Inspiration from Minneapolis

From July 26 to 30, I had the opportunity to fly to Minneapolis, Minnesota. This was my first visit to the Midwest. Despite this, I felt unexpectedly at home and a kinship with my fellow Americans. Canadian politeness and “Minnesota nice” aren’t too different, so perhaps that was one contributing factor. I had a great time and am thankful to my wife for being supportive of this solo trip.

Why did I go to Minneapolis?

I discovered the existence of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, and planned my trip around the 42nd Annual Chesterton Conference. Click the “+” icons below to see more content.

“Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) cannot be summed up in one sentence. Nor in one paragraph. In fact, in spite of the fine biographies that have been written of him, he has never been captured between the covers of one book. But rather than waiting to separate the goats from the sheep, let’s just come right out and say it: G.K. Chesterton was the best writer of the 20th century. He said something about everything and he said it better than anybody else. But he was no mere wordsmith. He was very good at expressing himself, but more importantly, he had something very good to express. The reason he was the greatest writer of the 20th century was because he was also the greatest thinker of the 20th century.”

– Dale Ahlquist, Who is G.K. Chesterton?

Chesterton went to art school in London but became a prolific writer. His written work has inspired and earned praise from Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Dean Koontz, T. S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Theodore Roosevelt, Michael Collins, and Mahatma Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi). He created the fictional priest-detective ‘Father Brown’, and wrote around 5 novels, 5 plays, 100 books, 200 short stories, hundreds of poems, and over 9,000 essays and articles, including 30 years worth of weekly columns for the Illustrated London News, and 13 years of weekly columns for the Daily News. More than 200 books and 3,000 articles have been written about Chesterton. He also delivered around 1,000 speeches. In addition, his many references to education have inspired a variety of educators including the 56 schools of the Chesterton Schools Network.

G.K. and his wife: Frances

His novel: The Ball and the Cross and quotations from other works brought me to him. What has impressed me the most isn’t the enormous quantity of his work, but the quality and depth of every sentence and idea. His wit and wisdom were both extraordinary. So many quotes from him are satisfying, insightful, and profound. I used the following quote in a graduation speech for my students.

“Have just enough faith in yourself to go on adventures, and just enough doubt in yourself to enjoy them.”

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Short Answer: I travelled to Minneapolis for 3 reasons:

  1. To see Bishop Robert Barron and Haley Stewart give talks in person and possibly meet them.
  2. To learn more about G.K. Chesterton and meet fellow admirers of his writing.
  3. To have alone time to focus on my own writing.

Note to Self: Next time don’t attend such an interesting conference if a primary goal is to stay in your room and write. Progress was made, but not as much as I had intended.

The desk in my hotel room where I wrote

My Conference Experience

Writing can be lonely, and so can solo travel. I didn’t know anyone personally at this conference or in Minneapolis. Homesickness hit hard after the first video chat with my wife and son, when he asked me to come back. (Even remembering that conversation hurts a little, because he was too young to understand why I went). This whole trip was a gamble but I believed it would be good for me, perhaps even necessary for my personal growth. The attendees of this conference turned out to be welcoming, cheerful, and kind without exception. I would sit at tables where I didn’t know anyone and frequently be surprised by how fascinating, funny, or relatable a nearby guest’s stories were.

I am particularly thankful to my new friends, Pedro and Anisha, who made me feel like part of a family. We first met through the conference app, sharing travel tips, then later in person at multiple meals and talks. I was blessed to be able to spend a lot of time with them and learn from two faithful Catholics, who are also educated scientists. A subtle thing about them led me to develop a deeper respect: their love for each other and the strength of their marriage. When I paid attention to how they cared for each other, it was like watching experienced dancers move effortlessly in harmony. But we know when something requiring great skill appears effortless, it usually requires years of practice. They were constantly anticipating and supporting each other’s wants and needs, playfully reminding and correcting the other, and giving opportunities for their partner to use their gifts. When one would leave the other to grab a beverage or speak to someone, they still remained “together“, thinking or speaking of the other, later reconnecting like magnets. I’m sure they still have arguments, but there are so many ties to keep them together that it must be like trying to burn a stone castle with wet matches. Maybe you get a flame that burns some wood and creates enough heat to leave cracks in the stone, but the castle itself stands unscathed.

I was eager for the chance to meet Bishop Barron and Haley Stewart, but I didn’t really know what to say to them. I’ve been watching Bishop Barron’s YouTube videos for 15 years, before I was a working husband and father, benefiting from his teaching and companionship on my journey as a Catholic. He brings wisdom and joy into my life, and helped me discover many great films and books. Bishop Barron left shortly after the first day of the conference and I did not get to speak with him or shake his hand, but I am grateful to have seen him in person.

Haley was selling her books during the conference in-between talks, and was therefore easier to approach (though her table was often busy). I’m happy she sold many books, one of which you may already be familiar with from my e-newsletter recommendations. My defining moment was providing a pen from the hotel front desk when she needed one for book signings. This pen later gave out on her, probably from overwork, and may have tarnished my reputation. Alas, Haley was gracious, patient, and kind, in spite of my awkward attempts to spark conversation. I hope that 5-10 years from now, we have the chance to work together on a book project when my writing is more polished. Haley is the Managing Editor of Word on Fire Spark, a Catholic convert, award-winning author, bibliophile, speaker, podcaster, wife, and mother of 4 children. The great work that she and Word on Fire Spark do is top quality in terms of story, art, and printing, while filling an underappreciated gap in book publishing. You can follow her substack here, which has interesting and frequent blog posts for both paid and free subscribers.

An unexpected bonus was I got to meet Brandon Vogt, pictured below, the Senior Publishing Director for Word on Fire. His voice is incredibly familiar as he hosts the Word on Fire podcast, which features discussions with Bishop Barron. It so happened I was reading one of his books and had it with me on this trip. Upon seeing him, I went to say hello and pointed to the book. He joked: “Oh, throw that away.” In addition to his work at WoF, Brandon is the founder and chairman of Chesterton Academy of Orlando (a classical high school), author of 12 books, voracious reader, creator of a course called “Read More Books”, father of 8 children, a farmer, and somehow also graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Mechanical Engineering with minor degrees in Physics and Mathematics. I have nearly pure respect for him and his wife, mixed with a little suspicion as to how they survive without mechanical robot versions of themselves to assist with everything they do. Brandon gave a very warm introduction to Haley’s talk, and was friendly, self-effacing, and personable in conversation, so I’m confident I met the human version. I hope to cross paths with him again.

My Favourite Talks

Taking a Fresh Look at Chesterton’s Saint Francis – Keynote by Bishop Robert Barron
This talk about Chesterton’s biography of Saint Francis and its relevance today, in spite of being 100 years old, was praised by many attendees. I sat in the front row and you could feel the energy and anticipation in the room. Bishop Barron shared his personal introduction to reading Chesterton and the “…champagne-like quality of his prose. You never take a bottle champagne and chug it, right? It would be too much. I find that a page of Chesterton has got so much in it. It’s like a hyper rich dessert. You take a little bit at a time because it’s so rich. I have the habit of reading with a pen and I underline, but I don’t with Chesterton because I’d underline every darn line. There’s hardly anyone I know, maybe Shakespeare, who’s like that: where every line is not just stylistically beautiful, but packed with insight.” Bishop Barron spoke with passion about the dangers of worshipping the world as well as how we can comprehend the real St. Francis, his extremely unconventional way of life, and the popularity of the Franciscans. He also discussed our relationship to nature and how we can more clearly see the radical dependency of everything in the world. Steadfast faith, practical wisdom, beautiful prose, razor sharp social commentary, and humour: Bishop Barron and Chesterton possess many of the same qualities. They personify commitment to seeking and sharing truth, goodness, and beauty.

Two Lifetimes of Work – Chesterton’s Bibliography by Geir Hasnes
This talk took me completely by surprise. Geir’s unique sense of dry humour had the audience laughing multiple times, but the seriousness to which he had dedicated a significant portion of his life to researching, tracking down, collecting, categorizing, and documenting practically every word written by Chesterton was astonishing. He accomplished something no one on this earth has done, working mainly out of his home in Norway. I dare say how Neil Armstrong felt upon returning from the moon may not be far from how Geir felt upon completing this bibliography and delivering this talk. He made an impression and has left behind a great gift and treasure map to all fans of Chesterton.

Chaos is Dull – Chesterton’s Mysteries and the Delight of Order Restored by Haley Stewart
Haley has the ability to write in a relatable way that elevates her audience, while simultaneously opening minds to meaningful, deep ideas and books. I’ve enjoyed listening to her in podcasts prior to this conference, so I knew her joyful passion for good stories would shine through as she spoke on the topic of mysteries. Her talk examined the connections between structure, disorder, creativity, crime, justice, detective stories, fairy tales, hope, despair, loss, and victory. She shared how Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries inspired her own mystery series for children. She weaved in multiple quotes from a variety of brilliant minds as springboards to dive deeper, including this one from Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

The Jugglers of God by Dale Ahlquist
Dale Ahlquist is the President of the Society of G.K. Chesterton and has been praised as “probably the greatest living authority on the life and work of G.K. Chesterton.” He’s authored six books and given more than 900 lectures, which explains his speaking skill and ease in front of a crowd. This was a fun and insightful talk on both Saint Francis and G.K. Chesterton. I loved the description of both men as poets whose whole lives were poems.

You can view all of the presentations from the 42nd Annual Chesterton Conference here on YouTube.

Excursions and Diversions

While the hotel was mainly abuzz with the conference, I made an effort to take a few breaks. This included a swim in the pool while no one else was there, and going out to watch a movie. I discovered there was an IMAX theater not far from my hotel, and took advantage of the proximity to watch “Oppenheimer”, since it was filmed on IMAX cameras and colleagues of mine worked on it. Miles away, my wife made a similar spontaneous decision to go watch “Barbie” in the cinema, participating in our unique international version of the cultural phenomenon of “Barbenheimer”.

Image Credit: Steve Reeves.

I visited the Mall of America, a huge shopping centre with over 500 stores, restaurants, an aquarium, and an indoor theme park. While it was certainly large and impressive, there isn’t much I feel is important to share since it is only a mall. For fans of Paw Patrol, there is a related playground and some shows.

Transportation and Hospitality

The weather was warm when I visited, but Minnesota winters are known to be long and brutally cold. Snow removal is a major operation at Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport. You might also find it interesting to see how they keep the airport running during winters. 

I took a taxi from the airport to the Minneapolis Marriott Southwest Hotel, but there was only one taxi available. Based on availability, I used Uber for the rest of my trip. The majority of drivers were African immigrants from countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, or Kenya. They were all very kind, good conversationalists, and helped me learn about Minneapolis. I particularly enjoyed meeting a paramedic and a young expecting father. 

At the hotel, the woman who helped me check in said she thought I was “Tom from Myspace”. For those unfamiliar, he was the founder of the early social networking site and the default friend of everyone who joined, with a single iconic photo. Never heard this comparison before but it gave me a chuckle. 

I have to recommend the Chicken and Rice soup at the hotel’s restaurant: Blue Birch Restaurant. It’s a dish that Minnesota is known for, so there are probably even better local options out there. But I was impressed because I also ordered a hamburger which was really good, but eclipsed by the flavourful soup. I also ate at an Italian restaurant with great service that Prince used to dine at, and didn’t realize that both he and Charles M. Schulz were born in Minneapolis. Finding this out late in my trip, I couldn’t visit the attractions related to both beloved figures. But I hope to visit again in the near future.

The view from my hotel room

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