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As we all know, Advent begins next Sunday, November 28/ Below are some of the Advent resources I’ve written over the years.

First, remember that my Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories is organized according to the liturgical year. The stories retold for Advent include “Prophets Say That a Messiah is Coming,” “Prophets Describe the Messiah,” “Zechariah Meets the Angel Gabriel” and so on.

The first reading on the First Sunday of Advent refers to the “just shoot” God will raise from the House of David.  In The Loyola Kids Book of Signs and Symbols, I cover the Jesse Tree – the traditional artistic rendering of this concept.

Note how it’s organized – and this the organization of the entire book. On the left side for every entry is a short, simple explanation for younger children. On the right is a more in-depth entry for older students.

Moving on…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is advent-resources.jpg

(BTW – I don’t make any $$ from the sales of these booklets. The way it works is that these kinds of materials are, for the most part, written as works-for-hire. You write it, you get paid a flat fee, and that’s it. No subsequent royalties. I just …think what I’ve written is not terrible and hope my words might be helpful to someone out there…so I continue to spread the word!)

First, is the family devotional I wrote for Creative Communications for the Parish.

The entries are not dated – they are “First Sunday of Advent” – “Monday, first week of Advent” – and so on, so it is still useable.

There’s a digital version available here.  So if you’d like it for your own use in that format – go for it! 

Wonders Of His Love
amy-welborn

More samples – pdf 

Several years ago, I wrote another Advent family devotional. It’s no longer available in a print version, but the digital version can still be had here.  Only .99!

In 2016, Liguori published daily devotions I wrote for both Lent and Easter. They publish new booklets by different authors every year, but mine are still available, both through Liguori and Amazon.

Liguori – English

(pdf sample)

Liguori  – Spanish

(pdf sample)

A daily Advent meditation book I pulled together from reflections my late husband had posted on his blog:

Unfortunately, the booklet I wrote on St. Nicholas for Creative Communications is now officially out of print. You can still access the pdf of the sample – about half of the text – here. If you’re interested. 

Nicholas-Of-Myra

For more about St. Nicholas, visit the invaluable St. Nicholas Center.

Years ago, I wrote a few pamphlets for OSV, among them these two:

How to Celebrate Advent. Also available in Spanish. 

PDF review copy of English version here.

PDF review copy of Spanish version here. 

How to Celebrate Christmas as a Catholic. 

PDF available for review here. 

PDF of the Spanish version available for review here.

And then….Bambinelli Sunday!

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When I awoke Wednesday morning, looked at my phone, which read 6:54, then realized that meant it was actually 7:54 (eastern – because I didn’t have service down there in the ravine, so the time hadn’t changed) – and breakfast was served at 8 – well, then I was doubly and triply relieved we’d forged ahead and done that second hike on Tuesday and not waited until 6 am …that morning. That would have been crazy.

I jostled the kid awake and we got ourselves out to the dining room for another great meal – that tomato/egg/sausage pie and some perfect biscuits – checked out and yes…hiked back up a mile to the car. Which was still there, still started, and didn’t have a flat.

Next stop: Prison.

I’d happened upon this place a couple of weeks ago and my first reaction was, “Surely this is tacky.” But then I read reviews which indicated…it’s not. So down we went to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

And no, it wasn’t tacky at all. It was haunting and thought-provoking. About sin and redemption, crime and punishment, about the possibility of change and how criminal justice might or usually doesn’t contribute to that, about exploitation and all kinds of fear.

Brushy Mountain was a maximum security penitentiary that closed in 2009. It’s most well-known for housing James Earl Ray, who actually escaped and remained at large for a couple of days. Here’s a history.

Now the penitentiary grounds are open for tours and is the site of a distillery, periodic concerts and, in the area, and apparently inspired by Ray’s escape attempt, the insane Barclay Marathons.

First, the site. It’s quite striking. You can see from the photo below – which I did not take – why it was situated there. Not only so the prisoners could work in the mines, but because nestled deep in that valley, escape was clearly even more challenging.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Petros, Tennessee

It’s like Helm’s Deep one of us remarked.

We didn’t do a guided tour, but simply watched the introductory film, looked at the exhibits, and then walked the grounds – various floors of the penitentiary with placards on the walls (Ray’s cell noted – 28), the visitation rooms, the laundry, the cafeteria (walls painted in murals by inmates), the notorious “Hole” – and you can imagine what that was about – and then D Block, which replaced the Hole as the section for the most dangerous prisoners – and some of them in most danger, themselves (pedophiles, for instance).

Here’s my comment. As I mentioned, there’s an introductory film, and I was a little surprised – but perhaps I shouldn’t have been – by the approach. The perspective is all from corrections officers – which is fair – but the central theme is the impact of the prison’s closing on the local community (called Petros, interestingly enough.) Which, as you can imagine, was devastating. And yes, interesting.

But it’s not what I expected. I was expecting some perspective from former inmates – and if you think that’s crazy, well just know that former Brush inmates do make their appearance on the grounds, even participating in tours. I was hoping for a broader view of what this place was all about, what it was like to be incarcerated there, and what was the impact – but that wasn’t the intent of the film.

Anyway – well worth the stop.

Next was a bit of a detour as the kid realized, studying the map, “Oh! Windrock is on our way!” – And what is that, pray tell? Among other things, a well-known mountain biking course. And it was, indeed, on the way, in Oliver Springs, between the prison and Oak Ridge – so we just shot up there and got the lay of the land for future reference, in case he and his biking friends get it together and make it up there some day.

Next: Oak Ridge. Someone was hungry, so I said, “Look and see if there’s a Buddy’s BarBQ” – and yes, of course there was. Not that it’s anything great or stupendous, but it’s the East Tennessee barbecue chain, and going there made me nostalgic, as I could hear my dad saying, “Anyone want Buddy’s tonight?” and him laboriously noting everyone’s preference, cig in one hand, martini in the other, and then heading out to pick it all up.

I had been pretty much totally confused about the state of public tours of Oak Ridge facilities and museums. I hadn’t been since I was in school myself, and I knew things had changed, partly because times just change and more recently because of Covid – these are museums, but many are also federal facilities. I could not sort out what was open and closed, and I had just about resigned myself to thinking that this would be another Rugby and we’d just drive through, when a volunteer at the children’s museum told me, no – this and that were indeed open.

So what should we do?

By that time, it was around 2 – which is, indeed 1 our time, but still. We were wanting to be home sooner than later. And at 16 and a veteran of countless science museums and having aged out of almost all of them, we went for the history – which was my intentions, such as they were, for this trip anyway. So we headed to the K25 plant facility, which is, indeed, a nice little museum and also free – and open, masks required, naturally.

It was just what I hoped for. Small, not overwhelming, and very focused on what the K25 facility was all about – uranium enrichment – with enough context about the Manhattan Project in general to make it understandable.

It’s just astonishing, really – bringing thousands of folks in, building these facilities, building this town, with hardly anyone knowing what it was for. I never understood how that could have been before I listened to one former employee of the era, in a recording at the museum, recount that well…they thought it was just…power. But didn’t know what for. Ships? Planes? Manufacturing power? No one knew. But. “I never would have thought about a…bomb.”

Most striking artifact? Below – an anatomical model, embedded with human bones, to see what impact uranium exposure might have on the human body……

So there you have it….three days, essentially, packed full. See what can happen in just three days?

And probably our last jaunt for a while. I had been thinking next week maybe, but it’s already filling up, so…no, except for a day here or there.

Sunday: Up I-59 to… Fall Creek Falls, Jordan Motel in Jamestown, TN

Monday: Rugby, Northrup Falls, Sgt. York Historic Site, Simply Fresh restaurant, Charit Creek Lodge

Tuesday: Charit Creek Lodge, Slave Creek Falls Trail, Twin Arches Trail.

Wednesday: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Windrock, Oak Ridge K25 History Center….back down I-59…home

Good deal.

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Yeah, yeah, I’ve used it before – here – on a post about the hardest hike I’ve ever done (not that I have a lot to sort through) – up one of the highest peaks in Honduras, in this national park.

So this was not as hard as that. But it was still…challenging. But it’s also why we were there, it was good for me, so up and down and up we went.

First, though:

Monday and Tuesday night, we stayed at the marvelous Charit Creek Lodge. It’s a hike-in lodge, which means that you have to, well, hike, bike or ride horseback in and out to get there. There’s no vehicular traffic, except what’s necessary for staff. The lodge (which contains two of the oldest structures in the national park system) is in a ravine. There are several cabins of different capacities, a few attached to stables. There’s no electricity, no wi-fi – it really is off the grid.

We stayed in the Corn Crib – one queen bed and one twin. Meals (which are included if you wish) were of quite high quality – pork tenderloin, interesting vegetable casseroles, a wonderful tomato/egg/sausage pie for breakfast – you get the drift. I’m told there is a cookbook coming soon, so I’ll be sure to mention that in this space when it appears.

There’s a small cemetery in which, among others, is buried a Hatfield – related to the feuding family, but apparently, according to this, not killed in relation to the feud.

And a refreshing creek and a polite dog named Booger.

There are a couple of major trails you can tackle from the lodge. We did both. In one day. I was assured it was doable – and oh yes, it was, even for me, but not easy-doable. More I-might-not-die-but-it-will-be-close doable. Like that.

To the point at which we finished the first major trail – Slave Falls – and got the junction with a choice – do we do the other – the Twin Arches – or save it for the morning? As in – get up super early and tackle it? After some consideration, we went for the former, and forged on. I was pretty wiped out by that point, but I am also not a fan of living in dread of an approaching hard thing. I’d rather take the medicine now and sleep soundly.

Believe me, that is a lesson learned from years of procrastinating, not only grading papers, but writing jobs. It’s better to just get it done than let it sit, taunting you.

And it turned out to be absolutely worth it. The first trail was enjoyable (sort of) – especially in the destination, and we did have a couple of adventures, but this Twin Arches trail had quite spectacular, surprising features, and it was good to end the day – a hard day – with that payoff. Plus it was all downhill back to the lodge.

I don’t have a lot of photographs because my phone was at a low level, we didn’t have electricity, and my portable charger had already been sucked dry (I guess I should get a new one).

Here’s a map of the trail. You can learn more about it at Alltrails.com or some such.

Slave Falls and Twin Arches Loop - Tennessee | AllTrails

The lodge is just north of where the “i” is on the map. We went up, then left, then to Slave Falls (not labeled on the map, but it’s at the point of the squiggle far the left. Another trail continues on that path that goes to the half green/half black circle – the Sawmill trailhead), a bit beyond the falls to see the Needle Arch, then back on the same trail, then up to the Twin Arches and back around.

Let’s see if I have any photos at all. Hah. Actually none at all of Slave Falls. When we were there, we were doing a bit of scrambling and went off trail (honestly) behind the falls to get across, so we wouldn’t have to go back and around. I wasn’t carrying my camera or phone and didn’t want to keep saying, “Wait a minute, let me get my camera out.” Well, you can see photos of it here. And plenty at the Alltrails site – just look it up!

Well here’s a giant toppled-over tree root system. There’s that.

Now, the Twin Arches was something else – and the paucity of photos there is just because although I had recovered from the first part of the hike and was feeling okay and back to carrying the camera, the rock formations were so huge, I couldn’t capture them very well. Let’s put it this way – say you are driving by mountains in this part of the world and you see, at the very top, great walls of bare rock? That’s where we were. I tried to get the kid in the photos for a sense of scale.

He said, “It’s like the mountain has a giant stone mohawk.”

The Twin Arches? Hopeless – just too big, with not enough space to back up and capture them, at least with my cameras. But again – just look them up!

So, a hard, but good day. Back to a cool creek, an excellent meal, and a friendly dog.

Why do these things? How do I figure out to do them?

Well, it’s all about going places we’ve never been. And there’s a lot, even within a few hours of here. And having different experiences – like a hike-in lodge. Not too different though. I mean, he can camp all he wants and has but I’ve been camping once in my life, it wasn’t horrible, and I suppose I would do it again, but it would not be my first or even tenth choice of how to get out and see the world.

So one thing leads to another – I want to go somewhere. The Smokies are probably crazy right now. North Georgia, maybe. Mississippi blues trail? Maybe wait until it’s cooler, wait until football season is over – because we’d want to stop in Oxford and see Faulkner things on the way. Okay, well, here’s this are – Big South Fork? Never even heard of it. Oh, and I’ve wanted to take him to Oak Ridge since forever. Oh, and Rugby! We could do that, too.

And so a trip takes shape. One element that was in this at the beginning was the Cumberland Gap – but ultimately I decided that took us too far afield, and it’s a good thing. We would have been quite rushed if we’d kept that in.

So basically? I want us to see new things, learn history and be outdoors, and not have to fly or drive too far.

So there we were – with one more day to go, featuring a prison and uranium…..

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Continuing on our journey…

(Part one here)

It seemed to be a day about ideals. Ideals adjusted, brought briefly to life then withered, ideals bearing fruit in quiet places.

As I mentioned, we began in Jamestown, Tennessee. Our day would end at the Charit Creek Lodge, but check-in there wasn’t until 3, and even though we’d need to build a mile-long hike into the place into that timetable, we still had time to See Things. Always my goal. Just to See Some Things. Learn a little bit. Encounter a little bit more of the world, past and present. Build up your world of experience, expand your vision.

Even talking to your neighbors does that. Trust me. Try it.

Anyway, beginning in Jamestown and figuring the least back-tracking, this is what we did.

First, Rugby. I’ve always wanted to see Rugby, especially having grown up (from my teens) in East Tennessee – but we were not a traveling family (I never went to the Smokies except on school trips) except to see family elsewhere, so it just never happened.

Turns out – and I knew this – that if it’s not a weekend, there’s not a lot to see, for nothing’s open. And neither of us had phone service, I hadn’t thought to download any information, so all that was left for us to do was to wander around, look at some exteriors, observe all the British flags on display, and me to offer my vaguely remembered accounts of the utopian colonies’ foundation and brief existence. In case you are wondering:

The village was founded back in 1880 by Thomas Hughes, a well-known social reformer in England and author of the popular book, Tom Brown’s School Days. Inspired by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hughes envisioned a utopia for England’s ‘second sons,’ men who’d grown up in wealthy British families but were doomed to inherit nothing because of their birth order. Hughes hoped Rugby could offer these men a chance to leave British class distinctions behind by creating a cooperative agrarian community in a particularly scenic area of rural Tennessee. Rugby colonists were promised an opportunity to live off the land as gentleman farmers while still enjoying the culture and comforts to which their class was accustomed, and it was an offer some found irresistible. Within the first year, a number of new families arrived and a large hotel, three boarding houses, a commissary and several private homes were constructed, along with tennis and croquet courts and a walkway to a popular picnic spot by the river.

Typhoid struck the community in 1881, they bounced back, but…

The magnificent Tabard Inn burned to the ground. Lawsuits and land disputes prevented colonists from owning the land they’d come to claim. A series of unusually severe winters disheartened Rugby’s new residents. Beyond circumstantial problems, it turned out the colonists were ill-suited for the pioneer life and either unwilling or unable to sustain their agrarian utopia. A cannery failed. A dairy failed. A sheep-raising endeavor failed. Pottery and brick-making efforts failed. Finally, in 1887, Thomas Hughes’s mother, a central figure of Rugby life, died, and by then, most of the colonists decided they’d had enough. Many returned to England or moved elsewhere in the states. Thomas Hughes, who’d never managed to convince his family to move permanently to Rugby and only spent a couple of months there each year, left for the last time in 1887, never to return.

The buildings are maintained, though, even the 7000-volume public library, said to be one of the first free libraries in the Southeast. Photos at this link. It probably would be quite worthwhile to visit when the buildings are actually open. It wasn’t a total loss though – it was good to see it, see the landscape, and knowing the general history of the place, the challenges these folks faced…and why they even attempted it.

My one photo – the school house.

Time to head back towards Jamestown, with a stop at the quite nice Colditz Cove State Natural Area – the preservation and maintenance of which might just be the fruit of ideals, stubbornly maintained despite varied opposition, since most natural areas don’t stay natural without a fight. A short hike takes you to a coursing waterfall. Not at Fall Creek Falls level, but still quite enough, even for a quick dip. He was brought up short by a snake sighting – not unusual considering the rocks.

(Speaking of snakes – I had forgotten about our encounter at Fall Creek Falls when I posted last night. Updated now. Go here unless it will trigger you.)

Next, up past Jamestown to Pall Mall, the site of the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park. Of course, son knew nothing about York, and most of what I knew I did from just living in Tennessee and the movie, seen decades ago. It’s an interesting little spot, with a visitor’s center that offers the basics, quite a few artifacts, and then the homeplace, a mill and a mock WWI trench where I assume they bring school children and have commemorative events.

I’m still startled that York didn’t actually look like Gary Cooper. And it’s certainly interesting to follow York’s transformation from pacifist to war hero to outspoken supporter of intervention and even the draft. His support for and commitment to his local community is a model, though – but intriguing that his efforts to help modernize the area and bring education in actually did meet resistance.

Back down to Jamestown for lunch at the shockingly excellent, definitely-a-cut-above place called Simply Fresh. Kid had a burger that he said was clearly made from high-quality, fresh meat, and I had an interesting chicken-goat-cheese-pesto-quesadilla thing that was very well made and flavorful.

Back to the ideals: Someone clearly has ideals about what good food is and what’s possible, even in small-town America, well outside the urban foodie centers – and is working it out, for the benefit of a lot of folks.

Now……time to cross back over to the Eastern time zone (we’d been back and forth all day) for a journey into the Big South Fork Natural Area and a hike to…the Charit Creek Lodge.

I’ll have more about it in the next post – this is long enough already – but let’s get started with the basics. It’s a hike-in facility – that is, you can’t drive your vehicle there, and must hike – a little less than a mile from the parking lot. There are a couple of other similar places in the Southeast, but with longer hikes – LeConte Lodge in the Smokies being the most well-known and hardest to get reservations for – and then the Hike Inn in north Georgia. I’m interested in doing the others – well, at least, the Georgia place – so I thought I’d start with this one.

And so…we start!

(Talk about ideals….)

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Over the weekend, I read Trans by Helen Joyce. I wasn’t planning to read it because I thought – well, I’ve been immersed in these issues for a while and there’s probably little new in it to me. But then all the mess with the American Bookseller’s Association came down last week – in which including a sample of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage was met with weeping and gnashing of teeth by bookseller recipients and followed by an abject apology for the “violence” by the ABA, I decided to go ahead and spend some money to support these purveyors of violence.

And no, there’s not a ton new to me in the book, but it’s good to run through it presented in a cohesive manner, so here’s the thing – if this is an issue you’re in the least interested in or – especially – if you are involved in an organization or institution that is confronting these issues – including the Church – it’s an excellent book to read and pass on to others. Joyce – a writer for the Economist– goes through the history of this movement from the early 20th century to the present, and most importantly explains how the thinking about this matter has changed, accelerated greatly in recent years, from an idealistic conviction that by doing surgeries a man could “become” a woman to the current iteration – that “gender identity” is an almost spiritual reality unrelated to material reality of the body, and that if a person with male genitalia wants to be called and treated as a woman, society and the legal system must treat him as such.

Pretty crazy.

And as I keep saying – if you’re going to deal with these issues, you must understand this – that gender self-identity is the goal of this movement.

She touches on it all – the history, the wealth pushing this, the focus on children – all of it. It’s a good primer.

A few quotes then some comments:

Take, for example, an article for Therapy Route, an American website, by Mx Van Levy, a non-binary therapist, entitled ‘Why the term transition is transphobic’. The reason presented is that the word ‘transition’ is ‘based on the idea that gender looks a certain way and that people need to change from looking/sounding/acting/and more, a certain way for their identity to be respected . . . The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside . . . The term transition implies that we were one gender and are now another. But that is not the case. We are and always have been our gender . . . changing how we look on the outside is not a transition.’

In this, as in much else, the activists do not by any means speak for all trans people. But it is the activists’ version of the ideology that is in the ascendant, and that is being codified into laws.

And that’s what I keep telling you. This is not a niche issue. When local, state and federal jurisdictions declare, under pressure and lobbying, that one’s self-declared gender identity trumps biological sex in access to accommodations, and your daughter’s school, in an effort to just avoid lawsuits, declares all restrooms and changing rooms unisex …..you’ll see.

Democrat-controlled states and cities, however, continued to write self-ID into laws and regulations, both in schools and elsewhere. To give a typical example, an anti-discrimination law passed in New York City in 2019 defines sex as ‘a combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, facial hair, vocal pitch, development of breasts, gender identity, and other characteristics’. When these do not align, it says, ‘gender identity is the primary determinant of a person’s sex.’

Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are……

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion….

But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about – the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language – is collateral damage.

One business sector, in particular, has benefited from transactivism: health care. Helping gender-dysphoric people feel comfortable in their bodies makes no one much money; turning them into lifelong patients is highly profitable.

Now a couple of comments:

First, Joyce makes the decision to use preferred-gender pronouns in this book, which I suppose I understand. The book will be controversial and cancel-able enough without Joyce being accused of murdering trans people by using their dead pronouns or whatever.

Secondly, on matters of more substance.

Joyce’s understanding of the foundation and motivation behind the trans movement reflects, of course, her own worldview. How can it be any different? But as such, it’s lacking a certain philosophical weight. That is, an honest confrontation with the changes in sexuality in general over the past century – most specifically the development and universal use of artificial contraception – the stripping of function from the reproductive system, which leaves us – human beings – in a performative space and not much more.

She inches close at times, but still is pretty far away:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body-denialism. And if you spend a lot of time playing computer games, you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars who can be altered on a whim…

Absolutely. But there’s more, isn’t there?

As I wrote – gee, two years ago tomorrow (odd) in a post:

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Finally:

What Joyce – and other feminist thinkers opposing the trans movement – are unable to confront is the relationship of this nonsense, on a deep level, to abortion.

Because of course, opposing transactivism is about continually bringing out the facts of material, biological reality and emphasizing the point that no matter what you think or desire – you are who you are. A castrated man with breast implants and an electrolysized face is still a man. Our opinions and desires don’t determine reality.

And nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s race or ethnicity. Nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s age. Nor do our opinions change the reality of the rights due to a human being, no matter what age, and no matter where they reside – outside the womb – or deep inside.

So there’s a certain amount of frantic flailing that runs, as an undercurrent, in the work of anti-transactivists. It’s almost as if they can’t understand how this is happening – when from another perspective, it’s very clear: in culture in which sexuality has become performative and preborn human beings are treated as diseased organs, well yes – it becomes quite possible to enshrine, in law, the notion that whatever you think you are – you just are.

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Over the past half-decade or so, blogs – which along with discussion boards of various types, had long provided the main venues for conversation and expression on the Internet – have been thoroughly usurped by social media: Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, primarily. And probably others my aged self isn’t aware of.

I use three of those, but minimally. I’ve had TikTok on my phone a couple of times, but deleted it. I know that my younger two sons (19 and 16) and their crowd pretty much only use Snapchat to communicate – rather than texting, even.

I generally don’t engage in “discussion” on any of them, unless it’s on a post by someone I actually, really know in some sense. And I don’t stay long. And I haven’t accepted new Facebook friends in years.

From the beginning of their rise – among my middle-age set, that is – I’ve maintained a distance, in terms of time and energy, from these platforms. I had an intuition from the beginning that there was something about them that didn’t serve my purpose in being online, and really, in the end, primarily served the owners of the platforms themselves.

And here’s what I eventually concluded. It’s rather challenging for me to put into words. Let’s see how I do. I’m going to focus on Instagram and Facebook because as problematic as Twitter is, it doesn’t share quite the same issues, and I think most of the “self-expression” energy these days is on those platforms, as well as TikTok, which I am not as familiar with. And guess what, Instagram is now owned by Facebook, so surprise – they have the same limitations.

First off, I want to acknowledge the given – that all of these platforms exploit the human desire to argue, score points and have the last word. These platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter have made themselves essential in spreading news and information. I mean – how did you arrive here anyway? Yeah.

They exploit our aspirations and our desires and our need for community and our attention-seeking instincts. They are deliberately addictive. Those are problems, but they are not the problems I’m going to explore here. This isn’t about sharing family photos. It’s about producing content that you hope will impact people and that you believe is meaningful beyond the present moment.

Let’s be concrete. Say I want to write a microblog on Instagram, a couple hundred heartfelt words attached to a pretty picture. Great. People will read it…

If they follow me…

If it happens to come on their feed by way of the platform’s current algorithm.

Sure, people can read it, but what if it strikes them as something worth keeping and sharing? They can easily share it with folks within the platform, who might take two seconds to read it and then…scroll on. Share with someone not on Instagram or Facebook? A little more challenging. Save it? less easily with those outside. They can archive it – within the app. Or I guess they can send themselves a link to share. Do you want to find a post on a certain topic? No luck unless the poster has hashtagged it with the specific hashtag you’re looking for.

And Facebook? Same. With the complication that my experience in Facebook is that posts – even your own posts that you want to revisit – are incredibly difficult to find. The search features on both apps are almost useless and are subject to change.

And of course, this is no accident.

There is a reason these platforms make it difficult to search and share posts beyond their system. They want to keep you inside, in that loop.

They make it super easy to create. You don’t have to know any code, you don’t have to think about design. You just type in the blank that’s provided for you, and the platform handles the rest.

And – I might add – it’s free. There is no financial cost to use it. It’s free.

What a deal!

But of course your space on these platforms is not actually your space, in any sense. Your posts can be removed for any reason. The rules governing your presence and content are not made by you – they’re made by the platform, and change all the time. Your ability to share what you create is directed in ways the platform determines, and to me, this has always been the feature of these platforms that’s given me pause, even more than the possibility of removal.

We’ve all seen it. For example, on my Facebook feed, no matter how I fiddle with the settings, I always see posts from the same people, few of whom I’ve ever interacted with, and hardly ever see posts coming through from people I actually know. Plus ads. Lots and lots of ads. I’m guessing Instagram is the same way, but I’ve long stepped away from any general perusal of Instagram – there are a few people – family and real-life friends – whose posts I see because I purposely seek them out – and that’s it.

What’s the most frequent complaint about these platforms from users? Besides trying to find ways to do paragraphs in Instagram, of course? It’s all about the feed – They’re not letting me see what I’m really interested in.

Oh.

Then maybe, go find what you’re interested in….somewhere else.

And further, the platforms – all of them – are designed to exploit your ego and desire for attention. They make it seemingly easy to get attention because of the ease of posting. Then the closed nature of the systems – which are presented as if they are for the sake of your safety and privacy –  move the user to prioritize churning out posts that get more attention from other users, always, always fighting that algorithm.

In short: these platforms get us in by making creating and sharing within the platform easy and free. But what you post speeds by the reader, is difficult to hold on to, is designed to be most easily shared within the platform, therefore bringing in new users.

 They’re for brand establishing, attention gathering and impression making. They’re really not for thoughtfulness, for nuance, for exploring. You don’t sit with these posts and save them and come back to them. You note them, maybe comment, nod and scroll on.

The content is, moreover, going to be shaped by the platform. Not in the sense of outright censorship or shadowbanning or restrictions, but, well, simply because as the Man said, the medium is the message.

If Facebook is the place you want to see and be seen, you’ll shape your content to what Facebook privileges and with what the Facebook audience values. Same with any of the platforms, just as with all media.

I wrote 800-word faith-n-life columns for years, and the shape and rhythm of those columns became second nature: incident – tension – hopeful and inspiring, perhaps self-deprecating resolution.  I thought in 800-word chunks and in daily life, was keenly aware, always on the lookout for the inspirational moment.

These platforms are no different from any other medium in that regard – columns, traditional news stories, essays – the medium is the message.

Which is fine. But given the transitory nature of these platforms – the ease of posting, but then the difficulties of finding and keeping, not to speak of the privacy and data issues – is it worth my time?  

Maybe it’s worth yours. Maybe you’re trying to do what I suggested above – establish a brand, get attention and make an impression. Go for it. Spend your time on it. I’m questioning the means, and yes, I’m questioning the message, too.

All digital media is ephemeral, including this space. No doubt about that. It can all be gone tomorrow. The systems could go down, the servers melt, or whatever they might do. Censorship and deplatforming exists everywhere from WordPress to Blogger to Reddit. No illusions there.

But the unique thing about social media platforms that has discouraged me from engaging to much on them is the clear sense that those spaces are not mine and that I’m a servant of the platform. We, as we’ve been told over and over again, are the product. My Instagram account exists the way it exists not to benefit me or even those who might read me there, but to benefit Instagram. The space doesn’t encourage staying, keeping or maintaining or searching. It privileges the present moment and then scrolling on. It also privileges making connections and placing information in them – that make it very hard to let go. All my memories are on Facebook! I can’t quit!

I know that some people have what they see as meaningful presences on these platforms. I’m always glad to see a wry Dorian Speed post or Ann Engelhart teaching me about watercolor. It’s become, annoyingly, the way I keep up with local businesses – is  Paramount or Rougaroux open today? Just check the Gram. When I’m about to go on a trip and want to double check the weather conditions, I often do a search for recent posts from that location to see what it looks like over there and what folks are wearing. So no, I’m not immune.

Communication. We have to do it. We want to do it. We’re called to do it.

Information is to be shared, discussed and acted upon.

But on whose terms? Who is really shaping the content and reach of the message I think I want to send?

The whole thing is ephemeral. All of it. Not just on our screens, either.

I’ve written dozens, if not hundreds of columns. I didn’t keep them. I doubt anyone did. They were written, read, made their impact, such as it was, and are gone. I’ve written books, some of which still sell decently, some of which are out of print. I hate to think of how many blog posts I’ve written. Again – typed out, published, and probably forgotten, even by me. None of it was written in total freedom, either. There were editors and audiences and publishing needs that determined what I wrote and was finally published under my name. And no question that publishers have, from time immemorial, profited from writers’ work in a skewed, unjust way. So in a sense, this is more of the same. But is it? That’s what I’m trying to work out here.

The world is fleeting. Our words, our thoughts are as dust. But ironically, that doesn’t make them pointless. What is the best use of these fleeting limited signs and symbols that we use to express our deepest yearnings and truest selves? How shall we use them in a way that actually does communicate our value and their significance, even as we acknowledge that they – and we – are like straw?

For the ephemeral nature of social media, and its use of us and our experiences as the product, enthusiastically offered just so we can be seen and heard, seems different to me. It seems to put into question the time spent on it, both creating and scrolling.

In that world, we only matter to the extent that we fill in the blanks, and what we put in those blanks is only seen if we work hard to learn the rules the Powers have established (today), shape our content to satisfy, not only their rules, but their intentions and priorities that they’ve figured out will get us coming back again and again…for now.

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— 1 —

Happy New Year to you. Just a note on how life changes, and how time goes on in case you are wondering if you will ever be out of this or that stage of life…

Our New Year’s Eve? Well, besides the far-flung in NYC, Charleston and Louisville, all celebrating in their own ways, the three of us here spent the evening, first at Mass – two of us downtown at the Cathedral, and then the youngest playing at his parish job, driving himself now. After our Mass, College Guy drove off to meet up with friends, youngest drove from church to a friend’s house, then drove back here and walked down to a neighborhood friend’s house for the rest of the night.

And I sat and read Gogol and Don Quixote and listened to Mary Lou Williams.

How about that.

Just as no time is tricky to navigate, so, when it surprises you is so much…time.

— 2 —

Not much writing in this space this week. Te Deum is here. I was in Living Faith on Tuesday – and will return there in a couple of weeks. A new set of those is due Monday (for the July-August issue), so I’ll be working on those over the weekend, as well as planning out at least the first part of American Literature for the high schooler.

Although we might start with The Overcoat for some general work in symbolism and such. I spent so much time thinking about it…why let it just rest in my head? Might was well share the bounty…

I will say that I’ve been gratified and humbled over the past few days as I’ve received several notes regarding my 2020: A Book of Grace-Filled Days that wrapped up yesterday. Folks said they were actually sorry it had come to an end, and they appreciated what I had to share. So kind! It was not a super-fun book to write (just imagine writing almost 400 individual devotional entries…..) and I don’t plan on doing it again any time soon. Maybe in another ten years when more life has happened.

But it is so nice when people take time to write and let you know that your work was helpful to them in some way. Thank you!

(And I’ll just mention that it’s not out of print – still for sale, as are all past editions by other writers – including 2021, of course. No, the dates won’t match, but you can still buy it and match the feast days yourself. And no, I don’t profit from your purchase in any way – it’s the kind of work for which you’re paid a flat fee – no royalties. Just making the suggestion!)

— 3 —

Are you making resolutions? Well, here’s a Twitter thread featuring some of Dorothy Day’s New Year’s resolutions over the years.

Here’s 1960:

Image

More.

— 4 —

I recently discovered the Public Domain Review, which is such a treasure chest of fascinating, beautiful, interesting images and information.

Here’s a link to their top ten posts of the year. Including this post on 19th century Japanese firemen’s coats. Gorgeous.

— 5 —

What a lovely video this is, on Etsuro Sotoo, the Japanese stonemason who is now the Chief Sculptor at Sagrada Familia.

“Sotoo was motivated mainly by the opportunity to be exposed to stone,” says director David Cerqueiro, “and later by the admiration of the genius of Antoni Gaudí—back then a still-to-be-recognized figure of outstanding universal value.”

Known as quite a guarded and private character, Sotoo only granted Cerqueiro the opportunity to profile his life’s work after the director made several attempts to meet with him in person and over email. “Some of those attempts included having to attend mass at the basilica several times,” says the director. “The film briefly explores, tactfully but sincerely, the emotional inner workings behind a forty-year career devoted to one project.” 

Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece continues to exercise its charms over Sotoo who converted to Catholicism so he could gain a deeper understanding of Gaudí’s genius and his relationship with God through architecture. “I discovered an artist profoundly driven by faith. Although encased by organized religion, his faith is more closely related to the transcendental aspirations of genuine art,” says the director. “That’s how I ended up with a subtle portrayal of an ontological inquiry, personified by a surprisingly little-known major artist who seems to be more preoccupied with the intrinsic moral legacy of his work than by its formal expression or its public recognition.”

Gaudi talked with God about something very big and profound. To this day, no one really knows what it was about.

-Etsuro Sotoo, Chief Sculptor, Sagrada Familia

— 6 —

Those of you who’ve followed me for a while know about the Sister Servants of Casa Maria here in Birmingham. A small order dedicated to prayer (of course) and retreat ministry – the also do catechesis of various kinds in parishes in the area.

They provided music for one of our Cathedral’s Sunday Vespers during Advent. You can listen here.

Both of my younger sons spent a few years serving Mass and Benediction at the convent, and we have another connection, as well – my college roommate from UT (the real one, in Knoxville) is a sister there.

They haven’t been able to have public Mass or retreats since March, of course, but I thought you’d enjoy reading their latest newsletter and taking a look at a couple of their videos – you might remember I posted a link to their offering of “I’ll Fly Away” a few months ago. This is simply of their Christmas preparation, with more at the linked Vimeo page.

— 7 —

Therefore, we can ask ourselves: what is the reason why some men see and find, while others do not? What opens the eyes and the heart? What is lacking in those who remain indifferent, in those who point out the road but do not move? We can answer: too much self-assurance, the claim to knowing reality, the presumption of having formulated a definitive judgment on everything closes them and makes their hearts insensitive to the newness of God. They are certain of the idea that they have formed of the world and no longer let themselves be involved in the intimacy of an adventure with a God who wants to meet them. They place their confidence in themselves rather than in him, and they do not think it possible that God could be so great as to make himself small so as to come really close to us.

Lastly, what they lack is authentic humility, which is able to submit to what is greater, but also authentic courage, which leads to belief in what is truly great even if it is manifested in a helpless Baby. They lack the evangelical capacity to be children at heart, to feel wonder, and to emerge from themselves in order to follow the path indicated by the star, the path of God. God has the power to open our eyes and to save us. Let us therefore ask him to give us a heart that is wise and innocent, that allows us to see the Star of his mercy, to proceed along his way, in order to find him and be flooded with the great light and true joy that he brought to this world. Amen.  Source

"amy welborn"

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Another repeat – still on the road, hither and yon.

Yesterday,  brought you the Immaculate Conception via the Monkees, today, it’s St. Juan Diego (whose feast is today, even though we won’t celebrate it because it’s, well..Sunday)  via a literary dog.

Perhaps some of you remember the 1990’s PBS series, Wishbone. My older kids grew up with it, and I confess, I loved it. The conceit? A dog daydreams about being a character in various works of literature. It was kind of crazy, but it actually worked.

And believe it or not, the show actually dramatized a religious narrative in Viva, Wishbone!  – which involved Our Lady of Guadalupe, in which our friend Wishbone portrays, yes, Juan Diego.

Now, the story deviates. I just watched a bit of the climax, and the whole roses/tilma thing is not presented as the traditional narrative would have it. So you might not want to use it as a catechetical tool.  But take a look on YouTube, and just remember a time – not so long ago – when even PBS portrayed religion as something other than the Opium of Particularly Stupid Bigots.

Access parts 2 & 3 via this link.

wishbone guadalupe

More seriously, here are some photos from our 2018 trip to the shrine:

Your eyes are not deceiving you and it’s not bad camerawork – in the photo on the far left, the old church – the original shrine – is indeed tilting. Earthquakes, of course.

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—1 —

First, St. Augustine, who’s in the Loyola Kids Book o’ Saints, under “Saints are people who help us understand God.” The first two pages:

— 2 —

Secondly…well, we’re back. And about to be gone. So here’s what happened today.

We packed up and left Gardnier, WY, at the north end of the park, about 7:30. We were met at the Yellowstone entrance (which is right there) with the news that not only was the road I knew was closed still closed because of fires (between Old Faithful and West Thumb), but another road  – the alternate I’d been assuming would be our way out – was closed as well, because of an overturned gas-carrying 18-wheeler. That one, between Canyon and the lake (below is a campground map – first thing I grabbed – it’s the road between Canyon Village and “Fishing Bridge” campground.)

So here’s a map.

campgroundmap

You can see the problem. There would be no way to get from Gardiner, in the north, to the South entrance, which then would get us on the road to Jackson. It was going to be a 3.5 hour drive, straight shot (you can’t go over 45 on most park roads), and we were planning to take our time and see things we’d missed and maybe take another look at some geysers.

But with that news, the route had to shift, didn’t it? Like, dramatically – out through West Yellowstone and out and over further west, then south through Idaho, to Jackson from the west. Adding not only distance, but time as well. Okay, champ, I’ll settle in to drive, you settle in to sleep.

And now is the part where I tell you that I just learned that as of 8am this morning that road between Old Faithful and West Thumb was opened. I don’t know why they didn’t know that at the entrance gate at 7:35, but it is what it is. No regrets. It’s fine – we saw some lovely sights along the way.

— 3 —

I shook traveling companion awake not long after departure to take in the Roaring Mountain – it used to emit this steam with a lot more force and noise (hence the name), but it’s still impressive.

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After that – the drive to West Yellowstone is gorgeous, with stunning cliffsides lining the road.

Then….Idaho. So, new state! That means three new states added to our list with this trip, and I’ve now realized I’m up to 45. Only Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Alaska and Hawaii remain.

It also means that one traveling companion awakened and learning where we were, it was a steady diet of Napoleon Dynamite quotations until the Tetons loomed into site again – and from the west, they are quite lovely. And we were delighted to see that we could, at last…actually see them, since the smoke from the fires further west had evidently dissipated.

— 4 —

Once over the pass, we took a slight detour into Teton Village, since I was curious what a ski village would look like. I’ve known folks who’ve traveled to the area to ski, and I confess my image of what that was wasn’t exactly what I saw, and not just because it’s summer. I guess I imagined something more bucolic and rural, not condos crammed at the base of a mountain. Huh. Well, it’s probably real nice in winter and obviously people like it, so they can have it.

On to Jackson, lunch, since it was a little early, wander around a bit, since it was still early, finally gain access to hotel.

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This is not from our hotel, but from the balcony of a shop. See the arch? It’s elk antlers, and there’s more of the same on the square, and one at the entrance into the Jackson airport terminal, as well. 

— 5 –

Then back into the car and back up to Jenny Lake – about 30 miles north. We had hours of daylight left, so why not get in some more hiking to points we’d missed before? The route was partway around the lake to the Moose Pond trails – no moose where seen – there– and then up the rest of the way to where the boat had dropped us before, the starting point for hikes to Inspiration Point, Hidden Falls and then the Cascade Canyon trail, which we’d walked a good bit of on Friday, and greatly enjoyed.We decided the best use of our time would be to get up to Hidden Falls and then take the boat back to the other side. Which we did, getting back to the car by 7, back into Jackson by 8, then to dinner at Bubba’s Barbecue, which was excellent. 

— 6 –

And so…..animals today? Lots of elk, of course. Two does with their fawns crossing the road near the Visitor’s Center on this end of Grand Teton NP, and then, on the Jenny Lake hike…

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— 7 —

And….

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I think he was in the same spot 45 minutes later when we rode the boat across the lake, because I could see a group of folks on the trail there, looking down. For video, go to Instagram. 

As per usual, I’ll do a post– probably tomorrow, from the airport – describing our itinerary and accommodations choices, for anyone contemplating a similar trip.

Back to ordinary life very, very soon. But in these days, of course, “ordinary” is anything but….

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Well, here we are, just about one week and counting from, we hope, The Return to College. Out of five classes, all but one will be (as far as we can tell) face-to-face, and I don’t mind paying for that.

What a ride.

So, next week: Hopefully get his old car sold (anyone in Alabama want a 2006 Mazda Miata?) get serious about lists and shopping and such. I’m not anxious about it because he’ll have a car with him and in case he needs toothpaste, he can just pop out to Wal-Mart and…go get some. There isn’t that concern to Buy All The Things because he won’t be able to restock for weeks or months.

But we do want to get most of the stuff before we go. Added to the usual this year: Masks? Check. Sanitizer? Check. Thermometer? Check. Etc. He has all of this textbooks. He’ll be in a single room, so no roommate concerns, and that also lessens the Pandemic Prevention Pressure.

— 2 —

I’m in Living Faith today. Here ’tis. 

Before this – here. 

— 3 —

My new favorite Twitter account. Language alert, blah, blah, blah.

 — 4 —

Working hard here, every day. Process?

In the evening, take a look at the material to be written about the next day. Read any unfamiliar Scripture passages. Let it simmer.

Get up the next morning, first thing revise the two or three chunks written the day before. Then write two-three new chunks.

Done by 10 am, usually.

Onward!

— 5

In case you missed it earlier this week:

I’ll Fly Away – The Sister Servants from Sister Servants on Vimeo.

Learn more about the Sister Servants here. 

 

6–

Here’s a really excellent article on Hemingway and O’Connor, turning on the imagery of blood and yes, bulls. It’s very, very good. 

It is also noteworthy here that Mrs. May is described as being “pierced”—that word associated with suffering and with the cross—and that the piercing coincides with a kind or rapture or “ecstasy,” a word whose Greek root means “to stand outside of oneself” and suggests a transcendence of self. O’Connor’s heroine is cast as a modern-day version of Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy, who is pierced, in the midst of her visionary rapture, by a visiting angel.

Along similar lines, Hemingway associates the violence of the bullring with ecstasy, particularly the faena—the final third of the bullfight wherein the matador performs his capework with the bull before killing him. In Death in the Afternoon he writes of this rapture, describing the faena as a ritual

That takes a man out of himself and makes him feel immortal while it is proceeding, that gives him an ecstasy, that is, while momentary, as profound as any religious ecstasy; moving all the people in the ring together . . . in a growing ecstasy of ordered, formal, passionate, increasing disregard for death (206-207).

The ecstasy O’Connor and Hemingway describe—and that Bernini depicts— is the culmination of intense bodily sensation leading to enlightenment of the soul. The natural leads to the supernatural. Time becomes one with eternity. Suffering is redeemed. It is mystical, transcendent, and deeply Catholic.

The uses of violence by both Hemingway and O’Connor remind us of the reality human life is grounded in: we are all living “on the verge of eternity” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 114), and the way we conduct our lives in the here and now has a spiritual dimension. Violence reminds us of our unceasing proximity to death, and this knowledge can serve as a conduit to grace.

 

— 7 —

Tomorrow? St. Dominic, here in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  Only a page is available  online, so here it is. He’s in “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray” section.

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