Spring is the season of rebirths and resurrections, the season when the world appears new to us again. Spring is the season when the “conflagration of green fires lit on the soil of the earth,” as D.H. Lawrence described it, encourages us to consider the magic of the world.
Needless to say, the most high-tech Disney magic cannot compete with the show of this season. And yet, for those of us who aspire to a republic of front porches, a contemplation of the Walt Disney Company might be in order in this moment.
Fifteen years ago, Disney decided to build a town, and front porches were in order.
Celebration, Florida, was designed to be the kind of typical American town that typical Americans no longer inhabit: a place with a strong sense of community, a place where neighbors know neighbors and kids bike together to the ice-cream shop after dark. That meant having a walkable business center, appealing parks and public buildings, houses spaced close to one another, and lots of front porches.
Celebration sprang up on the land like the blossoms of this season, an aspiring front porch republic of sorts. Since the community’s inception, realtors have emphasized the “welcoming front porches” that “encourage activity in the front yard.” Celebration also maintains a community internet service, provided to all residents and local businesses, named “Celebration Front Porch.”
By many front-porcher metrics, the Celebration experiment has been a success. Disney divested control of the town early on, and residents clamored to take control of government, schools, and community organizations. By all accounts, the town’s religious institutions are vibrant places. Associational life has flourished in Celebration from the beginning, and those well-designed public spaces are always busy. (Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins describe this and more in their terrific book about the town’s early years, Celebration U.S.A.)
Yet the vast majority of Celebration’s residents are and always have been commuters, a signal of how much the modern economy opposes the realization of self-sufficient and self-governing communities.
The mosquitoes of central Florida – at times bearing encephalitis, as Andrew Ross notes in The Celebration Chronicles – have plagued Celebration from day one, challenging its much-ballyhooed porch life and reminding us that throwing up a town in Florida swamplands is very much a manifestation of the modern project to master nature, not its corrective. Ross also points out that Celebration cannot be understood outside the context of Florida’s ecologically irresponsible 1990s development boom and the quest for property values (that, perhaps needless to say, do not always square with human values). It is a place without a true sense of place.
And despite the initial vision of Celebration as a mixed-income community, it’s hard to find a house there now for less than half a million dollars. (In 2009, the mean price for homes in Celebration, including condos and townhomes, was close to $700,000.) Although it does not have the feel of most gated communities, effectively Celebration is – like many of the municipalities in this country that still maintain high-quality public services and have a thriving downtown – gated to all but the wealthy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it’s hard to celebrate Celebration. It is inseparable from the worst of present-day American life even as it appeals to some of our better instincts.
But I wonder if in the spirit of this season, the season of hope, there is at least some small encouragement to be taken from Celebration – the fact that even in this unhospitable time, people seize the chance to live in relatively hospitable places.
On the Nightstand
“Read it,” my friend commanded, handing me Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. “What is it about?” I asked. “Read it,” she repeated.
Obediently I began to read, quckly losing myself in the lyrical prose that seemed as much meditation as story. Within a few pages I understood both my friends’ evangelical enthusiasm, and her refusal to offer a synopsis. But, as you probably trust me less than I trusted her, I’ll try to offer a little bit more than just “read it”.
Gilead is the story of John Ames, the pastor of a Congregationalist church in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa, where he has lived all his life. Widowed as a young man, Ames threw himself into his role as pastor, ministering faithfully to his congregants, loving the little community and yet living with profound loneliness. Only in his old age does he remarry – to a much younger woman. Like Abraham, he finds himself with a child of promise in the sunset of his life, and, like Abraham, he must give his son up. The novel opens as Ames, discovering that he is dying, begins an extended letter to his little child, struggling to entrust his son to a future without a father, a struggle that is intensified as he watches the growing friendship between his young wife and the black-sheep son of his best friend.
Ames’ reflections on faith and doubt, love and lonliness, hope and fear are heartrending – the thoughts of a deeply religions man with deeply human weaknesses – recognizing the beauty and preciousness of a fallen world, Ames struggles to release his hold on life. They also explores themes of particular interest to Front Porch Readers, such as a defense of place that does not disregard the failings and limitations of the particular place. At one point Ames confides his brother’s attempt to draw him away from Iowa, “He thought he would do me a favor, taking a bit of the Middle West out of me. That was the favor Europe had done for him. But here I am, having lived to the end the life he warned me against, and pretty well content with it too, all in all. Still, I know I am touchy on the subject of parochialism.”
Perhaps, more than anything, Gilead is a book about how we know one another and the limitations to that knowledge of the other is limited – even in our most intimate relationships. Says Ames: “You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
Gilead is a rare contemporary novel that can truly be called beautiful. Which brings me back to: Read it.
~ Ashley Trim
The Book of Nature I
I’ll tell you, it’s a lovely spring:
My windows papered in the mauve
Of blistering clustered buds;
The air, ripe with cut earth, slow-moves
Noiseless against the glass,
And the sky hasn’t found its bright sting.
I’ll tell you, it’s a shrouded spring,
Where rain has scuffed the darkness up
And petaled the raw mud.
Thunder startles the teacups
And floods them in the grass
All sharp with shadow shards and lightning.
I come to tell you everything:
Articulate the season’s print,
Storm’s moralizing thud.
I spell out light and dark, each hint,
In hope that mind might pass
From florid things to fruitful meaning.
When New York Times and English Queens
Blow down the dust-blind blanching road,
Where is can’t reach to should,
And faces gawk like empty nodes,
I join the blossomy Mass,
In which day answers our deep pleading.
~James Matthew Wilson
A Joke from the Bar Jester:
Three men are out in a boat fishing and they see this guy walking toward them on the water. When the guy is within earshot he says to them, “I’m Christ the Lord and I’m out on a little healing tour. I saw you out here fishing and I was wondering if you guys have anything that needs fixing.
First guy says, “Well, I’ve got this trick knee that’s bothered me ever since my football days in high school. “
Jesus holds up a hand. “Say no more,” he says, reaching out to touch the guy’s knee. Instantly the man’s healed.
“How about you?” he says to the second man.
The second man says, “Well, I don’t like to complain, but I’ve got this gosh-darned tennis elbow that really hurts when I’m casting.”
Jesus reaches out, touches his elbow, and instantly the pain goes away.
Meanwhile, the third man is beating like all hell for the back of the boat, knocking over tackle boxes and oar locks.
Just when the man is about to jump into the water Jesus says, “Wait, friend! Don’t you have anything that needs healing?”
The guy wheels around, points at him, and says, “Don’t touch me, man! I’m on full disability!”
Front Porch Conversations face-to-face:
Update from the Notre Dame/ South Bend Porch
Over a mishmash of classic Celtic fare and pub grub and more pints than even Jason Peters could imagine in his version of the Beatific Vision, the Notre Dame/South Bend Front Porch contingent convened in January for the first time, choosing to patronize the superbly authentic and suitably porchy Fiddler’s Hearth in downtown South Bend.
Occupying at first half, and then two-thirds, of a sizable community table in the front corner of the pub, at least a dozen Kauffmanites, Deneen groupies, and Wilson acolytes — mainly Notre Dame graduate students; Médaille devotees and Stegallians were asked to make themselves scarce so as to keep things peaceful (Kidding!) — found themselves in standing-room-only mode for half of the evening as locals shared not only a table, but, at times, conversation. Discussion topics ranged from master-gardening courses offered through the Purdue Extension (Yes, amongst a group of Domers!) to the differences separating American Lutheran factions (Yes, again, under Our Lady’s watchful eyes!), with sundry other matters covered. Fisticuffs were avoided by means of leaving too-deep subjects for a second rendezvous to be scheduled at some point after acquaintances had been made and hangovers overcome. Baseball, too. We even permitted a White Sox fan to be amongst us.
Even more special than the imported brews, a fine treat was enjoyed by the Irish republicans: FPR friend Professor Philp Bess, of the Notre Dame School of Architecture, and his wife Barbara (the gardener extraordinaire) joined us for the evening.
Although attempts to bring the cohort together again fell short as winter grew long, the organizational masterminds hope to reconvene the northern-Indiana contingent in April, scheduling around ISI conferences and organ recitals. Things may be a little less harmonious now that the MLB season is underway.
It would be swell if area natives Jeremy Beer and James Matthew Wilson were to find their ways homeward, whether in April or in the future — especially if the latter can provide the wine.
~ Nathan P. Origer
To connect for face-to-face conversations with readers near you visit our Porches page at the FPR website
If you would like to bring an FPR author to speak at your event, please visit our Speakers’ Guild page at the FPR Website
Front Porch Conversations Online:
Patrick Deneen – Civility and Democracy: In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, a chorus of voices – mainly, if not exclusively on the political Left – arose in denunciation of the decline of “civility” in contemporary political life.
Katherine Dalton – Eating for Another Fifty (Centuries): Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson would like you to think of the Farm Bill as an Eating Bill.
James Matthew Wilson – Stoic Sex in Evanston: One of the pleasing genres of contemporary journalism is the coverage of bizarre happenings in academe that shock the sensibility of the middle classes.
Jeffrey Polet – Who You Have Sex With is My Business: BYU’s suspension of forward Brandon Davies for having sex with his girlfriend has divided the sports blogosphere between those who applaud the University for upholding its honor code and those who express incredulity that anyone could get kicked off…
Jason Peters – Achieving Character and Acquiring Skills: A Regress Report: Reality doesn’t care what you want.
Susan McWilliams – On Competitiveness: “Competitiveness” is the new “proactive” – the word, to paraphrase The Simpsons, that dumb people are using to sound important. Or, more precisely, it’s the word that ostensibly smart people are using to try to cover up really dumb thinking.
Mark T Mitchell – Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects: The problem is a result of the underlying specialization—not of people but of places—for what could be more specialized than designing a town according to discrete zones designated by use?
Mark A. Signorelli – A City Upon a hill: Conservatives are awfully fond of referring to America as a “city upon a hill;” it would be a wonderful thing if they actually made some attempt to understand what that image is supposed to signify.
FPR, in conjunction with Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, MD, will be hosting a conference titled “Human Scale and the Human Good: Creating Healthy Communities in a Global Age.” The conference will be held on Sept. 24, 2011 at Mount St. Mary’s. This is a great opportunity for FPR writers and readers to dispense with the screen and continue the conversation face-to-face. More details soon.
Our Future and Our Need
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~ Board of Directors, Front Porch Republic
Questions? Feedback? Contact Ashley Trim, editor of Front Porch Monthly at [email protected]