Dumbarton Oaks Garden

I visited Dumbarton Oaks Garden today for the first time, alongside a friend whose idea it was to go. It’s in Georgetown, and only a few blocks from home, but it feels like you’re in the country:

In 1920, after a long and careful search, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss found their ideal country house and garden within Washington, DC. They purchased a fifty-three-acre property, described as an old-fashioned house standing in rather neglected grounds, at the highest point of Georgetown. Within a year, the Blisses hired landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design the garden. Working in happy and close collaboration for almost thirty years, Mildred Bliss and Beatrix Farrand planned every garden detail, each terrace, bench, urn, and border. The upper sixteen acres were transferred to Harvard University in 1940 to establish a research institute for Byzantine studies, Pre-Columbian studies, and studies in the history of gardens and landscape architecture.

Short biographies at the close of life

Andrew Critch reflects on funerals, and whether our way of burying our dead is as much about honoring their bodies as honoring their memory. Specifically, Andrew suggests buying “biographies instead of expensive burials:”

Cemeteries and funerals are beautiful, because they tell a story of the past that we care about. They’re also somewhat expensive: families routinely spend on the order of $10k on funeral and burial rites for their families. There are people whose entire jobs are the preparation of bodies for funeral rites. Can we tell the story of the past better, but for the same cost?

I believe we can. If your loved one is close to death or has recently died, instead of planning for an expensive burial funeral, you might consider instead planning for the cheapest possible disposal of their earthly remains, and use the excess money to hire a biographer. The biographer can talk to your loved one’s family, and even your loved one directly if they haven’t yet passed, and write down people’s most treasured or meaningful memories about them. Your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren could have much more than a tombstone to remember them by.

If more people adopted this tradition, cemeteries could become libraries where we keep tomes of stories about our lost loved ones, both bitter and sweet. When we bring flowers to the cemetery, we could leave them next to a book containing their life story. We could re-read their memories, and perhaps even take some time to read through the memories of other people we don’t know, and develop a feeling of what it was like to be them. Probably some people would take an interest in reading the stories even of strangers. Perhaps these “cemetery historians” would even bond when they meet at the cemetery, and recommend their favorite stories to each other. Together, we’d have a culture more capable of preserving and cherishing the memories of the people we’ve lost.

I don’t see this as being in competition with a proper funeral or burial at all, but as a natural part of the planning process that funeral homes or others could adopt as part of their service to respect the bodies of the dead and honor their memory.

Magnanimous, ‘great-souled’ people

I walk at a fast pace. But John Cuddeback warns against being in a hurry without good reason:

As is often the case, these words of Aristotle must be carefully considered. “The man who takes few things seriously” can sound like a man who doesn’t really value things—as though he were excessively nonchalant and under-estimates the worth of things. From the context it is clear that Aristotle rather is pointing to the man who properly judges things: a man who has recognized the few things that are really important in life.

So the man who judges things well, seeing things for what they are, is not in a hurry. Indeed, he usually walks with a measured, peaceful gait.

I had seen this text long ago, and I didn’t really make much of it. Then last week I was on retreat, and I kept catching myself rushing, bounding up and down stairs as though there wasn’t a minute to lose, when in fact there was no real need to hurry.

… I let myself get in a hurry, even though there isn’t a pressing need. An example comes to mind: how often have I gotten angry at my children when I go to pick them up somewhere if they so much as linger an extra moment to say farewell to their friends? “How dare you keep Daddy waiting!” As though the standard assumption is: Daddy has way too much to do, and you’re holding him up! Let’s get on with this! …

I’ve decided to start by slowing down my gait. It’s been hard. Even harder will be to learn really and truly to put first things first, to recognize what really matters and what doesn’t, and to act like it. The magnanimous man, which literally means the ‘great-souled man,’ takes seriously what he should. And for that very reason he is careful not to be in too much of a hurry.

John Cuddeback is consistently thoughtful. It’s worth receiving his emails.

An endless thirst for life

Memento mori, as a reason for hope and for right conduct in this life. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura on the event we all face—though not our ultimate destiny:

“Finally, what great and vile desire for life compels us
To quake so much amidst doubts and dangers?
Mortals have an absolute end to our lives:
Death cannot be evaded—we must leave.

Nevertheless, we move again and still persist—
No new pleasure is procured by living;
But while what we desire is absent, that seems to overcome
All other things; but later, when we have gained it, we want something else—

An endless thirst for life grips us as we gasp for it.
It remains unclear what fortune life will offer,
What chance may bring us and what end awaits.
But by extending life we do not subtract a moment
Of time from death nor can we shorten it
So that we may somehow have less time after our ends.

Therefore, you may continue as living as many generations as you want,
But that everlasting death will wait for you still,
And he will be there for no less a long time, the man who
Has found the end of life with today’s light, than the man who died
Many months and many years before.”

To see environments as they really are

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, on rejecting well-adjustedness, if well-adjustedness basically means an at-home-in-the-worldliness:

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” “Well-adjusted” courtiers, having vested interests, saw the emperor as beautifully appointed. The “anti-social” brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor “ain’t got nothing’ on.” The new environment was clearly visible to him.

To see environments as they really are tends to be one of the most important and most difficult things to do—because it’s not always clear how things really were until after they’re past. This is why I agree with something a friend of mine pointed out years ago—that it’s not the future that’s to be feared, but rather it’s the present, because the uncertainties of the present are more challenging than the abstractions of the future.

Ungardening

Issam Ahmed and Ariela Navarro write:

Anna Burger lives by a busy road just a minute’s walk from a metro station in the US capital Washington, but every morning she wakes up to a birdsong symphony.

Butterflies, squirrels and even the occasional deer also come to visit the tree-covered property that she has cultivated with a focus on native species that provide nesting space and nourishment for the local wildlife.

Well-manicured grass lawns have long been associated with the American Dream, but a growing “rewilding” movement now seeks to reclaim yard space for nature.

“We knew that putting chemicals on grass to try to keep it green seemed to be a futile process that wasn’t good for kids playing or for the environment,” Burger told AFP.

She and her husband bought the house in 1990 and “we’ve tried to make it friendly, making sure that we have water sources, making sure that there are food sources so these trees aren’t the most colorful but have great berries.”

The couple’s home is surrounded by several houses whose occupants take a more traditional approach toward their green space, but a stroll through the leafy Takoma Park neighborhood reveals many more where “ungardening” has taken root.

Precise definitions of what this means vary, but the concept of meddling less and celebrating nature more was notably popularized in 1993 book “Noah’s Garden” by Sara Stein, a Bible for the movement.

There are some great photos of what these sorts of home look like, including some certified by the National Wildlife Federation as wildlife habitats. Not for everyone, but not bad, either. Nearly every neighborhood has something like this in it, if you look for it.

Scenes of Washington in August

I’ve been running a lot lately. I tend to run more often in August, probably because you start to have that sense that summer will end sooner than you’d like and that you should be outside as much as possible. Yesterday had a great nine mile run through Georgetown and then past the YMCA in Arlington and back. Today, I’m looking back on these scenes from the past few days.

This last photo is the facade of the National Press Building on F Street/Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this morning.

A thousand ages like an evening gone

At Epiphany in Georgetown for Mass this morning, O God, Our Help in Ages Past was sung. I don’t remember hearing it before:

Our God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

Under the shadow of your throne
your saints have dwelt secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
or earth received her frame,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
with all their lives and cares,
are carried downward by your flood,
and lost in foll’wing years.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.

Our God, our help in ages past
our hope for years to come:
O be our guard while troubles last,
and our eternal home.

Cain was spared by the God of justice

In light of the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to reinstitute the death penalty for those on federal death row, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is circulating past remarks of his on capital punishment, calling us to do better:

The evidence against capital punishment demonstrates that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that our legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; and that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true — but let’s ignore them.

Instead, let’s assume that a defendant is genuinely guilty of a brutal and premeditated murder; that he or she gets excellent legal counsel with correct due process; and that a fair jury convicts our defendant after careful and intelligent deliberation.

Killing the guilty is still the wrong choice for a civilized nation. Why?  Because it accomplishes nothing.  It does not bring back or even honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society’s anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim’s loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.

What the death penalty does achieve is closure through bloodletting, and violence against violence — which is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder’s root. Only love can do that.

Executions in Texas averaged nearly two a month in 2004.  Ponder that through the eyes of a young person reading the newspaper.  Is this how we define ourselves as a God-fearing people? Is this really a fitting monument to murder victims?  In “sending a signal” to would-be murderers, do we realize that we are also teaching a message of state-endorsed violence to our own children?

The reality of any homicide is heart-breaking beyond words. We cannot presume to understand the deep and bitter personal wounds suffered by those who lose their loved ones through murder. As a people, we must never allow ourselves the luxury of forgetting the injustice done to victims of murder who cannot speak for themselves—or our obligation to bring the guilty to full accounting.

But as Jesus showed again and again by his words and in his actions, the only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence. In the world of 2005, capital punishment has become just another narcotic we Americans use to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time (living, human “symptoms” who have names and their own stories before God), but the underlying illness — today’s contempt for human life — remains and grows worse.

In Genesis 4:10-16, humanity’s first murderer — Cain, the man who brought bloodletting into the world — was spared by the God of justice.  We should remember that.  God’s ways are not our ways; they are wiser and better.  God’s heart, unlike ours, is driven by love, not anger.  A culture ultimately defines its moral character by the value it places on each human life, particularly those lives that seem most burdensome, inconsequential or unworthy. Violent criminals present an especially harsh moral challenge for us, because their own cruelty has forced them to the margins of society. Recognizing a criminal’s humanity is bitterly difficult when our hearts are clouded by pain.

But the same needle that poisons the killer in every [execution] also poisons us as a culture.  Repaying cruelty with cruelty does not equate to justice.

“The Department of Justice is simply enforcing the law, our law, passed by our elected representatives,” Chaput concludes. “Which means that all of us, as citizens, are implicated in the coming executions. We can do better as a nation. For the sake of our own moral integrity, we need to do better.  We need to abolish the death penalty now.

Limits on federal spending

Michael J. New offers common sense on federal spending:

The recent budget deal that was agreed to by President Trump and Congressional leaders has fiscal conservatives livid. This deal raises discretionary spending caps by over $300 billion over two years and effectively repeals the budget caps that were established as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011. The frustration of budget hawks is certainly understandable. While the rest of the budget has grown in recent years, non-defense discretionary spending has actually fallen in constant dollars since 2011. However, seasoned observers of fiscal policy knew it was unlikely to last. After all, there is plenty of evidence that legislatures, including Congress, have been unable to place effective long term limits on the growth of spending.

Indeed, after triple digit budget deficits became commonplace in the 1980s, Congress adopted the Gramm Rudman Hollings Act in 1985. This piece of legislation established declining deficit targets every year and triggered automatic spending cuts if those targets were not met. Half the cuts were to come from defense spending, and half the cuts were to come from domestic programs. While Gramm Rudman Hollings did result in some short term spending cuts, its main outcome was creative accounting. Congress often pushed spending into future fiscal years to create phantom spending cuts to stay within the deficit targets. When the economy slowed down, the deficit targets became too difficult to reach, and the legislation was scrapped in 1990. …

Fiscal conservatives should revisit pursuing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of the results of elections, Congress has shown no ability to place effective long term limits on spending. A balanced budget amendment or another constitutional fiscal limit might be the only effective long-term strategy to limit the growth of government. America’s long term fiscal outlook looks especially bleak due to rapidly growing entitlement programs. Indeed, a balanced budget amendment might as well be the only strategy to get Congress to seriously discuss reforming rapidly expanding programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and shore up America’s fiscal future.

We are acting as if there will be no consequence for our bipartisan monetary policies. Kicking the can down the road…