Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jude Update (For Those Who Were Wondering)

He and his dad are completely in love.

He kisses my picture, and kissed the phone when I called the other day.

He knows how to make the sign of the cross (taught by his father).

He is now comfortable enough with his dad to be naughty.

There was a brief scare when he was found to have been exposed to TB. A chest x-ray revealed no infection. Thank God, because, in that case, he would have been sent back to the orphanage for quarantine and treatment and adopted at some later date, who knows when.

He is coming home tomorrow night. I can't wait.

On Craggy Island

I'm sure, gentle reader, that -- if you're not already a fan -- you would be shocked and horrified by the extreme irreverent humor of the old RTÉ sitcom Father Ted. For the uninitiated, the show's premise is that three venal, callow, and feckless men (who happen to be priests) are exiled together on a benighted island off the west coast of Ireland, having been sent there as punishment for various egregious infractions committed on the job. For Father Dougal, it was the unmentionable "Blackrock incident," in which many lives were irreparably damaged; for drunken reprobate Father Jack, it was "that wedding at Athlone," his actions at which are never revealed, but the mere mention of which causes a leer to light up his ravaged face. The titular character, Father Ted himself, made off with a parish fund meant to send a sick child to Lourdes, and went to Vegas. Now, in their shared disgrace, the three fallen priests must learn to cope in a strange, backward place, far from the not-inconsiderable perks of their former lives and under the thumb of a corrupt bishop, while having cups of tea continually forced upon them by their overzealous housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle. (The photo above shows Fathers Dougal and Ted protesting the showing on Craggy Island of the controversial film "The Passion of St. Tibulus.")

When we first moved here, I admit to feeling a bit like Ted and his comrades, having been uprooted from a much more enjoyable place and a much more connected relationship to it, and placed in a semi-rural area ravaged by social problems similar to, but, it must be said, exponentially greater than those in the city. I was lonely; I was isolated; I couldn't drive; I couldn't find a teaching job to replace the dearly-loved one I had to leave in New York.  I couldn't figure out the suchness, the quiddity, of my new environs and its denizens. And, worst of all, I felt that I was in a dull, dreary place that was a poor match for my . . . specialness, the specialness I'd long believed to be my birthright.

All of which makes me realize, three years into this adventure, how good, how necessary it was for me to be uprooted from my formerly beautiful life as a teaching artist and intellectual mom in New York City, where everything was just the way I like it. It was necessary for me to leave aside -- not that I've completely succeeded -- my idea of myself as someone special, someone deserving of a certain amount of connection, attention, and enjoyment.  I used to walk the streets of my new town and admit to God that He'd really slammed me down but good this time -- all right, Uncle already -- and could He please shine a little light on my now drastically-narrowed path and, little by little, though not in any dramatic, epiphanic way, He did. Little by little, it began to dawn on me that a good life is not necessarily the life that we planned. I even began to consider that I might try sacrificing my own yearning for aesthetic fulfillment for the more pressing and immediate needs of those around me.

There are other good things about this place: the natural beauty, my son's wonderful school and his masterly violin teacher, the fact that the income-to-cost-of-living ratio made it possible to adopt our son Jude, who is coming home soon. And learning how to drive has made me feel like a normal person -- maybe not normal in the old way, the kind of normal conferred by walking for miles through neighborhood after city neighborhood, meeting friends and colleagues, performing, teaching at my inner-city urban college -- but normal in the sense of having a place somewhere, a locus from which I might possibly be able to make other, different contributions.

I will lead the blind on their journey;
by paths unknown I will guide them.
I will turn darkness into light before them,
and make crooked ways straight.
These things I do for them,
and I will not forsake them.

-- Isaiah 42:16     

Monday, March 26, 2012

Malcolm Monday

Thanks to the powerful advocacy of Carla and others, there is now over $7,000 $13,600 available towards Malcolm's adoption, and there are one or two families who are discerning whether they are called to be his family.

Please give, and if you can't, please pray. Please pray anyway.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans . . . in their distress.

UPDATE: Twelve hours after I wrote this post, after a day in which at least half a dozen bloggers that I know of wrote posts about Malcolm, there is $9,600 in his fund! God is good! Let us pray that he will soon be home with his family.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"You are also in the body . . . "

I somehow followed a chain of links to this evangelical blog a few months ago, and I've often found it provocative in the best Christian sense of the word, in that it has provoked me to consider my faith in far more challenging ways than I usually do. This, for instance, stood out for me today: 

Of the dozens of things that Christians need to be thinking and saying about [Trayvon Martin's murder in Florida and the failure of law enforcement to charge his confessed killer], some are awakened by what the Bible says in Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who . . . are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”

In the context, this probably refers to persecuted fellow Christians. But notice the nature of the argument: You also are in the body. The appeal is to heartfelt empathy with the mistreated, because you have a body . . . .

This is a cry for Christian whites and blacks and Asians and Latinos to feel the human flesh on their faith in Jesus. Trayvon’s flesh. His dad’s flesh. George’s flesh. His dad’s flesh. That kind of getting in their flesh will yield a long night’s groaning.

The emphasis on the body here feels very Catholic to me, in spite of the fact that many of the Catholics I know, myself included, would do anything to avoid a long night's or even a few minutes' groaning. Nevertheless,

Jesus said, “Take up your cross daily.” That means daily reckoning my old self dead. 

Therefore, we are called every day to slay the selves -- our own selves -- that seek to be justified (even if that seeking is not accompanied by the kind of impulsivity and bitterness that leads to actual dead bodies), and to immolate our often-misguided and self-serving desire for righteousness with the Body of the One Who is truly righteous.

. . . O what a difference it would have made if George Zimmerman had thought: “I have a gun. For Christ’s sake — for the sake of love — I better not follow this young man. I might wind up using it. Law enforcement is on the way. I have done my duty. Lord, I pray that this man will be treated with respect, and that justice will be done, and that your name will be great in this place.”

Evidently that was not his prayer. Now we face the consequences.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Poetry Friday: A Cold Rain the Day Before Spring

 From heaven it falls on the gray pitted ice
that has been here since December.
In the gutter rivulets erode piles
of dirt and road salt into small countries
and the morning is so dark, in school

teachers turn on fluorescent lights
and everyone comes in smelling of damp wool.
From heaven it falls, just the opposite
of prayer, which I send up
at the traffic light: please

let me begin over again, one
more time over again, wipe the slate
clean, the same way after school
janitors, keys jangling from
belt loops, will use a wet rag and wipe

the school day off, so there is only
the residue, faint white on the smooth
surface. It's the same way
the infield looks before the game
begins, or the ice on a rink

between periods. All new again
for the moment and glistening.
Imagine each day you get to start
again and again. Again. How many
days does the janitor enter the room

of your soul, wipe it clean
go out into the hallway
and push his broom
down the long corridor, full
of doors to so many rooms.

-- Stuart Kestenbaum

More Poetry Friday at A Year of Reading.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Righteous Man

My husband was given our Jude today. He is over the moon, and so am I.

I was thinking about Saint Joseph on this great feast day, and it struck me that we can only accurately call Christ by the title Son of David in light of His own mystical adoption, so to speak, by Saint Joseph, for it was Joseph, not Mary, who was of the royal lineage of the house of David. In a certain sense, then, as Mary is the mother of the One Who created her, Joseph adopted the One through Whom we are all adopted.

Thanks to all who have been praying for us, and happy feast day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 11: It Is Evening

When I was a young singer, I heard the second number in the video montage below, the Monteverdi duet "Baci cari," on a program on Columbia University's radio station, WKCR. I already knew and loved the controversial artistry of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but I had never before heard the compelling singing of her Vienna State Opera colleague Irmgard Seefried. Schwarzkopf and Seefried recorded a legendary album of duets in 1955, accompanied by English collaborative pianist par excellence Gerald Moore, which included the Monteverdi piece. Though in today's post-authentic-historical-performance age, no one with any pretensions to musicological know-how would dare to sing Monteverdi with a piano, I loved it so much that I sang it, with a wonderful soprano colleague, in the edition for piano in my M.M. voice recital.

Schwarzkopf, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike with an equally glamorous voice, takes the top line in all the pieces. Seefried, whose voice and aspect both convey more a sense of Mitteleuropean stolidity than Schwarzkopf's soaring emotional extravagance, sings the harmony throughout with a remarkably affecting purity, almost an aesthetic of austerity. To me, the highlight of the album is the Dvořák duet cycle Klänge aus Mähren -- Strains from Moravia -- sung in German. In this repertoire, the two voices just seem to work together so naturally, and convey such warmth and intimacy, and such a lovely sense of the conversational, that I've always imagined that Schwarzkopf and Seefried were true friends in real life.  Schwarzkopf, often expressive to the point of exaggeration, is beautifully restrained here, and the two sopranos sing together with an enviable simplicity, more touching by far than a more conventionally expressive interpretation. I couldn't find any selections of this repertoire on Youtube, so here is one of the Dvořák duets, "Fliege, Vöglein," sung by the American soprano Barbara Bonney and the German mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager. 

It is lovely, but to me, it lacks something of the naturalness, the simplicity, of the Schwarzkopf-Seefried performance.

In looking for recordings of the pair on Youtube, though, I found something that I thought astonishingly beautiful: Seefried, again with Gerald Moore at the piano, singing the well-known late Mozart song "Abendempfindung" (Emotions at evening). 

At first I thought the tempo was too fast, but after several bars it seemed to me the perfect framework for the delicacy and restraint of Seefried's interpretation. The text:

It is evening; the sun has vanished,
And the moon shines with its silver rays.
Thus flee Life's fairest hours,
Flying away as if in a dance.

And soon Life's colorful scenes will fly away too,
And the curtain will come rolling down.
Our play is done: the tears of a friend
Flow already over our grave.

Soon, perhaps (the thought arrives gently,
like the west wind, with a quiet foreboding)
I will part from this life's pilgrimage,
And fly to the land of rest.

If you will then weep over my grave,
Gaze mournfully upon my ashes,
Then, o Friends, I will appear
And waft you all heavenward.

And you, too, bestow a little tear upon me,
and pluck me a violet for my grave,
And with your soulful gaze
look gently upon me.

Weep the smallest of tears for me, and ah!
Do not be ashamed to cry thus for me;
Those tears will become
the loveliest pearls in my diadem.

Seefried's singing here seems like the embodiment of the violet in the  text, the most un-showy of flowers, and of the humble tears that become the most beautiful jewels in the beloved's crown. 

Poetry Friday: He Attempts to Love His Neighbours

My neighbours do not wish to be loved.
They have made it clear that they prefer to
    go peacefully
about their business and want me to do the same.
This ought not to surprise me as it does;
I ought to know by now that most people have a
    hundred things
they would rather do than have me love them.

There is a television, for instance; the truth
    is that almost everybody,
given the choice between being loved and
    watching TV,
would choose the latter. Love interrupts
    dinner,
interferes with mowing the lawn, washing
    the car,
or walking the dog. Love is a telephone
    ringing or a doorbell
waking you moments after you've finally
    succeeded in getting to sleep.

So we must be careful, those of us who were
    born with
the wrong number of fingers or the gift
of loving; we must do our best to behave
like normal members of society and not make
    nuisances
of ourselves; otherwise it could go hard
    with us.
It is better to bite back your tears,
    swallow your laughter,
and learn to fake the mildly self-deprecating
    titter
favored by the bourgeoisie
than to be left entirely alone, as you will be,
if your disconformity embarrasses
your neighbours; I wish I didn't keep forgetting
    that.

-- Alden Nowlan

More Poetry Friday at Gotta Book.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

China-Bound

My husband leaves for China tomorrow. Prayers would be appreciated.

Thanks!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

One of Us

This was one of the  morning intercessions listed in Magnificat today:

For those who are rich in the gifts of the heart,
- that they may find blessing by loving those who are unlovable and unloved.

I was struck by the notion of being "rich in the gifts of the heart." What does that mean, exactly? When I was younger, I imagined that I was rich in this way, but I was mistaken about what the gifts of the heart really are. I fancied myself someone who had a limitless capacity to love, especially when it came to the men who interested me, men who tended to be sad, troubled, angry, addicted, oddballs or misfits, or some combination thereof.  Like many other women, I convinced myself that these particular men needed me in particular --  needed my own peculiar "gifts of the heart." I believed I had some sort of solace to offer in my love, something remedial, therapeutic, even redemptive; I even went so far as to believe that my ability to love gave me some sort of power.  I pictured myself wading out into deep waters, saving troubled men with the power of my love, men who would, in gratitude, love me forever in return. Strangely, that never happened.

Nonetheless these men were by no means entirely unlovable, just lonely (though a friend of mine used to caution that lonely guys were lonely for a reason). Still, they were intelligent, and relatively clean. When I ask myself now who is truly unlovable, a parade of images comes rushing into my mind: mentally-ill homeless men and women whom I saw on the subway or the street over many years; barefoot men and women whose feet were toughened and blackened with dirt, or who had improvised plastic grocery bags for shoes; men and women with wild hair and bulging eyes; men and women who stank so badly that they could clear a subway car; men and women I would shrink from. It would take someone rich in the gifts of the heart indeed to love these men and women, these brothers and sisters, these children of the Father. I was not that rich.

Our son Jude, who is coming soon, is a "waiting child." That is, he is in danger of being forgotten and unloved, and he might even be considered unlovable by some, because he has a birth defect.  But there are parents far richer in the gifts of the heart than I could ever be -- parents like self-professed Jesus-lovin' Air Force wife Sonia.

When I read the petitions in Magnificat today, what came to my mind, in addition to homeless men and women, was the cult-classic horror film Freaks. Freaks was made in 1932, before the Hays code began to be strictly enforced in Hollywood, and I'm quite sure it could never get made even today -- perhaps especially not today. It's the story of a circus troupe -- compellingly acted by a cast of actual sideshow performers with a variety of disabilities and deformities -- and its moral is that these "freaks" are more loving, more human, than the attractive, able-bodied strong-man and trapeze artist who are having an affair, and who plot to destroy their disabled colleagues. "One of us" is the motto of the freaks, who accept the trapeze artist as one of their own, in spite of the fact that she is an outsider who knows nothing of their own culture of mutual aid and kindness and who seeks to exploit it (this motto comes again at the end of the film with a chilling twist -- if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it).

"One of Us" is also the name of a song by the little-known American composer Theodore Chanler, the last number in a song cycle called The Children, in which Chanler set poems by, of all people, Leonard Feeney, S.J.  I could not find any Youtube videos of this song, but here is the text:
 
Husbands and wives!
Are we not your little lives?

Fathers and mothers!
Who but we will be your others?

Why do you fear us, freeze us out of your heart?
One of us was Jesus;
He played our part,
In His little manger,
Smiling in His smallness,
To protect us from the danger
Of nothing-at-all-ness.

One of us was God.
Has this not been told abroad,
To some by song,
To some by star?
Then when will we be known
For what we are? 

I have heard this song performed several times by my friend and colleague Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, a gorgeous soprano and a scholar of music and disability studies. Fr. Feeney, who must have written the poem in the 1940s, was most likely referring to contraception, but Stephanie has noted that it also speaks eloquently to the question of who has the right to live. 

Since we can all accept that everyone has the right to live -- even the most disabled, the most deformed, the most likely to suffer, the most likely to cause suffering, the most likely to invoke horror, the most likely to die -- may we all become rich in the gifts of the heart. These gifts, like all of what Amy Welborn calls "gifts 'n talents," must be disciplined, and this is the hard thing. Love should be prodigious rather than prodigal. We must not be reckless in love; we must learn to love in the right way, that is, to love steadily rather than wildly, and with quiet force rather than frenzied ebb-and-flow. If everyone has the right to live, then we must not just accept that right in theory; we must somehow find a way to love everyone, even the unloved and the unlovable. I'm pretty sure that to do so is what differentiates Christians from pagans. 

As Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov:

Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Real Men, Part 2: Fifteen Minutes of Slutty Fame

By now we all know more than we want to about the imbroglio that has cost Rush Limbaugh the advertising of several high-end sponsors, a pull-out which, in turn, prompted him to apologize for calling a Georgetown Law student who testified before Congress about contraception a "slut" and a "prostitute," making other nasty insinuations about her sex life, and suggesting that she and other women whose contraception is covered by their health insurance make sex videos and post them online so that, in a sort of never-too-old-for-the-frat-house quid pro quo, he can watch.

Some conservatives have dug for dirt on the student, Sandra Fluke, and found it. It seems she is an activist who sought to attend Georgetown Law solely as a test case, in order to try to force the administration of the Jesuit university to violate the teachings of the Catholic Church, amend its policies, and include contraception in its health insurance plan.

Do you disagree with what Sandra Fluke is fighting for? I do. 

And yet I was surprised this morning to see, on the Facebook wall of a well-known Catholic bioethicist, a status update that questioned whether a law student "bankrupting herself for contraceptives" might accurately be called a slut.  A friend of this bioethicist, whose profile picture features the words "Lent: Turn Away from Sin," cheered him on. Another commenter wrote: 

If you're so addicted to sexual stimulation that you need to have it often, and you're not in control of your sexual behavior, you are a slut. The only question left is why Rush feels so compelled to repeatedly apologize for speaking the truth. . . Repeatedly apologizing [is] protracting what should have been 15 minutes of slutty fame.

I have to admit to liking that line about fifteen minutes of slutty fame. However, because it was just the sort of bitchy little bon mot that I would have expected to issue from the mouth of one of my opera-queen semblables of yore, reading it next to the Facebook profile of someone who probably considers herself a Catholic conservative was, to say the least, jarring.

The greatest mockers of Sandra Fluke on this particular thread were women. And on another friend's wall, the greatest defenders of Rush were men. There is, of course, a good deal of overlap between these two camps. And it made me wonder.

Why would anyone defend a man who attacks a woman, least of all conservatives? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that conservatives generally advocated a return to pre-1960s cultural mores, during which time it was generally accepted that men protected women, even women with whom they disagreed and women who were of a lower moral status. Good men, real men, would never use a national platform to viciously attack and personally defame a woman -- in particular a stranger and a private citizen -- with whom they did not agree (especially men who live in sexual and pharmaceutical glass houses, but that's another story). And men who applaud these attacks seem to me lacking in some crucial component of manliness.

Why? Because men are supposed to protect women. Simply put, it is unmanly to to attack a woman. (Sadly, it's to be expected from other women, even, apparently, from conservative Catholic ones.)

These unfortunate discussions make it clear how much we are all suffering culturally in a society in which abortion is legal.  When a man takes a woman to have an abortion, encourages her to have an abortion, pressures her to have an abortion, or abandons her when she is pregnant -- all phenomena which it's safe to assume are exponentially more prevalent now than before the legalization of abortion -- he is avoiding his responsibility as a man to protect the weak. A society in which these phenomena are commonplace is a society in which it's acceptable for men to harm women, or to allow harm to come to them, in subtler ways as well. I contend that, in the era of legalized abortion, unmanly men -- men who shirk their duties vis-à-vis women, men who deride women, men who degrade women -- are so commonplace across racial, class, educational, and economic lines as to be banal. And, dare I say it, they now also exist across lines of faith. 

If conservative Catholic men are openly defending a famous man (and a man who, it must be said, has proven himself to be somewhat less than temperate, sexually and otherwise) for attacking a woman, there is something woefully wrong with the culture of conservatism, because it has clearly accepted the social mores and the sexual constructs of our post-abortion society.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Suffer Like Coffee

Beautiful post from a sister who has been there. May we all learn to suffer like coffee.