Thursday, August 19, 2004

countdown to vacation

In two days I go away for two weeks of vacation in one spot, a beautiful, cozy two-storey cottage in the piney woods ten minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. I can't remember a two-week vacation in my working life. I had time off when babies were born, and time after Christmas, and one-week vacations along the way. But to be off duty, in one comfortable spot with no traveling and almost no responsibilities for a two week stint seems like paradise to me.

This leads me to thinking about this experiment in Ignatian discernment retreat that I am making with Sr. Kathryn James. Why an experiment? Because the traditional retreat takes place very much like my two-week paradise: in a concentrated period of time, away from the hustle and bustle of life, with the atmosphere conducive to reflection, prayer, and listening for the Holy Spirit.
But new times call for new forms, Sister says, and so she leads us in a different kind of retreat, suited to a busy life, taking place within the hustle and bustle of life.

Now I'll be vacationing and retreating, as I have been active and retreating. The hardest part of the retreat in the bustle of life is keeping the knowledge of it present as I go away from specific exercises and prayers. That, of course, is the puzzle of moving from an active to a contemplative life at any time, it's the ordinary puzzle of having a consistent life of prayer within activity. Oddly enough, when I was an active mother it was easier. My experience with my grandchildren this weekend suggests why this is so. When you are " on duty " taking care of little children, your mind and concentration are fully engaged in making sure they are safe and provided for. You can't "switch off" like you can when you have no dependents directly under your care. Hence you can't "switch off" to God either, you are engaged in creation with your mind aware and your instincts honed. Having grown out of the blessings and the curses of motherhood, I am happy to be reminded that the Holy Spirit seems to hover around you when you are caring for youngsters.

Donec formitur - until He be formed in me. Walking the dog this morning, I remembered Father Keegan saying once that some people only felt close to God when they were in trouble. Since I so often did feel close to God when in a crisis situation, I've pondered that a lot.

I relate it now to my love of horror fiction and film. There's the catharsis of living vicariously (and safely) as someone else goes through horrible events, but above and beyond that there is the keeping in front of one's eyes the fact that Life Hurts. The violence we do one another, the horrible self-centeredness that keeps us in blocks of ice, the pain of love, the pain of loss... it all hurts and Christ is the physician. But not because we aren't "tuff enuff" to take our pain straight, but because creation itself, tangled up in the experiment (?) of biological creatures having free will, requires a healer, a gardener, a shepherd of souls. I can be as stoic as the next person, more so even because how hard is it to endure? I keep horror and death front and center in my consciousness so as not to forget that being a "pious lady" requires the opposite of complacency. It requires that we stay awake and keep our edge, so that we are not blind and deaf to the healer, the gardener, the shepherd of souls as he plies his trade among us.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Bowling for balloons

Today is my nephew Ernie's 16th birthday and his mother, my sister Marguerite, has been trying to work around his incredibly busy teenage social life to build in a moment of family celebration. He spent last night at his friend Matt's house, today he slept in until time to go to work at The Cinema Center, our local non-chain theater, the one interesting movie theater in New Castle County's world of multiplexes. The Cinema Center shows Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday night at midnight - it's that kind of happening fun theater, run by the same people who run Video Americaine in Newark and Baltimore, the same people who ran the old State Theater until it was torn down under protest 15 years ago or so.

Ernie attends the ritual showings of Rocky Horror with his friends. And starting last month, he also vends popcorn, candy and soda with the other young men and women who all seem to be children of people I know. (Am I getting old?) Last month, my friend Nancy Nobile and I went to the 10:00 pm showing of some movie or other, and afterwards we stood outside before heading home. Ernie came walking up dressed in his long black duster, black jeans, black t-shirt, ready to meet his friends for a midnight showing of Rocky Horror. I'm not usually so quick-witted, but this time just as he spotted me I went into overdrive as a doting, clueless aunt: " Nancy, look, it's my nephew Ernie. Oh gosh Ernie, how nice to see you, we can sit with you and your friends." Ernie is trying to assimilate it all at once. "You're going to see Rocky Horror?" Two Old People hanging out with the kids? "Sure, man, what do you think? I was close to your age when this movie came out, this is MY generation's movie." "Oh, okay, yeah, I guess so." He was being so gracious, so of course I had to turn it on more. "Oh Nancy, it will be so nice to meet Ernie's friends and hang out with them!" Ernie's friends walked up then, and he gamely said, "Uh, this is my aunt Rae and her friend, they're going to sit with us." He was so cool, I immediately broke out of role and said, " Just kidding, Ernie. We just came from seeing N" (Darned if I can remember what we saw!) He breathed a visible sigh of relief and said, "Oh, okay", and I said, "I got you good!" and he smiled. When he came home from Italy last month with Ish and Robbie, Ernie greeted me with a big dramatic clinging hug, gasping "At last, it's so good to see someone who knows me!" He's growing up real good...

Since she couldn't get hold of him, Marguerite went out and bought a bunch of balloons and had them filled with helium. She then collected me from the bowling alley next door, where Em, Ish, Robbie and I had taken granddaughter Ruthie for the afternoon. She, Nesbitt the dachsund and I strolled into the theater with balloons from which various denominations of currency trailed on ribbons.

We made a fine entrance. I heard one kid behind the popcorn counter say to the next one, "Whose birthday is it?" as the girl dispensing tickets asked who we wanted. But it turns out that Ernie did not work his shift after all -- it being his birthday and all, he came to work, found somebody to take his shift, and took off.

It's not easy being the mother of a 16-year-old. I've put in my time, Emily is 18 now, Deo gratias!

Full frontal family musings

My house is full of children. Ruth and Wade are spending the weekend while their parents go to the last Phish concert in Vermont. Mike drove up from North Carolina to drive Ish, Ernie and Robbie to Gencon on Wednesday. Dave came last night to celebrate Walter and Bill's birthdays. Only Gabe is unseen but we are in email contact.

I was apprehensive about taking care of the grandkids all weekend. Now that I no longer have 24-hour care of children, I forget what it's like and I imagine, from the outside, only the loss of freedom. I ask myself, "How did you do it all those years?" What I had forgotten is that in return for the loss of freedom you get incredible benefits - continual interaction with sweet, affectionate (and yes bratty and snotty) children who have their own rhythms, their own way of life. Ruth is six years, Wade is 22 months old.

Wade is a revelation. I resisted saying or even thinking this the first few times it came to mind, since expressing myself on the subject involves a risk I have always hated to take, that of sentimentalizing my dead children -- technically and authentically saints in heaven now (NOT "little angels" like children including my own are often called - Fr. Masterson called Eric one in his funeral homily, but he can be forgiven for comforting a bereaved mom in the culturally acceptable but theologically dead wrong manner.) But having Wade around is like having Simon around again. I had forgotten, over time, how strong and attractive Simon's personality was, but here it is in so many ways duplicated in Wade. All kids are cute as they approach two. But Simon, who never made it past two years and two months, had a charm and a sunniness that made fools out of other people just as regular kids make fools out of their parents. He was eminently dotable. We used to remark on what his charm would lead him into as he grew up. The first time he met his grandmother Helen, he greeted her with a smile that lit up his face, and ran over to her right away and hugged her. Never had another kid so unshy and so delighted to be around people who were delighted with him.

Until Wade. This is his first overnight. Unlike Ruth's first overnight here, Wade has had no unhappy moments, no crying for Mama and Daddy when he's tired or when he just wakes up. He wakes up smiley, stays smiley all day, and goes to bed smiley but clingy. He is curious about everything and everyone, and he behaves like a happy king -- he knows he is the center of attention, he knows his courtiers bow to his every whim, and he is gracious in bestowing giggles and baby talk, hi 5's and knock knock jokes, on anyone who comes his way.

Yesterday, driving home from Milford from seeing Andrew Riddle for his chiropractic magic, I burst into tears for the first time in many years grieving for Simon. Time, plus my reluctance to sentimentalize or remember Simon's person extravagantly as one does of the dead, had made me forget how distinctive a personality he was. Wade is not Simon, of course. But Reetie has marveled at how sweet and easy a baby he is since he was born, and even my loyalty to my other wonderful children can't keep me from acknowledging that yes, I once had a baby like that, the kind of dream baby every mother imagines. They do exist, and they are not made that way, they seem to be born that way.

I will enjoy watching Wade grow up, to see what that kind of personality grows into over time. Beauty of personality, like beauty of body and often accompanying it (true with both Simon and Wade), is its own trial and poses its own sets of difficulties.

Meanwhile, last night Wade came and laid down next to me, cuddling up on my pillow, as comfortable with me as if I was his mother. I wanted to cry again.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Donec formitur retreat looks at prayer

Last week I was struggling with the Donec formitur retreat, but this week is smooth sailing. Week two has the retreatant trying different forms of prayer: lectio divina, centering, Ignatian contemplation (imaginative prayer). I find all three helpful, and in addition I find I can do some of the best meditation/contemplation when praying for other people.

I bought a book called Praying for the World's 365 Most Influential People, and similarly to Hollywood Prayer Partners, it has us pray daily for specific people engaged in various influential areas: media folks, sports folks, political pundits, scientists, musicians, world leaders, religious figures, politicians, writers, actors, producers, medical experts.

I find I am very motivated to pray for other people. When I am doing this, my mind and spirit range outward to the whole world, away from my own little narrow self, and I find it easy to slide from meditation to contemplation, letting myself be guided by the thoughts and images that spring up as I pour my heart out to God asking that this person be blessed and healed and given whatever he or she needs to make their life better. That has always been the case when I pray for my own family and friends, and it holds for when I pray for those who have influence in the world.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

vampire reading

On the way to work this morning I finished the best vampire story I have found in a good long while: Blood Libel, by Leigh Ann Hussey. Confirming my belief that young adult literature is always among the best written, I found this little gem in the aptly named anthology VAMPIRES, a collection of original stories for young people edited by Jane Yolen and Martin H. Greenberg.

Blood Libel is the story of a young rabbinical student in a small, unnamed European village pre-WWII who is bitten by a nosferatu one evening and wakes up in a coffin under the earth. What is a devoted student of the Torah to do when he discovers he has become one of the living dead? Read it and see. But print it out first, don't read it online. Read it in a listening mood, maybe even say a prayer before you read. I got shivers as I finished the story, with its different take on the territory that Joss Whedon made his own in the television series Angel - the vampire with a soul.

The author of Blood Libel, Leigh Ann Hussey, appears to be a member of a group called Elf Hill Music and Mayhem. I don't know anything about their music but intend to check them out.

A vampire tale in the same vein (haha) but not nearly so theologically sublime is the novel Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson. The two most interesting characters in Midnight Mass are a Hasidic rabbi and a Catholic priest. The parts of the book I liked best are the religious discussions between the two, and the attempt of the priest to discover if free will can hold out over blood lust after an individual is turned into a vampire. There is a grade-Z movie out there made with Wilson's collaboration by a New Jersey pal using that state's locales that I have not yet seen.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

M. Night Shyamalan's The Village

Barbara Nicolosi told me two years ago, when I was defending M. Night Shyamalan's latest film Signs, that his stock was on the downturn in Hollywood and that industry insiders and critics were not going to give him a pass if his next film was bad. The Village is not a good movie. Just as when I was little and would argue with my mom but then would have her words sticking in my head ever after, I viewed the film last night through the lens of Barbara's criticism of his filmmaking. And just as my mom was almost always right about the things with which I disagreed most passionately with her, so I fear was Ms. Nicolosi.

What I used to see as a consistent intelligence applied to every scene now seemed like overbearing control. Where I used to catch a glimpse of the writer behind the mise en scene, now I felt like I was trapped in a single writer's off-kilter vision of reality. The characters all adopt a formal manner of speech, no contractions, pronouns appearing in odd places, in a faux Amish rhythm of English. That would be okay, but the content of the speech is dense and metaphorical, weighted with meaning. It's a bit like the content in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (or was it the other way around? I can never remember and am too lazy to look it up). I thought it was good in that film that the actors spoke in Mandarin, and the subtitles served up the flights of lyric fancy that was the characters' speech. The Village might have fared better with subtitles.

Perversely, although I think it's a bad movie I hope it will do well. I like M. Night Shyamalan. I want him to make more movies, but to break away from his trademark thriller with a twist. Thomas Howard once wrote that Charles Williams' novels were metaphysical thrillers, and Shyamalan's aspire to that also. But he needs to break out into another genre. Comedy, maybe? He needs to loosen up and poke a little fun at himself. Maybe his next film could be titled Without a Twist.

Headliners caught in web of deceit; news at 11

An otherwise not horribly unreasonable report on the Vatican's recent document on men and women has the lurid (but not unexpected) headline, Vatican denounces feminism for threatening families

We wait in vain for the article to give us the gory details of this denunciation. Oh wait a minute, here it is:

"The document, addressed to bishops worldwide, contended that new recent
approaches to women's issues were marked by a tendency 'to emphasize strongly
conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order
to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men.' "
That's quite a stirring denunciation of feminism.... NOT!

The rest of the article is pretty fair:

Throughout John Paul's 25 years as pope, he repeatedly has expressed
his admiration for women and their talents, and the document reflected that.
It said women should not be stigmatized or penalized financially for
wanting to be homemakers. It also said women "should be present in the
world of work and ... have access to positions of responsibility which
allow them to inspire the politics of nations and to promote innovative
solutions to economic and social problems."

Those who choose to work should be granted an appropriate work
schedule and "not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or
enduring continual stress," the message to bishops said.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a commentator on the Catholic church, said in an e-mailed statement that "although most American feminists would express their theology differently from the Vatican, on the practical level, they are on the same page (in terms of equality in education, politics, workplace) except on abortion and women priests."

Catholic teaching forbids abortion.

"While most people in the U.S. think in psychological and sociological
terms, the Vatican thinks and talks in philosophical and theological terms which
most Americans find difficult to understand," said Reese, editor of America,
a Jesuit magazine.

My suggestion for a title for the article: Jesuit discovers average American unable to understand philosophical or theological nuance