Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Justice and Juxtaposition

            I can’t remember who told me my father was a freedom rider. This maybe apocryphal memory, something I’m never comfortable with. What I am sure of is that my father was a man of high ideals. He earned his undergraduate degree in Political Science, in the early 1960’s, at the College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. This is a Jesuit Undergraduate liberal arts institution founded by a Catholic bishop who wanted Irish Catholic boys to receive the educations denied them at protestant leaning Ivy League institutions.  Years later, I accepted my degree from the very same college on the hill, but with less courage and more cynicism.
            The Jesuit educational tradition seeks to answer one question, “How then shall we live?” The simple, succinct, and, impossible answer is as “men and women for others.”  Add to it, the Jesuit motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” and you have the recipe for a life of action. Then again, without the inclination towards this ethos, it’s unlikely that anyone would end up at Holy Cross in the first place. It’s easy to dismiss all of this in light of the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, European Imperialism in Latin America and a host of other ills, but we would be remiss to understate the power of those ideas.  Modern Jesuit theology is decidedly liberal, preferential to the poor, and justice-seeking.
            One Sunday per year in the Roman Catholic calendar is devoted to vocation. Vocation Sunday can be a dreadful guilt-inducing, pleading, and occasionally pathetic affair where Roman Catholics pray for  boys wiling to enter the priesthood.  I’ve always felt that this understanding of a call is at best narrow and limiting and at worst exclusionary and alienating. Vocation is not yielding.  It is the battle cry of the soul’s voice commanding us to use the totality of our gifts, to become who we are meant to be, and to speak out on behalf of those whose calls are silenced by institutions and history. It was to this vocation my father responded that Sunday many years ago.
            On vocation Sunday, 1984, I sat between my older sister and father, on an unforgiving black wooden pew inside the dimly lit Catholic Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Inside my head, I played office, as only a five-year-old going on forty can. I colored the pages of the bulletin with Mommy’s black ballpoint pen, buzzed my secretary over an imaginary intercom, and checked my appointment book that doubled as a hymnal.
            Daddy tapped my shoulder. “Get up. We’re going.” He stood straight up in the middle of Fr. Michael’s homily. He looked at Mommy, “Do whatever you want.”
Aghast, I looked over at my silent mother until my father pulled my hand to stand me up. He pushed up the unoiled kneeler creating a deliberate loud creak and bang. Fr. Michael looked up from the lectern, coughed, and stared. Holding both our hands, Daddy walked my sister and me down the center aisle of the church, through the vestibule and out into Sydney Place’s warm Sunday air.  The entire walk home, he breathed loud, puffs of air through his nose.  With each puff out, his belt banged against his belly. His lean, long legs and fast, furious footsteps forced us into an outright run to keep up with him.  Once back at our house, he unlocked the front door, looked at both of our faces without smiling, and said, “Go play.”
            About thirty minutes later, after mass ended, my mother walked into the house, accompanied by a stooping, quivering, Fr. Michael. This was not to be missed. I sat half-way up the long staircase leading to the first landing, hidden by the shadows of the next flight of stairs. Whenever I wanted to eavesdrop, this was my place. My mother scurried into the kitchen and turned on the sink. Pans and plates banged, mostly for show. Our housekeeper, Anna, did the dishes.
Back in the front hallway, my father faced the door and Father Michael. The two tall towers stood about two yards apart, staring into awkwardness and the brown carpet runner rather than at each other. Father Michael took off his wire glasses, blew on the lenses, and rubbed them on his black shirt. The white of his collar was the only part of him not hidden by shadows.    
“Jack, is everything all right?” Fr. Michael had a calm voice and measured temper that I equated with tall people, including my father.        
            “Yes. Now, everything is.” He raised his eyebrows like did when he expected us to know we were being reprimanded without his saying a word. We always knew. Silence can be more powerful than a scream.
            “I saw you leave during my homily. You can imagine my concern when a member of my parish council walks out in the middle of mass. I take it the girls are not sick?”
            “No. The Church is.”
            “Come again?”
“Fr. Michael, I’ve been a member of this community for years now and I’ve never known you to fall for the bullshit, but to peddle it? I won’t have my girls sit and listen to it. Nor will I for that matter.”
“Mr. Lowe?”
“If the Church needs leaders, priests, and bishops as desperately as you claim it does, and I have two perfectly capable, beautiful and brilliant girls who can’t have that job simply because they are female, I do not entertain sympathy for the Church’s current lack of qualified candidates. You and I both know that the Church took issue with property rights in the middle ages and carries on a tradition of sexism to this day. Do not insult my intelligence by forcing me to listen to the importance of encouraging our sons to reach their potential. Moreover, under no circumstance will I allow my daughters to hear that they can’t have the important roles because they are girls. Besides, by the time they are old enough to decide, the Church may have woken up from its medieval hangover. If the Church wants a savior, it should wise up to the idea she may very well show up in female form. Thank you for coming to make sure we are all well. Good afternoon.”

Fr. Michael nodded, pivoted, turned the brass knob on the vestibule door, walked through it, closed it, and slipped out of our house with a happy spring I didn’t expect to see. Was he happy the meeting was over, or was he happy his friend reminded him why they were friends in the first place?

“Kate, I know you’re up there.” Daddy shouted. “Unless you come down here, I’m going to assume you understand. When we are a part of a group and the group is wrong, the worst thing we can do is sit and watch.  Being silent when you see something wrong may be worse than what you see in the first place.” I waited a full minute before slinking up the stairs to my sister and our Barbies.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

One of My Many Love Letters to the City of New Orleans. A City He Never Saw.

New Orleans. Just hearing those two words in passing stop time and place. The tug of a first soulmate transports me to an afternoon, sitting with the windows open on a nearly empty streetcar opening and closing my fingers to grasp the textured air. It’s possible to experience your first true connection to a place – I am living proof of that. Wherever I am when I hear the words, I close my eyes and sniff the air looking for magnolias, heat, and lingering dampness to soak the tiny hairs inside my nose. No other city, not even the great Gotham itself, holds the wonder and mystery of the Crescent City for me. Perhaps it is because I went there when I was twenty-three, partly formed and still ready to become whoever I would be. It wouldn’t be until three states and four cities later that I would learn all life is is a constant opening and becoming, closing and ending, growing and learning, shrinking and forgetting. Hegel haunts me with his dialectic, in New Orleans, he sings to me.
When you walk down the corridor at Louis Armstrong International airport, you hear zydeco music flooding out of the trinket shops, you see gas lamps lit indoors indicating some airport version of red beans and rice ready for savoring. Only your nose tingling from cleaning fluid wafting from the restrooms jars you back to the reality of an airport.
My first weekend in New Orleans was as an admitted student to the Tulane MBA program. My then fiancé came along with me even though he spent the better part of the day indoors watching Duke basketball on the tv in our hotel room. For me, the humid air was full of the expectation growing and ripening within me. As I hung my one dress in the hotel closet, I heard screaming and a band on St. Charles Avenue below. What could this be? We were well past Mardi Gras. I leaned out the open window to see floats of every shade of green from olive to moss to vermillion to anti-freeze sliding up the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground, disrupting both car and streetcar traffic for the remainder of the afternoon. There was nothing to do but join them.
On the sidewalk, outside my hotel, a drunk girl eating greasy fries from Iggy’s – the twenty-four hour bar and laundromat screamed, “Throw me something Mistah!”  In response, she looked up only to wail when a flying cabbage bonked her forehead. St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans.
Later that night, current students took the prospectives to a cigar bar on Tchopitoulas Street, Dos Jefes. Outside full sized white light bulbs on a wire lit the patio - a space easily twice the size of inside where a small band was playing brass-funk to a moderately appreciative crowd. Mice scurried across the wires, oblivious to electrocution and gravity.
Sitting outside, drinking a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, in March, with my skin slurping the thick humid air into its deepest layers, I first felt my soul. It lifted out of my chest and opened its mouth to greet her lover in the night.
The two omnipresent features of New Orleans are the music everywhere and the soft gelatinous air. The latter walks with you, hugging you, pushing you, smothering you and feeding you. The music floats within it, mixing and forming its own strange chemical reaction which is entirely impossible to explain unless you’ve felt humid music sit on your shoulders and soak through your shirt.
As a child, I was always described as “odd.” When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I learned to say, “eccentric.” Here, in this city that care forgot, eccentricity lifts from the pavement much like electricity does in New York and London. How could I feel at home anywhere but a city that embraces death and life, poor and rich, rancid and sweet? Here thesis, antithesis and synthesis happily coexist in every single moment that lives. For me, the city permitted me to be all parts of myself and loved all parts of me back in its own ghostly way lives on inside me.
When I die, I will ask to be buried in a New Orleans city of the dead, three feet above the ground. I think Daddy would have loved it here.