I was in Old Town, Alexandria the other night. I’ve only been there a handful of times, but like so many other old towns in towns and cities across the country, it lives up to its name as a place where an older America knew how to build homes and businesses and streets and sidewalks and roads in a way where each element complements the other and where walking and living and shopping and eating and simply experiencing the place is enjoyable. There’s a feeling of wholeness in the best Old Towns that you want to bring with you. I ask both rhetorically and earnestly: why can’t we learn how to build these places now? We can built new Old Towns.
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.
A few scenes from a walk through my neighborhood in Georgetown last Sunday. Cafe Georgetown is a great little spot on N Street that I plan to return to many times. Dumbarton United Methodist Church is a fixture of Dumbarton Street, along with Dumbarton House, which I have yet to visit.
Here’s a bit on Dumbarton United Methodist Church:
Dumbarton United Methodist Church, has been a part of Georgetown continuously since 1772, meeting first in a cooper’s shop, then on Montgomery Street (now 28th Street), and finally at the present site on Dumbarton Avenue in 1850. When the church was remodeled in 1897, the present Romanesque front was added. The stained glass windows were installed from 1898 to 1900. Inaugurated before the official creation of the Methodist Church, Dumbarton UMC is one of the oldest continuing Methodist congregations in the world.
The lights hanging in the trees are in a little park in Crystal City, and the glowing facades are a portrait of M Street at night. We could build every neighborhood and community in America with this sort of interest in neighborliness, community spirit, and beauty.
Earlier this month a friend from Philadelphia visited town. Late one night he had the idea to hop on JUMP bikes and take in the National Mall and surrounding landmarks. He had seen the monuments before, but he hadn’t experienced an electric bike—so combining the two experiences seemed as good a way as any to make his first electric bike experience a particularly memorable one. It was a cold ride, but a beautiful one. We had almost every scene to ourselves:
A few European visitors were leaving the Jefferson Memorial as we arrived and set our bikes down for a bit.
It snowed in Washington on Thursday, unusually early for mid-November when we’re still hypothetically enjoying autumn. I worked from my apartment that morning, as the roads had something like a quarter inch of accumulation and slush on them. It was good to look out my window and see snow on the pavement. Here’s a scene from N and Wisconsin I shot as I waited for an Uber:
And scenes from along Wisconsin from around noon that day, along with a night scene as I made my way home after attending Leah Libresco’s Catholic Information Center talk.
I flew into BWI airport recently, and found myself early in the morning waiting at the nearby BWI Amtrak Station to catch a train back into Washington. On the southbound side of the tracks there is this beautiful patch of forest:
I can’t tell whether “Stony Run” on the map refers to this patch of forest, or specifically to the little creek flowing through it. It was a gift to be able to do a work call, review emails, etc. in this place.
As I was leaving Arlington this evening I decided, despite the wet and slushy weather, to Uber to K Street for Leah Libresco’s talk on her book, “Building the Benedict Option,” at the Catholic Information Center.
I remember when she shared that she was writing this as a sort of practical manual for implementing Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option”, and so it was great to see the book in print last night.
Libresco lives with her husband in New York, and spoke about that experience as an entree to her book. How does a Christian cultivate and be a part of good community in a place like that? How do we do it anywhere? In a time when our devices only sometimes genuinely connect us, how do we really connect? Working together, eating together, praying together, in the simple presence of others—that’s a way to start living a better way. Asking “What do I do alone that I could do with other people?” is a way to start that Libresco spoke about. Another is, “What do I do privately that I could do publicly?”
Building the Benedict Option is a combination spiritual memoir and practical handbook for Christians who want to build communities of prayer, socialization, and evangelization in the places where they live and work.
Beginning when the author was a new convert, she desired more communal prayer and fellowship than weekly Mass could provide. She surveyed her friends–busy, young, urban professionals like herself–and created enriching or supportive experiences that matched their desires and schedules. The result was a less lonely and more boisterous spiritual and social life.
No Catholic Martha Stewart, Libresco is frank about how she plans events that allow her to feed thirty people on a Friday night without feeling exhausted. She is honest about the obstacles to prayer and the challenge to make it inviting and unobtrusive. Above all, she communicates the joy she has experienced since discovering ways to open her home (even when it was only a small studio apartment).
The reader will close this book with four or five ideas for events to try over the next few weeks, along with the tools to make them fruitful. From film nights to picnics in the park to resume-writing evenings, there are plenty of ideas to choose from and loads of encouragement to make more room in one’s life for others.
“There are so many more people in the world,” Libresco said at one point, “that we’re called to love that we could be encountering.”38.9025968-77.0352538
I took the photo here on Dumbarton Street on the walk home recently, and it ties in with John Cuddeback’s reflection on autumn and the falling of leaves:
That the trees do not wait is perhaps a gentle reminder of many other things that will not wait, that call for our attending to each day.
The natural world speaks to us in so many voices. It speaks most powerfully, perhaps, when we recognize something of ourselves in it. Belloc writes of autumn as tending to unsettle us. The falling of leaves can cut a little close to the bone.
“Whatever permanent, uneasy question is native to men, comes forward most insistent and most loud at such times.”
It’s not that we have to go out in the woods and explicitly answer that permanent, uneasy question. It might be enough for us just to look up, and to listen. And to feel a little more our place in reality.
For every tree there will come a year in which its leaves will fall, never to be replaced. If the falling of leaves is poignant it is at root because human life is poignant; and a gift; something to be treasured and savored each day.
Whether we go for a walk alone, or alone with someone we love, something of who we are is waiting for us under the trees. Today.
Often after work in Arlington, I’ll get one of the nearby Capital Bikeshare bikes and ride across the Key Bridge to Georgetown. Recently I’ve been riding across the bridge near sunset, and a number of times I’ve been coming across just as what I presume are Georgetown rowers are rapidly making their way along the Potomac.
I stopped briefly on the bridge the other day to take this photo. On the left is a little speed boat with a coach and a bullhorn, and you can hear him hollering encouragement as they all speed along the waters.
That’s it. Just a nice routine I’ve found myself in, for however long it lasts.
I’m catching up on reading and writing today, and sharing these scenes from various points over the past week in Georgetown.
I’ll be at Notre Dame on Halloween, so I’ve been making it a point to enjoy the decorations in the neighborhood.
As the seasons change again, we’re reminded that we’re all getting older together. What are we doing with the time we have?