Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Curiosity’s Trail”

Inspiration and Courage

image A thirteen year old boy from California became the youngest person ever to climb Mount Everest.  Jordan Romero

who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa when he was 10 years old — said he was inspired by a painting in his school hallway of the seven continents’ highest summits.

"Every step I take is finally toward the biggest goal of my life, to stand on top of the world," Jordan said on his blog earlier.”

….The team planned to do something special for Jordan at the mountaintop but was keeping it a surprise even from him, Bailey said.

Jordan was carrying a number of good luck charms, including a pair of kangaroo testicles given to him by a friend who has cancer.

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Wendell Berry – Leavings

 

I’m on the way home from Louisville where I attended a grant consultation with The Louisville Institute.  I’ve enjoyed some fine southern food (including bread pudding and Derby pie), smooth Kentucky bourbon and the company of some wonderfully curious people. 

Tim from Canada is preparing to bike across the nation of Canada with his family of a wife and three boys.  He will leave from Vancouver and trek east to St. Johns, Newfoundland.  Rich from Des Moines has always wanted to see the Rockies by train.  He is preparing to take Amtrak through Denver to Sacramento before returning on a different line through the Dakotas and on to Chicago.  He is going to look out the window and pay attention to the landscapes. Talitha is researching the notion of ‘home’ and the nature of desert spirituality in the austerity of the American southwest.  Peter is looking at what has resulted from a more recent dynamic in the Canadian prairies where immigrant pastors (Korean, Congolese) are ministering at traditional, rural churches in the heartland.  Candy is going to the Philippines and Japan to visit the places where her late father was held captive during World War II.  He survived the Bataan Death march and terrible suffering as a POW, and only late in life did he share his story with others.  Candy is making a trip in order to connect the stories to place.  Ron is taking his camera to Ireland and Scotland and is spending his sabbatical time focusing on prayer and photography.  And these are just a few of the remarkable stories I heard over food and drink. 

As a group we were privileged to hear Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba talk about the gift of rest in a culture obsessed with speed and control and busyness.

I first started reading Berry’s work as a student at Regent College.  Eugene Peterson included The Unsettling of America on our reading list for “Ministry and Spirituality”. He himself had made the habit of reading Berry and replacing“farm” with “parish” as a way of learning pastoral ministry and paying attention to the local conditions where our work takes place.

Berry gave a reading from his latest book of poems, Leavings.  Here is an excerpt:

The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery

A few years ago, I attended a conference where one of the speakers noted that someone living in 1905 would have more in common with Moses the patriarch than with someone living in our own time.  There have been so many sweeping changes in such a relatively short time that the past seems too distant to yield any valuable contributions to the present day. 

During my university studies, I would face this matter practically every day. On one side of College Avenue, I was involved in a campus ministry that emphasized returning to “New Testament Christianity”.  In fact, the ministry grew out of the historic Restoration Movement which sought to return the Church to its simple, first-century character. The idea was that the farther we get away from the origins of this great thing, the more corrupt or distorted it becomes.  When I crossed the street for my classes at Mizzou, the belief was reversed: the past was held suspect and the modern was privileged.  The idea was that our expanding knowledge and our newer cosmologies required that we also outgrow antiquated worldviews and have a more modern notion of God, sex, the human person, fill in the blank. 

image Early in the Christmas break I finally got around to reading New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery by Anthony Grafton.  It had been on my short list for the last two years.  The author explores how intellectual history changed in the wake of the European discovery of the “new world”.  Prior to that, people still held that authority principally resided in the ancient books.  For example, to discern the pattern of the heavens, you read Aristotle.  To make sense of the world that existed within the human body beneath the skin, you read the physician Galen.   For centuries, the assumption for many, if not most, was that a “complete and accurate body of knowledge already existed.”

Grafton shows how with new world exploration and the rise of scientific inquiry, scholars had to revise inherited paradigms, if not abandon them altogether.  In the new world after Columbus,

“the ancient texts continued to be read, translated, and admired, to provide the model genres for ambitious modern writers: epic, history, tragedy.  And belief in progress would not become universal in the West for a very long time; not even in the Enlightenment would it find universal assent…Those who knew the ancient world best – the professional scholars – took the side of the Modern in the Battle, arguing that the ancients had in fact known far less than moderns about nature, the surface of the world, and much else.  New standards of arguments – based, supposedly, on ‘facts’ rather than mere texts – played a larger and larger role in many fields.

The book is a tour de force as it relates to intellectual history, scholastic methodology, cartography and the nature of cultural encounter.  And it provides a wonderful background to our current debates about curriculum (see the recent New York Times article on making college relevant) and how the past should resource the present in areas of religious belief, social values and new technologies.  Highly recommended. 

People of Parts and Real Life Avatars

What do you and I have in common with Lady Gaga, Andy Warhol and Where the Wild Things Are?

image In the summer of 2008, I read a fascinating article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “First Person Plural” by Paul Bloom. The author looks at the latest findings in neuroscience and the implications for how we understand human psychology. He argues that each of us is a multiplicity of selves that “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.” Blooms contends:

We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.

A few months ago, Bloom’s article was cited by David Brooks in a review of the image film, Where the Wild Things Are. Brooks piggybacks on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s argument that the philosopher’s approach to ethics has been replaced by a psychologist’s approach to ethics. Namely,

According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.

The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.

Brooks continues:

The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.

Last week, I found two further echoes to the arguments of Bloom and Brooks. I read a new short story by Thomas Lynch entitled “Apparition”. The main character, Adrian Littlefield, an associate pastor at a Methodist church in Findlay, Ohio, experiences the end of his marriage and is adjusting to life as a single-parent. Lynch writes that Littleton “had become in Findlay a man of parts, none exactly known entirely.” 

Later in the week, an article appearing in The New York Times describes Lady Gaga similarly:

Lady Gaga makes no bones about assimilating the lessons of celebrities who built careers by tapping into the talents of other and even larger talents (Madonna leaps to mind). But her singular innovation on the sincerest form of flattery has been to barge right past imitation to outright larceny.

Lady Gaga mashes up. She patches together what she finds in the image cultural image bank. She takes her own rather nondescript (but pretty) person and subjects herself to a real-time version of Photoshop, studiously and at times laboriously conjuring up an over-the-top creation built from bits of Bowery and Nomi and Jones and Bowie, but also Liberace, Joey Arias and Kylie Minogue.

Although Andy Warhol died just a year after Stefani Germanotta came into the world, and decades before Lady Gaga was willed into being, he was correct as usual in forecasting a time when there would be “new categories of people” being “put up there” as stars. Those people, he wrote in “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” would be made up of parts. And their fans, freed from the obligation to idolize a “whole person,” could choose which dimension of a star they wanted to love. Lady Gaga is rigged for that stardom: her persona is an amalgam of surfaces, faceted though not truly 3-D, addictive in the way video games are.

Like an emissary from a parallel world familiar to Second Life types, she is a real-life avatar.

Taken together, these voices are suggesting something like this: it used to be that people acted “out of character”; now, we act out characters, various roles we play throughout the course of a lifetime, if not, in fact, the course of the same day. For these roles can shift rapidly, like a quick-change artist suiting up for a different scene in the same play. Depending on who we are around and the situation, some particular aspect of our personality is brought out – more than simply a different interest or a hobby, but a different identity or character quality. 

The Makings of a Good Bar Story

Here’s an interesting read from a few weeks back.  The owner of one of my  favorite local haunts is in the front of the line to see the earth from space.  The comments section of the online article also includes some cheeky back-and-forth about the wisdom of spending $200,000 for a space flight when this money could be spent elsewhere. 

Smith, who owns downtown Columbia’s Flat Branch Pub & Brewing, is among 300 clients who have signed up to be inaimageugural passengers on the first commercial spaceship.

Yesterday, he was in the Mojave Desert to watch British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic unveil the SpaceShipTwo, which was renamed the VSS Enterprise. The six-seat bullet-shaped craft, roughly the size of a large business jet, is expected to offer 2½-hour tourist space flights in 2011.

Smith is paying the $200,000 ticket price to be one of its first galactic tourists.

“I simply want to be in space,” he said during a phone interview with the Tribune yesterday from California. “I want to see the curve of the Earth. I want to see the planet from space — no lines on a map, no countries, just the Earth in its entirety. And out the other window, I’ll be able to look and see the blackness of space and the stars — the stars won’t be twinkling because there will be no atmosphere between us. I’ll just be able to look out into the universe.”

Smith’s interest in space comes from his dad, Floyd Smith, who was an aerospace engineer for McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. “I read all the sci-fi stuff as a kid,” he said. “And with my father basically being a rocket scientist, the world of space travel wasn’t just a crazy idea.”…..

…..If all goes as planned, Smith will be among the first 1,000 humans to visit space. NASA has sent fewer than 500 people outside the atmosphere over the past 40 years.

Then again, “they were flying to the moon,” Smith said. “We’re just popping up for a little sightseeing and back. … And little ol’ Columbia gets to be there.”

If nothing else, he said, being among the first space tourists “will make for a good bar story.”

Dawning of the Age of Aquarius and Aquinas

A conference was recently held in Vatican City to discuss astrobiology and the image implications that may arise from any future discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  Here’s an excerpt of the article:

The Church of Rome’s views have shifted radically through the centuries since Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other ideas, that other worlds could be inhabited.

Scientists have discovered hundreds of planets outside our solar system — including 32 new ones announced recently by the European Space Agency. Impey said the discovery of alien life may be only a few years away.

"If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs biochemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound," he said.

Similar discussions in 2005
This is not the first time the Vatican has explored the issue of extraterrestrials: In 2005, its observatory brought together top researchers in the field for similar discussions.

In the interview last year, Funes told Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano that believing the universe may host aliens, even intelligent ones, does not contradict a faith in God.

"How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?" Funes said in that interview.

"Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God’s creative freedom."

A Tribute to a Mother and to the Power of Curiosity

Mark Twain described his mother, Jane Clemens, in this way:

image “The greatest difference which I find between her and the rest of the people whom I have known, is this, and it is a remarkable one: those others felt a strong interest in a few things, whereas to the very day of her death she felt a strong interest in the whole world and everything and everybody in it. In all her life she never knew such a thing as half-hearted interest in affairs and people, or an interest which drew a line and left out certain affairs and was indifferent to certain people. The invalid who takes a strenuous and indestructible interest in everything and everybody but himself, and to whom a dull moment is an unknown thing and an impossibility, is a formidable adversary for disease and a hard invalid to vanquish, I am certain it was this feature of my mother’s make-up that carried her so far toward ninety.”

The Magic of the Moon

image On the anniversary of one of history’s great milestone, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007).  The one describes how much how world has changed in so short a time, as Charlie Duke observes:

My father was born shortly after the Wright Brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the Moon. But my son, Tom, was five. And he didn’t think it was any big deal.

The other describes how that transcendent moment brought about a sense of humiliation, echoing the wisdom of Psalm 8. 

Jim Lovell recalls:

We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon, you can put your thumb up, and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you have ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself, all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are. But then how fortunate we are to have this body, and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.

Life is Like a Rollercoaster

I’m sure you’ve heard that “life is like a rollercoaster”. And it’s true. Life is. You spend a lot of time waiting in line for your future to take off. Your own fate has many ups and downs and twists and turns. There are the moments of exhilaration and moments of sheer terror; moments when you say, “this is fun” and moments when you say, “whatever possessed me to get on this ride in the first place.” There are magnificent views at the highest points and times when you’re moving so fast you can’t even keep your eyes open.

Last summer I took my children and their cousins to Six Flags. As is typical of our annual visits to the park, it was the hottest day of the summer. And, as usual, I had to talk (bribe, cajole, threaten) some of the little ones into riding the big rollercoasters.

Noah didn’t like the idea and he didn’t much like me for suggesting it.

Noah

But after being persuaded (hijacked, abducted, forcefully detained), he found himself at the front of The Boss, where Elizabeth insisted we sit.

Six Flags

There are a lot of ways to face the life that is ahead of you. You can sit in the back or sit in the front. You can bury your head in a safe place. You can look forward with gritty determination. You can simply sweat it out. Or, if so inclined, you can wear a smile and ride the rollercoaster like it’s the adventure of a lifetime. Wherever you sit and however you feel about the whole thing, remember this: The Boss is with you and loves you.

Magellan by Mary Oliver

Like Magellan, let us find our islands
To die in, far from home, from anywhere
Familiar. Let us risk the wildest places,
Lest we go down in comfort, and despair.

For years we have labored over common roads,
Dreaming of ships that sail into the night.
Let us be heroes, or, if that’s not in us,
Let us find men to follow, honor-bright.

For what is life but reaching for an answer?
And what is death but a refusal to grow?
Magellan had a dream he had to follow.
The sea was big, his ships were awkward, slow.

 And when the fever would not set him free,
To his thin crew, “Sail on, sail on!” he cried.
And so they did, carried the frail dream homeward.
And thus Magellan lives, although he died.

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