I attended two memorial services last month in Washington, DC, eight days apart. Each person being celebrated had a profound impact on national and world politics, while seldom commanding or leading a majority. Each lived and died by their own beliefs about what’s right for them and for others. Only one has a name you’ll recognize.
I stood in line with hundreds of others outside the Supreme Court to pay respects to Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. I waited for entry beside a constitutional law professor who admitted he “wanted to be sure the S.O.B. was dead,” but he was joking. The women ahead of me might have known Scalia from the church he attended. Behind me was a family with grown children, saying almost nothing and looking very sad.
Apart from a steady stream of people with notepads or television cameras, there was not the slightest scent of politics in the air. Protesters, who are omnipresent in front of the nation’s highest court, were absent or farther removed than usual. The line to get inside moved slowly and solemnly. Decorum was the order of the day.
Inside the court’s Great Hall, observers snaked their single-file respect around the casket and beside the flower arrangements, sent from the United States Senate, the House of Representatives, the White House, and a long list of dignitaries. The closed casket was attended by six men. I learned later that dozens of Scalia’s former law clerks took turns at this duty throughout the day. Wicker chairs were quietly being set up for family as I passed. People paused to take pictures. Those behind them waited silently and patiently.
Eight days later, I arrived at a church a few blocks northeast of the White House. A couple hundred activists gathered on a coolish Saturday morning to pay respects to Concepcion Picciotto. If you’ve ever walked past the White House, you know Concepcion — she insisted you call her Connie, and that you help her — by her work.
Connie and her helpers maintained the longest public vigil in the history of this country. For 35 years, she maintained a protest against nuclear weapons. If you ever stopped to take a photo of the White House, with its lawn fountains centered in front of the facade, Connie, her tarp, and her signs were directly behind you.
Park rangers have rules for what’s allowed in Lafayette Park, visible from the front door of the White House. No sleeping, no camping, no fires, no generators, no unattended belongings, no permanent structures, etcetera, etcetera. Connie and her supporters abided by every rule, remaining in place for days, weeks, months, years, decades, and now generations. No one has visited the White House since 1981 and not received her message.
Her lawyer at the service said it with jarring simplicity: “She kept death alive. There would be no numbness from killing with Connie around.” The specter of life on this planet being completely extinguished — an end with still only one means — must not be tolerated. Connie’s marathon intolerance of that possibility ended on January 25, 2016. She was 80 years old.
Scalia died at 79. He served 30 years on the United States Supreme Court, after being appointed by President Reagan to Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1982. Both Scalia and Picciotto accepted lifetime appointments when they were 45 years old. In an age when even the papacy is rethinking lifetime appointments, there are lessons to be learned from these two.
Our society once was built around “calling.” Whether your life’s work was working for the railroad of tending the family farm, preaching the Gospel or selling brushes door-to-door, the question was settled. You would do what you do, and you would keep doing it. Retirement became a concept only very recently. Until less than a century ago, it was enjoyed by few, rarely mentioned, and never embraced.
It’s safe to imagine that neither of these people ever considered retirement. They embraced their calling, voiced dissent as they believed right, sometimes abused those who differed with them, and died with their proverbial boots on.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.