• I’m on Amtrak heading to Richmond this morning for the March for Life Virginia. It’s early (so still darkish) and it’s overcast and raining.

    If your experience of the world is exclusively or primarily in our cities and along routes like the one I’m traveling this morning (whether by car or train), you’ll tend to think we’re destroying the world because of the way we’re developing it. The sights from my Amtrak window are not exactly ugly, but what’s built along railroad tracks doesn’t tend to be beautiful. The same goes for our highways.

    But we’re not destroying the world because we’re developing it. If we are destroying the world, it’s because we’re developing it in an ugly way—that is, we’re building things that degrade rather than elevate the natural landscape. And in turn that degrades our own experience of it and eventually our lived experience generally.

    This isn’t a new or controversial idea, but if you survey folks across the political spectrum I suspect you’d find we’ve forgotten the principle behind building beautiful things—that aesthetics aren’t just how something looks but speak to what something is. And if we’re committed to the idea that form and function don’t have a meaningful relationship, we’ll keep building things that act as a spiritual corrosive.

    There was the news recently that the White House might be considering an executive order instructing that future federal architecture be classical rather than brutalist, for instance. Why classical architecture matters isn’t simply because it’s “old,” but because its form and its age means it has been tested and that its form carries within it knowledge about what serves all of our needs as human beings—our need for beauty and symmetry and thoughtfulness as much as function.

    If you’re inclined to say that “it’s all relative,” or especially that “beauty is relative,” ask yourself why we seek and conserve those things produced by craftsman (art, homes, public buildings, statues, etc.) and treat the pre-fabricated as basically disposable. It’s because crafted and beautiful things are in harmony with the world as we feel it should be, and we recognize the value in living amidst beauty if we can afford to do so.

  • I signed up for Capitol Bikeshare a year ago today. It’s been a useful and generally fun way to get around Washington and Arlington over the past year. Here’s a snapshot of the past year’s ride history:


    Capitol Bikeshare’s annual membership rate is $85, and rides lasting fewer than 30 minutes are free for members. I’ve used it most often for coming home to Georgetown from Court House when our offices were there, or from Clarendon. And more recently for commuting to/from our new offices located down M Street, near Dupont Circle. Letting the bikes cruise down the hills of Arlington into Rosslyn has been especially great.

    It’s been cost effective, but I’m letting membership lapse in favor of walking, using a JUMP (electric) bike, or taking the bus to work.

    I’d recommend bike share to most people, unless you’re confronting serious inclines that will leave you a mess when arriving wherever you’re going. A major pain point was the docking process—first, needing to know where docks are to pick up or leave a bike, and second, having to pull up the app to see whether any bikes are available.

    The dockless (pick up/leave anywhere) nature of JUMP bikes is their plus, along with the fact they’re electric.

  • Epiphany’s Tabernacle

    I took this photo after Mass this morning at Epiphany in Georgetown. Ever since first coming here, I’ve been taken by the simplicity of this church and love it as a sign and symbol of the simplicity that characterizes holiness—the lack of ego, the lack of pretension, the humility. And one of the other things I love about Epiphany is the way the Tabernacle is illuminated by natural light through a small glass window.

    It wasn’t dark in the church when I took this, but I brought the light down specifically to emphasize how beautiful the natural light illuminating the Tabernacle is—especially on early mornings or dark days. There’s poetry in that: the place where Christ dwells in the light.

  • James Clear shared a great speech recently, delivered by John W. Gardner to McKinsey in 1990. John Gardner was the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson and a recipient of the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom:

    “Optimism is unfashionable today, particularly among intellectuals. Everyone makes fun of it. Someone said, “Pessimists got that way by financing optimists.” But I am not pessimistic and I advise you not to be.

    “…a tough-minded optimism is best. The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future. Men and women of vitality have always been prepared to bet their futures, even their lives, on ventures of unknown outcome. If they had all looked before they leaped, we would still be crouched in caves sketching animal pictures on the wall.

    “But I did say tough-minded optimism. High hopes that are dashed by the first failure are precisely what we don’t need. We have to believe in ourselves, but we mustn’t suppose that the path will be easy, it’s tough. Life is painful, and rain falls on the just, and Mr. Churchill was not being a pessimist when he said “I have nothing to offer, but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He had a great deal more to offer, but as a good leader he was saying it wasn’t going to be easy, and he was also saying something that all great leaders say constantly — that failure is simply a reason to strengthen resolve.”

  • I lived for this kind of weather as a kid—those cracks of thunder that made it feel like the sky was opening up, and the rain to cool down a humid afternoon. The later the summer gets, the louder the insects get and it seems like the more dramatic thunderstorms like these get.

    Enjoying this thunderstorm from my front window.

  • Birdsong on Dumbarton Street

    I was on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown, early one morning a few weeks ago, and heard the birds singing. Georgetown is a neighborhood that feels absolutely covered by trees, and so it’s like a refuse amidst the wider city (or at least compared to the downtown) where birds can rest and sing:

    When is the last time you’ve made the time to hear the birds?

  • Hans Boersma writes on Lent and the relationship between memory and repentance:

    Memorization is underrated. But it’s understandable that contemporary society puts it down: Why worry about mental storage when we have digital storage?

    One answer is that repentance depends on memory. Thus, memorization is a Lenten practice, a repentant turning back to the memory of God. The link between memory and character formation was recognized long ago. Cicero insisted in the first century b.c. that we can only make prudent moral choices by consciously drawing on past experiences. He linked memory to prudence as one of its three constitutive elements. Memory, he explains, is the faculty that “recalls what has happened.” It deals with the past. Along with intelligence and foresight, memory allows us to make prudent decisions.

    Thomas Aquinas also recognized the close link between memory and prudence. In the Summa Theologiae he deals with the topic of memory as part of a broader discussion of prudence. Aquinas thought of memory as an intellectual virtue that allows us to make practical moral decisions. “Experience,” he explains, “is the result of many memories…and therefore prudence requires the memory of many things.” …

    Ordered thoughts make for ordered lives.

    We may be tempted to think that digitization makes memorization redundant. The truth is, rather, that digitization yields distraction. I can select whatever I want from online storage at any time. The possibilities are endless, and so the order, steadiness, and peacefulness to which Hugh alludes consistently escape us. …

    Memorization is a Lenten practice, reshaping our memories to be like God’s. When our memories are reshaped and reordered according to the immutable faithfulness of God in Christ, we re-appropriate God’s character—his steadfast love, his mercy, his compassion. Repentance, therefore, is a turning back to the virtues of God as we see them in Christ.  Being united to him, we are united to the very character of God, for it is in the God-man that God’s virtue and human virtue meet. The hypostatic union is the locus of our repentance: In Christ human memory is re-figured to the memory of God.

    Because the internet is a messaging system, not a library, it is also in some sense a tool for forgetting, in the sense that the ephemeral is the inverse of the perpetual.

  • Elise Italiano Ureneck writes on her experience moving to Boston, and neighborhood life:

    There is no shortage of weighty issues that need to be tackled — human trafficking, drug addiction, sexual abuse and corruption for starters. I often find myself feeling paralyzed by the depth and breadth of the burdens that people bear, of which I am made aware every time I reach for my phone.

    My new reality—traveling on foot—has made me consider the merits of scaling back the scope of my responsibility, perceived or expected as it may be.

    Excluding my newsfeeds, my world has gotten a lot smaller in radius. It extends only as far as I can walk in a day or as far as the subway can take me. And that reality has created opportunities for encounters with people in the flesh, whose burdens I can alleviate and whose joys I can share.

    My regular route to the grocery store now puts me in touch with elderly pedestrians, many of whom need a hand carrying items or help crossing the street. I can’t fix the loneliness epidemic of an entire aging population, but I can walk with someone for half a mile to his bus stop.

    And while I cannot rectify a complex and comprehensive epidemic of homelessness, my husband and I can stop every week after Mass and give a cup of coffee to Pat, a homeless man who hangs out at our T stop and likes to take jabs at my sports allegiances.

    This is a good follow-on from yesterday’s piece on social and cultural trust. Ureneck provides an example of what greater personal concern looks like in practice, of the sort that can knit communities back together and provide the sort of trust and resiliency that makes a place great.

  • Lenore Skenazy writes on “American overparenting,” but I think what is hit upon more fundamentally here is America’s lack of social and cultural trust:

    “My daughter always says, ‘Oh, I wish we could have more playdates like in Brazil!’” says Claudia Jorge, whose family of four recently relocated to Havertown, Pennsylvania. “Here we have to schedule them; there she just goes and knocks on the neighbor’s door.”

    Tully, the 11-year-old, makes a similar observation about American playdates. “In New Jersey, the parents were watching us all the time. It was kind of weird.”

    Jenny Engleka raised her daughter in Mexico, Panama, and Germany before moving back to New Jersey a few years ago when the girl was 12. In Hamburg, she recalls, “kids are traveling all the time by themselves” starting at age 6 or 7. But here, children’s activities are far more likely to be both structured and supervised. “Your weekends are filled up with soccer games. Even for kids that are mediocre players, they’re still quite involved.”

    And once they’re in a league, there isn’t much wiggle room. You come, you play, mom drives you home. In Germany, says Molly, the 13-year-old, if someone wants to stay and keep playing lacrosse after practice has ended, she just does. “My sister’s gotten a lot better at lacrosse since she’s been able to go on her own time without bugging my parents about it.”

    If the coach is still around, sometimes she—or he!—will take the kid home.

    Trust is still normal in most of the world. And something about that trust allows kids to expand. Abby Morton, who raised her kids in Thailand for two years while she and her husband worked there as teachers, still remembers the recycling project one of her sixth-grade students brought in. He’d taken some scrap metal and fashioned it into a working crossbow. “It could shoot a spear!” says Morton, now back in Boston. So she took the class outside and let them try it.

    But in the home of the brave, a kid can’t hold a pencil on the school bus.

    It’s obvious enough that physical security, surveillance, and locks are inversely related to trust. Strangely, those things are also sometimes inversely related to actual safety, in situations wherein there is lots of security, but those security measures are also frequently compromised or violated.

    I don’t think Americans realize how misled we are in our media and entertainment culture into thinking that our nation is vastly more dangerous on a day-to-day basis than it really is. We seek an illusory sense of safety and peace, but risk further corroding the fundamental social and cultural trust that’s necessary to sustain authentic peace.

    If you want peace, be peaceful. If you want trust, then trust.

  • Simplifying the Christmas season

    Leo Babauta writes on simplifying the Christmas season:

    What would happen if we decided to become radicals, and simplified the holidays? What would happen if we bucked the consumerist traditions, and got down to the essentials?

    For some, the essentials are religious — the spirit of this season has nothing to do with shopping or all the crazy trappings of the holidays. For others, myself included, the essentials are spending time with loved ones. That’s all that matters…

    Make a list of the traditions you love, and that you don’t love. We can let go of some holiday traditions, but we don’t have to toss out everything. What traditions do you love? Playing holiday songs, caroling, hanging stockings, making pie, decorating a Christmas tree (some of my favorites)? Maybe you really don’t like the turkey or wrapping presents, shopping, egg nog, wasting food, lying about the existence of Santa, or getting drunk (those are ones I don’t like btw). Make two lists — traditions you love, and ones you don’t. …

    Let’s let go of the myth that you have to spend to give. Giving is a beautiful thing. Here are some ways to give without getting into debt.

    • Gift your family with some small experiences, such as caroling, baking, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, playing football outside.
    • Volunteer as a family at a homeless shelter.
    • Ask people to donate to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts.
    • Make meaningful gifts. A video of memories. A scrapbook.
    • Do a gift swap where you put a valued possession (that you already own) into the swap.
    • Bake gifts.
    • Have an experience instead of giving material goods: do something fun together, go to the beach or a lake.
    • Find hope. Christmas has so much potential to be about so much more than buying — it can be a season of hope, renewal, loved ones, inspiration, contemplation. Talk to your family about this — how can we find ways to be hopeful, thankful, cooperative? How can we be more present instead of worried about getting presents? …

    I find this sort of advice and guidance to be helpful every Christmas season. It’s too easy to fall into the traps of obtaining more in our culture, and it’s too easy to forget those around us in the rush of daily life.