Tuesday, October 18th, 2016
I start the morning preparing my itinerary for the day as I fortify myself with coffee and the first half of a sandwich.
My first stop is also the furthest east I’ll go this trip, to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I take the C train to the Rockaway station, head south on Saratoga, and wander around getting a feel for the neighborhood. It’s predominantly black, solidly working class, with lots of handsome old buildings, mostly well worn with peeling paint. I see lots of mothers and grandparents with strollers and very small children (it’s around noon during work hours), people taking smoke breaks in backdoors, and some very poor and homeless people. Reaching Pitkin’s busy sidewalk, I see shoppers, people going out for lunch, and shop and cafe proprietors in front doorways under brightly colored signs, and I hear many accents and many languages spoken, English, Spanish and French, and many others I don’t recognize. It reminds me of neighborhoods I frequent at home in Oakland. I turn north on Amboy Street, which runs north and south between Pitkin and E. New York Ave.
At 46 Amboy Street, just north of Pitkin, Margaret Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic two days less than 100 years ago, on Oct 16th, 1916. Though just a little late for the anniversary, I’m happy to be here at this historic place, humble as it now appears...
‘I’ve been listening
To all the dissension
I’ve been listening
To all the pain
And I feel that no matter
What I do for you
It’s going to come back again
But I think that I can heal it
But I think that I can heal it
I’m a fool, but I think I can heal it
With this song’
– Leonard Cohen, ‘Minute Prologue’ from Live Songs, 1973
I heard of Leonard Cohen’s death when I returned home from work yesterday evening. Thursdays are my long day at the doctor’s office, and by the time I left, we had cared for about sixty patients, and I had just enough time on my short break to do a little reading and quickly tuck a little lunch away. No time for social media or news and no interest in them either, weary from election coverage and its aftermath.
So I learned of his death not from the cold glow of a screen but from the living face of my husband Bryan, who is also one of my oldest friends. We’ve sung Cohen’s songs together countless times over the years as he played guitar, or a capella while driving, which I especially love to do....
I’m pleased and excited to announce my sixth philosophical-historical themed adventure, a rather impromptu trip to New York City to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.
Though the timing was spur of the moment, I’ve read and thought about Sanger quite a bit over the years and have some of the research done already for this long-planned trip. So when this little window of time opened up in my schedule, I happily seized the opportunity! As central to the history of women’s rights, free speech rights, and rights to sexual self-determination and privacy as she is, Sanger’s also the most problematic figure in the history of ideas I’ve followed so far for this series, with the possible exception of the brilliant but slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. She’s certainly the first that sparked immediate controversy when I casually mentioned my plans for following her on social media...
Growing up Catholic, my siblings and I were taught many stories of saints and their heroic exploits in their quest to attain union with God. One of these was Thérèse of Lisieux, a young Frenchwoman who became a nun at 16 and died of tuberculosis at the early age of 24. She was an especially beloved saint of my family; one of my sisters is named after her.
Thérèse was a romantic and an idealist, and as a young girl, admired the glorious deaths of Christian martyrs and wished to emulate them. Realizing that she was unlikely to find herself in a situation where she could likewise be killed for the sake of her religion, she devised her own system for attaining heaven. She called it her "Little Way", in which she would regularly perform acts of holiness in day-to-day life. The trials and tribulations of ordinary life would be elevated and be made important by virtue of their being endured with patience and good grace, and opportunities for sacrificing oneself for the good of others would be seized and fulfilled to their utmost...
Some years ago, the economic downturn inspired me to put aside my business endeavors and return to school to study philosophy. I had loved philosophy for as long as I can remember, before I even knew what to call it, and later as I understood it in its broadest sense: the love and pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom was pursued through asking questions about everything, from the metaphysical and theological sort of questions that my religious and argumentative family used to debate around the dinner table and family gatherings (I credit these discussions and arguments, more than anything, with inspiring my philosophical curiosity) to all other questions about what’s true and false, just and unjust, good and bad, right and wrong. Wisdom was found through reading and learning as much as possible, then applying this learning to carefully thinking through possible answers to these questions. And wisdom was loved not because it brought understanding and meaning to life, but rather because its pursuit seemed beautiful to me.
Because my love of philosophy was formed prior to any introduction as a school of thought and my formal education was rather piecemeal, my approach was whimsical, idiosyncratic, unsystematic. Any and all subjects that aroused my curiosity and admiration could be brought to bear on what I understood as philosophical inquiry: literature, history, art, love of nature, social activism, law and justice, ethics, travel, architecture, science, in fact, every subject that involves human thought and appreciation...
Fourteenth Day, Saturday, April 2nd
After a morning glancing at the light rainfall through the coffee shop window as I write up some notes and look up some things in preparation for the day, I begin my day’s explorations with a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. It’s at 8th and F Streets NW, its official address: unusually, it lacks a street number.
While I’m here primarily to see all the Douglass portraits I can find and have little time to spare since it’s my last day in D.C., I’ve wanted to visit the Portrait Gallery for a long time, and allow myself an extra hour to explore.
After I’ve made my inquiries at the information desk, one of the first portraits that grab my attention as I head towards my first destination is a bust of Louisa May Alcott. As you may remember from my Boston account, she was the only one willing to sit next to Douglass and his second wife Helen Pitts Douglass at Wendell Phillips’ funeral in 1884, just about a month after their marriage...
I see lines and dots. My face and body are sprinkled with freckles and bumps and moles and little spots, red and brown, with new ones popping up all the time. I see scattered patches of rough skin where innumerable sunburns killed its ability to heal itself gracefully. The surface of my face and body is not so smooth as it once was, with lines and little ripples appearing unexpectedly and with increasing regularity. My lips are a little less full than they were before, and there’s thickening around my face and body in different places than where the baby fat used to be, and of a different texture.
There’s a country song I love with a line that goes ‘I look in the mirror in total surprise, at the hair on my shoulders, the age in my eyes’...
Thirteenth Day, Friday, April 1st, continued
I leave the approximate site of Helen Pitts-Douglass’ onetime home at 913 E St NE, and head southwest to 316-18 A Street NE.
In 1872, Douglass moved his family here to Washington, DC. Since his beloved farm home on the hill in Rochester had burned to the ground on June 2, 1872, probably by arson, Douglass was bitter and in the mood to shake the dust of that city from his feet. He had already been considering a permanent move to Washington since his work with the New National Era newspaper (more on that to come), his political work, and his efforts to obtain a good government appointment often took him there, sometimes for lengthy stays. In fact, he was in Washington when he received a telegram notifying him of the fire...
One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.
Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large...
Thirteenth Day, Friday April 1st
I begin at Cedar Hill in Anacostia, Frederick Douglass’ handsome, gabled house on a hill overlooking Washington DC. He moved here with Anna and the kids in September of 1878, having lived in the capital city of Washington for a little over six years. In a sense, the Douglasses didn’t really move out of Washington when they moved into their new suburban home east of the Anacostia River. Anacostia, called Uniontown in the mid-1800’s then switched back again, was part of the District of Columbia, which in turn was larger than Washington and encompassed it. When the boundaries of Washington and the District of Columbia became one and the same in 1878, the Douglasses’ Anacostia home became a Washington city home then too.
It’s another lovely day, again the sky is partly cloudy, the air soft and warm and a little breezy, freshly washed by the morning’s rain. The cold weather I had shivered in for much of the first half of my trip is nearly forgotten.
The National Park Service now owns and runs the house, the grounds, and the visitor center and museum, collectively called The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. I take a brief look at the outside of the house, then stop at the visitor center and sign up for the guided tour which will start shortly. I take another brief look around while I wait, and note the displays and artifacts I want to examine more closely when I return to the visitor center museum....