Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015.02.22 Anita

“You gotta see this great new movie we just saw last night. It’s 'Anita,' a terrific docudrama about her story up to today, narrated by her voice.”

“Mom, you’re obsessed with Anita Hill!” 

 “You’re right. But she’s one of my heroes.” 

Obsession might be too strong a word, but close. I suppose my daughter remembered when her mother sat glued to the TV in 1991 listening to Hill tell her truth to the “hill.” And her mother is still talking about it. Then it was a brave new thing for a woman to do. It still is.

It’s sweetly ironic that three of my most valued heroes are black women:
    -Rosa Parks (1913-2005), the quiet woman/civil rights activist, who, in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, refused the bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the black section of the bus to a white passenger, and catapulted a movement, already in the wings, onto the national stage. There are no rights without duties, and Parks didn’t do her “duty” and was arrested.
     - the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, first Anglican woman bishop in the world, consecrated in 1989 as Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts, who, though urged to do so, refused to wear a bulletproof vest and jumped-started the institutional church into its next right move toward gender equality. A comment, about a contraption like the vest doing nothing for a woman’s physique, has been attributed to Harris. If she didn’t say it, she probably thought it.
      -Anita Hill, attorney and retired professor at Brandeis Law School, who, when summoned in 1991, agreed to testify before the Senate confirmation hearings to approve Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice. Hill told the truth about being harassed by her one-time boss, and gave rise to the issue we now call sexual harassment.
 Thomas was voted in by a narrow margin, but many women took up the cry for justice with vigor and humor. Pat Schroeder ( House Representative from Colorado, 1973-1997) captured the question and the quest: “How can you be a congresswoman and a mother? I have a uterus and a brain. I use both.”)

 Damn, I wish I’d said that to the church when I was questioned about being a mother and a priest!

I don’t know why my three chief women heroes are African American. I certainly admire any and all women feminist pioneers in the movement for gender equality, an issue which, to me, supplants and overrides all the particularized divisions we fight over (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.)

It may be that these stories, such a stretch for my well-honed white Anglo-Saxon privilege, made me weep, touched my heart so deeply that I knew that this was the stuff of everlasting heroism, something to follow. I call such heroics, spirituality: when something taps into my core, where I believe God dwells, and makes me explode. Pow!  Then I shout or write or turn activist in my way.

I am grateful when I get depth charges, like this. The deeper issue Hill also identifies is gender equality. It was not Anita’s testimony that helped us move forward; it was the public voice that took up the message and kept it alive. “I just made a scene. You all made it a movement.”

True heroism is when the message inside a personal moment of truth bears truth beyond the one who experiences the moment. It’s a pay it forward phenomenon. You can see it in the Hebrew prophets and the gospel messages in the Christian testament. 

Hill speaks about her decision to “leave home” to write her book, Speaking Truth to Power. She had been so traumatized by the harassment (my word) she received from the all-male squirmy panel of senators when she told the truth about experiencing her own sexual harassment from Thomas, that she couldn’t wait to get home.

Home meant the bosom of her large supportive family in which she thrived as the “baby sister,” youngest of thirteen. Home also meant her state: Oklahoma where, she said, white and black culture coexisted in a way that honored the past while simultaneously living into a new kind of future. Home meant she would be cradled, both privately and publicly. Home meant being affirmed, even cheered— and a place to heal.

But home, as necessary as it was to Anita in 1991, couldn’t last. She discovered that it was sheltering, and also limiting—too protective a climate in which to launch a book, advance her academic career in law, social policy and women’s studies up north at Brandeis, and continue to fuel what she had started. (She has written a book on this topic, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. “I found my voice in 1991, and I won’t lose it,” she said.

In one scene, Hill was asked by a tearful member of an audience, “How do you deal with fear, I mean through it?” 

“What caused me to be fearful, my testimony, was the right thing to do,” she answered.
How does one know what the right thing to do is? You don’t. There is only conviction with passion—and doubt. It helps if your one voice in the crowd is echoed by other voices from the crowd, even if they are few, and even if they are faint.

One such voice was that of the twelve-year-old daughter of Charles Ogletree, Professor of Law at Harvard. Ogletree was present at the testimony. He supported Hill and had his doubts, too. One evening his daughter called him to say: “Daddy, I’m home watching Anita Hill on TV.”  “You shouldn’t be watching that,” said Daddy.“I know but I am. I just wanted you to know I believe Anita.”

I believed Anita, too. I still believe Anita. It’s hard to watch and listen to her and not believe her. It was harder then to listen to Thomas pulling the racial discrimination card to defend himself as if he were the real victim here. The issue was not race, it was gender! 

I believe in my daughter, who tolerates my obsession, and who is a gifted lobbyist for legislative justice for labor. I sense her conviction about justice is more than a job.

I call the film, 'Anita'  a miracle unfolding. The late Anglican theologian, the Rev. John Macquarrie defined a miracle as something unstoppable that happens for which we feel surprised and grateful.  Or . . .I wonder?  Could a miracle also be something God is doing all along but of which we suddenly become aware—and appreciative.

We know a lot more about gender equality than we did in 1991, Hill said. “We are on the verge of something monumental. Now I can retire.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2015.02.15 A Face To Remember

This image mesmerized me. I saw it in the Boston Globe Arts section of February 10, 2015.
It's a painting (hanging at the Worcester Art Museum) by the Spanish artist, Bartolomé Estebán Murillo (1618-82) of thirteenth century Spanish saint Rosa of Viterbo. This child survived religious persecution, life as an orphan, and is credited with healing miracles, required in the Roman Catholic Church for sainthood, but waived by Pope Francis I for one papal saint. What counts as a miracle today?

Rosa's religious faith not only held through suffering but increased and, at 15, she tried to establish a monastery. What keeps us longing, and paradoxically trusting, a God some still hold responsible for everything, from weather to our own sins? What?

To me this painting, despite, and even because of, its realism, is like an icon through which I can see divinity. I was struck first by the utter lack of sentimentality. Then I felt beckoned by her liquid eyes. Her mouth is poised to say something. I listened. What is she saying? It's like trying to imagine what Jesus wrote in the sand just before he turned the rules of his culture upside down and saved a woman about to be stoned for adultery. He sent the angry, stone-bearing crowd packing: "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." Such rare wisdom holds purchase today, and for all time.

I noticed the flowers  next, and only as I was about to turn aside, did I see the crucifix. It seemed almost an aside, meant to be very much a part of the reality of human life. It was obviously something which formed this child and helped her have hope, as much as the flowers did. And now she looks out at the world to say?

Pace t'imploro! 

(This last line from Verdi's opera, Aida, means "I pray for thy peace." It's the poignant song of a lover.  (It's opera after all!)

 Imploro—such a strong word. Imploro.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

2015.02.08 I'd Know Scout Anywhere

This photo looks just as I thought seven-year-old Scout, aka Jean Louise Finch, would look by the time she reached 88. Isn’t she beautiful? I wonder if authors who create strong characters write themselves into them, not just personality and speech, but the actual image itself.
 This photo is Harper Lee, the woman who is now 88 and who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, starring a little girl named Scout. Scout grew up in Macomb, Alabama, pretty much had the run of the streets, including places she wasn’t supposed to go, like the courthouse where her Daddy, whom she called by his name, Atticus, was defending a black man against charges of raping a white woman in the 1930s.

Mockingbird, published in 1960, is one of the most beloved novels in history—right up there with the Bible and Shakespeare. Oh, and Agatha Christie, too. Lee exposed the pain of racism through the eyes of a young child who, with wide eyes and a discerning heart, questioned everything, wanting to know, and even more wanting to understand, why people behaved “not nice” to other people.

Scout was lucky to have Atticus Finch as a father— patient enough to address with candor the child’s dilemmas about race, class, mental deficiency, and human kindness. Atticus, despite his own grief at the loss of his young wife, or maybe because of it, made room for his daughter’s unformed convictions about justice to grow within the safe bounds of affection and manners.  Atticus Finch goes down in history as one of the best fathers ever.

I saw a television documentary interviewing the actors many years after they had played Atticus and Scout in the 1962 movie version of Mockingbird. Mary Badham, who played Scout as a child, said that Gregory Peck, who played Atticus, treated her in real life just as he did in the film. Nice!

The new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was written in the mid-1950s, and features Scout as an adult woman. Lee thought it “a pretty decent effort,” but her editor liked the flashbacks from Scout’s childhood so much he persuaded Lee to write the novel from the child’s point of view. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Lee said. She hadn’t realized the original book had survived, “so was delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of friends and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will be published after all these years.”

I include the above quote from a Feb. 4 piece in the Boston Globe, because some writers are wondering whether Lee, in her advanced years, was fully aware of what was happening as she released an old and, apparently not to be edited, manuscript for publication. Many writers save all their first drafts and shrink from the idea of anyone seeing them in their naked state. Should we make sure the old stuff is shredded? It’s an issue about control of one’s own intellectual property and a valid concern for awareness. 

If you can believe the quote from Lee, and I do, then would a “dear friend” act this way? And what about Lee’s own satisfaction with her first book and her recent careful considerations about the project, not to mention her “delight” at the discovery and the publication. Is 88 too old to be making such discernments?

Most all my old manuscript stuff, raw and pretty lousy, is still somewhere in my computer. I’m not famous, nor likely to be, so it’s not of much concern to me. Even if I were, though, I might just let it go and let it be. Honestly, even greed, if that is a motivator, couldn’t ruin Harper Lee’s reputation, and who could forget Scout—ever? There is something eternal in a great story that not much can tarnish.

I am eager to read the new novel and believe I will feel Harper Lee’s voice, sense the character of Scout and others, and relish being in Macomb again. Resurrections are risky. I hope this one works. 

Here is my favorite quote from To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is speaking to Jem, Scout’s older, by a couple of years, brother.

Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  About sums it up, huh?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015.02.01 It's a Feast Day! It's Sunday! It's SUPER Day!

Awaking this morning, I first thought: it’s Sunday. Then I thought: it’s the day of the parish Annual Meeting. Then I realized: NO, it’s Superbowl Sunday! This is a day, all hallowed for most Americans, coast to coast—the day we praise our national sport: Football. (Look Ma, not deflated!)
My heart sank, not because I have an outsized aversion to football as such, but because I felt a  familiar feeling: that of being left out—just like I felt when I was young and my mother and sisters would join in trimming the tree while my father dozed, and I fought back tears. Dad was left out, and I felt left out for him. I now understand that I felt love for him and sadness about his remove, and that there was nothing wrong with me. Still, that old feeling sometimes haunts. 

Today it made me think about me and football. When I was a young teen our family religiously went to the Yale/Harvard football games. Daddy was a Yalie. We could easily get to the Yale Bowl for home games. When football Saturday dawned, there was excitement in the air. THE GAME!

We got up early to help Mom pack a magnificent picnic lunch in a hamper:every good food each one of us had ordered for the feast, plus plenty of soda and beer—and something in a thermos that was not for kids. This was the Feast of the Tailgate—station wagons lining the stadium parking lot with their tailgates down and all the goodies displayed. Some people brought candelbra and set tables.

These days bring fond memories, not so much of football, which never seemed like a game, and which, despite many explanations, I could never understand, other than that a first down for our team was good, and our team was good. I did love the pudgy bull dog mascot and watching the male cheerleaders leap in the air, leading us in cheers and song: Boola, Boola, Eee-Lye-Yale. In short, it was a totally enjoyable ritual: all of us together and Dad happy.  I fell asleep in the car on the way home, happy myself. Thanks to football.

Recently, I attended a talk by Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Almond, a former Sports writer for the Boston Globe is one of my favorite writers. He’s honest—and blunt. I went because I was curious about football, having read all the hullabaloo about players winding up with concussive disabilities for life. I also went to come to  terms with my own distaste for the stupid violence of this non-sport-like sport everyone loved. I did not agree with the testosterone outlet rationales. Why the holy magic of football, so obviously a “game” that depended on collision?

Almond said that his truth landed when his mother suffered an “insult to the brain.” Learning about the brain, its beauty and its fragility, unearthed the dark side of his own, and the nation’s, fascination with football. He called it “a national addiction which fosters tolerance for violence, greed, racism and homophobia, and part of a larger tribal system.” 

A few key points:
    -We create fantasies that this “game” can be made safer, but there are harmful physiological consequences + physics problems: mass x acceleration = force. The average player weighs 300 pounds, exceeding NFL limits. They have to gain weight to keep their jobs. 
    -The accretion of sub-concussive events is alarming. Argument has been made that men who played pro-football had already had previous concussions, and somehow don't count?  Studies monitoring brain functioning in high school football players indicated that there was diminished brain functioning after play, even when there had been no concussive symptoms beforehand. Not one blow, but a series of hits, concussion or no, reduced brain function after playing.
    -Football is a cash cow, and we build moral rationales to adjust to it. We build stadiums, keep cheering our lungs out. The consumer market is well-reinforced. Too much hype and cheer creates irrational pressure and expectation for more and more and more, with little room for failure. (I thought of the presidential inauguration in 2012 when near-ecstatic (hysterical?), overflow crowds filled the D.C. mall to overflow. What kind of exalted expectation did all that praise create for the office, not to mention the man?)
    -Will take a famous player to confess his disability fully before Almond’s goal can be fulfilled: the disruption of the narrative of complacency we’ve built around our fervent consumption of what amounts to sanctioning conditions of war.  And what about our heroes after we’re done with consuming them briefly as entertainers? (I told you I liked his blunt speech.)

Are even Christian values satisfied when we see a wounded body fallen for a higher cause? In football, those values are greed, lust and violence. What are the values in our Christian faith? I wonder about the high priest Caiaphas, Roman-appointed High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple and a co-conspirator in Jesus’ death. Caiaphas, according to John’s gospel (11:49,18:14), advised the Temple authorities that it was better to have one man die than destroy a whole nation. I’m not saying that this story is fact; I am saying that it contains a moral sanction of scapegoating violence that has become a part of Christian belief and liturgy. (See Gil Bailey’s book, Violence Unveiled.)

Almond suggests ideas for the future: to press for weight limitations in national competitions, training for coaches, mandatory academic grade requirements for players to graduate, and a look at our own cultural values.

Many in Almond’s audience shared fond memories of family connections, especially with Dads. Which brings me back to where I began. I established connections with my dad as an adult that were far more satisfying than the bonds of football. I knew he wasn’t a fan either, except that he, like me, loved being part of the group.

When I learned to play touch football—for girls, they said, I made touchdowns without tackling anyone. doesn’t escape my notice that we don’t call God “super.” (The rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is mocking. The rest of the lyric is: “Do you think you’re what they say you are?”)

I’m of a mind to say that nothing/ no one should be called SUPER. We don’t call God SUPER, so what the blazes are we doing to humanity with our collective need for false heroes?