Saturday, May 13, 2017

Grit

What did I have to lose?  So I took the quiz, just for fun.  Not one of those Facebook quizzes to see if you can spell (I’m a crackerjack speller, but then, I’ve known that since forever, especially since Grade 11 when my English Composition teacher said he would give a quarter to any student who could spell acquiesce, but then defaulted after I spelled it correctly, an action that still seems to retain some angst), or to find out what your hemispheric dominance is, or what your last name might be in another life, how much history or literature you might know, or what historical character you most ressemble.

This quiz wore legitimacy.  Sponsored by the New York Times, no less, the two-part Gail Collins quiz purported to assess what a person knew about the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.  On Part I, I scored 15 / 16.  I missed the question on the Ben Carson "listening tour": 

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson embarked on a “listening tour” around the country.  A high point came in Miami, where Carson …

1.            Took a week off to go to the beach.
2.            Got stuck in a housing project elevator.
3.            Kept pointing out that he never claimed to know anything about the federal government.

I chose three.  Wrong.  He got stuck in a housing project elevator.  Oh, the ignominities of political life.

The tally came with a comment:  You may be thinking too much about this.  (By the  way, I scored 16 / 17 on part 2 of the same quiz.  The comment there was, You know more than he does.  Well, that doesn’t take much, does it?  The bar is so low, it’s an insult.)

Seriously?  Of course I’m thinking too much about this.  To help the cause of journalism, pivotal in these dark times, I’ve subscribed to the Globe and Mail (Toronto), the New York Times, and the Washington Post.  I read Truthdig and Mother Jones.  I even gobble reports on the French election.  Le Pen, I know something about; Macron is a newbie, so I learn what I can about him, and update my knowledge of his rival.  Is the Macron victory a glimmer of hope? 

Now, days after the Comey dismissal, I still can’t understand how anyone can be played to the degree Trump continues to play his supporters.  I can’t understand how almost all of the Republican Congress can lie, shove all but the wealthiest Americans under the bus, and then self-congratulate.  How can this happen?

I have always believed that the lessons of autocracy, that insidious dissembler in its rise and in its consequences, had been learned after World War II, that the spilled blood of heroes had been shed to preserve a way of life and to teach enduring lessons.  How can a governing party be so cavalier in its dismissal of their sacrifice?  

Maybe they are busy ignoring.  As Margaret Atwood says in The Handmaid’s Tale,  "Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it." (66)  As she recalls fond memories associated with hotel rooms of her past life, Offred, the heroine of that prescient work, realizes that she "wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen . . . Careless.  I was careless, in those rooms." (60 – 61).   You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, in other words.  She didn’t realize what a treasure her former life was until everything changed.    As the society around her was being transformed, she didn’t pay attention.  She "lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print, . . . in the gaps between the stories." (67)  The events didn’t concern her in particular, so why be concerned?  She learned, though, that one command can deliver the coup the grâce to a privileged way of life whose  underpinnings have become brittle.


So, let’s not be careless with our privileged life, with truth, facts, and democracy itself.  Let’s not live in the gaps between the stories.  We have to know too much, no matter how stressful that might be.   We are strong.  We can manage the stress.  We have the inner grit to live with awareness and to act.   Atwood’s advice, back in 1985, is appropriate today:  Nolite te bastardescarborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

Friday, May 5, 2017

Ministry

This evening, I was asked to speak about ministry at our parish's Family Worship Night.  I felt honoured.  This is the text of that talk.

Good evening.  I’m honored to be asked to speak about ministry.   Why me?  Well, I’ve been a part of music ministry in this parish for more than forty years.  In the last year, I’ve  also become involved in social justice and refugee sponsorship.  So, I’ve been here a long time.  How long?  So long, I’ve been called the "church lady". 

The first time was at the Co-op.  As I chatted with the parent of a student, her four-year-old son interjected with, "Hey Mom, that’s the church lady."  The second time, though, was in Hawaii.  Yes, Hawaii.  My husband and I had just entered the gate to Diamond Head.  As we made our way to the trail head, I heard someone yell from a car window nearby.  I learned a long time ago to ignore loud sounds from car windows.  Moments later, though, a van crept up alongside us as we walked.  This time, the driver, head out of the window, yelled, "Hey, church lady, there’s someone in here that knows you and they want to give you a ride!"  Turns out that relatives of our parishioners had seen me during liturgies they had attended in our parish with their family!

This church lady’s message this evening is about stepping up.  It’s a message in five parts.

1.             Yes, you can.
You already have everything you need to get involved right now.  You don’t need special training or a particular skill of some kind.  All you need is to say, like Samuel, "Here I am."  Just show up, like you have tonight. 

2.             Think small.
You are already giving witness by being here tonight.  One action.  One decision.  You don’t have to sign away your life or be in the public eye.  You can smile and say hello to people you meet, honoring the God that is in them when you do that.  You can attend church, and give witness that time for God is a priority.  You can sing from the congregation or as part of a leader group, mow the grass, water plants,  contribute to the Food Bank, help with the MACC community meals.  Or all of the above, if you wish. 

3.             Expect some bumps.
I wish I could tell you that stepping out of your own world to lend a hand will be a smooth ride.  But that hasn’t been my experience.  When bumps occur,  step back.  Ask yourself: Do people have a point?  Could I change something?  What can I learn from this?  When you’ve extracted the take-away, chalk up the experience and keep on doing.     Service is not just something nice we can do.  It’s our duty as Christians.

4.             Yes, you must.
It’s not like stepping up is a choice, you know.  Service is a duty.  Yes, a duty.  Why?  Because we are baptized Christians.  Because we are citizens of Canada.  Because we have privilege.   Every chance she had, my mother said to me, growing up:  From those to whom more has been given, more will be expected.  Those lines from Luke are worth hearing again: From those to whom more has been given, more will be expected.  So, Yvette, she would say, "God gave you life, food, safety,  two languages, education, books, music, and love, WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?"  The bar was set high and getting higher all the time.  I’m so grateful to her for instilling in me the obligation to step up, because, and this is #5,

5.             It’s worth it.
Ministry has been transformational.  I am a different person because I do ministry.  Think of it—me, a person with a small amount of musical knowledge and, according to my teachers, not much ability, got to do music with  professionals (my husband, Elmer, Len Gadica, Len Varga, Paul Winichuk, Rob Dzubas).  As a result, my own musical capability increased exponentially.  I learned so much.  Every day, the dedication and tireless efforts of people I get to work with in social justice and refugee sponsorship inspire me and keep me hopeful.   I like to think I may have made a difference over the years.  Really, though, I have learned so incredibly much more than I have given.

To conclude, let me say: The world needs you, every single one of you.  Be what you want to see in the world.  After all, as the Jewish saying goes, “If not us, who?  If not now, when?” 

And remember,

Yes, you can.
Think small.
Expect some bumps.
Yes, you must.
It’s worth it.



Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dichotomy

I still can’t figure out how Christians can support politicians that empower the alt-right—the likes of Donald Trump and Kellie Leitch.  Some Christian supporters of such candidates rationalize their allegiance to those who strategize the use of hate for political gain by pointing out some positive traits they might display, or advantageous policy proposals they might put forward.   So, it seems that queasy supporters do recognize the apparent paradox, and feel a need to address it.  Still, for me, bullying, vulgarity, threats, and exclusion, reveal people for who they are in their core.  As a result,  those actions will always trump any platform they might espouse, no matter how positive.  I would not be able to escape the feeling of being played.

How can people profess to be Christians and support actions so contrary to the Gospel?  I can’t believe that, when Jesus exhorted his disciples to go and tell all nations, he wanted to impose any culture (turned out it was Western) on unsuspecting peoples, collect conversions like trophies, burn resisters at the stake, set up theocracies, shun people with different beliefs, humiliate,  shame, abuse, or violate people to subjugate them.  

The man who was all about love could not sanction such acts. I have always believed that Jesus intended instead to have his disciples say to all who would listen:  You are loved.  You are a child of God.  You are good.  You are important.  Don’t worry.  Smile.  Know in your heart’s core that you are valued.  Now, go, spread joy, free the imprisoned, feed the hungry, find shelter for the homeless, welcome the stranger, share resources with everyone, use only what you need, be kind.  Love.

Turn the other cheek, Jesus said, forgive, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  What does that say about eight executions in Arkansas planned for a ten-day period coming up in April?

The Gospel mandates us to feed the hungry.  What does that say about US budget proposals to cut funding to Meals on Wheels so that the rich can have tax breaks?

The Gospel mandates us to welcome the stranger.  What does that say about bans on refugees in the US and, in Canada, proposals by a candidate for the leadership of a political party for screening procedures to see if they adhere to what some would claim are Canadian values?

The Gospel mandates us to take care of the widow and orphan.  What does that say about tax cuts that line the pockets of the super-rich?

The Gospel compels us to befriend the outcast as Jesus did in healing the lepers, eating with the tax collectors, talking with women at the well, and praising the generosity of the Samaritans.  What does that say about legislators who deny rights to people based on their race, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation ? 

The Gospel reminds us that Jesus berates the Pharisees for focusing on the letter of the law.  What does that say about those who would interpret each word of the Bible literally?

The Gospel commands us to love our ennemies.  What does that say about people who send threatening messages  peppered with abusive language through social media, profane civic leaders, bully those who disagree, or shout "Lock  ’er up" ?

When I hear people at rallies, in Canada as well as in the US, yell out, "Lock ‘er up!",   I visualize Jesus present to hear those cries.  I want to wrap that Jesus  in my arms, the one with the wide eyes, aghast in disbelief, the head that nods  from side to side, and the silent tears that well up at the corner of the eyes, glisten for a few moments, and then spill over, to carve a mournful path down his cheek.  I want to pat his back gently, and say,  "It must be so hard to watch everything you stood for distorted and misused.  No wonder you’re heartbroken."  Then, as I am transported to Judea under Herod, to a courtyard outside the palace of the Roman governor, Pilate, and to another angry crowd, this one shouting, "Crucify him!", I realize the heartbreak swells from an even deeper place.

I’d like to add, "I’m sorry," but that seems inadequate, an abdication of responsibility.  It’s so easy to blame others for challenges we face.  It’s easy to find a scapegoat.  It’s so tempting to hoard resources for ourselves, figuring that if we share, there won’t be enough for us.  But then we are working from the stance of scarcity, and all we will get back is more scarcity, more of not enough. 

The Gospel calls us to give our coat to a person who doesn’t have one, and our shirt too, if needed,  to work from a stance of abundance, with confidence that there’s enough for everyone.  Generosity begets abundance.

It must be said: The Gospel and the alt-right view of the world are mutually exclusive; they cannot co-exist.     Fr. James Martin tweeted on March 28:  "Trump’s 'care' for the environment  is the opposite of Catholic social teaching."     Sr. Helen Prejean on March 26, said, on Twitter:  "Pro-life Christians don’t plan 8 executions in a week."   Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times exposes the paradox  in "Jesus Said Unto Paul of Ryan . . .", and Henry A. Giroux examines the culture of cruelty in his March 22 Truthout article.   Although these authors have already expressed the dichotomy of Christian support for the alt-right with stark clarity and eloquence, I must speak up as well and add my piece.  I simply can’t get my head around how Christians could support Donald Trump or his clones.  

As Bert Pitzel, Social Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Regina said, "What do you do when a person’s mind is unknowingly but stubbornly holding on to harmful ways of thinking, unable to change itself to be what the world really needs it to be?"   I have a long way to go yet to have any kind of answer to that question.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ur-Fascism

The pages of my journal bear witness to where some of my time has been invested during my six-week absence from these pages.  I've been reading and reflecting.  A lot.  Today, as I continue to read, I've come across a sobering list of fourteen traits of fascist societies by the Italian writer Umberto Eco.  Chris Hedges cites that list in his book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006), that I started to read just this morning.  Eco's entire article is available from the New York Review of Books.  It is dated 1995--more than twenty years ago, truly a presager of trends we see playing out in so many countries today.  I share the list here, quoted from Eco's article.

"But in spite of this fuzziness, I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counter-revolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of them indulgently accepted by the Roman Pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements. The most influential theoretical source of the theories of the new Italian right, Julius Evola, merged the Holy Grail with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alchemy with the Holy Roman and Germanic Empire. The very fact that the Italian right, in order to show its open-mindedness, recently broadened its syllabus to include works by De Maistre, Guenon, and Gramsci, is a blatant proof of syncretism.
If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled as New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge—that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.
2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. In the US, a prominent instance of the plot obsession is to be found in Pat Robertson’s The New World Order, but, as we have recently seen, there are many others.
8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.
10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians. In fact, the Leader, knowing that his power was not delegated to him democratically but was conquered by force, also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler. Since the group is hierarchically organized (according to a military model), every subordinate leader despises his own underlings, and each of them despises his inferiors. This reinforces the sense of mass elitism.
11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. One of the first sentences uttered by Mussolini in the Italian parliament was “I could have transformed this deaf and gloomy place into a bivouac for my maniples”—“maniples” being a subdivision of the traditional Roman legion. As a matter of fact, he immediately found better housing for his maniples, but a little later he liquidated the parliament. Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.
14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Papa

In this drawing, Melville artist Gordon Matthews has captured my father utterly.  Firm chin and mouth, determined eyes tinged with compassion and some sadness.  And, in the background, the church, symbol of the faith that sustained him, located in St. Victor, the community that formed him, and that he loved.  The portrait hangs in the dining room, by the table.  Its presence evokes Papa’s spirit that still imbues the dinner conversations he loved so much.


Today, January 21, in honour of what would be my father's 106th birthday, I reprise the inventory of lessons Papa taught me that I posted in 2013 on the anniversary of his death, with a few additions.  Through his actions, always; he never preached. 

Be grateful for the small moments.  ("This is the life," he would say, sipping a bear with neighbours on the patio on a perfect summer day.)

Respect the power of nature.  (Hail and tornadoes mean business).

Give up your dreams for those you love.  (Even if it means you won’t be a pilot).

Be innovative.  (No matter what your friends or neighbors might say.)

Read.  (National Geographic, Popular Science, La Liberté et le Patriote,  join book clubs).

Be informed.  (Watch the news; know the world leaders and events.  Current issues are important.)

Take classes.  (It’s worth doing correspondence course assignments by hand on the kitchen table, by kerosene lamp if you have to.)

Do crossword puzzles, and play cards.  (Keep French and English dictionaries on the kitchen cupboard for reference, and play cribbage and bridge at every opportunity.  Oh, and never disrupt a flush.)

Take the time to yuck it up with friends over coffee and spirits.  (In the shop, in the field, in the kithcen, no matter.)

Savor good food and good wine and good company.  Linger over meals.   (Memories are made around the dinner table).

Eat slowly.    (Especially leaning against the wheel of the combine, in the field, during harvest.)

Find out how things work.  (An internal combustion engine,  a manual transmission, a computer).

Go to church.  (Even when it’s a beautiful harvest day, and you have acres in swaths.)

Drive a manual transmission.  (And parallel park, too, and start after being stopped on an incline.)

Do things right.  (Read the instructions, learn to type on a QWERTY keyboard with the correct fingering; be systematic about things.)

Be proud of your heritage.  Speak your first language.  (French in my case; you made no effort to learn it).

Save.  (A rainy day is just around the corner.)

Do what it takes.  (Get up at 4 am, come home at midnight, fall asleep stirring your coffee with your finger, go to bed, and do it all over again, for weeks on end, year after year, for a lifetime.)

To my children and grand-children, my nephews and niece: This is your legacy.  Hervé was a very wise man, tested in the fires of the Great Depression and the Dirty Thirties.

Happy Birthday, Papa.  Thank you.  Bonne fête, et merci.  I hear your voice every day. Tu es toujours à mes côtés.





Friday, January 20, 2017

Pain

On a lark, the other day, listless and distracted, I return to Ron Rolheiser’s website, just to see what the priest and retreat master has written lately.  I used to anticipate and devour his weekly columns.    As I read about Christmas and the Incarnation, and Rolheiser’s message sinks in,  I am able to name the malaise that has infiltrated me during the last eighteen months, and sometimes even threatened paralysis.  Pain. 

Pain, when absence of a common vision defaults to the status quo;

Pain, as media twist headlines so that a story about a funeralhome charging a family $100 carbon tax (instead of $1.00) for cremation becomes a story about carbon tax instead of a story about the funeral home’s error or deception, whichever is the case;

Pain, as a Prime Minister with the common touch and a progressive agenda I support takes a holiday without first checking the details with the Ethics Commissioner, and in so doing jeopardizes the good he can do because he appears elitist and hypocritical;

Pain, when I see fake news, logical fallacies, insults, and derision used to advance an ideology;

Pain, as the bullying strategy of a pathological liar who took the scab off the underbelly of humanity was rewarded, and he took the oath of office as President of the United States; 

Pain, as protesters whose frustration I understand resort to violence in their outrage.

Even at Christmas, and, indeed in the essence of the Christmas story, Rolheiser says, "pain lingers."   Lucky for me, he not only helped name my malaise; he had a suggestion for managing it.  I must "burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity."  In order words, I have to grab onto my joy with both hands and fight for it.  My children’s passion, my grandsons’ laughter, my husband’s caring,  all give me life.  It’s easy to find joy there.  No effort required. 

To honor Rolheiser’s words, though, I need to see divinity around me every day.  I have to admit, when I look around, that’s maybe not as difficult as I’m making it out to be.  I witness a  parish raise twenty thousand dollars in five months to sponsor a refugee family and furnish a home.   I  watch members of our Refugee Sponsorship Committee put their lives on hold to orient them in their first year among us.  Our neighbours clear the snow on our triple driveway  while we’re away.   Sunrise dazzles each day and warms my heart.  Friends grace our table.

I can also take a lesson from President Obama, who stayed grounded through eight stressful years in office by reading ten letters each day from Americans.  The 10 LADs, as his staffed called them, reminded him of the reason for his work.  They also enabled him to salvage his joy.  He says,

“I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve ... lost myself . . . I feel as if — even if my skin is thicker from, you know, public criticism and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become ... cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.” (Jeanne Marie Laskasjan, New York Times, January 17, 2017)

These role models are important, because hanging on to joy is just one half of the equation.  The other, as Jennifer Welsh says in The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, is action.  Each of us has a responsibility to go beyond understanding the forces at work in our society.  We must work to build the free and generous society we value. 
"If we want a deeper transformation," she says,

we have to initiate it ourselves.  We can learn from the movers and shakers, the celebrated or the unacknowledged,  of the twentieth century:  Individuals stepping up to draw attention to injustice, to demand greater equality of participation, and to stand up for fairness.  And they did so knowing that their demands would likely involve some personal sacrifice. (p. 295)

So pain is inescapable.

That’s the reason, in the end, that I put myself through the torture of watching the inauguration.  I like to be a witness to history, and this inauguration is history.  The pain of a cold and stark inaugural address can be the catalyst for continued action.  People better than I have experienced a similar malaise.  They have acted, and they have kept their joy.  So can I.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Reads--2016

My reading list for 2016 is an ECG of my life.  Since 2013, I have been keeping track of the books I read, to have an accurate inventory of how many (or, sadly, sometimes, how few) books I have read during the year.  It’s not complicated—just the year, and under that, the month I finished the book, along with the title and the author.  Sometimes I remember to include the publication date, if I think it matters.   For two Januarys now, I have posted an inventory of my favorites, in case they might interest you.

At the evolution of this year’s record, I am astounded that, without even looking at the months, I can pinpoint when my husband suffered his heart attack and underwent cardiac bypass surgery.  My reading list parallels the narrative of my life!

In the first three months, I read non-fiction, exclusively.  I devoured the New York Times columnists, especially Paul Krugman, Charles Blow, Frank Bruni, and Nicholas Kristof.  Their columns, were they bound into an anthology, could count as a read.  The lucid and courageous comments of those columnists steadied me through the flux and darkness of 2016, and I continue to count on them for courageous commentary.

As well, I was immersed in divergent books about religion.  Ron Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire, a Christmas gift, and the sequel to The Holy Longing, that I read a few years ago,  focuses on maturity, especially our responsibility, as aging adults, to give our lives away.  Rolheiser suggests how we might do this and why we might want to do it, and offers some principles (ten) that would provide direction.  To tantalize you, here are a few of those principles:
Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life.
Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind.
Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.
Live in a more radical sobriety.

In contrast, The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession by John Cornwell elucidates the motives behind the push for confession in the Catholic church, a perspective I needed to read.   Like some books that reveal a dark side heretofore unrecognized in people, practices, or institutions, this book disillusioned.  I realize that, even at my age, I have innocence to lose.  

A counterpoint to those themes, two books connected to one of my passions, human nature.  Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath  explains the advantages of being the little guy, and why the little guy often wins.  Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human explores the idea that everyone is in sales, and the principles of sales can buttress any career.   Unbroken, the story of the World War II pilot, Louis Zamporini, especially his years as a Japanese prisoner of war, picked up threads of both the nobility of the human spirit and the degradation of which it is also capable.  I had to read this book in very small doses, and without eating or drinking, that’s how disturbing it was.

All the books after Unbroken are fiction.  That’s when my husband was hospitalized.  To manage the stress of his illness and the ugliness of the politics around me, I needed to escape.  So, I went to my Books to Read list, and reconnected with the online ordering service of my local library.  Fiction saved me.  I didn’t come back to Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain until June, and then, only to finish it and return to fiction. 

From that list, I would recommend :

Black and Blue by Anne Quindlen,   a gripping novel about spousal violence.

The Dinner by Herman Koch, the unsettling story about the impact of family secrets on children.

The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier, another powerful commentary with a shocking ending on the influences that can shape a young person growing up, especially relations with both peers and adults. 

Annabel by Kathleen Winter, that grapples with people’s responses when the unimaginable happens.  A child is born a hermaphrodite (with the both male and female reproductive organs).  What might be the implications for the child?  the mother?  the father? the doctor? grandparents? teachers?  Who knows and who doesn’t?  What factors might cause people to react the way they do?

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, a memoir that poses the question, How do children cope when parents struggle with addiction and narcissim?

The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe, a stunning and captivating novel about the effects of work and friends on a marriage.  The prose is incandescent, like gossamer.  The story and its portraits are woven of simple words brought together in an original design, and set off with unusual and evocative comparisons. It’s an unassuming book I’m so glad I transfered to my own list after finding it on someone else’s.

By fall, I thought I could redirect to reality again.  I picked up Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal, timely in that it had just won Canada Reads, and its theme dovetailed nicely with our parish refugee sponsorship project, which I co-chair.  With apologies to Hill, my state of mind did not do the book justice. 

I’ve come full circle, really, having just finished The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century by Jennifer Welsh.  The author contests the thesis of American political commentator Francis Fukuyama in his essay, "The End of History," who posits that, with the spread of Western liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War, "traditional power politics and large-scale conflicts" would diminish, leaving a "path toward a more peaceful world."  Welsh suggests that, in fact, history, that is, the sequence of authoritarianism and conflict, is returning.  Her explanations for this phenomenon mirror my own theory that feudalism is enjoying a renaissance.  A tribute to Welsh, she goes beyond a description of the phenomenon and offers solutions for the ordinary person.  This is a must-read.

Still on my desk, bookmarked, begging to be finished:  Hitler’s Willing Executioners:  Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that I fished out of a give-away bin at the curb of a Calgary suburb, and La porte du ciel by Dominique Fortier, a shot-in-the-dark by a prize-winning author. 

My reading life sustained me and challenged me during 2016.  Just in case some of my selections might do the same for you, I share them.




Friday, January 6, 2017

Discourse


Careless memes  often appear in my Facebook feeds.  You know, the kind that target a political figure the page owner reviles, accuse the individual of destroying a province or country, label the person an idiot, and call for support for these ideas from the public.   Most of the time, I ignore them.  That’s not a wise course of action, though.   As they circumvent the principles of discourse, these memes subvert our political process.  They are dangerous.

I understand why people resort to this kind of expression. 
·  It’s easy.  Just take a photo, add some bold print, some expletives, a generalization or two, and some inflamatory names. 
·  It allows venting that needs no thought.
·  It often gets a reaction.
·  It requires no knowledge of the issues, no information on various perspectives that impact on the issues, no details or support for any of the accusations levied against the person.

The meme is a missed opportunity for discourse.  So too is ill-advised action.  As an example, let’s consider the actions of some members of the youth wing of the Canadian LabourCongress at an October 25, 2016, Q & A with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  You may remember that some attendees at this dialogue session with Trudeau turned their backs on him as he spoke.  They wanted to underline that he had let them down, that he had, in effect, turned his back on them, and they were giving back in kind.  Even when one of those protesters had an opportunity to ask a question, he kept his back turned to the microphone and to Trudeau.   The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment at the rudeness, you may recall, and indicated his willingness to answer the question when the individual would face him.  The individual maintained his pose, and the question went unanswered.   

I admire Trudeau’s response in that situation.  (If you read on, please press pause on your assessment of Trudeau and his government’s first year in office. This post is not that analysis.  Its purpose is rather to focus on the ramifications of the choices we make to express disagreement in a democracy.) In staying calm and answering the questions of other attendees, Trudeau highlighted the importance of discourse.  For government to work, elected officials must connect with their electors often to hear their concerns, to obtain feedback, to get ideas, and to keep people engaged.  Citizens must, in turn, share their opinions with their representatives.

Discourse does take work.  It means that, as citizens, we must :
·  do our homework, and be informed;
·  let our opinions be known;
·  be open to sources of information that comment on all sides of the issue, even those we don’t agree with;
·  take the time to articulate views, resisting the temptation to use attack strategies;
·  adopt a problem-solving stance, remembering that generating a thoughtful and sustainable solution to an issue is more important than perpetuating an ideological view;
·  maintain an open mind;
·  keep partisanship at bay;
·  remember that problem-solving takes time.  Issues that have existed for decades can’t be solved in a year or two or even three.   There’s no magic bullet, no matter what some might want us to believe.
·  relegate protest strategies to the next line of defence, should the grievance process built on discourse fail.

I wonder, though, if the people who post accusatory memes or resort to ill-timed protest realize how destructive those actions can be.  No matter who the politicians are, no matter their political views, mainstream or extreme, no matter the individual’s own position relative to those views, generalizations, attacks, name-calling and disrespect have serious consequences.  We stand to pay a very high price if we skip over discourse and head straight for protest. 

No matter your appraisal of Trudeau, we do have a prime minister who puts himself out there.  He makes himself vulnerable in various forums to answer people’s questions, and he does so regularly.  He knows going in that some people will be hostile.  No matter what people may think, the man is not naïve; he’s lived his entire life in the public eye, much of it in the age of social media.  Quite lucid about what he is about to do, still, he does it. 

Two things here.  One—we know full well what happens when a leader locks himself or herself up in the ivory tower and refuses even to have press conferences, never mind to engage with people in a situation that is not controlled. Two—Rudeness, sadly, is a common feature in assemblies on contoversial subjects.  In various professional forums I have facilitated, I have often had to answer questions and explain delicate positions.  It takes determination and strength of will to remain calm and professional in the face of personal attack.  So, then, if Prime Minister Trudeau continues to face rudeness and hostility rather than discourse when he interacts with Canadians, what would be his incentive to persevere?  Why not just retreat to the ivory tower? It’s a lot easier.  Isn’t it in our best interest to provide positive reinforcement to politicians who engage, not  treat them with scorn or disrespect?

After all, don’t we want the best and brightest to see a life of service in politics as a rewarding career option?  For me, that’s a no–brainer.  Of course.  Of course I want people who are clever, experienced, astute, honest, and charismatic to take a risk and run for office.  People who truly have a social conscience and want to serve,  and who might even have to sacrifice more money in the private sector.  If a potential candidate anticipates invective, personal attacks, ridicule, harassment on social media, or even threats on his or her family,  why bother?  People need gratitude and reinforcement, not abuse.  We will get the candidates and the politicians that our response deserves.

What if discourse doesn’t work?  What if efforts at rational argument are ignored, scorned, or worse, discarded?  Then, we must protest.  I am an idealist, though.  Even in protest, there’s no place for unsubstantiated claims, invective, name-calling, or threats.  Let’s do the work that civic engagement demands.  We are better than resorting to easy action and facile memes.


Image source:  Source:   https://www.smith.edu/discourse/