Showing posts from June, 2007

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: the Gift of Memory

Laurence Isbell is a great-uncle I never knew. He was the fourth of six siblings--the first was my Uncle Bud and the second was my Grandmother. Uncle Laurence was a submariner during the Second World War. He was under age when he signed up because he was so troubled by Pearl Harbor he couldn't stand staying home. His going broke my great-grandmother's heart, but she knew there was no stopping her son. I have written about this uncle in my book Silent Spaces. The book includes this devastating letter from the Secretary of the Navy to my great-grandparents. As we approach July 4, I pray all Americans will think of whose we are.
YOUR SON, Lawrence Isbell, Ship’s Cook third class, US Naval Reserve, has been carried on the official records of the Navy Department in the status of missing in action as of 5 July 1944. He was serving on board the USS HERRING when that submarine failed to return from patrol operations in the Pacific area.

On 21 May 1944 the HERRING took aboard fuel at Mi…

Ratatouille: Being a Rat Means Being Human

Ratatouille will teach you about the interior world of sewer systems, the intricacies of five-star French restaurant kitchens, the nature of loyalty, the importance of family...and stuff like that.

This Disney-Pixar creation brings with it the traditional Disney themes--the indifferent world into which we are born, the deliberate cruelty of selfish adults, the importance of being true to yourself and true to your friends. Pixar brings the even-better-than-the-last-one ingenious animation, uproariously funny action, and endearing characters. (more)

Rumors Give Leeches a Bad Name in Woodbury

It's amazing what a few unkind words scattered here and there can do to a reputation. Consider the leech. Can you think of one good thing you've heard about leeches lately? Over the centuries, leeches have gotten a bum rap. Kind of like Mary Magdalene. One pope 500 years ago calls her a ho, and that's it for all all time: she's a ho. Don't let the truth get in anybody's way about this great friend of Christ. But I digress. I was talking about worms.

Gossip about leeches flew through my front door this morning like a cold wind in the person of a little girl we had invited out for a swim with us. "I can't swim there; my mom won't let me swim there. I'm afraid of those leeches. They suck the blood out of you." All this in one breath from a child who heard fourth-hand information from another child. Wow.

Undaunted, we packed out suits and sunscreen and took her to the beach with us. There wasn't a sinner about the place. The hot dog lad…

Smoke Alarm or Weather Alert? Be on Fire...

I thought the house was on fire the other day when the storm alert came across the television to shout out the warning of impending damaging winds, hail, heavy rain, thunderstorms....The created emergencies of weather world are fascinating.

Once an exclusively winter experience, every out-of-the-ordinary weather moment now merits the ranting horn of the emergency alert, the unintelligible aerial map with its splotches of danger here and there, the time frame when Charter customers will be without cable or Internet, and the rodeo clowns of weather world.

At the same time the forecasters are reminding us that we are small in this enormous world governed by uncontrollable natural forces, these guys are out there to testify to the indomitable human spirit. "Your sneakers will fill up with water if you come out in the hurricane today....The wind is so strong it blew my hair off...The company van just got sucked up in the tornado, but, golly kids, I'm still here...."They tell …

When Life Hands You Lemons...Clean Your Colon

Used to be your mother reminded you to put on clean underwear before you went out. Nowadays, it's the colon.

"Did you know," a friend of a friend said to me recently, "that they found 42 pounds of sludge in John Wayne's colon after he died?"

What were they doing there? Let's not ask. The point: "He was loaded with toxins."

A few days later, I shared this startling trivia with dear old dad, and he told me his boss's driveway paving guy recently told him the same thing. Thereupon I learned that I am way behind the times yet again: cleansing the colon is as ordinary a daily procedure for people nowadays as, well, washing everything else they've got. Of course, if celebs aren't actually wearing undies anymore, going out with a clean colon only makes sense.

So my friend's friend wife gave me a copy of the how-to. I am now up to speed on the lemonade diet, and my husband has been on it for the past week. He's lost about a pound …

Wordless Wednesday: Face in the Wall


Don't be Perfect

You don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be exciting. You don't have to be funny. You don't have to be wise. The most important thing you can offer your loved ones is something that is within us all: genuine concern. (David Niven, The Simple Secrets for Becoming Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It)

Pedophiles Play on our Sense of Trust

Deep in the stories about the global pedophile investigation called Operation Chandler that has identified 700 suspects in 35 countries is the statement that many of these persons are men and women positions of trust or access to children, including teachers. There's a 50-50 chance, according to these stories, that the pervert stalking or abusing your child is someone you trust.It's likely your child knows you trust that person.

How is that pervert cashing in on his or her credibility with you to destroy your child for his or her own sick pleasure? Will you hear the cry for help?

I grew up surrounded by good men with whom I shared respect. My father, my grandfather, my great-uncle, many of my high school teachers, fathers of friends--all were men whom I trusted and who trusted me. I was safe. Not until I participated in church retreats in high school did I encounter perverts-- specifically, two fathers, seemingly good guys whose goals were to exploit the trust of young wome…

All at Once

The second longest day
Of the year and my father says:
Look at that cloud; it's going to snow;
And my mother says:
That's okay; I'm wearing my winter pajamas
And it's so strangely cold today
And the sky is purple, or rather the blue
Of bachelor's buttons, and I wonder
What will happen in Antarctica
Where melted-off shards of glacier
Are bringing new life
To parts of that ocean that never saw it before
Or at least not recently.
Things are hot and cold all at once
These days
And I am listening to you
As I pull on my flannel pajamas
This evening in late June.
If the sky is purple over Antarctica
Or just here
Where there are so many wildflowers
And dad says it might snow tomorrow,
What if those clouds are shards of iceberg
Preparing to rain new life
Onto each one of us?
Will you yield to this gift
Or cause it to bead up and roll
Into the gutter of futility?
What do you who are hot and cold all at once
These days
Think of all of this?

Walk About: at Chuang Yen Monastery

Our friend Brian Vaugh, who is a Buddhist Priest, led us on a tour of the Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York, on Saturday. Brian has a delightful way of saying profound and useful things as if he were telling you the time of day, and he did that on Saturday. He explained that the figures outside of Buddhist temples represent chaos and confusion; you need to get past these two ugly dudes to get to the temple, to the sacred site of worship--your soul. From the outside of the temple, Brian said, there are three floors. Go inside, and you will find that there is one. The point: though things seem complicated from the outside, once you step inside them, you find they are much simpler than they appear. The point is that you must make that step inside to discover this. On and on.

How do things get done at the monastery? People show up and do them.

Thank you, Brian.

(Click here for the "Geometry of the Sacred.")

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: We are Sacred Text

"I was in the paper!" my 5-year-old nephew hollered as he came bounding up the stairs of my parents' home, through dad's office door, over the exercise bike, around a pile of shirts, and between my father's chair and mine. I was helping my dad add some addresses to his Yahoo email account; we stopped because some yahoos are more important than others. Adam's joy is clearly one of them.

"I was in the paper for my birthday!" he shouted. We looked at the paper. Yes, indeed: four years ago Adam was on the kid's page of the local paper in honor of his first birthday. Oh, look, Adam said, another story: on that same auspicious day, Adam received a free cake from Luigi's bakery in Bridgeport.

We read too slowly for him, so he recapped: "I was in the paper and I got a cake for my birthday!" We congratulated him as if it were yesterday. As if it were today. Then he said of my daughter: "Della was in the paper too for different things. Gr…

Walk About: Central Park

The Secret: Overdressed Helpful Hints from Heloise

I'm a bigot. This is the biggest lesson I learned from The Secret. My prejudice: I don't believe a bleach blond woman who brags about her ability to maintain her ideal weight of 116 lbs. despite what she eats can possibly be my guru. Nor can author Rhonda Byrne's millionaire motivational-speaker- chiropractor-investment-counselor buddies or that author who made his fortune off his Chicken Soup warm fuzzies. Sure, they can tell me how to make money, but they can't palm those lessons off as spiritual lessons. That's just cheap and lousy and makes her indistinguishable from the average reap-what-you-sow, look-what-I've-got right wing Christian millionaires.

The Secret didn't float my boat--as a book or as a movie that ran like the History Channel's worst nightmare. I was uncomfortable with it because it conflates the acquisition of material wealth with some kind of spiritual quest. You've arrived spiritually when you have as many square feet as the C…

'Theology' from Sinead O'Connor? Amen

Sinead O'Connor's songs have always touched me as hymns to a mighty God. From her first album The Lion and the Cobra through Universal Mother to her singles with Van Morrison or Phil Coulter and on and on, her voice is one of an honest seeker.

The other day USA Today ran a Religion News Service story by reporter Kimberly Winston with the lead, "Sinead O'Connor is not your typical Christian music diva." Right away I was relieved because I thought that must mean she is real, that she lacks pretense. It must mean that she's not afraid of the raw emotion that makes her a human being and transforming it into art. That must mean she makes no false claim to a flawless life. She is no choir girl.

She's fearless. A flawed and beautiful woman, I'm thrilled she's providing more poetry and music for the road we all travel together. Try this song from Theology and be moved. Click here to play more tracks from the album. Click here for her thoughts on faith.

Power, Your Name is Exuberance, Optimisim, Gratitude

As I watched my daughter prepare to sing in worship at Grace Church in lower Manhattan on Sunday morning, I thought of her first choir director at the local United Methodist Church, Elaine Keith. This woman includes in the Cherub Choir any child who shows up on a given Sunday and sticks on a gown. Confident something good and joyful will come out of their mouths if they simply try, she is likewise sure the gift will be perfect because it will come from loving hearts. Whether or not the product is technically correct is immaterial.

In this way, Elaine teaches the core value of a Christian church to the little kids: show up and be loved for who you are, and gifts will flow like water to and from your soul.Adella's first choir director taught her to give with confidence. This woman's exuberance, enthusiasm, optimism, and gratitude for the kids and their little voices generated tremendous spiritual power, a source of energy for their hearts, minds, and bodies.

Now that Adella is o…

Wordless Wednesday: Grace Through a Back Window


"I Wouldn't Go," Dad Said

It's hard to grasp why students want to be absent from their own lives. Their job in the classroom is to show up and receive by listening, expressing ideas, participating projects with instructors and peers to become articulate and even somewhat experienced albeit in a limited, controlled environment.

In public schools, this opportunity comes courtesy of tax dollars, of course. At the state university levels, students and taxpayers foot the bill. It's startling, then, that absenteeism is such an issue in a society that demands good mileage on ever buck. Nevertheless, in Waterbury, Connecticut, about 2,000 students will repeat their current grade because the city is enforcing its absentee policy. The policy allows 18 unexcused absences--fully ten percent of the school year--but slams the brake on grade-level advancement beyond that point. No excuses.

At the college level at which I teach, instructors have some latitude on determining the importance of showing up. I say it's …

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Dad

My dad says the toll booth operators on the Jersey Turnpike own New Jersey. If they're having a good day, you love the Garden State. They're in a mood, and you hate the place. First impressions are everything.

Dad knows. He works for a man in Fairfield County who has a huge piece of property that needs constant maintenance and lots of flowers because dad's boss likes flowers. Planting flats upon flats--picture hundreds brought in on a trailer, not a dozen or so plants in your trunk--is back-breaking work, and dad needs help. So he gets the help of immigrants in need of a day's work. These guys make more than a lot of us with our college degrees because they do the work we're all too good for. (It's the American way that we read about in our college history texts.)

A couple of years ago, dad met up with one guy from South America who had nothing. He lived in a tenement downtown with a bunch of other guys from the same country. They created their own boarding house…

Poppet: an Antidote to Friends who are not

"They want to play in private," the little girl next door said to me when I asked if she was getting a doll to join my daughter and another neighbor's child, who had dolls and were playing among the fairy forts they had built in the spring.

This kid was hurt. Why wouldn't she be? The cool kids just told her she wasn't good enough for their company. Kicked to the curb, Morgan did the best she could to be cordial to me and to go about her business. In that instant I felt the pain of her rejection. Nothing cuts deeper than a cold shoulder, particularly from a person you hold in your heart as a friend. Such is this little girl's affection for my daughter. I knew, though, that there wasn't any chastising my daughter into compassion and decency then. What greater playground hell is there for a kid than being forced to play with someone of your mother's choosing--other than being that chosen kid. Kindness enforced and imposed is no kindness at all.

"Do yo…

Review: Mum's the Word

Mum's the word if you like dark English humor. As housekeeper to the absent-minded, bungling vicar the Rev. Walter Goodman (Rowan Atkinson) and his wayward family in Little Wallop, England, Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) has her own special way of tidying up life's messes and bringing color to the chaos. Without giving anything away, let's just say she's blunt and direct when the situation requires. The effect is cathartic as well murderously funny. It's all about Keeping Mum (THINKFilm, 2006).

Grace has magic. She enters the family's life, identifies the problems, and sets about solving them for the good of the family. In addition to a meek-minded husband, there's Gloria the bored housewife (Kristen Scott Thomas), Holly the promiscuous teenage daughter (TamsinEgerton), and Petey the bully magnet (Toby Parkes). Grace takes their measure and immediately sets things right in her own way. Her wisdom, insight, and problem-solving style are rare, let us say. They…

Walk About: The Labyrinth: Circling Toward the Center

Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center in Litchfield, Connecticut, celebrated the tenth anniversary of its labyrinth last Saturday. Both the celebration and the labyrinth itself reflect the deep spiritual connection between each of us and the wisdom that is our faith.

There is one way into a labyrinth and one way out; it is the same way. Be faithful to the path, open your soul to the way, and you will find yourself in a right and meaningful place each stop of the way. The path is life, and it is the labyrinth, a walking circuit that combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral in a meaningful journey to the center. Just as life is sacred, so is the journey.

You enter a labyrinth and you walk it. The circuits keep you on course. In this way, it is unlike a maze with its choices and dead ends. You enter, you focus, you walk purposefully, meditating on the nature of your every step. Walking the labyrinth is an exercise intended to create a heightened spiritual awareness in a sacre…

Reviews: Forgive and Forget Rape, Torture, Disappearances...

In seeking revenge for psychological abuse, rape, and other forms of torture you run the risk of becoming as inhuman as your torturer. Better to run to the nearest exit and find some other form of spiritual remediation. That's not so easy, when the walls are lined in mirrors, though. The mirrors prescribed in the stage directions of Ariel Dorfman's 1991 play Death and the Maiden bring this problem to life in the text and on the stage. The directions indicate that mirrors should reflect each of the main characters seated in the auditorium at the beginning and the ending of this once-censored work. The mirrors allow each character to see him- or herself in the other. Identity is at once singular and collective--inescapably so, as anyone stuck in front of a large mirror knows. The mirrors carried much of the theme of this work.

As dictatorships came tumbling down around the world in the early 1990s, there arose questions of how to deal with the perpetrators of human rights abuses …

Wordless Wednesday: the Suburban Jungle


Saint Joan among the Knights in New Haven

She has been cast as suffragist, freedom fighter, rebel, Rosy the Riveter, femme fatale, circus spectacle, martyr, cross-dresser, heretic, apostate, victim, martyr, saint. That's some resume for an illiterate peasant who died at the age of 21.
She is Joan of Arc, a French Catholic girl born in 1412 who said when she was about 12 that God mandated her to drive the English from France. Despite her military successes, her faith, and God's calling, she was not exempt from the tribulations of court politics that cost her her life. She was burned at the stake.

Twenty three years later, though, Catholic Church officials overturned Joan's conviction. In his final summary of the case, Inquisitor Brehal described Joan as a martyr who was wrongly executed by corrupt, partisan clergy abusing a Church trial for secular purposes. Since martyrs are automatically considered saints, her canonization was effectively initiated at this point. Half a millennium later--in 1920--the Church canoni…

The Irish Baptist's Geisha

Doing the housework the other day, I found myself taking extra time with this little fabric collage that my great-great-grandmother, Mary Steen, made. This handicraft is so unlike the legends I have of the Irish Protestant toughiewith a sharp tongue.

Granny Steen once struck my grandmother across the face for talking back. Grandma was about nine, and she said she wanted to be a teacher some day. "Well, I'm not paying for it," Granny Steen said.

My grandmother replied: "I didn't ask you to." That bit of back chat merited a blow upside the head from the good and upright Baptist who never drank or missed church. As I recall my grandmother's story, the more painful direct hit was the pronouncement that Granny Steen found the little girl to be unworthy.

Nonetheless, the same Granny Steen found the time and a few scraps of silk to create this small fabric sculpture of a geisha being admired by a rickshaw driver. When I was a young girl, it hung in my mother'…

Please Vote for Tay-Sachs Research

Imagine being a young child with a degenerative disease that deprives you the ability to do everything you do--swallowing, blinking, seeing, moving--as it shuts down your body. In addition, you have seizures, and a chronic/weakened respiratory system and you have a compromised immune system which means you are prone to catch every little germ that comes near you. You have Tay-Sachs Disease (TSD), and it's likely you won't live to see your fifth birthday.

Elise Ten Berge is a little girl who has this disease, and her mom, Laurie, works hard to educate others about the disease and to promote research into treating it.

Laurie says there are several research initiatives underway around the country (Boston College and Harvard and Duke universities) that show promise in treating or curing TSD and other degenerative diseases. Research requires funding though.

So Laurie asks that American Express card holders take a no-cost step to support funding."Through the American Express Mem…

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: the World at Your Feet

The best view at the beach is neither up nor around but down at the shells and fragments of shells tossed and beaten into translucent and beautiful gems. Gnarled and lumpy oyster shells become smooth as a child's cheek and the spot of indigo, a mysterious eye that never stops looking deep into the sea floor. Clams require fewer tosses of the wave to become beautiful, and they do. The lines of dried foam that mark the last high tide tell the history of the world.

I always follow this line in search of a perfect snail shell, though my greater hope is to find a whelk shell that is not broken. I have succeeded many a time with the former. I have discovered the places to look for such things--at the end of the line near rocks, where the sand never has the chance to dry completely at low tide, far from the traffic of the feet of small beachcombers.

There are always the very small ones to find just by crouching down and looking. These simple life forms take the elements found in the sea,…

Motherhood: Blessing, Vocation, Adventure,

Donna Cooper O'Boyle, who has written extensively on the spiritual vocation of motherhood, will launch a radio segment for moms on June 12 from 9:10 to 9:30 EDT. Broadcasting with Teresa Tomeo on the "Catholic Connection" show on Ave Maria Radio!, she will discuss tips for prayer and how to encourage children to develop a meaningful relationship with their church. (more)

Church and Main, Waterbury

Waiting just inside the front doorway of the church before quitting time yesterday, I felt the air pulsing with the rhythm of ordinary, urban life in all its loneliness and hunger.

"Will you take my picture," a man asked me as I set up my camera to photograph the children of the Chorister Academy of St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green in Waterbury, Connecticut. He carried everything he owned on his back or in his hand in a plastic shopping bag.

"Next time," I said.

"When's next time? Tomorrow? I'll come tomorrow." He was not flirting with me; he wanted his picture taken.

"Next week," I said.

"I'll be here. Tuesday. Five o'clock so you can take my picture." Others with apparently little to their names aside from what was in their hands came along and leaned against the fence, smoked, seemed to be waiting for someone, or closed their eyes. The reality was that nothing awaited these people, but this was the plac…

Wordless Walls: Seeing Around Corners

Click here and turn the corner.

Rita Reynolds and the Sacredness of all Life

When the time came for me to help my12-year-old Labrador retriever Cuchulainn--a beautiful and loyal friend--make his way out of pain and into the next world, I emailed a woman I never met in Virginia and asked her to pray for me.

Though I never met Rita Reynolds in person, I knew her to be a deeply spiritual woman, a kind person, a friend who would follow through for me on this one. She and I have been pen pals of sorts for about 10 years now, since she first published some of my writing in her quarterly magazine LaJoie and Company.

Rita's work, her writing, and her magazine are about recognizing and celebrating the sacredness of all life. On the farm where she and her husband have lived for more than 30 years, she has adopted into her family all manner of abandoned and sick animals, embraced them as friends, and helped them make the transition out of the world.

Rita does more than provide room and board for these animals; her gesture is not one of pity but one of compassion. They…

Get Back to Where you Belong

Generally we waste our lives, distracted from our true selves, in endless activity; meditation, on the other hand, is the way to bring us back to ourselves, where we can really experience and taste our full being, beyond all habitual patterns. Our lives are lived in intense and anxious struggle, in a swirl of speed and aggression, in competing, grasping, possessing, and achieving, forever burdening ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations. Meditation is the exact opposite. (Sogyal Rinpoche)

Republicans Accept Vigilantism a la Lou DeLuca

It's all over when your state lawmaker turns to mafia vigilantes to resolve personal domestic disputes. It's all over when his fellow Republicans lack the temerity to acknowledge that your local lawmaker who has sold out on the rule of law should give up his role as lawmaker.

Yes, it's all up when his party pals and Lion's Club buddies assure you he will be at the Club's Woodbury fundraiser as usual right after he's arrested for conspiring to have someone threatened. Heck, he's a member, one of the boys.

And yes, it's up and over when First Selectman Dick Crane, who isn't seeking reelection anyway, says it would be a shame to lose Lou DeLuca as a lawmaker because he has brought so much money to the area.

State Senator Lou DeLuca has mob connections and has no problem cashing in on the favors he's done his trash hauler magnate buddy James Galante of Danbury to get him to "scare" the man who is allegedly physically abusing his granddaugh…

Blog Your Blessings Sunday: Uncle Bruce

Walking on an evening scented by myriad barbecues, I found myself thinking tonight of backyard family picnics and wondering if it ever happens that non-members are invited to these things. I can think of many backyard hoolies over the years, and they fall into one of two categories without overlap: picnics with friends or picnics with families.

The reason is simple: to borrow the words of my mother from a long time ago: "I don't explain 'em." Probably can't either. Sit among a bunch of somebody's relatives, and you hear the lore, the old stories, the inside jokes, and the allusions that make sense only to an insider. Try to interpret for the newcomer and you stop before you start. The silliness, the joy, the strangeness belong to the whole experience. You had to have been there.

We don't explain 'em. Nevertheless, there are both beauty and magic in the stories of experiences that make a family a family. There were plenty of both in my mother's famil…

Strange Attractions: a Reverence for Letters

“[A] century or two ago, people had their own peculiar reverence for the letters of the alphabet. …[T]hey could become excited about the beauty of the printed page or even one well-formed letter,” American artist Eric Sloane says in the introduction to his ABC Book of Early Americana for young people that he published in 1963.

“Artists used to get delight from drawing their versions of the alphabet: carpenters seldom failed to put their initials and the date on a particularly fine piece of work; children and adults too, made “samplers” of sewed alphabets,” says Sloane.

Such excitement and delight put these artisans in the company of contemporary graffiti writers, whose art form consists of spray-painting stylized versions of their names and filling the letters with color, shapes, shadows, Gothic figures, and more color to make the simple declaration, “I am.” (more)