For most of human history our social lives were organized by communities and the traditions and rituals that they upheld and protected. But modernity, for good or ill, has freed us from this fundamental need for community. We turned over the job of ordering our social world from communities to institutions. It is institutions, and not communities, that we depend upon. It is institutions that don’t know my name (most know me as number) or my story (only my balance or record) that I have built my life around. It seems that I can live without my parents or friends but not without my ATM card, driver’s license, and Internet access. I can live without knowing anything about my great-grandparents but I must know my Social Security number and credit rating.
Or to put it more pointedly, who would take care of my family if I died in the next few years? Who would make sure my mortgage was paid and my wife had money to maintain her life? Not my community, not my church, not even my extended family. They may all help, dropping off a casserole and offering a shoulder to cry on, but their job, we assume, would be emotional support. No, if I died it would not be a community that would take care of my kids and wife; it would be an institution, the insurance company I’ve been paying to provide for them if the monster of death takes me sooner rather than later. For most of human history this was the work of the community: widows and orphans were to be cared for by uncles, aunts, and neighbors. Their emotional, but most fundamentally their basic financial and material, needs were the responsibility of those who knew them and were part of their story. This was not easy and I’m sure a burden, but it was dependable and communal.
What do we do, and what is our future, when institutions (i.e., insurance companies, various governmental agencies) continue to show us they cannot always be trusted to care for anything other than their own survival? Most of our institutions are what Ulrich Beck calls “Zombie institutions.” They are still moving and breathing, but they have become more haunting than helpful because they are more dead than alive. Standing in late modernity there is more than a little despair knowing that we cannot go back to the tradition-based community, but that the institutions of modernity are ghouls.
The police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who forced their way into shuttered shops in the southern city of Concepción, which was devastated. But law enforcement authorities, heeding the cries of residents that they lacked food and water, eventually settled on a system that allowed staples to be taken but not televisions and other electronic goods.
Just three blocks from Lincoln Center, they arrived at the concert on Thursday night by shelter bus, not taxi or limousine. They took their seats around scarred, round folding tables. The menu was chicken curry and rice served on paper plates.
These concertgoers were eight tired, homeless men who had been taken to the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church shelter for the night. They listened to the latest performance by Kelly Hall-Tompkins, a professional violinist who has been playing in shelters for five years under the banner of Music Kitchen.
Ms. Hall-Tompkins is not the only do-gooder in the classical music world. Orchestras nationwide took part in a food drive this fall, and Classical Action raises money for AIDS programs through concerts and other activities. Hospital Audiences brings musicians and other performers into wards. But most classical music institutions — orchestras, opera houses and conservatories — pour their philanthropic efforts into large-scale music education for children, supported by hefty fund-raising and marketing machines. They organize youth orchestras; play concerts in poor, urban schools; and provide lessons.
Music Kitchen has a catchy motto (“Food for the Soul”), T-shirts with a logo and a pool of donors. But the operation is essentially Ms. Hall-Tompkins, 38, an ambitious New York freelancer who plays in the New Jersey Symphony and has a midlevel solo and chamber music career.
“I like sharing music with people, and they have zero access to it,” Ms. Hall-Tompkins said of her homeless audiences. “It’s very moving to me that I can find people in a place perhaps when they have a greater need for, and a heightened sensitivity to, beauty.”
The child's language learning, now and later, is governed by two obvious motives: the desire to communicate and the desire to be admired. He imitates what he hears. More or less successful imitations usually bring action and reward and tend to be repeated. Unsuccessful ones usually don't bring action and reward and tend to be discarded.
But since language is complicated business it is sometimes the unsuccessful imitations that bring the reward. The child, making a stab at the word mother, comes out with muzzer. The family decides that this is just too cute for anything and beams and repeats muzzer, and the child, feeling that he's scored a bull's eye, goes on saying muzzer long after he has mastered other and brother. Baby talk is not so much invented by the child as sponsored by the parent.
Eventually the child moves out of the family and into another speech community - other children of his neighborhood. He goes to kindergarten and immediately encounters speech habits that conflict with those he has learned. If he goes to school and talks about his muzzer, it will be borne in on him by his colleagues that the word is not well chosen. Even mother may not pass the muster, and he may discover that he gets better results and is altogether happier if he refers to his female parent as his ma or even his old lady.
The town recently lost its school to consolidation, a dagger aimed at the heart of a small community, yet the authors mention it only in passing. Any revitalization of rural America must include deconsolidating its schools, breaking up the big education factories in favor of small academies in which each student matters. Numerous federal government policies—in education, national defense and transportation—subsidize hypermobility. Yet neither major political party shows the least inclination to change or even seriously rethink them.
"Hollowing Out the Middle" is a worthy contribution to a conversation we desperately need to have, but the language of policy ("invest more efficiently") is inadequate to what is really a crisis of the soul. The solution to rural depopulation begins in relearning the value of that simple and underrated word: stay.
Sari Bari grew out of years of workers from the Word Made Flesh mission organization listening to women in the commercial sex industry in the south of India. As WMF befriended the women they would ask, “What would freedom look like for you? How would you like to attain that?” Based on their responses, a WMF field director in Kolkata, Sarah Lance, and a former WMF staffer, Kristin Keen, came up with an idea to recycle used saris, the traditional clothing Indian women wear. The saris could be sewn into quilts or purses and sold. The required speed-sewing skills were hard-won, requiring six months or more to learn. During that time, WMF also offers therapy, math and literacy instruction. But once the women finish the training, they can leave the sex trade and experience something more like freedom.
And the bags and quilts they produced were beautiful -- so beautiful that the women realized they were making art, not just textiles. So they began to sign their work. In the sex trade these women often go by a false name that helps them disassociate from what they have to go through. But when they signed their artwork they used their real, given names.
Mary Allin Travers was born Nov. 9, 1936 in Louisville, Ky. When she was 2 years old, her parents, both journalists, moved to New York. Almost unique among the folk musicians who emerged from the Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s, Ms. Travers actually came from the neighborhood. She attended progressive private schools there, studied singing with the renowned music teacher Charity Bailey while still in kindergarten and became part of the folk-music revival as it took shape around her.
“I was raised on Josh White, the Weavers and Pete Seeger,” Ms. Travers told The New York Times in 1994. “The music was everywhere. You’d go to a party at somebody’s apartment and there would be 50 people there, singing well into the night.”
During Sgt. Ron Kelsey’s year-long deployment in Basra, he began to think about how his work as a fine artist jived with his position as an Army officer. Pondering the power of art to heal emotional wounds, Kelsey approached IAM about partnering with the U.S. Army on an exhibition. Mako will speak, I will sing—and there will be plenty of beauty to help the healing begin. —Christy Tennant
Reflections of Generosity: Fort Drum Arts and Crafts Center
August 19 - September 11
The “Reflections of Generosity – Toward Restoration and Peace” Art Exhibit is dedicated to the memory of the heroes of 9-11 and the Soldiers who have given their lives in recent conflicts. Experience the power of painting, sculpture, and song to facilitate restoration through generosity, community, and beauty. Join us at Arts and Crafts for artwork and performances that reflect the spirit of ongoing generosity demonstrated by the military. The opening night will feature Makoto Fujimura, Tim Sheesley, Pamela Moore, Sharon Graham Sargent, Claye Noch, Joyce Lee, Sandra Ceas, Jay Walker, Gerda Liebmann, C. Robin Janning, Craig Hawkins, John Russel, Charles A. Westfall Macon, Ron Kelsey, Kyla Kelsey, Christa Wells, and Christy Tennant.
Sister Bernadine Frieda, 91, spry and sharp, spends her days visiting the infirm with Sister Marie Kellner, 77, both of them onetime science teachers. Sister Marie, who left the classroom because of multiple sclerosis, reminds an astounded sister with Alzheimer’s that she was once a high school principal (“I was?!”) and sings “Peace Is Like a River” to the dying.
“We don’t let anyone go alone on the last journey,” Sister Marie said.
Seven priests moved here in old age, paying their own way, as does Father Shannon, who presides over funerals that are more about the celebratory “alleluia” than the glum “De Profundis.” But he has been with the sisters since he entered the priesthood, first as a professor at Nazareth College, founded by the order, and now as their chaplain. He shares with them the security of knowing he will not die among strangers who have nothing in common but age and infirmity.
“This is what our culture, our society, is starved for, to be rich in relationships,” Sister Mary Lou said. “This is what everyone should have.”
Anybody who has experienced fatherhood or motherhood knows about the power of the infants. The arrival of a baby completely changes the structure and life of the whole family. One could say actually that the infant is the one who has the authority. The activities of the whole family are ordered to his needs. What is true for infants is also true for sick, handicapped and aged people. As I have argued above, they have a real power of reorganization of the human communities. But I believe that the experience repeatedly made by humans is that there is something beyond. Entering into relation with the weak may become an experience of discovery and acceptation of our own weaknesses. Discovering indeed that whenever I recognize that I am weak, then I am strong. And entering through this experience into a world of fragility and vulnerability that we share with our friends who have made the same experience, a world that becomes a world of kindness, mercy and love.
I like to fix motorcycles more than I like to wire houses (even though I could make about twice as much money wiring houses). Both practices have internal goods that engage my attention, but fixing bikes is more meaningful because not only the fixing but the riding of motorcycles answers to certain intuitions I have about human excellence. People who ride motorcycles have gotten something right, and I want to put myself in the service of it, this thing that we do, this kingly sport that is like war made beautiful.
My job of making motorcycles run right is subservient to the higher good that is achieved when one of my customers leans hard through a corner on the Blue Ridge Parkway, to the point of deliberately dragging his well-armored knee on the inside. This moment of faith, daring, and skill casts a sanctifying light over my work. I try to get his steering head bearings as light and silky as they can be without free play, and his swing arm bushings good and tight, because I want him to feel his tires truly. . . .
I try to be a good motorcycle mechanic. This effort connects me to others, in particular to those who exemplify good motorcycling, because it is they who can best judge how well I have realized the functional goods I am aiming at. I wouldn’t even know what those goods are if I didn’t spend time with people who ride at a much higher level than I, and are therefore more discerning of what is good in a motorcycle. So my work situates me in a particular community. The narrow mechanical things I concern myself with are inscribed within a larger circle of meaning; they are in the service of an activity that we recognize as part of a life well lived. This common recognition, which needn’t be spoken, is the basis for a friendship that orients by concrete images of excellence.
Yes, an exclusive Sufjan Stevens track, “The Lonely Man of Winter!” The catch? The only way you’re going to hear it is to get into the living room of Brooklynite Alec Duffy’s Prospect Heights apartment. Duffy won exclusive rights to the song via Sufjan’s 2007 contest– and rather than uploading it to the web, he decided that the song would be exclusively played in his apartment.
Fans come from near and far, taking subways or timing flights to New York City to attend listening sessions. They walk through a corridor strewn with strollers to get to his corner apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights. Since January, when he started the sessions, Mr. Duffy says about 60 people have come to his place to hear the tune, called “The Lonely Man of Winter.”
We assemble relationships because we need them, but many of us -- particularly men -- shrink from intimacy, generating the modern dilemma of dense social networks afflicted with loneliness. Allan Bloom indicates this in "Love and Friendship": "Isolation, a sense of lack of profound contact with other human beings, seems to be the disease of our time." He decried the word "relationship" as "pallid" and "pseudoscientific," itself an obstacle to genuine intimacy.
My 298 Facebook friends aren't the ones who remember our dead daughter's birthday or leave flowers at her grave. Nor among them is the pastor who baptized each of our children and waged a personal holy war to keep our marriage from crumbling years ago. We have these deeper friendships because we've tried to build a life in one place. They sprang up because the stuff of life happened to this cluster of us living near one another, and much of it was too joyous or heartbreaking not to share with someone. If friendship is the key to happiness, then maybe this is the key to friendship, to be enmeshed -- not just tangentially or voyeuristically, but physically -- in the lives of others.