Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life Was So Peaceful in the Laundry

I am genetically predisposed to enjoy laundry and ironing. Really.

 My grandfather owned and operated several large commercial laundries in his lifetime. He even secured a patent on a device for timing laundry cycles in the days before automatic washing machines and dryers.  His children frequently helped out as they grew up. My father and his brothers and sisters could reduce themselves to speechless laughter, tears streaming down their faces, as they told stories from their times in the laundry.

Most of what they helped with was folding clean and dry clothes. Every single one of them had a keen eye for properly folded items, especially tablecloths and sheets. When communion Sunday rolled around in the Baptist church I attended as a child, the communion vessels lay covered with a beautifully laundered and pressed cloth. Two deacons removed this cloth and folded it before the bread and grape juice could be distributed. My father and his sister Rachel watched the folding with eagle eyes, and we always heard a critique of the deacons' efforts. I don't believe anyone ever achieved a 100% approval rating! And I fear that I wouldn't meet their standards now either, although I can fold a mean sheet or tablecloth.

One of my favorite stories about Grandfather Harrison comes from his time as the director of laundry services at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach during the Second World War. On his first day in this position, my grandfather confronted a room in the laundry area that was filled with the hotel's 'dirty linen'. These were pieces which had been so severely stained that the previous laundry service directors had given up hope of cleaning them. The hotel manager told my grandfather to do what he could and then throw away the unusable pieces. Grandfather took up his duties as director, improving laundry services and raising the standards of the Cavalier's amenities. Every now and then he would take out pieces from the 'hopeless' pile of laundry and attack the perverse stains. He had studied his profession with the focus and curiosity of a chemistry professor and, according to my father, knew how best to remove an astonishing variety of stains. Over the several years he served at the Cavalier, my grandfather restored every single piece of the 'hopelessly stained' hotel linen. And he left no ruined linen behind for his successor when he moved on to the Monticello Hotel in downtown Norfolk. I love this image of him, patiently and thoroughly attacking the challenge of this mountain of dirty linen, and using his encyclopedic knowledge of the chemistry of cleaning fabrics to prevent his employer from losing part of his business investment.

As a result of this kind of heritage, I love to do laundry! Now, of course, we don't have to consult stain removal reference books and we seldom even add bleach. I suspect few of us even use hot water very much for our laundry loads. But I enjoy the challenge of a tough stain and I love to produce a fresh, dry stack of clothes and linens.

I don't have much scope for ironing now, since so many fabrics are no-iron, but I well remember my mother turning most of the household ironing over to me by the time I was 10. I would set up the ironing board in our kitchen and she would bring in the clean clothes that needed attention. I would cheerfully stand there and iron anything she needed me to do. Even after I had grown up and moved away, whenever I came home to visit I would do a batch or two of ironing. And my Grandmother Harrison herself was known to critique the thoroughness of my technique when I ironed shirt collars!

My father and his brothers and sisters always looked back fondly on their times helping out my grandfather. When they finished up their swapping of tales about those years, they would smile at each other and say, "Life was so peaceful in the laundry".  I can appreciate that!

Friday, November 21, 2014

I Miss Fred Rogers

I have missed Fred Rogers since my youngest child moved up to grade school and I returned to full-time teaching. But my children and I shared a total of 15 years of life in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Now that my grandchildren are growing up, I am plotting how to ensure their inheritance of this unequaled programming.

It won't be easy. PBS has pushed Mr. Rogers off to the side. I don't know if, in fact, one can find his show regularly on any PBS station. I think not. And this is a great, great loss for our children. Fred Rogers understood how to connect with everyone who was watching his shows, adults as well as children. I looked forward to a new episode with as much pleasure as my children did. And the operas! Oh my goodness, how delightful they were and how truly musical and clever. Do any of you remember them? "Bubbleland"? "Spoon Mountain"? "All in the Laundry"? There were at least three more that I recall. I wish that his estate would consider making DVDs of the operas available. (Believe it or not, I have asked them!! This isn't on their list yet.)

Fred Rogers came to mind last week when I was visiting my grand twins. My grandson has recently and quite suddenly become afraid of the bathtub and taking baths. He's too young to fear going down the drain, but his desperate weeping brought one of Mr. Rogers' songs into my head. Who remembers "You Can Never Go Down the Drain"? Over the years, I used songs from the show to illustrate points in some of my high school classes. "What do you do with the mad that you feel when you feel so mad you could bite?" "Some are fancy on the inside, some are fancy on the outside." "Let's think of something to do while we're waiting,while we're waiting for something new to do." I don't imagine these would be familiar with my students if I were still in the class room.

Why do I think Fred Rogers provided children with unequaled television programming?

First, he carried his themes through the course of an entire week and developed them at a pace children could grasp.

Second, he talked about issues and events that all children think about and experience (as adults do, too), and talked to children almost as an equal or at the very least a good, kind friend.

Third, he clearly distinguished between 'real' and 'make-believe'. We could meet his "neighbors" in his neighborhood and then find the same actors portraying characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I think this technique served his viewers very well.

Fourth, Fred Rogers had the same curiosity and awe about the world and its inhabitants that all of us had as children and some of us still retain. He was always interested in such interesting people and places and things. I will never forget how Crayola crayons are made!

Fifth (and last for now), Fred Rogers brought music and art and dance and every sort of creative activity into every episode. What wonderful and amazing and talented people graced his programs!

These programs gave us time to think, laugh, sing, wonder, and empathize.  I learned so much from Fred Rogers! He was the very best and I am so grateful that my children spent that time with him. I hope to pass some of these treasured programs on to my grandchildren.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

She Filled the Room with Music

My great aunt Mary lived her entire life in central North Carolina. Born in Wake County, she and her husband Marvin farmed and raised a family in Roseboro. I didn't know her very well, seeing her only when she and Uncle Marvin would come up to Raleigh when we were in town to go to the North Carolina State Fair. Uncle Marvin and Aunt Mary would always stay with her eldest sister, my great aunt Lidie. I loved hearing them talk and tell stories and 'carry on' while sitting in Aunt Lidie's front porch rocking chairs. And I particularly loved eating the fresh, ripe watermelons that Uncle Marvin brought along as treats. Oh my goodness. Never have I tasted such sweet, juicy, crisp watermelons as those. Uncle Marvin's melons set my standards unattainably high, I'm afraid. (I am a watermelon snob as a result. Oh well.) My memories of Aunt Mary and Uncle Marvin contain happy and loving images.

Aunt Mary, however, had borne great sadness in her life. She and Uncle Marvin had several sons and one daughter, June. As my father told me, little June was a lovely little girl and the light of her parents' lives. The farmhouse where the family lived had an open fireplace (in the living room, I think), and of course in the colder months a fire always blazed there. Little June, probably around 4 at the time, was playing in the vicinity of the fireplace. You know where I am going with this story. In a terrible, terrible accident, she somehow tripped and fell into the edge of the fire. She died from her burns. My father always grew quite sad when he told this story. I can only imagine the hole this tragedy ripped in the family. And what must it have done to Aunt Mary and Uncle Marvin? She battled this sorrow for the rest of her life. I know that she struggled with depression off and on in a place and time where this wasn't an acknowledged condition. Yet she persevered somehow and lived a long life.

My greatest memory of her comes from her visit one afternoon to our new house. This would have been around 1963 or 1964, I think. We had an old upright piano in the family room of the new house, and that's where I practiced. The day that Aunt Mary visited, everyone else in the family was outside doing something or other. I was walking into the kitchen when I saw Aunt Mary sit down at the piano.

Who knew she could play? I thought she would pick out "Chopsticks" or something like that.


Aunt Mary lifted her hands to the keyboard and began to play a transcription of the "Barcarolle" from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann". This arrangement required the pianist to cover the entire length of the keyboard with wonderful, difficult chords and arpeggios and all kinds of beautiful but technical music.

My jaw just dropped. Aunt Mary flat out killed that piece.

She was wonderful. Back and forth, up and down the keyboard, her hands moved with amazing certitude and skill. When she reached the piece's conclusion, she just sat for a few moments before standing up. I don't remember what I could possibly have said to her, but we both smiled huge grins at each other and then went on outside to find the others.

I will never forget that day. What wonderful surprises can come from the people about whom you think you know everything. I like to think that Aunt Mary's music carried her through the dark valleys and lifted her to the highest hills.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

We Are What We Eat

Many of us try to keep a close eye on the types of food we eat and we expend incredible amounts of energy and money on healthy living and exercise. Doesn't it make even more sense to keep a close eye on our appetites for entertainment?

While my children were growing up, I maintained a very careful guard over everything they read and watched on television and saw in movie theatres. A very careful guard. I didn't even open the door to video games until my youngest was five years old. Now that my grandchildren have arrived, I unreservedly support their parents' efforts to provide wholesome, carefully selected books. (We are not moving to television or films yet.)

Of course, I am not alone in my concern for what my children absorbed during their earliest years. Every parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle feels the same mandate to protect children. Now that mine are adults, I am confident that they continue to fill their minds and hearts with good things. Or at least with mostly good things! But I know it is amazingly difficult to fend off the sheer quantity of material that we are encouraged to read or see. (For example, how many of you now have an indelible image of Kim Kardashian imprinted on your brain after this past week?) If I express my aversion to reading or watching something which "everyone" is reading or watching, my friends (and some family members) just shake their heads and relegate me to the "not up-to-date with our culture" category.

I don't watch films or shows featuring gratuitous violence, horror, soft or hard core pornography, bleak hopelessness, or a malevolent stance on the inherent value of each human life. I really don't care if millions of my fellow citizens flock to these types of movies and rate them highly. Am I simply incapable of handling "mature content"?

Why do I keep my door closed to these types of visual experiences? Once a person has seen something, he or she can never 'un-see' it. Yes of course we know that films and television shows are fictional, and we supposedly make a 'willing suspension of disbelief' when we watch them. But the images are in our memories forever. I don't want ugly, violent, misshapen images hovering in the background of my mind, ready to pop up and disturb me. I don't want garbage floating loosely through my memories.

If our appetites yearn for literal, visual depictions of horror, violence, sex, sadism, and so forth, and we satisfy those appetites, we become what we eat. Perhaps not killers or sadomasochists, but people whose lives grow darker because of these appetites. It's a slippery slope. This kind of "food" makes us as ill as a diet of non-stop sugar and pastries. And the resulting illnesses burden us with a terminal spiritual diagnosis.

Does this attitude mean that I have my head in the sand? Am I avoiding "human drama"?  No, dear reader, quite the contrary. I keep abreast of current events all over the world, and am only too cognizant of the sufferings and struggles of so many. Enough bad things happen in reality. I don't seek to be entertained or titillated by dramatic recreations of them.

I acknowledge the rough and painful parts of human life, but I don't despair.  And I am trying to feed myself with good things.

Always in my mind are the wise words that Saint Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things".

Friday, November 14, 2014

She Wouldn't Take 'No' For An Answer

My mother experienced her school days differently from my father. She grew up in a small town southwest of Asheville, North Carolina, and went to school with the same friends and family all the way through high school. Unlike my father, she had the opportunity to complete two years of college, thanks to her oldest brother who sent her an allotment from his Navy pay during World War II. To the best of my knowledge, she's the only one of the eleven children in her family who attended college.

I want to share one of my favorite stories about her earliest school years.

My grandfather served as both principal and classroom teacher at Maple Springs School, the very small country school his children attended. He and they could easily walk to school every morning, traversing the "Little Red Hill" behind their house. My mother was the fifth child in the family, and had watched her older siblings go off to school every day with her daddy. She turned five in March. When school began in late August, her sister Edith, who was six, prepared to join the older children and march to school that day. This was too much for my mother. She and Edith were very close, and if Edith could go to school, mother felt sure she could go, too. She put on her nice dress and went out the door with the rest of the bunch. My grandfather stopped her and told her she wasn't old enough. Apparently mother 'pitched a fit', as we say. Determined to go, she fussed and cried and carried on so dramatically that, in order to get everyone else to school on time, my grandfather relented and let her come along. If a five-year-old could look smugly satisfied, I think my mother did. Off she went with Edith and the rest. (I imagine my grandmother sighed with relief!)

Apparently, my mother was a good judge of when she should start school. She picked up the first grade work easily and followed along with the class from that day onward. As she sat in the classroom, she noticed the alphabet posted on a type of cardboard frieze around the upper edges of the walls. She learned those letters very thoroughly in order, and then, remarkably, she learned them backwards, too. My sister and brother and I heard her many, many times just zip right through the alphabet from Z to A. Might she have had a little extra time on her hands during that first year?

Mother went on to become a teacher herself, first in a one-room school back in Nantahala, North Carolina and then as a kindergarten teacher in Portsmouth for 35 years.  I've always wondered if her experiences as a precocious five-year-old influenced her remarkable ability to teach and lead four- and five-year-olds in her kindergarten classes. She taught and formed my own children, her first grandchildren, and I am channeling her with my own grandchildren. Her determination and support provided us with college and graduate school. But I never learned the alphabet backwards.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Listen and Write It Down

My father's family moved quite frequently after my grandfather's business failed in the Great Crash of 1929. I know that my father felt he didn't get a good foundation in reading and writing because he was in and out of so many different schools. He didn't have confidence in his ability to write "important" letters or minutes of meetings. And yet he was a voracious reader, a well-spoken man, and a fountain of knowledge such as I have never met in any other person. His practical and theoretical mathematical and engineering expertise were amazing. (My sister and I would never have gotten through geometry in high school without him!) Needless to say, I thought he knew everything (and still believe he pretty much did). Both of my parents strongly supported their children's quest for education. The value they placed on learning permeated my whole life and still does.

Because my father attended so many different schools, he didn't have a group of school friends that grew up together. Every year or so there were new faces and he was, of course, the 'new boy'. I don't imagine this was easy. I can picture him, a little, shy fellow, trying to pick up the atmosphere of a new school, trying to figure out what this new teacher expected, trying to read all the 'clues' which would help him do well. I'm sure he paid very close attention, both in and out of class, lest he miss something important.

This leads me to my favorite story about my father's school career. His senior year in high school found him at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, Virginia. He was there only that year. How challenging to be the 'new kid' in a class of seniors! I don't think he worried too much about the math and science courses at all, and if he took a history or government course, he would have been confident about that, too, because he loved history. His senior English Literature class, however, cowed him. As he told the story, on the very first day of class, his teacher (as all teachers do) gave the students an overview of the semester, including her expectations. I can just picture him writing down everything she said. At one point in that class, his teacher said "Your final examination for this course will be a detailed outline of the history and development of English literature." My father wrote that down and underlined it.

His teacher never mentioned that examination topic again. My father, however, began to work on his outline. He kept up with his daily assignments, but also toiled away at that outline. He revised it, organized it, and memorized it. All semester long. When examination day rolled around, he was ready. The class sat down and waited for the teacher to pass out the exam. Sure enough, the only question was "Write a detailed outline of the history and development of English literature." My father began to write. The work and study of the whole semester poured out of his pen. He wrote and wrote and wrote. I think he required the entire time period to complete his outline. At any rate, he handed in the exam and went home. When his class met again to receive their exam grades, his teacher gave back his exam and looked at him "oddly". She asked him where he had gotten the outline. He explained how he had followed her advice from the first day of classes and had worked on his outline all semester. She touched his shoulder and told him he had done well. In fact, he was the only one in his class to pass the exam. Everyone else had to re-take it.  She couldn't give him a 100%, she said, because he'd forgotten John Wycliffe, but she told my father that his was the best outline of the history and development of English literature that she had ever seen.

My father was so proud. He told us this story many times over the years, and I hope he knew how proud we were of him and how he inspired us.

Monday, November 10, 2014

If Those Stones Could Speak

Yesterday was the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Pope Sylvester dedicated the Lateran on November 9, 324 AD. The emperor Constantine had given the Lateran palace to the church in Rome around 311. Why is this such a special church? Isn't Rome full of churches? Why does this one have a feast day?

St. John Lateran is the oldest and most important of the patriarchal basilicas in Rome, and is actually the seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). In fact, the popes lived here until they went to Avignon, France, roughly a thousand year stretch. The Lateran is the mother church building for the entire world, It is the cathedral church of Rome in the same way that Holy Name is the cathedral church of Chicago.

The Vandals stripped the basilica of its riches in 455, but Pope Leo I restored it in 460. In 896 it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. After it was replaced, it survived around 400 years before fire destroyed the building. Clement V and John XXII rebuilt it, but fire destroyed it again in 1360. Urban V rebuilt it during his pontificate. In the latter part of the 17th century, a renovation provided the basilica with more or less its current form.

What a lot of activity in one location! What could those stones tell us if they could speak? What a sweep of Western history just this one building represents. I always imagine the generations of people who have worshiped on this site. After all, over 1700 years have passed since Constantine gave his gift. Most of those who worshiped here through the centuries were ordinary citizens of Rome. This was their parish church in just the same way that Holy Name is the parish church of a particular part of Chicago. Just as Chicago's Cardinal Archbishop celebrates Mass at Holy Name for visitors and parishioners alike, so did the Bishops of Rome (the popes) celebrate Mass at the Lateran for their flock. The stones of the Lateran witnessed terror and vandalism (!) and catastrophic destruction and natural disaster and abandonment and ruin. My goodness. Yet every time, someone rebuilt or restored the basilica.

Whenever I visit a place like the Lateran, the pageant of history sweeps me up. Those stones really do speak!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Turkey Is Not Mandatory

For most of the years we lived in Chicago, we were by ourselves for Thanksgiving. We had no relatives nearby, we couldn't afford to travel to grandparents on either side, and folks just didn't seem to think about including us in family gatherings. A few times family from out of town happened to be with us for the holiday, but usually we were alone. I would gather all the necessary fixings and wrestle with the turkey and ultimately produce a bang-up meal, to everyone's satisfaction. But there is nothing more over than a Thanksgiving dinner with just five people, especially when three of those five people are small children. We would wallow in leftovers and hang out and enjoy the days off, of course, but some years the turkey fiesta seemed like much more work than we wanted. (And there was always the yearly debate about what to do with the turkey carcass!)

This leads to my confession: we didn't always eat turkey and all the trimmings. We ordered Carson's ribs once or twice, and Lou Malnati's pizza also appeared occasionally. I am trying to remember what other substitutes we might have consumed. I'm sure there were a couple of additional breaks from tradition. And we had perfectly satisfactory Thanksgiving meals!! In fact, we probably enjoyed those 'rogue' Thanksgivings a little more because we broke the pattern. I recall some friends being shocked to hear that we had ribs instead of turkey. But honestly, if we still lived in Chicago, I would be sorely tempted to offer ribs from the Gale Street Inn for Thanksgiving!

It's all about the table fellowship anyway, isn't it? We have lovely memories of those very private Thanksgiving meals.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When Inconceivable Things Happen

Three events occurred in the past 30 years that I never imagined would happen. One will be 'commemorated' this weekend in Berlin. Those of you under 30 might not completely grasp how stunning these events were for those of us born in the early 1950's.

The loss of the Titanic always seemed to be the ultimate unrecoverable maritime disaster. The great ship was gone forever. None of us could begin to imagine that she would ever be found. The great mystery could never be solved. Period. When Robert Ballard and his fellow explorers located her, and broadcast photos of her to the world, I could not really believe what I was seeing. History had reclaimed the Titanic, and she could be explored and marked and salvaged (or at least some of the debris could be). How in the world was this even possible? You will smile to know that I am still amazed when I read articles about the various analyses of data from the exploratory dives. I just can't believe Titanic was ever found.

The other two events concern the downfall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. When the news broke that the Berlin Wall was falling, I felt another shock to my understanding of the world as it was. And later, as country after country separated from the USSR and suddenly the Soviet Union no longer existed, I had to keep looking up at the night sky to make sure that the stars were still in their right places. How in the world was this even possible?

The menace of the Soviet Union colored some of my earliest memories. I just barely remember how the launch of Sputnik disturbed my father. The Cuban Missile Crisis terrified me. I cried myself to sleep during that whole time period because I knew that Norfolk would be an almost certain target. The Soviet Union always scared me to death. (Putin scares me now, too, but that's another story.) Growing up in Tidewater Virginia, I knew very well how the Navy was patrolling and defending us from Soviet submarines. Now, in the early 90's, news of the USSR's disintegration absolutely stunned me. And it all happened so quickly and so relentlessly. Another set of circumstances that were never supposed to be possible.

Symbolic of all this upheaval in the USSR was the removal of the Berlin Wall. I remember very clearly when the wall was erected. We read about it in my third grade class at Westhaven Elementary in Portsmouth. I can still recall the photos in the papers and in our "Weekly Reader" paper at school. The last segment of the Iron Curtain had been placed. Everything behind it was inaccessible, probably forever. I know that's a difficult concept for everyone today. For me, travel to Leipzig or Dresden or Prague or Warsaw or Budapest or even Moscow was 'the impossible dream'. Never going to happen. (And my travel desires were present by the time I hit junior high school!!) Then the world turned upside down, or at least tilted onto a new axis. The menacing, monolithic Soviet Union evaporated, and the countries it dominated were once again free and independent. Both the real and the figurative walls had come down. Inconceivable.

News stories will once again feature the Berlin Wall this weekend, on the 25th anniversary of its fall. If I want to, I can travel throughout all of Eastern Europe. I can even travel to St. Petersburg (which I first knew as Leningrad) or Moscow. And I just might. I could even sail to the location in the North Atlantic beneath whose surface Titanic lies. What was inconceivable to a 20-year-old would be ridiculously easy for a 60-year-old.

Though I still shake my head at these three events, I am encouraged by them. If these inconceivable things could happen, I hope that--no, I believe that-- other inconceivable, wonderful, positive things can also happen. The people involved in these events never gave up hope, despite long years of struggle. I won't give up either!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Weakness for British Drama and Comedy

A Netflix subscription can be a dangerous thing, especially an instant viewing package. I have been wallowing in British television over the past two weeks, and justifying this by pointing to the rainy weather preventing me from doing yard work.

First I discovered that the BBC had dramatized some of the Albert Campion mysteries by Margery Allingham. Two seasons, total of nine or ten episodes. I had to watch, because I'm both a fan of Allingham's books and a fan of Peter Davison, who played the Campion character (he was also one of the Doctors in the "Doctor Who" series). Great fun and a lovely romp through 1920s England. The second BBC series was "Keeping Up Appearances", one of my favorites, with 45 episodes available on Netflix. This is a ridiculous and hilarious portrayal of a social climbing, clueless Englishwoman and the adventures/mishaps her scheming and mistakes lead her into. Some of you may know this one. My daughter and I stumbled upon it ages ago and were hooked. Now that I've found it on Netflix, I no longer need to save up and buy the series on DVD!

What attracts me to British drama and comedy? I think it's the feeling that all the actors are part of a great national theatrical ensemble. These men and women appear together in all sorts of productions, ranging from live contemporary theatre to musical comedies to Shakespeare to television to movies to Christmas pantomimes. I envy their versatility and relentless acceptance of new roles.  Many of them studied in the same schools (such as the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts) and 'paid their dues' in the same types of regional theatres. They seem to practice their craft everywhere and all the time. They never seem to rest on their laurels or disappear into posh estates out in the countryside. Most of all, they seem to be enjoying the daylights out of performing. While many are supremely talented and awe-inspiring performers, they seem almost like the kinds of friends who would come over for a visit and say 'why don't we dress up and put on a play in the backyard?'.

Of course, I must mention my two favorite actors before I close. I would watch Judi Dench in anything. Full stop. And Maggie Smith is a close second. Check out the film they did together in 2004, "Ladies in Lavender". It wasn't a blockbuster, but has its charm, and gives us an opportunity to see these two matchless pros demonstrate acting that seems 'as natural as breathing' (to quote Roger Ebert). I can't think of an American actress who, in her 70s, would allow herself to be filmed looking her age or older. Dench and Smith are fearless. If you think about the remarkable variety of roles they have played in their careers, you'll understand what I mean about the versatility of the British acting community.

Perhaps on my next trip to London Town I will be able to see a few live theatre performances. Now that would be a delight!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Exercising My Franchise

Just out the door to vote, but needed to post a quick little reflection. Oddly enough, I am always excited to cast a ballot. Do any of you remember the thrill of voting for the first time? I was in the first group of young Americans who were eligible to vote at age 18. What a time! We could vote, and the legal drinking age for beer was 18 as well. For us, the rationale was 'if you are old enough to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, you are old enough to vote and to have a beer'. I felt so important when I went to the city offices in downtown Portsmouth to register to vote. It was a big deal. My first opportunity to cast a ballot was in Virginia in the 1972 elections (Nixon vs McGovern). Subsequently I have voted in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Indiana. In all the years since then, I have missed only a handful of elections. I always vote. I never take this privilege for granted. I am profoundly grateful for the sacrifices others have made so that I may vote, by a secret ballot, unthreatened, and with no other requirements than citizenship.

Part of this enthusiasm stems from my parents' examples. They always voted. Every election, national or local, as long as they were physically able. Of course, they joked that their votes cancelled each other's out, since they generally voted on opposite sides of national issues! But they voted. I'm not sure it ever occurred to them not to vote. With such witnesses, how could I not follow suit? I do hope, dear readers, that you share my feelings of pride and gratitude as you head to your polling places and cast your ballots.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A school full of witnesses

Although it would be appropriate to comment on All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day, I want to talk about a conference I attended yesterday.  Bear with me!

The Center for Ethics and Culture at Notre Dame presents a conference each autumn, addressing different topics each year. This year's theme was "Your Light Will Rise in the Darkness: Responding to the Cry of the Poor". An impressive and varied list of presenters and panels confronted me. I always take away unexpected insights and interpretations, and this year was no exception. Yet, the presentation I will remember most was a film, not a live speaker.

"The Rule" is a documentary about the mission of a Benedictine abbey in the heart of Newark, New Jersey. Who knew there was a monastery in Newark? It dates back to the mid-1800's, and has operated a boys' high school for nearly that long. St. Benedict Prep became the 'must attend' school for many middle class boys in the Newark area until the late 1960's. Some of you will remember how riots tore apart quite a few cities in 1967 and 1968. Newark suffered waves of violence in that time, and the neighborhood surrounding the monastery began to change in ways we can all imagine. The student population of St. Benedict Prep began to shrink dramatically, and to include more students of color than white students. You can see the writing on the wall, can't you? Part of the monastic community wanted to close the school completely, due to failing enrollments and other reasons. Finally a group of the Benedictines left the abbey altogether. This film chronicles the efforts of the remaining monks to re-open St. Benedict Prep and provide education and structure for hundreds of young men in center-city Newark.

As I watched the film, I realized what powerful witnesses the monks AND the staff AND the students were. The care, compassion, and love which every adult demonstrated transformed these boys into young men. St. Benedict Prep practices tough love and accountability and encouragement. Their sports programs round out the school's high academic standards. The students manage themselves and most of the school's issues through a system of mentors and leaders. What I saw and heard enthralled me. The monks of the abbey walk with their students through predictably rough situations and offer a safe haven amid sometimes dangerous surroundings. The lay teachers and professional staff bring understanding and empathy and counseling to every single student. Theirs are not easy jobs, but this film conveyed the real love and hope that animate St. Benedict Prep.

St. Benedict Prep's growth hasn't been easy or smooth. Trial and error have caused some bumps in the road. But the monks and staff persevere and pray. Truly, the abbey's light has risen in the darkness of the hard streets of Newark. This is a school full of witnesses.

If you'd like to learn more, here's a link: