Jan 082016
 

From the January Issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The theme of this issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine is a 50-year vision for the community. In 2008, Batavia rebuilt the William J. Donovan Bridge which spans the Fox River connecting east and west Wilson Street. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my future counterpart, for a time-capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt in the next century:

Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,

It is a challenge to speak to my counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy have been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.

So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.

We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.

Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.

So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. And while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.

I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.

Postscript: Seven years later I see little reason to soften my critique of our culture of isolation. We have hundreds more digital channels into which we can tune and remain observers, rather than participants in human drama. Dialogue is prepared for us, relieving us of the need to find our own genuine, loving, but elusive, words to offer solace and comfort. Then, when lives unfold and we find ourselves in the presence of devastating loss and suffering, we are amateurs at being human. We search for words we learned from script writers, because we cannot discern our own authentic, unique and vulnerable end to the story. We can and must do better…we have 93 years left in which to learn how. I pray we begin today.

Jun 032012
 

 

Note: in 2008, Batavia rebuilt the Wilson Street Bridge which spans the Fox River. The Fox River severs our community into its east and west, and the bridge plays an important role in keeping us connected. As head of the Chamber of Commerce, I was asked to write a letter to my counterpart. It was placed in a time capsule to be opened as the bridge is rebuilt once again in 100 years.
Dear Chamber of Commerce Executive Director,
It is a challenge to speak to your counterpart 100 years in the future. I suspect very little remains the same as in 2008 since we live on the cusp of a very different era for humans in general—and commerce in particular. The word that best describes the difference between today and that new era is oil. Many predict we are nearing the end of its abundant supply and it is the single biggest commodity that drives the economics of our time. Not only does oil power our industries, it powers our vehicles—and those are the primary users of the Wilson Street Bridge. Likely, by the time you read this, alternative forms of energy has been discovered to create the products you need, power the vehicles that transport you, and support the livelihoods of Batavia’s residents.
So as I write, it is unclear of even the reason for or need to replace the Wilson Street Bridge. But since bridges are perhaps even more symbolic than they are practical, let me address their symbolism. No doubt the other letters in this time capsule deal effectively with the practical, so I am washing my hands of the need to add to that discussion.
We live in an era of isolation. Much has been written about a concept we call social capital—the number, strength and diversity of the networks that connect us as human beings. The Wilson Street Bridge has been a major piece of the infrastructure that has connected the people of the east and the west, but social capital refers to so much more. It includes all the ways humans connect and build a sense of community. Much of the research shows that, between 1960 and today, the creation of social capital has been in dramatic decline. We find ourselves largely isolated and removed from one another.
Interestingly, it is oil that has enabled so much of that isolation. It has facilitated the emergence of technologies that allow—even encourage—us to spend great periods of time alone. Television is perhaps the best example. Oil has also made it possible for us to control the environments of our work places and dwellings—places to which we retreat rather than face the harshness of the outside world.
So as the thoughts emerge, it becomes clear that we need to be more concerned with the philosophical and cultural needs for connection than we do about the physical needs. So while it would be difficult to write to you about ways to enable the rebuilding of the bridge, it is impossible to give you any insight into the rebuilding of your other needs for human connection. We are still neophytes in that construction industry.
I wish you well in rebuilding the physical connector between the east and west aspects of Batavia, but more than that I wish you well in the continuing challenge of connecting the people in the community. This is the challenge of our time…I truly hope it is not the challenge you face.
Apr 062012
 

 

Note: This piece was recently submitted for publication in the May-June issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
Many years ago, I taught in a private high school on the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. As faculty advisor in the dorm, I began each day at breakfast with the students. One freshman would frequently catch me in the dining room. “Mr. Breisch,” Sam would intone, “may I ask you a question?” I’d turn and say, “You just did! Would you like to ask another?” At the time, I felt our early morning repartee was nothing more than a way to point out a bit of irony Sam seemed unable to grasp. I now believe he was pointing me towards my future…a future in which life’s questions have become infinitely important; and answers are often more destructive than constructive.
So, even though we are not in line awaiting breakfast, may I ask a question? Or two? Have we lost the art of assembling provocative words into questions that inquire into the great mysteries of the Universe? To what extent do the answers we summon imprison our thinking and hold it hostage? When was the last time you heard a question so profound it left you in wonderment and awe? How often, in the face of questions, do we find ourselves in search of the nearest convenient answer, regardless of its ability to add a bit of wisdom to the human narrative? How often do we formulate questions for which we truly have no answer, as opposed to those whose sole purpose is to allow us to loose a carefully crafted declarative response?
Questions open us to possibilities; answers limit the future. Nowhere is this more clear than when facing a caller on the suicide hotline. In the presence of extreme desperation, which of the following do you imagine might invite you and the caller into a deeper conversation? “Suicide is not the answer.” Or “Would you be willing to share with me why you want to live?”
Lest you think my wandering through the subterranean jungle of human conversation relates only to deeply philosophical questions, or those regarding the end of life, allow me to stroll through a few of the forests that more often characterize day-to-day life.
In conversations with my wife and children I find myself too willing to jump in with a statement ending in a period, often a very large period at that. I wonder how our lives might have evolved differently if, when faced with a thought I found difficult to accept, I might respond with “That’s very interesting. Would you tell me more?”
Over the years, I have listened as many community issues have traveled the highways and byways of our public discourse. After acrimonious debate, we decided we did not want a hotel on south Batavia Avenue, but we would permit a shopping center on a portion of the Braeburn Marsh. We decided not to decide the fate of the north dam on the Fox River. Even now we find ourselves in the midst of a debate regarding the proper placement of a drugstore in our downtown and have begun to take sides on the future of a forest preserve just to the north of Fabyan Parkway.
Because of my unique position near the center of many debates, I am often privy to the edges that bound the questions. As I have listened over the years, I have been struck by the dearth of sentences that end with the extraordinary question mark. Our “public hearings” are too often attended by people who have stopped listening.
The word “discussion” itself calls into question our intentions. Its evolution from Latin meant to “smash apart” or to “scatter and disperse.” Shouldn’t our community conversations begin with an intention to gather our ideas in a generative fashion rather than scatter and disperse them?
In the coming years, humanity will face moral and ethical issues more profound than any we have ever faced. Brain scans will allow us to know what others are thinking, thus obliterating even the most intimate forms of human privacy. Genetics will allow us to custom design our children. The harvesting of human organs will blur the line between life and death. These deeply challenging issues will require intricate, new answers. Unless these answers are preceded by the most profound questions we can conjure, I fear we will be forever lost in the subterranean jungle.
Sep 122011
 
Note: The following is the text of my remarks at Batavia’s memorial on the 10th anniversary of 9/11
 
Thank you Mayor Schielke,
 
Please join me in also thanking Chief Deicke, Chief Schira and all the men and women of the Police and Fire Departments for the amazing work they do to protect us.
In his poem “This Being Human is a Guest House” Rumi suggested the following:
 
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
 
How, even ten years later, could we conceive of being grateful for the horrific momentary awareness that visited our house on September 11, 2001? How can we ever forget or forgive the violent deaths represented by the candles that remind us that the light of 3023 lives has been extinguished?
It turns out “How?” is seldom the right question. A better question is “Why?” Why should we choose gratitude? Because here, in this moment, we have a choice about how to move forward.
We can choose sadness, or it’s painful relative, depression, as our guide. But anyone who has lost a loved one knows that sadness, grief and depression become a hole out of which we must climb if we ever hope to begin moving forward.
If not sadness, we could choose anger, or it’s more vicious, destructive relative, hatred. But if we choose hatred, then those who, on this day ten years ago, were motivated by hatred have won. We will have been recruited by them into the dark side of our nature…the side of our humanity that has always dragged us backward.
So if not sadness or anger, perhaps we should choose fear, or terror…cower and tremble in a corner. But that path forward truly dishonors the 3023 we are here to remember.
So if not sadness, depression, anger, hatred, fear or terror, then what.
We might choose…admiration…admiration for the more than 300 public servants who raced with courage into harms way, and gave their lives to keep thousands of other lives from being extinguished.
We might even, as the poet Rumi suggests, choose gratitude. We could be grateful for the billions of acts of generosity—both large and small—that erupted during the past ten years. We could be grateful for each person who came here tonight hoping to find a new way forward. Look around and be grateful for the intentions, hopes and humanity of these, your neighbors.
We might even choose joy. Why joy? Because the 3023 lives extinguished on 9/11 contributed to humanity before their tragic end. In the late 1970s, I taught Algebra and Geometry to a quiet, young man named Richard Guadagno. Rich went on to become a naturalist and inspire hundreds to love the wilderness that remains on this planet we lovingly call Mother Earth. Rich was on United flight 93 that ended its journey, and his, in a field in Pennsylvania. He is represented by one of these candles tonight. I will choose to honor Rich’s life by remembering the joy he brought to so many…including me.
 9 years ago tonight we stood here silent and sad, because 10 years ago we stood in disbelief. Tonight we stand here having been given an opportunity to turn our dis-belief into new beliefs…and make new choices.
There have been nearly 316 million seconds since the tragedies of 9/11. 316 million moments of truth in which I could have chosen, with heart ripped open, the possibility of becoming new.
At the memorial nine years ago, I said,
 
“It is not within my power to change anyone but myself. So here is the commitment I make. I will honor the pain by living each moment with more kindness and generosity… honor the loss of loved ones by living each moment with more awareness of the needs of those around me…honor the loss of my sense of humanity by living each moment with more integrity and love. And I will honor each of you by trying ever more diligently to understand—truly understand—our differences and disagreements.”
 
It has been said that the path forward can seem backward and the path into light seems dark. As I ignite a few of the candles that will share their light with us, I pray to be shown ways in which I might shine light wherever there is darkness, joy wherever there is sadness, gratitude wherever there is hopelessness, and love wherever there is hatred.
Tonight I ask you join me in making new choices that will move us all forward with a new understanding of what it means to be human.
Thank You
Jul 212011
 

Note: I first published this in the March, 2011 issue of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

An open letter to Joi Cuartero, Executive Director, Batavia MainStreet.
Welcome Joi. I am grateful to the MainStreet Board of Directors for offering you the position as Executive Director.
Do you, per chance, recall the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? In it, Horton the elephant hears voices from a small speck of dust, which turns out to be a tiny planet and home to the Whos of Who-ville. The Whos, you may recall, are in desperate need of protection because no one can see them.
As you know, I was invited to sit in on the final interviews for your position. Afterward, the Board generously asked my opinion. I simply quoted a dear friend who spent many years as a consultant in human resources. He once said “Organizations tend to hire people for what they are… and fire them for who they are.” The moment the words slipped from his lips, they were securely lodged in the synapses of my brain.
Our primary weapon as we journey from job to job is the infamous resume; it informs the world of our accomplishments… the what’s of our lives. Mine reports years in sales, a chapter as a consultant, a snippet or two about my community work, and ends with accomplishments as Chamber Executive Director.
As hard as I might try, however, who I am—my love for this community, my passion for helping others discover who they are capable of becoming, the heartache I experience on the suicide hotline and my love for my family—becomes very small and is in constant danger of being lost.
The whats of my life are well-documented: BA, MS, MSM, Consultant, Fireworks Chair, Executive Director. And while those experiences help, little of that really matters as I face life. What is about my past. Who is about how I interface with the world today, tomorrow and into whatever future I might still be granted.
Joi, I have seen your resume, and it’s marvelous. Your event planning experience and organizing skills bode well as you face the necessary tasks of Batavia MainStreet.
However, my enthusiasm for you as Executive Director does not flow from my confidence in your skills. My joy, Joi, comes from who I see lurking behind them. Your passion for the arts, the intensity of the vision you contributed to the founding and ongoing success of Water Street Studios and the way you light up when given an opportunity to talk about the future of Batavia This is the fingerprint you leave behind that informs us about who you are, and who you are capable of becoming, Who you are, rather than what you bring, is what gives me confidence in our future with you as an integral part.
So, as you and I have an opportunity to dream together with the larger community about what might be possible, please bring your skills and experience. We need those. But what will more likely animate the future is when each of us takes time to look deeply into who we are and brings our deepest desires… fiercest passions…and most vivid visions forth so they can fuse and collide with those around us.
As in Who-ville, all is lost if we lose who we are. I look forward to working with you.
Sep 022010
 

What appears below was published recently in Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

On July 13, separated by a mere 22 minutes, calls arrived at the Batavia Fire Department announcing that the community it had lost two of its elders. On that warm summer day, we lost one who, through her extraordinary life of generosity, created much of the history that makes me so proud to call this enclave my home…and we lost one who chronicled our story and brought our history to life through her generous and precise use of language.

I knew Mildred Bailey for most of the years I have lived in Batavia. It was impossible to walk the streets of the town for very long before witnessing the joy left in the wake of her activity. A day seldom passed when she failed to turn to her husband and say, “Let’s go Roy, we have work to do.” They were instrumental in the success of the Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet. Even as she died, Mildred was searching for apparel so the less fortunate amongst us would be prepared for the new school year. However, her most endearing legacy will live in the hearts of thousands of children delighted by the toys and clothes they found lovingly placed in their homes Christmas morning. She and Ruth Johnsen inspired an army of citizens to donate, sort and distribute a mountain of gifts every year.

Marilyn Robinson inspired a generation of Batavians as a teacher at Batavia High School. When she left teaching, she abandoned plans to retire to Arizona because the pull of the community she claimed as her own was far too strong. She had grown to love this place too much for it to fade into her past. It was to become the entirety of her remaining days and all of us were to become enrolled in it. She and Jeff Schielke undertook the task of rewriting the tale of Batavia, originally penned by John Gustafson. Marilyn contributed, along with the facts of our past, her passion for the accuracy of ways the fibers were woven into our story. As a result we know better from where we have come, and have a stronger and more majestic foundation for the journey into our future.

As I tried to comprehend the magnitude of our collective loss on that July day, I was drawn to a favorite book: Claiming Your Place at the Fire by Leider and Shapiro. In this work, the authors remind us that in tribal cultures, the elders—the men and women of wisdom—were offered places nearest the evening fire as a way to honor the lessons and wisdom life had bestowed upon them. The remainder of the tribe took positions behind them, further from the flames of the fire, but close to the flames of wisdom emanating from the minds and hearts of the wise ones.

I wish I could journey back to July 12 so I could build a fire. I long for one last opportunity to invite Mildred and Marilyn to sit in that place of honor nearest the flames so they would know the love and deep respect I had for them. I wish too, there were still time to ask them to share with me the lessons and wisdom they harvested during the many seasons of their lives. But I have lost that precious opportunity.

But the future has now opened to us in another way. With the passing of these elders, we have two places at the fire. I am left to wonder if we have the generosity to turn to the one next to us and ask them to move closer to its flames by encouraging them to share something of the wisdom they, and only they, possess. And I wonder if we have enough respect for ourselves to summon the courage and humility required to share the wisdom we have been given. Mildred and Marilyn are looking down, hoping we do.

Mar 022010
 

Thank you your Honor and members of the City Council.

I’ve come before you tonight to talk about Ignite!…the community visioning session we are planning for March 26 at Waubonsee Community College.

The great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, generally recognized as the founder of modern social psychology, was the first to say “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.”

So here is the theory driving our plans for March 26. All living systems naturally seek life, health, and growth. In living systems, life, health and growth naturally emerge through intimate connections and interconnections. In the living systems we humans inhabit—our organizations and communities—that intricate web of connections and interconnections is known as social capital. What Robert Putnam discovered in researching his ground-breaking book “Bowling Alone” is that social capital is in dramatic decline in America.

At a very high level, March 26 is about rebuilding social capital in Batavia. It is an opportunity for everyone who joins us to reestablish old connections and build new ones. Those will, over the coming years, enable new possibilities and a new future…a future built on friendship, respect and trust.

So how do we make this theory practical on the 26th? After we gather, we will identify the hundreds of extraordinary assets and capabilities we enjoy…the spirit of volunteerism, the magnificent Riverwalk, our relationship to Fermilab and Mooseheart, our history and historic architecture, and hundreds of others. We’ll use this amazing inventory as our foundation, and gather in small groups to generate the ideas and projects that will build the Batavia the future is waiting for us to manifest.

We’ll leave Waubonsee Community College on the 26th with ideas, project teams, plans and dreams. My dream is that future generations will point to that day in late March, in the year 2010 and say, “that was the day Batavia ignited a bright new future.”

I am hopeful hundreds will join us to begin the journey. Registration is available on the Community Calendar at BataviaChamber.org and participants can follow along on our “Ignite Batavia 2010” page on Facebook.

Feb 242010
 

Note: This entry is reprinted with permission from the soon-to-be-released March/April edition of Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.

Many things were ignited in Batavia on February 26, 1991. Creative ideas…bold projects… effective relationships…deep friendships. It is easy to pin the origins of some of those to a hotel ballroom in Oakbrook where hundreds of Batavians gathered. Several, like the beautiful Riverwalk that embraces City Hall took many years to fully manifest. Others, I am sure, were powerful and changed the course of Batavia’s future, but were so subtle in their revelation, that we may never realize they began that day.

We were invited to bring our ideas…our experience…our wisdom to that great hall. We were encouraged to share with one another. We were asked to commit something of ourselves. And when the day ended, the call went out to the entire community to participate in the creation of a new Batavia.

Had it not been for that February day, and the Riverwalk that arose from it, we would never have had the venue to light 3000 luminaries on September 11, 2002 to remember and honor those who died a year earlier.

It was at that event I met Ted Schuster. He became my mentor and changed my life. He taught me what it means to love a community so deeply that nothing is too much to give. We lost Ted many years ago, but his influence will live in my heart till the day I die, and will live on in Batavia forever. He shifted the world in ways that will never be undone.

On March 26, a coalition of community organizations is sponsoring “Ignite…A new future for Batavia”. The Chamber, City, School District, MainStreet, Park District and Library have come together to open a space where the community can gather to identify and build on Batavia’s unique assets and capacities. The future grows from the fertility of the soil in which we plant our ideas. On this day, we hope to till soil enriched by what is good and positive.

We will begin the day by identifying the hundreds of assets and capacities in Batavia and the Fox Valley. For things that on the surface appear troublesome—as did the muddy parking lots and embankments around City Hall in 1991 that were transformed into the jewel we enjoy today—let us focus on the potential for greatness hidden within the challenges we foresee.

Once we have identified the rich soil into which we can plant our ideas, passions and wisdom, we will gather in small groups to plan, vision and dream. We will invite participants to create work groups and task forces to begin the process of building…to plant the seeds and determine what must be done to help them blossom. As we end the day and begin the re-creation of the future, we will invite participants and the community to join us.

Are we asking a lot? Absolutely! To give an entire day to anything is difficult—perhaps far more difficult than it was in 1991. But we are talking about place…we are talking about home…we are talking about the environment that has or will shape who our children become. Is eight hours too much to ask if the unique idea or passionate vision you have to share makes Batavia a better place for our children and grandchildren? Is eight hours too great an investment, when the future itself is waiting for us to nudge it into manifesting itself?

For me, this day is dedicated to Ted Schuster, because one of the most meaningful aspects of my life is the love he instilled in me for this beautiful enclave we call Batavia.

If you would like to join us on March 26, please let us know by signing up on the Batavia Chamber Community Calendar.