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Lessons from the Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Part 1

I’ve been working my way through Edmund Morris’ outstanding three part biography of Theodore Roosevelt. In these books we are shown a strong, self-possessed polymath who seemed destined for greatness right from the start. The man was undoubtedly flawed in many ways. In relationships he seemed aloof but loyal, in business poor in managing finances. But in most every other manner he was capable and able to excel.

Success, it seems, is sometimes left to chance. At times it is mostly smarts or talent. And we cannot ignore the importance of connections. However, a common trait in very successful people it seems is an inability to conform to the behaviors of those around them, an innate and almost unconscious resignation to remain true to their core being.

This is completely true for Mr. Roosevelt, who’s leadership ability begins with a clear view of a situation and ends with the respect of those around him, even those who opposed his ideas.

Roosevelt is well known for his environmental stance. Seeing the destruction of the plains and experiencing the decimation of the buffalo herds first hand,  he was driven to preserve as much of the west as possible. He knew there was more to nature than the raw materials used for creating products and wealth. Some of the most beautiful spots in the US have been preserved because of this foresight. Where a generation might have prospered due to the clear cut destruction of a redwood forest, dozens have prospered due to conservation.

In all his accomplishments a character trend appears. Eight lessons from the life of Theodore Roosevelt:

  • Morality is a slippery slope in life, business, and politics. Avoid the slope and stay focused on what you know is right. Time and time again Mr. Roosevelt was faced with the option to stay true to what he believed to be right or capitulate. Often the later would have made his life easier. But he was unwilling to do so.
  • Nothing is won approached half-ass. Mr. Roosevelt wouldn’t read a newspaper without a vehement sense of purpose. You would not see him in the background passive-aggressively directing people or manipulating a situation. He was at the front of all of his ideals and everyone knew what he intended to accomplish.
  • Be open to everyone, from the leaders of the country to those who sweep the floor. Learn their language and be willing to take on their tasks. Mr. Roosevelt was a star at the finest academic salons in the east while willing to sleep on the ground in a forest or herd cattle.
  • You do not have to be the best. But you do have to put yourself out there. He wrote and wrote and wrote, from books to articles to letters. Where he is remembered for being a president, many learned his name from the books he published. A few texts are of note, but many lacking in deep substance. Who we remember today is the president, not the author of decent books.
  • Learn everything you can. Mr. Roosevelt was known to read more than one book a day, and across a variety of subjects. He was continually extending his knowledge base and had a rich frame of reference from which to draw.
  • If times are not challenging, you are not trying hard enough. We often view adversity as a challenge to be avoided through strategies and planning. To the contrary, adversity might in fact be a symptom of a trajectory worth pursuing. The popular opinion is not necessarily the one people will remember in years to come. No one remembers those who simply live in the shadows of others, or conform to the accepted values of the day. History books are written by those who have struggled.
  • Stay fearless, or appear so, even when your world comes crashing down. People will always respect you for it.
  • Most importantly, destiny is only understood in hindsight. He would not let himself dream for fear of disappointment. He took on what came to him and lived fully in whatever position he received. Nothing was a stepping stone.

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Reflections on the Meaning of Home

The end of our journey is to arrive back where we started and see it like for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

Y’all not from ’round here, are ya? – Ray, The Princess and the Frog

Home: Version 1

I left Hickory, NC for good the summer of 1998 and ceremoniously shook the dust off of my shoes as my parents’ car made its way north for 213 miles to the school where I would spend the next three years. I like to think that I never connected with North Carolina. Up to just a few years ago I still considered myself a New Yorker – despite the fact that I hadn’t lived there since just after my 9th birthday.

I left and only visited after.

Home: Version 2

I realize that I run from sociocultural identification. Somewhere buried under layers of associations and generalization a slender core of belief has been building in me regarding the feeling of and desire for home. It is the sense of loss and acceptance. It is a hope and goal. It is a belonging. It is the place that I have known all along but fought to replace with a location more appealing to my modern sentiments and way in which I wish to be defined and seen. It is an acceptance of the past.

The color and features are burned in my memory. I see faces and hear sounds. I see familiar shades of green and feel humidity in my pores. It is a part of who I am.

Home: Version 3

Home is a relationship with the invisible – a cosmic background radiation – a neurochemical reaction to a stimulus. It is an altercation, an invocation, a pronouncement. I feel the word slip through my teeth and settle with a soft finish; it is only a hesitation from the gentle “ohm” of Hindu meditation. I can feel the word as an exhalation.

But I do not visit home or feel it. Home is a series of Proustian encounters. It is an engagement with thoughts which form the foundation of all ideas that follow and find you when you are alone. Home is what you wish to give to those most clearly able to define it: the child on the back of a milk carton, a soldier in a foreign war, a drunk asleep on a bench. Home is the eradication of suffering in the bed  monsters once clawed out from under.

A home is the settling in of home. A home is a tension between building and tenant. A home absorbs the very best and worst of a dweller. A dweller absorbs the best and worst of home.

I run from and to home. I dip in my toes and then shake off my feet immediately; home is seen as the beginning of something that was with you all along. I am not a feeling and neither is home. We are a geography laden with signifiers.

Mine is grown over with kudzu and soundtracks: a stolen stop sign, a first love, a bass line, a family waiting at the door. Mine is a country with a swollen river, a broken chair, a suffocating heat. There is something here for me but I will never again possess it.

I pick up home like a ball and play with it for moments at a time, as though I am building up muscles that have long ago atrophied. I interact: I am the one who interacts and brings my self to a place of home. It is home who is patient and ever present while I leave and return.

Am I home? The action of my being home is a token conveying the meaning of the home as a signifier. I am the home which is present in the home. Without me there is no home for me to be present within. Home is the objet petit a: I desire to be a part of it such as it is part of me.

There is only one way for me to escape the allure of home: to accept it. To accept you must cover your feet with the dust you once shook off.

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