July 19, 2021

This past year will be more than a page in a history book. It will probably be four. As we turn to the next chapter we can’t forget what we’ve learned—actually, we can forget—that’s why we need to make an effort to hold onto that space that opened. The space for new perspectives, for tolerance, for forgiveness, for empathy and for self-awareness. We each can find strength and energy from the small and large trials that have kept us apart and within this year. It’s on each of us to see where the time for introspection can take us next.  

Since Descartes in the 17th century, the word perspicacity has been used by philosophers, writers and scientists as a way to describe a deeper level of insight or understanding that is achieved by being open and curious. Robert J. Sternberg, in his book Wisdom, writes, “the perspicacious individual is someone who…has intuition; can offer solutions that are on the side of right and truth; is able to see through things—read between the lines; has the ability to understand and interpret his or her environment.” NASA has described perspicacity as the quality most needed by scientist-astronauts. It is often somewhere between our idea and someone else’s that transformative solutions exist. It’s on each of us to peel back what we think we know is happening or what we assume to be the truth about someone else’s state or view, and to be genuinely curious to learn more about what might be going on beneath the surface. It is easy to put people and put ideas into a box as fixed or definite. It is much harder to see people and things as dynamically changing and multi-layered and adaptable.

I’ve been thinking often about San Francisco past Poet Laureate and beloved centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who passed away in February at the age of 101. Lawrence was a seeker of knowledge and a fighter for the truth. In 1954 he founded City Lights Bookstore & Publishers on Columbus Ave in North Beach. Regarded as one of the central figures in the Beat movement, he became a legend after publishing Howl, a controversial book by Alan Ginsberg. He was a poet, artist, activist, intellectual, publisher and a dreamer.  

The dreamer was who I knew. One of Lawrence’s dreams was the impetus for our meeting in the back of an Italian restaurant years ago with then Mayor Gavin Newsom. Across from City Lights is a short block of Green Street, on which still lives the first coffee shop to have served real espresso on the West Coast. Caffe Trieste has been home to artists, writers, and all types of characters over the decades. In the back of this cafe, for example, is the table where Copolla wrote the Godfather. It’s a place Lawrence had spent many afternoons appreciating conversations or the regular Sunday solo opera performances.  We were gathered to discuss Lawrence’s idea to close Green Street to traffic for one block and create the Piazza San Francisco. The Mayor was supportive. The Catholic Church across the street was game. The idea circulated on and off for the next ten years through iterations, city meetings and fundraisers. Over the years it became known as the Poet’s Plaza, but it was never about Lawrence, and maybe never even meant to be. It was about creating slower places in a bustling city for people to talk and relate to each other. It still remains as both a dream and an approved set of plans in our archives. While the physical idea may have come too soon for North Beach, the seed of this idea took root across the City in other street closures, Parklets and Slow Streets; and with the Pandemic many of these people-oriented spaces will be here to stay. 

Lawrence was a public space dreamer. He helped open the consciousness of our city to appreciate the time when we step out of the bustle and see one another. He challenged us to find our voices and helped ideas come to life that would have been destroyed by an ever industrializing society. It’s our opportunity to keep this sentiment alive. We’ll miss Lawrence, a truly independent and passionate citizen who gave his life to the battle against prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.

It would be easy for all of us to return to our March 2020 versions of ourselves, but I know we can be better than that. We are all flawed but addressing those flaws creates an opening for a more fulfilling life. The prospects for becoming the best version of ourselves have never been more possible—or needed. My personal challenge is to take a look at my defenses and figure out a way to disarm them. I know that when my ideas or proposals are directly challenged or contradicted, I feel as though they’ve been undermined. What I’ve learned is that how I react actually matters much more than being right. That was a hard lesson for me—still is. Each of us has blocks or barriers like this that get in our way and create tension or prevent us from moving forward individually or as a group.  Each moment presents an opportunity to build more cohesion and elevate those around you.

Rather than feeling challenged, opening ourselves up to different views, methods, perspectives, customs, etc., has the effect of strengthening our ability to appreciate our own. That enjoyment can’t come from a stubborn defense of our beliefs or ideas, it comes from trying or even witnessing others’ and then assessing whether or not there’s something there that contributes to the solution, even if—especially if—it’s something we would never have thought of. An open, inquisitive, confident mind travels, and its receptivity, inclination toward respect, and a concurrent desire to make connections, has the potential to birth an infinite number of responses and solutions over time; especially when combined with years of practical experience of implementation.  

My growth this year has not been upwards. It’s been down. It’s been within. I’ve grown deeper roots. We’ve all had to grow deeper roots this year, sometimes painful, but not necessarily bad. A tree with a deep tap root can survive drought and other adversities. It can also have a bigger bloom or broader canopy. We each can find strength and energy from the small and large trials that have literally made us stay planted this year. It’s on each of us to see where that stability can take us. We can continue to take on projects and assignments in our communities that make a difference. We can keep working at building diversity and tolerance internally. We can be patient with each other, giving one another the benefit of the doubt before making assumptions, and continuing to grow thoughtfully. We can each make a difference in the environmental choices we make, the vehicles we choose for our trips, the purchases we make, the trees we plant, the votes we cast. 

Our work at Sherwood is in transforming the way buildings work, campuses grow, trails are built, roads are designed, natural systems are protected and water resources improved. We shape the built environment one call, one meeting, one detail at a time. That is where we have the biggest opportunity. Even as crises in climate, public health and social justice loom we keep making positive change one project at a time. As we start running and driving around again, flying and running late again, let’s not forget that we have the tools to reflect. To reflect within who we are and what we want to be. To reflect positivity. It continues to be our personal and collective responsibility to stand up for what we know is right, to have the courage to stand for change, especially when it’s hard to do.  

“…a tuning fork in the inner ear to strike below the surface. Of your own sweet Self still sing yet utter ‘the word en-masse – Poetry the common carrier for the transportation of the public to higher places than other wheels can carry it. Poetry still falls from the skies into our streets still open. They haven’t put up the barricades, yet, the streets still alive with faces, lovely men & women still walking there, still lovely creatures everywhere, in the eyes of all the secret of all still buried there, Whitman’s wild children still sleeping there, Awake and walk in the open air.” 

Excerpt from Populist Manifesto #1by Lawrence Ferlinghetti