November 4, 2016

Mourning the Buddha

      Father Gary Morelli died last week. He was one of many priests in this country, in his Church, and yet he was “one.” He was singular. He stood alone.

        When I moved to Washington state, my husband and I bought a house, re-organized our work lives, made a life together, but first we selected a second home. For a church is a home, as surely as the one we live in every day. Like home, it is a place where they have to take you in.

        We found a special place, one filled with Catholics of every persuasion. I used to say that we had everyone from the kneelers to the dancers at our church. And we did. Each Mass was unique, drawing from the variety of Catholics who frequent churches. We were diverse; we were ecumenical. And my husband and I were not only content, but active in the parish.

        When Father Gary arrived as the new pastor, I watched him wander around through the various activities that inundate a church of 2,000 families and he was always smiling. I wondered to myself, “Does this guy have a clue?” I watched some more and his smile persisted, even as he became enmeshed in the delicate politics of a church of many persuasions. And I said to my husband, “Does this guy have a clue?”

        But then I worked with him. I managed two capital campaigns and a building project for him. We spoke often as we planned, gave the parish updates, and solved problems. And I learned that the smile did not come from cluelessness. It came from a deep, unfailing faith.

        It occurred to me then that, if we all believed what we hear in the gospels, we would all smile all the time. For what reason would we have to not be joyous? And I looked at the sour Christians around me and wondered, “Do these guys have a clue?”

        The last time we saw Father Gary was at his assisted living facility. He sat waiting for us to go to lunch, his head slick with the hair-robbing properties of cancer. He saw us—and smiled. And I thought he might be a reincarnation of the Buddha.

        Some Catholic priests would not appreciate my mixing of the religions that way, but Father Gary was open to all, the reason his parish was such a welcoming place for everyone, the deep believers like himself, the skeptics, the questioners, and the strugglers. Those who wished to drag the Church back into the days of total subservience and sermons of hell and sin and those who thought women could be priests and that God welcomes us all, no matter our religious persuasion, were at home there.

        I miss him deeply. Much more than I had imagined I would. But then, if his parish was home, that makes him family doesn’t it?

July 28, 2016

Democratic Lessons

        When I was a child, my mother came into my bedroom one summer night and gently shook me awake. In the moonlight creeping through the Venetian blinds, I saw her finger across her lips in that universal symbol of silence. She took my hand and guided me into the living room while my father, brother and sister slept.

        In the dark living room, the glow of the black-and-white television had an ethereal aura. “You have to see this,” she whispered. “It’s the convention, and John Kennedy’s going to be nominated.”

        We watched while the last few states polled their delegates and announced their votes, in the middle of the night, after the television set had usually gone dark. I was never sure why she woke me, and no one else in the house.

        I knew why it mattered to her. She was raised in Massachusetts, as was Kennedy, with an accent so strong her children teased her about it until she left us. She was by then a Catholic living in the state of Mississippi where Catholics (perhaps because of Klan activities through the years?) were only 2% of the population. And a Catholic had never been President, an issue that surfaced during the campaign as a potential problem.

        His win was of more than the usual historic importance when a presidential candidate is nominated. As is Hillary Clinton’s this week, the first woman nominated by a major political party.

        I recalled that moment during this week’s Democratic Convention. I remembered waiting to learn the final count of votes from each state in conventions of years ago, to learn who would be the candidate. I remembered the roll call where a state’s representative might say something like, “We are proud to hail from the State of. . .the largest producer of. . .in the world” then list all the state’s positive attributes. “We cast this many votes for Candidate A, this many votes for our native son (rarely a native daughter), and this many votes for the next President of the United States of America. . .” Drama to the end, drama carried by the networks in prime time—and beyond.   

        Then I began to wonder if this is part of what has helped to weaken our democracy. I thought of all the people for whom conventions used to mean something important about our country, before the results were so assured that the convention became only a dramatic production by the political party. We have lost part of the democratic process and are left with only the hype. Prime time coverage, for most networks, is only one hour, so we see only the highest drama, drama that is staged as entertainment. There is no genuine drama, no horsetrading, no feeling of participation by the viewer.

        I wondered what it might be like to have once again the tension of wondering if there were enough votes for our favored candidate. Would we be more interested in the democratic process? Would we watch with baited breath to learn the outcome? And would the news organizations carry the voting in prime time? If that were the case, perhaps more citizens would vote, and perhaps the conventions would stop being massive marketing events for the winner (even before the convention votes are cast). Perhaps they would return to being exercises of citizenship and perhaps our large color television sets would illuminate our living rooms with democracy.

July 3, 2016

Becky Beck, Woman or Anarchist?

 An article in the Columbia magazine, produced by the Washington State Historical Society, caught my eye: “Targeted for Deportation: Immigrant Labor Radical Becky Beck. . .” Intriguing words to grab attention, the story of Rebecca “Becky” Beck. I’ll probably get a groan if I say it “beckoned” to me.

        It turns out the Becky Beck was accused of being an anarchist and attempts were made to deport her. There were no witnesses, so the assumption is that the “anonymous” tip that was used to try the case came from the garment manufacturers upset with Beck’s union activities among the garment workers of Seattle. They weren’t having much luck with the charges and so they resorted to a section in the 1903 Immigration Act, largely known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act.

        The thing that struck me was the language used to describe people who could not be admitted to the United States. The lengthy list starts with, “idiots, insane persons, epileptics.” Further down in the list are felons, polygamists, people who want to overthrow the government of the United States, and eventually the provision used against Becky Beck, “persons who procure or attempt to bring in prostitutes or women for the purpose of prostitution. . .”

        I was wondering why the language didn’t say “women who are prostitutes.” It reads as if prostitutes and women are two different things. Perhaps this explains a lot about how women are still viewed today. Are women who are openly sexual still considered less than “women?”

        The argument in court was that her companion, Jack Solomon, brought Beck into this country when she was underage, so clearly he intended to utilize her as a prostitute. This, of course, would provide grounds to deport Solomon, the perpetrator, but also Beck, in spite of the fact that she was the victim. Immigration records showed that Beck had entered the country before Solomon, so the prosecution was not successful using this argument either. Becky Beck remained in the United States until her death. 

June 26, 2016

Capital Dames

        Cokie Roberts has written about women from various periods of American history. Her most recent book, Capital Dames, tells the story of women in Washington, D.C. around the Civil War era. I had never considered how fearful the people of D.C. were during that time period, sure that they were to be attacked at any moment. Nor had I seen a sympathetic portrayal of First Lady Mary Lincoln. In history books she is presented as a confused, ineffective wife and mother, but Roberts shows her wielding power behind the scenes, one reason she was so disliked.

         Prior to the war women were largely responsible for the social life of the city and they were honored for their efforts. They received preferential admittance to the galleries of Congress, discussed politics at their parties, and swayed their husbands.  

        According to Roberts, Dolley Madison was the first woman who “ruled Washington.” She had “a seat of her own in the House of Representatives, the privilege of sending the first personal telegraph, the presentation of a specially cast silver medal in memory of the War of 1812. Heads of state called on her to pay her homage. And her funeral shut down the city.”

        During the years leading up to the Civil War, one of the women who ruled the city was Varina Davis. She held aspirations for the position of First Lady—and she was successful, but not in her beloved Washington. She was First Lady of the Confederate States of America. It was not a choice she might have mad,e as leaving D.C. was a difficult event for her.

        During the war women’s roles shifted from managing social functions to public service. It was women who organized hospitals, cared for the wounded, and raised funds to provide services to veterans. As a result of women’s work during the war, nursing became a profession for women. This was the age of Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix. Barton organized hospitals and nursing in Washington D.C. and then provided medical care in field hospitals. Dix was Superintendent of Army Nurses.
It was a time when Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, was invited to speak before the United States Congress. A gifted orator, she spoke on the need to abolish slavery and the chambers were packed. Later Clara Barton would testify before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, perhaps the first woman to speak before a congressional committee. She lobbied (successfully) for funds to help locate missing soldiers and identify their remains.

        Women did not hesitate to lobby for their positions, in their homes and at political conventions. They worked to have their husbands, fathers, and friends elected to office. After the war some, like Varina Davis, advocated for the release of their Southern husbands from prison; they knew their ways around the city from before the war when they had been some of the movers and shakers in Washington society.

        Roberts makes the argument that the changing roles of women during the Civil War led to the suffrage movement’s resurgence after the war. It occurs to me that this is similar to World War II when women took on unconventional roles and, rather than go back to their domestic pursuits, began the women’s rights movement.

February 2, 2016

Citizen of the World: Yo Yo Ma's Road to Peace

     I was seated in the center of the auditorium, perfectly placed, due to the grace of a gracious benefactor. As the crowd poured into every available seat to hear Yo Yo Ma, the din of conversation remained reverential, a soft buzzing as in a holy place. When Yo Yo Ma entered the stage, the audience embraced him with their applause and he returned the embrace with his gracious bows and motions toward the audience. Like a good guest, he bowed and extended his arm toward the three abstract paintings of musical instruments on the backdrop, acknowledging the tasteful d├ęcor. Silently he had said, “You have made me feel welcome.”

     The stage was bare except for a chair and the simple backdrop. Yo Yo Ma settled and began a simple, repetitive, partita by Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun. When the short piece ended, the cellist’s bow hung in the air over the cello, as if the vibrations from the instrument that we could no longer hear kept it airborne. No one breathed, respecting the musician’s artistic breath before applauding. But then the bow lowered to the strings and a vibrant unaccompanied Bach cello suite rumbled out from the belly of the cello and floated around and into the ears of those in the seats.

     I was breathless and it took some time before I realized that the breathing of everyone else in the theater was also suspended. I have never been in a more silent audience. In a season ripe with colds, there were some quiet coughs during the evening but each time, the offender sounded almost embarrassed, muffling the body’s expression that was just as natural and explosive as the sound of Ma’s cello.

     The applause arose from the hearts of the audience and extended down their arms into their hands. A communion of unspoken words. Yo Yo Ma patted his heart. There were no words, but we all heard them. “Your joy, your approval is what makes my heart beat.” He then applauded the audience and bowed, acknowledging reciprocal affection.

     Ma then paired Mark O’Connor’s “Applachia Waltz” with another Bach suite. and finally he paired Chinese composer Zhao Jiping’s “Summer in the High Grassland” with a third Bach suite.

     At the end of the concert, the audience stood in unison and demanded an encore. It has long puzzled me that audiences effectively says to a musician, “Gee, you played really well. You did your very best. So, now we demand more.” Good job, but it’s not enough? Ma closed with a Catalan folk song made famous by Pablo Casals, “Song of the Birds,” a song of freedom. At the end he once again touched his heart, applauded us, and made a special point to acknowledge the people in the balcony seats.

     A reception for major donors followed the concert and we whizzed into the room with the special stickers on our lapels, provided by our benefactor. When Yo Yo Ma entered he acknowledged the skills of the musicians who were playing, high praise for a group of university students. His tribute to the accomplishments and importance of liberal arts education to our society was stirring. Then he spoke individually to each of the elderly ladies who waited to greet him. He held their hands in both of his, bowed to hear their words, as if the rest of the room had disappeared and they were the only person he wanted to engage. Finally he hugged each warmly.

     I floated home, carried certainly on the notes still ringing in my head, but also buoyed by the grace and magnanimity of this artist. Yo Yo Ma embraces each person he meets, each audience he enthralls, each culture he visits. He combines the music and civilizations of the world.

     It feels like a path for peace.