Jonathan Rowe: My Recollections



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We met after I spoke at an event commemorating the work of Nader’s Raiders. Jonathan had written a piece in the Christian Science Monitor which captured much of the spirit and vision that underlay TimeBanking.  I was struggling to write a book about Time Banking –but it could not come alive without the stories and I did not know how to weave stories. Jonathan Rowe was a master of story-teller.  TimeBanking lives in those stories so I sought out Jonathan Rowe in hopes that somehow he could help. Those were difficult days for me because cancer had just taken my wife Jean. She wanted the book written. Jonathan Rowe enabled me to deliver on that commitment.

We worked together, day, night and weekends on the Time Dollars book and Jonathan always brought something new and different to the endeavor:  quirky knowledge of history, literature, and politics that combined erudition with humor.  TimeBanking lives in the stories and Jonathan knew how to capture the essence of a story.  We had very different ways of approaching the writing. I thought like a lawyer  constructing a compelling logical argument, proposition by proposition.  Jonathan was trained as a lawyer – but that was not how he thought or functioned.

The difference for me was captured by an analogy. If there was a hill to be climbed, I would plot the path and proceed. Jonathan would meander . He would seem to wander off the path and check out every wild flower, touch it, smell it, capture its scent.  We would end up at the same destination – but somehow,  every time,  his wanderings brought new meaning and new dimensions to whatever logical pathway I had plotted.  Jonathan did more than just wandering off the path.  It seemed to me that he would stop and actually inhale the scent of those flowers, know their inner life and treasure their presence in a special way that sometime drove me crazy until I learned to recognize a different kind of wisdom.

That’s how Jonathan was as a writer.  He did not just interview people. He did not just capture their stories.  He related to them as human beings – with love and caring. The time he spent with them was actually in relation with them fully as beings. There was nothing instrumental about his interactions. He did not “use” people; he created a shared space with them and when he interviewed a person, he could listen in a way that infused their words, their thoughts, their feelings with deeper meaning.  He could even do that with what they did not say and with their silence  because Jonathan understood silence as a form of communication.

Writing the book, Time Dollars, together meant that we discussed economics and politics  and psychology  and just about everything else. Sometimes I found myself asking: “Is this guy a closet reactionary  because he seemed to be coming from a time and place that had nothing to do with the world of Great Society programs and civil rights.  He knew the world of politics intimately – from his time on the hill and his time with Ralph Nader. But his moral energy was not about laws or government spending, entitlements  or legal battles.  The commons and all they stood for provided his real emotional and moral center.  The commons functioned for Jonathan as a kind of moral oasis that he brought to every undertaking.  Intellectually, philosophically, ethically it provided a centering process that gave Jonathan perspective that led to his unrelenting challenge to market values and GDP and money as the be-all and end-all.  I remember how that awareness expressed itself time and again in different pieces he wrote. I remember the first time it came out when we were writing and he proposed as the caption for one chapter: “How Things We Did Became Things We Buy.”   Jonathan always knew what really mattered – and his ability to convey that with gentle but devastating clarity was one of his greatest gifts.

His article in the Atlantic Monthly, his work on Redefining Progress,  his commitment to the Commons as a central intellectual and legal concept are all part of his legacy.  But equally, part of that legacy is the quality of love and caring he brought to relationships.  I listened to his interview for America Off Line.  Throughout the interview, he would turn to Josh and ask him what he thought.  Jonathan’s  pride, the intensity of his love and devotion were unqualified – all the more so when he added in that interview that he had earlier been reluctant to have a child.  And how Josh had changed that – and changed him.  His closing words radiated with a joyous affirmation: that Josh was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

When I heard his statement in that last interview,  a distinction came to mind that I had read about  the difference between economics and happiness. The author observed: economics works on the principle of optimization. You optimize the return on every transactions. Happiness works on the principle of commitment.  Happiness is about relationships. For Jonathan Rowe,  life was about Commitment. The commons was about commitment.  And his love for Josh and Marie Jean was about commitment.

We all have lost the presence of a great spirit, a remarkable mind, a truth teller, and a poet. But no one can take from us the wisdom, the sharing, the stories and the vision of a world that cannot be owned and a trust that must be continuously reaffirmed.  That commitment lives on in Jonathan Rowe’s words, in the loving relationships he created and nurtured, and in the possibilities he helped create.