Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thomas Merton Remembered

In anticipating the 45th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, I plan to cite a few brief quotations from his writings, this one from Disputed Questions:

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Small is Beautiful

  Recently, a neighbor, with a house about the same size as ours, asked me how many television sets we had. "One," I replied.
 "Only one?!  We have five!"
 "Why?" I wanted to know. "Do you have multiple wives? I know your family is long grown and flown away...."

  He laughed, then asked how many computers we had, and when I said "one," he was floored, as if I had just emerged from a cave.

  Why do two married adults living in one house need 5 TVs? Has the quality of programming improved since I last checked in with the major networks?  I can see the usefulness of having 2 TVs, and I know how hard it can be to find time to use the computer since my wife, Lynn, is also a writer...But we work around each other.  We make do. We share.

  I am not a miser and I don't think of our lifestyle is especially frugal, but we are not big on gadgets or on having the latest and fastest tech devices: our lives have always moved more slowly.

  I wanted to ask my friend if he knew the book by E. F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful" or any of the many other more recent books and articles that advocate simplifying our lives and saving both money and the planet.  I wanted to mention the needs of the world, where many people make do with no electronic equipment and where sharing is a given.

  But then I would sound sanctimonious, and I probably do in what I have just written.  My neighbor's questions and reactions amused me at first, then led me to think about the temptation to isolate oneself behind a TV or computer screen, foregoing conversation and communal living.  What we do in microcosm, multiplied by millions, has to have some effect on the macrocosm of society and the world. 

  And it satisfies something in my soul to say No to the consumerist culture, which values people's lives by the money, cars, and things they have.  No wonder some people hate Christmas.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A dream that became a nightmare

The murder of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month is probably the most traumatic event of my life, in part because I was young and impressionable when I heard the news. Kennedy was the embodiment of all I wanted to be at the age of 21: smart, successful, glamorous, witty, cool.

The news of his death came to me in my first year of teaching as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and the voice of Walter Cronkite on that occasion still sends chills down my spine: "The President died today at 1 p.m."  I cannot watch videos of his Dallas trip, even now.

Death had never entered my life until then, and it was unthinkable that violence could take out the President of the United States, especially a man of such promise. I had heard his brother, Robert, campaign for then-Senator Kennedy in 1960 at St. Louis University, but was too young to vote for him. I was always proud that the first Catholic president was so classy.

I didn't know, of course, of the dark side. What I have learned over the years of this complex character still cannot erase the promise of idealism that he presented to the world and to my generation. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, was our commencement speaker in St. Louis in 1962. It was the best of times. How could it all go so wrong?

We will never know what was taken from us: that is the tragedy that still gnaws at those who loved Kennedy, even if we had questions about his decisions and inexperience, his lies and affairs.

It seems from what I have read that he grew from a cold warrior to a peacemaker in the last year of his life. As James K. Galbraith of the Univ. of Texas writes in the NYTimes, JFK moved in Oct. 1963 to end the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which, I am convinced, would not have been escalated if he had lived. His 1963 speech at American University, which led to the nuclear test ban treaty, his beginning work on civil rights, and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis showed the emergence of a real leader.

I don't understand his infidelities, his recklessness and selfishness except for the context of the constant pain he endured--without complaining. He had a lifelong sense, I think, that his health problems would not give him a full life. Much--too much--has been written about the Kennedy family and Greek tragedy. Much that followed his administration in the decades after his death has always seemed to me a downward spiral into more and more violence.

Suffice it to say that he was not shallow, as often perceived, but a serious student of history who mastered the art of language. And he was becoming a true leader who could have changed the history of the late 20th century. For those of us who loved him as the embodiment of our youthful ideals, he remains unique and forever young.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Preparing for College

Each week I help a high school junior study for his SAT verbal test that will be an essential part in his being accepted to a college or university next year. His parents, like most American parents, think it's essential that he get a college degree.

Having taught at universities for many years, I tell him that what happens in college involves words and their meanings and that the more reading he does, the better. He looks at me blankly, then shows me his weekly list of vocabulary words.

Forty words a week are given to him by his English teacher to memorize, as if they were part of a foreign language.  The words are not put in any context, such as sentence or paragraph, and they are unrelated to any assigned reading given to the class. This strikes me as an odd way to teach.

So I do my best to create a context for each word, and by repetition and rote memory, he does pretty well on his weekly vocabulary tests.

What I don't say to him is that many of the words he has to learn are commonly used in the media and should be used in the home. If I had one     bit of advice for parents of high school students, it would be to pay attention to vocabulary development, noting words used on television and using some of these in everyday conversation, along with definitions.

I am not, for the most part, talking about erudite or learned words but ones like the following from recent SAT word lists:



It seems to me that a 17-year-old American, born of American parents, one of whom was a science teacher with advanced degrees, should know such words by having heard and used them. They should not be new to him.

It sounds simplistic to say so, but education begins at home, and so does college preparation.  Students must do more reading, less video watching; they must play word games and have fun learning a new English word every day throughout the primary years and into high school. Parents can make this happen in positive ways.

If they did, there would be no need for my young friend (and millions like him) to be worried about studying such words each week: he should know them!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Saints and Halloween

The children keep getting younger, I thought last night as I greeted tick-or-treaters in strollers and in the arms of their parents, who were reliving their own Halloween experiences as kids.  A one-year-old, dressed as a bumble bee, had to be restrained from grabbing a seemingly endless helping of candy.

I doubt if many of the many folks who celebrated Halloween (not Holloween) last night had any clue about the ancient origins of the festival or even the meaning of word: All Hallows' Eve, the night (evening=eve) before Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints (or Hallows in early English) in the Catholic tradition going back to the 8th century.  It is only "hollow"--and limited to silliness and candy--to those unfamiliar with what is "hallowed" (holy).

Even before that, in the folklore of pre-Christian Ireland, this time of the year was sacred, a time to celebrate the dark forces of life, to sense in the changing of the seasons that a dying of the year is taking place.  So in Mexico we have the Day of the Dead, or what we in English call All Souls' Day tomorrow, honoring deceased friends and family, especially of the past year, just as today we honor those who are with God.

So Halloween, which has spread in its modern incarnation around the world, is not an American "plot" designed to sell candy or promote tooth decay or encourage children to become beggars. Its folklore origins, like its Christian heritage, remind us of our debt to the untold millions of people who have gone before us. Its solemnity is heightened by an evening festival that precedes the occasion in a light-hearted way, as we laugh at devils and ghosts.  Then we are ready to be serious in honoring the saints.

Calling them saints does not mean they are officially declared to be so by the church. Robert Ellsberg's classic book, All Saints, is a wonderful collection of short pieces honoring men and women from many religious traditions who have made a difference in the world.  He includes, in addition to St. Francis and the usual array of canonized notables, such people as Gandhi, M. L. King, Chief Seattle, Anne Frank, J. S. Bach, Cesar Chavez and Oskar Schindler, writers Donne and Dostoyevksy, Rabbi Heschel and Martin Buber and a few more surprising choices, like Van Gogh and Galileo.

Many people have their own favorites among the distinguished dead. But we think, too, on these "days of the dead" of all the others whose names are lost or known only to our families, including those who have been martyred or eliminated by unjust governments and lie in unmarked graves.

This, for me, is a powerful time because I remember that I am surrounded by the dead and connected to them, as the darkening days of autumn lead to winter, a kind of annual memento mori.