully learning about other communities, faiths, and beliefs. It defers from being partisan for a cause in the sense that, rather than working from a defensive posture, being an ambassador requires openness, dialogue, and an eagerness to learn.
If you’re a transplant (someone who grew up in another place, or multiple other places): How can you be a “good neighbor” in the place where you live, in addition to the place(s) where you grew up? What would that involve or entail? How would it guide the way you post online, the purchasing decisions you make, how and whether you volunteer?
This has been an interesting thought experiment for me. Because of my Idaho roots, I was very passionate about supporting local agriculture in the D.C. area. I tried to be a good representative of my state and its people in discussions in our nation’s capital. I found that D.C. people love to gather around a bonfire, with a fiddle and some apple pie. Bringing little bits of Idaho to Washington, D.C.—through food and drink, words and song, values and virtues—helped bring touches of home to my urban environment.
But I’ve also tried to praise virtuous D.C. people, mores, and institutions to Idahoans who might otherwise be dismissive of the city. I’ve introduced friends and family members to fantastic writers at The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times—publications that often get dismissed as “fake news” in some rural settings—and urged them to read the work of these brilliant and thoughtful people. I’ve shared sermons by incredible D.C. pastors, showed off my favorite haunts in the city, and shared ways in which D.C. has expanded my intellectual, philosophical, and religious beliefs. I try to dispel urban-vs.-rural myths whenever I can—because both communities are beautiful, and both need good, committed neighbors and advocates.
Seek to grow “intellectual hospitality.” Cherie Harder wrote a beautiful piece about intellectual hospitality for Comment Magazine in February, and I talked (briefly) about the concept as part of a Living Room Conversation with Pepperdine’s American Project. (You can watch it here, and download a guide for hosting a conversation of your own here.)
Basically, as Cherie Harder puts it, “If hospitality, classically understood, involves welcome for the stranger and the offer of care for their physical needs, intellectual hospitality extends an invitation to new perspectives and ideas (and the people who hold them).”
We grow intellectual hospitality through deep, varied reading. We grow it when we’re eager and willing to engage with and learn from those who disagree with us. We grow it through building a moral imagination that’s attuned to the incalculable mystery and beauty inherent in the human experience.
Perhaps you can follow someone—a writer or journalist, a musician, an artist, or an activist—whom you strongly disagree with. Read their work, their opinions, their biography or life story. Think about how their life has sculpted their viewpoints. Point out things about them you respect.
Hospitality must involve a willingness to make space for and to welcome others as they are, as not-us. Hospitality “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” writes Henri J. M. Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (1975). “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
For this reason, Harder warns, “personal disrespect or contempt is kryptonite to hospitality. It destroys the trust, openness, and vulnerability that hospitality slowly builds, and it withers the curiosity that hospitality quickens. Intellectually hospitable disagreements aim to sharpen or challenge one’s thinking or improve one’s work; expressions of contempt are designed to corrode one’s person and sense of value.”
Consider carefully, friends. Is there someone on the opposite side of a political aisle whose humanity you regard carelessly, dismissively, because of their political positions, religious beliefs, or personal opinions?
Don’t let the poison of our discourse poison your soul. You don’t have to agree with everyone. You can disagree strongly. Sometimes, you should disagree strongly. There are moral causes which need the force of passion, even of anger, behind them. But love those you disagree with, especially if and when you disagree with them vehemently.
The intellectually hospitable, the bridge builders, will go into their encounters—town council meetings, online debates, neighborly discussions, and more—with an expectation of common ground. Not an expectation that people will agree, mind you—rather, an expectation that, as human beings, we all have shared needs, desires, and hurts. (This is where I think refocusing on the local could make a difference—we may disagree on many things, but wanting safe walkable streets, for instance, is often a place to start finding agreement.)
Learn about your blind spots. Do you have areas of intellectual thought or belief that tend toward brittle pride, rather than humility? If so, what are they? Do you have friends, neighbors, or family members who are different enough from you to see those blind spots, and to help call you to account?
There’s something we are all wrong about: something that time, age, or a different opinion might reveal to us as wrong, even harmful. We all should be open to acknowledging that.
Where you might help explain or defend ideas you disagree with to those who are more politically aligned with you? If someone on the opposite side of a political viewpoint or argument were standing and listening to you explain their position(s), would they find it fair and well-reasoned? Part of the battle we fight isn’t just in defending our viewpoint well—but in understanding others’ viewpoint well enough to disagree thoughtfully and honestly. (A friend pointed out that Alan Jacobs talks about this in his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, which I still need to read!)
What is one area of today’s political/cultural commentary where you could find compromise? If you can’t think of anything, start trying. Finding your own “gray” areas—potential places of compromise—will help you build bridges, build new friendships, and grow in empathy. For what it’s worth, issues surrounding health care and paid family leave, sustainable agriculture and environmental policy, prison reform, foreign policy, and the built environment and town/city development (to name a few) are all issues in which I can find a lot of common ground with people on both sides of the political aisle.
In my book, I wrote that “I often feel like I don’t belong in Idaho or in Virginia: both defined by my roots and remade by my present reality.”
I quoted Sarah Smarsh, who writes in her memoir Heartland that her life “has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. … Stretching your arms that far can be painful.”
I knew, even when I wrote the book, that stretching between two places had been good for me: deepening and complicating my vision, giving me new opportunities for understanding, humility, and (hopefully) empathy.
But it still felt (and continues, often, to feel) exhausting. “[P]erhaps life would get easier if I just let go of one side of the bridge: if I stopped going back and forth and chose one place or the other,” I wrote.
Where have you built bridges in the last year?
What advice might you offer others who feel alienated or divided in this time?
Email me your thoughts, or comment below!
It’s Book Club Time!
Are you ready for another book club? I’ve been thinking about it all year! I loved discussing Marilynne Robinson’s Jack with you all last year, and doing the webinar with Charlie Clark, Tiffany Kriner, and Sarah Clarkson.
I’d love to read a Wendell Berry book with you all for this year’s book club. I know there are a lot of Berry fans in this readership, and his work has shaped my own thinking and writing for over a decade now.
I’ve thought up a couple Berry books that seem about the right length for a month and a half of reading. If you sign up today, you’ll get to help choose the book!
We will start reading this coming week, with weekly check-in emails, and then aim to finish between November 15-30.
Like last time, once we finish the book, I’m planning to host a Zoom webinar in which we discuss the books! We’ll be joined by—
Substack requires me to set a $5-a-month minimum subscription for the “advanced” version of this newsletter. But I don't want to prevent anyone from participating in the book club.
So this is a 100% OFF COUPON to the book club membership. Feel free to use it, and to share it with friends!
in other news
Terry Gross talks to Evan Osnos about his new book Wildland, which considers political polarization in different U.S. regions and communities: “In a curious way, Terry, it was actually not the distance between the places that fascinated me. It was the connections between them.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has “forced a reckoning” in the meat industry, Ryan McCrimmon writes for Politico: “Even in Nebraska, the country’s top cattle producer and a stronghold of the meatpacking industry, the state government is experimenting with ways to expand and diversify the meat supply system, such as helping smaller, local plants play a bigger role in the market or making it easier for farmers to sell their meat directly to consumers.”
Addison Del Mastro explains the policy values, assumptions, and values that go into our car-centric environment. “Car dependence is at least in part a way of looking at places. The design shapes a certain psychology, and that psychology in turn shapes how we build. We’ve put considerable effort into making it difficult to get around.”
“Garden cities” are actually ancient—but we have very few in the modern world. Many organizations and activists are seeking to change this, bringing back urban agriculture and expand urban green spaces, Gaia Lamperti and Sophie Yeo write: “Our real aim with this project is tackling the inequality in public access to green spaces… Too much public space in our cities is dedicated to private vehicles, be it parking or driving. We want to give space back to people and nature by creating something that serves the local community.”
I love this piece by Tara Isabella Burton, in which she considers places, belonging, love, and rootlessness: “I can tell the story of rootless cosmopolitanism in my life, and of the elements of it I wish to reject. But I can tell, too, another story: a story of rooted cosmopolitanism, of the ways in which I learned that I was vulnerable to, and rooted in, so many different kinds of love. It is the story of developing roots, and belonging, not through either biology or affinity, conceived of as ideologies, but rather through the particularity of those we know, and love.”
Matt Miller offers a list of favorite gardening books for winter: “Seed and nursery catalogs always make good winter reading, but a garden library also makes for a better gardener. Although the internet bursts with garden information and advice (some of it even good), books remain an invaluable source of information, inspiration, comfort, and pleasure.”
Barbara McClay writes about friendship in literature, and in life: its promises, ironies, and pains. “[F]riendship is not a static relationship, but it is also not a linear one. Friendships can be picked up after decades without their having suffered, and they can matter intensely, even be life changing, while lasting only a few months. Much like with family, a friendship can encompass feelings of dislike and sometimes hatred without necessarily undoing the relationship itself. How do you tell a story about a relationship that remains, at heart, stable and that has no endpoint toward which to go?”
Tessa Carman’s interview with poet and painter Claude Wilkinson is a beautiful consideration of nature, attention, inspiration, and art: “Being attentive, and then comprehending, are perhaps the most difficult and crucial aspects of accomplishing any inspiration, whether literary or visual.”
Feet in Chains, Kate Roberts
I’m a few dozen pages into this work by Welsh novelist Kate Roberts. The cover of my edition suggests that “Kate Roberts is to Wales what Thomas Hardy is to the West country.”
“This is a realist’s Wales, a Wales where wages are low, working conditions poor, worker unity uncommon, food scarce and education scarcer,” James Vilares wrote for the Wales Art Review. “The novel focuses on the economic realities of a quarryman’s life, and in that respect Roberts pulls no punches. The existence her characters endure is grim, as grey and bleak as the stony landscape they inhabit.”
Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday
This beautiful short book by Momaday came out last year, and I read it in one sitting (though I’m already planning to re-read it multiple times). It’s an ode to the American Southwest, and to the beauty of oral tradition and Native American culture, while also lamenting exploitation and injustice throughout history and in our present time.
“When I think about my life and the lives of my ancestors, I am inevitably led to the conviction that I, and they, belong to the American land. This is a declaration of belonging. And it is an offering to the earth,” Momaday writes.
This beet gratin is incredibly delicious (I think it would make a fantastic Thanksgiving side, but plan to eat it multiple times between then and now).
A simple recipe for twice-baked potatoes with kale turned out to be very popular with all our tiny humans. We had it with lentil soup, but it would be wonderful alongside a roast of some sort.
Speaking of lentil soup—this “Best Lentil Soup” is fantastic. Blending half results in a wonderful creamy texture. It’s vegan, and budget-friendly. My husband and I decided we would be adding it to our weekly meal roundup.
I made these scones with my girls a couple weeks ago, and they were a huge hit for afternoon tea (and breakfast the next day). Hope you enjoy.
Whole-Wheat Rosemary Cheddar Scones
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp baking powder
6 tbsp cold butter, cut into pieces
1 cup grated or chopped sharp cheddar cheese
2-3 sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1/3 cup cream (or sour cream)
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F, and line a baking sheet with parchment.
2. Whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder. Work in the butter until the mixture is crumbly.
3. Add in cheese and rosemary.
4. Whisk together eggs and cream, and add to the dry ingredients. The dough should be sticky.
5. Flour the counter, and pat the scone dough into a rectangle. Cut the rectangle into five squares, then cut each square diagonally in half, thus making 10 triangular scones.
7. Place the scones on the baking sheet, and bake for 20-23 minutes. Remove from the oven, and serve with sliced apples, pears, or a bit of butter and jam!
Béla Fleck has a new album out, “My Bluegrass Heart,” and it’s wonderful—featuring songs with Chris Thile, Molly Tuttle, and other fantastic musicians. I just listened to this (older) “On Being” interview with Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, and highly recommend it.
After listening, I found this YouTube video of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn performing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with their baby, Juno, and THEN I found their Banjo House recordings from the pandemic last year. Needless to say, the Béla Fleck/Abigail Wasburn music/interview/recording rabbit trail is a delightful one to explore!
José Gonzalez also has a new album out, “Local Valley,” featuring some lovely songs.
I loved this episode of Jennifer Frey’s podcast “Sacred and Profane Love,” in which she and Thomas Pfau discuss Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry. They talk quite a bit about Milosz's belief that poetry encourages true sight—but that the truest sight includes dissonance: a sense of mystery and the unknown, of distance and suffering.
“On the one hand, I recognize the particular temptation to Instagram one’s way through life: to see every moment not as a thing to be appreciated in its own right, but one to be captured in photograph, and shared on social media. This can indeed be terrible.
On the other hand, I have come to appreciate increasingly over the last few years the way that a camera in hand can actually focus my attention – to help me see things, and be observant to things, I would not otherwise have seen or been observant to.
Too, as the unofficial but very actual family photographer at this point, I have come to value the way that photography can serve others: by sharing the memories and helping us reaffirm the goodness of an event past. And, in a strange way, having a camera in hand has made no fee family social situations tolerable and bearable for me which would have otherwise been nothing but exhaustion: because there was at least that joy, of the work to find and catch beautiful moments along the way (again, rightly drawing my attention), even if everything else going on was deeply frustrating at best.
None of which is really an argument against your original post or even against the comments here so much as it is a “yes, and…” expansion in the thoughts there.”
One year ago: Reading the news in dark times.
Two years ago: Plant confessions, “peak wellness,” and Flannery O’Connor.s