Ideas, salvation and imagination in America

“An idea is salvation by imagination” : Frank Lloyd Wright

Ideas, imagination and salvation feel necessary in America in the time of Donald Trump’s presidency. Where they will come from I cannot yet tell. But a weeklong visit to Chicago and a reunion with some old friends reassured me that hope lives on. My long held image of America as “the shining city on a hill” might be tarnished, but is not lost.

Summer is the best time to visit Chicago, when the breeze blowing off Lake Michigan cools rather than chills. It’s arguably the ultimate great American city, a orchestration of skyscrapers (the first in the US), bridges, parks, extraordinary architecture and an amazing diversity of people. The buzz and bustle is infectious and inspiring.

But it wasn’t my work with some very bright men and women at a Chicago business school that caught my imagination. Nor the innovative designs of architect Frank Lloyd Wright creating a new domestic vision in the green suburb of Oak Park. It was instead an evening of dancing in a public park, to the Motown vibe of Lynne Jordan and The Shivers. It was a free gig, and everyone was there, young and old, black and white, Asian, Hispanic, exchanging dance steps and glances under a clear blue sky.

IMG_4605Three young black men with the latest hairstyles picked their moment to join a group of students and started doing backflips. Then half the crowd, a couple of hundred people, began to dance in unison, jiving and turning to the music. After a busy week, it was a wonderful way to relax and  let go, and just enjoy the moment.

The next day, I was at another lake, Lake Champlain which reaches almost to Canada, dividing New York State from Vermont. It also marked the boundary between the Algonquin and Iroquois and then between the British and French.

I was visiting my old friend and my first mentor, the former chaplain of the school I went to  in Pennsylvania on an English Speaking Union scholarship forty years ago. We recalled my first time in America,  aged 18, seven months that opened up my world. He’s recently come through treatment for leukaemia yet remains his irrepressible irreverent Reverend self, spinning jokes and puns, while his wife grounds him like a rock. They have been together more than 50 years and I can see how optimism, resilience and generosity bind them to each other. He writes poems about their lakeshore life and I felt the lake have the same effect on me.

I see the lake stretch out

Peaceful, calm before me.

I hear the soft lap of the waves on the shore;

The mountains stand eternal,

The rock solid beneath our feet.

I hear the murmur of the wind in the trees,

I sense their deep patience,

Their bark is scored with years

Yet their leaves are fresh and summer green;

The birdsong falling from the leaves, the birds unseen.

If we just take the time to notice

They promise us not only now, but tomorrow too.

Let’s not waste a drop.

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