My cultural history teacher Warren Susman told us that the great Walter Benjamin once said that he wanted to write an essay consisting solely of quotations. Or maybe Benjamin said it repeatedly; maybe he even wrote the essay I’m off-duty historian today so won’t look it up. That’s a big dilemma for the ADHD King; you start with a Walter Benjamin search only to discover that the entirety of the classic 60s globe-trotting surf film The Endless Summeris available on-line in numbered segments, which I enjoyed viewing last evening, in random order.
The movie so cool its day and so visually mesmerizing in any day also features the corniest narration this side of Dr. Tom Dooley’s late-50s radio broadcasts from northwestern Laos, and why not since they share the same tragic or tragic-comic theme: young Americans at loose abroad, effortlessly sharing their casual expertise with grateful natives. That historical moment reminded me in turn of Gaudium et Spes, the great document of the Second Vatican Council which unabashedly proclaimed that all of humanity, everywhere, is of concern to followers of Christ. The community in which I work is deeply informed by that insight: we enjoyed a wonderful July 4th cookout among friends several of whom can quote lengthy passages of Gaudium et Spes from memory.
I remember the excitement—spiritual euphoria—witnessed in the months and years following the Council. I was just a kid and could not partake fully but it was palpable, the emergence of this ‘movement culture,’ this Party of Joy and Hope which jostled aside the Party of Rage and Fear dominant in the ‘pre-conciliar’ Cold War era. Was it really that simple? Not by a long damn shot: both impulses coursed throughout the culture and in terribly painful ways through the experience of my own family of origin, to a degree rendering any un-ambivalent response to the religion I was born with less than fully authentic.
If I’m the only historian of U.S. Catholicism to have been compared by his father in August 1969 to Charles Manson (down the Jersey Shore: ouch); well, if such things as these do not slightly color my view of ‘natural law’ and its current applications by certain religious authorities, then I’d be someone else. And since I was saved via the intercession of the profligate riot of post-war American cultures, I invoke in response as my authority the title of a book review I once read: Lies About Elvis, Lies About Us.
And nobody can stop the stories. Dr. Tom Dooley himself went to Vietnam in 1954 as a manic anti-communist and returned from Laos seven years later as half a Buddhist. He died two days before JFK was inaugurated, who then launched the Peace Corps while lauding Dooley’s example running village clinics in Laos. JFK put his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver in charge; Sarge then gave a speech at the university where I now work, citing Gaudium et Spes as his own inspiration. Decades later I was honored to provide some historical commentary for Bruce Orenstein’s tremendous Shriver documentary: around that same time Shriver’s son Tim graced a conference on autism and advocacy with a keynote address on the gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities. My introductory remarks took forever as per custom but hey I was talking about Charlie and bike riding!
That was around 20,000 biking miles ago, Charlie and I: in fire and ice, up mountains and alongside oceans. Yesterday we enjoyed together the trail from Yonkers through historic Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx (could do book on Irish-American cross country legends whose strides we followed on wheels) while Dr. Chew shared time with dear friends and colleagues: the true party of joy and hope.
Charlie and I have covered 5,000 miles or so since the last time I posted on this blog: no talk en route, really, silence broken by little pieces of song. When finally last week–after virtually accident-free decade riding together—I had a little mishap, it only much later occurred to me the event was experienced entirely non-verbally, at least from Charlie’s and my end. Then driving back home to N. Central Jersey yesterday while Charlie was listening to “A Love Supreme,” I remembered what the saxophonist Art Pepper wrote about John Coltrane’s profound influence on his own playing: so profound that Pepper almost lost himself and his voice, only to re-emerge sounding true to his vocation despite enduring challenges. That’s just about right: how lucky are we to practice a dual vocation that–thanks to this party of hope–today feels like one and the same.