Thursday, June 21, 2012

Running Up the White Flag

It's brutally hot here in northern Appalachia, but I hear that it is in New York City too. I think back upon those brutally hot days in New York, on every one of which you have to descend into the subway, whose platforms are ten degrees hotter than above ground. On days like these, the weight of your heavy backpack (in which you have to stuff all the things you need for the day because no one lives near their errands, university, work, or appointments unless they're rich, so it's not like you can swing by home to put down some things and pick up others) is more tiring, and its smell more noxious. And if you have a small child, you're schlepping not only the twenty-pound backpack, but also your child(ren) and stroller, up and down the subway stairs and bus steps in the roiling heat, and no one helps you because everyone feels insulted at some deep personal level by the weather, and so they hate you. And you hate them, too. I never realized how demoralizing this all was until I was no longer living it.

I met the mother of a first-grader at a massive end-of-the-school-year playdate yesterday who migrated here from another, deeper, part of Appalachia for her husband's work. She still owns and runs a business, however -- a boutique -- in her former town, and is going back there for the summer. In the course of our conversation, I realized that this is the same town in which my friend and fellow poetry-lover Rodak lives, and I was able to confirm that he knows my new friend's shop and has even been there with his daughters. This got me thinking about Rodak, about how he lived not at all far away from me back in the Bronx, but at a different time, a storied time, in fact, when New York was at the cusp of many things, when it wasn't what it has become today, which is, in most parts, a real-estate-porn set, a playground for people with a lot of money, a refuge for materialists who believe that being hip is about what you wear (and also about what you eat and drink and where you procure it from).

This mother's son is also mainstreamed with high-functioning autism, like my just-finished-kindergarten son. If every year could be like my son's kindergarten year, I would be overjoyed. Our neighborhood school is, quite simply, great, in spite of the fact that it's in an urban area and serves a diverse population and half of the students in the district are below the poverty level and all those other things that strike terror-about-public-school into the hearts of middle-class parents, but which are pretty much all the things I grew up with. I have been absolutely delighted with my son's classroom, teachers, and the various supports he has gotten because of his diagnosis, and he left kindergarten at the top of his class academically. He loves school, and says he wants to be a principal when he grows up, which has got to be a first.

The other day I was picking up shoes at the shoe repairman, and I couldn't find my ticket. I apologized profusely, to the point that the shoe repairman was a little nonplussed by my extreme contrition. I explained by telling him about a time when I lost a shoe repair ticket in New York, and the shop owner, rather than berating me, looked through dozens of boxes of fixed shoes while casting looks of such scorn and disgust at me, and telling me mournfully that people like me were the reason he wanted to close down his shop, that I was relieved when he actually did. "So you're a New Yorker?" the local shoe repairman asked. "Sort of," I said. I walked out of the shop scolding myself. Sort of? What did that mean? Had my allegiance flagged? Had I betrayed my beautiful city?

All of this is to say that I'm glad to be here now. And I guess I'm not really a New Yorker anymore.

(The video above is a popular, and extremely excellent, track from my youth. Be forewarned that it contains the b-word and the n-word if you're sensitive about things like that.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bags of Money

Simcha Fisher has one of the blog posts up that she comes out with sometimes -- the kind that bring you up short for a moment, then lead you to ponder the state of your soul, but in the friendliest way possible. It's about the new ministry founded by former Planned Parenthood clinic manager Abby Johnson, whose mission is to help former abortion-industry workers "through these four integral aspects: emotional, spiritual, legal and financial."

Not surprisingly, Johnson's plans have met with scorn and disgust -- from pro-lifers.

Simcha writes:

When Johnson announced her initiative on Facebook, some putative pro-lifers responded with anger and disgust at the thought of making it easy for abortionists to leave the industry. . .  several [comments suggested] that if the abortion workers really had a change of heart, they ought to quit on the spot and take a job at McDonald's to show the strength of their convictions. And a few even condemned these men and women outright, calling them murderers -- saying that, far from deserving help, they deserve to rot in hell.

Let's be very clear here. Yes, Jesus loves a leap of faith. Jesus loves martyrs. Jesus calls us to take up our cross, abandon our former lives and follow him.  But he also requires those of us who are already following him to make the journey easier for each other. We're supposed to take up our own crosses willingly, but try to make each other's crosses lighter.  

This is what St. Nicholas was doing when, according to legend, he crept through the streets at night, tossing bags of gold coins into the window of a poor famiy contemplating selling their daughters into prostitution. Or maybe you can imagine the original Santa Claus harumphing, "If they really thought prostitution was so wrong, they'd rather starve than get involved in that industry!" Nope. Bags of money. It's called "being the body of Christ" -- a body that has arms and hands that do the work.

If only pro-lifers considered how far some of them, including some of the most ardent and committed, drive those who have been involved in abortion, including the most thoroughly repentant, away. They make it seem as if self-justification, rather than demonstrating the love of Christ to (other) sinners, were the goal of their pro-life work. Remember, people, only God can read hearts.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Urgent Prayer Request

A quick one: my great friend Really Rosie has a new and very sick little baby in her extended family. The baby, a girl, was born with multiple and serious heart defects, is being helped to breathe with artificial means, and will need surgery very soon. Please pray that God will spare little baby R. and give comfort and strength to her family. May God reward you for your prayers.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Poetry Friday: Majority

Now you'd be three,
I said to myself,
seeing a child born
the same summer as you.

Now you'd be six,
or seven, or ten.
I watched you grow
in foreign bodies.

Leaping into a pool, all laughter,
or frowning over a keyboard,
but mostly just standing,
taller each time.

How splendid your most
mundane action seemed
in these joyful proxies.
I often held back tears.

Now you are twenty-one.
Finally, it makes sense
that you have moved away
into your own afterlife.

-- Dana Gioia, from Pity the Beautiful. © Graywolf Press, 2012. More Poetry Friday at A Year of Reading.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

No Shame in Smallness

In my final master's degree recital, I sang a group of Mozart songs, including a rather odd and rarely-performed one, "Verdankt sei es dem Glanz der Großen." Not being then the experienced and avid researcher I later became, I must admit that at the time I really didn't know what I was singing about. Yes, I translated every word, as I used to insist that my own students do when they were working on art songs in languages other than English, and I knew what it meant in literal terms; but the song, for all its simplicity, remained strange and rather mystical to me, and I assumed that it had something to do with Mozart's masonic affiliations. Here is a partial and paraphrased translation:

Thanks be to the glory of the great for showing me my insignificance so clearly. . . . I esteem those narrow boundaries in which I am so insignificant. Here I see stars and ornaments glistening, but they are of no interest to me, and cannot draw me out of my small circle. . . there is no shame in being small. 

It has crossed my mind lately that my life, background, and upbringing couldn't be more different from those of most of my readers here, including those whom I consider my friends. I was not raised for the life I'm living now. It's hardly necessary to detail the damage that I encountered early in life and later learned to replicate, but suffice it to say that I did not grow up with good values, morals, or catechesis, as you, perhaps, did. I did not go to Catholic school or university. I was not encouraged to become a wife or mother. I stopped going to Mass when I was eleven and didn't start again until years later. It never crossed my mind that a man would or should take care of me, and it wasn't something I particularly sought after or wanted. Rather, in spite of, or because of, my life of damage, I became a singer. From childhood on, I chased after the ethereal, the disembodied, the ungraspably beautiful that seemed to tend toward God (I would eventually learn that singing is anything but ethereal or disembodied). I tried to build my life on shards of color, scraps of sound, remembered fragrances and slants of light. In some ways it worked, and in others it failed miserably. I wonder if it failed because I was trying to make something hard out of something soft, something sharp-edged and useful as a tool or a weapon out of something warm and intimate. But in fact, I handled most phenomena in my life the same way.

Indeed, I never imagined what it might be like to be small in the essential way described in the text of Mozart's song, and the thought of being happy with such limitations frightened me. My whole life had been about kicking against the boundaries, pushing out of my way whatever conspired to keep me in smallness. So naturally I couldn't possibly understand what I was singing.

I went to Adoration yesterday, and it occurred to me that God is forcing me to grasp that kind of smallness now. I saw someone I knew there -- coincidentally, an Italian guy from the Bronx -- a tough-looking man with a shaved head who, seemingly uncharacteristically, indulges in extravagant gestures of devotion, including prostrations, frequent handling of a very large rosary on which he bestows loud kisses, profferings of monastic greetings when you run into him, and refusals to shake your hand at the Sign of Peace. I must stress that this is a genuinely holy sort of person, but I find the visible manifestations of the supposed state of his holiness a bit off-putting, and I have to admit to feeling chagrined that he was in the Adoration chapel when I walked in. I heard myself asking God, "Do You love this guy more than me? Come on, please don't love him more than me; You just can't!" which made me realize that, in spite of the fact that I was raised to make my own way in the world and for long stretches did so, all I had ever wanted was for someone to love me the best. In fact, I think that's the only reason I ever did anything.

But here and now, there is nothing but smallness. Not the life I had envisioned for myself. If being here in this crumbling post-industrial city is my school of humility, I'd rather have the school of walking around, of being among my people, of teaching my wonderful public university students: My Old School. Here it is hard work all the time and little excitement. Here there are many tears and few accolades. Here there are few opportunities to reveal that beauty that I always strove to uncover, which I later came to know was the beauty of God.

People from my old life email me and ask me when and where my next gigs are. I have to tell them I have nothing booked. I take care of my boys, each of whom has demanding and difficult special needs in different ways; I try to meet my freelance deadlines, which keep me on the edges of academia; and I try to keep the house clean. I try not to feel lonely and I try not to miss my old life, because it is gone, and probably some of it I'm well-rid of. I try to discern what God wants of me, and I can only assume He wants me to do what I'm doing now. Sometimes I long to go away to a hermitage, where I fantasize about the occurrence of profound healing and connection with God, but I understand that whatever healing and connection is going to happen is going to happen in the midst of confusion and brokenness, and I appreciate orthodox Jewish theology for insisting that the encounter with God happens in the midst of the chaos of family life and the marketplace; there is no precedent in Jewish tradition, after all, for monastic living, or celibacy, or hermitage.