NCCC: Graduation Reflection

In the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, at the helm of a nation confronted by economic depression and geopolitical uncertainty, said:

“I propose to create a Civilian Conservation Corps to be used in simple work…More important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work.”

As we celebrate the end of our NCCC journey, I find myself looking back to the beginning. At that time, I felt confronted. Not by adversity identical to that of 1930′s American but by deficits in my life as well as in the world around me. Searching to fill these voids, I, like all of you, turned to a program vested with FDR’s belief that, “simple work,” endowed with “moral and spiritual value,” rather than material, could save a man and his nation. Charged with the mission of “strengthening communities and developing leaders through team-based national and community service,” its Five Pillars of Service: accountability, selflessness, diversity, engagement, self-development, and its contention that “civic responsibility is the inherent duty of all citizens,” NCCC professes to be, and after a term of service, we know, truly is, the vanguard for a second piece of Rooseveltian wisdom.

“In days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice…the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow-man.”

Team Leaders and Corp Members, congratulations, your participation in this ceremony testifies that over the last ten months you have met this challenge. After four rounds, the formative impact you have left on the communities of the Southern Region, each other, and this program, is unquestionable. You have persevered through “days of difficulty” with a conscious mind and a generous heart. Through experiences good and bad, we have lived the narrative penned by acclaimed southern writer, Ralph Elision, in his 1952 novel, Invisible Man. As I reflect, I see evident kinship between we graduates and the trials and tribulations of Invisible Man’s unnamed protagonist, a character Ellison used to dramatizes the inequities of American Society, the notion of social responsibility, and the motif of brotherhood as a curative. As I read the work’s concluding lines, consider their resonance with individuals such as ourselves.

“Ah,” I can hear you say, “so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!” But being only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

As I gaze upon this audience, I am emboldened by looks of affirmation. It brings me joy to see the presence of such philosophy in this room and to consider its existence in Denver, Sacramento, Vinton, and Baltimore. For our eyes are no longer looking through. Today is not a graduation, it is an induction, the beginnings of a lifetime of service. Our training has concluded, leaving us more equipped, capable, and enlightened to speak and act for the individuals and causes found on life’s lower frequencies. Let this not only be our mantra but our new-found mission statement. A purpose that transcends a ten month term, a temporary commitment, and a finite effort.

“For in days of difficulty” a former president, and more importantly–a nation–demands that we serve. For those less fortunate–and like ourselves–deserve nothing less.

Thank you.

The Gilded Table Ornament

While listening to last night’s broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor informed me that the Harvest Moon had come and gone over the course of the pervious week. This celestial update, paired with my calendar’s validation that summer had yielded to the cool winds of fall, reminded me of an autobiographical piece I composed some months ago. At the time, I was complementing my residency in North Central Florida by reading the work of the region’s Pulitzer Prize Winning laureate, Marjorie Kennan Rowlings. With its colloquial tone and ability to illustrate the majesty of everyday living, her book, Cross Creek, inspired me  to look into my past and endeavor to capture an experience with equal simplicity and gravitas. With love to my Mom and Dad, enjoy dear Reader, “The Gilded Table Ornament.”

Here in Iowa we do things differently than I have come to observe folks do in other places. Unencumbered by superlative natural wonders or monumental cityscapes, ours is a simpler existence. Foreigners who neglect to stop for a piece of pie or conversation struggle to comprehend the poetry that is our way of life. For the bond we share with our neighbors: rooted in heartland soil, centered around community, and garnished with a mutual appreciation for the fruits of the seasons, sustains us.

My parents are, and always have been, of the egalitarian sort. I suppose this manner of child rearing stemmed from their unspoken confidence over the fact that they had waited until the right age, were earning the right amount of money, and had furnished the right three bedroom home on the right tree-lined street to have children. With the exception of a brief, yet vital, period of each year, our democracy thrived.  It was only under the cool evening air the denotes the Midwest’s transition from summer to fall that a hierarchy emerged around my family dinner table. This was harvest season, or as my parents would have been well served to call it–squash weather. Under waning daylight and leafs ablaze, my mother and father enjoyed dinner after dinner repellent with freshly picked acorn squash. A dish, that though I had yet to try, was told  by those who knew better than I, was beyond the sophistication of my juvenile palate.

I do not recall my mother’s source for the produce which had seemingly been touched by King Midas himself. Forever ingrained in my memory is how she would slice each emerald orb and glaze, its now revealed, amber innards with butter and brown sugar just prior to depositing the nuggets of culinary treasure in the oven. If served with its customary paring of meat loaf, this meal, deftly prepared by my mother, would elicit from my father a gluttonous passion and remind him, if only for a moment, of the delight he ought to take in his adept matrimonial selection.

No hostilities for not having participated in the squash laden meals that took place throughout the autumns of my youth are harbored within me. For the eating of acorn squash was a ritual that gave my parents a well deserved portion of joy and demonstrated before the onset of winter, a season that with its harsh January mornings and blistering February winds, would drive us indoors and into close proximity, that I, was a child, and that they, my mother and father, were my parents. A natural order of things, which once reminded of, would aid my family’s passage through the coming and most arduous of seasons.

Corbin’s Cup

(AmeriCorps Magazine, an online publication supported by Corp Members who supply content regarding anything and everything AmeriCorps, to write an editorial. The piece below is my response to their request).

Good morning Reader,

I currently sit coffee cup in hand and with a few things on my mind. Before we begin, I want to thank you for taking time out of your undoubtedly busy AmeriCorps schedule to humor my writing. Keeping with the spirit of this column, I invite you to pull up a chair and pour yourself a cup. My teammate, William Custis, quips, “that after a a dose of Corbin’s brew, you can go on ahead and say goodbye to the back of your eyelids.” If I may be so bold, I hope that you find my, “insights,” equally stimulating.

Under the cool, grey mountain mist of West Virginia, I, perhaps like you, find myself “out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another.” Upon arrival, I was again reminded of–and enamored by–the geographical beauty of our NCCC region. In a place where the dominant landscape challenges homes, schools, and civic centers to cling to roads like muscle to bone, we encounter a way of life, an American experience, Wild and Wonderful.

Confronted with a shifting economy and decreasing population, rural West Virginia looks to the future with dimming main streets and hushed neighborhoods. While out on a project, I had the opportunity to tour an abandoned high school, parts of which–primarily the gym–had been converted into a community center. A common tread as the consolidation of area school systems increases. After roaming (no hall pass required) I entered what had once served as an English classroom. My attention was quickly caught by three stoic faces overlooking the now disheveled assortment of desks and tarnished black boards. Pinned to the walls hung the sepia portraits of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.Three literary giants, who, having the vision to see the world as it ought to be, had the courage to write about it as it is.

As the majority of 18-24 year old Americans fail to recognize, or worse–disregard–the challenges of the 21st century, the  disillusioned Fitzgerald, heartbroken Hemingway, and Faulkner’s acknowledgement of the incoherence of the South, should resonate with us. For the work of these three authors, though often misunderstood or unappreciated in its time, was accurate, necessary, and helped to alleviate the perils of the human condition.  An experience and legacy, whether it be explaining what we do to our nescient friends back home or shipping out for another round of environmental stewardship (try saying “loppers” five times fast), that we as champions of the NCCC mission, can identify with and ought to be proud of.

Unit next time,

Corbin

CB Update

Dear Reader,

I apologize for Above the Neck’s recent lack of fresh content. The only excuse that I can offer is that the author is just too darn busy with life to write about it. As I am sure some of you know, I am in the midst of an NCCC project in Memphis, TN. The past few weeks have been ones of intense exposure. I have been adapting to life in a transitory environment, experiencing a unique American city, and functioning in a demographic environment that is unlike any I have previously encountered.

Surrounded by the new and the yet to be seen I, as of now, can offer no commentary. Any such reflections would be premature. I appreciate your forbearance as I continue to lead my nomadic existence and interest in what I have to say, even if it is for the near future, sporadic.

Sincerely,

Corbin

P.S. I might stop reading non-fiction for a while. I picked up some great southern literature: The Sound and the Fury, The Red Badge of Courage, and The Oxford Book of the American South, to name a few. De Tocqueville may have to wait.

Thoughts on Power

A friend of mine recently recommended that I read The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. As implied by its title, the book’s emphasis on acquiring power stirred within me an immediate aversion to do so. This sentiment was further embolden as I flipped through the pages and skimmed the narcissistic synopsis found on its back cover. After much rumination, I have gathered my thoughts on the subject and why I think, Mr. Greene, that the advice you prescribe in your unfortunately bestselling book is fundamentally misguided.

The pursuit of power is a hollow and lonely journey. Those who seek power ought not possess it. Wise men venerate leadership. Cultivating knowledge, compassion, and reason should be the aim of anyone who wishes, or more importantly–deserves, to shape the world.

A Yankee in Grey

Perched atop a tree-lined bluff, journal in hand, I write to you. A swatch of thick–and for the moment–dormant foliage presents itself before me. If I peer through the vines of kudzu, I can just make out the blue ribbon that is the mighty Mississippi River in the distance. The pillars of Green Hall stand dignified behind me while to my left and right lie the now muted earthen indentations that once cradled Confederate armaments during the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.

Having led a transitory lifestyle for the past year: a summer in New England, a fall residency in our Nation’s Capital, and the holiday season back in the Midwest, it is pleasing to be–once again–in a new and different corner of the country. Though I have been living in the state of Mississippi for nearly a month now, it was not until this past weekend that I began to call it home.

Much has changed since I landed in Jackson on a rainy February afternoon. My surroundings are no longer foreign, I understand references to local street names, and strangers have become friends. This past Sunday I was assigned to my permanent NCCC team. A fantastic, diverse, and interesting constellation of people, that I look forward to working and living with over the next nine months.

On Wednesday the Corps and I traveled north to Oxford, MS. A town which proved to be one of the most authentic and enjoyable places I have yet to visit. One might say that the South has swept me off my feet. Home of the Rebels and the South’s native son, William Faulkner, it possesses a quaint downtown square (pictured above) brimming with region culture and Southern nostalgia.

My enthusiasm for the area aside, team building and service was the trip’s true objective. We developed esprit de corps by completing beautification projects around the summer camp at which we stayed and via activities on the Ole Miss ropes course. Reader, you would be proud of me. I was one of four individuals who were able to climb a 20 ft telephone poll, leap off, grab a trapeze bar, and complete three pull ups on said trapeze bar, all the while swinging at a dizzying hight.

Notwithstanding, gone are my sweaters and hours of leisure time.  They have been replaced with a Carhart and tree removal. I have become quiet familiar with the chain saw and wood splitter. Tomorrow I ship out to Hattiesburg, MS for a day of clean up operations in response to the devastating tornadoes that hit the community this past year.  

And I am still not finished. I will soon confront more change and move again. My team has been assigned to an eight week urban renewal project in Memphis, TN. The infamous Beale Street, Civil Rights Museum, and South Main Street Historic District come highly recommended. Our departure date is March, 12.

This has been the week that was. I am–at least until next December–a Yankee in Grey.

Political Truths

The photo (left) is of the Reading Room at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. It is located across the street from the U.S. Capitol. The Library was constructed as a palace of knowledge. The Founding Fathers hoped that the wisdom contained within its collection would guide the decisions of Congress.

When asked on a late night talk show what his response was to people who do not believe in global warming or evolution, astrophysicists and science communicator, Neil deGrasse Tyson,  replied, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Tyson’s wisdom transcends his field. It ought to be applied to other academic disciplines, philosophies, and for the purposes of this editorial, politics. To make the connection, bear with me as I alter a couple of Tyson’s words, “the good thing about ‘Truth’ (the capital T is intended) is that it is ‘accurate’ whether or not you believe in it.”

As a left leaning, okay tumbling, political wonk, I occasionally find myself in conversations with folks from across the aisle. As these conversations, debates, arguments, or whatever term is most appropriate to call them, conclude, the usual verdict is some cliché compromise such as: “perception is reality,” “let us agree to disagree,” or “there is merit to what each of us have to say.” These face-saving truces are not always valid and are too often used in this age of political correctness. The Truth is that on issues with definite solutions, humoring erroneous fallacies demeans civic discourse, impedes progress, and weakens the nation’s ability to respond to the real geopolitical uncertainties.

Whether you are a liberal, conservative, fascist, pacifist, or an anesthesiologist, it is time for some straight political talk. Yes, capital T-Truths! 1) Global warming exist and is being expedited by human behavior. If mitigating action is not taken climate catastrophes which threaten our very way of life could ensue. 2) in order to prevent Wall Street from becoming an avenue of socio-economic disparage, greed, and plutocratic enrichment, government oversight is vital.Without it the free market ceases to be free and the avarice that led to the finial crisis of 2008 is permitted to continue. 3) It is time we recognize the significance of the words articulated in 1818 on the State Seal of Illinois, “State Sovereignty,  National Union.” One or the other will not do, in order to preserve our “imperfect union” we must honor both.

So reader, there you have it, now you know. We can close the door on these debates and turn our attention to the truly ambiguous–and rightfully contentious–issues worthy of a 21st century world superpower’s attention.

NCCC: Why am I Here?

One week into my NCCC experience I have already been confronted by a myriad of emotions, surprises, and strangers. Questions such as why am I here? what am I doing? and who are these people? have–and continue to–tug on my mind. With the exponential change and flexibility demanded by this program, I imagine that these introspective inquiries will persist until graduation ten months from now.

It is hard to think of another program that assigns young folks, 18 to 24 years old, from every corner of the country, of different ethnicities, with all types of background stories: college graduates, high school drop-outs, foster children, rich kids, people doing gap years, and returning Crops members, to live in a group setting while tackling service projects located anywhere in the United States.

Can I get a culture shock? I think so! Today I find myself in a state that I have never been to, in an environment that is unlike the one I was raised in, studied in, worked in, or lived in, midst a diverse group of people, that collectively, is unlike any that I have been apart of. Ah, but you see reader? those last three words are the key in that long-winded introduction. “Apart of,” yes, I am apart of the NCCC Class 19 and the journey, yet to be defined, has begun.

With one week of training under our standard issue government belts and three to go, my fellow Corps members and I have been the recipients of countless presentations. One phrase from the previous week stands out. Unfortunately, I do not remember the session’s topic but for the sake of story telling let us pretend it was something like, “The History and Mission of NCCC” or “Guidelines for Intra-Corps Relationships.” The line read: “AmeriCorps NCCC: Where Theory Meets Application.” This mantra encapsulates the crux of my motivation for joining the organization. As a student I have been exposed to theory. Now, as a volunteer, its time to apply that knowledge. Perhaps, apply is even too weak of a word, thrive and embody, may be more suited to carry with me “this year and beyond.”

Each day that goes by it all gets better. I make more friends, I hear more positive accounts from previous members, my exposure to the culture of the Corps and Vicksburg, MS area increases, and my desire to be here mounts.  Though I do miss my warm bed at home, friends in Washington, conversations with the Monmouth gang, and the beauty of the Berkshire Mountains, at this moment there is no where that I would rather be. As I look to the next ten months, I recall–and am inspired–by the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.”

P.S. for readers who do not know,  NCCC is pronounced, “N-Triple C,” not, “N-C-C-C.”

CB Update

Photo (left) is of Carly, my sister, and I on New Year’s Eve.

If you are my dad or the family cat Susan, this update will be a tough one to bear. Come  Monday morning I will end my two month layover in Cedar Rapids by embarking on my AmeriCorps NCCC adventure. I will be leaving on the 5:45am Delta Airlines flight from the Eastern Iowa Airport to Atlanta, followed by a quick jump to Jackson, and finished with a by a bus ride to Vicksburg.

Having spent little more than a collective week at home since the start of 2012, it was so good to be back, reconnect with old friends, experience new places, catch a couple of good shows, and read a book or two. Seeing La Boheme in the recently renovated Paramount Theater, RumChata!, and family Christmas, the largest gathering of Klimesh kin assembled in years, stand out in my mind.

With my ten month term in the NCCC upon me, I will not be seeing my room at 1004 Iris Ave and most everything in it, I am traveling light with one duffle bag and a backpack, until next December. If I may tip my cap, I hope that this elongated  absence is a sign of things to come. As a junior in high school I participated in Youth Leadership for Five Seasons and have never forgotten a piece of advice relayed to the group and I by the then director of Brucemore, Jim Kern. My memory has faded in the subsequent years so Jim, if you are reading, forgive my paraphrasing. “Leave Cedar Rapids, see and change the world,” he said. “But when you are done, bring what you learned and all of your experiences back to this community, its one of the best around.” With a semester of college, a summer, a senior year, graduate school, and a life beyond all of this ahead of me, I plan to do exactly that.

Oh wait, I am breaking my rule of not planning anything farther than four months in advance–OPPS! Any who,  I have got a plane to catch. In the spirit of the South, I will talk to y’all later.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin

New Mailing Address:

Corbin Beastrom – Class 19 Winter 2013
AmeriCorps NCCC
2715 Confederate Ave
Vicksburg, MS 39180