By Paul McMullen
“Barrytown provided Roosevelt his first opportunity to hear the earth inhale and exhale without interference from the noise and stench of the industrial revolution.”
My summer reading will consist of tomes that could serve as doorstops. Before I wade into a Father’s Day gift, Robert Caro’s welcomed fourth installment on the life and times of Lyndon Johnson, I am finally getting to Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America,” which provides the above quotation.
I want to hug that sentence. Life on the east side of Manhattan must have been incredibly loud during the Civil War, when Roosevelt was a toddler, but what would he make of the modern man who eschews the silence and solitude that are our surest avenues to contemplation and epiphany?
Roosevelt would be pleased to find recreational opportunities that are his legacy, and delighted to see men and women out for a bike ride or run. Can you imagine his reaction, however, at the site of a jogger wearing earbuds? Those miniature speakers provide music to move by and drown out the 21st century cacophony, but they also mute the nature around us – let alone the sound of our heart and soul.
A city-dweller listening to his or her MP3 runs the risk of not hearing the driver oblivious to a pedestrian’s right of way. In my zip code, they also miss out on the wind through the trees, the cry of a blue heron and the flutter overhead that might turn out to be a tardy flock of Canada geese heading north.
Life has gotten very fast, and it has been difficult lately to hear myself think. New Catholic Review, new website, another trip to Haiti, new staff writers and a staff photographer, new cardinal, new archbishop, weddings; challenge, fulfillment and joy, yes, but the last six months have been a blur.
Before that stretch, there was a delicious Christmas break, when I purposely set the bar very low: teach a four-month-old lab/husky mix how to nap in the Florida room. Six months later, Nelly is maturing nicely, a hiking companion to the high school campus a half-mile from home and the expansive county woodlands park beyond that.
A few Sundays ago, it was Nelly, me and the rest of God’s creatures in those woods. There was no ATV noise pollution and no headphones, just an opportunity to stop in the middle of a trail, slow down and settle into the stillness, without and within.
What Sunday is to the workweek, summer is to the calendar year. Unplug the heart attack machines. Slow down. Seek a retreat. Unlike Roosevelt, we might not able to spend months in the Black Hills, head craned for the snort of a cougar. Taking the requisite time, however, we can sense something equally wonderful: our breathing, our heartbeat and God’s presence.
Paul McMullen is the managing editor of the Catholic Review.