Accidental Object Lessons with Papa Weaves: A Brief Meditation

Rusty bolts can be hard to get out, and you have to work slowly and carefully, because if you break it, your job is going to be that much more difficult. So you unscrew it until it doesn't want to budge, and you can feel it sticking. Then you retrace your steps. Screw the bolt back in a bit or all the way, spray some WD-40 on it. Then repeat steps 1 and 2, over and over, until your shoulders ache and WD-40 sludge is dripping down the socket wrench.

It has been remarked by wiser individuals than myself that progress doesn't march in a straight line. King talked about a "moral arc of the universe" that bends toward justice, which has at least this implication (if we're taking him quite literally): that it's not always clear what our present course is aiming at (for justice is not geometry, with perfect calculations). Or as Gandalf says, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends"--and who among us can even claim to be wise?

But perhaps the rusty bolt is closer to home than the straight, clean curve of the arc. We push forward until the resistance is too great, and fear or prejudice exert the equal and opposite force that brings us to a halt. And in the face of such resistance, some people melt away, and we move backward a bit, but we've beaten down the path in the march forward and while it makes our retreat that much easier, it also clears the way again for a renewed advance. Back and forth. Back and forth. In hopes that somehow, eventually, we'll have worked out the problem, and we can make it good as new.


Oh, Night Divine

Joyous expectation.

For reasons that I will probably uncover and clarify only as I write this post, I am looking forward to the holidays this year. I've erred more on the side of the Grinch than Buddy* in previous Decembers, but one could argue that this is a natural consequence of working in the service industry, where you can't escape the Christmas music and there are always some random, useless products that must be sold if the lumbering, ancient bark is going to make it through the dead waters of January and February.

I don't know why, but this year I feel as though the whole thing is somehow more... holy. Probably somewhere between going to an All Soul's Day Episcopal service structured around Faure's Requiem, and the realization that most of my Christmas budget ended up going to a mechanic so I'm going to have to get creative, and oh, let's not forget that Maria won't be here this year, so no Christmas cookie party or cherished sister time...

I wanted this to be more eloquent, and it was, in my head, two hours ago when I was blissfully stabbing cloves into oranges and listening to choral renditions of (actually) classic Christmas songs. But I suppose it just comes down to this: it has been a hard year. I'm not where I want to be, even when I'm being gracious with myself; and I have tasted something of the bitter side of life in a way that I've been avoiding for a long time.

But as I begin to ascend into the heights of December, I look back across the wasteland and what stands out to me are the bright spots of love and joy and hope. And it strikes me in this moment that there is something magnificent and sacred about celebration, and that something arises not out of an innocent naivety, but rather from the admission that the world is often neither kind nor good, and yet we are not going to allow that to govern our response to it.

Celebration is an act of resistance. It is a backbone of steel disguised by holly wreaths and pine garlands, surrounded by carols that redound with those words with which I began: joyous expectation. That, to me, is Advent. The building sense of expectation, the serene image of the pregnant woman curled around the life within her, as the whole world waits, breathless, for a miracle to take place.

So if you care to join me, I'm going to be filling my house with paper snowflakes, having holiday gatherings, making wassail and Christmas cookies, going to church unusually often, and hopefully experiencing Christmas in the time-honored way, which has very little to do with presents and everything to do with cultivating a holy sense of peace, expectation, and joy.

*To be clear: I will never be Buddy. I hate Elf, and I think Zooey Deschanel is annoying. Gauntlet: thrown.


What I Find in Times of (Personal) Crisis

In these past few weeks immediately preceding and following the election, I have been admittedly rather morose about prospects for the future. Which is probably only fair, when you're hanging your hopes for change on a political process and not on the polis that the process seeks to organize and govern. In my defense, the polis has also been disappointing. But as it is closer to home and nearer to my heart, the picture they compose has more details to it than mere disappointment can convey.

"I have just seen the largest pale yellow splodge in the clouds that I shall see in my lifetime. #deeplymoved #cosmicsignificance #wordsfailme" {Andy Jones, 11/15/16}

The above lines are shamelessly reprinted without permission from a friend's recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post about the supermoon. And you're probably going to think I'm crazy (go ahead--I'll think I'm crazy in two years when I come back and read this post), but when I read that in the context of recent events, I kind of want to laugh hysterically and maybe cry a little bit too.

Because it feels like a perfect summation of recent events. Something big happened, yes. For lots of people, it was a meaningful something, although the meaning you find in it varies by the weight you place on different factors relevant to interpretation (was that a truism? I'm sorry if it was). But at the end of the day, it's also a bit absurd and comical. This feels like an appropriately Chestertonian view of the situation: that something huge is not therefore important and, more importantly, not serious--and may indeed be quite the opposite if we're willing to look at it the right way 'round, which is to say that maybe we need to stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, or through a telescope or microscope or any scope at all. What's right in front of our faces is what we have to work with. Let us proceed accordingly.

Now that I've got all of that off my chest, and hopefully absolved myself of the charge of being too bitter or hopeless: a happier subject.

Sometimes it's easier to turn our sights on national crises, because they're too big for one person to solve and you and I both know that from the get go. If we just throw words at those problems, well, who's really to blame us at the end of the day? What can be more difficult to face are the personal crises that come up in our day to day lives. These are emotionally charged, immediate, urgent, and blurred or distorted by how we are situated in the midst of them. They change how we see the world and how we respond to it (a good thing to remember before any of us judge anyone else for decisions made out of fear, distress, or anger). So we panic. Because I can't solve a lot of things by myself. I have needs that I can't meet, and beyond those, things that I want to do, but can't.

I was listening to a podcast recently, an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett interviewing Congressman John Lewis talking about "the art and discipline of non-violence." At one point, he mentions a phrase with which I am familiar from other discussions about the civil rights movement, but which always strikes a chord with me: the Beloved Community. The below is taken from The King Center's website, and I'm going to the trouble of an extensive quote because I feel like I couldn't say it better:

"For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill."

These paragraphs use certain significant buzzwords: nonviolence, global vision, racism, discrimination, conflict. They are a big picture. But as with all big pictures, they start here, on the ground, with individual people performing small daily acts. Sometimes those acts are not obviously or overtly about overcoming issues of race or conflicts. But they are the small graces that make a community healthier over time, that overcome divisions of class and economy or differences of opinion, that are the training ground upon which we are taught to work together peaceably and wherein we learn that our success does not lie in our individual strength, but in our shared strength as a community.

With that in mind, some things I have found in times of personal crisis (and you thought I was just pulling that title out of a hat--fair enough, I usually do):

1.) You learn how strong your support group is. I grew up without a lot of the supports that most people expect from their parents. Oh, there was a never a time that my dad didn't manage to put food on the table, but I knew that it was hard sometimes, and he made his dollars stretch with the garden and Mom's freezing and preserving, and most of my clothes came from thrift stores and charity bags. But in so many other regards, I was raised with the tacit recognition that if I didn't do it, nobody else was going to do it for me, and to expect otherwise would be to burden and trouble someone who already had enough on their plate.

So it's a bit surreal when you're confronted with a problem, you start taking stock of your options, and you think you know what you're going to have to do, but then this person out in left field says, "Well if you buy X, Y has the space you need, and Z has the skills to help you do it: does that work?" Suddenly you've gone from I alone, to I, U, Y, and Z, all working together to pool resources, skills, connections, and favors, and the bleak prospect of being forced into a decision you don't want to make is... gone.

Because the weird thing about operating out of a sense of community is that when you step up to support someone or they step up to support you, you don't just bring or get one person. You also get the full force of all of the people they know and have supported, or you bring all the people you know and have supported over the years. There has to be a pebble to get the landslide going, but once it starts, it moves an army of boulders.

2.) Money has nothing to do with it. When you take stock of what you have, list your financial resources last, even if you're actually so comfortably well off that you can make a substantial difference that way. Look at your skills, look at the people you know, look at the places you have access to, look at the physical tools that you possess, and don't be afraid to think outside of the box.

Chances are, to make something happen, to make something change, to fix a problem, you'll need a little bit of all of those. And chances are good that if you're missing something, you know someone who has it.

3.) There is no end point. When you exclude money and explicit numerical transaction values, nobody ever manages to balance the books. This comes up somewhere in David Graeber's book, Debt. He mentions an African society in which people are regularly making small loans and gifts to one another, and their social interactions are structured around these small transfers. The key here is that you do not repay someone the exact amount or in the exact kind that something was given to you. This means that the exchanges must continue, because you have never settled. It would in fact be rude to do so, because it would signal to the other person that you want nothing more to do with them. Instead, with a few pennies here or a pound of flour there, you build up a lifetime of debts and repayments, and so you continue in relation to one another.

This is not an economy of exchange with a particular destination. It's an informal system that, because of its lack of definition and precision, leaves room to accommodate the crises, both large and small, that the members of a community face. The resources move to the points of greatest need, when they are needed. I do not own what is mine to use only as I see fit (notions of property have their place, but that which is mine is mine humbly and in trust, for we all die, and our possessions do not follow us to the grave), but as a service to others.

This is where I find my warmth on the colder nights. And for the regular readers of this blog, I believe that most of you fall well within the bounds of my community. I hope that in time I can offer you hopefully more (and maybe, sadly, less), something, but never perfectly equal, to what you have given me.


When Despair for the World Grows in Me

The American government does not exist to protect the interests of the American people. It exists to protect the interests of American corporations. In theory, this could transfer benefits to the people, but historically, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I mention this, because I was thinking about US foreign policy and the prison system. Not necessarily related, except for a few points. Intervention/invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan was not for my sake. Certainly, 9/11 provided a convenient, symbolic rallying point for massive public support for those actions, but I can't say that I feel any more secure or less likely to suffer from a terrorist attack as a result of them. Furthermore, that all comes at the expense of the security of vulnerable civilians whose entire lives have been disrupted for over a decade and who can be targets of drone attacks for the simple crimes of proximity or being male and in the wrong age bracket.

What's being protected are economic interests. Keep the petroleum flowing. Ensure access to valuable mining operations that feed metals into the ever-ravenous maw of developing technology.

Do I benefit from those? Tangentially. I'm not spending $5 per gallon for gas. I have a relatively new iPhone, a MacBook, etc.

But am I actually benefitting from those? Or have my tastes and needs been conveniently adapted to suit what's available? Am I being regularly molded as a consumer toward a particular company's vision of the world and an acceptance of and desire for its products?

I just think that the sense of inevitability--that obviously we must have oil, that obviously we must have cheap labor because otherwise I have to pay more than $10 for my t-shirts, that obviously...--it's an illusion that directs our attention away from contemplating alternatives. What could life be like if we didn't...?

Alternatives, for example, to killing innocent people so that multibillion dollar corporations can continue to churn out profits for their shareholders, profits that are converted into financial speculations or carefully protected from taxation by the elaborate machinations of very good accountants taking advantage of loopholes that ostensibly don't exist to enable them to do what they're doing, but that nobody is closing, because the people who could close them are probably benefitting from the system that's in place.

This has been a bit of a ramble, and maybe a paranoid one. But what kills me about all of the candidates that are on the table right now is that every last one of them, at the end of the day, doesn't give a shit about social policies once they've stepped off their political grandstands. They'll pander to the electorate for one more week of my-god-why-do-we-have-to-listen-to-this political campaigning, and then they'll go right back to doing what they do best: protecting American businesses, at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, African American men are incarcerated at alarming rates and essentially stripped of their citizenship, while older white men far from the East and West coast megalopolises are unable to compete for skilled jobs. Women's reproductive rights, so closely tied to their progress socially, politically, and economically, are being chiseled away, because what we clearly need is a return to a world in which falling down the stairs while pregnant could get you convicted of feticide (don't even get me started on this one).

I'm not keen on this world they're protecting. And I don't like the solutions they're offering. It's like intentionally generating pollution, then having the state supply us with asthma medication to cure what wouldn't be an issue if the cause of the asthma was removed in the first place.

...That's all she wrote.


There and Here

I was going to spend my evening nursing a toddy while watching Galaxy Quest and crocheting, and I'll probably end up going back to that plan. But I've been neglecting this blog recently and Dan has inspired me to finally write about something that I had thought of, but dismissed. Also, if an explanandum is required for my recent inactivity, it's quite simply this: the Blogger app hasn't been working on my phone, and I'm apparently too lazy to drag out my computer to write things. So now you know the truth and we can all move on, me with my hipster Bluetooth typewriter, you with your.... whatever. Hopefully a toddy, or something lovely like that.

I've recently been reading a great deal about Germans during World War II, and on related subjects like the psychology of killing on battlefields, that sort of thing. There are a few things that obviously stand out, even before you've spent any time looking deeply into the subject. If I could be an average American and you were to ask me about the German national psyche in 1943, the two things I would have to bring up would be 1) the support for National Socialism with its central cult figure of Hitler, and 2) the near universal turning away from the plight of Jews and other undesirables. 

There's this burning question, or questions really, behind any study of the Holocaust: how could they have participated in this horror? And for those who did not directly participate: how could they look away? Undergirding these questions is another, almost subconscious one: how could this happen here? Where, by "here," I mean the global West, supposedly so civilized and advanced, as assessed within our Western-originating paradigms of progression. 

From the outset, it may be worth our while to distinguish between passive participants and active participants. That distinction is set up by the first two questions, which imply two kinds of responsibility: that of commitment and that of deliberate disengagement. Later, I will challenge this dichotomy, but for now, it will suffice.

So, to begin: how could they look away? Some people have argued that many Germans just didn't know. To lend credence to their argument, German Jews were, overall, more likely to survive the war than those in occupied territories. The death camps, the Einsatzgruppen, entire cities in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia starved through the long winters... These happened out of sight of those many German citizens who remained at home through the course of the war.

But this argument leaves out several factors. First of all, there were an enormous number of soldiers and administrative personnel transferred to posts in the East. And all of them, in spite of severe encouragement to voluntarily censor themselves, were sending home letters full of the deeds of the Eastern front. While some could not bring themselves to detail everything that they saw or did, many were proud of their own accomplishments or, if not proud, then at least compelled to thrill their readers with all of the most gruesome and gory details.

And second, it ignores the immediate presence of the death and internment camps. The most notorious of these were in occupied Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau, of course, and also Sobibór, Treblinka, and Majdanek, and the list goes on. There were, however, quite a few in Germany itself. Ravensbrück and Dachau are two names that come to mind. And I can personally attest, having visited there, that Dachau is not at all far from the populous city of Munich. Even if there were no camps nearby, many towns had rail stations, through which the trains carrying the condemned would pass—and there was no doubt about who the condemned were.

Third, and finally, it fails to account for those few protests that did occur and suggest some degree of awareness. For example, the T4 program, through which many institutionalized, disabled individuals were starved or poisoned, did generate critical commentary from public figures once it was uncovered, and I believe among them were several priests of considerable regional influence. However, these protests, such as they were, were ultimately silenced by a greater commitment to the nationalist program.

Here I must apologize for a slight discrepancy. I began with a question which I don’t yet intend to address, namely how one could choose not to confront the atrocities. Instead, I have said a few words to justify the question in the first place and hopefully establish that the more brutal elements of Nazi ideology were not out of the public awareness, even if they were not a part of the official Party propaganda.

And with regard to those who did directly participate in the camps and in the treatment of the occupied territories, well, they were clearly aware, so what was it that motivated them?

To be fair here, there was a great deal of nuance to the ideologies and opinions of the many people who participated in the war, both at home and on the Eastern and Western fronts. There were many who were not ardent Nazis, for example, and yet their dissatisfaction with the Versailles Treaty and its humiliating terms left them desirous of a reckoning and a reestablishment of their place in the world--better still, the conquering of that world. 

Thus many, in those aforementioned letters home, expressed qualms about the activities of the occupying forces, but were not necessarily opposed to the overarching plan. For example, Wilm Hosenfeld, made famous through The Pianist for saving the Polish musician Wladyslaw Spilman, worked to hide and protect numerous Jews, all while continuing to support nationalism and apparently experiencing no dissonance over the execution of his military duties in Warsaw alongside his personal protective efforts--this, from his letters to his wife.

Other soldiers initially held back from more wanton violence, such as needlessly burning villages in their path. But as time wore on and they endured hardships both mentally and physically exhausting, many became hardened or paranoid. The slightest movement might trigger a man to shoot, thinking he was the target of a Russian sniper, only to find that he had downed an unarmed peasant.

And, unfortunately, there were also those who simply enjoyed killing or whose blatantly racist ideologies were, for them, sufficient justification. Of these individuals, what more needs to be said?

I’ve probably given this more time and space than it really requires, but I feel like it’s easy to take a simplistic view of the situation. Easy, not only because we don’t even know where to begin unpacking the full implications of the Holocaust and the surrounding atrocities, but also because we don’t want to acknowledge the possibilities that a more complicated picture entails.

In 2015, 60 Minutes did a segment entitled “The Hidden Holocaust,” which talks about the recent, ongoing work of a French priest, Father Patrick Desbois. Father Desbois tends to no church of his own. Instead, he travels from town to town in Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and other territories that were once behind the Iron Curtain, seeking their oldest living citizens who can tell him where the mass grave is.

While the death camps posed one solution for the mass extermination program, they involved a great deal of administration and transport. It was quite common and simpler for the Jewry of a particular town to be rounded up, led out of town to a semi-secluded place, and executed right there. These mass graves are generally unmarked and, save for the memories of those who were children at the time, they would be wholly forgotten.

One of the most interesting things about the 60 Minutes segment, however, were the taped interviews where Father Desbois questions these people about the circumstances surrounding the executions. At one point, he pulls out a photograph of one such occasion. In it, there are of course the soldiers and the Jews. But there are also onlookers. What comes out of these interviews is that these were not secretive, hidden slaughters in the dead of night. Rather, they were carried out with the full awareness of the townspeople, and many times with a crowd of said people standing by, there for the spectacle.

Earlier I said that I wanted to challenge the dichotomy I had set up, between passive and active participants. Because I really do think we have distinct ideas regarding the responsibility that people bear, based on those questions I asked—those who simply turn away and refuse to acknowledge what is taking place around them may be complicit in what occurs, but they leave open room for doubt. They did not hold the gun, therefore: what was the punishable nature of their crime?

And yet these spectators are precisely, by definition, not looking away. They are both present at the scene of the crime, and they are gazing upon it. They are, in essence, a jury. And this is a special category. For a jury cannot wash its hands of the consequences, as Pontius Pilate does.

The words of a jury are “performative.” Throughout the course of the trial, the defendant is simply that—a defendant. It is only upon the deliberation of the jury that he becomes innocent or guilty, although the jury will not ultimately be responsible for carrying out his punishment.

Likewise, the spectators at the scene: their participation is consecration beneath the unchallenging gaze. For some, this is mere entertainment. For others, it is justice for another collective guilt—that of Hitler’s much-abused “European Jewry.” Regardless, they are actors every bit as much as the one whose finger rests on the trigger.

I want to go back to what I said earlier about easy answers. The easy answer is to point the finger. To say, “See what they have done. They are guilty.” And they are. But when you begin to break down the question of what, exactly, it is that they are guilty of, when you begin to add nuance to your understanding of what took place, there comes a point at which an honest person cannot fail to realize: “But see what we have done.”

It’s the spectacle that got me in the end. Because I realized that there are probably people alive today in the South who were part of a lynch mob.

How could they do it?

It’s harder to ask when “they” are virtually indistinguishable from “I” and from “we,” and suddenly the safe distance we’ve been maintaining as judge, standing over and above, is completely collapsing in on itself and we find ourselves sitting opposite the bench.

How could we do it?


A Matter of Injustice

There is this sense that if justice is getting what one deserves, then a punishment ought to fit the crime. On a podcast I listened to recently, the host told the story of a judge in North or South Carolina who sentenced three men in a brutal rape case to either twenty years in prison or voluntary castration. While his sentence was decried as inhumane cruelty and the sentence was changed to just twenty years in prison after an appeal, there is a certain fittingness to it, at least in my eyes.

The man who carries out sexual abuse gives up something of his sexuality. The thief who steals with his hand is relieved of it. The one whose tongue runs with slander or lies likewise silences the offending member. As if we can make some kind of amends by removing from our bodies those parts of it which are crucial to the sins that we commit.

And yet underlying it all is this realization that however much we may deprive the physical, we have made no inroads on the mental or spiritual, and it is there that the action originates. But how can we punish the soul? For those with some feeling, I suppose one might torture their family members to impress upon them the pain that their own crimes have given. Or we could, as we do, cut them off from all social contact by placing them in isolation chambers with no comforting umbilical cord of human speech to tie them to the outside world.

As usual, that wasn't quite what I meant to speak of, although it gets there eventually. At some point, we realize that systematic criminal justice fails because the crime typically involves an *injustice* toward the victim, and so justice becomes a contradiction in terms, for we deliver to the criminal what is deserved and yet what is deserved is what is undeserved. The punishment can never satisfy the crime.

I only think of this because I feel at times as though I had stuck my fingers into the heart of Pennsylvania and ripped its heart out, and now, from some grieved impulse to make amends, I read its biography, or more intimate still, its letters and diaries. But these do not bring it back to life. It would require something else to do that, and I'm not sure whither the solution lies.


In Defense of the Fairies

There are four ways to view the relation of human and world, some being more beneficial to one's sanity and/or more faithful to reality than others.

The materialistic universes... 

Big human, small world: sometimes known as narcissism. The world is fairly dull, predictable, if not known then either easy to know or not worth knowing. The self is all important and the individual ego's perspective is privileged. The problems encountered in such a world can readily be solved by "common sense," by which one typically means what one believes to be the best course of action based on one's own values and principles.

Small human, small world: also known as pessimism and possibly cynicism, depending on how you approach it. Neatly packages the world into little categories and always deems it lacking, but sees nothing in either one's self
or in others that could answer those problems with real change.

The idealistic universes...

Big human, big world: The hero goes on an epic quest because no hero ever begins life as a hero, and yet there are always early indicators. Heracles killing the snakes in his infancy. Birth stories involving unusual parentage. But most of the great heroes are crippled by their pride. They inhabit a world filled with monsters and magic, and they meet it head on with courage, but too often, they trip over themselves and fall hard from the lofty heights. Furthermore, the world of the epics is built on the premise of the perpetual threat of war. There can be no peace where so many men go forth looking to prove themselves in battle.

Last of all, there is the small human in a big world. She shies away from the overweening pride of the heroes, but also rejects the gloom and doom of the pessimist. Humans have painfully fleeting life spans, and much of their lives are given over to uncertainty and grief. Even so, they may do their small work with cheerfulness and faith that there is more to the world than mere earth and stone. 

If I believe in fairies, it is to keep me humble while giving me strength to carry on. There is something worth fighting for, but that which we fight for fights with us, alongside us. There is more to this world than the breaths we take in this perpetual present. So why not let there be fairies?


Übungen und Arbeit

My voice is rusty this evening, and recently it feels like the worthwhile words--the juicy, salty, flavorful letters that Milo finds in the market at Dictionopolis--are hard to come by. I spend all day producing words and shaping words and restraining words. They are among the fundamental building blocks upon which so much of our work, our relationships, and our society are built. But sometimes they're not as pleasant as the ones that Milo sampled. Or perhaps (I am forgetting now) Milo did nibble on a letter that was a tad dry.

I saw the peregrine falcons that live on City Hall. In a city overflowing with human life, it is sometimes hard to catch sight of the animals that fill in the spaces that are leftover. The rooftops, the alleyways, and the great, hot, smelly out of doors. The streets often reek faintly (or less faintly) of piss and rotting trash. In the humid days of midsummer, the whole city pants against the heat as beads of sweat drip down and the persistent hum of air conditioning units nags around its ears like a particularly bloodthirsty mosquito.

But there were the falcons. They found room to nest, and they seized it as their own: great nest, querulous young, and all. Perhaps all those post-apocalyptic stories aren't so wrong when they fur all the broken down metropolises in an implacable onslaught of trees. Not that the mark of human life would be wiped out. The earth would remember us, would rightfully shake its fist at us, for all the poisons we'd leave behind. We are deists about God, but we forget that so much of our technology is not self-sustaining, would unleash destruction across the face of the planet if we were all to perish without taking steps to dispose of our nuclear reactors and our hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic waste. We, it seems, are somewhat less perfect, and so our creations must be forever guided by a final cause whose hand remains at the helm.

I used to think to myself, and sometimes still do, when I wanted to spend money that I should save, "Why would you cheat your future self? What has she done to deserve that?" And when I saw trash lying on the ground, I would say to myself, "Why not you? If not you, then someone will have to take care of it. There's no reason why it has to be someone else, when you're right here."

Sometimes I think we could all benefit from keeping those two thoughts close to the seat of our willpower. What if, instead of deliberately turning our eyes away from the future, we thought, "Why should future generations have to pay for my laziness, just because it takes a few extra minutes to scrape the peanut butter out of this glass jar to recycle it? Why should the animals and the land have to absorb toxins, just so I can have a little more convenience? And why not start now? Why wait until tomorrow? Perhaps tomorrow it will be too late." Perhaps it is already too late, and all of our yesterday selves have come to their lesson only to find that it will be taught with a stick rather than a lecture. We are bad at acting toward ends that are outside of ourselves and outside of the present moment, if those two can even be distinguished from one another (but that's a separate story).

It was funny though, that after all this time of wanting to see them, the day I finally saw the falcons they were fighting. Screeching and carrying on like two middle-aged women fighting over a lamp at a bargain sale, only instead of a lamp, one of them had breakfast in its talons. True Philadelphians. Maybe the animals aren't that far behind us. Maybe we haven't outrun them after all.


Space Age Wisdom

"If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we truly are."
{Captain Jean-Luc Picard}


Changing with the Times

It's understandable that we would desire an absolute guide to how we should live. Something simple, or, if not simple, at least made familiar by habitual practice.

But there is something to this language of seasons being applied to our lives. That the circumstances might change, and with them, the best choices and courses of action that we must take if we wish to thrive.

We must live in the balance and learn to move with the moments, rather than fighting them actively or resisting them passively. 

There is so much we don't get to choose. We might as well learn to accept what is ours to work with and move on. 

Perhaps we may even be surprised by the small gifts that lie along the way--like the first ray of dawn rising on a field of frost, or the sound of blackbirds calling to one another at twilight. Gifts that would not have been ours, save for the circumstances that brought us in this moment to this place.


Anti-intellectualism in the Age of Drumpf

Hint: It's just like anti-intellectualism in all other eras of American history. With a few slight tweaks to accommodate the accidents of circumstance.

I recently finished reading Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life. He published it in the early 1960s, following on the McCarthyism of the 50s, which particularly targeted intellectuals and entertainers. I say this in part to establish his credibility. However strongly we may feel about the uniqueness of Drumpfian rhetoric, the reality is that politicians have been suspicious of the creators and critics of culture throughout history.

Part of Hofstadter's purpose in writing the book was to provide a historical overview. And while writing about "anti-intellectualism" suggests a certain bias, he does want to offer the thesis that intellectuals come under attack most frequently when they are enjoying a certain degree of prominence. How much more have the technological and scientific advances in warfare required us to rely on "experts" for our national "defense"? How often do we hear experts on economy or the Middle East called in to comment on television shows or, more importantly, to advise presidents, Congressmen, and cabinet members regarding policy decisions?

Given the abstract nature of all of this knowledge such experts sell, it's hard not to feel as if our world has somehow gotten away from us. If common sense is no longer sufficient to wisely determine our political destiny, how can we ever hope to understand it well enough to make a difference: we mere mortals, whose days are spent buying into a dream of prosperity and slogging through the tangled morass of a broken system created by our collective decisions?

I am sympathetic to the cry for a common sense philosophy of life. There's a reason why Wendell Berry's essays and poetry, his Mad Farmer rhetoric, speak to my bones. He talks of solid things in a world that is built out of information and run on attention. And he offers a welcome alternative: he is not uneducated or unintelligent, and he is certainly capable of grappling with culture and ethical problems. In other words, he is no Drumpf, preying on the fears of the people against the disturbing Other. Instead, he seeks to offer a different ideal for what life could be like, if we chose to live it on different terms and with different goals in mind.

But I'm not wholly prepared to shred up my diploma and reject all things academical, purely on the appeal of common sense. What is common sense anyway? Let us say that it is in some measure the pragmatic knowledge necessary for survival. Not only that one must eat, but that one must not eat poison or too many cookies. Not only that one should be home before dark, but that one must not appear threatening in the presence of a police officer or walk through predominantly white neighborhoods.

Oh wait.

I'm not really talking about race right now. My point was rather, that when we talk about common sense, we're talking in part about traditional or social knowledge. Survival is a very limited part of what makes up common sense, but even that which seems like it ought to be most basic is bound up in the accidental circumstances of our society. If you're a person of color, survival is not merely about getting food or shelter: it's also about deflecting the real physical threat that subconscious racism poses when it finds expression in an armed police officer doing a routine traffic stop.

This isn't to denigrate common sense as a whole. We are more apt to decry the lack of it than to wish for it to be done away with entirely. My point is rather that as a foundation for life and as the source of a holistic worldview, common sense can only get you so far, again because it is a product of your society's circumstances.

Common sense hasn't always had the meaning that it has taken on today. It was a philosophical term used in discussions of the mind-body problem (i.e. how do the mind and body relate? is the mind of the same substance as the body and if so, where is it located? if it is not of the same substance, is the mind immortal? and so forth) and more generally of perception. The common sense was simply the organ of the mind whereby all of the different sensory data where compiled into one. Hearing being fundamentally different from touch or from sight, they could not all be perceived by the same organs, but something had to bring all of those perceptions together, and that organ was the common sense.

Taken in that light, common sense is quite raw and uncritical. The common sense belonged to the lower faculties of the brain, the animal powers as it were. It was simply combinatory in nature. The processes of pattern recognition or of critical analysis would not take place at that level.

And it seems like this is what we are being urged toward when we are told to take a common sense view of things--and to discard the bombastic, empty pronouncements of the intellectuals. Take the world as it presents itself to you. What you see is what there is. Appearances are the only thing that there is.

...Denying, all the while, that your senses are not selectively attentive, shaped by myriad, minuscule, unconscious influences from the tone of a man's voice when he talks down to a woman to the perennial aesthetic association of darkness with evil to the blockbuster movies that are somehow always about white people romancing or white people fighting crime or white people having dramatic family redemption stories.

Clearly neither camp has it quite right. If you spend too much time up in the ivory tower, you'll lose touch with the world that can't be contained inside your head and go mad, like Chesterton's mathematician for whom the only cure was poetry. If you react purely on your gut without critical evaluation, you'll make poor decisions based on immediately available information and lack the faculties necessary to change your life for the better.

I suppose it's just the struggle to figure out which one to trust in the moment that I find hard. It's rarely difficult to think something out, once you have a few tools, but it always seems to be so difficult to apply it.


Next Slide

Scroll down. Swipe up. Press like.

I set my phone aside yesterday evening and turned off all the lights in my room and did something passing for yoga, there in the half-dark. It was strange. I wasn't trying to accomplish anything or be anyone or focus intently on any problem. I was just there. In that moment.

I had this thought, which probably sounds a little silly, but: this is how my cat always experiences life.

There is no digital technology that can take her away from the present moment. She doesn't check Facebook every fifteen minutes or let her food get cold while she tries to find the perfect Instagrammable angle. No wonder she stares at me blankly sometimes and tries to kick my phone on the floor in the morning. She has no grid for this out-of-body experience that is the Western human life. She cannot transcend herself to connect with other cats a thousand miles away--and thereby disconnect from the cats that are here in the present moment.

Running away. Forgetting how to be yourself. It's easy when the present is a daunting space and all your problems threaten to crowd out your pleasures.

But to spend a non-judgmental moment in your own skin--that is a rare gift. Find a way, and make it happen.


A Year Later

I sometimes wonder if it has always been like this. Sure, there are some jobs we can't escape the need for: trash collectors, for example, don't have the most glamorous job, but at least in an urban setting, the need for them is great. Certainly, we could alleviate the pressing need by re-using and investing in durable products to reduce waste, but there will always be similarly un-glamorous jobs. And if you spend your time looking at job postings on various websites--as I do--it's easy to become discouraged, not simply by the lack of available entry-level jobs, but also by the dearth of significance.

Seriously. In what fresh hell did this become our lives? I'm not trying to say the Industrial Revolution was glamorous, or that a manufacturing-based economy is ideal, or even that an agricultural society should be our goal, but it strikes me that we're doing something wrong if the vast majority of employment available to the general public is incapable of providing some kind of personal satisfaction.

Maybe what really gets me is how incredibly boring the world becomes when it is utterly depersonalized.

I don't know. All I know is, I don't want to be employed by the modern American economy, but apparently I have to be, which is about as close to being held hostage as I'm liable to ever get.


Two men, their bodies building triangles on the slab of concrete: foreheads to the ground, pointing toward home. The center is outside the self. This is something they have realized, perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously, as they arrange their lives out of a gravitational necessity. At this time and this time and this time, we orient ourselves in recognition of an external, eternal order of things. I bend, I am flexible, I am made to be the supple mover, it is how we function in a world that is not our own. 

I wake up in the morning and, being made in the image of God, I create the world with my opening eyes. I wake up in the morning and, being born into the limits of man, I cannot share what I create. Leibniz's lonely monads in their unimpressed cosmic harmony. If only you could touch me, maybe we'd both feel something. Instead, we are helpless, we take charge by, bowing to the truth. That there is something merciless that mercilessly refuses to be defined. This is justice: to give the unheeding its due. 

If only it mattered that we are shaking our fists. But the Stoics knew it, the Epicureans knew it, the Buddhists know it: we cannot affect, so let us not be affected. Causation is a category we cannot think outside of, and an illusion we should not believe in. All the world is hollow: we are reaching out to fill the void with interlacing of hands; we are reaching out into a void that forever separates us. Divided by infinity, "we" do not exist. Divided from us, "I" do not exist. And so, through simple arithmetic, the only thing left is mathematics.



"And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listened closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it."
{Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See}


I'm thinking this morning that...

We don't need our friends to be perfect; we just want them to be present.


Turning Liquid Sunshine Into Wine

It takes a coffee tree five years before it bears fruit. If it bears fruit at all.

We cannot live outside of the present moment, and as such, we feel it with an intensity that dulls our powers of choice and of reason to the compelling arguments of the past and the urgent concerns of the future. We may try to shield ourselves from a particularly painful present by dwelling mentally in the past, or we may have so much fear of the future that we project ourselves--not into the future, but into myriad possible worlds, any one of which could be (but will never quite be) the one in which we ultimately live. Still, we live and move and have our being... now.

We cannot know the fruit of our choices in the present. We cannot evaluate our lives solely in light of our present circumstances. We can only make choices, somewhat blindly, somewhat cautiously grasping toward where we think our best good lies.

I want to live with a firm sense of the arc of my life. That doesn't mean dwelling on the past or prognosticating the future. Rather, I think of it as a recognition of where I am coming from, with both the tools that supplies and the limits it imposes, as well as an idea of not only where I would like to be and what I would like to do, but also what life I would like to look back on from the penultimate point in that arc.

The present can be every bit as much a burden as the past or the future. We have to be able to see our way clear of the problems that beset us in the moment, or we despair and cannot move forward. We have to find a way to balance ourselves amidst these points: to be nourished and supported by what we know, to be inspired by our goals, and then, with faith, to "act! Act in the living present!" 

The fruit our labors bear is not visible today--may never be fully visible in our lifetime. So don't judge the present or hinge your feelings of success on some nebulous benchmark. There is no time for that. There is only another choice to be made, for better or for worse.


Making Moonshine

Distillation. What happens when you don't have time or energy? Two options. You're tired and you let your "down time" be down time. Tune out, turn off. Second option: you hoard that precious time to do something that you care about enough to ignore the exhaustion. 

It's easy to tell someone that they have the time and they're just not using it. But let's give them some credit: how much can they accomplish in those scattered hours?

Not too much credit: how much can they accomplish if they don't use their scattered hours?

We do not primarily build our dreams in the midst of a spontaneous break from or leveling of our lives as they currently stand. We build them slowly, one cog at a time, in the moments that we can separate from our lives of being committed to other people's projects (which is not all bad--you love your family, your friends, and so you are happy to help them along their way).

But to return to my first word, this reduction, this paring down of our time, forces us to grapple with the question of what is most essential. To get from point A to point B, what must I do? And before that, what do I care about most?

See also: the enormous number of things that I was able to pursue over the past few months because I had few commitments and no money. See now: 55 hours a week spent between full-time job and contract work. 

If we want to distill our interests down to the things that we ultimately care about most, we can do few things more effective than to reduce the time that we have to do them in. Hopefully the result will be a clarity of mind, a sense of focus, and a concentration of purposive action.


Life Lessons

You have to pick your bullshit battles. Sometimes the man is going to want you to cite in a bizarre and senseless fashion to provide articles with a semblance of legitimacy. Sometimes, he'll want you to compromise your personal values to advocate poor character decisions. It's all bullshit, but you can only waste so much energy caring about these things, so choose wisely and just let the rest go.


Further Up and Further In//Mixing Bowl Full of Metaphors

When we think about things that require effort, we usually don't even bother to include something like "me time." Because hey, me time means relaxing with a bottle of beer in a hammock--or, if you envy the beer its bed, then in a hammock with a beer. Or it means plunking down in front of the tv to watch a couple of tv shows. Or curling up in bed on a Saturday morning for hours and not coming out until you absolutely can't resist your empty stomach any longer. Right?

What if our concept of me time were more expansive though? Think about it. French fries are easy to eat, and I like them A LOT, but I know perfectly well that a diet consisting solely of French fries is not much of a diet. I would be unhealthy and unhappy. Resisting "easy" and eating something homemade that's equally delicious and much healthier is going to be a lot better for me in the long run. I'll feel better physically, and I'll feel better mentally, because I know that I'm making good choices.

Likewise, it's easy for me to curl up in bed and watch something on Netflix. And sometimes I really do need to unwind, and that's a great way to do it. But often when I do that it's really because it's just easier than something I care more about, like reading David Graeber's 500+ page tome on debt. I come home from work, and I'm tired. I just want to make my dinner and then float on the edge of my post-work weariness until I can convince myself to go to sleep. Whatever happens between food and sleep should require as little thought as possible.

How much better do I feel though, when I'm actually putting forth the effort to do the things that I actually care about? the things that I want to identify with—not as "girl who watches Netflix" but as "girl who loves to learn"?

I've watched coworkers do this thing where they go home every night after work and just spend hours upon hours watching television. Okay, I haven't literally watched them do that. I'm not outside in the bushes or anything, but I have listened to them talk about tv shows and movies. Just think about the amount of time the average person has to put in to be conversant in the details of everything from Breaking Bad to Parks and Recreation to Madam Secretary to South Park. Seriously. I've binge-watched television shows before (and usually I go for the real doozies, the BBC productions or the HBO series that are a minimum of one hour per episode), and I know how astonishingly fast you can vacuum up 30-40 hours of your life on one show.

But I was reminded recently that "easy" isn't always "good," and that when we let easy choose our lives for us, we frequently find ourselves in a situation where we've given up so much more than we realize. Hence, that one guy will tell you how much he loves to play guitar and how he'd really like to devote more time to music, and it's not that he doesn't have the time to give, it's just that there are easier things to do, and then it's 10 years down the road, and he could have been so much better at playing, but he didn't put in the effortful hours of dedication.

It takes effort to actually care for yourself. It takes effort to go beyond identifying what makes you feel fulfilled to actually doing it: on a day-to-day basis, when you're tired after a long and mind-numbing day at work, amidst so many easy distractions that require half the focus and work.

But just like I don't really want to eat French fries for every meal, so too, I don't see myself being very happy if I pick easy over effort.

I meant to conclude there, so it's a bit of a tangent to mention it, but this blog has two names, "Fire in a Jar" and "At the Wicket Gate." I meant the latter to be more of a subtitle or a description, but the two have distinct origins, and so I find it a bit difficult to subordinate one to the other.

Anyway, "At the Wicket Gate" is an allusion to Bunyan's novel, The Pilgrim's Progress. The entry to the straight and narrow path is a wicket gate, and when I first started this blog, I was 18 and feeling like I was setting out on that big journey into adulthood, with whatever trials, travails, blessings, and laughter it might hold.

I guess I just wanted to say with that, that there are two options that Christian has. The broad and easy path that leads to destruction, and the straight and narrow path, with all its stones and its hills, but oh, it leads further up and further in, as Aslan put it in a different book.

The thing about those options, though, is that they're never that far apart. In a sense, we're always "at the wicket gate," always choosing a particular path, though our choice may vary from one moment to the next. It's an always, ongoing commitment that we make when we choose a particular way, and while the discipline of a stretch may make us doughty road warriors, it takes little more than the empty circus festivities of Vanity Fair to turn us aside. Pride, therefore, has no place in it, but likewise neither does despair. Just as Vanity Fair is nigh unto the path and easily turns us aside, so the path leads away from it, and all we have to do is make the choice.

Because every evening of my life is an incremental step in the arc of my story. That's why it matters. Even when it feels like it doesn't. Even when I don't want to feel like it does. Further up and further in.


On What Is

Apologies to Quine for cribbing his paper title. It seemed appropriate though.

I was curled up with a book, newly opened with all the thrills that attend those as yet unexperienced  literary adventures, and my interest had been suitably piqued by its curious introductory vignette of two old ladies who were starved to death in a crumbling house on an old plantation in Jamaica. The book, by the by, is Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica.

Things were going splendidly for my plan to get lost in said book, when in the transition from page two to page three, I became too indignant to go on without expressing an opinion. So now you know: I'm really a crotchety, anal-retentive, and opinionated old 20-something. New information? Does it matter? Anyway.

The fatal line:
That is the sort of scene which makes a deep impression on the mind; far deeper than the ordinary, less romantic, everyday thing which shows the real state of an island in the statistical sense.

If you read that calmly, please go back and read the last four words in a tone of outraged disbelief. Thank you.

WHAT the blue blazes is REAL about statistics? Pray, do tell, when was the last time you met an average human? Or an average family, with 1.7 children? I don't think we're yet calculating enough to take out shares in children, but even then, some families would have to own shares of multiple children to make up the difference, and I don't think the children would like that very much.

I mentioned Quine in the beginning: earlier this evening, I was skimming his paper "On What There Is," which expresses his preference for a clean, metaphysical landscape, cleared of such rubbish as "abstract objects." I'm not entirely sympathetic to his reptilian love of the desert, but I am sympathetic in at least this sense: if anyone would like to come up to me and tell me that statistics are real, I will laugh in their face.

This is obvious in one sense, being the aforementioned absurdity of talking about a .7 child. I hope that no one is foolish enough to think that .7 children exist, and if there are people who think that, I'm not sure whether I want to meet them. But in the sense that we usually take statistics—as expressing something true about a feature of society, albeit in a general way—I think that Hughes's formulation is a bit more the norm than the deviation. What is real is not the anecdotal: it is the mystical "average" experience.

On a certain level, it makes sense. We casually recognize that there is no one, single, objective point of view, that all experience is subjective in that each person brings his or her own back story and biases to the moment. Historians rewrite good and bad across the pages of the past, but yesterday's villain could just as easily be today's hero, depending on the script and the players. Amidst such a plethora of possibilities—converging here, diverging there—is it any wonder that we desire something stable to steady ourselves against?

But with statistics, as with the desperate straining of early modern philosophers to know the external, objective, independently existing world, there is often a tendency to dismiss the subjective and the anecdotal as inferior. "Certainly," we sniff, "that may be your experience, but 95.3% of Americans rate their stay at 4 stars or better when they book at Hampton Inn." Of course, it starts getting really amusing when statistics purport to measure more clearly subjective experiences, like, say, how comfortable people in Fishtown feel when walking down Frankfort Avenue at 3am on a Tuesday morning.

And isn't that essentially what Hughes is doing in the line I quoted? Trying to average out unique, subjective experiences? What else is this "state of an island"? Surely, following opening paragraphs that talked about negroes fleeing sugarcane plantations and planter-class women who were taught that being useful was low, and therefore not de rigueur, surely Hughes doesn't mean to talk about the flora and fauna of Jamaica or remark on the erosion of its beaches. While vines climb the porch and prop open the old front door, they are not there to speak themselves. They are, instead, representative of a very real experience of the decay of old hierarchies, human hierarchies, and those experiences cannot be anything BUT anecdotal, for no two people are liable to have identical experiences under a given system, whether that be a political oligarchy, a matriarchy, or, as is the case here, slavery.

Perhaps it wouldn't matter so much, except that as we try to subordinate the subjective to that attractive, illusory objectivity that statistics provide, we actually begin to change the ways that we see ourselves, whether we suffer from the sense that we aren't hitting the mark or we point to a statistic to justify our feeling of isolation as a member of *a* 1% (to be distinguished from the economic 1% here).

Even more concerning to me, though perhaps more of a dry subject, we make ourselves vulnerable to political reduction and manipulation. When we remove the element of individual human consideration, our circumstances become irrelevant: it is only the numbers that matter. But I suppose that boils down more to the creation of artificial categories and has less to do with statistics. Or are they related?

Also, have I been completely muddling averages with percentages here? Technically an average or a mean or whatever is considered a statistic too, right? I'm clearly too tired to be airing my grievances in this manner...


I Preserved My Good Times in a Jar

I was going back through my Instagram photos and felt such a rush of nostalgia. For the autumn light that I couldn't get enough of. The potent, intriguing fragrance and taste of lavender. Fourteen pounds of juicy red strawberries. Misty dandelion globes, red cliffs, and the sweeping farmlands of PEI. Concerts that brought me joy and concerts that made me cry, sometimes overlapping in one. And so many good times--with people who are still in my life.

I realized with the usual shock of post hoc revelation that I have enjoyed these past few years. And all the ingredients are in place, from the people I love to the person I'm challenging myself to be: here's to more good times and memories to be made, to eating good food with great people, to reading great books, to traveling to places new and old, and to embracing new challenges even when they hurt. This is my life. I'm going to make sure it's awesome.


The Economist and the Mad Farmer

The largest major in my graduating class was economics by far. Somewhere behind were the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) majors, who generally wanted a little more human context to their quantificational data analysis while still preserving that prized hire-ability that comes of being an Econ major in this day and age. Common occurrence: visiting high school senior sits in on a humanities class. When asked what she wants to major in, she says economics, but (patronizingly, though she doesn't realize it) she would love to minor in [insert philosophy, English, classics, history, etc. here].

Okay, fine, so I'm obviously a little skeptical and/or bitter. Big surprise, since I majored in philosophy and I'm scraping by while all those Econ majors got consulting jobs. That's mostly a joke at my own expense, I think, because what bothers me more about the trend is what it expresses about our orientation as a culture, and I'm not entirely comfortable with the consequences of that orientation.

I recently led a meetup discussion about the ethics behind global aid. For supplemental reading, I had offered Onora O'Neil's "Rights, Obligations, and World Hunger," in which she argues for an obligation-based ethical theory. One of the participants in the discussion questioned whether the language of moral obligation could be meaningful at all for those who do not believe in a higher power. Certainly a hollow threat of divine or karmic retribution possesses minimal strength to motivate or alter human behaviors.

In hindsight, however, I would dispute his premise that for a non-theistic society there is no higher power. Indeed, he is the perfect example, because he was an atheist, but he put a great deal of faith in the benefits of capitalism and in its ability to resolve global issues.

In David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, he notes that prior to Adam Smith and his contemporaries, economics did not exist as a separate discipline. There was no abstract "market" distinct from other human political or social structures. 

Fast forward a few hundred years and you can't escape the idea. In an era of financial instability, students learn the principles of microeconomics, desperately hoping to gain some modicum of control over an abstract and slippery fate. They toss around the jargon of supply and demand, sunk costs, public goods, and game theory as they graph neat curves and calculate deadweight loss. 

Arguably for my discussion participant and for many others, the market has taken on some of the role of the divine. It is seen as an objective force, the cosmic balancing agent, and, intriguingly, an arbiter of justice. Note how trade has supplanted outright warfare on the world stage: where once we shot a man in the heart, now we're civilized and resort to picking his pockets. 

And of course we need a priesthood to act as intermediaries between our lives experience and this ultimate reality. In spite of all our neat equations, the Market is a nebulous being and its demands and judgments are difficult to interpret and hard to predict. Enter the economist, who knowingly looks on and provides financial guidance in the form of prophetic words about GDP growth percentages.

Where does that leave us? We are subjected to an impersonal, amoral, external will that determines everything from our education to our employment to our housing to our marriage prospects. We are told that our new ideals are to be efficiency, which unites with the old Protestant work ethic to produce a generation of hamsters forever running in their wheels and getting nowhere fast. But ah! We are to be consoled: the economy is growing. 

Someone like Wendell Berry runs perpendicular to the cult of economy, offering us a glimpse of an alternative. The center of Berry's world, the organizing principle toward which human efforts are directed, is the local community, to be understood as both the people and the land on and off of which they live. In this world, the money does not lead--it follows the concerted, directed efforts of the people and is a contributor to but not the sole arbiter of their flourishing.

In a recent article for The Nation about massive layoffs among journalists, Dale Maharidge states, "...The shift is deeper and more systemic. Like the story of Willy Loman [in Death of a Salesmen], cast aside in his creeping middle age, the tale of today's discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes."

Does it really have to be this way? Berry casts himself in his poetry as "The Mad Farmer," whose romantic idealism leads him to throw himself, alone and small, against the giants of modern society. But surely, if he is alone in his fight, he is not alone in his desire. We may not believe it, we may hide behind pragmatism and cynicism, but I believe that we still carry a small seed of hope for something better, something that honors what is best and brightest about the human social life and does not treat individual lives as so much usable energy to be expended and cast aside at will. The mad farmer is the voice in the wilderness, drawing us out of our organized temples of finance and telling us that there is another way. It's up to us whether we will take heed and listen.