Friday, May 30, 2008

St. Dorothy

Kyle Cupp has a provocative post up, suggesting an approach to dialogue on life issues that controverts the culture-war paradigm. It got me thinking about Dorothy Day, whose cause for sainthood is being promoted by the Archdiocese of New York (they have a stylish website up to publicize it, too). I can't help but wonder if Dorothy Day's acclamation as a saint would ruffle feathers among American Catholics, who are already rather starkly aligned along the lines of conservative and liberal, orthodox and dissenting. These designations, however, are misleading; like most aspects of American Catholicism, they bear the taint of what Pope Leo XIII referred to as the heresy of Americanism. Most orthodox or conservative Catholics identify their spiritual beliefs with conservative political beliefs, while, conversely, liberal Catholics align themselves with liberal American politics. So conservative Catholics are pro-life, but many of them are harshly opposed to any governmental solution to ameliorating the lives of poor women who choose life, and they tend to be for the Iraq War and for capital punishment. Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, believe that abortion is a right, while condemning the execution of criminals and the prosecution of the war. Perhaps Servant of God Dorothy Day is just who we need to guide us out of this impasse.

Dorothy Day was a true political radical and a true religious orthodox, someone who sought to defend and protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. She endured the suffering of divorce and abortion, and underwent a dramatic conversion from communism to Catholicism. While her approach to aiding the weakest was transformed in light of her conversion, her dedication to justice and peace was unwavering throughout her life. It seems to me that her life and work are a true reflection of Catholic belief.

As far as the pro-life cause being a conservative one, this essay, published in The Progressive in 1980, was one of the earliest to make the powerful case that the protection of the unborn is rightly under the purview of the political Left. Read Mary Meehan's concise and cogent arguments in support of a leftist pro-life movement: "It is out of character," she notes, "for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless . . . . abortion is an escape from an obligation that is owed to another."

Some of my readers know that I grew up in an off-the-charts progressive family. I have never been able to understand why pro-lifers stereotypically oppose any measures, such as increased welfare and food-stamp benefits, subsidized childcare, and a guaranteed wage subsidy (supported, incidentally, by that great liberal Richard Nixon), that would assist the women who are most vulnerable to abortion but who courageously choose life. Should women and children be left to live in poverty? Should women already abandoned by the fathers of their children be further abandoned by our society? Is that Christian? Is it American? Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"The falcon cannot hear the falconer"

In reponse to the recent posts on this blog about the sexual revolution, Retired Waif suggested that I read Joan Didion's iconic essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (I had never read Didion, although the eponymous book and several others by her were in my childhood home; I found I didn't like her style, but I suppose that's mainly because it's been so widely imitated). The essay is every bit as chilling as the poem from which Didion took her title. Didion has gone to Haight-Ashbury in the spring of 1967 to cover the desultory youth movement there, which is mostly a loose coalition of drug-addled teenagers who have descended upon San Francisco in a vague attempt to shuck off the repressive strictures of home and school. Drugs are the fulcrum about which this coalition pivots, and there are famous scenes of a five-year-old on acid (she is a pupil in "High Kindergarten") and a three-year-old who starts a fire in a commune while trying to light an incense stick. Didion's preamble sounds eerily like our own times:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.

(There, however, the similarity to our times ends, for "in the cold late spring of 1967 . . . the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose.")

In a sort of reversal of the trajectory of, say, The Great Gatsby, in which the protagonists leave the innocent, golden West and become corrupted in the East, Didion's California is a hollow paradise, a place that lures the young with promises of redemption and fulfillment, of a return to innocence, of an exegesis of transcendental mysteries and a spiritual completeness, but delivers instead a total breakdown of morals and a drug-hazed anomie which barely cloaks the everpresent threat of violence. In light of this, it is jarring to note the fondness with which many baby boomers regard this time and place, which Didion describes as "the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum." She has harsh words for a society that, in the period after World War II, has atomized into self-sufficient nuclear families; it is not just in the inchoate youth rebellion in San Francisco that things have broken down, she suggests, but even in straight, mainstream American culture:

At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves . . . Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values. They are children who have moved around a lot . . . They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts.

I believe the anomie lived out by the generation of '67 is still very much with us; only now it's no longer on the fringes, but has sunk into the very marrow of our society.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mercy Without Measure

I just tried to upload an .mp3 file from my recent recital to this blog, but evidently this platform doesn't accept them. The piece is the haunting "Troparion of Kassiani," an unaccompanied soprano-soprano-alto trio by the young British composer Ivan Moody, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. He takes for his text the words of a hymn (or troparion) by Kassiani (pictured above), a ninth-century Byzantine nun, composer, and hymnographer who is acclaimed as a saint in the Eastern Church. This troparion, about the woman who washed Christ's feet with her tears, is chanted on the Wednesday of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. The text, in translation, is:

The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Thy divinity, oh Lord, fulfilled the part of a myrrh-bearer, and with lamentation she brought sweet-smelling oil of myrrh to Thee before Thy burial.

“Woe is me,” she said, “for night surrounds me, dark and moonless, and stings my lustful passion with the love of sin. Accept the fountains of my tears, oh Thou who drawest down from the clouds the waters of the sea. Incline to the groanings of my heart, oh Thou who in Thine ineffable self-emptying bowed down the heavens. I shall kiss Thy most pure feet and wipe them again with the hairs of my head, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself for fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the abyss of Thy judgements, o Saviour of my soul? Despise me not, Thine handmaiden, for thou hast mercy without measure.”

I thought of this today as I went to one of the dozens of Quest Labs around town, where I have a standing order to have blood drawn every two weeks for the duration of my pregnancy. Since September 11 I have been uneasy on the subway, but the presence in my car of two young nuns in long traditional habits was calming. The nuns got out at my stop, and I saw them again a few minutes later, walking ahead of me. To my surprise, they entered the same genteel building that I was headed for. As I followed a few paces behind, I was amazed to see them go into Quest Labs. When I got to the door, the nuns and I were the only patients there. I asked them to pray for me and the baby, and they said they'd pray to St. Gerard Majella for me (I already consider him a friend). As they were leaving, one of the nuns embraced me. I asked her her name, and she said, "Mercy."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Echoes of the Jazz Age (a guest post by Really Rosie)

[My friend Really Rosie and I have been discussing the impact of the sexual revolution on women's lives, which has been the subject of the last few posts here. She reminded me that there was an earlier sexual revolution, whose effects were, arguably, equally deleterious. I asked her to write a guest post on this subject, which follows. - Pentimento]

There is a contemporary epidemic of regret among women over their sexual pasts. These are tales that women share only with other women, and I have been on the receiving end of many confidences. I once had a friend, E., whom I would describe as sexually predatory (I didn’t know it at the time, but she was sleeping with the boy she knew I liked), who told me one night when she was high that when she was sixteen her boyfriend pressured her into having sex for the first time in the back of his pickup truck. The condom broke, and she ended up having an abortion. Or G., who once told me ruefully that “pull and pray” doesn’t work, as a preamble to another tale of abortion. She subsequently married for three years, then divorced the man who impregnated her. And then there’s my friend B., whose philosophy of sex is that you have to sleep with a lot of men before you can really know for sure who to marry (she’s married, a mother, and a convert to Catholicism, incidentally), who told me recently that she lost her virginity at seventeen on top of a pile of dirty wet towels in the basement of a hairdresser’s shop, and so regretted it that she couldn’t look at herself afterwards for three days.

As a culture, we tend to think of the sexual revolution as starting in the late 1960s, aided by the musical anthems of the day and made possible by the birth control pill and, later, by the Roe v. Wade decision. After all, what came before was the buttoned-up pastel Eisenhower era, with its “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” and smiling housewives, and its stricter moral code. What has receded much farther away in our collective memories was the FIRST sexual revolution, the flapper era of the 1920s, a backlash against the repressed Victorian age that came before.

In 1916, when Margaret Sanger set up the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the stated aim of providing for women "unlimited sexual gratification without the burden of unwanted children," there was, in the wake of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic (much as there was during the Vietnam era), a “do it now!” attitude, since you never knew when death might strike. The birth of advertising fed into the sexual frenzy, as did the heady strains of jazz music. The writings of Freud, as well as other popular authors of the day, like Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald, exploited this new ethos of sexual freedom and experimentation. Dorothy Parker even went so far as to discuss abortion in her short story “Mr. Durant,” although she didn’t dare name it (“Ruby knew, through some indistinct friends of hers, ‘a woman.’ It would be twenty-five dollars”).

Like those women who lived through the 1960s and its aftermath, the sexual revolution of the 1920s resonated powerfully in the lives of those who exemplified it. Lillian Hellman not only famously aborted the child she conceived with Dashiell Hammett (she wrote about it in her memoir, An Unfinished Woman), but reportedly went on to have six more abortions. Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzgerald also had abortions (it is perhaps unrelated, but Parker sank into a depression and attempted suicide soon after, and Fitzgerald spent the last 18 years of her life in a sanatorium; she died in a fire at Highland Mental Hospital at the age of 48). [Another proponent - and, as she would later acknowledge, victim - of the Jazz Age sexual revolution was Dorothy Day, pictured above. She too had an abortion, which she always regretted, and later gave birth to a daughter, Tamar, out of wedlock. Her relationship with Tamar's father ended when Day began to feel drawn to the Catholic Church, and had Tamar baptized. - Pentimento]

The first sexual revolution informed the second one, and it is the second one that continues to shape the lives of women today. I had the misfortune recently to miscarry my second child, and my midwife sent me to an abortion clinic to obtain a pill that would bring on the bleeding that my body refused to start naturally. I waited five hours in the packed clinic; I sat on the floor because every chair was filled. The misery of the women around me was palpable, the attitudes of the clinic workers condescending.

Unwanted pregnancy (as well as sexually transmitted disease) may be the most salient results of regretted sex, but sometimes regret leaves no outward mark. While it is often argued that women deserve freedom and pleasure in their relationships, I wish it didn’t come at so high a price. In the meantime, we tell our stories.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Way I've Always Heard it Should Be

More from Girls Like Us:

In 1973, shortly after their wedding (the first between two rock stars), James Taylor and Carly Simon gave an interview to to Rolling Stone, in which James said of Carly that "[she's] a piece of ass . . . if she looks at another man, I'll kill her," and Carly said that she was "addicted to James."

In 1972, after waiting in vain one night for her current lover, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell attempted suicide by taking pills, "[cutting] herself up," and throwing herself against a wall. She then repaired to a residential treatment institution (she would write the nervous "Car on a Hill" about the night she waited for Browne, and the sedated-sounding "Trouble Child" about her psychiatric treatment, both of which appeared on her great 1973 album Court and Spark).

Carole King's 1972 album, Rhymes & Reasons, includes a song,"Feeling Sad Tonight," that sums up the post-1960s emotional landscape that her generation of women -- and all subsequent ones, I would add -- have had to face: the experience of "always feeling half right and half safe." (Carole, the mother of four children from her first two marriages, would soon find herself married to an abusive, drug-addicted ex-con, who on more than one occasion "took his fist to his wife's mouth").

Sunday, May 11, 2008


A thread that runs throughout the book Girls Like Us (see post below) is that of pregnancy -- furtive, feared, unwanted. (I had the chance to cut through a large swath of the book today, because I have just found out that I am pregnant again myself, and I had to spend the morning in hospital to have some spotting investigated; there is no conclusive diagnosis yet, but if you are inclined that way, I could really use your prayers for the baby and myself right now). The fear of pregnancy is a constant shadow falling across the liberated lives of the "girls" profiled, along with their cohort. The repertoire of the so-called Child Ballads introduced by the female folksingers of the late 50s and earlly 60s (named for the musicologist who collected them, Francis James Child) is, to an astonishing degree, made up of songs about babies born in secret who are dispatched by their mothers (think "Mary Hamilton," sung by Joan Baez, pictured with her sisters on the left in the famous poster above). This was a theme that dovetailed with the lives of the young singers themselves, who, though "liberated," lived in fear of becoming pregnant; a strong social stigma, and certainly a career-ending one, was still attached to out-of-wedlock birth at that time.

Joni's relinquishing of her child seems to have colored her entire life to follow, and she constructed elaborate justifications to explain her act, later telling an interviewer who blindsided her with a question about her daughter (in what seems like stunned incoherence): "People are too possessive about their children, too egocentric with their children, anyway. I reproduced myself . . . but at the time I was penniless. There was no way I could take -- she would have been -- I was not the right person to raise this child . . . I couldn't keep her. It was impossible under the circumstance. I had no money when she was born, none . . . none of the music could have come out . . . I would have been waitressing or something . . . fate did not design this to occur." She also blamed her first husband, Chuck Mitchell, for her signing of the surrender papers; evidently, he did not offer to take care of Joni and her daughter with the conviction that Joni needed in order to bring her child home from foster care.

Then in today's New York Times comes this article, about a new memoir by Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan's erstwhile girlfriend, who appeared with him on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Suze also became pregnant during their time together, and Dylan encouraged her to get an abortion, which was not then legal. This, the article notes drily, "strained their relationship."

I wonder why these sad experiences are not looked at collectively, forty years later, for the irreparable losses that they were. I wonder why these women are not universally sympathized with, and why their men's auras are not tarnished by the callousness they displayed. I wonder why the loss of children is tacitly accepted among many in my own cohort as a modern complication in the lives of modern women, which have become sadder and sadder, I believe. Some of the comments on the last post suggested that abortion, the increase in which is undeniably a logical outcome of the sexual revolution, was somehow not a life-changing tragedy. Why can't we see it for what it is -- in fact, a culture-changing tragedy?

I continue to admire the artists I'm reading about in Girls Like Us, but I find myself aching for the choices they felt they had to make.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Girls Like Us

Now that my dissertation recital is behind me, I have immediately turned to time-wasting pleasure reading in the five or so spare minutes a day that have opened up. A couple of months ago I downloaded Pope Benedict's encyclical Spe Salvi and started carrying it around with me, intending to read it on the subway; but it weighed down my bag like kryptonite, and for some reason was equally unapproachable. So when a friend emailed me a link to an article in Vanity Fair that was an excerpt from the book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Lifetime by Sheila Weller (pictured above), I immediately used the back of Spe Salvi to print it out. I devoured the article, and requested the book from the library. It came yesterday, and, in spite of the fact that it's a 500-page hardcover, it feels much lighter in my bag than the few dozen printed pages of the encyclical did.

The book is a compelling read for me, not only because I love the music written by the three artists (especially Joni Mitchell), but also because their lives, as described by Weller, are symbolic of the tremendous disappointment that women have reaped since the 1960s. Although Weller is apparently approving of her subjects' experimentation with the new ways of love, sex, and romance introduced in that era -- ways that ultimately brought grief and even devastation to the three artists (King was married four times; Mitchell bore her only child alone in the charity ward of a Toronto hospital and gave her up for adoption; Simon lived in a codependent marriage to the desperately-addicted James Taylor, until it ended), she also interjects statements that hint that all was not rosy for girls who were "too busy being free." She quotes one of Joan Baez's guitar-strumming college friends, who says obliquely, "There were tears over boys, and a harrowing trip to a doctor who was supposed to be able to 'fix' things . . . It felt like we were both the initiators and the victims of the sexual revolution," and observes ruefully, "If only feminist fortune cookie sentences could, as ordered, change the heart. They couldn't."

The legacy of the sexual revolution has changed the lives, but perhaps not the hearts, of women like me in complex ways. I think sometimes of my fellow female doctoral students and the lives they may be living, and the life I lived before my conversion. I felt as if undergoing devastating loss was part of being a woman, something that a sophisticated and highly-educated woman would have to understand and accept, and that somehow, in the face of irrevocable loss, I would become a superior human being. I wish now, however, that I had never had to lose all that I did.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Program

This is the program I sang the other night:

Adelaide, op. 46
Maigesang, op. 52, no. 4
An die Hoffnung, op. 94
(Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827)

Trois melodies
Le sourire
La fiancée perdue
(Olivier Messiaen, 1908-1992)

Three Scottish Songs
Scots Song
The Children
(James MacMillan, b. 1959)


Go, Lovely Rose (Roger Quilter, 1877-1953)
To God
So We’ll Go No More A-Roving (Maude Valérie White, 1855-1937)
Silent Noon (Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958)
As I Walked Out One Evening (Elisabeth Lutyens, 1906-1983)

The Troparion of Kassiani (offered in memory of John Stewart Allitt) (Ivan Moody, b. 1964)

Zigeunerlieder, op. 103
He, Zigeuner
Hochgetürmte Rimaflut
Wisst ihr, wann mein Kindchen
Lieber Gott, du weisst
Brauner Bursche führt zum Tanze
Röslein dreie in der Reihe
Kommt dir manchmal in der Sinn
Rote Abend wolken zieh’n am Firmament
(Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897)

For an encore, I sang a beautiful song by Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, "When the Day Turns Into Night."

More on the program later, and thank you for your prayers, which were effective.