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Book review: “Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose” by Betsy Storm

When world-renowned violinist Rachel Barton Pine was three, she attended a service at Saint Pauls United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park and saw some pre-teen girls in long dresses up on the altar playing the violin. She stood up, pointed to the girls and announced, “I want to do that!”

A year later, she played her first Bach solo at the church.

There was a stained-glass window of J.S. Bach in the sanctuary, and, when I was very young, I thought Bach ranked right up there with the guys from the Bible — God, Jesus, and Bach — and not necessarily in that order. I grew up understanding that the purpose of music was to lift the human spirit and bring it closer to God.

This is a story that Barton tells in the newly published Bright Lights of the Second City: 50 Prominent Chicagoans on Living with Passion and Purpose by Betsy Storm.

“Midnight-oil burners”

As the subtitle indicates, Storm’s aim in this book is “to identify the motivations that enliven these movers and shakers, these midnight-oil burners” — highly successful people from law and sports, philanthropy and non-profits, art and journalism, and a host of other fields and disciplines.

The core of Bright Lights are in-depth interviews that she conducted with each person. Some readers will look to this book for hints from these high-achievers about finding profit and prosperity, happiness and fulfillment. And they’ll discover useful insights to ponder.

storm -- bright lights

I see Storm’s book as a valuable collection of oral histories of a certain segment of Chicago society in the second decade of the 21st century.

An oral history from anyone is an interesting document. It’s based on what most of us feel comfortable doing — talking about ourselves. The result is usually a bit unpolished, but it’s a way to capture the experiences and observations of subjects who aren’t likely to put those experiences and observations into writing.

What I find particularly engaging about Bright Lights is how Storm gets this disparate group of “midnight-oil burners” talking about nitty-gritty stuff — and how it’s possible, as a reader, to see how these people from the same community, as it were, are like and not like each other.

J.S. Bach

js_bach_portrait_cropConsider Barton’s story. She is one of three people in Bright Lights who reflect on the impact that J.S. Bach, who died more than 250 years ago, has had on their lives.

Martin Marty, the prominent Protestant theologian and historian, tells Storm that his favorite music is Bach’s, particularly the “St. Matthew Passion,” the “St. John Passion,” and “Mass in B Minor.”

And John Sherer, the organist and director of music at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, relates that, at the age of 11, he and his family survived a tornado that struck their Ohio town without warning.

When we returned upstairs, we found enormous destruction. The windows of our house and been blown out, walls were embedded with debris, and live electric wires were dancing in the street…

I looked around at this chaos and then sat at the piano and began to play Bach’s “Minuet in G Minor.” While I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I later realized that for the first time I was using the gift of music to restore beauty and order to a world that desperately needed that gift.

What does it mean that three of Storm’s oral histories mention Bach? I suspect it says something about the brilliance of Bach as a composer and as a religious thinker. And about the need of our present age for that brilliance.

Dorothy Day, Leonard Cohen et al

The Bible, Shakespeare, Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are mentioned here and there in Bright Lights as inspirations — which, of course, isn’t surprising.

I was surprised, though, that three people cite Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which labors for the poor and the homeless and against violence — paleontologist Paul Serrano; Eboo Patel, the founder of an international interfaith youth movement; and peace activist Kathy Kelly.

Kelly is also one of two people for whom the works of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, poet and novelist, have been important. The other is Julia Cameron, the co-owner of the Uncommon Ground restaurants.

Dorothy Day and Leonard Cohen
Dorothy Day and Leonard Cohen

Scripture and spirituality play a large role in Cohen’s works, as well as in the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins, a late 19th century Jesuit priest in England who is a favorite of two of Storm’s interviewees — Johnpaul Cafiero, a former cop turned priest, and Ed Shurna, the executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

On the other hand, three people in the book — Dick Simpson, a political science professor and former Chicago alderman; poet Elise Paschen; and the late Patricia Moneghan, author of The Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines — praise the poetry of William Butler Yeats, a major Irish poet of more than a century ago who was no fan of organized religion.

Of course, Dorothy Day had her own battles with the Catholic leadership. So maybe what this means is that busy, successful people today are continuing the grapple with the idea of faith although not necessarily within the context of an established tradition.

And then there is the 1982 movie Blade Runner about a future world in which present-day technological trends have gone into overload in oppressive and repressive ways. It is the favorite movie of bioethicist Lori Andrews and Chicago’s premier literary figure Stuart Dybek.

Maybe we should all be worried.

“Inside a hula-hoop”

Beyond these common inspirations, Bright Lights provides some glimpses into daily life in Chicago and the United States now and over the past seven decades or so. That’s one of the beauties of oral histories. Scraps of life that aren’t usually recorded come out in such interviews.

For instance, Dybek says that, during his childhood, his family lived in the neighborhood of Pilsen, then occupied by immigrants from Eastern Europe, and, later, moved to a similar community, Little Village, “which then was known by its postal code, Zone 8.”

You have to be a Chicagoan of a certain ago to realize what he’s talking about. In the days before zip codes, there were postal codes. They were a way of sorting mail easier and were written on the last line of the address: Chicago 8, Illinois. Later, they formed the last two numbers of the new zip code. So Dybek’s area became 60608.

Some others:

Johnpaul Cafiero: “When my father and mother fought — loudly — I would gather up my siblings inside a hula-hoop and head to the sanctuary [of the local church].”
Gloria Castillo: “When he applied using his given name, Anastacio Castillo, my dad didn’t get hired. But when he applied under his nickname, ‘Tom,’ he found a job quickly.”
Carol Adams: “A key lesson [her father] learned while attending Tuskegee University, one of the nation’s historically African American universities, was that it was essential to ‘have your own’ — a source of income beyond a regular job.”

“Contract a little”

Earlier, I noted that Bright Lights has useful insights likely to help a reader find success in life.

One piece of advice is from Barbara Bowman, the co-founder of the Erickson Institute, one of the nation’s premier graduate schools for those in the field of child development:

The most important job of parents is to build and sustain good relationships with their children. Mothers and fathers should spend time enjoying their kids and letting their children enjoy their company, too….As long as a child feel well-loved, she will sense that her parents are doing the most they can to support her best interests.

Along the same lines, Hal Lewis, the president and CEO of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, had this to say about parents and other leaders:

For many of us, the biggest challenge we face is parenthood….In order to grow leadership in others, good parents, like good leaders, must learn to contract a bit — tzimtzum in Hebrew, a term from Jewish mysticism. When God created the world, God chose to contract a bit of the divine self to allow room for human beings. As mothers and fathers, and leaders, we must follow that example.

Not bad advice. Not bad at all.

Patrick T. Reardon

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