Rod Dreher

Finally, back in my own bed tonight, after five days of traveling. What a relief. I hugged my parents goodbye this morning and climbed into a U-Haul truck for the long ride home. As I was driving out, it occurred to me that on that very spot in June of 1992, I hugged them and climbed into the same kind of U-Haul truck, moving away from Louisiana for good. Daddy said to me later today on the phone, “Those damn Gentle-Ride vans have been the bane of our existence.”
Happily, there was no ice on the roads today, but unhappily, the Gentle-Ride was awfully thirsty, necessitating several expensive, frigid stops for gasoline. It was windy and painfully cold — I haven’t been that chilly since visiting Anchorage two Februarys ago (the day I was there, the wind chill made it feel like 100 below outside, according to the news; we were obviously very far away from that today). I galumphed up I-49 in the big old thing, getting caught up on podcast listening. I started out with a TED video podcast (no, I didn’t watch the thing while driving, only heard the audio) from anthropologist Wade Davis, talking about what we’re losing in terms of ways of knowing about the nature of reality by the rapid loss of indigenous peoples and their cultures. I’ve heard Davis lecture before, and he’s absolutely terrific. I hope to return to this theme in a blog post later this weekend; meanwhile, if you have 20 minutes, watch it here.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I heard was a segment from the public radio show “To The Best of Our Knowledge,” from its recent episode on magic; the segment was an interview with the philosopher Stephen Braude (download it here), who has a deep interest in philosphical questions posed by the paranormal. He spoke about his 2007 book, “The Gold Leaf Lady and other Parapsychological Investigations” (University of Chicago Press), and the Florida woman mentioned in the title. He said he has debunked the claims of a number of psychics over the years, but in his view, she’s the real deal. The police call on her all the time for help on their investigations. Braude and his investigative team tried to figure out why a thin film of gold leaf (chemical analysis showed it’s brass, actually) appears out of nowhere on her skin. They can’t explain it. It started happening after some poltergeist activity around her house.
The interviewer said to Braude that if this south Florida woman is for real, why haven’t we heard about her? Why haven’t scientists gone in to authenticate this stuff — because if it’s really happening, it upends very much of what we know about how the universe works. Braude said the research on this woman is there for anyone who cares to see it, but that she herself chooses to remain relatively anonymous, and does not use her supposed powers to make money. Braude’s view is that many scientists and researchers don’t want to look at this because they don’t want it to be true — in other words, if it’s true, then it raises too many other questions that they’d rather not answer. I can’t speak to the paranormal point, really, but I do believe that’s why many people refuse to contemplate certain aspects of religious belief: because if the mystery presented to them is true, it will demand too much from them, in particular a change they’d rather not make.
Anyway, in googling around, I’ve learned that the Chronicle of Higher Education did a story on Braude last year, but it’s behind the subscriber firewall. I’m curious to know more about him and his work, and the criticism of it. He didn’t sound in the least like a kook on the program, and his book was published by the University of Chicago Press, which is not exactly a publisher known for bringing New Age kookery into print. Hmm.
I’d love to see a discussion between Braude and Wade Davis.
A third notable podcast I listened to on the eight-hour drive home was Krista Tippett’s “Speaking of Faith” interview with Jean Vanier, the amazing Catholic humanitarian who founded the L’Arche communities. Please, I beg you, follow the link and listen to at least some of the interview. M. Vanier is a saint. The L’Arche communities are where mentally handicapped men and women live in community with each other and with non-handicapped adults who care for them. The rule of the community is love. Vanier explained that the point is not to try to understand suffering, and why these people have to carry such a cross through this life; the point is to love them through it. He speaks in the interview about the importance of the body, and finding spiritual healing through the body. And he talks about how active love, love shown through physical presence and affirmation, changes both those who give, and those who receive. He told of one visitor to L’Arche who observed an elderly handicapped resident, and said to one of the non-handicapped residents something like, “But why keep her alive?” The resident responded, “Because I love her!” Vanier’s point seemed to be that the human solidarity that this kind of love and tenderness creates makes questions like the visitor’s unthinkable.
Anyway, Vanier’s voice is so gentle, and full of compassion. You really must hear it. His words about how some people fear the mentally handicapped made me think hard about how I turn away from different kinds of people out of fear. But fear of what? Not that they will hurt me … but that they will make demands on me that I am unwilling, or perhaps incapable, of fulfilling. Vanier’s words made me think of one person in particular I’ve kept at arm’s length on occasions, despite this person’s obvious need, because I find this person — who has never been anything but kind to me — unnerving. To be in Vanier’s presence this afternoon, in that interview, made me ashamed of myself, to tell you the truth. This poor soul I’m thinking about has so little, and I have so much, and I have been so stingy, and for no good reason. Understaind, I’m not talking about money. If this were a matter of money, I could write a check and feel good about myself. This is a matter of offering time and simple friendship to a lonely person — someone I’ve been scared of for reasons I’m not sure I understand. Anyway, be careful listening to the Vanier interview, because it might make you confront things you’d rather not be true, because it’ll challenge you to change.
The last stop I made in Gentle-Ride was at a Starbucks in Forney, Texas, where I bought a grande misto, and topped it with nutmeg. Drinking that hot, sweet, milky coffee on the walk back out to the car, with the icy wind barreling against me over the north Texas plain, was a marvelous feeling. But not nearly as marvelous as the feeling I had when I pulled the truck up in front of the house.
I tell you, moving is no damn good at all. The chickens are leaving tomorrow with Julie’s brother, I think, and I’m trying to find time to see different friends to say goodbye, as the remaining days in Dallas dwindle down. I find it hard to believe that I’m going to have to look at so many dear people over these next two weeks, and know that we’re never again going to be present for each other in the same way. Seriously, if not for the hope of heaven, this kind of thing would be much harder to take. Honest to God, I hope I never have to do it again.
One last thing: one of you, in a thread below, pointed me to Roger Ebert’s recent post about how he is unable to eat or drink any longer. Ebert, as you may know, had thyroid cancer, and lost much of his right jaw in surgery. He can’t speak anymore either — so he writes. Read the blog entry he’s just put up. That’s a brave man, for sure. I met Ebert once, in my last year as the NYPost’s film critic, at the Sundance Festival. He was unbelievably kind and open to our little group; I was a nobody, and a couple of others standing around waiting for a screening were nobodies too, but he stood there and talked with us like we were somebodies. Just as gracious and as genuine as you could imagine. And just look at how he’s handling his extreme disability and disfigurement: with a generosity of spirit that’s pretty heroic, if you ask me.
Actually, don’t ask me. I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day.

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