Why We Memorialize

I’ve never lived on land where war is part of the living memory of the people. I’ve never fought in a war or even handled a gun. No one I love has died in war. And I didn’t know how those facts affected my worldview until I went to Belgium in 1999 and, because I was with older male relatives who cared more about military history than the art museums that are my go-to destinations when I visit new places, spent a week encountering memorials of World War I. I didn’t choose to visit the IJzertoren in Diksmuide, the memorial to the Canadian soldiers who endured the first German gas attack, the German World War I cemetery, the Belgian World War I cemetery, the Tyne Cot British cemetery, In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper (Yprès), or the Flanders Field American cemetery. I went along with the agenda because that’s what you do when you’re traveling with a group. If I had been president of the United States and it had been the 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day, I would have all the more gone along with the agenda, because that’s what you do. If it’s too rainy and windy to fly a helicopter, I believe that the “leader of the free world” has command of sufficient resources to find some cars to get him there safely.

If he had left the US Ambassador’s residence and made the arduous 60-mile drive to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, I wonder if Donald Trump, Giant Man-Baby, could have experienced the surprising weight of grief that I felt in 1999 for people who had been dead for eighty years, now one hundred. People remember when they can’t help but remember, but people create memorials so that others, even in the distant future, can imagine in some small measure what it was like. And I got it . . . so much so that at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic concert last night—where they were performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a pacifist masterpiece that juxtaposes the anti-war poems of soldier Wilfred Owen with the traditional Latin requiem—when I saw the small red poppy pin on the conductor’s lapel, I immediately teared up. That week in Belgium, all those dead, all the devastation of the landscape, come to my mind whenever I see that stylized memorial poppy.


If you have grown up in America, and nothing in your city ever had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by bombs, if your city and countryside are not dotted with cemeteries for people of all nations who died there trying to defend your nation’s right to sovereignty, then you will have an impoverished sense of the cost of war. Maybe you could read some poems and imagine what it would be like to suffocate from the inside after a gas attack, or to watch a friend suffer thus and be helpless:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues . . .

—Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Or maybe you could visit other memorials, where the scenes of devastation are fixed so that people remember. At the top of the IJzertoren, a 360-degree mural shows what the viewer would have seen in 1918, just above the windows circling the tower.


In Ieper, you can buy postcards showing the destruction of the Lakenhalle, a medieval marketplace that now houses the In Flanders Field Museum.




Right before your eyes, you can see that they rebuilt the structure after the war to look just as it had before. The people of Ieper felt that it would be admitting defeat to design more contemporary structures, so the city creates the effect of a perfect medieval town built in the 1920s.


Or you can personalize the experience by going to In Flanders Field Museum, where you will be given the name of a soldier when you enter the museum and will receive periodic updates on his story as you progress through the museum. My ex-husband had the Canadian soldier William Bower, and I had William “Ewie” Parker, who died in 1917.



It would be nice for me to continue to live with as much privilege as I have so far, to be so far from the battlefield that my nation’s ongoing war, of almost two decades’ duration, with Afghanistan has not required me personally to make any sacrifices. But I have an imagination and a functioning ability to empathize, and so the efforts of European memorializers continue to work on me, to remind me of the long-lasting scars that war incises into entire nations, not just on soldiers and families. And I extrapolate from the way that World War I still felt like a very recent event in Belgium in 1999 to wonder how long the wars we are fighting in the Middle East will feel like only yesterday to the people who will still live there someday, when and if these wars are ever over. But in order to be moved by the work of the memorializers, you have to show up.

Rachel E. Hile


What I Learned from Working 13 Hours on Election Day at the Democratic Party Headquarters

There was a moment when I was on the phone with the League for the Blind and Disabled, one of the many calls I made trying to find a ride to the polls for a disabled voter after learning that the van we thought had a power-wheelchair lift did not in fact have a power-wheelchair lift. I was waiting on the phone line, and I remembered the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which is of course a parable about sinners but in that moment for me was a parable about diligence.

And I laughed, because I thought how a hater could see the work to get every voter to the polls as self-interested—like hucksterism rather the diligence of that shepherd. And it’s true—anyone who calls the Democratic Party headquarters to ask for a ride to the polls is likely to vote for Democratic candidates . .  . but that was the farthest thing from my mind.

We had a team of seven people off and on throughout the day organizing rides for voters and answering questions from voters who called in. The amazing volunteer drivers—including the strong and steady guy who was able to help that incredibly motivated voter to make it from his home to the car to the polling place and back without his wheelchair, with his arm in a sling, using only his walker and the driver’s arm—were always ready, and some went into the phone-bank room to call people while waiting for the chance to give a ride to a voter.

The weird thing is that I wasn’t thinking about the outcome at all. At the end of the day, when I was bidding farewell to the 75-year-old powerhouse in charge of assigning Democratic poll workers—who had been up calling people until 11 pm the night before, was already at headquarters when I arrived at 5 am, and left at 6 pm, only a few minutes before I did—I saluted him and said, “It was a pleasure working with you today . . . like in Titanic, where the musicians play while the boat is sinking and then salute each other . . . but I hope this has a better outcome!” (5:13 in this video)

For Indiana, there wasn’t a better outcome. True, it would be worse to literally be at the bottom of the actual ocean, but as election nights go, it was pretty awful for Indiana Democrats. At the results watch party, the party chair mentioned the people who will become disillusioned because of last night’s losses and will stop participating in the Democratic Party. That will happen—she’s right. After she went to talk to someone else, I continued the conversation with the group by saying “The Democrats need to be more like Cubs fans!”

But I don’t think that’s quite it, because what we need, not just for the Democratic Party, but for the future of democracy in America, is less spectating and more involvement. I wrote about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone in one of my first blog posts in 2016, back when I was one of the horrified liberals who showed up in droves to Democratic Party meetings all across the country, before I became one of the disillusioned ones who dropped out of Democratic Party activities in the summer of 2017, and before I returned in summer 2018, motivated primarily by a desire not to wake up this morning feeling as shitty as I did the morning of November 9, 2016. It’s still true—to the extent that fewer people now participate in our democracy, our democracy is weaker. In 2016, about 55 percent of eligible voters in Allen County, Indiana, cast a ballot (~150,000 out of ~275,000). Yesterday, it was about 45 percent (~125,000), and four years ago, it was about 27 percent (~75,000 votes cast). These aren’t the numbers of a thriving democracy; the percentage of the voting-age population who voted hasn’t been above 60 percent since 1968.

Yesterday, we gave rides to the polls to a little over one hundred voters, and we answered questions for some uncounted number of other voters who called needing help. None of the races that Democrats lost yesterday was lost by one hundred or fewer votes. In terms of outcomes, then, none of those votes “made a difference.” In terms of process, though, it was important—it was what Buddhists would call “practice,” meaning not practicing to get better at something or practice to prepare for something more important in the future—rather, practice as a process and way of being. The practice of democracy means that we behave as though every vote is important, because we believe that every vote is important.

Declining participation in the activities of democracy indicates declining faith in the ideals of democracy, and the Republicans who want to suppress as many votes as possible in, say, North Dakota and Georgia; who want to dilute as many votes as possible by gerrymandering; and who actually want to legislate Democratic power out of existence in North Carolina are not practicing any form of democracy that I learned about in school.

As with any faith tradition, though, the way to grow in faith is to practice—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV)—and the ability to participate as a Democrat in Indiana, which last night was a redder state even than my home state of Kansas, stems from faith in the goodness and rightness of democracy.

How can we strengthen the faith that democracy is the most just form of government? Only through practice. How can we get more people to practice democracy before November 3, 2020? I don’t know. For myself, I’m going to work on turning the paper forms people submitted this year asking for a ride into a spreadsheet, so that in 2020, we can be more proactive in calling potential ride-needers and more organized in bundling riders to the same polling place with a single driver. I’d like to also think about dividing the city up into areas and dispatching drivers from their homes instead of headquarters. What are you going to do?

Rachel E. Hile


The Vegan Religion

For those of you who don’t follow the goings-on in the veganosphere, a vegan was excommunicated recently. Kalel, a former “vegan YouTuber,” will no longer use the word “vegan” to refer to herself after the outcry that resulted from her admission that a few times a year, she eats a milk chocolate candy bar. Oh, and she sometimes also orders the movie popcorn. Plus a couple of cosmetics.

The problem with veganism is that vegans don’t recognize that it’s a religion, and vegan fundamentalists don’t see the connections between themselves and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or other fundamentalists.

Alain de Botton, in Religion for Atheists, writes,

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true . . . . It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.

And so we have secular religions—communism, say, or veganism—and these often don’t recognize their affinities with religious dogma and fundamentalism.

Watching the Kalel video “I’m Not Really Vegan?” I’m struck by the ways that she herself could likely better understand her experience if she were to couch it in terms of religion.

What she says: “I’m just so scared that people are going to freak out on me and take away my vegan card and discredit me as an animal rights activist, and it’s just very scary. . . . You just feel like when you’re vegan, you have to be 100% perfect vegan; otherwise, you’re not really vegan.”

What I hear: I’m coming to you, my community, with a confession, and I’m afraid. Most religious communities have mechanisms to account for imperfection. Most religious communities understand that having a larger number of adherents is better for the long-term survival of the faith than is demanding 100% perfection, and thus they find ways to keep people in the fold.

What she says: “How can I feel OK getting popcorn . . .? I know better. Why am I still doing this? . . . . Even to me, this does not make sense on paper. . . . But sometimes I just feel so sick of caring about every tiny thing I do, and so I feel like I’m holding on to these, like, few things that I just don’t really care about because I’m just so sick of structuring my entire life, checking every label, googling every uncertainty, asking the server to go in the back and pull out this big binder that has every single ingredient of everything. At a certain point it just becomes exhausting.”

What I hear: Sometimes I don’t have the will to be ascetic. 100% vegan perfection, in an economy that is built on the exploitation of non-human (and hey, let’s face it, also human) animals, is like the Desert Fathers in Christianity, like St. Simeon Stylites, who lived for 37 years up on a pillar so that he could avoid temptations and commune with God. That shit is hard.

What she says: “I have a really heavy conscience . . . . I feel like an absolutely terrible person.”

What I hear: In the religion to which I adhere, I am a sinner, and I feel bad. My first attempt at veganism was in 1998, when I was also a deeply involved Catholic. I did OK for about six months, but then it was Halloween season, and I was so sad not to be able to eat the Brach’s mellowcreme pumpkins that I have loved my whole life, so I secretly bought a bag and ate them furtively when no one was looking. It was indistinguishable from Sin—something a believer does, with shame, often in secret. I stopped even trying to be vegan shortly thereafter, as I already had enough guilt and shame about Sin going on from the Catholic religion and didn’t need to add Vegan Sin into the mix.

After Kalel released the video, the backlash was such that she decided to stop calling herself vegan:

Every religion has fundamentalists, but only in veganism are non-fundamentalists so quick to cower in shame before the fundamentalist (and I’m not saying Kalel is cowering in shame but that in general I see too few people pushing back against vegan fundamentalism). The thing about fundamentalists is that they are assholes, in the sense propounded by philosopher Aaron James in Assholes: A Theory. According to James, the asshole:

(1.) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2.) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3.) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

In the case of religious fundamentalism, in which I include vegan fundamentalism, the “entrenched sense of entitlement” derives from a conviction that the ideas and principles to which the believer adheres are capital-T Truths that are overwhelmingly superior and more True than the ideas and principles (which they might well themselves consider to be True) to which others adhere.

I used to be a Christian, and calling myself “Christian” meant something about my aspirations and values. It called me, inspired me, and motivated me to be a better person every day than I would have been if I had thought of myself as trying to become perfect so that I could someday call myself a Christian. I call myself a vegan now, but I’m not a 100% perfect vegan, and I don’t aspire to be, because I know from my Christian days that trying to be perfect makes me unhappy, anxious, and obsessive. I’m never going to be the Simeon Stylites of any religion. But claiming that identity is important to me, and it’s important, I would argue, largely because of the ways in which veganism is a secular religion: a way of ordering one’s life in alignment with values shared with a community.

It doesn’t take any particular courage for me to confess that I’m not a 100% perfect vegan, because I am not a “popular vegan YouTuber.” Good on Kalel for talking about her struggles with feeling like a sinner and being exhausted by the demand for ascetism, even if she didn’t describe it in those terms. I learned somewhere along the line that St. Augustine scored a huge point for Christianity’s march to become a world-dominant religion by offering theological support for infant baptism, even though by definition infants have no idea what baptism means. The more adherents a religion has, even if they’re not perfect, the better for not only the religion, but also (and not incidentally) the ideas and principles on which that religion is founded. That is, more vegans = fewer dead and suffering animals. Vegan fundamentalists, take note.


How We Signal. What We Signal.

There’s this little dead end near my neighborhood, a little nowhere circle, with no houses around it. The only thing it’s good for is turning around, so I walk there and then walk around the circle and head back home.

But tonight, there was a police car parked on the wrong side of the road just before the circle. It made me nervous, because the only reason for a car to be there is if the driver is waiting for something or someone, and I’ve never seen a car there before.

I told myself it was silly to not want to walk to the circle just because there was a cop car there. Just ignore the car and do your thing, I told myself. But I didn’t want to. So, looking all the while at the Pokémon Go on my phone screen, I crossed the street and started walking back toward home.

I’d made it to a parking lot when the police car moved, slowly, slowly heading toward me, pausing. I stopped walking and kept looking at my phone, tracking the slow movement and then the pause of the car out of the corner of my eye. The car was moving so slowly, and then it drove past me, only to then pull in at the other end of the parking lot, pause, and then turn around and exit the parking lot back in my direction, so as to drive past me again. Fine. Fine. Fine. I will look at you.

The car drove past, and I looked at the driver. The police officer was a black woman, and she smiled and waved at me. I waved back, but weakly. I felt exposed—her wave meant that she knew that I felt uncomfortable. How did she know? I had treated her car the same as I would have treated a regular car . . . but that’s when I realized it. It wasn’t that I had treated her car and its invisible driver the same way that I would have treated a maroon SUV. It was that I had treated her car and its invisible driver differently than she was expecting a middle-aged white woman in the suburbs to react.

And then I thought about her, what it’s like for her to be the invisible driver in the cop car.  I know the signaling that white people do, that conservatives do—the ways of creating an in-group of shared values. Probably being a cop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a lot like being in the military. At graduation every year at my university, the audience goes apeshit with applause every time it’s announced that a graduate will be serving in the military. A couple of months ago, a woman with whom I made idle chitchat while waiting for an appointment told me her son was in the Marines and then paused. I knew I was supposed to thank her for her sacrifice, but I didn’t, because the ritualized performance of pro-militarism in this city depresses me, and I didn’t want to participate, even in a small one-on-one moment with a person I would never see again. I imagine that when one of these nice people—people who cheer the loudest for the veterans in the Three Rivers Parade, people who spit at the name of Colin Kaepernick and have Blue Lives Matter signs hanging in their living room windows—sees a police car, they smile and wave, or at least do that friendly nodding thing.  And then she drives by, and they see her. I wonder how many times she’s seen a smile freeze and die.

She wanted me to see her, though I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it was for her—maybe the people who feel nervous when they see a police car idling for no particular reason are the same people who will give her a real smile when they see her. Or maybe it was for me.

@FWCS: Why Does Youth for Christ Get a Table at My Daughter’s School’s Registration Days?

Last fall, in her first few weeks at Fort Wayne Community Schools’ South Side High School, my daughter thought she was volunteering for a school-sponsored tutoring program, because a teacher was organizing it, and she heard about it on the school announcements. But no. After school, the tutoring volunteers were led across the street, past a gauntlet of anti-abortion propaganda, into the City Life building, where she learned that the tutoring program was actually sponsored by City Life.

It didn’t take me too long to find out that City Life is the “urban” outreach branch of Youth for Christ of Northern Indiana, and when I learned that, I was really angry. I remember Youth for Christ’s Kansas City branch from my own teenage days:

  • How they tormented, bullied, reparative-therapied, and eventually rejected my gay friend whose entire identity to that point had been built around his involvement in Youth for Christ
  • How, when my evangelical aunt was babysitting us one weekend and took me and my sister to one of the YFC rallies on Saturday night, a group separated me from my sister, surrounded her, and gave her the hard sell about how she was going to go to hell unless she got saved that night
  • How we got on their mailing list from that one miserable night and for years afterward received monthly magazines telling us that all the things we enjoyed were sinful and about how we’d be going to hell for liking them

But AT LEAST in Kansas City in the late 1980s, students had to physically go to the Youth for Christ building. Yes, YFC’s foot-soldier students were there with me and my sister in our schools, occasionally reminding us and others that we would be going to hell but also that we could have a super-fun time if we would join them for Saturday night rallies at YFC. (We declined.)

Now, Youth for Christ is invited into Fort Wayne Community Schools’ South Side High School. They were right there with two tables at registration day, there with the Marching Band table, the Athletics table, and all the other legitimate school-sponsored activities. Can someone from Fort Wayne Community Schools explain to me why this is OK?2018.07.30.City.Life.1

Youth for Christ certainly thinks it’s OK, and more than OK, to work directly in schools:

We don’t wait for students to come to us. We intentionally go into their world in order to initiate new relationships. Whether it be on campus, hanging out at the skate park, or rooting for their team on a Friday night, we go where students are. As these relationships form, students enter into the community of Campus Life. (Link; quote starts at 0:59)

This is the YFC strategy: to get as close to students, away from their parents, as they possibly can, and then frighten them. This is apparently the strategy of both Youth for Christ’s “Campus Life” program and its “City Life” program, but people who care about racial justice and respect would do well to consider the additional racist, patronizing rhetoric that goes along with the “City Life” propaganda:

City Life is a relational, holistic, community-based ministry that desires to see deep change in an urban neighborhood through the raising of indigenous leaders from the young people in that community. Simply put, “FROM HERE LEAD HERE.” . . .

A young person raised in the urban community who has shown the desire to be taught in a seemingly unteachable environment, possesses the fortitude to lead in a positive manner even when it seems no one is following, and has the audacity to shine or reflect light in the midst of darkness.

This is an insult to South Side High School and to the south side of Fort Wayne: South Side is better than this. South Side is not an “unteachable environment” “in the midst of darkness.” I spent a lot of time at South Side last year, loving the energy of the students I sold snacks to at football and basketball games, valuing the deep and abiding commitment to the students and to the school that I have seen over and over again in my daughter’s teachers, and making connections with other parents who care about their children’s education as much as I do.

Fort Wayne Community Schools, can someone remind the principal at South Side High School that it is unconstitutional for a public school to promote a particular religion? And that doing so is especially insulting at the most racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse high school in the district? Thanks.

Talking to a Gay Republican at Pride

At the Stonewall Democrats table at Fort Wayne Pride last night, I had a short conversation with a man who was hungry for connection. He was there alone, up for the evening from the small Indiana town he lives in, fifty miles away. I had talked the night before for several minutes with a young woman who was also at the festival alone—she’s being bounced from relative to relative this summer, the summer before she starts college, so that she can be away from her parents until school starts. I assume that her being a lesbian has something to do with the estrangement.

It’s not easy going to Pride alone. It’s not easy to approach any established community and make a connection. When I was in college and wanted to find a religion, I went to a few places of worship—the only experience I remember distinctly was the Jewish synagogue I went to. No one looked at me or smiled at me or spoke to me, and I never returned. When I was in high school, I wanted to go to “the Mall”—what the queer kids called the Liberty Memorial, which was the citywide hangout in Kansas City back then for misfits and queers of all varieties. The summer before 12th grade, I went there once, alone, internally writhing with the discomfort of being somewhere I knew no one and had no way of connecting to anyone. I can’t remember how it happened—either I saw my friend David there that night or else found out that he hung out there and went with him another time. And maybe while I was there with David, Becky saw me and recognized me from school—the details are fuzzy after so much time. Becky became my connection point, and by the end of the summer, I was at the Mall every weekend. But I remember still that lonely feeling of being on the outside, watching a community have fun, and having not the slightest idea of how to be on the inside.

I watched the man go from table to table, talking longer with the people at the tables than those in groups generally did, just as the young woman had the night before. Eventually, he circled back and started talking to me again. After a few minutes, he confessed to me, “Well, I’m on the other side from you-all.”

Dan Savage has no sympathy for the loneliness of the gay Republican (“And, hey, pull your head out of your ass before 2020, SWITCH, and you might have an easier time finding a guy who wants to stick his dick in there”) . . . but I have what the religious people might call “a heart for” lonely people—I notice them.

He told me that he had lived in for several years in Chicago and in California, but that he had come back to the small town in Indiana to help his parents and grandmother. He asked me about myself, and I told him I completely understood his yearning to be more part of the LGBT community, because I had felt estranged from the community once I stopped identifying as a lesbian up until recently. I told him that I felt that trans people’s activism had made the community more accepting of me, too, as a non-lesbian queer woman. He told me that while he lived in California, he’d been brainwashed by the Californians into voting for Obama. I told him that in my twenties, I’d been brainwashed by the Catholics into voting for Bob Dole.

He thinks that his personality is a better fit with conservatism—he is naturally monogamous, feels uneasy about changing definitions (he favors civil unions but not marriage for gay people, he’s conflicted about gender fluidity), and values family enough to leave behind what sounded like a less lonely life elsewhere to be an out gay man in Trump country. Social scientists have found heaps of evidence of personality differences between conservatives and liberals, deep-seated differences related to order and stability versus novelty-seeking and openness. Emily Laber-Warren summarizes a number of research studies with the conclusion that “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” As a person with more than passing experience with anxiety, I find that this research helps me to feel less polarized in thinking about conservatives. The things that frighten conservatives don’t frighten me at all . . . but I do understand fear, and how vision-constricting and motivating it can be.

But whatever this guy’s hardwired personality traits may be, it’s a fact that in one place, surrounded by one set of people, he voted for Obama, and in another place, surrounded by a different set of people, he voted (I assume) for Trump. There in his small town, even though he’s a Republican, he doesn’t fit because he’s gay.  In Gayland, even though he’s gay, he doesn’t fit because he’s conservative. I doubt that he is 100% living his truth, but I don’t think anyone is 100% living their truth anyway. But if his >90% truth is being gay and also being politically conservative, then his truth, in the world we live in now, will give him a lonely life on the outside of the two communities that are most important to him. Living your truth doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.

He came back to talk to me a second time because he felt like he was lying by letting me assume that he was politically liberal. People need to be seen and known in their wholeness; a conversation under false pretenses doesn’t count as a connection. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again—I told him that some of the topics at the Stonewall Democrats meetings might be of genuine interest to him (recent topics were a lawyer’s analysis and explanation of the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakes decision and a presentation by an estate lawyer to help people plan their wills and other legal documentation to protect them in case Obergefell is overturned by a future, conservative-packed Supreme Court), so maybe he’ll come. If not, well, it was the most substantive conversation I’ve had about politics with a Republican in years, so I’m grateful for it. Godspeed, little doodle.

On Meaninglessness

In 2008, in a Facebook chain-letter-type project, I wrote about a moment that had happened a few years earlier, in 2005, I think:

[At the Kansas City Renaissance Fair] I was standing listening somewhat intently to this man playing hammered dulcimer. While listening, I looked around and saw the crowd. Everyone was intent upon his or her own interest. I was listening to the dulcimer player, but this person over here was headed toward a jewelry shop, and that one over there wanted a pickle on a stick. Everyone had their own trajectory, and no one would have traded their trajectory for someone else’s. And suddenly the whole thing seemed an allegory for all of life, with the fair offering a wide variety of ways of forgetting that we’re all going to die. And it seemed at that moment that all of the responses to the knowledge of death—religion, cynicism, art, alcohol—were all leveled by the fact of their shared status as ways of avoiding acknowledging death. Previously, during my years of Catholicism, I had always privileged the religious approach to life, but that moment knocked religion off that pedestal for me.

I have held on to that insight for all these years, but what it has done for me, mostly, is to make it slightly less likely that I will judge others for “how they spend their time at the fair.” I was at that time in a transitional moment, shifting from Religion to Work as the Big Thing that gave my life meaning and structure. So this little spontaneous allegory helped me to accept the legitimacy of other people’s ways of not thinking about death, but it didn’t lead me to wonder about my own shift in focus.

I’m in another transitional period now. My kids are almost grown up—they still need me, but the work I have to learn to do now is to hold on less and less tightly from here on out. In my job, there is no “next step” to strive for: there are no more promotions beyond the rank of professor, and I’m not going to become an administrator, because I don’t support the prevailing direction of higher education in America right now. I had lunch today with a friend I hadn’t seen since last summer, when I must have been visibly anguished about the place I work. It was the first thing she asked me about, and a little later, she asked, “Is there anything you’re working toward, any goal?”

I paused and thought. “No.”

I told her that I’m working on a book, that I think it will be good, and I will eventually finish it and get it published, but it won’t lead me to anything new. I am where I am, and I can’t see a path to being somewhere else. I told her that I recently turned forty-seven—officially now “late 40s,” as my friend Kim and I might say—and that I’ve been thinking this summer about coming to terms with how much less plastic the future is than it used to be. This is middle age.

I spent a fair amount of time during my sabbatical this past spring reading philosophy books about object-oriented ontology (OOO); most of the OOO thinkers take a certain playful and sometimes awe-filled delight in the world and its stuff. But then there’s the OOO nihilist, Ray Brassier, a contrarian who doesn’t even want to be associated with the movement. I haven’t read his whole book, only the preface (I’m not even sure I want to read his whole book, because he doesn’t try to be accessible to an audience of non-philosophers), but his summary of his book’s thesis has been niggling at me ever since I read it several months ago:

Nihilism is not . . . a pathological exacerbation of subjectivism, which annuls the world and reduces reality to a correlate of the absolute ego, but on the contrary, the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable. . . . Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. (Nihil Unbound, xi)

I think that nihilism is a very intellectually defensible position, but a middle-aged person’s nihilism is going to look different than that of someone in their teens or twenties. We associate nihilism with anger and rejection, but perhaps a 47-year-old’s nihilist practice would be to not replace the Work that had previously replaced Religion with some other System of Belief . . . that is, with some other story about how “what I’m doing now has cosmic importance.” It might just entail enjoying the fair in a somewhat detached way, recognizing that the alternative is to wait in the parking lot for the heat death of the universe.