The Spectrum

I wonder if it’s kosher to publicly  refer to a public figure as “on the spectrum” — on the autism  spectrum?

Greta Thunberg, the young and eloquent climate activist, was treated nastily on twitter by the most powerful American alive, and she responded, on twitter, with cutting irony. But as I watched an MSNBC account, full of sympathy for her, and outraged by the attack by the President, the morning commentator repeated a dozen times, to evoke sympathy for her,  that she was 16 and “on the spectrum.

If she’s “on the spectrum,” doesn’t that undercut the reliability of her message? What if we referred to her as “on medication” or “in a remedial reading class” or a “recovering juvenile delinquent”?

I suppose the commentator was claiming you shouldn’t kick someone disabled. But why divert attention from the nastiness of an attack by focusing on disability? And really!?!  What do we know about “the spectrum” — apart from it’s recent entry into casual conversation?  Is it like stuttering or having a limp?

Among professional psychologists, “on the spectrum” may have a spot along with “bipolar,” or “manic-depressive.” But we don’t throw these terms around in public discourse — though they may be whispered by non-professionals under their breath.  But in my experience, this whisper is mostly in a derogatory or pitying vein.

Can’t journalists be a bit more sensitive here?  Doesn’t the label throw her message under the bus?


How to Destroy Self and Culture


I reproduce here lengthy excerpts from an address by a friend and pastor from England who reflects very astutely, I believe, on the dark arts that aim to eliminate our sense that truth and falsity matter.  Here is Rev. Andrew Brown exploring a culture’s loss of meaning and hope, and of what accounts for our present darkness.


After this, nothing happened

The philosopher Jonathan Lear in “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation”  reflects on lessons we might learn from the life of Chief Plenty Coups (1848–1932) from the Crow Tribe who lived in Montana and North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to being a warrior Plenty Coups’ whole form of life was centred on the hunting of the buffalo but when the buffalo had gone (a catastrophic event caused, of course, by the white settlers) and the tribe were confined to a reservation, his form of life was finished. Here’s how Plenty Coups expressed this to his friend and biographer Frank B. Linderman (1869-1938):

“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young. . . . I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened (p. 2).

Lear notes that we could simply interpret Plenty Coups to be saying something like the tribe was depressed and things seemed as though nothing happened. But what Lear wants to stress, rightly in my opinion, is something deeper, namely that the loss of the buffalo destroyed Crow subjectivity; what it was to be a member of the Crow tribe was to hunt buffalo and if there were no longer any buffalo to hunt then there could no longer be, in any meaningful sense, a Crow person. It would to be somewhat like a captain and crew of an ocean-going liner on a planet that has lost all its seas.

To be sure Plenty Coups was still alive, still getting up in the morning and doing certain kinds of everyday things, but he could no longer truly be a Crow Indian and so we may take his words to be a declaration that the ideas around which he has shaped his whole life were no longer livable. What was required, and which amazingly Plenty Coups achieved, was to find a way poetically to take elements of his own past and make of it something capable of generating for the Crow a new field of possibility for authentic living as the Crow.

. . .  We (also) need to think ourselves into what might be the end of our own tradition — but that’s a very difficult and challenging thing to do. . . We all now know we are no longer in times we consider “normal”. . . As Lear observed in his book published in 2006:

We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilisations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world — terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes — have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today — from all points of the political spectrum. It is as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself may collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it (p. 7).

It seems to me that the vulnerability which today is threatening to pitch us into our own darkness  is the fear that we seem rapidly to be losing a coherent (enough) shared understanding of what “truth” — a central, if always complex, pillar of democracy — consists in.

To help me bring the vulnerability most forcibly before you I want now to turn to a shadowy but hugely influential figure called Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov (b. 1964). Here’s how the film-maker Adam Curtis’ introduces Surkov and his work to us in his recent BBC documentary “HyperNormalization”:

Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.

Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake.

As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.” A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable. It is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year. In typical fashion, as the war began, Surkov published a short story about something he called non-linear war. A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to, or even who they are. The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control. 

As Peter Pomerantsev writing for “The Atlantic” in 2014 put it, The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions.

Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime

But don’t for one single moment let yourself be seduced into thinking this is just an isolated Russian phenomenon because increasing numbers of our own British, European and American politicians, financiers, digital-tech and social-media moguls (such as those running Cambridge Analytica and Facebook et. al.) are daily applying Surkov’s methods all around us. The result is that truth, the central pillar of all genuinely democratic traditions, is in danger of disappearing completely from our lives as did the buffalo from the lives of the Crow and Jesus from the lives of the first disciples. It is this loss that may, if not stopped, pitch us into our own deep and dark Black Saturday. It could threaten to deliver us up into a situation that Plenty Coups faced, namely, suddenly finding ourselves in a world where the ideas of truth which shaped our lives are no longer livable.

To be sure the first disciples and Chief Plenty Coups show us that a radical hope can emerge from dreadful loss and from this we can, and should, take some comfort, cold though it necessarily is.

On balance, it’s surely far better to find ways not to fall or be pushed into any kind of blackness, especially since, thankfully, we are not quite there yet. Given this, may I gently but firmly encourage you to seriously to meditate on how truth, like Jesus and the buffalo, is today being forced by Surkov and his ilk to walk a via dolorosa towards its death. As best we can, let’s together stop being merely passive bystanders in this awful spectacle and try to ensure that truth’s crucifixion does not come to pass.

[for Rev. Brown’s full address, see CAUTE — A free-spirit archeology of morning,


Gratitude is Salvation


I was returning home from a restaurant at night.

The crossing was slippery.

I suddenly found myself plunged  into a deep snowdrift.

It had piled up at the edge of the crossing.

I wasn’t at all hurt.

That wasn’t the problem.

I just couldn’t straighten up.

Snow was up past my elbows.

I had no traction.


Two passersby, young men, helped me regain my feet.

I was bathed in gratitude.


In only a second, I forgot I had fallen.


It seemed the most natural thing in the world, when helpless,

to be helped by utter strangers.

Nasty, Cruel, Fate


Some deaths are more nasty, brutish, and short than others.


On a London bridge a man was senselessly knifed to death.


He was a committed advocate of prison reform, and of more humane

treatment of those released from prison.


One of the persons for whom he was an advocate and

who attended his last meeting on treating released

prisoners with dignity, was identified as the terrorist

who killed the reformer on a London Bridge.


The father of Jack Merritt, who died on Friday at London Bridge, writes that the attack has been used to reinforce the worldview his son , Jack, fought against:

Jack was proud. Jack was absorbingly intelligent. Jack was fiercely loyal. Jack loved music, art, eating good food with his family, and having more than one pint with his mates. But Jack was also angry, frustrated, selfless, stubborn.

He was angry because he saw our society failing those most in need. He was frustrated because the political elite have forgotten why it is important to be fair. He was selfless in his dedication to make things right in every second of his life. Jack devoted his energy to the purpose of Learning Together: a pioneering programme to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice. Unlike many of us, Jack did not just go to work. He lived and breathed fire in his pursuit of a better world for all humanity, particularly those most in need.

If Jack could comment on his death – and the tragic incident on Friday 29 November – he would be livid. We would see him ticking it over in his mind before a word was uttered between us. Jack would understand the political timing with visceral clarity.

He would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against. We should never forget that. What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that. Through us all, Jack marches on.

Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.


Spiritual Journey: Adventure and Pilgrimage

                                  God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
                                 Then walks with us silently out of the night.
                                  These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond your recall,
                                  Go to the limits of your longing.
                                  Embody me. Flare up like flame
                                 And make big shadows I can move in.
                                 Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
                                 Just keep going. No feeling is final.
                                 Don’t let yourself lose me.
                                 Nearby is the country they call life.
                                 You will know it by its seriousness.
                                Give me your hand.
                                                                                                         —Rilke, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

A few years ago, I went in to discuss becoming a church member with our pastor. Although I had sung in endless church choirs, I had never contemplated becoming a member.  But State Street, where I was singing on my return from Israel, was inviting. The choir was well-tuned, the congregation, warm and socially committed, the pastor – Jeanette—impressive, her sermons, electric.  We chatted in her office. A question about my creedal belief never arrived. She said, “We’re all on our differing spiritual journeys.”  But what did that mean? 

Religion is a matter of transformative encounters that occur en route. We are on the way, on a path. We might think of a spiritual journey as a pilgrimage or spiritual adventure. Perhaps we are on several journeys, variously distinct or beclouded, like Odysseus, on a journey with ups and downs, longing for home, or like pilgrims on the way to Canterbury or Rome, or like Basho whose reveries are titled The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Meditative immersion can intensify our sense of being alive –say, as we listen to music or soak in the serenity of Walden Pond. These absorptions are spirituality-without-journey.  But moments of peaceful immobility can occur within a wider continuing journey.  A journey isn’t spiritual if it’s only a mad rush.  Yoga slows down a frantic mind.  It takes in stillness to let spirit breath.  If we attend church, we hope the frantic mind is stilled.  Hymns and prayers make it a common journey.

Literature can be a resource for articulating spiritual journeys. Melville writes:

          Oh, grassy glades! oh, ever vernal endless landscapes in the soul; in ye, men yet may   roll, like young horses in new morning clover; and for some few fleeting moments, feel the cool dew of the life immortal on them. Would to God these blessed calms would last.  But the mingled threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm . . .  We do not advance once and for all through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then skepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again.

A dark pessimism hangs over Ahab’s sense of journey:

         Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Melville pairs Ahab with a joyous sense of journey. Here is Starbuck, the First Mate:

         Loveliness unfathomable, as ever lover saw in his young bride’s eye! — Tell me not of thy teeth-tiered sharks, and thy kidnapping cannibal ways. Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe.

We hope our spiritual adventures, trials, and journeys are not beaten down but buoyed up and end in faith.

I suspect speaking of a spiritual journey came into vogue among hippies in the 60’s and 70’s.   Politics had become murderous and churches were no help.  The saying was, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Yet as politics became brutal, replete with assassinations, there was a counter-cultural turn to “Eastern Thought” – to meditation and Taoism. One might be indifferent to Christianity or even hostile to it, yet not be quite ready to abandon the idea of a spiritual path. New Age practices gave comfort and spirituality in fraught times without church.  Native Americans speak of a male adolescent’s “vision quest” which consolidates an adult identity.  Perhaps we never outlive the pull of a vision quest, a spiritual journey.  Full disclosure: I’m a child of the 60’s and 70’s.

I find myself today embracing – and embraced by – State Street Church life, not only its choir but communion, liturgy, and a spirit descending from the arches.  I embrace a way of life among people I deeply admire. Paramount are openness, kindness, communion with others, and the search for a good soul in everyone. Singing enacts community, enacts shared fears and hopes. Recitation of a common prayer sometimes moves me especially as it resounds as song or chant and evokes a trace of something deep within and not quite articulate.  Religion, as I affirm it now, is community realized in practices of silence and singing, recitations of shared fears and aspirations, welcome of others in grace and charity. Our community includes gays and transgenders, homeless and African immigrants, tottering oldies and scampering toddlers. No one dresses to the T’s.  Our pastor vowed that if Muslims are forced to register (as T. once threatened) she’ll declare herself a Muslim. I’d follow. She promised sanctuary to Annie, from Congo, if her papers were questioned.  I’ve come to recognize a Christianity I can support without reserve.

**    **


This book is a chronicle of a change of mind, and of a discipline of listening that keeps my mind and my spirit stretching.  There are places in human experience that politics cannot analyze or address, and they are among our raw, essential, heartbreaking, and life-giving realities. I returned to America from Europe in the early 1990s as my generation and others were rediscovering a hunger for spiritual depth, for religious moorings. I studied theology to learn whether I could reconcile religious faith with my intelligence and the breadth of my experience in the world, whether faith could illuminate life in all its complexity and passion and frailty. I decided that it can. I have found a vast and vivid landscape of others who share this discovery.
The spiritual energy of our time, as I’ve come to understand it, is not a rejection of the rational disciplines by which we’ve ordered our common life for many decades—law, politics, economics, science. It is, rather, a realization that these disciplines have a limited scope. They can’t ask ultimate questions of morality and meaning.
To understand our lives we can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, gross national product, legal codes, but they don’t begin to tell us how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to each other. These are the kinds of questions religion arose to address. Religious traditions are keepers of conversation across generations about them.
                                                                                                             Krista Tippett — in Speaking of Faith

Lost in Alaskan Wilderness, I Found My Anti-Home

I’m not sure of copyright protocols for reproducing another’s words, but I’ve been struck by these below, and can’t resist passing them on. (Full disclosure: years ago I spent a single night in the woods of Denali, midway by rail between Fairbanks and Anchorage.)


Denali is a place with no safety net, no walls, no sense of enclosure or safety or intimacy or kinship.

Fifteen years ago, I rented a basement apartment beside the Wonder Bread factory in Anchorage, Alaska. After I got out of work, I stalked the edges of a nearby lagoon, swatting at mosquitoes the size of small birds, or headed for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail or the Chugach Mountains. It was summer, and hours of sunlight remained. I felt like I was getting away with something; I was living two days for the price of one.

My roommate borrowed an ancient Subaru wagon, and we learned to drive stick shift in one of the city’s many empty lots. On weekends we used it to venture farther, testing its last legs as we coaxed it up steep roads to various trailheads. I bought a cobalt blue Kelty pack perfectly sized for small women — still one of my most beloved possessions — and used it for overnight trips into the backcountry. I was restless. One evening I stayed out until 2 a.m. and discovered the sun was not actually setting; it was hovering.

Beneath all this traipsing was a jittery urgency. I had something to prove. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but it had to do with being young and a woman and Asian and petite, and on top of that rather sickly in constitution. Certain assumptions had followed me to that point in my life, assumptions about physical capability and self-sufficiency and individuality — more specifically, the lack of these traits. If I was honest, I didn’t know if these assumptions were true, but I was trying my best to make them untrue.

At the end of the summer, I set out into the vast backcountry of Denali National Park with my roommate and another friend, both women. It was my third time to Denali but my longest backpacking trip. We caught the bus that entered the park and operated along its single road. Two hours later, at an indistinct spot in the extreme wilderness, we hopped off and watched the bus drive away. From that time on, we saw no other person. Maybe my friends felt the sudden solitude as heavily as I did, but we didn’t speak of it. We stepped off the road and pushed our way into a thicket.

The other two carried tents and water and, feeling strong from a summer of backpacking, I hauled the thick-walled, bear-resistant container that held all of our food. Though we were on foot, we covered enough ground over the days that the landscape was in constant flux: tundra, lake, forest, tundra, mountain. We encountered moose, bears, caribou, Dall sheep and many a flock of dimwitted ptarmigans. There was nowhere we could turn to look away from the sharp, unending beauty of the landscape.
We followed glacial rivers and chose our crossings carefully. We searched for wider, shallower points, throwing stones to test the depths. We unbuckled our packs and positioned ourselves so the largest one of us — my friend, who at 5 feet 4 inches and 120 pounds could not exactly be called large — was upstream. Waist-deep in icy and forceful waters that tried to wrest us off our feet, we slid the soles of our boots one at a time across the rocky river bottom, taking perhaps half an hour to shuffle across a river 15 feet wide. On the other side we sat panting, massaging feeling back into our numbed legs.

We exercised what I thought was ample caution and shared a healthy fear of the forces of nature, and yet we repeatedly found ourselves compromised. We made camp near a sow bear and cub because it was late at night and there was a river crossing in the way. We discovered the truly terrifying properties of glacial silt, like quicksand. And then we got lost.

With trail hiking, the questions are limited: Is that the path? Which fork should we take? But in the backcountry, the questions are so numerous, so overwhelming, as to achieve a nearly rhetorical pitch. Forward or backward or right or left or any of the degrees in between? Where did that mountain come from? Will we ever see another human being?

The river we thought we were following on our map had dried up and vanished; instead we had mistakenly chased the twists and whims of a smaller tributary until it finally dawned on us that we had arrived at something of a plight. My friends became quiet. In the new, strange silence we scrabbled up and down mountainsides, tripping, turning our ankles, trying to find our lost river. We spent a good day and a half steeped in uncertainty, though that hardly conveys the viscous timelessness of fear. All we knew of time was measured in our food supply: One day’s worth remained.

To say that Alaska is what you make of it suggests unconstrained entitlement; it’s something the colonizers could have said. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Alaska is one of the last places in this country where you can wander millions of acres of land, doing whatever and sleeping wherever you please. If someone might have objected to your actions elsewhere, here he would simply never know.

All that summer, I thought I had ventured to Alaska to try on a different way of life, one that tested my self-reliance and competence. I wondered if I’d failed. Now, years later, I believe I was simply searching for a place I’ll clumsily call an anti-home. I mean an antithesis to my own childhood home — for in the backcountry I’d found quiet and stillness and the edge of happiness — but I also mean a place at odds with all notions of home. A place with no safety net, no walls, no sense of enclosure or intimacy or kinship. A place of exposure. It was not so much that I wanted to prove something to others, but that I had a question for myself: Who was I, in a place like that?

As we cut through the tundra, we began to ration our water. We passed the remaining bottle around. The water was warm and tasted of oatmeal, for we had poured what liquid remained of our breakfast back in. We slowed for my friend, who lagged farther and farther behind until we realized she was suffering the beginnings of heat stroke. We poured a little water on a handkerchief, which she pressed to her forehead, and made her sit out of the sun. There wasn’t space, I remember thinking, for one more worry.


When we staggered up a steep, windy hill and saw a pond — the pond we had been searching for — we started laughing, the kind of loose laughter that easily veers into crying. The noise must have been startling, but a lone caribou continued to eat from a shrub at the bottom of the hill. I charged, stumbling the whole way down. When I looked back, my friends were slowly sliding down the hill on their butts, plucking wild blueberries as they scooted giddily through the patches I had not even seen.

At last, we made it to the road. We collapsed on the dirt shoulder and waited to flag down the next passing bus, which was packed with clean-clothed people pointing cameras out the windows. My friend claims that upon finally arriving at the visitors’ center, I stood by the fountain filling and refilling my bottle and drank a half gallon of water­ without stopping. I don’t remember the thirst.

By the time we had scarfed down dinner at the closest restaurant — I remember potatoes and beer and a wide-mouthed gulping of food as much to do with relief as hunger — it was past 10 in the evening. It had started to rain. On the highway, steam came off the hot road, and it was so dense and dark that we could barely see a few feet ahead of us. We were driving 40 miles per hour, then 30, then 20. I pulled out our milepost guide and found an empty campground. We dug the sleeping bags out of the trunk and arranged them inside the station wagon, then settled in uncomfortably for yet another night in a place we did not know.

Has any place I’ve known well ever left as much of an impression as this place I barely knew? My father, from a poor family with five children, left his country on a scholarship to study a subject that did not interest him. He never outwardly dwelled on the home he’d left. My mother, on the other hand, missed the mountains where her family had farmed lychees. In our suburban house, she saved the seeds of any store-bought fruit that was particularly sweet, and pots of dirt lined our walls. Occasionally, a rickety starfruit tree would rise, never growing into more than a stick. There are people who look toward home, and others who look away.

For those who look away, I’ve wondered, does their home continue to whisper? To coax them into glancing over? Is it possible to find another place that fills your mind so urgently, so wildly, that your previous haunts and hauntings are a bore? I think so, for a time.

Chia-Chia Lin, August 31, 2019, NYTimes: author of the novel “The Unpassing.”

A Poem: Among the Intellectuals


            [Tony Hougland]


They were a restless tribe.

They did not sit in the sunlight.


Cloud-watching among them was considered a disgusting waste of time.


They passed the days in an activity they called “thought provoking,”

as if thought were an animal, and they used long sticks


to poke through the bars of its cage,

tormenting and arousing thinking into strange behaviors.

This was their religion.

That and the light shining through the stained-glass ancestors.


They preferred the name of the tree

to the taste of the apple.


I was young and I wanted to prove myself,


but the words I learned from them transmuted me.

By the time I noticed, the change had already occurred.


It is impossible to say if this was bad.


Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;

blind, really blind;

stupid, really stupid;

dry, really dry;

hungry, really hungry;

and you go on from there.


But then you also find

you can’t stop thinking, thinking, thinking;


tormenting, and talking to yourself.


Tony Hougland


From The New Yorker, Sept. 2, 2019


I think this poem can be read in conjunction with recent my post arguing that appreciation of what shows up in the world should be valued for its own sake.  Our highest calling is not to know this or that but to appreciate this or that, regardless of what we know of it.