To Bismarck

Flying through Chicago to Bismarck for a few days. Great view of the Chicago lakeshore on approach to O’Hare, and patriotic view as I walked through the terminal.

I’ll be visiting the University of Mary in Bismarck for a few days of bioethics study. It’ll be my first time back in the Dakotas in a while. I passed through Minot, North Dakota on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” route from Chicago to Seattle in 2011, and later that year drove from Denver to the Black Hills in South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore.

Looking forward to being in Bismarck, and hopefully seeing some of the city in between seminar sessions. It’ll be good to spend meaningful time in North Dakota and take in the sights of the Mighty Missouri and the prairie.



Although you cannot bless

A pretty day in Philadelphia, preparing for upcoming travel. Here’s Auden’s
As I Walked Out One Evening,” because “life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless…”

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.


In Bonaventure Cemetery

In John Muir’s “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf” he shares his experience “camping among the tombs” of Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery:

October 9. After going again to the express office and post office, and wandering about the streets, I found a road which led me to the Bonaventure graveyard. If that burying-ground across the Sea of Galilee, mentioned in Scripture, was half as beautiful as Bonaventure, I do not wonder that a man should dwell among the tombs. It is only three or four miles from Savannah, and is reached by a smooth white shell road.

There is but little to be seen on the way in land, water, or sky, that would lead one to hope for the glories of Bonaventure. The ragged desolate fields, on both sides of the road, are overrun with coarse rank weeds, and show scarce a trace of cultivation. But soon all is changed. Rickety log huts, broken fences, and the last patch of weedy rice-stubble are left behind. You come to beds of purple liatris and living wild-wood trees. You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with Nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly living.

Part of the grounds was cultivated and planted with live-oak, about a hundred years ago, by a wealthy gentleman who had his country residence here. But much the greater part is undisturbed. Even those spots which are disordered by art, Nature is ever at work to reclaim, and to make them look as if the foot of man had never known them. Only a small plot of ground is occupied with graves and the old mansion is in ruins.

The most conspicuous glory of Bonaventure is its noble avenue of live-oaks. They are the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen, about fifty feet high and perhaps three or four feet in diameter, with broad spreading leafy heads. The main branches reach out horizontally until they come together over the driveway, embowering it throughout its entire length, while each branch is adorned like a garden with ferns, flowers, grasses, and dwarf palmettos.

But of all the plants of these curious tree-gardens the most striking and characteristic is the so-called Long Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). It drapes all the branches from top to bottom, hanging in long silvery-gray skeins, reaching a length of not less than eight or ten feet, and when slowly waving in the wind they produce a solemn funereal effect singularly impressive.

There are also thousands of smaller trees and clustered bushes, covered almost from sight in the glorious brightness of their own light. The place is half surrounded by the salt marshes and islands of the river, their reeds and sedges making a delightful fringe. Many bald eagles roost among the trees along the side of the marsh. Their screams are heard every morning, joined with the noise of crows and the songs of countless warblers, hidden deep in their dwellings of leafy bowers. Large flocks of butterflies, all kinds of happy insects, seem to be in a perfect fever of joy and sportive gladness. The whole place seems like a center of life. The dead do not reign there alone.

Bonaventure to me is one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures I ever met. I was fresh from the Western prairies, the garden-like openings of Wisconsin, the beech and maple and oak woods of Indiana and Kentucky, the dark mysterious Savannah cypress forests; but never since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impressive a company of trees as the tillandsia-draped oaks of Bonaventure.

I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.

On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc. Town children, especially, are steeped in this death orthodoxy, for the natural beauties of death are seldom seen or taught in towns.

Of death among our own species, to say nothing of the thousand styles and modes of murder, our best memories, even among happy deaths, yield groans and tears, mingled with morbid exultation; burial companies, black in cloth and countenance; and, last of all, a black box burial in an ill-omened place, haunted by imaginary glooms and ghosts of every degree. Thus death becomes fearful, and the most notable and incredible thing heard around a death-bed is, “I fear not to die.”

But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.

Most of the few graves of Bonaventure are planted with flowers. There is generally a magnolia at the head, near the strictly erect marble, a rose-bush or two at the foot, and some violets and showy exotics along the sides or on the tops. All is enclosed by a black iron railing, composed of rigid bars that might have been spears or bludgeons from a battlefield in Pandemonium.

It is interesting to observe how assiduously Nature seeks to remedy these labored art blunders. She corrodes the iron and marble, and gradually levels the hill which is always heaped up, as if a sufficiently heavy quantity of clods could not be laid on the dead. Arching grasses come one by one; seeds come flying on downy wings, silent as fate, to give life’s dearest beauty for the ashes of art; and strong evergreen arms laden with ferns and tillandsia drapery are spread over all—Life at work everywhere, obliterating all memory of the confusion of man.

“Death is stingless indeed…”


Progress in philosophy

Agnes Callard engages with Tyler Cowen’s question, “Has there been progress in philosophy?” Here’s a bit of her response:

But if philosophical thinking is getting better and better—more precise, truthful, articulate, deep—why should we still read Aristotle or Maimonides?   The reason we need to do the history of philosophy is precisely that philosophy has made massive amounts of progress in Tyler’s sense of the word: it has filtered into, shaped and organized commonsense, ordinary thought.  Indeed, it constitutes much of that thought.  Recently a historian of philosophy named Wolfgang Mann wrote a book called The Discovery of Things.  He argues, just as the title of his book suggests, that Aristotle discovered things.  It’s a bookabout the distinction between subject and predicate in Aristotle’s Categories—between what is and how it is.  You may not have realized this but: someone had to come up with that!  Many of the things that seem obvious to you—that human beings have basic rights, that knowledge requires justification, that modus ponens is a valid syllogistic form, that the world is filled with things—people had to come up with those ideas.  And the people who came up with them were philosophers.

So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind. Not everyone is interested in learning about the history of philosophy.  But if you are the kind of person who is not happy about having delegated some of your most fundamental thinking to other people; if you want to go back and retrace those steps to make sure you are on board; if you want to take full ownership of your own mind, well, in that case the history of philosophy might be for you. …

We don’t demand progress in the fields of fashion or literature, because these things please us. Philosophy, by contrast, is bitter, and we want to know what good it will do us, and when, finally, it will be over. It is not pleasant to be told that maybe you don’t know who you are, or how to treat your friends, or how to be happy. It’s not pleasant to have it pointed out to you that maybe nothing you have ever done matters, or that, for all you know, there is nothing out there at all. …

It is not the point of philosophy to end philosophy, to ‘solve’ the deep questions so that people can stop thinking about them.  It is the point of people to think about these questions, and the job of philosophers to rub their faces in that fact.  Of all of philosophy’s achievements, perhaps the greatest one is just sticking around in the face of the fact that, from day one, anyone who has plumbed the depths of our ambitions has either joined us or … tried to silence, stop or kill us.

“You are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers.”


‘We’ve lost our engine’

Murray Lundberg’s recounting of his ill-fated July 30, 1987 flight north of Vancouver is riveting from its end to its beginning. Here’s a bit:

Finally we were passing the lights of Vancouver. All that remained were 12 minutes over the cold waters of the Gulf of Georgia, on this night an inky, threatening void. Half-way across, the tension started to ease. I switched the radio to Boundary Bay Airport frequency as the beacon guided us to safety. For the first time that night, I noticed how incredibly bright the stars were.

Disbelief was the first feeling. “I’ve gone deaf!” Then there was an overpowering, sickening feeling as the nose of the plane dipped slowly, silently, toward the blackness below.

Reminiscing now, I still don’t really understand what happened next, but I thank the patron saint of fools and pilots that it did. After a flash of terror, I became totally calm, totally focussed. This was merely another practice forced-landing, with an instructor beside me and a farmer’s field below. Fuel switches, primer, magnetos, electrical; the emergency checklist was quickly run through, but showed no reason for the engine to quit without warning. Best rate-of-glide speed, 80 mph. Check. Time to call the cavalry. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is Cessna 172 Charlie Golf India Papa Papa, 10 miles west, descending through 5,000. We’ve lost our engine!”

The reaction from the control tower at Boundary Bay was the same as my first reaction; “India Papa Papa, please say again?” A restatement of my problem brought the controller’s calm night to an abrupt end. “Roger, India Papa Papa. Understood. Hang on, I’ll be away from the radio while I call Vancouver SAR (Search and Rescue Unit).”

David and his buddies had responded perfectly to my initial answer to their questions: “I don’t know what’s wrong yet! Shut up and leave me alone for a minute!” Now I gave them what little information I could, all the while flipping switches, adjusting speed and descent rates, resetting anything that might have any vague chance of helping our desperate situation. “Can you get it restarted?” “No.” “Are we going to make it to the airport?” “No.” “Will we make it to the shore?” “I don’t know yet. Maybe.” “Shall we start throwing out the luggage?” “That only works in the movies. Don’t bother.” West Coast fishermen are a hardy breed, and their calm over the next few minutes would help save their lives. “How long can we stay up?” “About 4 minutes now.”

I wonder if electric planes will reduce the risk of engine failure.


Pursuing what seems good

Ireland has voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to its constitution, which was passed in September 1983 to strengthen its existing law to “recognise the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.” The specific language:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

In practice, this amendment was designed to ensure that the principle of equality of human life was recognized at the highest level, and wouldn’t be threatened by judicial or legislative actions. In practice, this meant abortion was permitted only in situations where a mother’s life was in jeopardy. The language above recognizing basic equality passed in 1983 with 67 percent of the vote, and the rejection of basic equality just passed with what looks like 67 percent of the vote. The Save the 8th campaigners on the referendum result:

The 8th amendment did not create a right to life for the unborn child—it merely acknowledged that such a right exists, has always existed, and will always exist.

What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions. However, a wrong does not become right simply because a majority support it.

We are so proud of all of those who stood with us in this campaign—our supporters, our donors, our families, and our loved ones. This campaign took a huge personal toll on all of us who were involved, and we have been so grateful for their support.

The unborn child no longer has a right to life recognised by the Irish state. Shortly, legislation will be introduced that will allow babies to be killed in our country. We will oppose that legislation. If and when abortion clinics are opened in Ireland, because of the inability of the Government to keep their promise about a GP led service, we will oppose that as well. Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known.

Abortion was wrong yesterday. It remains wrong today. The constitution has changed, but the facts have not.

We naturally pursue what we believe is the good, so Ireland’s swing on this particular issue in the space of a quarter century, as it related to what its people define as “the good”, is incredible. It suggests, to me, a continuing triumph of a particular sort of libertarianism, and probably continuing problems in Western nations as people try to sort out whether justice is ultimately a contingent and relative thing, or whether any universal or natural justice exists that reason and law should endorse.


Stone and glass

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church sits just across the street from the Marriott Marquis, where yesterday’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast took place. The contrast between old and new Washington could hardly be better captured than in these scenes:


National Catholic Prayer Breakfast

I attended the 2018 National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this morning. In its 14th year, it features a few notable speakers each year and is modeled to some degree after the National Prayer Breakfast. An incredibly well-run breakfast that ended exactly one minute before it was scheduled to conclude, it was tough to be disappointed. Held at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington, across the street from Cato Institute. Speakers this year: Speaker Paul Ryan, Ambassador Sam Brownback, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City.

Afterwards I stopped in for the first session of National Review Institute’s Forum on Foster Care, led by Kathryn Jean Lopez:

Over the past four years there has been a spike in the number of children entering in to foster care. The need for partnership and a renewed sense of urgency is critical – particularly when it comes to faith-based communities. In order to shine a light on these needs, National Review Institute will assemble leaders in faith, government, and policy communities to raise awareness, identify some of the key challenges, establish new relationships, and highlight resources and solutions.

What I heard was powerful and personal witness from a panel featuring Charmaine Yoest, Randy Hicks, Natalie Goodnow, and Lisa Ann Wheeler. Their panel name was “The Urgency of Faith Based Leadership in Foster Care and Adoption,” but in practice it was a compelling set of testimonies on the experiences and benefits of fostering.

After that session I had to step out and get to Union Station to get back to Philadelphia.


Logan Circle, spring view

It’s been a while since I shared a view from the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network office above Logan Circle. We’re 11 stories up, but it doesn’t quite look like that. Beautiful spring day, heading to Washington later this morning for tomorrow’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast and tonight’s pre-breakfast reception.


Leisure as activity undertaken for its own sake

Gracy Olmstead on properly understanding leisure:

As Elizabeth Bruenig recently wrote for the Washington Post, “There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work.” …

But ancient philosophers argued that the good life involved leisure: periods of contemplation and celebration set apart from—or perhaps, more correctly, superseding—“the daily grind.” As Aristotle put it: “The first principle of all action is leisure. Both are required, but leisure is better than occupation and is its end.” It’s hard to imagine someone arguing in America today that leisure is better than work. For the average U.S. worker—even if only on a subconscious level—leisure is seen not as the end of occupation but rather as its drudge: its job is to refresh us just enough to enable our return to work. Rest, in America, facilitates more busyness. And if the ancient philosophers were right, this means we’ve mixed up our means and ends.

It’s important to note, however, that our “work” and “leisure” are both profoundly different than the types of occupation and rest that the ancients would have experienced. Plato did not sit in a cubicle for forty hours a week, responding to emails and attending meetings. Aristotle could not have imagined an era in which people sat on subways and in cars for hours on end to commute to and from their work space. In their time, work was most often manual and headquartered in one’s own home or neighborhood: tradesmen, farmers, and laborers spent their time handling physical tools, creating and selling physical goods, interacting in real time with real people.

In addition, “leisure” as the ancients defined it would never have encompassed today’s consumptive and passive forms of recreation and respite. Whereas we spend our downtime watching Netflix shows or scrolling through our Facebook feeds, the ancients’ word for “leisure” was the Greek word σχολή, from which we get our word “school.” As Roger Kimball writes in his New Criterion article “Josef Pieper: Leisure and Its Discontents,” the ancients’ conception of leisure was “not idleness, but activity undertaken for its own sake: philosophy, aesthetic delectation, and religious worship are models.”

What’s more, true leisure required virtue, according to Aristotle: we are only free to pursue the good life and the bounties of contemplation when we are unshackled from the slavish desires of the flesh. Plato, similarly, compared man’s threefold self—mind, spirit, and flesh—to a man skillfully driving a chariot, keeping his horses in check. If the man cannot tame his inner self, he cannot live virtuously.

Leisure shouldn’t be escapism from the professional world, or from the responsibilities of your everyday life, in other words. It can, rather, be a means of discovering the inner stillness that allows for contemplation, for true togetherness with friends, for the mental or physical or emotional or whatever space necessary to hear the inner voice of conscience that answers deep questions with which one might be wrestling, etc. To the extent that leisure is just frivolity, it makes sense to avoid it and simpler work more. But it can be more than that.