Author Archives: jparquette

About jparquette

Fortunate and blessed in companionship with my wife of fifty years, in health and in modest, but more than adequate circumstances. Life is good.

Perfect Storm

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Abraham Lincoln, 1862 Address to Congress

Shipwreck_in_Stormy_Seas_by_Joseph_Vernet,_National_Gallery,_London Public DomainIn 1997 Sebastian Junger published his first major book.[i] In “The Perfect Storm” Junger described the final voyage of the Andrea Gail, a six-man crewed commercial fishing vessel out of Gloucester, MA[ii] in 1991. The ‘perfect storm’ was hatched by the combining forces of a classic North Atlantic Nor’easter and Hurricane Grace, a late season brute coming up out of the Caribbean.  “A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on Earth,” wrote Junger, “The combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don’t contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day.” There were 60 mile per hour winds, but they generated 75-foot waves that overwhelmed the ship.

Today we face a similar perfect storm, but our victory over it will not be as simple as finding a safe harbor or running from it to an open sea. Our enemy is not wind and waves, but a revolution that has been building for three hundred years and broke full force upon us in the sixties. The classic Nor’easter in this analogy is good old-fashioned concupiscence, hedonism, and the hopeless quest for happiness through means insufficient to sustain it. The hurricane that accelerated the perfect storm into frenzy is the post-modern madness of self-fulfillment and the illusion that we can be anyone or anything we please.

One devastating manifestation of the perfect storm has been called by many, the “Sexual Revolution,” and it was to have freed us from the traditional chains of marriage and responsibility. More accurately I believe, it has been named the “Lonely Revolution’ because of the desolation visited on our culture, our morality, and most damaging on our marriages and families.

“Even in a world that’s being shipwrecked, remain brave and strong.” St. Hildegard of Bingen

The human costs of the Lonely Revolution are well documented (See links in the box below). What we also must attend to is the underlying creed that fuels it. The late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote that naming our times “post-modern” was neither illustrative nor particularly useful. He coined a better term in his book, “Liquid Modernity.”[iii] Too many find themselves adrift in isolated individual survival pods, essentially disconnected, fatherless both in family and metaphorically.  We struggle with “the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.” He wrote further, “Forms of modern life may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability, and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying underdefined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’”[iv].

Thus, we drift untethered, unmoored, alone. No disconnection is more unsettling than the hook up culture of the Lonely Revolution, which separates men and women in an essential way. No longer is the profound union of sex defined by marriage, commitment, love, mutual total gift of self, and respect. It is one-night stands of sweaty sheets and furtive morning after departures. Of obsessive seeking of meaning in pleasure and bogus intimacy, but with no real path to contentment or fulfillment.

Neither war nor pestilence has undermined our civilization more effectively than the dishonest dogma that sex and marriage and children are not connected, and that we must make sure that disconnection is implemented such that the intrinsic male and female human bond stays broken.[v]

“Character is formed in the stormy billows of the world.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[vi]

This a passage with a quote posted by a friend last week on just one aspect of this dreadful storm.

“So, prolife feminism, in a nutshell, states that for most of history women were treated as property. Obviously, this is patriarchy. And patriarchy, among other things, is the epitome of “might makes right” thinking.

“It says, “Because I am bigger, stronger, and have more power and wealth than you, I can treat you however I choose. I can control you, abuse you, and even use violence against you if I want!”

“Through our liberation as women, we are no longer thought of as property (in most of America at least) but many feminists have adopted that very same patriarchal way thinking, which I guess makes sense as we’ve been seeped in for ages. Anyway, now they are applying this “might makes right” mentality to their very own children in the womb without even realizing it.

“WE are the bigger, stronger, more powerful ones, and rather than using our strength and privilege to protect the vulnerable, we’re merely passing that same patriarchal flavor of dehumanizing oppression down to the unborn by denying their agency, and humanity.

“And here’s the kicker – that old shitty patriarchy still wins anyway! Because by promoting abortion as the ultimate “choice” (even though for so many women it’s anything but a choice, but I digress) our capitalist hellscape of unrelenting production doesn’t have to slow down one bit. It can keep chugging along with all of us happy little cogs in the machine going without things like paid family leave, universal healthcare, accommodations on college campuses for pregnant and parenting students, or ya know, other things like Amazon workers who need to be relocated to a desk job for 9 months… yeah, no, none of that, gross. Progress that says female fertility isn’t a liability? Boooo.

“Abortion on demand keeps the status quo neatly in place and reminds us little ladies that in order to operate outside of the home, we must physically take on the male normative form which is never with child.

“Abortion is simply the flesh tax we must pay – sacrificing the lives of our own children – for entry into YOUR world.

“And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.””

-Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa

Abortion as liberation or what is peddled as bodily autonomy as a defense of it are perfect propagandizing to enable male carelessness. The woman is not liberated; it is the man who is licensed to engage in the baby making act without obligation or respect or dignity or self-emptying gift to one another or commitment to the profound responsibility of child raising or love.

And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.”

Headline grabbing corporations which purport to “value” the bodily autonomy and freedom of their female employees now offer pay for abortions and transportation to states that allow abortions. Vanity Fair, MSNBC, and all the usual suspects heap praise on their generosity. Such phony philanthropy panders to the lies into which women have been sentenced by the sexual revolution culture. Pervasive indoctrination reinforces the deadly message that killing their children is freedom for women.

The primary motivation for corporations is blatantly obvious:  to enhance the bottom line. Please, we are not fools. A full-term birth, even without complications risk, parental leave, and an additional insured in the family plan health insurance is ten or twenty-fold times more expensive than an abortion even including transportation, room, and board. Especially so in large corporations that self-insure, but even in smaller companies, health insurance premiums are renegotiated every year based on experience and costs.  And that doesn’t begin to consider lost productivity, retraining replacements, and later time off for childcare. High fives all around in the Human Resource Department: big woke culture points and a big win in the board room.

Let’s not be naive: there is no altruism in paying for a plane ticket to obliterate a life.[vii]

And then we are told to call that bullshit “equality.”

Another recent post from another friend:  The terms “fetus” and “zygote” are no different than “toddler” or “teenager;” they refer to stages of human development. Toddlers possess the same dignity as teenagers just as fetuses and zygotes possess the same dignity as any other human.[viii] Hence, every human life begins in the same way, and absent violence or disease proceeds apace through all his or her stages from conception to natural death.  The science of embryology is clear and consistent.

JPII Quote copyright CatholicVoteProponents dearly love to frame the conversation in superficially clever emotional terms (“Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” Or “Our bodies, Ourselves.”) or some version of freedom necessary for women to succeed or marginalizing the pro-life position as religious ‘extremism.’ They decline the opportunity to conduct a reasoned moral argument. The syllogism looks like this: A.) It is always morally repugnant, and no justification exists to deliberately attack and destroy innocent human life. B.) A fetus is just another word for small developing human being. Therefore, C.) Deliberate killing of a human fetus is morally repugnant. No religion is required for the propositions or the conclusion. Some prominent atheists are pro-life advocates with arguments based on logic, science, and the existence of objective truth that is knowable.[ix]

I look forward to the defenses which will surely come. Challenge the propositions or the logic as you may. Will they be coming as science deniers – not really a human being? Or will they be submitting a moral proposal that the large and powerful have a ‘right’ to take the life of the small and defenseless when their developing lives are judged sufficiently inconvenient? I will fight that battle until I can no longer stand.

The fairy tale with a happy ending is that an ‘unplanned’ and problematic child is a malignancy, a robbery, a weakening of equality, and that this burgeoning, undefined life ought to be expendable. But grotesquely underlying this narrative like an ogre under the bridge is a terrible truth.

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Illustration 1: “Shipwreck in Stormy Seas,” by Joseph Vernet, National Gallery, London, Public Domain

Illustration 2: From CatholicVote

[i] http://www.sebastianjunger.com/the-perfect-storm He has sincIe published many great books I have read, which you can find at the link as well. His mother hired Albert DeSalvo to do some handyman work in her house in Belmont when Junger was a child, a narrative of which Mr. Junger included in his book “A Death in Belmont” about DeSalvo, the ‘Boston Strangler.’ More recently he produced a marvelous documentary based on his book, “War,” and his time as an embedded journalist with a platoon during their 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.  Much good reading here if you haven’t enjoyed the skill and imagery of Mr. Junger’s work.

[ii] An acclaimed movie followed, which helped bring Mark Wahlberg to star status as the captain of the Andrea Gail.

[iii] Many thanks to Genevieve Kineke who introduced me to Bauman and “Liquid Modernity” in her superb talk on the irreplaceable role of motherhood in all its wonderful manifestations in the family and spiritually. If you can find her speaking and especially if she is giving her presentation on “How Elastic is Motherhood,” get to it.

[iv] From “Liquid Modernity,” Zygmunt Bauman, 2000, Polity Press, in association with Blackwell Publishers, LTD, Cambridge, UK

[v] See links below in a separate box in essays and charts that speak eloquently about these effects and illusions.

[vi] In Goethe’s 1790 play Torquato Tasso the character Leonora speaks (act 1, scene 2) the lines “Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille / Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt”  From Stack Exchange: https://literature.stackexchange.com/

[vii] Why Big Business Loves Abortion

[viii] Every embryological text states something similar to this from Princeton.edu: Life Begins at Fertilization with the Embryo’s Conception. “Development of the embryo begins at Stage 1 when a sperm fertilizes an oocyte and together they form a zygote.” “Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception).”

[ix] Secular humanist/atheist video for life.

Links to accompany ‘Perfect Storm’ post

The Zealous Faith of Secularism (How the Sexual Revolution became a dogma), First Things, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution Part I   The Catholic Thing, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

Five Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution Part II   The Catholic Thing, Dr. Mary Eberstadt

The Growing Feminist Rejection of the Sexual Revolution, Crisis Magazine, Austin Ruse

Dr. Anthony Esolen Podcast about his book “Sex and the Unreal City” and why the Sexual Revolution has produced so many lonely people.  Presented at Magdalen College  The Loneliness Revolution

Millennials and the Loneliness Epidemic  Forbes

Inside the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis NY Times

The American Family Today Pew Research

The Loneliness Pandemic Harvard Magazine

Bitter Pill – Economics, First Things, Timothy Reichert

The Long-Term Struggle for Hearts and Minds, The Catholic Thing, David Carlin

Great collection of Public Discourse essays about a post Dobbs decision America and common myths about abortion.

Some samples:

Marco Rubio is Right: The Life of a New Human Being Begins at Conception, BY PATRICK LEE, CHRISTOPHER O. TOLLEFSEN AND ROBERT P. GEORGE

Forty Years Later: It’s Time for a New Feminism, BY ELISE ITALIANO

The Lazy Slander of the Pro-Life Cause (Answers the slander that pro-life advocates only care for the baby before it is born), BY HELEN ALVARÉ, GREG PFUNDSTEIN, MATTHEW SCHMITZ, AND RYAN T. ANDERSON

Why the Arguments about “Bodily Autonomy” and “Forced Birth” Fail to Justify Abortion, BY RYAN T. ANDERSON AND ALEXANDRA DESANCTIS

Many more thoughtful and well written essays on various related topics regarding common myths and what a post Roe country will look like.

Index of all essays on the topic from Public Discourse

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Swordfight On the Lake Redux

For a second week I’ll repost a very slightly edited ten-year-old edition of this blog. After many thousands of visits, many of the readers today were not around when it started. This is one of the early Maine Tales, a time which redefined our lives if you care to look back at that topic.

Once again, this week, the prompting for this choice was that my friend Rick, who has since passed away and was an early reader, commented on the post. If you want to get to know him, last week’s post introduces him and included a link to his work.  Here is a link to the original post, so you can read his comment if you’d like to. I always get hit emotionally when I read them: https://quovadisblog.net/2012/05/06/maine-tales-iii-swordfight-on-the-lake/

Pam Jones, who played an irreplaceable role in our lives, makes a brief appearance in this post. She has since joined Rick, and we will miss her as well. Our last few visits with her were in a nursing home north of Portland where we reminisced and laughed a lot.

I had a good friend from those days tell me once that we were not respecting the good men of the Mount Vernon Fire Department in this post. If that is how it comes across, I apologize, but I’ll let it stand as it was. They gave of themselves, their time, and put their lives at risk for no pay to be there for the rest of us. That they were underfunded, lacked all the equipment of a city, and could only train on their own time off, usually on weekends, was a function of living in a town of 600 souls, men, women, and children. They made the most of what they had and always showed up to help others deal with their tragedy. The good folks of Mount Vernon, Maine were among the finest I ever encountered. Or ever expect to.

They changed us in ways we could never have anticipated.

***********************************************************

Swordfight on the Lake Redux  

HouseFire_2The red pumper bounced onto the driveway of the large ante bellum colonial with siren blaring.  The house had once served as an inn, and currently was occupied by a half dozen mostly benign refugees from other late sixties communes.  The flames fully engaged the structure and were seen through the windows.  Everyone got out.

The source of the fire was a fifty-gallon drum woodstove laid on its side with a fire door kit cut in one end and a stove pipe emerging from the top, not an unusual heating system for rural Maine that can be assembled from a kit for under $100.  If it was a typical set up, sand would cover the bottom to keep the coals from burning through.  Overheated, it could glow cherry red.  Something had gone amiss.Oil Drum Woodstove from kit

A small fleet of private pickup trucks driven by the rest of the fire department followed the pumper.  The chief’s truck had a prominent flashing light bar on the roof.  A 3” hose with a nozzle was quickly deployed, but the tank rapidly depleted and the stream of water dwindled to a dribble.  An intake hose was unfurled, and several fire fighters started rolling it out towards a source of supplementary water, coupling on more hoses as they went.  Back at the truck end, the chief, Dana, bent to hook up to the intake valve and discovered the others were approaching the lake 500 yards away with the wrong end of the hose.  By the time things were reversed, the fire broke through the roof, which fell into the basement a half hour later.  These men were dedicated and courageous; they had saved lives, but all were volunteers, and practiced as they could.  Practice was customarily followed by much truck polishing, hose rolling and beer drinking at the station. Occasionally, they got to burn down a condemned barn to work on their skills. Common wisdom was to get out of the house, and then call your insurance agent and the fire department from a neighbor’s house – in that order. Town residents were fond of saying that the Mount Vernon Fire Department had never lost a foundation.

Official authority and municipal services in a small rural town are a unique experience.  In Mount Vernon circa 1976, there was no police department.  A local constable appointed by the court would serve subpoenas and divorce papers.  The nearest law enforcement was a Maine State Police trooper, who lived 15 miles away in the next town, Readfield.  Once when Rita was involved in a car accident, he came to our house the next evening dressed in jeans to help us fill out the paperwork.  Things were casual.  Only the game warden had true authority.  He was known to shoot a dog if they packed up with others and ran deer.  No appeal, no live trap, no deliberation whether it was a mutt or a Golden Retriever with papers: justice was swift, administered uniformly and accurate.

The only time I remember talk about engaging the police was on the Fourth of July during the bicentennial celebration in 1976.  Other than a few bottle rockets and cherry bombs from New Hampshire, there were no fireworks.  Jeff, a young twenty something native Mount Vernonite, took to drinking beer with a truck full of buddies and dragging an old car hood behind his pickup up and down the roads.  The hood presented an impressive display of sparks and plenty of noise, augmented by custom horns that sounded like a submarine klaxon dive alarm, mounted on the cab roof.  After three hours or so into the wee hours, some of the more sedate residents had had enough.  No one called the cops though; one of the dairy farmers who had to get up in the morning told Jeff he would shoot the engine block of the pickup.  We weren’t sure if he had the firepower or the marksmanship, but neither was Jeff, so he pulled the truck into the fire station and drank some more beer.

Bowie Knife A “domestic disturbance” was treated like this: no police involvement because they were too far away to help.  Bia, a recent resident, had moved into an apartment next to a small store front downtown, where she opened up a sheet metal artisan shop, welding and cutting small decorative pieces sold at craft fairs.  Her boyfriend was an odd, slender, bearded, pony tailed archetype prone to buckskin jackets, cowboy hats, silver buckles and a 14” Bowie knife carried in a sheath on his belt.  Bia’s daughter was my daughter’s age, and they became friends during the few months since Bia arrived in town.  In January, our phone rang about eleven one weeknight, long after our bedtime.  She called because we were one of the few she had gotten to know.  The boyfriend, whose name fades, let’s call him Jim, was drinking, smoking dope and hitting her.  Could I come down to help?  Sure, I agreed, groggily.

 As a twenty-nine-year-old, fit, tree climber, I had an exaggerated confidence in my own invulnerability; I grabbed a three-foot hickory handle half whittled down to fix my splitting axe and jumped on my trustyHickory axe handle steed, well actually, an F150.  What could be better for a chainsaw guy than getting to play knight errant?  On the way to her place, I practiced some tough threat lines involving emergency rooms, reconstructive dentistry and eating through a straw, all of which turned out quickly to be completely inadequate to the situation.  The denouement was less than noteworthy.  Jim had fled out the back door on the snow over the ice of Lake Minnehonk.  I followed his tracks into the dark, axe handle in hand, and found him seventy yards out on the ice in a tee shirt disconsolately sitting and shivering in the snow, his knife still in its sheath.  I asked him if he had a place to go.  He said he did, in Waterville.  I told him that’s where he would be staying.  He started to cry.  Bia packed a duffle bag into his dented Saab with Boulder County Colorado plates, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him.  I went home to bed; Rita was glad to see me.

Thirty years later, we were visiting an old friend, Pam Jones, who still lived near Lou’s store, which was now not Lou’s store.  Bia had long since moved out, but we learned for the first time that a local legend had grown around the “Swordfight On The Lake” with much dramatic license taken. Pam laughed huskily in her smoker’s voice telling us about it.  Entertainment and storytelling are at a premium in a small town.

I hate small towns because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do.
Lenny Bruce. (Mr. Bruce obviously never actually lived in a small town. There’s a lot to do.)

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Lumpenproletariat Revisited

“There is nothing on this earth that is more to be prized than true friendship.” St. Thomas Aquinas

For over ten years, what started as a set of personal reflections shared with family and friends has been viewed tens of thousands of times, an outcome for which I am surprised and grateful to all of you who have engaged in the conversation. I’ve enjoyed many discussions via email or comments, way more than I ever expected from this.

Quite a few current readers have subscribed in the last couple of years. I thought it might be interesting to repost a couple of early ones for folks who are new to the blog. This is the first of them.

When I was reviewing some old posts, I came across a comment that caught me emotionally from a good friend, Rick Champagne, who passed away a few years ago. Rick was a talented illustrator and artist. He owned a small business that specialized in customizing vehicles with terrific artwork. While serving in the Marines in Vietnam, he was exposed as many others were to the defoliant called “Agent Orange,” which eventually caused the cancer that he fought valiantly for years. He was part of our informal Saturday morning breakfast clan that met at a favorite haunt for at least ten years and shared our lives together.

What he started as a pinstriping specialty in his autobody shop grew into a sought-after customizing business, especially for motorcycles. Here is an old link that still works. Some of his creations, all hand painted are included on his Facebook page as well as some original fine art landscapes and portraits. It remains up after almost three years, so I hope it works for you to get to know Rick a bit. https://www.facebook.com/EagleEyePaint/

An innovator and terrific storyteller who loved tinkering, inventing gadgets, and gardening, Rick is missed by many, including me. RIP, our dear friend.

I am unable to repost without converting the old ones to drafts and then publishing again. That wipes out the comments, so I’m going to add a link to the original in case you were interested in his short comment. Link to original “Lumpenproletariat.” Rick enjoyed the blog, and we talked about some of the stories together.

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” Henry David Thoreau

I posted the original under the category of “Tree Stories” about my younger days as a climber. I’ve made some minor edits for clarity and corrected a couple of typos. Hope you are inspired to comment or send me an email with your own early work memories. This is almost entirely cut and pasted from the old one ten years ago.  If you find any errors in my memories, please let me know. My memory is a noted faulty instrument.

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tree climber

Making a Move

The scream of Wes’s customized Sachs 250 dirt bike came out of the foothills, and then kicked up a great cloud of dust on the long dirt driveway, signaling the beginning of our workday.  He was rarely late, but never early; his avocation was motocross racing, which he did professionally, but not lucratively.  His daily bread was earned, like the rest of us, cutting trees for EZ Tree Service in 1969 Colorado.  Our fenced in staging area on the plateau north of Boulder and just east of the beginning of the Rockies was where Ed Zemeckis stored and split his for-sale firewood. The lot provided parking for the various bucket trucks, chip trucks, log trucks, trailered large woodchippers, pickup trucks and stump grinders with which we plied our trade.

Ed was a self-taught genius mechanic who could fix, weld, or fabricate almost anything.  He weighed in at over two twenty and couldn’t get up a tree if a grizzly was chasing him, but he could run an organized and effective business.  My interview for a job was typical of skills-based hiring methods at the tail end of the post war boom.  I drove into the yard between his house and barn for our appointment, and as I walked toward the front door past an eight-yard dump truck, I heard a grunt, then a “put the pin in for me, will ya?”  Looking around, I saw a hefty set of legs protruding from under the truck.  Ed was bench pressing a drive shaft back up to the transmission and needed someone to jam in the bolt to secure it.  What he would have done had I been late was never made clear.  Perhaps he was waiting to show me how strong he was.

He slid out from under the truck and asked me if I had my rope and saddle with me.  Of course I did, and Ed gestured towards a large cottonwood in his side yard.  I threw the rope into it with one cast; foot locked up to a low branch and scrambled to the top, tying in when I got there.  “Can you start Monday?”  “Sure.”  His Prairie Home Companion pleasant, pretty, fiftyish wife brought out some lemonade, and I had a job.  Both of us knew that should Monday prove that I was adequate at a climbing interview, but fell short in cutting or pruning skills, there wouldn’t be a Tuesday.

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”  Henry David Thoreau

Two of the crew worked in the lot full time cutting and splitting the hardwood we brought back with Ed’s homemade, vertical log splitter, which was powered by a barely mufflered Ford industrial strength engine and his own concoction of foot pedal and hydraulics.  The terrifying monster functioned as a guillotine for logs, could easily blow apart 18” oak and would have horrified any hapless OSHA inspector who stopped by – not that one ever did.  Load the log between the channel iron guides, step back, step on the foot pedal, and the blade would slash downward with the inexorable slam of a pile driver.  No safety lock-out (not even shutting off the motor, because the hydraulics held enormous pent- up force), no cage, no emergency shut off – just drop in the wood and get the hell out of the way.  The rest of us mounted up in whatever configuration of equipment the assigned work required, and off we went.  The good old days.

The climbers were Wes, who had a degree in History, Ted, the lead foreman with the handlebar mustache and quintessential Westerner, Hatch, originally from Boston, who we later discovered stole high performance cars as a side business, Bob, a multi degreed (Math and Physics) Rocky Mountain Rescue Group mountaineer, and I, newly hired. Ron, who supplemented his income as a part time marijuana dealer, and Stan from Chicago, a former Oakland Branch Hell’s Angel, were the bucket truck operators.  The rest of the crew worked on the ground, running lowering lines, chain sawing up fallen trees, chipping, dragging, loading, and raking up chips in the yards of our customers.

Young and fit men all, but the alchemy of the late sixties, especially in a place like Boulder, melded a disparate cast of characters into a crew, a team, who worked, played, and took considered risks together.  Men of quite different backgrounds and education, but mutually respectful and sharing a common, fundamentally American, understanding of how the world worked.  Some of us challenged that understanding, but we all had no doubt that it was how things were.

tree-cutting-blocking-down-climber-in-tree

Take Down

We were brought up to share the principles and promise of capitalism:  success and opportunity if we “worked hard and played by the rules.”  The differences among us regarding the “playing by the rules” part were legion, but everyone fully integrated, indeed never thought to question, that every day we got up and worked hard at rough physical labor.  We all simply expected it of ourselves as a given.

Karl Marx postulated in The Communist Manifesto that there were only two classes, the ownership and the workers – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppressed and oppressors, and the violent resolution of that “exploitation” would create a utopia.  As it turns out, Marx soon compromised his premise by parsing his dichotomy into many subsets.  The lowest of the low was the lumpenproletariat, that “dangerous class”, and there were elements of that outlaw self-perception among the well-educated, countercultural, and possibly underemployed tree guys.  Set apart – sweaty, dirty, brawny, laughing, profane and derisive of those outsiders who were condescending towards those of us who did for a living what most of them would never attempt.

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.Ralph Waldo Emerson

With the foolish vanity of youth, I saw our motley band as made up of the kind of guys recruited by Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles: “rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperadoes, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, half-wits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists.”  And proud of it.

After an additional forty more years, I now recognize the naïveté, narcissism, and vainglory of such posturing, but at the time, invulnerable young men held it dear.

I have stories to relate – both about the work and the men who did it.  We can go down that road together, if you like, in future posts.

“If boyhood and youth are but vanity, must it not be our ambition to become men?”  Vincent Van Gogh

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Summer’s End

“April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” Sonnet 98, William Shakespeare

Weaver Cove Sunset 3Back in April, the sun rose earlier each day on the eastern horizon and set later and farther to the north on the western horizon until the summer solstice sprinted by on June 21st. The daylight prior to the solstice persists a few minutes longer each day in felicitous, tiny, precious increments. Early mornings are more welcoming, and evening sunsets linger. Here on our little island, the sun rises over the Sakonnet River or the Atlantic out on Sachuest Beach and sets over Narragansett Bay.

We sometimes take sandwiches to watch it sink red and pink and orange behind Conanicut Island to the south in the winter or Prudence Island in the summer at the Weaver Cove boat landing off Burma Road that runs along the west side of our island. Herring gulls, ospreys, and various diving and dabbling waterfowl often join us: cormorants, Northern diving ducks, harlequins, scoters, and loons.

The delicate greens of spring give way to lush summer foliage, then gaudy autumn golds and reds, and end once again in the sparse, naked beauty of winter branches black against cold skies and snowy fields. The seasons flow effortlessly one to the other. The spring miracle is as inevitable as winter, hardwired into genes of living things and into the orbit and tilt of our beautiful blue ball.

The startling pink of abundantly flowering cherries follow the magnolias and dogwoods. Bradford pears planted in half the commercial landscapes on the island burst forth in white once again. In May the petals begin to fade and fall, then cascade, covering ground and windshield. Pink petal decorated cars are often seen on East Main Road and Wapping Road and Indian Road. By August we are greeted each day with the last of the hydrangeas, Black Eye Susans, the pinks of Rose of Sharon, some unlikely, startling, hardy hibiscus, and the splendor of Trees of Heaven.

“He says the early petal-fall in past

 When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.”  The Oven Bird, Robert Frost

Now, when I open the shades to the morning, I begin to track early rising Orion with Betelgeuse and Rigel in the pre-dawn Southern sky; his signature belt and sword are tilted from the angles that will soon help dominate winter skies. The seasons are moving on for 2022, and it’s time to get the winter’s firewood into the shed.

We are a couple of months past the summer solstice for 2022 and each day gets just an inconspicuous bit shorter. Not much, at first, but later towards December, the foreshortening accelerates once again to begin the long climb back towards another flowering. The passing seasons prompt thoughts of the gift of light. I am reminded that the darkness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation. St. Francis taught that no depth of darkness can defeat the light of one candle.

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” Fyodor Dostoevsky

Evil has no substance of its own but is a privation, a negation, a denial of Good. What is a candle that cannot be extinguished by the depth of evil? I am reminded of one: the non-violent, gentle light of forgiveness. Selfishness, violence, hatred, divisiveness, rancor, vitriol, fierce anger, the depths of human cruelty, even murder ultimately surrender to forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Every time we pray that so often recited prayer by habit, we commit ourselves to a promise and an agreement that is not always easy to keep. A promise we should not ignore or neglect.

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” spoken from the bloody pulpit of the Cross. Roman subjects quaked at the threat of it. The Cross symbolized the worst that human beings can do to one another. And yet the response of a mighty God to those who killed Him so terribly was not triumphant vengeance by fierce angelic riders seeking retribution, but the final soft word that defeats the darkness. He descended to the bottom of human suffering and returned the pain, not with justice, but with Love.

“Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” John 8:12

Little is more powerful than genuine forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a sentiment, but a decision, a grace filled act of the will. Nothing answers hatred as effectively or more powerfully. The Cross is the symbol and the actuality of cruelty, fear, vindictiveness, and violence unlike almost any other. And it was overcome only and for all of us by Resurrection, forgiveness, and the Light.

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Anyone who claims to be in the light

but hates his brother

is still in the dark.

But anyone who loves his brother is living in the light

and need not be afraid of stumbling;

unlike the man who hates his brother and is in the darkness,

not knowing where he is going,

because it is too dark to see.” 1 John 2:9-11

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A Tree Falls

“Here is a quick and generally reliable rule to follow. If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.” Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

18989409_web1_downed-treeWEBWe often sit and pray after morning Mass in the Fatima grove across the driveway from our parish chapel.  A week or so ago, we heard a loud rending of wood and a crash down the street. There had been no sound of saw or axe, just the destruction. Later we looked for the cause of the disturbance. A large weeping willow had split apart and two thirds of it blocked a nearby road. I thought of the old philosophical question from Dr. George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop and philosopher in the 1600s, about a tree falling in the woods and whether it made a noise if there was no one there to hear it. It does.

I wondered how could the old tree that had survived many thunderstorms, hurricanes, Nor’easters, blizzards, and rogue winds over fifty years, judging by its size, just collapse without notice? That morning in the quiet of early summer blooming, a final tiny weight of water borne up from its roots or perhaps the addition of a single cell in one leaf or a crow building a nest or a squirrel fleeing a shadow delivered the last groaning increment, an unsupportable weight. Or was it long festering inner rot and flaw in its structure that gave way, and the grace and beauty of the tree was destroyed, good only now for cutting up and clearing off the road? I’ll never know what finished it off, but there it was.

Not just trees collapse after decades of weakening.

One of the better articles of dozens I read on the January 6 hearings observed that we are looking futilely for legal or even political solutions to a more fundamental problem, solutions those things cannot possibly provide. We don’t need better laws or policies or politicians; we need better Americans, better citizens. Whether Proud Boys or Antifa thugs or obscene gay pride marchers or arrogant narcissist politicians: progressive ideologues or overtly corrupt self-serving ones, they are merely different aspects of the same disease.

The great majority of Americans get up each morning, attempt to work hard quietly to support themselves and their families, and come home to do the best they can to form the next generation in the best way they know how. But they get little help from educational institutions, politicians, and most media, social or otherwise.

The same article by Kevin Williamson[i] contains a link to a profound T.S. Eliot poem:

“If we give in to the fantasy that we can legislate our way out of this mess or prosecute our way back to republican virtue, we are only ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ That is a project that inevitably will end in failure and disappointment. Being good citizens is not easy but maintaining a free society without good citizens is impossible.”

We have replaced objective reality with subjective desires.  Rather than the hard work of discerning reality and conforming ourselves to it, we wish to conform reality to ourselves. Rather than seeking to discern the Good, the True and the Beautiful, we rely for guidance from the false, gossamer gods of Tolerance, the Socially Acceptable, and the Culturally Relevant. We look for validation in counting responding emoticons to copy and pasted or ragged and derivative social media posts.

The long slog of learning and reading and thinking and self-reflection is subverted by slogans and clever derision of those with whom we disagree. We don’t listen and debate ideas respectfully, we shout down with bull horns and air horns and screaming obscenities those people who have ideas that question current orthodoxy.

Our hearts and wills are not inclined to virtue, but to our self-driven will. Our minds and discernment are not inclined to knowledge and wisdom, but to factoids and catchphrases to support our causes. Our imagination is not captivated by and seeking out objective beauty in nature or art, but we look for entertainments and distractions.

We hear incessant calls for self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice for the greater good. We try to fill the hole in our heart with that which cannot possibly heal.

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God .

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Part II

This week the January 6 hearings were deposed by the demise of Roe v Wade, systematically demolished in its pretense by Justice Alito’s Dobbs v Jackson Health brilliantly written decision. After initial euphoria that day with all the excitement of a small avalanche of emails, articles, and posts, the next morning I woke up deflated like post big game blues. The disappointment gave way to a sad resolve, which soon transitioned to a familiar fierce determination.

When the Dobbs v Jackson Health decision was announced, I was elated because I had thought I would not live to see the lies of Roe refuted and overturned so convincingly by the court. Joy was tempered by the realization that much of the good work of our Rhode Island Right To Life founders was excised from the body of our laws by pink shirt abortion zealots and thugs storming the statehouse and its offices with airhorns and screaming slogans intimidating our legislature in 2019. The trigger laws that would have been immediately in effect to protect life in RI were wiped away.

Nearly four generations of Americans, most of our population, grew up and were formed under the auspices of Roe. While certainly not the sole source of their confusion and alienation, Roe contributed significantly to a culture that has absorbed two very dangerous false premises.

The first is that sex is primarily for pleasure and recreation and secondarily is for strengthening commit-ments, and finally way down on the list is for its teleological purpose in nature of perpetuating our species.

The second premise that we passed along to our heirs for fifty years is that once we have determined that conceiving a child is a problem to be solved rather than a commitment, responsibility, and gift to be cherished, the solution is either a contraceptive one or a violent one. We re-created our version of truth and taught our children that the violence of abortion is a “right” to be maintained at all costs, and when faced with an unwelcome pregnancy the cold clinical violence is not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

We have much work ahead to support and to protect vulnerable mothers and unborn children here once again. We have “miles to go before we sleep.” May God bless the many good hearts and minds who will never give up.

There is an image.

The temple was finally relinquished by the vandals and the despoilers after almost fifty years of hostile occupation. They left the roof burned and collapsed, the walls cracked into ruins, the floor littered with the remnants of charred roof beams, broken pieces of sacred and beautiful art.  Dead things and the waste of animals soiled the floor tiles. Something foul was in the corner; there were small bones embedded in the mound. Paper refuse and the remains of barbarian camps.

With resignation and meager hope, I began to sweep the floor with an old broom.

Others drift in then stream in to help clean up the mess. Some erect staging and demo the west wall until only solid blocks remain, then they start in with fresh mortar and new bricks.  A straight spruce log is dragged on to the swept floor. Some of us begin to shape it into a new roof beam with a two-handed draw knife and a forged adze.

As night falls, family members come and bring us food: hardy, simple and delicious. Someone starts to play a fiddle, another a guitar. One clear trained woman’s voice begins to sing. Ragged at first, we join in:

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good ol’ way

And who shall wear the starry crown?

Good Lord show me the way!

 

O sisters let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

O sisters let’s go down

Down in the river to pray.

 By the third verse we were sounding better, with some complex harmony, by the fifth verse we soared with hundreds of voices. I thought I could hear my father singing. By the end of it there were angels in the chorus.[ii]

The woman who started the singing and her husband, one of the carpenters, said they had to gather their kids who had been engaged in a raucous pick-up baseball game near us, take them home, read a few stories aloud, say prayers together, and put them to bed. Others began to head home to attend to other chores and get some rest. They looked back and waved. ‘We’ll see you in the morning.”  I knew they would return.

“Until the sexual revolution, most people understood that customs and laws regarding sex were customs and laws to strengthen or at least to protect the family, and that the family was not something created by the State, but was its own small kingdom, a natural society, founded in the bodily nature of man.”  Anthony Esolen, Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity

[i] January 6 Hearings are a story without a hero

[ii] Alison Krauss – Down In the River to Pray

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The Essence of the Thing

“Set aside all the muddle of your fears and desires, your resentment, your self-opinion, your politics, whatever. Look at that child. That was you, that was me.” Dr. Anthony Esolen, “Let the Beautiful Creature Live.”

1965LC 0430.jpg

18 -week-old fetus shown inside amniotic sac. from cover of LIFE Magazine, 4-30-1965.

I’ve been busy writing letters to the editors of various local newspapers about the outcry over the first draft of the Dobbs decision written by Justice Samuel Alito after the leak caused such a trembling in the fabric of social media. I was struck once again by how rarely we discuss the central question of the abortion debate. Yes, Roe was bad law, badly written, and yes, of course, the “exercise in raw judicial power[i]” was “egregiously wrong from the start — Its reasoning was exceptionally weak,”[ii] The wrongness of Roe has long been acknowledged by jurists on all sides. The dubious decision was a flimsy structure on which to support the far-reaching judicial mandates that usurped every state’s authority to limit abortion. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped…..may prove unstable.”[iii]  However, irrespective of legal debates over constitutional issues, we still don’t talk much about the pivot point of all this.

To wit: what grows inside a woman’s womb when she is pregnant? Simple question. Is it a tumor? A parasite?  Is it something alien and malevolent to be eradicated at will by the host? I ask that question in all sincerity of anyone who advocates for abortion as a “right.” What is it we will permit to be torn asunder and ripped out?

Science tells us it is one thing and no other: a tiny, living, dependent human being. All the debate about heartbeat, viability, and when the fetus experiences pain are only points on a preordained continuum. An embryo is not part of someone’s body, but a separate body from her mother, genetically distinct, and not an unwelcome appendage. She will grow by absorbing food through her umbilical, learning early to like some kinds of food her mother ingests better than others. Without further outside prompting, she will begin to develop her senses, to see light even inside the womb, to hear voices and respond and bond to them as well as to other sounds. She will be startled and frightened by sudden sounds and soothed by music, especially Bach or Mozart.[iv]

A continuum from conception to death, which if uninterrupted by disease or violence, will develop her inherent capabilities uniquely implanted in her genes that were formed in an instant at conception. Her hair and eye color, her organs, fingers and toes, her brain and heart, her capacity for learning already hard wired. She will develop those capabilities to whatever degree her education, nurture, and those who care for her support. She will mature and experience a complex human life with a brief arduous journey down the birth canal from the uterus to the open air just one more milestone along the way.

No one yet to my satisfaction has explained the justification and moral argument that grants the larger, stronger human being the ‘right’ to take the life of the smaller, weaker human being because the big person is mobile and has power, and the little one is trapped and has no power. Exactly why should killing a human being become lawful because the victim is in an unprotected category of tiny persons and declared expendable? Because it’s inconvenient or embarrassing or too expensive or too difficult to keep them around?  Because they were condemned with often wrong prenatal test diagnoses? [v]

In California[vi], there is now a bill to ‘decriminalize’ ending a baby’s life either through neglect or violence or “unknown causes” during the first thirty days after birth. As horrifying as that sounds, it is no different ethically than abortion. A baby in the first month is breathing on her own but still utterly dependent day to day for her life on her parents or guardians. No protector, no nurture – no survival.

Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethicist known for his pro-abortion and animal rights work (one of the founders of PETA), for years has asserted that infanticide should be allowed until full self-awareness, which he defined as up to three years post birth. He has stated that the life of an adult pig should enjoy greater protections than an immature human being before they are fully self-aware. Whatever you think about his moral stance, you can’t fault his consistency. He is perfectly logical in his arguments. Preborn or post born, all the same kid. #MeStillMe.

me-still-meNo sophistry, no rhetoric, no emotional, political, jaded language about rosaries and ovaries, theocracy or state power or keep your hands off my uterus or any of the shopworn slogans, just this: Why does the big person get to kill the little person solely because the big person wants or even needs to do so?  As a right?

Dr. Anthony Esolen this week published an essay entitled, “Let the Beautiful Creature Live.”[vii] A long quote of a couple of paragraphs is germane. He writes a lot more elegantly than I ever could hope to do, so I will end here and not sully the loveliness of his prose, prose which reads like poetry without an unnecessary word and missing not one that is needed[viii].

“Still, there are pictures of unborn children in the womb. As early as eight weeks in, you are looking at a being that is obviously human, with arms and legs, toes and fingers, a head, a face, and eyes. A little later on, he will be sucking the thumb, practicing in the womb what will soon be his sole means of nourishment. The child is strange and familiar at once. Set aside all the muddle of your fears and desires, your resentment, your self-opinion, your politics, whatever. Look at that child. That was you, that was me.

Nothing else that we know of is like him. He possesses, in latency, the developing powers of a mind capax universi: capable of apprehending a universe of existent things. He possesses, in latency, the soul capable of grasping itself; of conceiving objects not bounded by matter; of reflecting his Creator by the works of his hands, his heart, and his imagination; of promising itself in duty; and handing itself over in love. Surely, we have here infinite riches in a little room. And he is our brother.”[ix]

[i] Justice Byron White in dissent from Roe v Wade, 1973

[ii] Justice Samuel Alito in first draft majority opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Health, 2022

[iii] Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a speech at New York University referencing the weakness of Roe v Wade, 1992

[iv] Baby soothed and brain development in the womb enhanced by classical music, especially Mozart.

[v] Some prenatal tests for genetic diseases have up to 90% false positive results. Many are over 80% false positive. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/01/upshot/pregnancy-birth-genetic-testing.html

[vi] In 2019 Rhode Island joined California, New York, and a few other states in allowing abortion up to birth for undefined reasons other than the mother’s health. Health being defined as encompassing emotional, financial, or physical without reference to the severity of the risk. No other European country has such lax laws. Rhode Island, California, and New York join Russia, China, and North Korea as one of the riskiest places on earth for preborn babies. Not august company.

[vii] Let the Beautiful Creature Live, Crisis Magazine Dr. Anthony Esolen formerly taught at Providence College, and is now a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College in New Hampshire. One of the most respected social commentators around. Has spoken at over fifty colleges.

[viii] Note please Dr. Esolen references latency, not potential life. Inherent and to be developed in the nature of the baby. Latent is from the Latin meaning “hidden.” Unlike “potential” which might imply contingency or just possibility, “latent” is fully present, just not yet visible.

[ix] Me-Still Me picture credit from LiveAction website.

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Uncontrolled

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Nuke LaLooch (played by Tim Robbins) in Ron Shelton’s screenplay for “Bull Durham”

Snowy Owl at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge Lee Kensinger

Snowy owl at Hamden Slough   National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota by Lee Kensinger.

 Kim Crocker, a volunteer at the Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge   near us, reported a tale that reminded me of the rule of fang and   claw, talon, and blood. After an absence last year of any   overwintering snowy owl at the refuge, this year we have two   visitors, neither of them yet fully mature, but hardy enough to make   the trek from the tundra. Snowy owls can live nine years in the wild and up to twenty-eight in captivity. Fully grown, they have a wingspan of close to five feet: beautiful, formidable hunters, and relentless predators.[i]

Mr. Crocker told me the ranger observed a Cooper’s hawk make a quick kill, probably a vole or field mouse. Raptors drive their long rear talons into their prey with great force from a dive, wrap their front talons securely around their food and begin to eat, often before their victim is dead. This hawk should have been more situationally aware when he grabbed his lunch. Almost as soon as he attacked, he was in turn struck by a snowy, and the predator became the prey with the added benefit of a vole for dessert. Full grown snowy owls have been observed at the refuge taking a full-grown Bufflehead, Eider or Surf Scoter[ii] right out of the surf and carrying them back to a shoreline rock for a leisurely meal.

Sometimes unforeseen trouble can drop on us with the swiftness of a raptor from the sky.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the last two years of COVID world was the vivid notice that we are not in control. And never have been. This is a valuable lesson.

Oh, we pretend like three-year-olds that if the Bogeyman comes out of the closet or from under the bed we can pull the covers over our head, cuddle our teddy bear, and be protected – that we can be in control, but at three o’clock in the morning on a sleepless night, we know that “the best laid plans o mice and men gang aft agley.”  [iii] Now as adults our Bogeyman occasionally comes out from under the bed, and there is not a damn thing we can do about it when he shows up. We must learn to cope with him and muddle along.

Thus, we are not to be grieved that we don’t control even the most important potentialities of our lives: our health, our safety, or how long we will live on this planet.

“Give up the thought that you have control. You don’t. The best you can do is adapt, anticipate, be flexible, sense the environment and respond.”  Frances Arnold, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Cal Tech

Our futile attempts at overcontrolling our lives, especially through government and politics, bring us division, frustration, distrust, anger, aggression, and ultimately despair. Our technological successes have deluded us into believing that all things eventually will be brought under our control.  “The sociocultural formation of modernity turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things – segments of the world – within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.”[iv]

Illusory control, then, in the end, is an obsession with self-gratification, for individuals and identity groups. For politicians and social media mavens. For the legions of media chattering heads who so want to reshape the culture in their image. All of this is in a context of a couple of generations of the un-enculturated who have been formed not by tradition or objective standards, but by a faith in self-fulfillment that is largely self-defined by individuals and identity groups. The self-definition is rooted not in classic precepts of freedom, but in the post-modern concept of license. We build precariously on a sandy and shifting foundation of false and malicious hope: we can be anything we want to be and behave any way we choose, most especially regarding sexuality, if we don’t infringe too badly on the other person’s fancy.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, ‘1984’

How do we find ourselves so confounded and unmoored? We want to control, but we cannot possibly.

Sachuest Snowy Owl checking out the menu

Sachuest Snowy checking out the menu

We want to redefine our nature, but we cannot possibly. Far too large a topic for this modest post, but we can look at a corner of it. Cultures to persist and offer stable platforms for human flourishing must formally welcome adolescents into adulthood, must train, must recognize what is essential to its existence and never lose sight of forming the next generation in the principles upon which the culture rests.  This instilling of the culture must include objective truths within which the next generation can conform with certainty and find their own context. This has been the case for humans so long as there have been humans.

Our culture neglected this basic principle, and to paraphrase Chesterton, when we cease to believe in something true, it is not that we believe in nothing, but that we will believe in anything. Such is our current state. One of the worst consequences of this is the neglected initiation of young men, prolonged adolescence into their thirties and beyond, and the enduring irresponsibility of too many young men, men without fathers, and men without passages of initiation.[v] These transitions are necessary not just to our culture, but to any culture, and we lost the thread in the latter part of the last century.

“Anchises’ son had halted, pondering on so much, and stood in pity for the souls’ hard lot.” Virgil, Book Six, the Aeneid

Richard Rohr researched this unhappy phenomenon in depth, investigated its roots and consequences in his book “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation.”   [vi] He discovered that male initiation is significant even in other species like elephants. [vii] The lack of fathers and the lack of proper initiation into manhood has devastated our society in easily foreseen ways. Rohr theorizes that rites of initiation existed in all societies and are necessary still, albeit in different forms. To help boys transition into men and inculcate in them the responsibilities of maturity in the tribe, the rites typically had five common factors, sometimes involving scarification or survival alone in the wilderness. It was always necessary that they learn these lessons, and although it is still necessary to learn for us, modernity teaches in many ways just the opposite from these:[viii]

  • Life is hard.
  • You are not important.
  • Your life is not about you.
  • You are not in control.
  • You are going to die.

We grow wise when we understand that our lives are not ours alone, nor are we in control. We grow wise as Augustine did when we realize that to love and be loved is the fundamental longing of the human heart. We grow wise when we comprehend that the evil that seems all around us is not an adolescent comic book “Dark Side” force or a creature or a thing at all, but a lack, a privation, a missed chance.  Just as dark is not a form of its own, but a lack of the good of light, and coldness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation of warmth, so too hatred, bitterness, loneliness, violence, fear, and existential disappointment are all an absence of Love. And it is for many a self-inflicted deprivation.

“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

So, we must go out with joy to look for light where it can be found and delight in it. I was greatly heartened a couple of weeks ago when we walked another of our favorite local trails in Norman Bird Sanctuary. Along the way, we met a young earnest couple who were volunteering the afternoon of their day off cleaning out one small plot of Japanese knotweed, an aggressive invasive species that will crowd out native plants that provide food and shelter for the many birds and other wildlife that live there. They spent hours cutting and bagging the stems and dry foliage of the noxious pest. They took their time with laughter and good fellowship as they went, cutting and handling carefully so as not to disturb and scatter the seeds that will spread the weed. They cheerfully told us they will return another day to dig out the roots. No broad- spectrum damaging herbicides, just laborious, painstaking work.

The plot was about fifteen feet square. Out of 253 acres of the sanctuary. Why spend so much time, attention, and energy on such a tiny fraction of the land? A modest, difficult bit of work against such a bitter foe of the indigenous flora and fauna that we all enjoy and cherish is worth doing. Even if it does not solve the whole problem or change the micro ecosystem permanently, it changes us. If one understands that we’re not able to control every difficult challenge that comes along, that our life is about something greater than ourselves, and that we must do what we can, where and when we can, to improve, however humbly, our situation, this is a truth worth knowing.

 The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.    “Dust of Snow” Robert Frost  

[i] Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife site. Snowy owl at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota by Lee Kensinger.

[ii] https://www.newportthisweek.com/articles/sea-ducks-return-to-sachuest-point/

[iii] Gratuitous sidebar: Perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous assumption of the whole progressive project is the illusion that we are in control, and that human progress is linear and headed to an inevitable Omega point of perfection. If only we allow the elite technocrats that we anoint to take control, all will be well irrespective of all evidence so far to the contrary.

[iv] The Uncontrollability of the World, Harmut Rosa, Medford, MA: Polity, 2020

[v] “What is the single condition of a boy’s life that correlates most strongly with whether he will turn criminal? Not income, not by a long shot. It is whether he grew up in the same home with his father. Our prisons are full to bursting with fatherless boys who never became the men and fathers that God meant them to be. The collapse of the black family has been most catastrophic, and what is the result? What anyone not befuddled with feminist ideology would have predicted, from simple observation of nature and from the universal testimony of human cultures. One out of every three black men between the ages of twenty and thirty will spend time in prison. If we blame that on racism, then we had better explain why, in the days when blacks could not ride on certain seats in the bus and could not even play major league baseball, nowhere near as many of their men were in prison. Family, first and last—the family is where you learn of God and man, good and evil, courtesy, diligence, honor, chastity, self-restraint, and true courage. Give me poverty and the family as strong as iron and in one generation in America my family will be poor no longer. That is not speculation or boasting. It is the experience of millions of immigrants who came to the United States with nothing in their pockets, but with a great fund of moral capital; with faith in God, and firm loyalty to the family.”Anthony Esolen, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”

[vi] Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr, Crossroads, 2004

[vii] Elephants need fathers too. Rohr told of a true story about rogue young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa. They were about fifty orphans immigrated into the park to reestablish the herd and without fathers to train them. An 8’ tall creature with tusks can inflict serious damage. Which they did. Killed over fifty rhinos. The debate among the rangers was whether to euthanize the young thugs, castrate them, which would calm them down, or bring in some help. The adolescent elephants (between twelve and twenty) were in a perpetual state of “musth,” a constant flooding of reproductive hormones. This is normally tamped down by mature bull elephants in the herd that whack them around a bit and tell them to calm down. Knowing they cannot yet compete with a full-grown papa elephant, they do calm down and stop dribbling, spraying everything in sight, and acting out aggressively, which is rough on the rhinos. The rangers shipped in six mature bull elephants and within a day, the adolescents dropped out of musth, and not a single additional rhino was killed.

https://www.bbcearth.com/news/teenage-elephants-need-a-father-figure   https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15120390-300-orphan-elephants-go-on-the-rampage/

[viii] Summary outline of Rohr’s book.

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Snow Ball Fights: Passion and Peril

“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.” Doug Larson

800px-Rhode-island-mapIn the beginning, there were snowball fights after every storm, even though they presently are illegal in eight towns in Rhode Island, including nearby Newport and Jamestown. Not illegal here in Portsmouth, however, our town has a long history of dissent and rebellion against unjust laws and was founded in 1638 by Anne Hutchinson and others who wanted freedom from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Portsmouth was the site of the largest Revolutionary War[i] battle in Rhode Island. After the French Navy assisting in the effort to free Newport from the occupying British Army were scattered by a huge two-day storm and limped back to Boston to regroup and repair, the colonials were forced to withdraw.

The British occupying Newport attempted to overwhelm the Colonial Army retreating from Aquidneck Island. A series of bloody, but ultimately indecisive skirmishes with the British and their Hessian mercenaries were fought on August 29, 1778, on nearby Turkey Hill and behind stone walls that still exist on Quaker Hill where our home is now. Some mornings I’m struck with the realization that desperate men fought and died right here to help defend our freedom.  After successfully holding off the attacks, General Greene’s troops were then able to evacuate in an orderly manner and without further loss back to the mainland in North Tiverton.  But I digress.

Snowball fights in Portsmouth have so far escaped the oversight of the town ordinances, however, I think there is a state law on the books that prohibits throwing snowballs at a moving car, an offense which is punishable by up to a year in prison. I have not heard of it ever being enforced. Late last week two approximately five-year-old boys recklessly broke the law, but we declined to charge them. We were driving on Wapping Road to get to our walk along Second Beach and view the aftermath of the morning snowstorm when the two miscreants jumped up on the old stone wall behind which they had been hiding and accompanied by loud, wild war cries, let fly. Fortunately, we survived intact as the missiles fell about fifty feet short of their intended target.

Rita warned me about the attack after we had passed by them. I might have pursued the villains, but she talked me out of it. I wanted to tell them that leading the moving car properly was the key to success. Throw ahead of it and let the car run into the trajectory of a well-timed strike. As I remember when we often threw at cars and trucks as kids, at least half the thrill was being chased by our victims after we pummeled their vehicles.  The second key to success throwing snowballs at cars is not to do it from your parent’s yard and flee as soon as the brake lights go bright. I should have stopped and conducted some much-needed advance training.

We spent many determined hours building snow forts preparing for battle in the plowed embankments of our street while growing up in Massachusetts when snows were more frequent and deeper. Elaborate ramparts, observation, and attack towers and after a big storm, we could burrow some escape tunnels. If one of our architectural wonders caught my father’s eye, occasionally he would help after he got home from work and finish hardening the citadel with buckets of water to ice it up solidly. Construction was followed by many hours of snowball fights until the early winter sunsets overtook us and mothers called us home. Most frequently our retreats under cover of darkness were as indecisive as the Battle of Rhode Island and we withdrew in an orderly manner, tired, wet, and cold, but without further damage.

A second big thrill of our winter was sliding down Killer Hill on sleds both manufactured and improvised. The hill never killed any of us to my knowledge, but one naïve young friend broke his leg after we dared him to try it in a barely controllable flying saucer. Teddy struck the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill smack on at about two hundred miles an hour. Or so it seemed. As we ran down to help him, we were terrified that by challenging hapless Teddy, we had justified the name of the hill.

We never outgrow our primal impulse for snowball fights. One favorite was a memorable encounter at the UMass Amherst. The grand evening began as we slid down one of the steep slopes on campus on sturdy plastic trays purloined from the cafeteria.  Well before social media crowd sourcing, a big storm drew two large rival men’s dormitories out into the cold with very little provocation. We clashed in a major battle after the six-inch heavy, wet, snowstorm provided like a godsend the makings for perfect snowballs – must have been at least a hundred guys on a side.

One splinter company broke off and tried an ill-advised assault on a sizeable women’s dorm. The besieged occupants wisely stayed behind their stout red brick walls. Laughing and pointing at the pitiful attackers, they could be seen in sweatshirts and bathrobes through the windows strategizing their defense. The attacking force was easily repelled with wastepaper buckets of ice-cold water, poured like boiling, flaming oil from the parapets upon the hordes.

Eventually, campus police sent a couple of troopers in a patrol car to break up the conflict. The cops remained safely in their mobile unit when two hundred snowballs released on a count of three buried their car. Since there was little risk of a riot breaking out, they drove back to their warm office shaking their fists and laughing. Cold hands, undone papers due in the morning, and the late hour quelled the ardor of the combatants, and we retired back to our rooms to nurse our wounds and fire up the illegal hotplates to make hot chocolate and coffee.  I learned it is very difficult to evade a hundred snowballs thrown in unison.

“Every man should lose a battle when he is young, so he doesn’t lose a war when he is old.” George R Martin

[i] Battle of Rhode Island

Illustration by: Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, A.d.C. du Général LaFayette, Public Domain, Wikipedia

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Christmas Letter 2021

                                                                                                                          

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.”                                                                     

St. John Henry Newman                                                                                         

Christmas 2021

NativityA rainy December Saturday is the perfect time for reflection and to get a short Christmas letter together. We said last goodbyes to some good friends in 2021, three in the last two months. We’ll miss their company and just knowing they are there. We’ve joined in prayer for each that they have been welcomed home. “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” Each one was unique and precious and unrepeatable and irreplaceable. As we turn the corner into our fourth quarter century, this Christmas and end of year season, natural for reflection, has special poignancy.

Not to lapse too deeply into Irish maudlin, but at nearly seventy-six, we are mindful that the road ahead is nowhere near as long as that which is receding in the rearview mirror. This stretch of road is not a regret; but as Bill Belichick would tell us, “It is what it is.” We benefit greatly from the perspective of how dear each new sunrise is. Another Belichick aphorism is, “You are what your record says you are.” Again, not as troubling as it once might have been. Well into our eighth decade, what once seemed so critical to happiness, success, keeping score, and keeping on track has simplified and become less frantic, more at peace: small acts of kindness are not so small, a smile from a stranger, a smile from a friend, a smile from our beloved so much more meaningful. And each of you ever more significant to us.

Our former pastor at St. Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence, Father James, presided over one such funeral this week. He reminded us that happiness comes not from temporal achievements or the praise of others or the accumulation of stuff or success at bending the will of others. Happiness is derived from virtue, wonderment and gratitude. Wonderment at the true and beautiful that envelops us with natural marvels and good companions for the journey. Gratitude in our hearts as often as we can gather it to ourselves. None of it limited by time.

We have much to be grateful for surrounded by the wonder of natural things here on Aquidneck Island. Not the spectacular Colorado mountains where we lived so many years ago or the mountains and lakes of Maine where we lived many years after that, but the salt marshes, farmland and wooded trails, and, of course, the river and the ocean beaches. We scarce can take it in.

And more. So much more. Four grown children who have made many more good choices than lamented ones and matured into decent, loving human beings. Seven grandchildren from one to thirteen, each rare and wonderful with their own grace, eccentricities, goofiness, wonder of life, and childlike beauty. A parish church we can walk to with plenty to keep us spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally well-nourished with purposeful activity, friendships, worship, and life. And our greatest blessing right here in our two-bedroom downsized bungalow: fifty-five years shared together in our cherished marriage next month. The radiant heat from the woodstove heats our home on blustery cold New England winter days, and plenty of wood is cut and split in the woodshed. Twinkling, joyful, brightly colored lights around the doors, in the windows, and along the rail of the deck. The wooden creche made for us with careful attention by Rita’s Dad and filled with the exquisite ceramic figures of the Nativity made by Jack’s mother so many years ago.

Life is full here in Portsmouth.

Let us resolve to be makers of peace, gratitude and love for one another; may we be welcoming havens for each other and unafraid of the future and not regretful of the past. God is good.

God’s blessings on you and yours and a most Merry Christmas,       

 Love in Christ,

—– Psalm 46:10     Be still and know that I am God —–

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All of Nature is God’s Art

“All of Nature is God’s Art”  Attributed to Dante Alighieri.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Norman Bird SanctuaryA local townsperson from forty or so years ago in Mount Vernon, Maine, taught in the English Department at the University of Maine. She grumbled to us once at one of her parties that the brilliant fall gold and red display of maples and birch and poplar was disturbingly garish, a vulgar excess that lures the tourists. The leaf peepers travel by the busload to northern New England and upstate New York each year to gawk and to raise the rates in the hotels and restaurants, filling the hospitality business gaps between the summer lakes splendor and the ski season. The leaf colors are enabled by the slow final ruin of the chlorophyll [ii]at summer’s end. The splendid trees benefit the local economy, but their beauty backs up the lines at the breakfast haunts of the regulars, so I understand her peevish response. Small inconvenience, really, though, and a good trade off anytime.

I have come also to appreciate more the muted burnt umber and crimsons of the late oaks and the more refined yellows of the beeches of late fall. The maples, ashes, birch, and poplar have abandoned their now brown leaves to lawns, gutters on our house, and forest floors. The oaks too slowly give up their summer, and the winter branches appear with their intricacy, delicacy, order, design, and strength displaying ever more clearly. The latent beauty in the structure of the tree emerges, the form developed year over year, cell by cell, a miracle of biology and geometry and design. Rarely in nature are purpose, structure, and function unrelated; what serves beauty, serves also for essence, form, and survival. The winter sky provides a perfect backdrop to feature the winter bare tree branches. As much as I take delight in the fragile spring green and flowers, the lush summer foliage, and the autumn brilliance, the spare precision of the naked branches is most welcome. Their quiet and deep peace signal the annual winter retreat.

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”  Galileo Galilei   

Ellie's winter tree in pastelsIt has been written that the Holy Spirit is the Love proceeding from the Father and the Son within the Community of Love that is the Trinity of the Godhead.  One of the key stories in the Christmas narratives occurs when Mary comes to help her also pregnant cousin after Mary began carrying the Christ child within her. In the presence of the baby Jesus, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; she was participating in the mysterious inner life of God. Human beings as their most noble calling possess the capacity to share in that inner life.

So how do these seemingly unrelated thoughts connect to the fall displays in New England and our capacity to be taken by them?  I suggest this: that human beings possess the power of creating beauty and appreciating natural beauty by the same capacity that was imbued in them as being made in the “image and likeness of God.” This capacity is not simply a function of neurons and synapses but is spiritual in its origins; our relation to beauty is miracle.

An eleven-year-old girl[iii] has the same spiritual capacity as Michelangelo or Da Vinci or you and me.Ellie's chipmunk None of us likely has the same degree or skill or eye, but the capacity for beauty exists by our nature. Imago Dei, in the Image of God, are undeserved gifts to us in our nature and our souls. The senses are there; the mind is there; the heart is there; the soul is there for all of us.

Let us rejoice and wonder and be grateful as our eyes, our hearts and our souls are full.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl”

[ii] As the days shorten and the nights lengthen at the end of the summer, this signals the trees to create an abscission layer which hardens the tender ends of the twigs to protect them when the leaves finally fall. This response to the diminishing light cuts off the supply of nutrients necessary to replenish the chlorophyll in the leaves. When it stops replenishing, the leaf begins to die. Chlorophyll constantly breaks down as it participates in the photosynthesis that produces nutrients for the tree and remarkably replenishes the sweet air that we sense near them as the photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and water on the input side and “exhales” pure oxygen along with the glucose that provides the tree with all its energy. Chlorophyll also makes the leaves green. As it breaks down toward the end of the season, the carotenoids and anthocyanins show forth. Carotenoids were present all summer but were masked by the power of the green. In the fall, they get to show off their stuff before the leaves wither and fall.

[iii] Drawings by Elena Barek, who is eleven. Granddaughter with an eye, a heart, and a soul. Winter tree in pastels and Chipmunk in pencil.

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