Christina Milarvie Quarrell

There Are People in the World with Grace, Poise and Dignity: Learning From American Poetry, Words, and Song

Usually, it’s ‘easy’ to write the first sentence of an article. It’s ‘easy’ because it tells the truth of what’s to follow.  It should be ‘easy’ – even when that ‘easy’ truth may involve many competing truths.  The first line should tell you, very quickly, what the piece is about and start to provide a sign-post for the sections, arguments and conclusions that will follow (well, that’s what we tell our students).  Yet, recent changes in the world have inhibited my wish and ability to write a new blog post, I’ve started many sentences but none have seemed serious and considered enough.

Finally, whilst exchanging emails with my friend and co-writer Christina Milarvie Quarrell concerning men’s inability or unwillingness to express themselves during and about emotional moments, I recognised what was going on. I was supressing a deep sadness at Indyref1, Brexit and the US election.  I was supressing a sadness which needed to be released (Myself and Christina will hopefully be writing on men and emotions soon – watch this space).

Christina had also sent me a link to a recent music and poetry piece by Karine Polwart (which we will also hopefully use in our writing) and it reminded me of that day after indyref1 when Karine’s song, ‘Hole in the Heart’ (see link here) seemed the only haunting anti-dote to the pain of the September 2014 result.


These types of songs seem to free up your emotions and give time for contemplation.  I have also recently been listening to a lot of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans based music which can be both playful and thoughtful.  It has been very helpful in relation to freeing up words that can be typed on the keyboard.

So, given a sense of freedom to write, this article is about the idea that there are competing truths concerning the USA. It argues that at a time where the media is full of unremitting negativity, we need to remember and recognise American men and women who have not been bellicose; who have liberated different voices; who have conveyed their message in subtle as well as forthright ways; who have had an air of calm determination and confidence about themselves; who have exhibited empathy, generosity and compassion; and who have danced to a tune other than that of hatred.

There ain’t much point moaning our butts off about the present president of the USA.  Even if the current administration sticks in y’ur craw, the lesson you learn from Thatcher, and to some extent Corbyn, is that, sometimes, the more a politician is attacked the more powerful they become.

It is more sensible to quietly put forward alternatives than to run around shouting about everything a politician does.  In particular, last year saw people spending too much time re-tweeting and re-posting stuff that came direct from the, now, president of the USA (thus doing his own PR job for him).  It raised the question, could we have spent more time promoting a different more positive agenda?

Whilst it is important that we challenge unlawful and discriminatory behaviours (such as the travel ban), we need to be thoughtful in our responses. We need the best of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King when working out how to oppose tyranny. We need to follow Malcolm X’s encouragement to avoid the pack mentality and work things out for ourselves; we need to remember Martin Luther King’s view that only light can overcome hate; and, above all, we need to think of Maya Angelou’s poem regarding a caged bird:

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

We need to ensure that we do not create our own cage of negativity in response to political events.

In November 2015 the American musician, song writer and producer Allen Toussaint died (see Guardian obituary here).  I listened to his funeral live on the internet and was struck by the great love that his musical collaborators had for him and the fine words that were spoken about his way of being in the world.  Here was a man who shone light into the darkness of an industry notorious for fakery and untruths.

Yet, in his own words (in an interview with Larry Appelbaum see link here), Toussaint was also a man who knew what he wanted in the studio and was determined to get it.  A man who sought quality, set standards and yet, learned to listen to others so that magical serendipitous things could happen with the music.


When you listen to Allen Toussaint speak, you can’t help but admire his considered prose. If you watch the interview with Larry Appelbaum closely, you see Allen Taussaint, (on several occasions) resist Appelbaum’s invitation to use stereotypes and to fall into clichés.  Interestingly, when invited to talk about pre 1960s race segregation,  Toussaint also chooses to emphasis the ways that different musicians worked together, rather than take or repeat a stereotypically political position.  In this way, Toussaint is the antipathy of today’s politicians.

Decades before his death Toussaint co-founded the New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homeless (NOAAHH see link here).  Yet, he did not seek any acclaim for this act.  Indeed, he is quoted in his Guardian obituary as referring to his comfort zone as ‘behind the scenes’ and other people refer to him in in this BBC program ‘The Allen Toussaint Touch’ (see link here) as keeping his opinions close to himself.


The BBC program manages to capture something of Toussaint’s quiet grace and dignity, Toussaint lived the vast majority of his life in New Orleans and for a city that’s often depicted as dark, exotic and dangerous, it’s amazing how many thoroughly decent people you meet when you go there. See this link here, for a recent documentary about New Orleans which captures different opinions on the place and includes a tune from the Americana/Ameripolitan band I posted about in May 2014 Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Review.

When Alistair Grey re-used Canadian author, Dennis Leigh’s line ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation‘ he pointed us towards a more positive way to confront political opponents and the barriers they create (see Alistair grey’s comments on this phrase at this link here).  He didn’t say, ‘lay on the ground screaming till you can cry no more (as tempting an approach as that may be)’  –  he encouraged us to bring about or be the change we wish to be through our positive actions (a la JFK and Obama).  (For our oversees readers – the phrase ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation‘ is chiselled into the Cannon’s gate side of the Scottish Parliament).


There was something about Toussaint’s quiet and graceful approach to the interview setting that, at the same time as resisting the modern urge for superlatives, seemed to epitomise the request to work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

In the BBC documentary and Appelbaum interview, Toussaint maps out lots of different musical influences but he appears to resist the urge to construct a single truth about his words, songs and the times through which he lived. You may have different opinions on some of the issues he discusses but you have to admire the way he presents his different versions of music and the world.

Toussaint suggested, that when making music, ‘in a way, you are playing god’ – building the world the way you think it should be. But, he also portrayed ‘music making’ as a learning process, suggesting that there was a time, ‘Before I had the sense to learn that people were first not music’.

Many politicians seek to play god with our lives.  It is a pity more of them couldn’t have the grace and humility that Toussaint showed in his lifetime. For a man who wrote so many lyrics, it is ironic that on a personal level he chose his deeds rather than his words to speak for who he was.

Toussaint’s words reminded me of another American writer who showed great grace and humility.  Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean, the American Scots author of A River Runs Through It (made into a film by Robert Redford) also wrote a book called; Young Men and Fire (published 1990), about The Mann Gulch Disaster which involved the death of 13 forest fire fighters.  On the 5th of August 1949, fifteen ‘smokejumpers’ from Missoula Montana flew out in a C-47 to Mann Gulch and met one fire ranger (on the ground at around 4.00pm).  Between 17.45 and 18.00 13 men died attempting to out run an onrushing fire .  In the final paragraph of Young Men and Fire, Maclean concludes:

‘I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite that came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife and on her brave and lonely way to death’.

Maclean’s wife, Jesse Burns, had died of cancer in 1968, Maclean himself died in 1990. In this paragraph Maclean connects the death of 13 men to the death of one woman.  He does not employ the fixed category of gender as a barrier to understanding the connection between his wife’s experiences and those of the fire fighters.

Maclean gained plaudits for his ability to investigate and set out a clear and plausible account of the deaths of the fire fighters but he also gained praise for his ability to imagine beyond the specific events of the 5th of august 1949 and provided us with universal metaphors for life and death.

Reviewers of Maclean’s work marvel at his ability to avoid tying up every loose end.  Toussaint’s way of speaking reminded me of this.  There is a confidence with the ambiguity.  Maclean doesn’t just relish ambiguity through his narrative, he applies the idea of ambiguity to the way he lived his life with others:

‘For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.’

Maclean’s final lines of his more famous book, ‘A River Runs Through It’ pick up on this theme and talk of a deeper meaning:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

We are currently haunted by waters, timeless raindrops, the rocks and their words beneath the rocks.  Whether those waters are claiming lives in the Mediterranean, are employed to created a unnatural barrier between the USA and the rest of the world  or are in danger of being destroyed at Standing Rock.

Maclean worked at the University of Chicago where the School of Literary Criticism emerged in the 1930s. This way of thinking argued, following Aristotle, that we should value the structure and form of literary work; that poetry/art expresses inevitable wholes and that we should value literary works where the parts come together as a whole rather than concentrate on analysing the complex nature of the language used within the work.

There is something about Allen Toussaint’s work that seems to demonstrate this need for balance very well.  There is something calm and very refreshing about his style, especially in an age where dodgy talent shows encourage young singers to over do their licks, runs and riffs .

You can also hear this creative and yet confidant style in the work of Professor Longhair (see link here).   Professor Longhair was a New Orleans’  blues pianists who heavily influenced the young Toussaint.  Professor Longhair  played blues that went all the way to the top of the glass but the liquid never fell over the lip, felt contrived or went out of control .

Similarly, in the present age that places so much emphasis on where a comma is placed in a 120 character tweet, where many twitter critics sit poised waiting to tear apart those who have not had the luxury of a grammatically perfect education, The Chicago School of Neo-Artistotelianism might be worth a revisit.

Toussaint and Maclean understood the importance serendipity, the virtues of writing that attended to issues of over-all-form, the poetic nature of words and the need to avoid the straight jacket of convention.  Maclean argued that convention should go out the window when writers sought to  convey ‘big’ moments – (he specifically explained this in relation to Shakespeare’s King Lear – see link here):

‘Perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of the mot juste as a word giving a definite, irreplaceable image, and certainly the right word should be irreplaceable and in some sense definite; only there are moments so tremendous that their exact size is without any definite boundary. There are moments, moreover, which have a size that is unmentionable, moments which cannot, at least at the instant, be fully faced or exactly spoken of by those who must endure them. Poetry may make a perfection out of what would be an error in exposition, and moments such as these may set at naught the rule of composition teachers ‘

Maclean’s words, explain why I have found it difficult to write in recent months.  The mote juste – just wasn’t there.  The mote juste had escaped me because a cosmology of evetns that included countless simplistic and unjust pronouncements (words) were pounding at our senses.

Maclean’s words emphasise the need to break with convention when unmentionable things happen.  They encourage us to find creative ways to express our sense of deep foreboding, uncertainty and uncomfortableness with what lies ahead of us.

In so doing, Maclean’s words also encourage us to eschew the certainty of politicians, they encourage us to think of a time, before all of us were here, when the elements were so powerful they could rip apart continents, rip apart convention and remake the earth.

Politicians may seek to introduce rules that divide us, but, in the end, there have always been movements of people – because of trade, because of wars, because of disease, because of famine, or because of the impact of the elements.

Just as there have always been rocks with rivers flowing over them.  Just as there have always been deeper, more meaningful words that under pin our ways of being (such as love, generosity, compassion and empathy) .  Just as there have always been men and women like Allen Toussaint who understood that  ‘people were first’, there have been politicians who have not been able to grasp that there are some societal bonds that not even they, and their demi-god like personas, can undo.

There have been politician’s who have sought to reimagine and rip apart the continents, but in the end, they have not been as powerful as the elements, they have simply been incomplete human beings that have been overcome by a greater force – the force for good.

Norman Maclean knew about the limitations of politicians, policy makers and fire-fighters.  He knew how these limitations contributed to the deaths of 13 fire fighters.  And, because he lived through the 1930s and 1940s, Maclean also knew about the limitation of demi-gods who seek to destroy the fabric of our society .

Margaret Thatcher did not grasp the fact that there were some social bonds even she could not break, because she lacked empathy, believed her own sound bites and, latterly, lived in a Westminster bubble .

Maclean’s ability to exhibit empathy may have been connected to the fact that he knew what it was like to have loved and lost (e.g. he lost a loved one, his brother, at a relatively young age and lived for many years after the death of his wife); and he knew what it was like to fight, on behalf of the families, to uncover the partial truths concerning the deaths of the men lost in the Mann Gulch disaster.

I hope it is not too contrived to try to draw out another lesson from the Mann Gulch disaster.  An article written, by Karl E. Weick (in the Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (1993): 628-652) entitled: ‘The Collapse of Sense-making in Organizations’ (see link here), draws on Maclean’s work on the Mann Gulch disaster to explain a phenomena where a shattering collapse of the rational order makes sense-making impossible

A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together. Stated more informally, a cosmology episode feels like vu jàdé-the opposite of déjà vu: I’ve never been here before, l have no idea where I am, and I have no idea who can help me. This is what the smokejumpers may have felt increasingly as the afternoon wore on and they lost what little organization structure they had to start with. As they lost structure they became more anxious and found it harder to make sense of what was happening, until they finally were unable to make any sense whatsoever of the one thing that would have saved their lives, an escape fire. The disaster at Mann Gulch was produced by the interrelated collapse of sense-making and structure. If we can understand this collapse, we may be able to forestall similar disasters in other organizations.

This might also explain why people have found recent political events so difficult to respond to – we have been through a series of cosmological events of shattering proportion.  Where do you start when the world order; the social contract between government and the people; and the politics of usual are turned upside down?

Out of all the politicians in the current UK crop, Nicola Sturgeon is the only one with a coherent plan.  We, the people who live and work in Scotland, are (still) here. And, in Scotland, since Indyref1, the staff at Common Weal (the think tank) and Common Space (the on line news-space) have acted as a living reminder of the type of considered grace epitomised by writers such as Angelou, Toussaint and Maclean.  As opposed to the culture of complaint, the have given us a lead in times of extreme uncertainty.  They have produced reams of ideas and articles on how we can live in a better nation. Sturgeon, Angelou, Toussaint and Maclean, in contrast to the right wing political leaders of our age, exhibit intense wisdom. Weick’s article defines Wisdom as the ability to act and think with fluidity:

To put it a different way, “Each new domain of knowledge appears simple from the distance of ignorance. The more we learn about a particular domain, the greater the number of uncertainties, doubts, questions and complexities. Each bit of knowledge serves as the thesis from which additional questions or antithesis arise” (Meacham, 1983: 120). The role system best able to accept the reality that ignorance and knowledge grow together may be one in which the organizational culture values wisdom. Meacham (1983: 187) argued that wisdom is an attitude rather than a skill or a body of information: To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before. Extreme confidence and extreme caution both can destroy what organizations most need in changing times, namely, curiosity, openness, and complex sensing. The overconfident shun curiosity because they feel they know most of what there is to know. The overcautious shun curiosity for fear it will only deepen their uncertainties. Both the cautious and the confident are closed- minded, which means neither makes good judgments. It is this sense in which wisdom, which avoids extremes, improves adaptability.

The current times call for a lot of wisdom that avoids extremes.  Indeed, we are lucky to have organisations such as the Common Weal that create a space for wisdom in both their policy reports and their news media.  The Common Weal staff provide the mechanisms and equipment for others to put forward their views.  The staff at Common Weal have organised countless events; written about national and international affairs from a new and insightful perspective; and given us numerous well researched and argued papers on the key issues that we can start changing, now, in Scotland.

There are many people in the organisation who do not have a high public profile. Yet, they work tirelessly on our behalf. The organisation, and its local community groups (through out the country) constantly enable local people to get their voices and issues heard by policy makers and the wider public.

The Common Weal policy team and journalists are funded through donations – recent affairs at Bella Caledonia warn us that if we want to have avenues for different voices to be heard, then we need to be willing to fund the organisations who deliver independent news and policy ideas. So, if you know anyone with loud independent voices or long arms and deep pockets (who doesn’t already donate) please send them this link and ask them to help fund this excellent organisation:


The thought of waking up to a Scotland that doesn’t have such an organisation that’s capable of putting forward independent views doesn’t bear thinking about – lets get proactive and ahead of the game on this one, do something positive for a change.