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Some things happen only once. Yet we remember them forever.

Some are painful. But many are joyous and teach us how to live.

Here are some of those for me.


The Difference




Favourite Possession



Favourite Place



Favourite Film





Anchor 4

The Difference

Some things come out of the blue. Not all. Some come out of the purple of Tyre, from a sudden, untouchable wisdom. From a beloved.

I was despairing, as only my particular hyperbolic, nearly-died-but-didn’t, always-slightly-terrified self can be. He heard my fear, and my resolve. He heard my action-right-now-plan-first, fast-heart, tight-breath, exhausted piloting of my body’s inexorable march through change. He knew it would not get me where I wanted to be. He knew I did not know that, except in the ossified repository of warring philosophies comprising my education, my life.


All needing a stir.

I had talked lots. He had listened. Lots. I had cried – healingly, sufficiently, clarifyingly. There was no intrusion.

He said then: ‘Do you remember the morning after we met. We were in the library of that falling-down farm house talking, coming to know each other as fast as we could, and at some point you said, “I never give up.”’

I nodded. I cherished that morning.

He went on. ’I admired then, and do now, that strength in you.

‘I also wonder if now might be the moment to embrace the difference between giving in and giving up.”

Can there be visceral, cellular conflagration of wilfulness and a rising of recognition, of disrobing and re-robing without cords? There can.

The difference between giving in and giving up.

Yes. Giving in. That bold, passive, abstruse victory. I found it first in the Quakers. I reawakened it re-reading Quaker thought this year. And as if I need finally to let it happen to me, I found it there in – from – Christopher.

Giving in is not the same as giving up.

Stepping aside to step forward.

To ease into in order to arrive.

To be in order to be.

Tyrian without tyranny.

Anchor 3


For ten years I have been writing this piece. It resists. For exactly the reasons I want to write it, it won’t be written. Its very mattering comes from the tongue-tied complexity of its point.


So let me leave it at this: When you hear my voice and think, ‘White US Southerner’, also think, ‘Anti-racist.’


I would appreciate that.


Then consider the Hugh Howard article below. And take a day to learn what you can about the history of the South that was not written by the North. Read the story of 250 years of Southern Black and White alliance for race equality and equity.


That would be great.


And maybe also keep this in mind: All Whites are racist. But none of us is born that way. Racism happens to us. As we grow up, we resist, incredulous, wailing, for as long as we can. Standing for Black liberation our entire lives, most of us never cave in.


But some of us do. Some of us hate. Some of us belittle and bully and brandish, storming, spilling the pain of our own humiliated exclusion.


Regardless, it matters that none of us is born racist. And it matters that we now are. All of us. If we are White, we are. That’s just that. No matter where we live or come from, no matter how concretely we loathe oppression, we, because we are White, carry the messages of racism. We navigate them and subjugate them and rush to hush them to death. But they are there.


Racism infests and infects every White life before it can think, before it can say no. Racist lies migrate through us. We breathe them in, then out, then in. We retch. They regroup. We retch again. They regroup.


This tail-eating spin begins because we arrive in this life not just into now but into then. And it is then, it is history, that produces the lore that infuses the child that sculpts the adult that sustains the system. And however defanged by education and experience and resolve-to-change-it-all an individual life may be, its history lurks. Racism seeps. Even as we fight to destroy it, we house it.


We defy it; we vilify it; we decry it; we pass on a lighter version of it than our parents and their parents did. But we are still its hideout.


Right here, even as I write this anti-racist polemic, racism is in me. And if you are White, it is there in you as you read.


In every campaign for human rights, however massive or minuscule, in every diversity policy and programme, in every mixed marriage, in every activist clan, in every temple of free-them ideology, in all new inclusive lingo there is a cacophony of shredded but still-there assumptions about race, and about region, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion – all of it.


Strapped to its back before we can walk, we ride the societal beast of untrue assumptions about groups, assumptions that buck and block our seeing, our reacting, our choosing. Fearing the fall we grip harder; we stay on. We plunge. We jerk back. But still we ride. We ride with more finesse, able soon to balance while roaring our rage against its indignity and savagery, holding our placards high as the reins drop. Over time lawmakers listen and laws respond. The public applauds. We don’t look up. Still astride, we strive still, next steps; allies – for the end of racism, for the end of prejudice, the end of all of it.


Actually, no. Not quite all of it.


And this is why I write today. One form of prejudice sits unconfronted because it confounds, disallowed because it dismembers. It has no name. I call it White Southernism: the assumption that all White Southerners are racist, and everyone else isn’t. White Southernism. This mythical monolithic single depository of racism which is the White Southern life. It is not to be opened.


But we sense it even in the slight disturbance of air that says, ‘racist’ when you first hear my Southern voice and its trailing of the voices of my parents and of theirs, and of theirs, and of theirs.


So what I ask is that you remember that history is murkily non-linear. And most of all, it harbours hidden stories of the truth of love in bypassed places, stories that simplistic political forces fear and forbid. What you learned in school about me and my people is likely wrong. And whether or not you know that the first African slaves arrived as British cargo into both Virginia and Massachusetts – into the South and the North –, just know that we were there in the first fights for freedom, and we are here in the ones today. Racists/Anti-racists. Just like you.


If you can, when you hear my Southern voice, rejoice.


Hear first the anti-racist speaking.


That would mean a lot to me.

Hugh Howard, The Washington Post, ‘Opinion’, July 10, 2015:


To a surprising extent, the way the North remembers the Civil War is…deeply flawed and misleading.

Recall that when Lincoln took office, slavery had the official sanction of the U.S. government. Like it or not, slavery was a part of the economic history of the North as well as the South. Much of the nation’s cotton, its largest export, was taken north of the Mason-Dixon Line to be processed; for that matter, many of the South’s most successful planters were Yankees who adopted with alacrity the practice of slavery on their way to wealth.

In the antebellum years, there was nothing resembling an anti-slavery consensus in the North. America’s greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, hesitated for years to decry what he called “the habit of oppression.” When he finally did so from the podium in Concord Town Hall, he was called a fanatic and worse. The word “abolition” made his neighbors angry. The idea rang radical even in Massachusetts, where many regarded those who espoused such views as dangerous.

It’s simply wrong-headed to presume that average, mid-19th-century farmers and factory workers in the North harbored abolitionist sympathies. They didn’t.

Even Lincoln’s racial thinking evolved in a slow and ambiguous manner. Until the very end of his life, the hero of the age resisted the notion that the black and white races were equal. In his famous 1858 debates — and elsewhere — he repeatedly rejected the idea of permitting black men to vote, serve as jurors, hold office or intermarry with whites. “There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality.”

That meant that, at its outset, the war for Lincoln was explicitly about union — until it became expedient to make it about emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation was primarily intended to hobble the Confederacy’s war effort, which relied upon slaves for provisioning and other support.

Even among those who recognized that human bondage must end, few thought blacks were equal to whites. In the South, where 95 percent of the nation’s African Americans resided, slavery had been a fact of life for generations, fixing the black man’s inferiority in the minds of most whites. In the North, where less than 1 percent of the population was black, relatively few whites interacted with men or women of color; there, anyone of African descent remained very much other.

The past is no more a fixed destination than the future is, and we need to question constantly the history we’ve been handed.

Anchor 1


Favourite Possession

The fifth of your life’ is a ‘favourite possession’. 1 I wish I had a list of all of the choices Nigel has heard for this one. I can imagine everything from fossil to first frangipani.

For me it is my twin’s Bible.

Bill died 20 years ago. His death was desperate for me. It often is for twins. And over these years I have reflected on the ways he served humanity, and me in particular, as a teacher of life’s complexities. He taught me things I have tried to live up to and have cherished.

One was about equality as it lives inside love.


We were 8 years old. Our big sister, Merl, was 14 and away at boarding school, but very much a beloved presence in our house. On this day, Saturday probably, Bill was in his room reading comic books and sneaking Pecan Sandies (heavenly, crumbly and forbidden cookies only he could get away with). I had been playing dress-up in my room. All was pretty normal.


Then suddenly, catapulted by some thought sequence I cannot now remember, I jumped up and walked resolutely down the hall to Bill’s room. I stood in front of his bed and said, with no preamble, ‘Bill, who do you love more, me or Merl?’


He looked up from his Superman comic, slowly rose, put the comic down and looked at me. I was shaking. He leaned gently forward and said slowly and tenderly, ‘Nancy, I love you both the most.’


I remember the relief I felt, and also something too grown up for me to embrace cognitively. There was a kind of wisdom in what he had said that was transportive for me. I look back on that moment now and think that possibly my whole psychological trajectory changed in that moment. I have not learned anything more incomprehensibly wise than that.


And just how he sourced that almost divine paradox, I don’t know. He could surprise you.

He went on to become a fervent, though always gentle, Christian, a striving one, a self-doubting, sometimes even tortured one, but always a wise one. And as a given in his life, in his home, in his heart was his large blue leather-bound Bible with particular verses highlighted where he went often, pages worn with determined learning and concomitant prayer. A treasure.


When he died, his wife, Mary, a dear sister-in-law, gave it to me. Now it is my treasure. Not to use as he did; no one could do that. But to hold, to hear, to heed as a tribute to that sweet soul who often knew beyond his knowing, and I guess led me to that kind of knowing, too – and still does in my most uncertain moments.


Possessions are strange things. Favourite ones even more so. They are not to be owned.


They are to be listen to.


Anchor 2


Favourite Place

Nigel 1  also wanted my favourite place. I didn’t struggled with this one. But I loved thinking about it, remembering, musing. Missing Margaret.


My geographic place would have been New Mexico or Oxfordshire. Their skies warrant glass roofs and forever walks. The New Mexico sky can turn you into a believer in one take. It would have been fun to choose that cerulean place.


But about ten years ago I was driving with Margaret Legum, a redoubtable freedom-fighter economist in South Africa, who changed the subject from anti-apartheid politics and said with no segue, ‘Nancy, where do you most love to be?’ And I said with no swithering (I love that word), ‘With Christopher and in the middle of a sentence while I am writing.’


We both laughed at the non-geographical sense I had made of her question; She had adored her husband, too, and was a writer herself. She smiled.


So for Nigel I chose ‘In the middle of a sentence while I am writing’. I wanted to get at what makes that place so gorgeous for me.


I think it is the primordial ooze of it. The beginnings from beginnings, the designed designlessness of it. There is a freedom sewn from shifting structure, a unguided confident guide stepping over stiles, tossing decoys to clear the water, securing a seat half way up to see the ‘so far’ of it all, saying yes and then no and then perfect.


I have reached for these moments since I was 10 years old. But I fell I love with them when I was 27, writing the first book of my own. But I had to wait until I was 46 truly to get it. Writing the first book on the Thinking Environment, I had to rid my mind of voices of cynicism, of denigration, of relegation. I climbed the spiral staircase to my study each morning and did a kind conscious ritual of clearing the critics. And when I had, when all there was at my desk was one soul resolving to stay true to her self, to her heart, to what she knew to be so from her experience, I discovered this ‘place’.


Being in the middle of a sentence as it is forming, reforming, rejecting, embracing, agonising over and rejoicing in itself is exhilarating. It requires me to be entirely focused, entirely in the present, as even meditation and mindfulness cannot.


I sometimes imagine that it is like being conscious during blastulation in embryogenesis. We have no brains then to perceive that quintessential experience of formation, but being in the middle of a sentence may hold some of that cellular memory of going from nothing to something, and from something to everything.

In that way, that ‘let there be light and there was light’ kind of way, this ‘place’, I’d say, is not just my favourite place.

I think it is a holy place.


[1] Nigel Marsh, ‘The Five of My Life' link:

Anchor 5


Favourite Film


And then there was the ‘The Five of Your Life' 1 favourite film.


One film. One.


Forget it.


First of all, I couldn’t choose even one category of film as a favourite and there was at least one film in each category such as:

‘Breathtaking’ (A River Runs Through It)

‘Worthy of a justice activist’ (Three Billboards or Long Walk to Freedom)

‘Achingly hilarious’ (Barefoot in the Park - the climbing the stairs scene is worth the whole film)

‘Meltingly romantic’ (Bridges of Madison County)

‘Unforgivably heartbreaking’ (Out of Africa)

‘Just plain terrifying’ (Silence of the Lambs)


They fell over each other being first.

So did ‘Anything with Robert Redford in it’ (my three decades favourite).


So I made up one: the ‘I’ll definitely love any film in it’ category.


‘Courtroom drama’ was it. No question.


Any highly strung trial in which the good person’s modest, super smart (preferably young or struggling) attorney outwits the really really really bad person’s arrogant, you-wouldn’t-even-want-to-have-dinner-them opposing attorney.


Basically it’s the intellectual forensics I love, the delicate journey of solving any mystery. I love wanting to know something and then discovering it. I love questions, and I love answers, including the tentativeness of answers. As a kid I watched Perry Mason every Saturday night (no boyfriends yet), and as a little girl I read almost every Nancy Drew novel. When I was four I asked my mother why water went down the drain. She did her best to explain gravity to me. But not even Einstein understood gravity. He did notice it. Which was a lot.


Questions are the thing, though. And most questions don’t have answers; we just think they do. But in courtroom drama, you get the answers, too. Usually. Which is enough.


So, ‘courtroom drama’ led to no contest for film favourite: The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey playing the wonderful Mick Haller.


In fact, Matthew McConaughey is my new Robert Redford, so the choice was hard. But you take ‘courtroom drama’, add McConaughey’s irresistibility to a plot that sears the hubris of inherited wealth and entitlement, add a seriously delicious plot twist turning inside out who the bad person is, then add the power of understated truths, disobedient humour at the expense of the hateful, questions that take no prisoners, the tender heart of tough guys, and humility wedded to victory – well? The Lincoln Lawyer. Definitely.


Early courtroom classics were hard to resist, of course, like Twelve Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird. The moral snob in me tried to choose one of those. But that would have been reverence more than preference.


Maybe this is the point. Favourites speak of our selves. More loudly than we imagine. And this favourite film, as with my favourite book and place, says something I want to say with my life – that the heart beats out longings: for justice, for sweetness, for searching until finding, for digging when glossing tempts, for razor-edged leaving of mendacity in the dust, for eyes that love. Mick Haller (and McConaughey for that matter) knows that.


And lives it.


I’d like to, too.



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