Road Trip Blog

November 12, 2005

A GOOD FRIEND once asked me why so many buy into what he considered "the trend of simplification."   When material things make our lives so much easier, why do many of us possess an inner longing to run barefoot through the Amazon jungles or lie alone on a mountaintop with nothing between the stars and ourselves?

Simplification is the opposite of a word with a less welcome connotation: complication.  Complication implies worry, stress, anxiety and a lack of control.   Simplification seems to offer freedom, peace, and a re-centering of self.

Aren’t the simplest things in life the most meaningful?  Seeing the glint of the sunshine through emerald veins, smelling the wind, watching the shades and shapes and sizes of branches and leaves intertwine into an organic mess of beauty—does the aesthetic connection of these things to our souls not make us want to "drink them in," as put by the poetic redhead of the Green Gables series?

Simplicity creates the atmosphere in which one gains a heightened awareness of the essences of life—raw life—and feels more fully engaged in it.   To the person who simplifies, life is increasingly an Amazing Race in all its ups and downs, trials, tribulations, and exhilarations.

When we speak of the dignity of the person, we are directly acknowledging a human family united by the simple fact that we actively participate in this Amazing Race of Life.   To acknowledge oneself as possessing belonging to this dignified family, a person necessarily recognizes the family itself and therefore the dignity of all its members.   A level of allegiance to the family inexorably follows.

The question then becomes: what are the implications of acknowledging one’s own dignity within the context of the human family?   As an individual in possession of dignity, I am able to acknowledge that I alone have the capacity to determine my future.   I possess the freedom to affect, and the responsibility for, all my actions and reactions.   I am the efficient cause of all my acts.

If I acknowledge my position within the human family, I necessarily recognize the need to protect and respect all members of the family.   The structures of life, then, must be built to support the family.

A free and just society is one built upon this understanding of the human person as a dignified member of the human family.   Such a society creates the space in which a person can fully exercise his right to determine his own future within the context of the human family.   Democracy is the system that best provides this space.   In contrast to communism, which fails to see the person as a whole and sees, instead, a limited conception of the person as an economic being, democracy respects the comprehensive view of the person that includes an emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual self, and so on.   Whereas communism treats the person as a means to a communal end and history as an uninterruptible cycle, democracy considers the person an end in himself and life a constant incline.   Democracy values each success or failure as a contribution to an overall positive experience that leaves a valuable mark upon history.   Life is a mutual agreement: its experiences provide quite a ride for the person, and the decisions and actions of each person provide quite an impact upon history.

The process of life is an extraordinary and invaluable one in which the person constantly desires to better himself, to "make the most of life," to be an original and to be the efficient cause in his own life and in the world.  Popular T.V. shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race illustrate this natural longing to push human ingenuity to its limits.   Why, when you are running 10k completely alone, without competition, do you push yourself to run a little bit faster or to do just one more lap?  You are not answering to Reason, because you know that one extra lap really will not make much of a difference in terms of physical fitness.   Nor are you answering to Emotion, for your body is begging you to give it a rest.   Instead, your will acts, informed by both of these influences but dominated by neither one, in your determination to challenge yourself, to see what you are made of and to improve yourself as you stretch yourself to the full extent of your human capacities.

The person’s basic desire to feel indicates his desire to engage in life, as is evident in the funeral home "Shouldn’t I be crying?" guilt, the watching of Hallmark movies, and even in the use of drugs and alcohol.   Oftentimes, it is simply something more than numbness that the person desires to feel, because feeling indicates that one is participating in his own life, that he is affecting his life, and that he is being the efficient cause in his own life.

It is this basic desire to sense oneself as the primary acting force in his own life that spans the experience of all human persons and motivates the drive to simplify, since the conditions of simplicity best allow a person to recognize life’s raw beauty.   The desire to simplify, then, is more than a trend; it is a natural desire of the human person that fulfills a person’s need to engage fully in the Amazing Race of life.

November 3, 2005

Cole and I have mastered the art of starvation.  We have perfected the "Hold it, Hold it–Now" technique that leaves us sedentary but thoroughly content after imbibing in the culinary skills of our gracious hosts.   Challenged by a non-profit budget and constantly thinking about our next tank of gas, we are forced to generate creative solutions to meet our nutritional needs, which remains entirely possible.   We simply rely upon the good work of our affiliate organizations such as Nourish International.


Nourish takes a direct and effective approach to development.  By funding programs that design and build sustainable food-supporting systems—from agricultural irrigation systems to basic nutrition and health care centers—Nourish addresses the authentic needs of areas without access to this infrastructure.   Most importantly, it does so in a manner compatible with local culture by incorporating locals into the process and empowering them, through education, with the skills they need to maintain such systems, build new ones, and undertake other development challenges.


It is this approach to development that The World Youth Alliance embraces, one that directly addresses the concrete needs of the person.   Sanitation and clean water systems, access to methods of food production, and sustainable habitats are all immediate needs that many in the world already know how to tackle.  Not enough aid is being directed to the programs that provide people of developing nations with the skills they need to develop their own communities and nations in a sustainable manner.


At The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nourish International runs a program called Hunger Lunch that charges students a small fee for a simple meal, its profits going toward grassroots initiatives that combat hunger and poverty in developing nations in a long-term way.   Cole and I ended our own hunger campaign while talking with some of the students in UNC’s School of Public Health and feasting on black beans, rice, and corn bread.


Just yesterday, Cole and I made our final stop of the Road Show at Villanova University, where my younger sister began her college experience this year.   Standing outside by the Oreo at Campus Center and attempting to steal Delta Gamma’s guests from the table nearby, my sister took it upon herself to call my father and exaggerate the effect of my sailor style pants on my non-profit figure.   She turned over the phone and I was immediately subjected to a series of questions with a single theme: "Why aren’t you eating?"


In truth, though Cole and I may not have the budgets to support our ideal lifestyles, we could stop at any of the food court oases sprinkled every thirty miles along I-77 and nab a bite to eat.   Our system certainly has its flaws, yet I alone directly possess the ability to choose how to make and spend my money, which means that I could find a better paying job or pass on buying a glass of wine if the need was that critical.   There are many places in the world where this choice does not exist.  Millions are denied access to the food, water, and agricultural systems they need by poor governing or elite control of resources.   These problems are among the first that must be addressed.  As for the gnawing hunger Cole and I embrace while tooling down the Interstate?   We like to think of it as an act of solidarity.




October 28, 2005

IF IT DID NOT BEAR SUCH CONNOTATION, I would consider writing a book called The Many Beds of Megan.  If someone were to compile a list of the circumstances surrounding all the beds in which she has slept, I am willing to bet she would find quite a story.

I am liberal in my use of the term "bed."  The interesting questions to consider are what my bed will be like from night to night and what circumstances will come about to put me there.   One night, I am living as a queen, lounging on the down-comforted bed of a Miltenberg castle.  The next, I find myself on the concrete floor of Vienna‘s Stephansplatz metro station or stuffed in one sleeping bag with another shivering body on the frosted grass of Marienfeld.  I have slept on more couches, air mattresses, futons and gym floors than I can count and have conquered every kind of bedding from a towel to a pool raft.

A bed is a symbol of life’s adventures and reflects the relationships forged along the way.
A person’s own bed provides a sense of comfort and security; returning to the bed of one’s youth, for example, usually evokes the nostalgia of a homecoming.   A host’s spare bed is a symbol of welcome.  A shared bed oftentimes signifies something more.  When someone wraps himself in a scanty comforter and sets up camp on the hardwood floor so his friend can have his wrinkly-sheeted mattress with its one corner peeking out from the pinstriped chef pants and pages of C.S. Lewis that hover three feet from the floor, she senses that this giving-up of a bed epitomizes true friendship, despite the fact that she sleeps wearing her hoodie to avoid the coffee stains and pilled lint that might have been there since 1984.

People, such as the bed-giving kind, are incredible.  In one sense, if I were certain that every person on this earth was conscious of this fact, my job would be finished.   But it seems as if this truth is one of those that many of us fail to recognize or continuously overlook. 

Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, writes in The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood that dignity is often most apparent in the midst of suffering.  How often do the faces of the starving children in and the hurricane victims in Louisiana stop us as we forge ahead on our self-centered treks through the day and tug at our heartstrings?  Photography is an amazing art that, done well, is able to capture some universal quality of humanity in the faces, and particularly the eyes, of those who are suffering.   Art possesses the unique ability to render such human truths understandable to its audience.  But there are many faces that go un-photographed and un-immortalized by art, such as that of the woman who snatched the last seat on the El or the guy whose Beamer cut off a pedestrian on LaSalle.  

It is more difficult, remarks Ratzinger, to recognize the equal dignity of the other whose vulnerability is not worn on his shirt sleeve.   Yet his dignity remains, regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged, and it demands equal respect.

Human dignity is not something that can be given or spread.  It is something intrinsic to every single person in this world, and the goal is to ensure that society provides the space in which one can use the tools she naturally possesses to shape her own life.   In Chicago, Cole and I met more incredible people working to create that space.  Certain Northwestern and University of Chicago students are involved in all sorts of globe-bettering initiatives such as democracy building, providing basic medical supplies to areas in need of disaster relief, and using one’s self as an experiment to establish the link between increased nutrition and the prevention of serious diseases.

These people are the ones who possess the practical knowledge needed at the United Nations and other international institutions.   It is the expertise of these youth, informed by their lived experiences, which ought to be more widely and regularly incorporated into global society by connecting their voices to the policymakers.   There is a wealth of knowledge in the young generation due in part to the vast number of avenues available today for dialogue, the flow of ideas, and the exchange of experience.   This potential must be channeled into policy and action.

Tonight I am in Akron, Ohio, the sweetest of all Home-Sweet-Homes and the place where I first became aware of my own dignity through lived experience.   Cole and I are fortunate enough to spend a night here with my family, recharging our batteries as well as our stomachs, which have been suffering from a severe lack of home cooking.   Tonight I will be sleeping in the bed of my youth, its covers turned down for me by the two most incredible people I know, the two who love me most and have taught me the most.   Tomorrow it is on to Carolina Blue.



October 24, 2005

A TRADITION of excellence is the name of the game in every aspect of campus life under Our Lady’s Golden Dome in Notre Dame, Indiana. And Cole, a loyal Gonzaga grad (but growing increasingly gold at the tips of his ears every minute), immersed himself head-on in one of the most hallowed of traditions in student life: The Midnight Quarterdog.

At ND’s student center, hot dogs go on sale for twenty-five cents every night–how much they cost beforehand, no one really knows–in a benevolent outpouring of the Huddle Ladies’ generous wills.
Thus: it was the stroke of midnight that we awaited as Cole and I sat distributing a lethal candy/leaflet combo from behind a table in the student center, only occasionally nailing an unresponsive passerby with a flying Twix.

Notre Dame, in the most unbiased opinion I am able to muster, is an incredible institution located on an incredible campus full of incredible students. Who would have guessed that such energy, talent, motivation, intelligence, ambition, dedication, and passion could converge around two lakes situated in the middle of cornfields? Cole and I arrived on campus Sunday with a modest number of contacts with whom we wanted to speak, and we left with a list trailing out the window.

ND is one of the leading prospects for establishing a more permanent Alliance presence on college and university campuses. As we see it, our goal is to coordinate and channel the energy that already exists in surplus on campus into a unified effort in solidarity with other schools throughout North America and, ultimately, throughout the world. In this way, concerned youth can work together toward a common goal of building societies that respect the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

So much is going on already. A sophomore girl we met is beginning a club that investigates the truths of who we are as human persons in all aspects–physical, mental, emotional, social, sexual, spiritual–and so on. The Kroc Institute leads the nation as a center specifically dedicated to Peace Studies. The Center for Social Concerns connects students to thousands of non-religious and religious opportunities available not only on campus and in the community, but post-graduation and throughout the world. There is a nearly tangible sense of life relevance to every course description, every classroom discussion, and even many Starbucks coffee-table chats (not that Cole and I would know). The Architecture program, one of the few of its kind, embraces a return to classical design and materials. Students spend a year in Rome to learn and live a style that focuses on capturing the amazing capacities of the human person to recognize, appreciate, and create beauty, and to translate this beauty into a form that can be appreciated by all.


The great things about traveling, as we have heard from Kerouac and so many others, are the people you meet and the stories each one has, and the most unexpected are the most fun. One guy we met was in town "hanging out,’ hoping to feel out his next step in his own campaign to save the world by beginning with police reform in the U.S. Ambitious goals this man has, and quite the conversational stamina to back it up, which will be put to the test at his next stop, in D.C.

Next up is the Windy City, where we will reunite with a friend of ours from one of our Allied Organizations–and some Chicago deep dish pizza. Cole asks if we can have a few Quarterdogs with that.



October 22, 2005

Was it the coffee or the Road Trip high inspiring Cole and I to strum out some shaky chords on our thrift store guitar as we rolled down the Ohio turnpike?  We are on the second leg of our Road Show and I am reporting from a coffee shop in the great city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the fighting Wolverines.  As a loyal Notre Dame alum I have conflicting interests, but this place is gorgeous, especially with the Midwest autumn descending on campus.

We finished the first leg of our trip yesterday after taking the Greyhound to Akron, Ohio.  The twelve hour bus ride was fit for a Saturday Night Live skit with our driver launching a dissertation against personal-sound-device users for twenty minutes after each stop in a very Barry White baritone.  Our favorite was his tirade against Greyhound management which, according to our driver, has been “getting the timetables wrong since 1944.”  (For the record, we were entirely pleased with Greyhound’s service and wish to express no contrary opinion.)

I met a group of nine blind women and men on their way to do advocacy work at a conference in Pittsburgh and spoke with a woman named Kathy about what it is like to be born blind.  She says she sometimes wonders what it would be like to see, but that she has images in her mind of the way people and things look.  She mentioned not being able to tell whether I was beautiful or ugly, and I asked how she knew to distinguish between the two since society’s definition of both terms depends largely upon the visual.  The conversation made me consider other forms of beauty and ugliness—in sounds, smells, textures, and so on.  For Kathy, a person’s “appearance” depends entirely upon personality.  If she doesn’t like a person, she said, she pictures them as ugly, and those she likes appear as beautiful in her mind.  She doesn’t know whether or not her conceptions of beauty and ugliness conform to those of society.

As an undergrad English major, I am familiar with the literary tradition of “true sight” possessed by those whose visual sight is impaired.  Kathy’s sight, which depends entirely upon knowing the person and not his or her exterior appearance, is interesting to think about in this context.

We arrived late in Akron and secured the car, a sparkling silver ’92 Buick LaSabre, which Cole says reminds him of his grandfather.  Hey, Cole, it did used to be my grandfather’s.

We strapped a World Youth Alliance taxi-style sign to the roof and a banner to the trunk that reads “DIGNITY.  You’ve got it.  So does she.  And so do they,” and our DignityMobile was off down I-80 with our dignity and Cole’s triple espresso in tow—and a stop at the service plaza in the near future.  All went well as long as we avoided the semi drafts that caused our taxi sign to mimic a mild thunderstorm and drowned out Cat Stevens on our Road Trip CD.

Then, just when we had forgotten about our rooftop Katrina, we heard another more welcome noise—our first Ohio supporters honked and gave us two thumbs up through their window.  Cole snapped a picture.

I am at Café Royale now, getting ready for a working session on the Commission on Sustainable Development with some University of Michigan students.  This is a group of dual degree candidates in the schools of Business and Natural Resources.  I will report back from our next stop—South Bend, Indiana—in a few days.


The dignified DignityMobile

A little car-top thunder