Moral Courage

From Susan Sontag in At the Same Time:

"At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve... Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of 'moral courage' -- because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too."

Unbounded Gratitude

Another great statement on the importance of books:

"…for some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life…wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean." --Anne Lamott

Beauty Laid Bare

You should read this lovely WSJ essay on the importance of books, and then go read a book! I'm currently halfway through Moby Dick (which I try to read every couple years), and next on my list: Spaceman by Mike Massimino, The Life-Writer by David Constantine, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. What are you reading? Also, this from Annie Dillard:

"Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? … Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?"

Gettysburg Address

I was reminded yesterday via twitter that Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest and most consequential speech in American history, 153 years ago on November 19, 1863. As I read it again I was overwhelmed with sadness; I think I hardly have to say why (though I will soon, at length). But I also felt a glimmer of hope, because maybe those of us who believe in the great American project will work harder than ever before to ensure that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

A Time For Refusal

I can't quite get my mind around the reality of President-elect Trump, so I haven't yet written a post, but this NYTimes article on Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" sums up the "normalization" aspect nicely:

"Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone."

A Marathon for the Girls

Outside Grand Central, November 2016

Outside Grand Central, November 2016

During my first week in Afghanistan, a colleague and I paid a visit to the “UK Sports Store,” a rather large shop in the Shahr-e Naw neighborhood of Kabul known for its odd assortment of athletic wear and used exercise equipment. In the months leading up to the start of my job at a commercial law firm there, I had made acceptance of the offer almost conditional on the procurement of a treadmill, “one that doesn’t shake, and to which I may have unlimited access.” Running had become a vital part of my life in New York, and not being able to walk, let alone run outside in the city I would soon call home, seemed an almost inconceivable restriction. In preparation for the move, I asked about armored cars, tracking devices, personal protective gear, and concealed carry permits, but mostly I was concerned about whether I would be able to reconcile life in a conflict zone with my running habit. In retrospect, the informal treadmill clause I insisted upon was how I dealt with all the doubts and anxieties I had about moving to Afghanistan. There could be suicide bombings and kidnappings, a resurgent Taliban and a NATO troop drawdown, unfamiliar food, unreliable Internet, and the storied drama of expat life, but if I could run, I was certain that everything would be fine.

Despite my colleague’s protestations, I chose the largest treadmill (the belt looked most reliable), and we managed to fit it in a tiny back room, in the corner, because I may have hit my head on the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling had we centered it in front of the tiny window. My new “gym,” outfitted with a single space heater for winter days and an underpowered plastic fan for summer days, was always too hot or too cold, and with the window open, the dusty air carried with it pungent wafts of sewage from a nearby drain. That room became my respite, though, much like the Jackie Onassis Reservoir had years before. Some days, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine the Reservoir path, shaded by cherry trees and a mile of rhododendrons in bloom.

This Sunday I will run my first marathon, the New York City marathon, in support of an organization that promotes athletics for girls in conflict zones. My work in Afghanistan has more to do with tax policy than human rights, but as a woman working in a conservative environment with strict gender norms, I’ve had occasion to think about the ways in which Afghan women are restricted in how fully they may live their lives. Foreign women avoid public places for fear of random attacks, but Afghan women and girls are constrained by concerns about modesty and societal rules on the use of public spaces. Their ability to run or participate in sports is limited to the private sphere where resources are limited, even in larger cities like Kabul.

It was unthinkable moments of violence, like the brutal killing of Farkhunda by a mob of men who believed, on the strength of a single crazed allegation, that she had burned the Quran, which initially drew my attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan. But it was the fundamental yearning for normalcy and freedom, expressed by women I had come to know, that prompted me to train for a 26.2-mile race in support of programs that would help women and girls gain access to sports.

Afghanistan has been through a security transition, a political transition, and an economic transition in the space of a year and a half, and its future is far from certain. Why, then, support athletics for women and girls when there are seemingly more pressing matters worthy of our attention? While sound economic policy and a functioning rule of law is certainly the bedrock for progress, I have found that smaller initiatives can also have a great impact. As Afghans work to rebuild their country, I think it’s important that young people learn the lessons sports teach, such as self-confidence, leadership, understanding, and tolerance. Indeed, sports can be used as an avenue to freedom and a road toward equality.

Running is exercise and metaphor, as one of my favorite authors once said – it’s about raising the bar for oneself, bit by bit. In Afghanistan, progress comes slowly and in increments, sometimes almost imperceptible, and gains are often complicated by any number of factors that arise in a country struggling to recover from years of war and upheaval.

As I run through the five boroughs this Sunday, I’ll be thinking about the resilient people I’ve met in Afghanistan over the past year, particularly the women, and I hope that my efforts will help at least some of them achieve their own personal goals, athletic and otherwise. There are many paths to self-fulfillment, and to peace, but as running and working in Afghanistan has taught me, most goals are only reached with tireless day-to-day, mile-by-mile effort, accompanied by the belief that we can achieve what we never thought possible.

Race day notes: if you'd like to follow my progress, my racer number is 51225 and I'll be starting with green wave 3 at 10:40am. You can follow along by downloading the app or on the website! Also, the marathon stories are here (find my picture) if you're interested.

Instagram Poet

Rupi Kaur is a writer, artist, and instagram poet who has been getting a lot of attention recently. Her messages resonate with a lot of women I know -- they're straightforward, honest, and emotionally intense. In the words of her publisher, “Rupi’s honest, authentic voice speaks to young people who relate to her depiction of pain and struggle but ultimate sense of hope. Rupi is not afraid to challenge taboos, and this brave form of expression inspires her readers” (here).

Rupi explains how her identity influences her poetry: "being a brown woman growing up in the west, where the ideal woman was white, sent me on a terrifying journey. i was already doubting who i was because . . . women like me were not represented at all. anywhere. so i had no one to look up to. that looked like me. that had parents like mine. that spoke my language. that carried my strong punjabi features. it all happens subconsciously. you are convinced you are ugly. and even if you know you’re beautiful, you think you cannot be beautiful enough. those experiences pushed my work. i was forced to ask myself the difficult questions. i had to look at myself in the mirror, make a list of things i disliked about me and write about those so i could learn and figure out ways to fall in love with them. so that i could show other brown women why we need to celebrate the things that make us unique" (interview here).

Modern Toughness

Interesting op-ed from David Brooks on what it means to be tough. I remember when my eighth grade teacher put sofas in our classroom to make our "learning space" seem more welcoming and relaxed, and reminded us frequently that we could come to her to talk out our problems. She meant the kinds of things you might say to a psychiatrist; I just wanted pointers on my algebra homework.

I'm not a supporter of "trigger warnings" and safe spaces," and I find the recent campus campaigns of politically correct students self-indulgent and nonsensical. Still, I think Brooks is right to point out that there's a difference between callousness and toughness, and that people we admire for being resilient are not hard; they are ardent. He says:

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope.

A Mystery and a Mess

Novelist Bonnie Nadzam on not having a writing process. Honestly, I'd like to wake up in the morning and leisurely have breakfast, read for an hour, write for two, eat lunch, run, write for three more hours, and enjoy my evenings with friends, but that's not remotely possible with a full-time job. This confession of hers gave me hope that I can still be a writer while doing all the other things that life demands:

“I have no process; if I did have a process, I would have no confidence in the process. I didn’t do any of the things you’re supposed to do when writing. I didn’t a have an office or separate room in which to write. I didn’t have a desk. I sat on the floor, or on a zafu on its side, or on the porch, or out back, or at the coffee shop, or at the wine bar. I didn’t write every day and certainly not at the same time every day. I was working full time and sometimes more than full time at a job unrelated to art or teaching or writing. I didn’t go to any retreats or residencies or conferences. I checked my email in mid-sentence. Frequently. I didn’t write straight from my gut, so-to-speak — I thought as deeply as I could about the book on every level — sentence, theme, character, overall structure, and still, I might add, ended up surprised by the results and making discoveries I cannot explain and that I’m relying on readers to tell me about. I re-read and studied carefully my favorite novels. I listened to a couple of them on audio, when I needed my hands free to do things like laundry or painting. I read a few dozen other novels, too. I simultaneously worked on another book (Love in the Anthropocene, cowritten with Dale Jamieson). I interrupted myself continually to garden, make elaborate dinners, renovate the house, go running, and tend my own dying father. I got pregnant. I slept on my side for 18 hours a day during the last three months of the pregnancy and didn’t write or read a thing, I mostly just drooled. Then I had twins. I moved twice, once selling and once buying a house. I had way too many people looking at early drafts. I just kept swimming in the mess until it all felt more or less right. And then it was time for it to go into production and I had to stop.  It’s all a mystery and a mess and that’s why I do it. This is both the source of and the salve for all the anxiety involved. It’s awful and wonderful. It’s like when you’re crying so hard you start laughing. There should be more words like bittersweet.”

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver, discovered via a literary newsletter

Houellebecq's Imagined World

Interesting Paris Review interview with Michel Houellebecq, author of Soumission (Submission), a controversial "political fiction" about France in 2020, under the rule of a Muslim political party. Houellebecq is a professed agnostic (once a professed atheist), so I was surprised by some of his thoughts on religion. The interviewer says, "You could also say that what really interests those people is going to Syria, rather than converting." He responds, "I disagree. I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise." Further, "I remain in many ways a Comtean, and I don't believe that a society can survive without religion." I suppose that's rational from a sociological perspective, but my experience has been that most atheists and agnostics are hostile to religion and dismiss it outright. I guess I'll have to read some Comte.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, the French novelist, plays a central role in Houellebecq's novel. He says, "Huysmans [is a classic case] of a man who converts for reasons that are purely aesthetic. I almost have trouble imagining such an aesthete. For him, beauty was the proof. The beauty of rhyme, of paintings, of music proved the existence of God." I'll also have to read À Rebours, but from the ideas presented in Soumission -- this one about aesthetic conversion particularly -- I can't say I completely disagree with the views of this "neuralgic misfit" (New Yorker).

Houellebecq's firmly anti-Enlightenment beliefs are completely antithetical to mine, but as someone who is interested in religion as a cultural phenomenon, I enjoyed his book and have spent some time thinking about the imagined world in which a Muslim party rules France and an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. It seems unlikely to me, but we do live at a time when the seemingly impossible -- for better or worse -- becomes reality.