Monday, June 22, 2020

What Makes a Memoir Memorable?

The answer to my question comes in the form of two books recently read: one, relatively new, by Terry Eagleton, the British literary critic with a great comic gift that makes THE GATE KEEPER sharp-witted, insightful, often hilarious; the other a classic in its genre, Vladimir Nabokov's SPEAK MEMORY, perhaps the greatest of autobiographies.

Eagleton has had the ability to use language as his main weapon in the British class system. With that skill, he has moved from an Irish-Catholic working class background to the elite world of academia while at the same time using this skill to satirize the Oxbridge scene.  His portrait of his Cambridge don is memorable and hilarious yet also reverent since he, like the nuns the young Eagleton once served as a boy, opened doors to a wider world than he might have ever known.  The resulting memoir is not merely about Eagleton but about several other things, too: Britain in the past fifty years, being a Catholic, and an outsider.

So, too, Nabokov's memoir is not only about his early life, in all its rich detail, but about time, memory, and the writing of autobiography itself.  As he recalls his aristocratic upbringing in pre-revolutionary Russia, where he was taught English first, then Russian and French, where his household staff numbered fifty servants, he situates his detailed recollections in a broader context.  He shows us how recording in words a remembered scene from boyhood is to see it in relation to time, which he says is "but memory in the making."

Like St. Augustine's Confessions, the first Western autobiography we know of, Nabokov is concerned with the relation between time, imagination, and memory.  As a scientist (specializing in butterflies), he has an eye for specifics, and his details provide the vivid thrill he had that we the reader can share as we learn what made him what he is, a man with poetic gifts in several languages, whose baroque sentences convey an old-world aura. He tells us that his mother's ring is of "pigeon-blood ruby" (not merely ruby), thereby re-creating with such specifics the atmosphere of his privileged upbringing. He is grateful to his mother's memory of past details since, he says, he has inherited her taste for the beauty of "unreal estate," intangible associations that sustained him in later years in exile and relative poverty.  Recalling these bits of past delights is important in maintaining happiness later, as the past informs the present.

Probing his childhood becomes, for Nabokov, an "awakening of consciousness" shared with our remote ancestors as they discovered time. "How small the cosmos," he writes, how puny "in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection and its expression in words."

The focus, then, is not just on various, discontinuous fragments recollected in the writing process, not just on his own personal life but on re-staging the past in the present and reflecting on our shared human sense of how time functions. He resists the wall of ordinary time that separates us from timelessness. We feel lucky to share in recollected days when time seemed to stand still.

And so, in "Speak, Memory," Nabokov has created a poetic text, rich in detail, that defines what it means to write about oneself, one's own life, in the context of the vast ocean of consciousness and the mystery of time. His book is both a remarkable memoir and a guide to exploring one's past and using language to say often inexpressible things. It is about how the personal can be universal.

It is a memoir about how, ideally, to write a memoir (if only one were as richly talented as he).

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Catholics for Trump??

The only explanation I can find for a group calling itself Catholics for Trump is very basic: its members, like those Catholics who voted for him in 2016, understand very little about Christianity. Instead, they follow an ideology of some bishops that privilege the abortion and contraception issue over such fundamental beliefs as loving one's neighbor. I refer mainly to justice for immigrants and the working poor.  They follow a right-wing type of Catholicism that is mindless, reductive, and dangerous.

This must also be true of Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who called the Liar in Chief "a great gentleman" and "a great friend of mine."  He was called out for doing so by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who wrote that Trump is notorious for his "consistent lying and for poor judgment."  They mentioned his mistreatment of immigrants.

I would go further:  the President is so devoid of any empathy for those now dying of COVID, of human feeling for the suffering poor, of rational judgment in dismissing scientific facts, of decency in his insults hurled daily at women, minorities, and anyone who dares to challenge him that he stands in direct opposition to Gospel values.  He is a man without a soul who causes confusion daily by embarrassing Tweets that end up spreading falsehood.  His only concern is with himself, not his fellow human beings.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself" is not part of the GOP playbook and has never been part of Trump's cult of narcissism.  So it is shocking and disturbing to find Catholics organizing themselves in support of this man's re-election.

And to the Catholic bishops like Dolan, I would say, Stop pandering to power. Leave the GOP political agenda to the evangelical right. along with their love of unfettered capitalism, nationalism, and individualism--all antithetical to authentic Christianity.  Speak out in favor of truth, honesty, and compassion.

I don't know if there really are Catholic voters, as there once were, but for a Catholic to support the re-election of Donald Trump is not thinking straight or practicing Christian values.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Reaching Out with Hope

I have been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to a recent article I wrote.  I  had nearly 40 positive responses to a short piece in the Orlando Sentinel, an OpEd reflection on how we might find strength amid, and after, the current pandemic.  This reaction surprised me because I am used to receiving little feedback from whatever I write.

But people are worried, but have more time to read and reflect, and are drawn to positive messages. It's possible, as a recent article in the Guardian noted about a survey in Britain, that many people, not affected by unemployment or illness, are reacting to the self-quarantine and the general uncertainty with a surprising degree of inner peace.  Many are finding rest from stress, relief from not going into public, joy in cooking and in spending more time with loved short, after an initial decline in happiness, the survey found an overall increase in well-being.

We are stronger, more patient and resilient than we often think.

 I am pleased that the article itself has been a means of connecting me to two cousins I rarely hear from, and  to an old college friend, who forwarded the article to another old friend, not heard from in 25 years, whose response was gratifying.  A local friend emailed my article to his daughter in New York, who wrote to me that she was uplifted by my noting that our lives are not really about ourselves but about relationships.  So I've been unusually busy responding to emails and sharing mutual good wishes with former students, neighbors, and many friends, in an expanded web of interconnections, a community of hope.

One of my cousins, Patrick Fleming, a psychotherapist in St. Louis, responded by sending me a reflection on fear and the way it can make us self-centered and selfish (consider the panic hoarding of paper products).  The antidote to such fear, he says, is stay connected to others, to act from the heart, not the panic. He said my article and his were on the same wave length.

I avoided specifically religious language in my piece, but the message came directly from my Catholic background: We are never really in control of our lives, as the current crisis is forcing many people to realize. We can turn inward and find peace in simple things; that is, we can become contemplatives. For many people, being cloistered brings a kind of freedom.

And we are being forced to see our connection with the natural world and with everyone else. We see that we are not isolated individuals, despite our narcissistic society with its emphasis on comfort, pleasure and success. My life is not just about me, but about me in relationship to God through others.  It is about service and our obligation now to reach out to those who are lonely, frightened, and feeling unloved.

As Richard Rohr recently wrote, when we face our own vulnerability and reach out to those who are feeling vulnerable, we are forming a kind of community, which is essential to those who feel isolated and cut off from human contact.

It remains a challenging time, not aided by a White House that deceives the public with phony information while urging that businesses open up before it is safe to do so.  Our collective physical health must come first, along with some reassurance that we can trust in a future that will be different, but, I hope, spiritually stronger.  This is what I suggest in the article published last week (27 April), pasted below.   



By Gerald J. Schiffhorst

I wonder how we will be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic—those of us who haven’t lost our jobs or been hospitalized or forced to fight for unemployment compensation or deal with inadequate health insurance.

And I wonder what we will learn. Will we be able to look back on this as a crisis that strengthened us in some way?

As guest columnist Joseph Wise says in the Sentinel (4-17), the crisis is also an opportunity. He is writing about education, but his insight applies to the economy and every area impacted by this pandemic.

The lockdown is forcing me to re-learn several important lessons.  The first is that I am not in control: the future is uncertain but need not be a source of panic, the kind of alarm that comes from too much media exposure. (I limit my news intake to fifteen minutes a day.)  The world as we know it will change, and some good things will happen. 

Second, uncertainty is always disturbing, and the present pain is a world-wide challenge, but the pain does not have to turn into suffering for those of us sequestered at home.

Pain becomes suffering, I think, when we feel alone, abandoned, and unloved. My  wife, Lynn, and I are doing what many others have been doing: reaching out to those who feel lonely and helpless, both the elderly and the unemployed. We are phoning or emailing friends, some of them too frightened to go outdoors. They feel less isolated and anxious by these daily contacts, and so do we.

We all need to be reminded that some anxiety is normal, but since the future is never known, all I can do is focus on the here and now, taking one day at a time.  So mindfulness, paying close attention to each thing I do and refusing to worry about the future, is my third lesson.

Finally, this crisis is a reminder that my life is not merely about me--my comfort, pleasure, and success; it is, as my Jesuit education taught me, about serving others. The coronavirus is a startling reminder that we are connected to everyone else on the planet in innumerable ways. 

We may be isolated in our homes, but we are not really alone since we exist in relationship with the natural world and its people. We are learning the hard way how dependent we are on one another.

In a recent interview about the challenge of being confined at home, Pope Francis quoted from Virgil’s “Aeneid.” The lesson he found in this Roman poem from 19 B.C. was not to give up in despair but “save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come.”

In that future, we will only be as strong and compassionate as we are today.


Gerald J. Schiffhorst, a professor emeritus of English at UCF, lives in Winter Park.




Sunday, April 12, 2020

Timely Morality Play

One of the benefits of the current quarantine is my access to a wide array of resources on the internet. YouTube has given me hours of music, comedy, and inspiration. And by accident, I found on Amazon prime video a 2015 film from the BBC, "An Inspector Calls."

This play from 1945 is set in 1912 but remains timely in 2020 with its powerful message that we are responsible for each other.  J. B. Priestley's play is an indictment of upper middle class hypocrisy and economic injustice, as he focuses on a smug Edwardian family, each member of which is implicated in the death by suicide of a young woman.

I watched this film mesmerized not only by the strong performances but by the suspense and the morality play-like force of this brilliant production, as a mysterious Inspector questions and judges each member of the family.  Is he really a  police inspector? This remains a minor issue as we watch the self-satisfied characters squirm as they face the issue of their shared guilt in the death of the young woman.

That we have a shared moral obligation for one another, that we are not isolated individuals but part of a community is something many today, anxious and worried about the virus epidemic, are learning the hard way.  Our lives are not merely about us--not merely in biological terms but in moral and social terms, as we see many people today losing jobs and income, being denied unemployment compensation, and lacking adequate health care.

The pain of injustice and the need for communal responsibility are unforgettably portrayed in "An Inspector Calls," which I highly recommend.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Isolation and Connection

"Isolation can be more terrible than death."  So begins an article by Timothy Radcliffe in a recent issue of Commonweal. He goes on to mention the importance of touch in our daily lives, especially now, during the virus lockdown, when we have such limited opportunities to touch and be touched.  "We are touched into life by each other," Radcliffe writes.

He puts his reflection in the context of the Passover and Holy Week season, with its message of hope. But, on a purely secular level, it seems to me that the greatest suffering--especially now, with the whole world linked in a grim face-off with illness and death--involves feeling alone, abandoned, and forgotten, feeling that no one cares.  We can endure pain if we know we will be comforted in some way.  We need not only medicine but a hug or handshake, yet these sources of touch are denied to us now, and possibly for weeks to come.  How do we live without being touched?

I am thinking now of the people living alone, the elderly especially, limited to phone conversations with loved ones, fearful of germs, alarmed by the news, and cut off from seeing their friends.  My wife and I make an effort to phone or write to those we know we live alone, especially two friends in nursing homes, who now are more isolated than before since family members must stay away.  We can only touch them from a distance.

For many, death might be a welcome respite from such suffering.  What can I do about it? Very little in the wider world outside my circle of friends and neighbors. But I can remind myself, and those whom I contact, that we are never truly alone. We are part of the whole of life and share in the distress of untold millions we don't know.

Yet we must find something to be grateful for.  It might be something as simple as a blue sky on a cool day or an internet link to something inspirational; it might be a bit of comedy or music or a memory.  It might take the form of a prayer that reminds us that we are loved--and part of a world in which much good work is being done in very challenging times.

I am also thinking of younger people who have been spending more time online than ever before, increasing their level of isolation.  Psychologists study what they call "skin hunger," which distance learning and other electronic forms of isolation have done much in recent years to increase. Much as been written about how the computer has turned us into a culture of loners, who often experience depression.

We all yearn for what we need: human touch--or at least a friendly voice or message that reminds us that we are more connected than we think.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Coping with the Quarantine, One Laugh at a Time

Mindfulness is made easy these days, as I'm forced, like so many, to take one day, one hour, at a time. I pay attention to each thing I do and know I can't make plans for next month or even the summer. I must live fully in the present. I must be grateful to have electricity and adequate food and people who call or write to see if they can help.

I refuse to worry or be depressed or bored. My emails are filled with useful distractions from the news, everything from scenic views to cat cartoons to ideas about freezing eggs (for reasons unknown). I take delight in little things, like the afternoon sun coming through my bathroom window as I wash my hands for the thousandth time, trusting I am germ free.

I watch waterfalls on Youtube as I meditate, then read blogs like the one by Mark Forsyth, who cites a book on the history of toilet paper.  I follow the news from Rome and listen to a Jesuit podcast from St. Louis University, my alma mater, and listen to Andrew Cuomo. A local newsletter keeps me abreast of recent burglaries. My next-door neighbor comes by with three boxes of Kleenex and we are thrilled. I phone a neighbor isolated in a nursing home (no visitors allowed now). We find restaurants eager to deliver dinners to our door. My days have become full of little surprises. There is no time for boredom.

I receive emails from Richard Rohr reminding me that my life is not about me, that I am not in control of my life, but I already know that, don't I, from this experience of quarantine?  I then read in a blog from Maria Popova, quoting a philosopher, that self-love is the key to a sane society and I smile.... I forward an article about baseball to a friend in Virginia, and he reports on his reading.... I think about Etty Hillesum, a radiant spirit who faced the Holocaust, and find to my surprise that two Jewish friends never heard of her.... A former student in Alabama sends me an article on Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy was once an indispensable spiritual guide....A cousin in Chicago writes to see how we are in Florida. I keep finding, to my delight, that I am connected to everyone else, as we all face the crisis together.

I get the best help from humor, trying not to feel guilty by making light of a world-wide tragedy. But the quarantine experience itself calls out for therapeutic laughter.  A recent joke sent to me:  Our cleaning lady is now working from home but is sending us instructions.  Another: Gas/petrol is cheaper now, but there's no place to go.

An newspaper article reminds me that we need laughter to relax the brain. For comedian Erica Rhodes, comedy is a means of survival. "How's everybody not doing?" she asks.

She reminds us that sickness and death and an uncertain future are no laughing matters, yet how did my parents survive the Great Depression without comedy?  Is laughter merely escapism, like looking at cat videos?  How much grim news can I take in?

Dogs, I think, are having a great time now, with all the walking going on around me, and people are getting more exercise than ever. People are praying, reading, doing crosswords as never before, and reaching out to elderly neighbors. For those old enough to remember WWII, they know it's hard but that we will survive, and that a bit of gallows humor is essential.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Sky is not Falling

It may seem like the end of the world if you watch the news extensively, hearing stories about how the pandemic is spreading.  But it is crucial to step back and see that fear and isolation do not have to equal loneliness and despair.

A friend forwarded a poem by an Irish priest, Richard Hendrick, "Lockdown," which reminds us that in Italy, people sing to each other through open windows so that those living alone hear family sounds and that elsewhere churches and temples are opening to help the homeless and sick, and people are learning to turn inward to read, be quiet, create, and contact one another.

We are forming a community of hope. People everywhere, writes Fr. Hendrick, are slowing down and reflecting, seeing how connected we all are despite the quarantine.  "There is sickness, but there does not have to be disease of the soul... .There is panic buying, but there does not have to be meanness," he writes.

It seems to me essential to limit our exposure to the media and take one day at a time, doing everything "quietly and in a calm manner," as St. Francis de Sales wrote in the 17th century. His advice: "Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset."  Right now, the whole world does seem upset, until we reflect on what Fr. Hendrick's poem says.

The present crisis also reminds me of the words of the Jewish writer Etty Hillesum, writing in her Amsterdam apartment as the Holocaust was about to carry her off to Auschwitz. "I am not alone in my sickness and fears, but at one with millions of is all part of life."  She knew, as Richard Rohr recently wrote, that when we see our suffering as part of humanity's "one universal longing for deep union," it helps prevent selfishness and loneliness.  We are all in this together. We know that most people are undergoing the same hardship, or worse, and this "makes it hard to be cruel to anyone."  (Rohr)

Suffering has the capacity to teach us many things, mainly that we are all part of one reality--and that compassion and love are the only ways to deal with this crisis. We realize in these difficult times that we are not really alone but connected--and that we have great inner resources.

Of course, we can distract ourselves with reading, music, and entertainment, but deep down, we are aware that we are not in control.  For believers, this means we turn to God, who, says Rohr, is with us in suffering.  Etty Hillesum knew this in 1942. She writes (in An Interrupted Life), speaking to God, "there doesn't seem to be much you can do about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."

How do we help God? By loving others, reaching out to those living alone, doing whatever chores we can for the elderly, offering hope--and by being grateful for each day as we move toward a solution of the pandemic, since we know it will end.  When it does, I believe many people will be spiritually stronger.