During this difficult time, many in the creative arts have offered the world moving performances of song, dance, or a combination thereof that have been wonderful tributes or expressions of collective support. One particularly moving production, in the form of a podcast, has come from a somewhat unexpected source: former foreign correspondent, author, and current New York Times columnist Roger Cohen reading his column, Come Back, New York, All is Forgiven. It is an example of how some writing should be heard, not just read; felt, not only seen, and it perfectly captures what many of us are feeling right now, no matter the city in which we live.
The piece, at its heart, is about remorse, what poet Emily Dickinson would call, “memory awake,” for not appreciating what our lives had been, pre-pandemic—from the daily routines that gave us succor, to those that had irritated us but we would now gratefully accept—call-outs he embedded in the grit of an urban landscape.
Roger is no stranger to the Global Centers; just a couple of days before the airport in Jordan’s capital was shut down and the country went into total lockdown, he gave a fascinating lecture at our Center in Amman on America’s abdication of its historic role in the Middle East.
I reached out to Roger to share how his podcast impacted me, and his response gave me insight into how a great columnist approaches his work.
“I had a cadence or meter in my head as I wrote, and the idea presented itself to me in that form,” he told me. “I've often thought the columns that work best are those that start with an idea and then have a twist, or turning, about two-thirds of the way down. One idea, in other words, is not quite enough.”
He continued, “As I wrote, it suddenly occurred to me that not only should I forgive the city, but the city should forgive me, forgive all of us, for not appreciating its majesty and magic, for cursing it sometimes, for wanting out. Forgive me as I forgive you. I did not have this idea at the outset. It took me through the last few (para)graphs, which wrote themselves, and led me to the final sentence, I know we can make a deal.”
As I thought about his words, they felt applicable to more than his own writing craft. In our current environment, we have all had to twist, or pivot—at our jobs, our home life, and in our broader communities—to fulfill our purpose. For the Global Centers, that has meant developing a full slate of on-line programming and adapting our skills to this new format. We are also focusing more robustly on long-term thematic areas of engagement and programs, like our work with refugees in Jordan, women’s leadership in Brazil, and urban design in India. These are in addition to our support for faculty research and, more than ever, our students, for whom we are developing deep partnerships with key university units to provide support across their full range of needs–academically, by collaborating on student-centric programming; professionally, through the creation of virtual internship opportunities; and, for our international students, socially, by building regional communities.
We are adapting and growing in the process. I am learning, too. But while so much feels uncertain, I have certainty in the knowledge that we will pivot again, and perhaps again after that, as we assess what works best.
I hope that you will continue on this journey with us, as we bring important conversations, programs, and projects to the fore, with insight, knowledge, and expertise from Columbia and all over the world.