Paul Andersen: When the Aspen bubble gets popped
I was up at 5:30 a.m. last week for the final day of a reporting job at the Aspen Institute covering a three-day symposium on the Supreme Court — a paid adventure in learning.
The stars glimmering from my window revealed that the latest storm had moved on. The air was cold when I stepped out to plug in my car. After a cup of espresso and two buttery slices of cinnamon raisin toast, I woke up the desktop for a glance at the world.
My screen revealed the mass shooting at the mosque in New Zealand. I suddenly felt a dull ache of sorrow for the human situation. The morning was not so bright and beautiful anymore.
Scraping at the steel-hard ice on my windshield was fruitless, so I drove cautiously down the Frying Pan in the dim light of dawn, peering through a fishbowl-sized hole in the frost. I was happy to make it to Basalt without high centering on boulder or adorning my car with a bighorn sheep hood ornament.
From the clearing windshield, I looked up at Mount Sopris, brilliant white and awash with the first rays of sun. My appreciation for this sacred peak helped ameliorate the hurt of the shooting.
“The City of God” by St. Augustine was my bus reading as RFTA sped me up to Aspen. The mosque shooting was anything but godly, and Augustine’s duality of good and evil, written in 387 A.D., felt like a rational explanation.
Thinking of myself as mostly good and pure, Augustine let me know otherwise, condemning the human will as prideful and saying that pride is the original sin of man. Musing on my sinful life, I made tracks through the squeaky cold snow to the Koch Building and took my seat in the octagonal seminar room.
The symposium centered on human rights, liberty and freedom as outlined by the Founding Fathers, most of whom probably read St. Augustine and had a better understanding of human nature than we do today. That’s why they hammered out a brilliantly worded Constitution that remains sacrosanct 230 years later.
When the symposium ended at noon, I had gained a rudimentary understanding of the courts and constitutional law. I better understood the precedent of cases and judgments that have defined incrementally the mores of life in America, with all its contention and contradictions.
Lunch at the Meadows was a pleasure as I joined the Aspen Executive Seminar group I had guided two days earlier — one day at Ashcroft on snowshoes and again on a town culture tour through Aspen. These good people greeted me like a friend, but there was something wrong.
One of the seminar moderators took me aside and explained that a participant from Fiji, who grew up in New Zealand, had family members in the mosque shooting the day before. When this man entered the dining room, he was greeted with hugs and words of condolence.
How sad that the bubble of Aspen — the glorious, idealized, high-altitude bubble of Aspen — had been popped by a grim world event. Even here, amid the glories of Goethe and Schweitzer and high of ideals and spiritual values, real life had intruded and spoiled the elevated mood.
Later, walking toward the Music Tent, I stopped at Herbert Bayer’s snow-covered earth mounds and took in the majesty of a power point where all the valleys flow into this center, where everything appeared white and pure with driven snow piled almost 4 feet high, where the bubble felt somewhat intact again.
I walked through the West End, where no one really lives, where snowbanks were piled over my head. All was quiet and deserted, the trees flocked with snow, shimmers of which occasionally drifted down through the cleansing rays of sun.
I wondered if St. Augustine would consider Aspen a City of God, but no. There is too much human will in evidence here, too much of too much for Aspen to be that. I realized that there is no escaping the troubled world, not even in the confines of our beautifully gilded bubble.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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