Friday, August 31, 2012

Poetry Friday: Zimmer in Grade School

In grade school I wondered
Why I had been born
To wrestle in the ashy puddles
With my square nose
Streaming mucus and blood,
My knuckles puffed from combat
And the old nun's ruler.
I feared everything: God,
Learning, and my schoolmates.
I could not count, spell, or read.
My report card proclaimed
These scarlet failures.
My parents wrung their loving hands.
My guardian angel wept constantly.

But I could never hide anything.
If I peed my pants in class
The puddle was always quickly evident,
My worst mistakes were at
The blackboard for Jesus and all
The saints to see.
        Even now,
When I hide behind elaborate mask,
It is always known that I am Zimmer,
The one who does the messy papers
And fractures all his crayons,
Who spits upon the radiators
And sits all day in shame
Outside the office of the principal.

-- Paul Zimmer

More Poetry Friday at Poetry for Children.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

I.e., Not the Same Thing as Voting Republican

Ed Mechmann works for the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, and is a member of my former parish. This is from the blog he writes for the Archdiocese:

Being “pro-life” — as opposed to merely taking “pro-life” positions — has a much broader and deeper meaning [than winning elections].  It involves a recognition of the sacredness of life, its inherent dignity, that views each individual human being as having inestimable value because he or she is made in the image and likeness of God.  It rejects a reductionist or utilitarian view of humanity, where lives are disposable if they are inconvenient, not “useful”, or if they came into being in a way that we disapprove.   It entails a commitment to defending each and every life against abuse, from whatever source.  It calls people to acts of direct service to the poor, the vulnerable, and the frail.  It is an attitude of reverence in the divine presence, seen in every human person [emphasis added].

Read the rest here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"He ate at Outback. Of course you had to abort." [UPDATED]

"Believe me when I tell you that I'm not superficial."

Not sure where the love story is in this, unless it's on the part of the author towards herself.

The best part of this sad and disturbing article is the comments (though tread cautiously if you're sensitive or easily offended); my title quote is one of these in its entirety.

UPDATE: Seraphic provides an excellent analysis of the article.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Todd Akin and the Sense of the Tragic

I'm sure most of you read the Darwins' excellent blog, but just in case you haven't seen Darwin's post on Todd Akin's indefensible remarks about "legitimate rape" and conception yet, here is a link to it.  As Darwin notes:

My own thought is that we as Americans find these kinds of moral issues very difficult because we have no tragic sense: we labor under the illusion that doing the right things means that bad things won't happen to you, or that if misfortune comes doing the right thing will necessarily lessen our suffering right away. Often it doesn't. 

I would add to this the fact that our culture is falsely predicated upon the notion that we deserve happiness, which was, perhaps, the basis of Sharron Angle's offensive suggestion that conception by rape should be regarded by the victim as a "lemonade situation." Surely it's not cooperating with evil to acknowledge that every rape victim would not welcome her rapist's child.

I would suggest further that conservatives study and learn from liberals' sense that some things are incredibly difficult and that there's simply no remedy for it. If Todd Akin and Sharron Angle had not tried to find happy little hedges for their difficult and painful beliefs --  because, while I agree that abortion is not the answer to these tragedies, this is a difficult and painful belief -- I would not regard them with ridicule, which I do.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Tanning While Rome Burns

My family and I recently went on a beach vacation at a spot we’ve been going for several years, having started this yearly sojourn when we still lived in New York.  In fact, it’s not a particularly arduous place to get to from New York, but from where we live now the trip seems counterintuitive at best. It’s full of Italians from the Bronx, so it’s an easy place to slip back into, even for my non-Italian-American husband, who has nevertheless lived among Italian-Americans for a good part of his life. I suppose we keep going back because not only the place, but also its ethos, are so familiar to us, but we can’t help viewing it, now, from something of a critical distance. Or maybe I should say, in my case, from something of a heightened critical distance, because I’ve never been a great one for the beach, and I’m starting to realize that I’m not a great one either for that elusive pursuit of that intangible essence that people know as having fun.

The truth is, I go to the beach, and I see the crowds evidently enjoying themselves as they tan or read or drink or body-surf, and it unsettles me.  I always want to leave before everyone else, because I hate the feeling of having stayed too long, and having to leave as the sun is setting, and you’re hungry and a little dazed from the sunshine and covered with sand, and you have to schlep your chairs, umbrella, and cooler back to where you’re staying. Anyone, I’m sure, would want to collapse under these circumstances, but I also want to cry.  There’s something so brittle about it – all the forced merriment in the bright sun, the making the most of the last days of summer – and it makes me sad. I had the same feeling recently at one of the big events I’m occasionally constrained to attend with my husband for his work.  Having to wear a cocktail dress and attempt something sophisticated with my still-graduate-student-looking hair, to drink and dine with prominent citizens of my new town, and to dance to the same band that plays the same music at every single one of these events (and I actually happen to think this band is very good) sent me halfway toward despair and rushing to the confessional the next day. I told the priest, who knows me, and who had, incidentally, also been in attendance the previous night, that I felt as though I'd been watching everyone dancing before a yawning chasm into which Death was pushing them unawares, and was this normal, or did he think that maybe I needed some antidepressants?

He didn’t address this last question directly, but I sometimes wonder if my relationship with God is just not meant to be one of those joyful ones that I’ve heard about all my life.  I truly believe that not everyone is meant to know that kind of joy in a place that is, after all, known officially in some quarters as “this vale of tears,” and so sometimes I wonder why everyone is trying so hard; after all, the "ego" in "et in Arcadia ego" is commonly understood to be death. But some people are surely meant to struggle more, to swim more arduously upstream, than others, and I am either one of them or else am hopelessly neurotic.  Nonetheless, I pray St. Ignatius’s Suscipe each morning upon waking, because I can’t help but feel that I am so steeped in my difficult past that its color has seeped into my very bones and tinted them the darkest of blues.

Here is a mélodie by Debussy, “Chevaux de bois,” number 4 of his song-cycle Ariettes Oubliées, a setting of a poem by Paul Verlaine about a fairground carousel which in some ways echoes my feelings about the beach and summer vacation in general.

Turn, turn, good little wooden horses,
turn a hundred times, turn a thousand times,
turn often and turn always,
turn, turn to the sound of the oboes.

The child in red and his mother in white,
the boy in black and the girl in pink,
One in pursuit, and the other striking a pose,
each of them pays his Sunday penny.

Turn, turn, horses of their hearts,
while all around your turning
the sly pickpocket is watching --
turn to the sound of the victorious cornet.

It is astonishing the way it intoxicates you
to keep turning around in this stupid circle,
empty stomach, aching head,
feeling sick and yet having loads of fun.

Turn, wooden horses, with no need
of spurs
to command you to gallop;
turn, turn, without any hope of hay.

And hurry, horses of their souls--
Already night is falling, calling to supper
the troops of jolly drinkers, made hungry by their thirst.

Turn, turn! The velvet sky slowly begins
to clothe itself in golden stars.
The church bell tolls sadly.
Turn to the happy sound of the drums.

(Above: Detail from Guyhot Marchant’s Danse Macabre des Femmes, 1491.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Autism and Gender-Fluidity

I found this article in the New York Times Magazine, and the accompanying comments, fascinating. As the mother of a child with autism, I've often found myself feeling similar to how I imagine the parents of Alex -- the "gender-fluid" little boy -- felt when they sent an email to his classmates' parents, advising them to take it in stride when Alex wore a dress to preschool. But beyond what I imagine to be our shared emotions, the similarities end. Alex's parents can smooth their son's way by alerting the other children and adults in his path to his differences, and encouraging them to accept them. In a society that is becoming increasingly conscious of behavior that transcends gender norms, and increasingly open to experimenting in the gray area outside of those norms, Alex is sure to find his own milieu of open-minded friends and teachers who will write off his non-normative behavior as quirky.

As the mother of a child with autism, however, it has never occurred to me to send around a note about the possibility of my son being unusually difficult and disruptive if his expectations are thwarted in some way, if a slight change has been made to the day's anticipated plans, or if he makes a mistake in something he's writing, drawing, or playing on the violin. That's because children on the autism spectrum are expected to conform to certain norms of behavior. If a child has a diagnosis and an I.E.P., chances are that he will be assisted as he strives to meet those norms. But there's no equivalent, for autistic children, of "gender-variant" camp, where gray-area-gendered children are encouraged to dress up and play as the opposite sex. Certainly there are autism camps, but they tend to be of the intensive-training-to-enable-you-to-pass-for-neurotypical-and-thus-minimize-the-odds-of-having-a-miserable-life variety -- that is, not places where "neurologically-variant" children are encouraged to let all their autistic traits hang out, so to speak, in all the chaotic -- and disturbing -- glory such a thing would entail.

It is difficult for my son, as it is for all spectrum children, to conform to those norms. Like the parents of the gender-fluid kids, I worry about his future, and pray that he will have friends. But I know that it's not up to me, no matter how much I wish it were, to try to persuade other people to accept him as he is. I know, instead, that there is a balance that he will have to learn to strike for himself between conforming to the world's standards and being himself a standard bearer for neuro-atypicality and the very real gifts that it conveys. There is no autistic equivalent of a boy in a dress, nor even a "We're here, we're autistic, get used to it" t-shirt. While some of the people in Alex's world will find him adorable for wearing a dress in public, no one will find my truly adorable six-year-old so for having an atomic-level tantrum in public because McDonald's was all out of the mix for their vanilla shakes and he was compelled to choose something else.

So, on the one hand, I think, go on with yourselves, Alex and your parents. No one should care what you do; I certainly don't. But on the other hand, I'm not convinced that any attempts should be made to establish gender-fluid behavior as normative. Alex's parents should, rather, make it clear to their son that the world is not going to cut him slack as he gets older, and that, if he chooses to flout gender-normative behavior, things will be difficult for him. This is not cause for despair; it's acceptance of the way things are, and if Alex chooses to continue to cross-dress in public, he will undoubtedly develop an admirably strong character. After all, the world doesn't cut autistic kids -- or adults -- much slack, and it's up to us as parents to let our children know that they will have to control their impulses or pay the price. I don't see why the parents of gender-fluid children shouldn't do the same.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Yesterday is Not Today

I haven't been posting much here, in part because I don't have as much free time for musing, let alone writing, with a new two-year-old around, and in part because the demands of quotidian life have been more pressing lately than this blog. I've noticed something similar with the other blogs I still manage to read, which number far fewer than they used to for the same reasons.

There are also other vaguer and more existential reasons I've been blogging less. One is something that gradually occurred to me on one of my now-daily drives through the place that I live. I don't enjoy driving much yet; in fact, I keep myself up some nights thinking about the places that I have to get to the next day and planning routes to them that will not involve having to make a lot of left-hand turns. I've also found, curiously, that though I'm inclined to profanity in my non-driving life, I've been uncharacteristically restrained in the car: I find myself uttering "Please get off my tail already" under my breath rather often, and, if someone cuts me off, which is frequent, I might let loose with a mild epithet like "Oh, man!" I think that swearing is usually inspired by a kind of self-righteous indignation, and I just don't have the confidence as a driver to assume that I'm right in any driving situation.

But anyway, it dawned on me as I was driving my kids somewhere how much driving changes a former New Yorker's life. I don't mean the obvious facts of greatly-increased mobility and independence, but the fact that, in a car, you become a sort of secret agent. In New York, your agency is out there on the street.  In New York, I was accustomed to being looked at -- not because I'm particularly stunning, but because everyone there is looked at. There's much more of a sense, there, that one's life is lived openly in the public square. In New York, after all, to get to where you're going you have to ride on a subway or bus with many other people, and then walk down a crowded street with many other people. There are many daily functions, including eating and making phone calls, that you're constrained to do in public each day (in my opinion, clipping one's nails, applying full-face makeup, and shaving do not fall into that category, though I've seen people do all of these and worse on the subway). if you're an extrovert, you thrive on this sense of shared purpose, even if it's shared only by virtue of circumstance or necessity, and if you're an introvert, you develop a coping strategy, a game face. I suppose I was a little of both, but I never went to the bodega without lipstick on, I dated a couple of men I met on the subway, and I went to and from my bread gig in high heels, no matter how painful they were by the end of the day (though I stopped wearing high heels after 9/11, just in case I ever had to run away from someplace really fast; one of my friends who lived in my building did, in fact, have to limp eight miles home in stilettos on that day, since the subways and buses had shut down).

This is a different place, though, and in a car, no one sees you. For a former New Yorker, it conveys a tree-falling-in-the-forest sort of feeling. It doesn't matter how my hair looks, and it matters even less what I am thinking about. Most people are just trying to pass me illegally, which is fine with me. I put on the classical-music FM radio station and play guess-the-composer, a game I've always enjoyed, and I have the sense that I'm creating my own little pod which keeps at bay the pervasive sense of lassitude and purposelessness that I see in the jobless men and the women in their pajamas and the boarded-up buildings that I drive past each day. Since my car has no air-conditioning, I sometimes wonder what effect the music that escapes through my open windows might have upon the denizens of my new city. What does it do to you to hear unfamiliar Schumann or Beethoven on a relentless summer day? Do the thrilling strains of the Seventh Symphony act as some kind of cooling agent, or some sort of rising agent, on the system? Can they change the heart?

Sometimes I sing along. Sometimes I turn off the radio and do vocal warm-ups. It doesn't matter what I do. And that is the crux of the matter.

A few years ago, on the eve of the Feast of the Ascension, I had a dream that Christ ascended into heaven on the cross. We know that's not what happened, of course, but I think the message in the dream was that we ascend by descending, as it were -- that is, by accepting humility. Indeed, the more I drive around my depressed little town in my hot little car with three hubcaps missing blaring classical music, the more I get the sense that, as John the Baptist said, I must decrease. And for someone who's used to being looked at that can be a little hard.

I noticed that my last post, the poem "Skyscrapers," went up on the five-year anniversary of my very first post. This blog started as an online diary, and, in writing it, I have written candidly about some of my sins and obscurely about others. I have tried to excavate my own memory in the hope of transmuting it into something beautiful, of spinning refuse into gold. Sometimes I still think that might be possible, but more and more I'm beginning to feel that I have to stop living in the past. God will transform bitter, devastating memory according to His own purposes if I let go of it and give it over to Him; it's not up to me. As Saint Ignatius's "Suscipe" prayer says:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

Perhaps I need to stop mining the ore of memory in order to be able to go forward into a new kind of smallness and quietness, a kind of fruitful unimportance. So much of my memory is the memory of sin, and, as someone who knows a lot about these things once told me, you don't need to tell people about your sins, because your sins are lies. In fact, as this person said further, your sins are shit, and you don't go around showing people your shit.

Since a great deal of this blog's content has been an exploration of my past sins, I'm not sure how much longer I'll be keeping up with it. I also have a big writing project coming up that's going to take up most of Jude's naptimes for the foreseeable future. For now, though, I will continue to check in here when I'm feeling inspired.

I will close now with a poem by Paul Bowles, which in many ways evokes the way I feel right now (Bowles, a composer as well as a poet and novelist, wrote a fine art-song setting of his own poem, but I couldn't find a decent performance on Youtube).

Once a Lady Was Here 

Once a lady was here.
A lady sat in this garden,
And she thought of love.
The sun shone the same,
The breeze bent the grasses slowly
As it's doing now.
So nothing has changed.
Her garden still looks the same,
But it's a diff'rent year.
Soon the evening comes down,
And paths where she used to wander
Whiten in the moonlight,
And silence is here.
No sound of her footsteps passing
Through the garden gate.
No, nothing has changed.
Her garden still looks the same,
But yesterday is not today.