Welcome to Issue #1 of Gifts and Forgiveness.
After thinking through a newsletter for a while – probably a little over a year now – I’ve decided to give this a try. For now, let’s consider this an experiment.
Why a newsletter?
I’ve been rethinking, reorganizing, and repurposing my web presence, including social media and my blog, a while now. Sometime in early to mid-2019, I started to tear it all down. I developed certain disciplines with regard to Facebook, set Tweets to auto-delete after a certain expiration date, and took down my blog. I had several good reasons for each of those moves (maybe there will be occasion to explain the reasoning behind each move sometime in the future, though I did explain them in real time on those platforms). I took down the blog in part because I was troubled by the fragmentation of our information landscape and the role that fragmentation is playing in the increasing polarization of American life. It seemed to me that, if I had something to say, I should first seek out a home for that work in some venue attached to an accountable institution or media channel, not in one that I maintain, and if that work couldn’t find a home, then maybe it didn’t deserve to be out there. Maybe it didn’t need to be said or wasn’t good enough. For the most part, I still think those changes were a good idea.
Around the same time, I had begun subscribing to a few newsletters. At first, I kept my subscriptions few and the authors familiar. As much as anything, the subscriptions were a way to keep up with friends, like Alan Jacobs (Snakes & Ladders) and Martyn Wendell Jones (Dang). But the list grew to include Jonathan Malesic, Meaghan O’Connell, and Jeremy Singer-Vine. Before long, I had subscribed to just enough newsletters that I couldn’t read them all and would feel guilty on busy days when I simply needed to archive or delete what came in.
I still haven’t figured out how to keep them from crowding my inbox, and that is annoying, and yet there’s something about them that works. I haven’t quite put my finger on why they work, and I hope someone will let me know if they have figured out what is the secret sauce that makes newsletters superior to blogs and social media platforms. As a reader, maybe it’s because they show up in the one place I’m practically compelled to check for important communications. Maybe it’s because of the simplicity – email can be a scourge, but it’s not usually a rabbit hole like so much of the web is. Or maybe it’s because the newsletters to which I subscribe are thematically coherent or highly organized. In any case, they work for me as a reader, and so I began to wonder whether they’d work for me as a writer.
Why “Gifts and Forgiveness?”
“Gifts and forgiveness” is a phrase borrowed from a poem, “Of the Snaring of Birds,” by Robert Bringhurst. You can find it in his Selected Poems.. Here it is (yes, I understand that I underlined way too much of this poem and that that isn’t the best way to annotate, and I don’t know why I did that the first time I read it):
We paw at the earth, driving our ploughs year after year – I think we would not be wrong to let our minds wander from “year after year” to without a sabbath – with “what used to be horses,” as if we could go at this forever without consequence, as if the land would hold nothing against us, as if the earth were “made out of gifts and forgiveness.” The earth, of course, is not made out of gifts and forgiveness (and that’s a theme that deserves further exploration), but it may only be the slightest exaggeration to say that we should be. In any case, for some reason, that phrase, “gifts and forgiveness,” has been seared in my memory since I first read this poem, and I’m borrowing it here.
The issues of this newsletter will not be a meditation on gifts and forgiveness (with apologies to the person who has this title in mind for a newsletter that does just that). Rather, by borrowing this title, I’m suggesting two things: (1) I have a few things to offer; (2) this newsletter is not for “beefs,” disagreements, or controversies. Don’t get me wrong: controversy has its place. That place has a name: Twitter. Not “Gifts and Forgiveness.”
This doesn’t mean I’ll steer away from all topics on which there might be disagreement. I’d have to stay away from almost everything to do that. (And it’s probably harder than I’m making it out to be for someone who wrote a book on environmental politics and Christian ethics called, The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands.) But my promise is to engage without needlessly sensationalizing the unsensational or controversializing the uncontroversial, without trying to win some battle. Of course, forgiveness is a much deeper thing than this, but it must at least mean not holding something against someone, must at least require letting go… of control, of leverage, of records of wrong. It’s a high bar, but if I do it right, that’ll be the spirit of this space, and hopefully the title will call me back when I’m tempted in a different direction.
What will you find here?
I’ll start this time with just two recommendations.
Preview of Issue 2: A few brief observations and comments on the pandemic and our responses.