Friday, July 26, 2013

The actor as author

I rarely read books by celebrities, and the ones I've looked at are not well written.  Just recently, a few days after watching an old movie by Mel Brooks, The Twelve Chairs, I saw a book by the star of the movie, Frank Langella, who has had a long career on the stage and in some movies. I could tell right away it was not a book of mere gossip but something of quality.

The book, published last year, is called Dropped Names, a collection of perhaps two dozen vignettes in which Langella recalls some of the famous people he has known or met.  Some, like an amusing encounter with the Queen Mother at the Ascot Derby in 1972, are memories brought to life with deft dialogue and description. And like nearly all of the chapters, this one is concise.

The portraits are rarely flattering; in fact, Langella has devastating insights into some of the 20th century's most notable narcissists, from Yul Brynner and Bette Davis, whom he meets in her old age, to Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor, and Brooke Astor.  His encounters with Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier are memorable and witty; his appreciation of Alan Bates and Jackie Kennedy are moving.

Especially memorable is one of his early memories as an unknown actor being invited to an afternoon party attended by President Kennedy and Jackie in 1961, where the romance and glamor of the day (at the Mellon estate on Cape Cod) is remembered with beauty, where the reader can share his picture of Jackie radiantly happy to see her husband totally relaxed, laughing until tears ran down his cheeks.  There is an elegiac quality to this gem of an essay.

So, you might ask, is this book another example of a noted actor dropping names and little more? No, it is an example of excellent writing that has something to teach would-be authors. Actors, if they are good, are sensitive, intelligent, and keenly observant. They make carefully planned entrances and exits. So do good writers.

Langella is a sensitive observer of behavior, and he obviously has written a lot over the years.  He knows how to bring a scene alive with details, then end it gracefully.

Langella shows himself to be a man who has lived a very full life. His portrait of his close friend Raul Julia is beautiful. He is typically honest in saying that he, a very healthy and active heterosexual, fell in love with Raul (also a married man with kids), calling him playfully his "boyfriend." He was devastated when Raul died young. At the end Langella writes:

 "Unconsummated love between men can be as powerful as any love between a man and a woman, and equally if not more powerful than physical love with either."  There is great wisdom and courage in this statement and the insight of a man who has experienced life fully.

This chapter alone might make Dropped Names memorable; but all the portraits, in their searing honesty, offer skillful models of the writer's craft, which may have more in common with acting than I ever realized.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Doing Nothing

Summer is the ideal time to do nothing. Italians and other Europeans seem to be able to enjoy their beaches at this time of year with that effortless ease and freedom from guilt that I and many other Americans lack.

Doing nothing is hard, unless you are a cat (cats seem to have been created to do nothing with great poise and skill).

Even though many would say I have a life of leisure as a retired academic and writer, my days are busy, and this generally makes me happy. I am restless and anxious with nothing to do. Is it my German ancestry that tells me a busy person is a happy person, or is the speeded-up, productivity-oriented American culture in which I was raised?

Today, for example, should have been a quiet day for reading and writing, yet, after numerous household duties, including the care and feeding of three cats, I spent an hour on e-mail, not including the revision of a chapter of my forthcoming textbook, The Practical Handbook for Writers, 7th ed.  Luckily, my co-author, Donald Pharr, does the heavy lifting on this revision and relies for me as back-up.

I know I have a graduate student waiting in the wings to send me her second chapter of a dissertation that needs editing.  I also have been working on two forthcoming talks and week-long courses for next winter that require extensive preparation. Then, as "publicity director" for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, I spend time promoting her new Kindle book, The Green Road to the Stars.  Some days, it seems, there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish all I want to do.

None of this is a complaint; I am grateful to have these projects. They, along with my reading, are stimulating, a constant source of the growth we all need. Without them, I might be bored, fearing that I will run out of something to do--as if doing is my only reason for being.

What about my spiritual life, about which I have written and spoken?  What about meditation time? I squeeze it in but am eager to return to being busy, even though I realize my level of busy-ness is nothing like most people's in the "real world."

The poet Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books writes of always being a daydreamer and living like the ancient Greeks who had no clocks and so, knowing nothing about hours and minutes, could philosophize all day long. Not unlike cats.

For humans in the 21st century to do nothing well, calmly, requires both practice and patience. To savor the moment and be grateful for each happening in a day: that I can do. Yet, while enjoying being busy, I yearn for more summer daydreaming, more freedom (which I alone can bestow) to do nothing.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fear and the Zimmerman case

The topic missing from most of the discussions I have heard of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial has been basic fear.

It was captured eloquently yesterday in President Obama's personal remarks about how he sees his younger self in Trayvon Martin. And in an important article I read yesterday and will return to.

What prompted Zimmerman to shoot the 17-year-old boy? Fear, the age-old fear of the outsider, which in America has historically meant the black man in a white world. In saying this, I realize I risk simplifying a complicated legal case. But it seems important to look at the bigger picture.

Fear, which protects us, leading to the instinct to flee, can also lead us to fight because this primal feeling can provoke anger and hatred in a matter of seconds, as any study of racism or homophobia reveals.  Fear prompts Florida to allow the Stand Your Ground law on the books; it prompts white supremacy groups and other extremists to fight against sensible gun laws or immigration reform.

The antidote to fear is love, as Patrick Fleming eloquently says in an article in the current issue of America. (Note: I read the article before realizing that the author, a St. Louis-area psychotherapist and author, is a cousin of mine.)

Fleming does not discuss the Zimmerman case but the mass shootings in Boston and elsewhere which cause what he calls spiritual trauma. These events, he says, inflict "psychological wounds but spiritual injury and trauma as well." Referring to his own anxiety, heightened by the Newton massacre, he writes: "Fear becomes a soul sickness when it becomes our basic stance in and against life."

This is the kind of systemic fear that sees danger everywhere, that tells us to trust no one, change no gun laws, and build a fortress whereas, he says, the soul tells us to trust.

In a passage that seems inspired in part by Thomas Merton, Fleming writes that at the deep part of us that we call soul, at the core of our being, "there is a wellspring of energy, hope and purpose."  The soul can provide us, he goes on, with the spiritual vision to see with the light of love, which is always present, even when we feel threatened or fearful. 

Ordinary moments of "soul resilience," the result of reaching out to others in love, happen every day, often without our realizing it: they are "much more common than moments of trauma, darkness and evil.  They are so common that we fail to see them." He refers to simple gestures of aid we give the elderly or disabled, the encouraging remarks we give to nervous students. We need to be reminded of the fact that we are surrounded by little acts of love.

In this short article, Patrick Fleming has captured the spiritual dimension of human psychology.  By focusing so clearly on the basic elements of fear and love, and relating them, he provides me, and I hope others, with ideal reading this weekend, as many Americans ask why the Trayvon case continues to gnaw at our collective psyche.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Open to Love

What does religious faith mean in a secular age, when many people have no religious affiliation or belief, when atheism and agnosticism are commonplace among thinkers?

An important answer comes in the first official statement by Pope Francis, "The Light of Faith."  Unlike his many remarkable and refreshing impromptu remarks, this is an encyclical, thoughtfully begun by his predecessor, the pope emeritus, and completed by the new bishop of Rome.

Although I have not read the entire document, the excerpts published this month, and the many published reactions, give me a good sense of its importance. It is (in the words of an anonymous reader) an "open, searching document" designed to "reach out to those who are searching and doubting."
An existential, Kierkegaardian encyclical?

Well, perhaps not. But this work "by four hands," as Francis says, sees faith as more than assent to fixed doctrines or arguments about the existence of God.  The papal text moves beyond secular vs. religious, science vs. apologetics and all forms of fundamentalism and literal-mindedness whereby God becomes an object to be argued about.

"Lumen Fidei" (to give the encyclical its proper title) indicates that faith is not rigid but an expansive stance toward the goodness and love basic to the spiritual life. In other words, faith becomes a trust: that beneath and beyond the horror of the daily suffering and pain there is meaning, there is compassion. When we love, as Dante knew, we move in harmony with the energy that drives the universe.

As Charles Taylor has written, even in a secular age of religious choice, most people are not capable of being indifferent to the transcendent, which they may find in the beauty of art or nature.  This philosopher's work is relevant to what the two popes have written.

Faith is a journey, they write, which deals with "the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path to faith." 

So we are given here an expansive, hopeful view of faith that does not deal with abstract truths or theological propositions but a path of trust that is "open to love."   This seems to me a solid foundation for what is becoming a papacy significantly concerned with social justice.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Overlooked Homeless

This week I attended a talk by two friends who have been active in helping parents, like them, who have gay children.

Much of their story was familiar since I know the book by Enid Jackowitz, The Rest of the Way, recounting the struggle she and her husband, Syd, had more than twenty years ago to overcome shame, fear, and grief over the revelation that their older son was gay.  As they said, when he came out of the closet, they went in, telling no one for seven years.

When she saw that her fear was keeping her from loving and supporting her son, Enid began to read and explore, eventually asking her husband if he would like to attend a local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).  He responded, "I wouldn't be caught dead at such a meeting."

A few years later, he became the president of the local chapter and, with Enid, a speaker and columnist on the problems faced by gays and lesbians in their families. What a turnaround!

What I learned this week was that, after all the progress that has been made in recent years on greater acceptance of this minority, 25 per cent of young people who come out to their parents are still thrown out of the house. They become the overlooked homeless. Who cares for them?

In central Florida, a place called The Zebra Coalition helps kids on the streets get food, clothing, and counseling. But the number of parents who still believe, as Syd and Enid once did, that being homosexual is a choice--and a great evil--remains high. They react in terror and their love turns to hate.

Among young people 14 and above who have "come out" to their friends, fifty percent still have not come out to their parents. So they live in the kind of denial that can cause great anguish, but at least they have a home.

I was startled at these statistics just as I was impressed by the courage of my friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jackowitz. They took seven years to make the journey from deep fear to advocacy.  Their talks and book have helped many parents around the world cope with the shock that comes when they learn that one of their children is gay.

Enid's book is also helpful for the young people themselves who are unsure how their sexual orientation will affect their relationship with their parents. I recommend The Rest of the Way to those interested in the hope that, as the years go by, love will more and more replace fear among parents of gay kids.

Love, as Flannery O'Connor said, is the effort to understand.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is Anyone Listening?

My wife and I had dinner recently with a couple who talked non-stop, barely stopping to eat, much less to pay attention to us unless we forced our way into the "conversation."

This happens a lot to me. A shared meal should be a relaxed opportunity to be present to one another.  The daily pressure of living should be put aside so that each person can give attention to what is happening in the present, to the person as person who is with us. Otherwise, the get-together, like our recent dinner, is like a therapy session in which the others vent their unconscious anxieties.

Such people are good and loving people who are, for the most part, not arrogant or as self-centered as they seem.  Why have they not learned the basic art of conversation?  I guess because there is so little of it around.

The violence in our society never surprises me, given the pressure and the speed with which most people live.  Even when they sit down to eat, they remain wound-up, unable to put their own agendas aside for ten minutes to take in fully who they are with.

What does it feel like to be listened to fully?  Kay Lindahl asks this question in her book The Sacred Art of Listening.  Her answer: when I am listened to, I am taken seriously, given a chance for my creative inner self to emerge, and so I recall who I really am. It is an empowering experience in a society that does not listen well.

I have used the famous example before of Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the Washington, D.C. Metro some years ago, an experiment to see how many commuters would stop and listen.  Very few did.

I have stopped getting upset at lunch or dinner companions who engage in monologues. I know it is bad for my digestion and blood pressure to want to scream, "But what about me?"  I try to understand how fear governs our lives and that the best-intentioned people often will never be good listeners.

To be fully present to another is a gift of love; how seldom, in the excited rush of daily life, do we realize this?  Slowly down might be a good start toward making us a more listening people.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Amazing Men

I have something in common with a diverse group of people, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, James Joyce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Descartes, Voltaire, Charles de Gaulle and many other heads of state, including 17 popes: we all had a Jesuit education.

Now that the world has the first Jesuit pope, many people ask me, knowing my ten years of Jesuit schooling, What exactly is a Jesuit?

In researching the answer, I discovered many things I never knew, especially the key role that these priest-educators made to science in the 17th century. In  addition to their many schools and colleges around the world, members of the Society of Jesus, founded by the Spanish-Basque nobleman Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, have been artists, scholars, sheep farmers, lawyers, wine growers, diplomats and missionaries.

I knew all about their tradition of learning, their long seminary training, their independence, and their reputation for being open-minded men who are anything but cloistered yet who are also set apart by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and by their commitment to social justice. The work of Pope Francis in the barrios of his native Buenos Aries is a key example.   What I did not know was their contribution to astronomy and other sciences.

I did not know that 35 craters on the moon are named for Jesuits, who were among the first to map the moon's surface. G. B. Riccioli's lunar map is in the Smithsonian. They did pioneering work in astronomy, map making, mathematics, and geophysics. They contributed to the development of barometers, microscopes, pendulum clocks, and reflecting telescopes. They were the first to discover the colored bands on the surface of Jupiter.

The German Jesuit Clavius, the first to use the decimal point, designed the calendar (Gregorian) we use today and was the teacher of Matteo Ricci, who translated his work, and the geometry of Euclid, into Chinese and paved the way for other scientific Jesuit missionaries to introduce Western maps, clocks, and astronomy to the Ming court before his death in Beijing in 1610.  He is honored there today as the wise sage "Dr. Li," who mastered the Chinese language and classic literature since he knew that, if he was to impress the elite of China, he had to respect their culture by knowing it.

So he and his men dressed as Confucian scholars and, after years of struggle, became not only accepted but welcomed by the Emperor, whose eunuchs consulted Ricci about a host of practical matters since at that time, European science and technology had made advances whereas China's had not. Ricci and his companions had only modest success spreading Christianity, but as cultural ambassadors, they were unrivalled.

With great patience and persistence in the face of attacks, floods, and other horrors, Ricci succeeded in showing China in the early 17th century
that its civilization was not the only one in the world. (I have enjoyed reading The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence.)

I could also mention the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, the subject of several books, as is Ricci; or the mathematician from Dubrovnik,
Roger Boscovich (d. 1787), who, in addition to writing poetry and writing treatises on mathematics and astronomy, served as a diplomat and consulting engineer; his major work on atoms and forces is still consulted.

The Jesuits sometimes got on the "wrong side" of the church hierarchy, as when they sided with grass-roots movements instead of monarchs, but their work today goes on after 450 years.  There are 90 Jesuit colleges or universities in 27 countries as well as 530 high schools in 55 countries; many of them, like my own school in St. Louis, are staffed largely by laymen educated, as I was fortunate to be, by these enlightened men of God.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Living with Same-Sex Marriage

This weekend our pastor, a much-loved Irish priest in his late sixties, a bit nervously addressed the congregation of our church on a topic that I am sure made him feel uncomfortable: What to do in the light of the recent Supreme Court's decisions on gay marriage.

I wrote to thank him for his honesty and courage, knowing that he was doing his best to follow the bishops' stance that only a marriage between a man and a woman can provide a stable home for the rearing of children.

I began by saying that I, too, have wrestled in recent years with the use of the term 'marriage' to refer to two persons of the same sex. I have come to realize that the only legal way to make equal opportunity happen for the minority who wish to commit themselves for life is through marriage.

Since I had noticed that our priest, always a very human and non-judgmental man, had openly worried about two things: where would this lead the country? and what was he to do with invitation he had received to the gay wedding of a young man he knew.

On the latter issue, I said that those who sent this priest the invitation were brave and would hope for the kind of loving response that Jesus would give: wishing these two young men happiness and success in being faithful to each other, even though the church's blessing cannot be extended.  What I didn't say is the obvious fact that at issue is civil marriage, not marriage as a sacrament in the Catholic Church, so in a sense the hierarchy's concerns seem overblown. 

Heterosexual marriage in this country, I went on, is in deep trouble, which has nothing to do with gays being married to each other.

I went on to say what has been said by many before me: that both sexes are capable of love and nurturing in families and there is every reason to be more optimistic about the future than our priest is.  Legalizing same-sex unions "will expand the possibility of more adoptions and allow same-sex people to being nurturing and love to any children they choose to adopt and to each other, in a more stable form."

So I see a future marked by an increase in love, a decrease in promiscuity among gay men, and an expansion of the idea of marriage.  "I can understand why the church's blessing cannot be given to these unions, yet I remain glad and hopeful that in the secular sphere, the gay people I know can become a bit more accepted in this land of opportunity."

Facing radical change of this kind, especially to those of us of a certain age is tough to do.  It is easy to see some of these same-sex unions as trendy and to worry that they will not last.  But when I think of all the single moms and some dads running households and raising kids, I am not worried that two men together or two women, with the security of marriage, will, overall, do an equally good job.  Society will be better off.