Accept the warming rays

5:45/5:33, 78/90. Podcast.
Harry Potter’s birthday, sorta.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in Britain on this day in 1997. Joanne Rowling was an unemployed, single mother waiting for a delayed train, when an idea suddenly came to her. “I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me … I began to write that very evening.”

She just “sat and thought.” Sounds so simple. Rowling’s original Thinking Place was a train station, and then a coffee shop. This is what I was trying to say: it’s not about the place, spatio-temporally speaking, it’s about the “aura and mental associations” the place conjures for you. Those can travel. The actual thinking place is between the ears.

We don’t keep it between our ears, we externalize and symbolize, investing mere objects with more power than they deserve. Flags and buildings, for instance.

My old Mills Bookstore colleague Michael Sims tweeted the other day, “I was born in rural eastern Tennessee, but to me the Dixie flag has always been a symbol of three things: treason, slavery, and losers.” He’s right, but all this flag fuss in response to the Charleston massacre, I fear, is diverting our attention and allowing us to imagine we’re actually addressing the root causes of racism.  Taking down flags is not taking down ignorance and hatred.

And yet, symbols and names are important. The ROTC building on our campus, named for the notorious confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, is again, finally, being “revisited“.

University officials said it dedicated the ROTC building as Nathan Bedford Forrest Hall in 1958 because of Forrest’s military record with the Confederate Army and his Middle Tennessee ties. The Confederate cavalry leader was known for his tactical battlefield skills and for leading a successful 1862 raid that captured more than 1,000 Union troops and freed local residents in Murfreesboro. He also reportedly served as the first grand wizard for the Ku Klux Klan after the war…Phil Oliver, a 12-year philosophy professor at MTSU, said it’s past time to rename the building for someone who isn’t a “symbol of racism. “I’m embarrassed every time I teach there,” Oliver said.

And pass by. Or even just think of it. A new name won’t change everything but it will symbolize new sensitivity and better intentions. If (as the wall in my old Forrest Hall classroom proclaims) we’re ruthlessly enforcing high standards of humanity, that name’s got to go.
One more thing before I have to go: last night I read an old interview with E.B. White, the subject of one of Michael Sims’ many delightful books. He said writing is a form of therapy. (So is reading.) And he said,

I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

“Accept the warming rays” – that’s what Rowling was doing at the station and in the coffee shop. It’s what I try to do out here on my porch, in my Thinking Place, and wherever else I can manage to find them.

How’s that for a symbol?

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