Tom Shakely


I live in Philadelphia, where I run a nonprofit. I wrote Conserving Mount Nittany, and write daily here.

Solidarity, segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy

David Brooks writes in The Power of a Dinner Table:

The kids who show up at Kathy and David’s have endured the ordeals of modern poverty: homelessness, hunger, abuse, sexual assault. Almost all have seen death firsthand — to a sibling, friend or parent.

It’s anomalous for them to have a bed at home. One 21-year-old woman came to dinner last week and said this was the first time she’d been around a family table since she was 11.

And yet by some miracle, hostile soil has produced charismatic flowers. Thursday dinner is the big social occasion of the week. Kids come from around the city. Spicy chicken and black rice are served. Cellphones are banned (“Be in the now,” Kathy says).

The kids call Kathy and David “Momma” and “Dad,” are unfailingly polite, clear the dishes, turn toward one another’s love like plants toward the sun and burst with big glowing personalities. Birthdays and graduations are celebrated. Songs are performed.

I started going to dinner there about two years ago, hungry for something beyond food. Each meal we go around the table, and everybody has to say something nobody else knows about them.

Each meal we demonstrate our commitment to care for one another. I took my daughter once and on the way out she said, “That’s the warmest place I can ever imagine.” …

Bill Milliken, a veteran youth activist, is often asked which programs turn around kids’ lives. “I still haven’t seen one program change one kid’s life,” he says. “What changes people is relationships. Somebody willing to walk through the shadow of the valley of adolescence with them.”

Souls are not saved in bundles. Love is the necessary force.

The problems facing this country are deeper than the labor participation rate and ISIS. It’s a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy.

It’s said at one point in this piece: “The kids can project total self-confidence one minute and then slide into utter lostness the next.” That’s life, isn’t it?

What’s so beautiful about this is that Kathy and David’s example doesn’t have to be just an example of older folks making a place for younger ones. It can be an example simply for how to be human beings to each other. If there’s “a crisis of solidarity, a crisis of segmentation, spiritual degradation and intimacy,” that’s a human problem.

What we need more of is family and community, in that order.

Christian freedom

Archbishop Chaput delivered an important talk at Notre Dame this week, titled Remembering who we are and the story we belong to:

What Christians mean by “freedom” and “equality” is very different from the secular content of those words.  For the believer, freedom is more than a menu of choices or the absence of oppression.  Christian freedom is the liberty, the knowledge and the character to do what’s morally right.  And the Christian meaning of “equality” is much more robust than the moral equivalent of a math equation.  It involves the kind of love a mother feels for each of her children, which really isn’t equality at all.  A good mother loves her children infinitely and uniquely — not “equally,” because that would be impossible.  Rather, she loves them profoundly in the sense that all of her children are flesh of her flesh, and have a permanent, unlimited claim on her heart.

So it is with our Catholic understanding of God.  Every human life, no matter how seemingly worthless, has infinite dignity in his eyes.  Every human life is loved without limits by the God who made us.  Our weaknesses are not signs of unworthiness or failure.  They’re invitations to depend on each other and become more than ourselves by giving away our strengths in the service of others, and receiving their support in return.

This is the truth in the old legend about heaven and hell.  Both have exactly the same tables.  Both have exactly the same rich foods.  But the spoons in both places are much too long.  In hell people starve because they try to feed themselves.

Fewer Americans are practicing as Christians. Those simply identifying as Christian is progressively declining, too. Chaput speaks on this: “Losing people who are members of the Church in name only is an imaginary loss. It may in fact be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay.” I agree.

Rail Park

The first quarter mile segment of Philadelphia’s Rail Park is getting underway after years of planning. Confidence in The Rail Park was certainly bolstered by the overwhelming success of New York’s Highline, but the fact that it’s coming together is also a sign of the continuing success of the redevelopment of Philadelphia.

The Rail Park:


The park has three sections: the Viaduct, the Cut, and the Tunnel. Three miles, all told. 10 neighborhoods. 50 city blocks. It all stands on the unused tracks of the old Reading Railroad, connecting Fairmount Park to Center City, running from Brewerytown to the Northern Liberties. The Rail Park will be a green space, a gathering space, and a public space for all.

A lesson of the Highline is that the value of property along the park increases. It’s tough to imagine that the parking lot adjacent to the park in the rendering here will stay a parking lot.

What’s tough to imagine is exactly what sort of development will occur. I hope it’s remarkable and dense.


Experience encourages humility

Rachelle Peterson writes on old books:

All books have blind spots. All eras do. We can look back and spy past prejudices, ridiculous and discredited in hindsight. We see their mistaken premises and faulty logic. We can reject geocentric astronomy, the rooting of disease in the “influenza” of the planets, and the race-based classification of the human and the “subhuman.” We see the futility of phrenology and cringe at doctors who bled their patients to cure fever. We laugh at the “divine right of kings” and wonder why Salem thought it wise to hunt witches. But should we avoid books whose authors accepted what passed for wisdom in their own time?

Several reasons support wide reading of old, even flawed, books.

Censoring history helps nobody. TinTin might stereotype and degrade the Congolese. That might be reason to keep his African escapades from toddlers, who surely are not ready to learn of King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Belgian Congo. But those who are mature ought to know the hard realities of history. We shouldn’t erase the Trojan War because it was bloody, just as we shouldn’t forget Jim Crow laws because they are troubling.

We benefit from the clarity arising from past mistakes. We can learn to avoid old errors, of course, but “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” sweeps away hubris, as well. Meeting dead assumptions—whether they are disproven or merely discarded—confronts us with the realization that we may have our own unexamined suppositions. What premises do we consider self-evident that earlier generations scorned? Perhaps our own generation’s ideological fads are not so permanent as they seem.

Reading classics is humbling.

Where does humility (personal, cultural, national, generational) come from if not from experience?

TSA Precheck

I had a frankly incredible experience signing up for TSA Precheck.

I’ve been avoiding TSA Precheck for a few years, partly because I hadn’t been flying enough to warrant the $85/five year fee, and partly because I still think of the idea of separating out some travelers from others as un-American in some way.

In any event, on the way to Phoenix last week I had a layover in Chicago. It was just long enough to step out of the secure terminal and visit the TSA Precheck office when it opened at 8:30am. I didn’t have an appointment, but there was no line and since I had my passport I was able to complete my application within five minutes. What I didn’t like was that the program requires being fingerprinted. Does the federal government really need my fingerprints in its database to ensure I’m not a threat? I really doubt it, and having my fingerprints scanned was the worst part of the experience. It didn’t feel right.

The reason I consider this an “incredible experience” was because I applied in Chicago on Wednesday morning, and by Saturday had receiving email confirmation of my approval as well as a physical approval notice from the Department of Homeland Security in the mail.

I think the TSA Precheck program is essentially outsourced to MorphoTrust, a private corporation that handles almost every state’s driver’s license program and many other identity programs in this country. In that light I’m not surprised at the speed of the beginning-to-end process. It was still great nonetheless.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature is such surprising and welcoming news. I’m far from a Dylan expert, but I love the man for what he’s contributed to the culture. A decade ago I saw him perform live at Penn State.

Bishop Robert Barron has a great reflection on why Dylan matters:

I first heard Dylan when I was thirteen—a live version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” from the Concert for Bangladesh—and I have been a fan ever since.

It was fortuitous that I discovered Dylan just as I was learning what poetry is and how it works. Poetry “means” of course, but it also, and even more basically, “sounds.” Typically today, we read verse on the printed page, but Bob Dylan’s verse we first hear: “skipping reels of rhyme, to your tambourine in time;” “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face;” “like a corkscrew to my heart, ever since we’ve been apart;” and “I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea/ sometimes I turn there’s somebody there/ other times it’s only me.” 

Dylan’s themes are, of course, multiple: politics, the conflicts of the heart, war and peace, etc. But his dominant preoccupation, from beginning to end of his career, is the God of the Bible. Listen again to “With God On Our Side,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “To Make You Feel My Love,” “Every Grain of Sand,” and “When He Returns,” if you want the evidence. He stands very much in the tradition of the great prophets and sages of Israel; like Jacob, he has spent a lifetime wrestling with the Lord.


I’ve been spending the past few days in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area near Camelback. The last time I was in Arizona was in 2011 when I visited Tucson on my way to Los Angeles. I loved what I saw of Tucson and overall am enjoying Phoenix though I don’t plan to make it downtown.

The quality of the light here is as good as California, but the neighborhoods here feel like something closer to Denver in terms of density than many places I’ve been in California.

I went for a great 13 mile run the other day, and a shorter 4 mile run yesterday. It’s easier to run here in the dry heat, for sure. Thinking about the value of doing a marathon here at some point.

Flying back to Philadelphia tonight.

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