Wondering on the train

I’m on my way back to Philadelphia this morning, on Amtrak Northeast Regional #88 that will get me into the city a bit after 1pm. I snapped the photo above of the Phoenix Park Hotel as I waited for the light to change on my walk to Union Station.

As we’re riding along these tracks, I look out at so many little homes and communities and junk yards and docks, and across semi-frozen water as we occasionally stretch ourselves over a bridge, and wonder if there will be any of this to see in a future where the Hyperloop becomes a reality, likely underground. I wonder what the experience will be like as a passenger of an underground vacuum tube at such high speeds and relatively short durations. And I wonder whether the experience of all those in the little homes and places this Amtrak train passes today will become better or worse, and more or less interesting, when trains like this one diminish in frequency or stop although some day. In any event…

When we get into Philadelphia, I’ll head to my office at Logan Circle for a few hours of work this afternoon after a full few days in Washington, and a full week to come, to be spent partially at Penn State and in State College.

The Philadelphia Eagles meet the Minnesota Vikings tonight at 6pm to decide who wins the NFC Championship and gets to advance to the Super Bowl.

Students for Life conference

I visited the First Baptist Church of Glenarden today near Upper Marlboro, Maryland for the 2018 Students for Life conference, where I spoke with Catherine Glenn-Foster of Americans United for Life on human dignity and how best to serve those facing or considering euthanasia and assisted suicide.

It’s looked like a vibrant and beautiful Christian community, based upon the sanctuary itself and the photos lining the outer hallways. Today it played host to hundreds of young people from around the country who are hungry to serve vulnerable women and men who, across the spectrum, are too often told they have choice yet are handed only one or two real options.

The vigor and service mentality among young people to provide real alternatives to abortion, to euthanasia, to forms of suicide, is inspiring and precisely the sort of service needed to build a more humane culture where authentic autonomy and personal liberty is no longer achieved at the expense of a less fortunate brother or sister.

March for Life and Rose Dinner

This morning and afternoon marked the 45th March for Life in Washington, and tonight the March for Life’s Rose Dinner took place with Pam Tebow as keynote at the Marriott Renaissance. Pam spoke about human dignity broadly, her family’s international humanitarian work, and the story of her son Tim, whom physicians had recommended she abort:

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Afterwards, I walked the mile or so from Mount Vernon Square back to the Phoenix Park Hotel, through Chinatown, past Clyde’s of Gallery Place where the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board met last night, past the National Portrait Gallery, and ultimately which a brief glimpse at the beautiful Capitol dome, which inspires with the ideals that our politics aspires to in its better moments.

Terry Mattingly offers perspective on the March for Life’s historical lack of media coverage, even compared to similar marches and demonstrations. He excerpts the following Medical Research Project summary of a history of indifference:

The March for Life is a powerful event, one that sheds a spotlight on human rights and dignity. It also brings together men and women of all ages and races, Catholics and Protestants and the religious and scientific communities who believe that life starts at conception. It’s a message those on the political left don’t want to broadcast. It’s also one they don’t want to help further with the help of any meaningful news coverage.

A study conducted by the Media Research Project, a conservative watchdog group, found that CBS, NBC and ABC spent an hour and 15 minutes combined covering last year’s Women’s March held in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. That’s the same Women’s March organizers made sure did not include any pro-life groups.

By comparison, the same group found that the March for Life in 2016 had earned only 35 seconds of coverage from the same three major TV networks – just 13 seconds before it took place and 22 seconds after it was held. The Women’s March had garnered 23 minutes of coverage before it took place.

The situation was similar when it came to online news stories. The phrase “Women’s March 2017” garnered 7,650 mentions on Google News. The same search term for “March for Life 2017” saw a similar disparity – just 474 results.

President Trump became the first president to join the March for Life with a live address from the Rose Garden, where he underscored the stark reality of our laws:

Roe versus Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, in the United States, it’s one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions along with China, North Korea, and others. Right now, in a number of States, the laws allow a baby to be aborted from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month. It is wrong. It has to change.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, passed the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act” today. It will fail in the Senate, where it requires 60 votes to pass, but it is an important step on the road toward protecting human beings who survive failed abortions, ensuring they are transferred from abortion clinics to legitimate medical facilities for care. It’s a fact that today, persons accidentally allowed to be born during an attempted abortion are sometimes simply left to die rather than provided basic care.

And finally, the Department of Health and Human Services today announced the creation of a first-ever “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division meant to “protect doctors, nurses, midwives and other health care workers who refuse to perform, accommodate or assist with certain procedures on religious or moral grounds” and also provides a mechanism for those persons to “file complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against because of their religious or moral convictions.”

That such executive and legislative actions are necessary in the face of the clear and straightforward language of the constitution’s acknowledgement of the right to life, not even to speak of the cultural refusal to acknowledge embryological science as it relates to human rights, is a testament to the fact that ours is not an age of reason, but rather one of power and feeling.

Warm-looking, cold-feeling

The view from Room 807 at the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I’ll be thru Sunday for the March for Life. Union Station (to the right) and the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum (left) look great in this sunny, albeit cold, weather.

Tonight the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board will meet for the first time this year. I’m proud that we not only grew the reach of our National Crisis Lifeline in 2017, which serves patients and families at risk of denial of care, euthanasia, and assisted suicide, but that we grew our mission while also achieving a second straight year of budgetary positive net income. I set this as a key performance goal when I came onboard as executive director, and we’ll work to make this the third straight year if we can be similarly fortunate and impactful.

Tomorrow, the 45th March for Life from the Washington Monument to the Supreme Court.

Try to love the questions

In Washington tonight thru Sunday for the March for Life and Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network reasons. Rainer Maria Rilke, meanwhile, provides consolation in difficult moments:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved
in your heart and try to love the
questions themselves, like locked
rooms and like books that are now
written in a very foreign tongue. Do
not now seek the answers, which
cannot be given you because you
would not be able to live them. And
the point is, to live everything. Live the
questions now. Perhaps you will then
gradually, without noticing it, live
along some distant day into the
answer.

 

Winter blues

Gracy Olmstead writes on January, and how to brighten it:

Many have talked or written about hygge: the Danish word defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” People associate hygge with mulled wine, warm blankets, hot stew, and brisk snowy walks—as well as with a more abstract conception of personal joy and hospitality, warmth and openness. The word and its meaning have grown in popularity here in the States, as many have realized the role such cozy rituals can play in cheering long winters.

Atlantic reporter Kari Leibowitz spent a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, where the sun doesn’t rise between November and January. Despite the bleakness, she learned that the people of Tromsø have lower rates of seasonal depression than those in less dark and less cold climes. How is that possible? She traveled there to find out—and quickly realized that her assumptions surrounding winter were entirely incongruent with what she saw:

“[I]n New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.

“I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. … After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.”

Much of this same positivity and coziness filled my childhood winters, winters that otherwise might have felt cold and dreary. We did our homework next to the fireplace in the evenings, and bundled up to play in the snow on weekends (and then enjoyed cups of hot cocoa when we came inside). We made wintry desserts like gingerbread and nutmeg-sprinkled sugar cookies. My grandmother mastered the art of hygge: the steaming cider and soups and pies that filled our holiday season, the soft hum of a football game in the living room, created a texture that enveloped our spirits with warmth. There were pictures of my father and his siblings proudly lining her walls, rose-embellished china on her counters and in her cabinets. Her bedrooms abounded with pillows and stuffed animals, beckoning to grandchildren with their comfort.

Home can be a haven in January. It requires very little: a blanket, a candle, a warm cup of tea, a well-worn favorite book. But these little touches of comfort can help banish the emotional and physical cold we can otherwise feel throughout the winter.

One of the things I like least about the American attitude is how easily we shift from “sharing” to “venting” to “gossiping/complaining”. I find January and February to be a particularly unattractive time to live in Pennsylvania, or to be in the Northeast in general. But this change of attitude, of attempting to see the light in things, and perhaps to speak a bit less if only to avoid the temptation toward banality or complaining, seems worth emulating.

Lady Hollow

As much as Hollow has been Michael and Ben Novak’s doggy, she has been and continues to be a familiar, remarkable, and much loved part of the town of Ave Maria’s community life. Born somewhere in the wilds of Colorado, found by a rancher, and rescued by Michael’s daughter Jana at the last moment at a shelter, Hollow always carried with her a bit of that Colorado ease and agreeableness that I see in my own family who live there. I think of her as basically wolfish in nature.

Hollow’s an example of the sort of creature that one comes across only every so often in life whose essential nature, temperament, and characteristics are so basically reassuring and pleasant that she makes an impression without even trying to do so. Anyway, I’ve loved Hollow for years. And Ben Novak captured a bit of her spirit a few months ago when he shared this bit of poetry with me:

Lady Hollow
Ben Novak

Hollow does not ask why
Flowers grow or rivers flow
Or mountains rise or a bird flies.
Hollow does not know yesterday
Or anything that came before.

Though she remembers
Who was kind and where she lives,
What she likes, and who likes her.
Hollow remembers well the box
Her milkbones come from,
And where her bones are buried.
And where she likes to sleep,
And what time to wake me each morn
By crawling across the pillows at 6:00 am
to nuzzle her snout against my face.

At other times of day,
Hollow remembers when it’s time
To take me for a walk.
She nuzzles my hand, or straightens up
On her hind legs to paw my forearm till I stand up,
And knows exactly where to go and what to do
when I need to change clothes or
Put on my walking shoes;
She knows to jump up on my bed
And crawl to the edge where I can pet her
As opposed to lying near the pillows
When she merely wants to sleep.

Oh, she remembers it all for the next hour,
Where I walk and where to turn and where I stop,
Whether we take one route or another.
She remembers how we cross the boulevard,
Where she always stops beside my leg,
And does not move till I say “Heel,”
Though she has forgotten what it means to heel,
And merely runs ahead.

And she remembers where I am
As we walk each morn and eve,
Follows me or runs ahead and
Rummages through the bushes,
But always with an eye on me
To run up from behind
Or when she runs ahead,
To stop, turn around and catch my eye,
And wait till I catch up.

She remembers when I sit down along the way,
To come back and lie down nearby,
And jump up when my rest is done,
To continue on our walk.

She remembers how I like to sit each morn,
Usually just before dawn,
And smoke a cigarette, or two, or three,
On the stone bench by the fountain
In front of the Oratory,
Where she lies down nearby,
And together we watch the sun come up,
And the joggers run by,
And the cars drive by
On their way to early work.

She remembers to walk with me
Along the sidewalk all the way to where,
We turn to go between the houses
Back to the alley toward our home,
Where she is free to leave me
And run through the neighborhood
To check out everything,
Stopping at the lady’s house
Who gives her a morning treat,
And visiting the Campbells for her
Morning slice of American cheese,
And to be back scratching at my door
Within ten minutes or so.

And she remembers to eat daintily, like a lady,
Who gingerly takes the treat I offer,
Then drops it,
Just like ladies in olden times
Would drop a handkerchief
To allow a gentleman to pick it up for her;
Just so, Hollow drops her treat and looks at me
To pick it up and offer it again
So that she can, oh so lightly, take it
As though she is doing me a favor.

If the universe is meaningless…

Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity, one of my favorite books:

If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.

In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it. …

So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom… But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now. Each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness. …

When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.

God is not a creature someplace “out there” in the universe. God is being itself, the basis for all contingent reality. When Watts writes that “you are this moment now” and not some separate constructed thing apart from the natural world you were born into, he’s advocating for recovering a sense of wholeness, and of an experience of reality as necessary for (wait for it) experiencing reality rather than simply trying to describe sensations. We are creatures in the world, which means we draw our liveliness, our existence, and our “beingness” itself, from whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. …

The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.”

But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. … To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected. …

The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

To live in harmony with the universe means recognizing that we did not create ourselves, and that we as beings are tied to whatever provides the basis for the being of everything else.

McSorley’s and wholeness

Maria Popova writes on wholeness, and the ways in which our intentior life lives in harmony (or not) with our public identity:

Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others. (For instance, some of mine: woman, reader, immigrant, writer, queer, survivor of Communism.) Because no composite of fragments can contain, much less represent, all possible fragments, we end up drifting further and further from one another’s wholeness, abrading all sense of shared aspiration toward unbiased understanding. The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless. The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

O’Donohue offers a gentle corrective: “Each one of us is the custodian of an inner world that we carry around with us. Now, other people can glimpse it from [its outer expressions]. But no one but you knows what your inner world is actually like, and no one can force you to reveal it until you actually tell them about it. That’s the whole mystery of writing and language and expression — that when you do say it, what others hear and what you intend and know are often totally different kinds of things.” …

Today, we seem to serve not as custodians of our inner worlds but as their terrified and terrible wardens, policing our own interiority along with that of others for any deviation from the proscribed identity-political correctness. And yet identity is exclusionary by definition — we are what remains after everything we are not. Even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of an immutable personhood but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self — for, as Virginia Wolf memorably wrote, “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” To liberate ourselves from the trap of identity, O’Donohue implies, requires not merely an awareness of but an active surrender to the transience that inheres in all of life and engenders its very richness:

“One of the most amazing recognitions of the human mind is that time passes. Everything that we experience somehow passes into a past invisible place: when you think of yesterday and the things that were troubling you and worrying you, and the intentions that you had and the people that you met, and you know you experienced them all, but when you look for them now, they are nowhere — they have vanished… It seems to me that our times are very concerned with experience, and that nowadays to hold a belief, to have a value, must be woven through the loom of one’s own experience, and that experience is the touchstone of integrity, verification and authenticity. And yet the destiny of every experience is that it will disappear.”

To come to terms with this — with the impermanence and mutability of our thoughts, our feelings, our values, our very cells — is to grasp the absurdity of clinging to any strand of identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim the beauty of the multitudes we each contain, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder unblunted by identity-template and expectation.

I woke up in New York’s Financial District to the above in my inbox this morning, and thought it was an appropriate reflection on the topics of our interior life, wholeness, and the identity politics of our time, because I spent last night at McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village with Peter Atkinson:

McSorley’s is one of those places that stands outside of time, to a large degree—if you let it. It’s the sort of place where it’s still literally possible to almost meditate, if you want, in a public place. You’re surrounded by 163 years of history, real historical memory and the artifacts left behind by real people who stood in the same Ale House you’re standing in now. It’s custodians over the years have respected McSorley’s as they’ve inherited it, and not tried to make it more relevant, or to change it with changing times. What they’ve come into, they’ve passed along, unchanged in only the smallest and most necessary ways—no more live cats wandering the place, for instance, thanks to stricter New York health codes.

But McSorley’s seems to me to be an example of the sort of “wholeness” that Maria Popova writes on above, albeit in physical/place form rather than personal form. It is confidently what it is, and doesn’t explain itself or adjust itself to changing fashions for the sake of anyone’s affections. It has earned the love and returns of so many generations because it is authentic, meaning that it simply is what it is.

A place like McSorley’s might also just provide the context for a discovery of a renewed interior life, especially in the quiet mid-day hours of a Wednesday, for instance, when you can see the dust falling through the air with a burning stove fire nearby, and the warmth of generations seeming to envelope you in one of the few public places in the world that doesn’t seem to want anything from you, in particular, other than to sit and be for a while.

Windswept New York

After a delay out of Washington of roughly 90 minutes, my Amtrak train departed Union Station for New York around 11:30am, and got me into New York around 3pm. Scenes from today’s travel below, particularly the video that I shot, inspired by me musing about the possibility of the Hyperloop, and how strange this normal-seeming experience might be in a few decades or years:

Freezing in New York, and I only went outside to exit the 1 train at Rector Street for my hotel. Tomorrow is the Vita Institute’s New York seminar. Thinking of attending the full week Vita Institute at Notre Dame this summer.