Culture Shift

My Visit With Slow Time It would be a radical change from my life in Washington, D.C., where it’s never dark and never quiet

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

There was a time when our days were shaped by the sun. We rose with its rising, stopped to eat at its zenith, and were asleep when its light was gone. Our bedrooms weren’t illuminated by the glow of digital clocks, and we didn’t scroll through Facebook postings before placing our phones on the bedside table, where they rang us awake a few hours later.

Norman Allen

Norman Allen is an award-winning playwright. His work has appeared at theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the Karlín Musical Theatre in Prague. His essays have appeared in the Washington Post and Smithsonian, and he blogs for On Being and Tin House.

I traveled back to such a time for five early-autumn days in rolling Kentucky farmland. The Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, is best known as the home of Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk famous for his spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. In his later years, Merton examined the common threads between Catholicism and Buddhism, and helped bring core monastic values to the general public.

Today, the abbey offers silent, self-directed retreats throughout the year. Most guests stay in the retreat house, which offers simple rooms with private baths. Men can choose the monastery’s South Wing. No longer used by the dwindling population of brothers, its single, long hallway has a shared bath at one end, and opens onto rows of cell-like rooms. All retreatants spend their time in silence, without television or radio.

It would be a radical change from my life in Washington, D.C., where it’s never dark and never quiet. Like all cities, Washington thrives on speed, its citizens seemingly intent on filling their days with activity. At the Abbey of Gethsemani I hoped to find the opposite. My goal was simply to stop, to sit still. I had arranged to be free of deadlines. Only my partner knew how to reach me, and he would do so only in dire emergency. I was ready to step into the silence.

And yet, I quickly discovered that life at the abbey is shaped by sound and word as the monks gather seven times a day to sing the Liturgy of the Hours. Services last just 15 to 30 minutes, and the text is almost entirely taken from the Book of Psalms. Not Catholic myself, I embraced the opportunity to structure my day around some of the most resonant poetry history has known.

My favorite service was Compline, which ends the day at 7:30. On my first evening I learned that I could sit atop a hillock just beyond the abbey parking lot, watch the sun set behind the Kentucky hills, and, if I hurried, be in the church balcony in time to hear the brothers chant the wistful lullaby service as the light faded from the stained glass windows above. By 8 p.m. I was back in my room. By 9 p.m. I was in my narrow bed.

An early bedtime proved wise, as I rose each morning at 3 a.m., 15 minutes before Vigils began the day. Waking to the deep tones of the abbey bells, I’d pull on pants and hoodie, stumble down the hall, and find my seat in the balcony. Below, the monks entered singly, and in silence. When the service was over, some moved forward to the altar at the distant, shadowy end of the church, while others disappeared through side doors. One of the oldest remained at his seat, a book open on his tiny desk. As the lights were switched off, I’d remain, the elderly monk’s reading lamp the only light in the vast space.

Even in the midst of his silent, monastic life, this studious monk sought out even greater solitude. Unlike me, he had a specific, named God to worship, and millennia of complicated theology to support his meditations. I contemplated the dark itself, acutely aware that it would fade with the coming sunrise, an event I would experience like a kind of miracle. Both of us, in our own ways, were in the room to commune with a mystery beyond our comprehension.

I contemplated the dark itself, acutely aware that it would fade with the coming sunrise, an event I would experience like a kind of miracle.

During the day, retreatants disappeared into gardens and onto hiking trails but gathered in the refectory to share three silent meals. There are enough tables scattered throughout the room that nearly everyone can eat alone, but the last to arrive inevitably had to join a stranger.

“Stranger” is not entirely accurate. Forty of us met briefly on our first evening for a presentation by Brother Seamus, who prompted us to break silence long enough to introduce ourselves, then offered a short lesson on monastic life. I learned that most of us were Catholic, many were annual visitors, and some were the second or third generation to attend. I learned that two men were father and son, though they kept apart, as did a married couple. There was also an elderly, Hobbit-like Jesuit whose twinkling eyes made me long to speak with him.

Later in the week, I was enjoying my solitary dinner when a middle-aged woman entered late with her tray, to find all tables occupied. Catching her eye, I gestured to the seat opposite me. It was less awkward than I expected to face someone without speaking or making eye contact. It created a sense of sharing unmarred by the need to project a persona or create polite conversation. When she completed her meal, my guest took out a tiny notebook, wrote a few words, and handed the slip of paper to me. It read, “Thank you for the invitation. I actually have been dying to try this experiment — eating together in silence! [smiley face].”

But our connection wasn’t over. Hiking one of the many trails that meander through the abbey woods, I came across an old hermitage, a tiny stone house under the trees. Inside were a pitcher of fresh water, a stack of paper cups, and a podium with a guest book. Reading through recent entries, I recognized the distinctive script of my dinner companion. She wrote of being thirsty on the dusty path and of being surprised by the gift of cool water — and of her new intention to offer hospitality to others.

True to the Jesuit tradition of questioning authority, it was the Hobbit-like priest who prompted me to break the rule of silence. We had passed frequently in the halls, in the garden, and in the refectory. We always nodded and smiled, recognizing each other as kindred spirits among guests who seemed to avoid eye contact at all costs. During dinner one night we found ourselves standing together as we waited for our self-serve toasts to brown. He looked at me and murmured, “Wasn’t it a glorious day?” I managed only, “It was.”

Other than meeting Brother Seamus, we never came in contact with the hardworking monks, but we couldn’t call them strangers, either. They became familiar through observation alone. One of the younger men, in his 40s perhaps, has a remarkable kinetic energy, leaning and shifting in his choir stall and darting forward to turn a page. The youngest of the brothers was the most intent, lingering after services to study and mark a text. One of the eldest seemed bent on tactile experience, his hand running lightly along a wooden railing or stone wall as he made his way to his seat.

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

YES! Illustration by Julie Notarianni

Best of all, not a single phone dinged or beeped or twerped. While there is no stated policy, technology was almost entirely absent — except for the occasional guest who wandered the grounds with earbuds in place. A visit to the library might reveal a couple of retreatants on laptops, attempting to access a weak Wi-Fi signal, but those were the only screens to be found. Even without hearing the Psalms chanted, such an experience approaches the religious. So often our primary motion is outward; we feel that we must express ourselves, put ourselves forward. We long to be seen and heard. In recent decades, we’ve also been reprogrammed to seek constant input — new information, new knowledge, new affirmation.

In silence and solitude that cycle slows considerably. Free of the need to put out and take in, you come closer to simply being. And in reaching that point, you begin to realize the deeper currents that move within — the subconscious or the spirit.

On my five-day retreat I managed a few baby steps on the spiritual journey that is the life work of my monastic hosts. In addition to maintaining the farm that sustains them and preparing music to be shared with the larger community, they provide time and space for folks like me to make our discoveries. They also devote themselves to exploring their own, interior silence — daily. I found myself contrasting their lives with those of friends who spend their hours locked in cars, then sitting in cubicles, then locked in cars again. The brothers seemed to enjoy a much freer, perhaps more productive existence.

I drove away from the Abbey of Gethsemani in mid-morning with some trepidation. I feared losing the stillness that I’d gained, and I feared forgetting the subtle, recurring pattern of the monks’ chant. I sang it softly to myself for the first hour of my drive, before stopping for a late breakfast in Lexington. By the time I’d finished my pecan bourbon pancakes and chatted with the friendly waitress, the music was gone. I take comfort, though, in the simple knowledge that the abbey is there, that the monks are singing the hours, and that there is silence in between.

Norman Allen

Norman Allen is an award-winning playwright. His work has appeared at theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the Karlín Musical Theatre in Prague. His essays have appeared in the Washington Post and Smithsonian, and he blogs for On Being and Tin House.

Books + Film + Music

The Myth of Bipartisanship Politics is not a parlor game where good manners always win out. It involves questions of power and privilege, which cannot be solved merely with bipartisan brunches.

After the drudgery of the 2016 election, many Americans may want to take conflict mediator Mark Gerzon’s advice for a “transpartisan vacation.” In The Reunited States of America, readers are invited to suspend their regular partisan identities, to be free from “defending all your old positions from those who disagree.”

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos in New York. His research focuses on the effects of racism and voter turnout on public policy, and the impact of economic inequality on democracy.

But this conceit, that Americans of different political stripes can come together and work out vexing political issues, is a comforting mythology debunked by the rise of far-right White nationalism. Politics is not a parlor game where good manners always win out. It involves questions of power and privilege, which cannot be solved merely with bipartisan brunches. By failing to diagnose what ails our politics, many pundits cannot identify the solution, which would require them to stop coddling an increasingly reactionary right.

In his book, Gerzon attempts to boil every problem down to what he calls “hyperpartisanship,” or ideological polarization, which frequently obscures relevant details. The politics of global warming is an emblematic example: Gerzon claims that hyperpartisans on both sides have turned “even a science-based issue like climate change into an attack-counterattack battlefield.” Yet climate change is an odd choice to illustrate the failures of hyperpartisanship, as nearly every prominent Republican politician denies its existence. By contrast, Democrats occupy the center, pushing for an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which includes expanded drilling for oil, extensive fracking, market-based mechanisms to reduce emissions, and heavy subsidies to businesses. Climate change is one example, but it shows a problem endemic to the book: pretending that what is really a problem of intransigence on the right is one of hyperpartisanship on both sides.

The Reunited States of America

The Reunited States of America

Mark Gerzon, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 216 pages

Critics of hyperpartisanship rarely mention the Waxman-Markey bill, which is the closest the United States has ever gotten to comprehensive clean energy legislation. The bill failed because of staunch opposition from the Republican donor class (only eight Republican House members voted in support of the bill). The centerpiece of Waxman-Markey was a cap-and-trade system based on an approach used by President Ronald Reagan to do away with leaded gasoline; later, the H.W. Bush administration used it to deal with acid rain. Just years before Waxman-Markey, this was considered an acceptable, bipartisan mechanism to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, Sen. John McCain supported it when he ran against Obama, and had previously introduced cap-and-trade legislation. But that was before the Republican Party decided its path to power was stonewalling the entirety of President Obama’s agenda.

The flaw in simply blaming hyperpartisanship is pretending we have two parties with similar structures or aims: on one side is a diverse, center-left technocratic coalition that mediates the interests of groups and puts pragmatic, evidence-based governance ahead of ideology; on the other side is a group of politicians, donors, and activists singularly focused on maximizing their ideological victories. This is not merely progressive hogwash, but rather is frequently accepted by a range of political scientists and scholars.

This point is missed by most elite political commentators, who have the frustrating habit of treating politics in the abstract, as a sort of game to occupy the time of the wealthy. Politics is seen as victimless, the product of white papers, bare-knuckle negotiations, and talking points. The right’s views on abortion are treated like a fashion statement — without meaning and impact — rather than a consequential form of gender oppression.

Gerzon’s book is structured around the stories of various Americans working to bridge partisan divides. Peppered throughout are data and findings, generally devoid of context. For instance, the rise of “independents” is noted without a discussion of the literature suggesting that most independents are secret partisans (and vote consistently for one party or the other). The recommendations are either incredibly ephemeral (“hold both love and power in your hands”) or impractical (vote for “bridge-building candidates” in non-competitive districts?).

The flaw in simply blaming hyperpartisanship is pretending we have two parties with similar structures or aims: on one side is a diverse, center-left technocratic coalition ... on the other side is a group singularly focused on maximizing their ideological victories.

With a background in conflict mediation, Gerzon rarely focuses on structural power inequities or the lived consequences of political choices. From the decimation of Black families through mass incarceration to the pain caused to the millions of LGBTQ youth and families stigmatized as second-class citizens, politics has a real impact on people’s lives. The supposedly “bipartisan” nature of 1990s legislation — from the crime bill to welfare reform to immigration reform — masked the grave harm it caused to low-income people and people of color. Welfare reform further immiserated the poor, the crime bill exacerbated the already acute problem of mass incarceration, and immigration reform set the stage for mass deportation. The much-derided No Child Left Behind Act was a bipartisan initiative, as was nearly every foreign incursion in the modern era. Bipartisanship gives many powerful people warm feelings, but it hardly guarantees good policy.

Gerzon frequently praises No Labels, a political group that claims to “usher in a new era of focused problem solving in American politics” but can be more realistically described as an effort to put a pragmatic face on a plutocratic agenda of austerity and privatization. Americans are meant to be drawn in by the sappy sentimentalism, thereby ignoring the fundamental inadequacy of its agenda. My research shows that key proposals of the No Labels agenda are supported by the rich in both parties but are soundly rejected by a bipartisan majority of the working class. If there is any transpartisan movement in the country, it is one that rejects the pseudo-populism of elites.

Jon Huntsman, a national leader of No Labels and former Republican governor of Utah, was one of the first Republicans to announce he could support Donald Trump for president, in late February (when it was still far from clear Trump would be the nominee). Together he and Joe Lieberman declared that Trump would be one of the six presidential “Problem Solvers.” That the leaders of a group whose slogan is “Stop Fighting. Start Fixing” would endorse the only American presidential candidate in living memory to explicitly incite racially motivated political violence is testament to the fact that Trump has done far more than postmodern philosophers to prove words have no meaning.

More importantly, it shows that the recent calls for bipartisanship distract from the reality that politics has a massive impact on the lived experiences of millions of Americans. The idea that the solution is to simply “get everyone in a room and work it out,” as Gerzon writes, presumes that politics isn’t fundamentally about power and who wields it, to whose benefit and whose detriment. This method of political analysis, popular among privileged pundits largely insulated from the negative consequences of the policies they advocate, is demeaning to the millions for whom questions of power mean access to food and health care, the difference between freedom and a cage.

The Reunited States of America was published in the year of Trump’s ascendancy. The rise of Trump, a misogynistic White nationalist proto-authoritarian, is the refutation of everything Gerzon argues. The problem is not hyperpartisanship; it is a rabid right wing that has abandoned even the semblance of governing, believing that a functioning government is inherently a liberal victory. The solution is to stop rewarding Republican intransigence by treating it as standard partisan fare. It is time to condemn, rather than coddle, the vicious pathologies that have animated Trumpism and far too much of the right for far too long. It was assumed that GOP voters were motivated by conservative principles; Trump shows that the core of the right is in reality reactionary White men who feel they are losing control of “their” country. Trump has made it clear he understands what is at stake — but do the pundits understand?

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos in New York. His research focuses on the effects of racism and voter turnout on public policy, and the impact of economic inequality on democracy.

Books + Film + Music

The Rise of Community Power Two centuries of legal decisions have bolstered corporate interests at the expense of nature and democracy. Communities are fighting back.

Earlier this summer, all the households in my town received a letter from our natural gas utility informing us that our gas meters would be upgraded to “Advanced Meters.” I knew that communities in Northern California had organized against the installation of similar devices, known as smart meters, due to health concerns regarding electromagnetic radiation. To opt out we would have to pay an initial fee of $75 plus a monthly charge of $10. Since our monthly bill is often less than $10, this seemed a steep premium to avoid whatever risks the new meter might entail. Too bad our community hadn’t organized to resist installation of the new meters, I thought.

Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2017: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2015-2016, published in October by Seven Stories Press. He teaches sociology at Citrus College and serves on the board of the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy.

Our concerns were small ones, relatively speaking, and with our local utility, at that. Meanwhile, from Wilmington, California, to Licking Township, Pennsylvania, to Broadview Heights, Ohio, corporations engaged in mining and fracking offer residents no chance to opt out. As the film We the People 2.0 shows, communities across the country are innovating ways to oppose environmental degradation and to redress health issues that result from these extractive industries. Seeing this documentary reinforced the sensibility I’ve developed as a sociologist that collective organizing is more likely than individual actions (such as “opting out”) to produce robust environmental protections.

We the People 2.0 — The Second American Revolution

We the People 2.0 — The Second American Revolution

Film directed by Leila Conners, 2016, 91 minutes

Why are the rights of neighborhoods and cities essential to resisting corporate-driven environmental degradation? We the People 2.0 depicts the middle-class city of Broadview Heights, where Bass Energy and Ohio Valley Energy have developed many of the nearly 90 wells within city limits. A majority of the city’s 19,000 residents sought to oppose the companies’ rights to drill, first by turning to local government and then by involving the appropriate state and federal regulatory agencies. This process provided the community with a quick and devastating lesson in how established legal doctrine — including pre-emption, the Constitution’s commerce clause, and corporate personhood — effectively protects the interests of the oil and gas industries at the expense of community rights, autonomy, and health. As one Broadview Heights activist explains, “We thought we had a fracking problem here. We realized that, no, what we have here is a democracy problem.”

We the People 2.0 highlights the role of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in organizing people like the residents of Broadview Heights. To resist environmental degradation, CELDF advocates for community rights, which include environmental rights (clean air, pure water, healthy soil), worker rights, democratic rights (including, especially, the right to local self-government), and even the rights of nature — the idea that ecosystems such as rivers have the right to exist and thrive.

This approach has produced significant achievements. For example, in 2010, Pittsburgh became the first major U.S. city to establish an ordinance that banned natural gas drilling, putting community decision-making and the rights of nature ahead of corporate rights. Today, CELDF reports that more than 200 communities have passed community bills of rights.

As a documentary, We the People 2.0 left me with two questions. First, how does a community bill of rights avoid pre-emption? This question is fundamental, and I wish the film had spent more time explaining the legal strategies involved. Second, given the deep roots of the environmental justice movement in communities of color, why does We the People 2.0 focus almost exclusively on White communities?

Midway through the movie, I found myself recalling Slawomir Grünberg’s 2002 documentary, Fenceline: A Company Town Divided, about Norco, Louisiana, where the African American community organized in response to high cancer rates associated with gas flares from the local Shell oil refinery. The film vividly depicts how Norco’s White and Black communities are divided not only by de facto segregation but also by conflicting understandings of Shell, which are rooted in inequalities of color and class that trace back across multiple generations in this company town. By contrast, the exclusive (but inadvertent, I assume) focus on White activists in We the People 2.0 seems unnecessarily limiting in a film that otherwise does so much, so well.

Nevertheless, the fundamental, timely message of We the People 2.0 — that meaningful action to reassert control of our health, quality of life, and democracy must be rooted in our local communities — resonates. “Right where we live,” CELDF’s Ben Price says, “is where we need to have democracy the most.” In a year when corporate media have bombarded us with nonstop presidential campaign coverage, this message is welcome and crucial.

Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and co-editor of Censored 2017: The Top Censored Stories and Media Analysis of 2015-2016, published in October by Seven Stories Press. He teaches sociology at Citrus College and serves on the board of the Claremont Wildlands Conservancy.

Yes! But How?

DIY Ways to Live Sustainably

YES! infographic

I was only just beginning to think about fast fashion and how strange it was that clothes appeared to be getting cheaper while the rest of life grew more expensive.

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I learned from my year of no shopping, and refined my ways. But in 2012 I noticed I’d replaced my ambling flaneuse shopper persona with she who magically buys crap on the Internet. I would meander from my design work to a blog featuring something cute, and before I knew it, I’d have wasted an hour looking at (and occasionally purchasing) things I absolutely didn’t need. So I stopped shopping again. This time, instead of buying the things I wanted, I painted them.

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It was a revelatory experience in that I realized there is absolutely nothing wrong with appreciating beautiful things. In fact, it’s hard not to appreciate beautiful things in a world saturated with them. In a world that’s increasingly good at showing you just the kind of beautiful thing you most want to acquire. In a world where people toil expertly to make you want things. Why did I feel guilty for feeling desire?

At the same time I was beginning to learn of fast fashion’s implications beyond my pocketbook, of the gross toll on people and planet the ubiquity of cheap pretty things was taking. Just by admiring a pretty dress in a window, I somehow felt complicit in the system that brings such cruelly wasteful stuff to said window.

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Drawing my covets freed up the guilt I felt and often absolved me of desire. But you don’t have to draw the things you want to help stop the impulse buy. Anything that creates some time to pause and reflect about why you want that shiny new thingamajig can do the trick.

YES! infographic
YES! infographic