Sister Margaret McBride and Solidarity (or its absence)

This morning Nicholas Kristof writes about the recent and sudden excommuni- cation of a catholic nun in the diocese of Arizona. Why would a nun devoted to caring for others and described by many as "saintly" be excommunicated? It must have been something truly horrid, for, as we know, wayward priests rarely receive this, the ultimate punishment within the church. Priests who fail to keep their vows: not so bad. Priests who question church doctrine: disciplined, but not excommunicated. Pedophile priests: it seems they typically get a job transfer. Those higher ups who tolerate pedophile priests: retirement in Rome. What did the devout nun do? She, as part of a group decision, gave the ok to an abortion that was deemed necessary to save the life of an 11 week-pregnant woman. (The woman is the mother of four children.) Sister Margaret served on the bioethics committee of St. Joseph's hospital in Phoenix and, according to Kristof, the committee's "decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee." An abortion is a tragic event, and many believe there are circumstances when it can plainly be viewed as killing an innocent life. But imagine the circumstances faced by the young woman in Phoenix. She is suffering from pulmonary hypertension and her pregnancy may kill her. She can have an abortion and live. Or she can move forward with the pregnancy and risk death, and by extension the death of the fetus her own life is suppossed to be sacrificed for, or, if ( a very big if) the pregnancy is sufficiently advanced and there is lots of luck, perhaps save the life of the fetus, who would then be born orphaned. One can easily see the terrible nature of this ethical dilemma.

If the reporting about this story is accurate, one can safely assume that had St. Joseph's hospital denied the patient abortion services, she would have been quickly transferred to another hospital for the procedure. That's important: once the patient and her physicians had agreed on a course of action, the abortion was going to take place. But in the event, Sister McBride, according to the Arizona Republic, was the Ethics Committee member on call at the time a "last minute, life and death" decision had to be made. She gave the ok to a decision already made by the mother, in consultation with family and physicians. Can anyone possibly blame a woman for wanting to live? A mother of four? Sister Margaret must have understood, must have been thinking about that mother and those children, about life.

When Bishop Thomas Olmsted learned of the case, he immediately excommunicated the nun, "automatically." The automatic nature of this spiritual death is fascinating. (Remember, an excommunicated catholic cannot receive communion and is, thus, to a great degree cut off from God. So, I don't believe calling this a "spiritual death" is overstating the gravity of the punishment.) Most significantly, it suggests that the particular circumstances are irrelevant. That is, even had the doctors been certain that failure to abort would result in the imminent death of mother and fetus, it would still have been cause for excommunication. No discussion, no need for an Ethics Committee. The lack of any openness to nuance, to the particular tragedies of real life are of no interest to the men in black when it comes to core doctrine. And so the church moves boldly backwards, in this case, cutting off a, by all accounts, faithful and "humble servant". Margaret McBride has dedicated her life to serving the sick and poor as a nun of the Sisters of Mercy order. (This is a nineteenth century order founded in Ireland, not to be confused with the Religious Sisters of Mercy, a Vatican II order founded in Alma, Michigan.)

It is astounding. The church hems and haws for years about what to do with the pedophiles among them, knowing that in the meantime these perverts are traumatizing the lives of their victims. Consider the treatment accorded Bernie Law. Awful men getting privilegd treatment by other seemingly awful men. In steps a woman, who, however you feel about abortion, owned up to the circumstances. She acted, according to her own statement to the Bishop, in a good faith effort to follow Catholic doctrine. But no, no discussion: out, out, out. Strange. Where's the solidarity? Why hasn't some priest offered communion to Sister Margaret in defiance of his bishop? Would he too be excommunicated? How many priests would the church be willing to lose over this case? Do they care? Are they willing to put it on the line? That's the question that really interests me: when are the rank and file priests going to put it on the line? They hold the power.



"To free from a controlling force or influence." That sounds to me like something we should all want. It's a definition of the verb "disen- thrall" and I take note of it having just listened to a short talk by Sir Ken Robinson. One of the TED talks. I came across it thanks to the Open Culture website, which I find so enjoyable. In his talk Robinson quotes Abraham Lincoln's second annual message to Congress, in which the sixteenth president (and don't forget, poet!), concludes one of the final paragraphs of the long document in this manner: "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." To me it's fascinating that Lincoln uses the verb reflexively, without stating from what we must disenthrall. But it is clear that he is referring, generally, to the present circumstances, the usual way of thinking. And the usual thinking in 1862 accepted slavery, and this is what Lincoln is really arguing for, an end to slavery, and he makes this explicit in the next paragraph.

Robinson quotes Lincoln admiringly, and his context is education, and his belief in the need for a revolution in how we educate people. He argues for "personalized learning". The talk is short on details. That's too generous: there are absolutely no details at all; it's a concept, an idea... But in spite of its generalities and clichés it's a very good talk, and exemplifies (I'm thinking of my students) quoting to good effect. Robinson ends by reciting Yeat's famous "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven", which ends, "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams". (That's W.B. Yeats in the image, above.) Robinson urges us to tread softly with our children, who everyday put their dreams at our feet. Yes, we should tread softly, but not just any old way. Let's tread imaginatively. The talk can he heard here.

So, let's disenthrall. Assume nothing, restart, recreate. Or, as ol' Abe had it, "The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just..."


Rafael Pérez Estrada

Rafael. I remember as if it were yesterday: the phone call from Ballesteros, near midnight. That's it. He's gone. We knew it was coming, but it still seemed impossible. Mari Carmen Troyano came over so the girls wouldn't be alone. Asun on the trek to Santiago. The walk over to City Hall where the majestic Salón de los Espejos opened its doors one last time for Málaga's favorite son. But Rafael was now horizontal, in a closed casket. I remember the faces, the profound sense of loss. Pablo, Juvenal, José Ignacio, Berjillos, Ballesteros, Paco, Rafael's brothers... Antonio was here in the US. Ironies. Ten years have passed, and the anniversary was celebrated with the birth of the Rafael Pérez Estrada Foundation. Esteban Pérez Estrada has seen it through.

I find trying to describe Rafael a most difficult challenge. He was quite formal in manner, but at the same time gregarious. His personality was magnetic and listening to him always a privileged lesson. Cosmology. A poetics of life. Humor and an unparalleled imagination central tools of his pedagogy. Wednesdays were sacred. Bilmore our temple. To walk in, see Rafael at the bar and be greeted with an "ah, mi príncipe". From anyonone else it would have been simply ridiculous. From Rafael, very funny. And very special. I'll be a student forever. This morning in Diario Sur, Soler expresses it best: "Bilmore was the name we had for friendship and a weekly miracle, but also, although it wasn't written in any of our irreverent statutes –words to the wind– a way of understanding literature and society, and a way of recovering that atmosphere of vanguard that once identified Malaga." Indeed. In those last months Rafael let it be known, subtly and emphatically, that Bilmore had to continue. We tried. They tried. And it did go on, has gone on, but it's not the same. It can't be. When the center is lost, the periphery doesn't hold.

Ten years. Seems like yesterday. Here is a link to the first texts of his I had published in English.



The other day there were two interesting news stories about lying. First, the young man who forged documents and lied about his credentials to get himself into Harvard, then get financial aid and who knows what other benefits. I've always been fascinated by the psychology of pathological lying. I met a pathological lier many, many years ago and it was very strange. Then there was the story about Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General who lied about being a Viet Nam vet. I saw a few minutes of his remarks and it seemed rather pathetic: "I misspoke on a few occasions... I take full responsibility..." Blah, blah, blah. And now we have the cyclist's confession. What's his name, Landis? It gets interesting when we own up, or don't, to our deceptions.
At a different point on this spectrum: why in the world do people engage publicly in what until most recently were very clearly private conversations? I refer, of course, to Facebook. Every time I visit this strange website I am confronted with the private dialogues of others. For the most part completely innocuous stuff, but still, why do they share it?


The Mirror and the Dog

Some days you get a lot of work done and other days you don't. Nothing new there. This morning as I walked Waldo I was thinking about staying motivated, and about religions, in a comparative sense. And about baseball, caffeine, some poets, parenting, and what it might be like to be a dog. A little scatterbrained. Some days are just like that. Later today I had the very infrequent, and in this case unexpected, opportunity to sit in on one of Daniela's private ballet classes. One on one. Some of the positions she puts her body in just don't seem healthy to me! I worry about her hip socket. After lots of warming up and technical work at the barre, she worked on two solos. Waldo could inspire a ballet. Two recent observations have me convinced this dog is somewhat unusual. Not long ago I spied him in the guest room upstairs, where he usually sleeps on a futon mattress. He was staring at himself in the mirror! This dog is self-conscious! Typically, you put a dog in front of a mirror and they don't get it. Indeed, the famous "mirror test" research performed by Gordon Gallup in 1970 suggests dogs are not self-aware. I beg to differ. Then, the other day Waldo is by the back door. I toss him a treasured treat: a scrap of chicken. He jogs over and is about to grab it, but he stops to look up and listen to a bird that is breaking into song. And he really stops and listens. So not only is this canine self-aware, he's a poet on top of that. I envy Waldo: I doubt very much he ever worries about wasting time.



"A poetic image of eternity, of order, symmetry, harmony..." I read these words this morning with great interest. Eternity, order, symmetry, and harmony: hey, it's what I'm after! The image referred to is the opening sequence of the famous "Shades" scene from the ballet La Bayadere. I became familiar with this ballet in 2007, when Daniela performed it with CPYB. (In 2008 we saw the complete ballet performed by Angel Corrella's company in their debut at the Royal Theatre in Madrid. The ballet was created by the great choreographer Marius Petipa, based on a score by Ludwig Minkus.) This morning it is the subject of Roslyn Sulcas' reflection in the New York Times. The first time I saw it I was completely enchanted and so now, having seen the ballet twice, I understand Sulcas' affirmation. You can watch the scene here, performed at the Paris Opera Ballet. The movement is slow and repetitive, and may strike some as simplistic, but it is no easy feat and for the dancers it requires tremendous strength, discipline, and pain-staking coordination. I guess what interests me is the group dynamic. Thirty-two dancers! (CPYB and other companies do this scene with twenty-four dancers.) That's harmony. Perfection! (I get a similar feeling with some of Jorge Guillén's poems, especially his décimas.) There is something somewhat otherworldly about this dance. And dreamlike.

Well, that's what I read this morning. Now it's time to get to work. Must prepare an exam. Yesterday too much time was spent cleaning up from Friday's damaging hail storm. Asun worked on the damage done to her vegetable garden, and I tried to repair some of the damage done here at home. This morning we just noticed the broken window panes in one of the carriage house windows. Ugghhh, more chores, more lack of perfection and harmony. The hail storm certainly did not suggest symmetry, but it sure was a poetic image. Perhaps of chaos, of cosmic anger. My head got clobbered! Some of the hailstones were pretty large and there sure were a lot of them! Incredibly, even though it was warm after the storm passed, there was still ice in the garden yesterday afternoon, twenty-four hours after the storm had passed.


¿En español?

A small village in upstate New York is making headlines thanks to a councilman's fears. It's English Only all over again. How else to explain why in a rural setting with a very small immigrant presence, where English is already the norm, a town council would see fit to proclaim that all official business will be conducted in English? They might as well proclaim that all official business will be conducted by the living. You know, just in case any of the dead start getting ideas. (This morning's coffee conversation: Daniela's health teacher talks in class about his belief in ghosts. And you wonder about our kids' education!) The man behind this local legislation, Roger Meyer, has bigger goals in mind: he wants this to be the start of a grass roots movement to proclaim English the official language all over the country. One can make reasonable arguments for such a policy. (And if the US were to designate English as the official language it would hardly be exceptional; most countries, in fact, do designate a language, and often multiple languages, as "official".) But there should be honesty in the debate regarding motives. The idea that immigrants don't want to learn English or can't learn English is simply false. And in fact, for the most part they do learn English. Language discrimination is rampant and is often linked to xenophobia and racism. No, we are not a country of ignorant bigots. (It just seems that way on occasion.) Most Americans are basically tolerant. Yet, it is also true that many Americans still harbor some fears about change and these fears are often linked to historical and deep-seated prejudices. A rather benign but nonetheless unsettling example: at our local GIANT grocery store they now have hand-held scanners so that you can tally up your bill as you shop. When you are done you simply scan your card and the bill is ready. It's an honor system. Kind of: I have never been audited. Asun is audited every time. Coincidence? Absolutely not. What's up? Asun presses "Spanish" so the machine talks her through the steps en español. The kid at the stand hears this and... audit! (Spanish, ergo, immigrant, ergo, less trustworthy.) A colleague has corroborated this -the same thing happens to him. But Asun doesn't mind, nor does my colleague, because you agree to the quick check, your honesty is confirmed, and you get rewarded with a two dollar coupon.
Language "wars" are fascinating. No one knows for sure what the future holds, but in this country the future for Spanish looks very strong. So strong, in fact, some genius saw fit to proclaim, en español, "Spanish Spoken in Several Languages". (Photo, above.) A flexible language! ¡Qué interesante!


Catching Up with Atahualpa

Last year I made a reference to pitcher Atahualpa Severino, who at the time was with the AA Senators. I predicted big things for him. Well, so far so good: he's at AAA Syracuse this year and appears to be pitching well: a 1.82 ERA after 14.2 innings pitched. He gave up three runs in a third of an inning in his first outing of the year and since then it's been lights out. That's not many innings, but let's check back in another month or so. I just learned that Atahualpa was not even drafted, signed as a non-draftee in 2004. That's quite a contrast to his new teammate, Stephen Strasburg. This morning over coffee Asun and I were discussing change, the idea that everything is change. But I have my doubts: on a cosmic scale, change is very slow. At least, it seems so to me. The personal and the cosmic. Yesterday I read part of an interview with Woody Allen, published in Commonweal. (I had no idea that journal was still being published, and was very happy to learn that it goes on; it's a fine publication.) Woody admits that he's a whiner. Life is senseless! Our horrible fate! Yes, it seems to make no sense; why all this horrible and pointless suffering? As I sometimes say to my students, "you don't have to answer". Meanwhile, among the many wonderful activities fate (or chance, I'm not picky) has brought my way, is that of casual but passionate baseball observer. Atahualpa. Say that out loud: Atahualpa! (Atahualpa, by the way was the las Incan emperor.)



Another semester of teaching is almost done. Classes have finished. The academic calendar lends a strong cyclical character to my calendar. I guess most of us live with that sense, and maybe a little more so for those who have children in school. I wonder what it's like for childless people living near the equator? No seasons, no school calendars. Perhaps life would be more like a straight line. Then again, the consistency of sun up, sun down, may compensate: it's real cosmic equilibrium when you can count on twelve hours of sunlight day after day. (I'd like to go the equator someday.) I am reminded of Jorge Guillén's great poem, "Las doce en el reloj". Oh, blessed harmony!

Mother's Day. A little heresy: I'm against it! Against all these made up holidays. They're an insult to our imagination and intelligence. We need Hallmark to tell us show a little gratitude? Well, if I were going to be really consistent, maybe I should be against Thanksgiving itself. I'll think about it. The problem is, I love Thanksgiving dinner. It's actually my favorite American holiday and it is an important foundation myth. And speaking of significant days, today is the birthday of Dante Alighieri. Nel mezzo del camin... I fear I am more than half way, but I'm hopeful. Our neighbor lived to 102 and I'd like to go a little further.


Potter's Wheel

A ceramacist spinning clay on the wheel shapes an object. His/her skill and imagination determines the form. However, the clay imposes its own limits. So there is give and take. This might seem like a metaphor for parenting, but it would be a terrible one. Yes, we shape our children, especially when they are very young, but the whole point of parenting, I believe, is to shape children who can shape themselves. A ceramic vase will not shape itself. (No, we are not going to discuss John Keats today.) Maybe it was the story this morning on NPR about Peter Buffett and his new memoir that got me thinking about this. Warren Buffett did not give his children millions of dollars to lead lives of privilege. Based on the brief interview I heard, it seems like a wise decision: Peter Buffett sounds like a happy man, curious and enthusiastic. For his memoir he chose the not very imaginative title Life is What you Make It. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing what he means to suggest with this title is not that you can be whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do. Asun and I have tried to be a little more nuanced than that, and I imagine most parents do the same: you can aspire to anything. Want to be an astronaut? Go for it! But be ready to study really, really hard. You can't decide to be an astronaut (or chef, teacher, banker, ballerina, etc.) and it happens. Bad lesson! It might not happen. (Bill Durden spoke about this recently in a talk on leadership.) But you do get to "make your life" in that you are in control of its narrative. Know thyself? Define thyself? Polonius' advice to his son, to thine own self be true, can be read as sage counsel or a crass invocation of selfishness. Indeterminacy can be troubling. I see a bright side: the son determines meaning.


A Liberal Education

This morning's reading: "Only Connect... The Goals of a Liberal Education", a short essay by historian William Cronon, originally published in The American Spectator in 1998. (Thank you, Asun!) Very interesting. In 1998 we were in the late stages of our most recent "culture wars". (Bloom's Closing of the American Mind is from 1987; E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy was published in 1988.) Cronon, too, includes a list, but his is of a different sort; not what we should know, but rather what characteristics we should hope to find in a liberally educated person. Cronon summarizes these qualities when he observes the essential common denominator alluded to in his title: "Every one of the qualities I have described here –listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people's eyes, leading, working in a community– is finally about connecting. A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect." The article can be found here. (I highly recommend it!) Over a year ago, and unfamiliar with Cronon's perspective, I wrote a little bit about the importance of connectedness in this entry: connectedness. Additionally, Cronon's descriptions can serve as excellent benchmarks: how am I doing in my efforts to become educated? And of course, his reminder that education is not a state we achieve, but rather a manner, a philosophy, if you will, for dealing with our ultimate ignorance, is quite useful, lest we be tempted to forget. (Forgetting: Plato made the connection between memory and knowledge over two thousand years ago.)

On a beautiful spring afternoon it is not difficult to put aside concerns with knowledge. Well, on second thought, maybe it's not easy to put them aside, but we can at least proceed with a less troubled mind. And besides, it's a day of much relief and tranquility for Boston sports fans: Bruins win, Celtics win, Sox win... doubts, if not erased, at least postponed. Hmmm, maybe knowledge is erasure.


Knowing How it Feels

Yesterday at the Whitaker Center, waiting to see "Cinderella's Ball", I noticed the art exhibit in the lobby area had the curious title: "Art as Emotion". Too obvious? What else can it be? Art as Intelligence, no doubt. Of course, this title presupposes, for me anyway, that by "art" we are referring not to the art object itself, but to the various relationships established between creator, creation, and whoever has a sensorial experience of some sort with the art object: seeing it, hearing it, touching it, etc. That's where the emotion comes in. One of the first works in the exhibition is a photo of a man taking a snapshot of three people standing just a few feet away. A very frequent, almost universally experienced scene: a nearly spontaneous family portrait. The people being photographed are clearly happy, you can just see in their expressions that being together is a good thing, an important time. And the photograph immediately transmitted to me a particular emotion: I could easily identify with the situation and I smiled, happily, grateful for the shared knowledge. Oh yes, I know exactly how that feels.

I don't know exactly what it could feel like to be a ballerina, but believe I possess sufficient imagination to take an educated guess. When a performance is going well, and the audience is clearly enjoying it, it must feel really good. You feel happiness, joy, excitment... It's all in the dance. In any case, we sure did get some powerful emotions during the performances, and one of them, pride, would not typically be present when experiencing art, but our particular circumstances in this case made that emotion inevitable. Daniela gave an inspired performance as Cinderella. I am often at a loss for words when trying to respond to some of the post performance comments. "Thank you"? Well, we'll just keep trying. Looking forward very much to today's final performance.