Nun shall pass

Last week, as friends started to reach episode 11 of the new season of "Orange Is the New Black," they asked me if the nun character was based on the Catholic sister I've covered for the past year as she and two fellow activists were tried, convicted and sentenced for a ballsy non-violent intrusion onto a nuclear weapons site in July 2012. I figured that the character, Sr. Jane Ingalls, was a composite of the many sisters and activists involved in the Plowshares movement over the past 34 years. Then I saw this Hollywood Reporter story, in which actor Beth Fowler refers to Sr. Megan Rice as the direct inspiration. Then I watched the episode last night. The flashback to Sr. Jane's crime looked very familiar.

Sr. Jane and two men cut through a fence with bolt cutters, splash blood on a big white building, hang a sign that says "SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES," spray paint "WOE TO A KINGDOM OF BLOOD" and then wait to be arrested. Here are the real-life photos of the crime scene, and a portrait of the trio by Washington Post photographer Linda Davidson:

What started out very familiar soon got very unfamiliar: Sr. Jane wants her picture taken as she commits her act. She admits that the blood is fake. Afterward, she brags about making the front page of The New York Times. She's accused of being an egomaniac who timed the break-in to the release of her memoir, "Nun Shall Pass." Needless to say, Sr. Megan  although she also made the Times's front page shortly after the intrusion has taken great pains to remain in the background while pushing the nuclear issue forward. When I visited her a couple weeks ago at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, as part of my book-leave reporting, she was gently concerned that I wasn't giving equal attention to her fellow jailed activists and to the issue at hand. I think she recognizes that her age and vocation are what grab people's attention, but then she wants to redirect that attention away from her to nuclear weapons. 

At the end of the "OITNB" episode, Sr. Jane is wheeled off her ward in a state of food-strike delirium, thinking she's a folk hero or rock star. It makes her a complicated character, good for TV, but it made me cringe a bit. I've never seen Sr. Megan demonstrate anything except steadfast humility and laser-focus on the issue she cares about. Still, I would love to sit down with her and watch this episode. "Isn't this silly," she'd probably say. "And I'd never dye my hair."

That's only about 2,700 column inches, right?

In about two years, unless the writing kills me first, a book will be published under my name. Zoinks! That book, whose title is TBD, will be based on this story of a break-in at a nuclear weapons site, but it will be broader in scope. In my head I'm categorizing it several ways, depending on how the reporting actually goes: a parable, a "moral thriller," a "general theory of sociopolitical relativity" or  brace yourself  a THEORY OF EVERYTHING (take your pick, fellow fauxlosophers). There will be grannies and God and bombs and bureaucrats, caught up up in a 70-year chain reaction, all underlined by physics and faith. The patient and exacting Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects shepherded my proposal over the past eight months and sold it last week to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin, and I can't think of a better home for the project. Here's the Publishers Marketplace blurb:

Washington Post reporter Dan Zak's [tentatively titled] THE PROPHETS OF OAK RIDGE, the story of why three activists broke in to one of the world's most secure nuclear weapons facilities in 2012, how their actions were connected to the larger history of the anti-nuke movement, and why their intrusion bolsters the argument that nuclear catastrophe is our most imminent existential threat, to David Rosenthal at Blue Rider Press, in a pre-empt, by Lauren Clark at Kuhn Projects (World English).

"I'm going to make lots of trouble," Rosenthal told The New York Times when he first announced his imprint, and I ♥ trouble. I also ♥ Gene Weingarten for turning David on to my stuff, and Ann Gerhart for mothering the original story (and me, for that matter), and The Washington Post for giving me license to expand it. The first draft is due in November 2015; I am taking a one-year sabbatical from the newsroom starting this June 1 to tackle the epic reporting that needs to be done. After nine years at the Post and 15 years writing short (ish) for newspapers, I will have 90,000 words of open road in front of me. Perhaps I will chronicle the progress and pains here. If you see me doing that, though, tell me to get the fuck back to work. Or just say "Boooooook!"

Sand and stars

LAS VEGAS — Today I'm embarking on a 56-mile walk, from the atomic testing museum downtown to the Mercury exit of the Nevada National Security Site, a vast desert expanse where the United States conducted nearly 1,000 tests of nuclear bombs (99 of which were detonated above ground) from 1951 to 1992. The pocked earth is easily visible on Google Maps: 

I'm walking to shed some leg fat and reclaim my thigh gap. Jk. I'm tagging along on the Sacred Peace Walk organized by the Nevada Desert Experience, which anti-nuclear activist Sr. Megan Rice has been involved with over the years. Last spring I wrote about Sr. Megan and her two fellow activists' astonishing intrusion into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, and two months ago capped the story with an epilogue about their sentencing. But why stop there? I'm here, on vacation technically, to gather some material for a related extracurricular project. I'll allow that to sound more mysterious than it actually is.

I bought new sneakers for the occasion. I really have no idea what I'm getting into. I just plan to follow everyone over the course of five days from Vegas to the perimeter of the test site, where on Holy Thursday we will wash each other's feet. Then on Good Friday I'll watch people re-enact a nuclear version of the Stations of the Cross and perform "ritual resistance," which will include the crossing of boundary lines and perfunctory arrests. We'll be sleeping in tents off the highway every night. I might turn my phone off for the duration, although spotty cell service and a lack of electricity might make it impossible to turn on eventually. This would be in keeping with the spirit of the thing, according to the pre-walk reading suggested by the Nevada Desert Experience.

In his "Pilgrimage through a Burning World," peace-studies professor Ken Butigan writes of the devastating holiness and "nothingness" of the desert, a "terrain of madness and devils." Walking great distances is a test; walking great distances in the desert is a contest, Butigan says, because in order to adapt mentally one must empty oneself of the hungers and worries of regular life. To put it more bluntly: "The desert doesn't give a damn," as theologian Belden C. Lane wrote in the journal Cross Currents in 1994. "Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite. Precisely this sense of danger and disregard fed the spiritual vigor of early desert monasticism." I did some promiscuous underlining on a printout of his essay, which was titled "Desert Attentiveness, Desert Indifference": 

Much of popular contemporary piety is so individualistic and ego-centered, so prone to the cultivation of niceness, so disconnected from questions of justice, that it risks anything to avoid giving offense or making demands. The spiritual life of mainstream American churches and synagogues is eminently unexceptionable, generically inoffensive, culturally correct. We substitute amiability for friendship, agreeableness for dialogue, pleasantry for compassion. The acrid smell of the desert is lost. [...]

In a landscape where nothing officially exists ... absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen. [...]

The desert invites an ignoring of the ego [and] the rigorous ordering of one's desires.

And in a section of the essay titled "Learning to Pay Attention," which I might re-title "Reporting" for self-educational purposes, he says:

People who dwell in wilderness, living close to the land, often evince powers of attentiveness that seem magical by comparison to others. But the difference is only one of discipline. Most of us have little experience paying careful attention to anything. [...]

To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive, even un-American. We cringe from the idea of relinquishing, in any moment, all but one of the infinite possibilities our culture offers us. Plagued by a highly diffused attention, we give ourselves to everything lightly. That is our poverty. In saying yes to everything, we attend to nothing. One can love only what one stops to observe. [...]

The practice of paying attention is the rarest of gifts because it depends upon the harshest of disciplines. So uncommon is it for us to grasp the beauty and mystery of ordinary things that — when we do so — it often brings us to the verge of tears. Appalled by our own poverty, we awake in wonder to a splendor of which we'd never dreamed.

Then, finally, in a section titled "Ignoring What Doesn't Matter," Lane explains the type of person who would make the Sacred Peace Walk:

...indifference properly understood can become a source of profoundly liberating power. Adopted as a discipline of ignoring what isn't important — in light of the truth of the gospel — it becomes a counter-cultural influence of great significance. People who pay attention to what matters most in their lives, and who learn to ignore everything else, assume a freedom that is highly creative as well as potentially dangerous in contemporary society. Having abandoned everything of insignificance, these are people not easily co-opted. They have nothing to lose.

This describes Sr. Megan and many of her fellow activists. I myself am not such a person. I'm a barnacle on their enterprise. An observer, a lurker. My convictions are not religious or spiritual but journalistic in nature, though you might argue that a journalist's search for truth is comparable to — even occasionally in cahoots with — an activist's crusade to spread truth, or her version of it. Anyway, I'm curious to see how the desert environment affects the act of reporting. I'm assuming I'll be taking as many notes on myself, as a foot soldier of materialism who is momentarily deprived of it, as I will on those other walkers who have nothing to lose.

In addition to a tent, a hat and a Nikon D7000, I'm bringing two books with me — Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "Wind, Sand and Stars" — though I don't know if I'll be able to stay awake in my tent after a day's walk to do any significant reading. I'm especially keen to read Saint-Exupéry, known to me heretofore as the author of "Le Petit Prince." In 1935 he crashed his plane in the Sahara Desert and, with scant supplies or water, spent four days hallucinating and wandering toward death until he was saved by a Bedouin. I'm just into the first chapter, and there's a stunning paragraph in which he silently addresses the surly, preoccupied bureaucrats on his bus route in Toulouse. "You have chosen," he writes, "not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers."

The Sacred Peace Walk is not a survivalist expedition by any means. It's an organized jaunt attended by a support team and support vehicles, and it all takes place on or alongside a highway, and a portable toilet is trailed behind a van that follows us the whole way. It will be nice, though, to read "Wind, Sand and Stars" on desert terrain, away from things that don't matter, nearer to nature's indifference, on an errant planet. To look down and see sand. To look up and see stars.

More to come.