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—1 —

First, St. Augustine, who’s in the Loyola Kids Book o’ Saints, under “Saints are people who help us understand God.” The first two pages:

— 2 —

Secondly…well, we’re back. And about to be gone. So here’s what happened today.

We packed up and left Gardnier, WY, at the north end of the park, about 7:30. We were met at the Yellowstone entrance (which is right there) with the news that not only was the road I knew was closed still closed because of fires (between Old Faithful and West Thumb), but another road  – the alternate I’d been assuming would be our way out – was closed as well, because of an overturned gas-carrying 18-wheeler. That one, between Canyon and the lake (below is a campground map – first thing I grabbed – it’s the road between Canyon Village and “Fishing Bridge” campground.)

So here’s a map.

campgroundmap

You can see the problem. There would be no way to get from Gardiner, in the north, to the South entrance, which then would get us on the road to Jackson. It was going to be a 3.5 hour drive, straight shot (you can’t go over 45 on most park roads), and we were planning to take our time and see things we’d missed and maybe take another look at some geysers.

But with that news, the route had to shift, didn’t it? Like, dramatically – out through West Yellowstone and out and over further west, then south through Idaho, to Jackson from the west. Adding not only distance, but time as well. Okay, champ, I’ll settle in to drive, you settle in to sleep.

And now is the part where I tell you that I just learned that as of 8am this morning that road between Old Faithful and West Thumb was opened. I don’t know why they didn’t know that at the entrance gate at 7:35, but it is what it is. No regrets. It’s fine – we saw some lovely sights along the way.

— 3 —

I shook traveling companion awake not long after departure to take in the Roaring Mountain – it used to emit this steam with a lot more force and noise (hence the name), but it’s still impressive.

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After that – the drive to West Yellowstone is gorgeous, with stunning cliffsides lining the road.

Then….Idaho. So, new state! That means three new states added to our list with this trip, and I’ve now realized I’m up to 45. Only Oregon, Washington, North Dakota, Alaska and Hawaii remain.

It also means that one traveling companion awakened and learning where we were, it was a steady diet of Napoleon Dynamite quotations until the Tetons loomed into site again – and from the west, they are quite lovely. And we were delighted to see that we could, at last…actually see them, since the smoke from the fires further west had evidently dissipated.

— 4 —

Once over the pass, we took a slight detour into Teton Village, since I was curious what a ski village would look like. I’ve known folks who’ve traveled to the area to ski, and I confess my image of what that was wasn’t exactly what I saw, and not just because it’s summer. I guess I imagined something more bucolic and rural, not condos crammed at the base of a mountain. Huh. Well, it’s probably real nice in winter and obviously people like it, so they can have it.

On to Jackson, lunch, since it was a little early, wander around a bit, since it was still early, finally gain access to hotel.

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This is not from our hotel, but from the balcony of a shop. See the arch? It’s elk antlers, and there’s more of the same on the square, and one at the entrance into the Jackson airport terminal, as well. 

— 5 –

Then back into the car and back up to Jenny Lake – about 30 miles north. We had hours of daylight left, so why not get in some more hiking to points we’d missed before? The route was partway around the lake to the Moose Pond trails – no moose where seen – there– and then up the rest of the way to where the boat had dropped us before, the starting point for hikes to Inspiration Point, Hidden Falls and then the Cascade Canyon trail, which we’d walked a good bit of on Friday, and greatly enjoyed.We decided the best use of our time would be to get up to Hidden Falls and then take the boat back to the other side. Which we did, getting back to the car by 7, back into Jackson by 8, then to dinner at Bubba’s Barbecue, which was excellent. 

— 6 –

And so…..animals today? Lots of elk, of course. Two does with their fawns crossing the road near the Visitor’s Center on this end of Grand Teton NP, and then, on the Jenny Lake hike…

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— 7 —

And….

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I think he was in the same spot 45 minutes later when we rode the boat across the lake, because I could see a group of folks on the trail there, looking down. For video, go to Instagram. 

As per usual, I’ll do a post– probably tomorrow, from the airport – describing our itinerary and accommodations choices, for anyone contemplating a similar trip.

Back to ordinary life very, very soon. But in these days, of course, “ordinary” is anything but….

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

Well, here we are, just about one week and counting from, we hope, The Return to College. Out of five classes, all but one will be (as far as we can tell) face-to-face, and I don’t mind paying for that.

What a ride.

So, next week: Hopefully get his old car sold (anyone in Alabama want a 2006 Mazda Miata?) get serious about lists and shopping and such. I’m not anxious about it because he’ll have a car with him and in case he needs toothpaste, he can just pop out to Wal-Mart and…go get some. There isn’t that concern to Buy All The Things because he won’t be able to restock for weeks or months.

But we do want to get most of the stuff before we go. Added to the usual this year: Masks? Check. Sanitizer? Check. Thermometer? Check. Etc. He has all of this textbooks. He’ll be in a single room, so no roommate concerns, and that also lessens the Pandemic Prevention Pressure.

— 2 —

I’m in Living Faith today. Here ’tis. 

Before this – here. 

— 3 —

My new favorite Twitter account. Language alert, blah, blah, blah.

 — 4 —

Working hard here, every day. Process?

In the evening, take a look at the material to be written about the next day. Read any unfamiliar Scripture passages. Let it simmer.

Get up the next morning, first thing revise the two or three chunks written the day before. Then write two-three new chunks.

Done by 10 am, usually.

Onward!

— 5

In case you missed it earlier this week:

I’ll Fly Away – The Sister Servants from Sister Servants on Vimeo.

Learn more about the Sister Servants here. 

 

6–

Here’s a really excellent article on Hemingway and O’Connor, turning on the imagery of blood and yes, bulls. It’s very, very good. 

It is also noteworthy here that Mrs. May is described as being “pierced”—that word associated with suffering and with the cross—and that the piercing coincides with a kind or rapture or “ecstasy,” a word whose Greek root means “to stand outside of oneself” and suggests a transcendence of self. O’Connor’s heroine is cast as a modern-day version of Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy, who is pierced, in the midst of her visionary rapture, by a visiting angel.

Along similar lines, Hemingway associates the violence of the bullring with ecstasy, particularly the faena—the final third of the bullfight wherein the matador performs his capework with the bull before killing him. In Death in the Afternoon he writes of this rapture, describing the faena as a ritual

That takes a man out of himself and makes him feel immortal while it is proceeding, that gives him an ecstasy, that is, while momentary, as profound as any religious ecstasy; moving all the people in the ring together . . . in a growing ecstasy of ordered, formal, passionate, increasing disregard for death (206-207).

The ecstasy O’Connor and Hemingway describe—and that Bernini depicts— is the culmination of intense bodily sensation leading to enlightenment of the soul. The natural leads to the supernatural. Time becomes one with eternity. Suffering is redeemed. It is mystical, transcendent, and deeply Catholic.

The uses of violence by both Hemingway and O’Connor remind us of the reality human life is grounded in: we are all living “on the verge of eternity” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 114), and the way we conduct our lives in the here and now has a spiritual dimension. Violence reminds us of our unceasing proximity to death, and this knowledge can serve as a conduit to grace.

 

— 7 —

Tomorrow? St. Dominic, here in the Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints.  Only a page is available  online, so here it is. He’s in “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray” section.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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A final chapter from Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies (full text available here for .99 – actually .00 until midnight tonight).  I have skipped a few – this is chapter 10, which describes the role of Mary Magdalene in the lives of late medieval and counter-reformation mystics and spiritual writers.

For excerpts from other  chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

Chapter four: Mary Magdalene in Patristic writings

MARY AND THE MYSTICS

The heart of the Christian life is prayer, and throughout our history Mary Magdalene has often been found in that heart, pointing the way to Christ. Like any saint, Christians have looked to her as a model, and have prayed for her intercession.

In this chapter, we’ll look at some important figures in the Christian spiritual tradition, mostly women, and how they have been inspired and nourished by the example of Mary Magdalene. Some found parallels between their lives and hers. Others found strength in her identity as a repentant sinner, or in the model of solitary con-templation offered by the legends they knew. The lives of all of these prayerful people help us see the tremendous positive power the figure of Mary Magdalene has held in the lives of many Christians.

Like a Sister

Margery Kempe is one of the more vivid figures to emerge from the medieval period, partly because she left extensive autobiographical writings (dictated to a priest), but also because her experiences are so extreme to the point that today we might indeed diagnose her as mentally ill.

She was an Englishwoman, born in the late thirteenth century, married, and the mother of fourteen children. She eventually convinced her husband to live with her as a brother, and from that point embarked on a number of pilgrimages — to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Norway, and Germany. Her Book of Margery Kempe is an invaluable record of the period in general, and of religious life and sensibilities in particular.

The Book records visionary experiences, most of which involve Margery, who refers to herself as “said creature,” in the midst of a biblical scene, observing and interacting with the other participants, often weeping copiously. Her visions reflect a knowledge of some of the medieval religious plays featuring Mary Magdalene, as well as a work called Meditations on the Life of Christ, a very popular devotional believed to have been written by St. Bonaventure, but now ascribed to a figure known as “Pseudo-Bonaventure.”

Margery joins Mary Magdalene and others at the cross. She mourns with them. For ten years, on every Good Friday, she weeps for five or six hours. After the Resurrection, she displaces Mary Magdalene, and converses with Christ herself, receiving his assurance that if Mary Magdalene could be forgiven of her sins, so should Margery. She, along with the Virgin, expresses sorrow at the imminent physical departure of Jesus, and is comforted by him.

Margery draws strength from Mary Magdalene, then, as a model of a sinner who loved Christ and was devoted to him. The imagery she offers, of herself mourning over the dead Christ, kissing his feet and caring for his body, is evocative of spiritual writing and art of the period in which Mary Magdalene is playing that same role:

[Jesus to Margery Kempe:] “Also, daughter, I know . . . how you call Mary Magdalene into your soul to welcome me for, daugh-ter,I know well enough what you are thinking.You think that she is the worthiest, in your soul, and you trust most in her prayers next to my mother, and so you may indeed, daughter, for she is a very great mediator to me for you in the bliss of heaven.” (Book of Margery Kempe, chapter 86, in Medieval Writings on Female Spiritualityedited by Elizabeth Spearing [Penguin Books, 2002], p. 251)

The Second Mary Magdalene

Similar comfort was found by St. Margaret Cortona (1247-1297), who is actually called the “Second Mary Magdalene.” She was born in Tuscany, and as a young adult woman she became lovers with a nobleman, bore him a child, and lived with him for nine years. The man File:Giovanni Lanfranco - Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona - WGA12453.jpgwas murdered, at which point Margaret took her child and fled, first to her family’s home, where she was rejected, and then to a Franciscan friary. Her subsequent life as a Franciscan tertiary was marked by continued battles with temptations of the flesh (she is a patron saint of those battling temptation), repentance, and service to the poor.

Obviously, her past life led to her identification with the popular memory of St. Mary Magdalene, repentant sinner — and like Margery Kempe, Margaret found solace in Mary’s penitent life. The following was related by one of her early biographers:

“Shortly before her death, she had a vision of St. Mary Magdalene, ‘most faithful of Christ’s apostles, clothed in a robe as it were of silver, and crowned with a crown of precious gems, and surrounded by the holy angels.’ And whilst she was in this ecstasy Christ spoke to Margaret, saying:‘My Eternal Father said of Me to the Baptist:This is My beloved Son;so do I say to thee of Magdalene:This is my beloved daughter.’ On
another occasion we are told that ‘she was taken in spirit to the feet of Christ, which she washed with her tears as did Magdalene of old;and as she wiped His feet she desired greatly to behold His face,and prayed to the Lord to grant her this favor.’ Thus to the end we see she was the same; and yet the difference.” (
Saints for Sinners, by Alban Goodier, S.J. [Ignatius Press, 1993], p. 46)

Bathed in Blood

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, and considering the competition, that is saying quite a bit.

Born in 1347, the youngest of twenty-five children, Catherine was intensely devout, but uninterested in taking the usual route for young women like herself, which would have been joining a reli-gious community. She became associated with the Dominicans — whose patron was Mary Magdalene, remember — as a tertiary, but operated with a startling degree of independence for a woman of her era. We remember her today for her letters, her spiritual writ-ings (dictated to her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua), and her determination to play a role in reforming the papacy, at that time in exile in Avignon, France, and corrupted by luxury.

Catherine saw Mary Magdalene as a second mother, having dedicated herself to her in a special way upon the death in child-birth of her sister, Bonaventura, an incident that seems to have been an important motivator in Catherine’s spiritual life. When Bonaventura died, Catherine envisioned herself at the feet of Christ, with Mary Magdalene, begging for mercy. Her biographer noted Catherine “doing everything she could to imitate her to obtain forgiveness” (quoted in Haskins, p. 179). Blessed Raymond summarizes Catherine’s devotion in the following passage:

“‘Sweetest daughter, for your greater comfort I give you Mary Magdalen for your mother.Turn to her in absolute confidence; I entrust her with a special care of you.’ The virgin gratefully accepted this offer. . . . From that moment the virgin felt entirely at one with the Magdalen and always referred to her as her mother.” (Quoted in Jansen, p. 303)

In terms of her personal spirituality, Catherine looked to Mary Magdalene as a model of repentance and faithfulness, never leaving Jesus at the cross. Nor, she determined, would she, faithfully persevering in fidelity despite the extraordinary risks she faced in confronting the most powerful figure of the day — the pope — with evidence of his own sins.

[Catherine of Siena on Mary Magdalene, the “loving disciple”:] “Wracked with love, she runs and embraces the cross.There is no doubt that to see her master, she becomes inundated with blood.” (Quoted in Haskins, p. 188)

St.Teresa of Ávila

The sixteenth century was a period of conflict and reform for the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the century, there was only one Christian Church in the West, but by the end there were scores of different churches and movements emanating from the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church, faced with the consequences of, in part, its own weakness and corruption, responded to the Reformation with its own inner purification, commonly called the Counter-Reformation, or the Catholic Reformation. The Council of Trent, meeting over several years mid-century, standardized prayer and liturgical texts, mandated seminary training for priests, and confidently restated traditional Catholic teaching on justification, Scripture, Tradition, and the life of the Church.

Change doesn’t come only from the top, though. When a reforming spirit is in the Catholic air, inevitably groups rise up to meet the challenge and undertake the work. It happened, for example, in the thirteenth century with the rise of the mendicant orders.

Some argue it is happening today with the rising popularity of groups like Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, and the Neo-Catechumenal Way.

The sixteenth century was no different. It was the era that saw the establishment of the Jesuits, who evangelized with vigor and focus, under the direct supervision of the pope. It was also the era that saw the reformation of many religious orders. One of the most important leaders on this score was St. Teresa of Ávila, who worked tirelessly to reform the Carmelites in Spain.

Not that she started out life as a reformer. Teresa entered religious life at an early age, but did not pursue holiness with much vigor. Many convents in that period had devolved to essentially groups of well-off women dwelling together, living only nominally religious lives.

Teresa lived this way until her forties, when illness prompted a change of heart. In the wake of her conversion, Teresa was inspired to reform existing houses of her order and establish new ones that would be expressions of a sacrificial road to holiness. Teresa was also a great mystic and teacher of prayer. Her works — including her Life, the Way of Perfection, and The Interior Castle — are still widely read today.

In these works, we see the influence of Mary Magdalene on Teresa, primarily, as she has been for the other women we’ve looked at, as a model of fidelity and repentance:

“I had a very great devotion to the glorious Magdalene,and very frequently used to think of her conversion — especially when I went to Communion. As I knew for certain that our Lord was then within me, I used to place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be despised. I did not know what I was saying; only He did great things for me, in that He was pleased I should shed those tears,seeing that I so soon forgot that impression. I used to recommend myself to that glorious saint,that she might obtain my pardon.” (Life, 9:2)

The story of Mary Magdalene’s contemplative years in the wilderness and her association with the quiet, listening Mary (in contrast to the busy Martha) also Teresa_de_Jesúsappealed to Teresa, unsurprisingly:

“Let us, then, pray Him always to show His mercy upon us, with a submissive spirit,yet trusting in the goodness of God. And now that the soul is permitted to sit at the feet of Christ, let it con-trive not to quit its place, but keep it anyhow. Let it follow the example of the Magdalene; and when it shall be strong enough, God will lead it into the wilderness.” (Life, 21:9)

Asceticism, an important part of Teresa’s spirituality (although never to extremes, she firmly taught), was understood by her and others in this period as a means of penance for one’s own sins, as well as the sins of others. Here, again, Mary Magdalene was a model:

“Indeed the body suffers much while alive, for whatever work it does, the soul has energy for far greater tasks and goads it on to more, for all it can perform appears as nothing.This must be the reason of the severe penances performed by many of the saints, especially the glorious Magdalene, who had always spent her life in luxury.This caused the zeal felt by our Father Elias for the honor of God, and the desires of St. Dominic and St. Fran-cis to draw souls to praise the Almighty. I assure you that, for-getful of themselves, they must have passed through no small trials.” (Interior Castle, 4:16)

Teresa, like many other women, saw in Mary Magdalene a model for faithful discipleship through difficulty, an ideal penitent, and an inspiring contemplative.

Practical Advice

During this same era, another kind of Catholic reformer was working in another part of Europe. St. Francis de Sales — a gifted writer, preacher, and spiritual director — was the bishop of Geneva, although throughout most of his career, because of the Calvinist control of that city, he could not openly lead his flock. He wrote, unusually for this period, specifically for the laity, very aware of the particular challenges of living in the world.

His Introduction to the Devout Life is a lovely, practical, and charming classic, and it is still indispensable. His letters of spiritual direction, many of them written to his close friend and fellow reformer St. Jane Frances de Chantal, are carefully crafted to answer the specific needs of their recipients. In one of his letters of spiritual direction, written to one Rose Bourgeois, an abbess who, much like Teresa of Ávila, was attempting to reform her own life and that of her convent in a way more faithful to the demands of the Gospel, Francis draws on the image of the contemplative Magdalene in a lovely way:

“Dear daughter,what a good way of praying,and what a fine way of staying in God’s presence: doing what He wants and accept-ing what pleases Him! It seems to me that Mary Magdalene was a statue in her niche when,without saying a word,without mov-ing, and perhaps even without looking at Him, she sat at our Lord’s feet and listened to what He was saying.When He spoke, she listened; whenever He paused, she stopped listening; but always, she was right there.” (Letters of Spiritual Direction, by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal [Paulist Press, 1988], p. 152)

Silent Witness

Mary Magdalene’s place in medieval and early modern Catholic spirituality was firm and clear. Her example encouraged Christians to see their own sins clearly and honestly, and hopefully approach the Lord for forgiveness. Her faithfulness to Jesus, an important part of the Passion narratives in the Gospels, was an accessible expression of fidelity. Her identity as a contemplative, fueled by the legend of her time in the wilderness, as well as her identification with Mary, sister of Martha, provided a model for women who sought to pursue a life of deep prayer, singularly devoted to Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In what ways did these medieval spiritual writers find Mary Magdalene inspiring?
  1. How did they respond to her identity as “Apostle to the Apos-tles,” within the context of their times?
  2. Does the image of Mary Magdalene inspire you in similar ways?

Below: The pages on Mary Magdalene from the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. As a new school year approaches, please consider purchasing copies of this and other Loyola Kids titles for your local Catholic parish and school! Or using them in your homeschool…..

 

 

 

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—1 —

An interesting few days.

The two fellows who still live here are gone for a bit to visit family elsewhere. They’ll be back early next week, but for the moment, I’m alone for the first time since Christmas.

I was talking to my son who lives in NYC, where they’re opening things up, slowly but surely. The past week, he’s finally had some consistent social, face-to-face interaction with friends again – for the first time in months.

Each of experiencing welcome change, for opposite, but related reasons.

I add – quickly – that it will also be a welcome change when the guys return!

But everyone needs a break now and then, yes?

— 2 —

So what am I doing? Working. I have a project due on June 20, and I’m trying to get it halfway finished by Monday. Then I can coast, working on it for probably an hour or so a day until it’s due.

For me, the part of a project like this that requires the most focus is the framing and thinking through the shape and emphasis of it. And that kind of focus is hard for me to grab in small chunks. I need to have a large expanse of time in which I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything. It didn’t used to be that way, but you know, guys, I’ll be sixty in a few weeks, and so something like concentration is harder to come by.

Today (Thursday) was a framing/get in the groove day. That done, I can work on it for a couple of hours a day till Monday, and then put my mind to the next fiction project.

Still getting chapters of Nothing Else Occurs to Me up on Wattpad. Slowly but surely. (Backstory: here)

— 3 —

So….we have a new bishop here in Birmingham. Bishop Steven Raica, formerly of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.

I’ve not met him yet, don’t know a thing about him.

If you’re interested, you can watch the Vespers and Installation Mass that were broadcast on EWTN. If you do, you’ll get to hear the voices of our Cathedral’s core schola, which has been singing Cathedral Masses even through much of the lockdown, when Masses were streaming-only, not public.

 

 

 

As I’ve said before, it’s an approach that makes sense. If you’re not going to have congregational singing, consider the liturgical history of the Church, consider what developed during the centuries when congregational singing in the West was not the norm – and use that. 

It’s far preferable than having to listen to someone gamely warbling Praise and Worship music up there all by themselves.

— 4 —

Okay, I’ve not only been working the past couple of days. I’ve tried to walk a couple of hours a day – which means listening to my BBC radio podcasts – and I’ve read quite a bit as well as (gasp) watched a few movies – films that wouldn’t interest my housemates. So let’s do a quick survey.

First, reading – I finally finished Trevor’s The Boarding-House. That was a tough slog. I was most interested in the structure of it, which switched between points of view very quickly without transitions, as well as the historical detail revealed about London in the early ’60’s. The switching was confusing at first (I read it on Kindle and thought there was something wrong with the formatting), but once I got accustomed to it, I didn’t mind. My problem with the book is that I didn’t care about any of the characters and couldn’t figure out why I should spend time with them.

Anyway, I have a couple more short novels that I checked out via Hoopla that I will try to knock off over the next couple of days, then I think I’m going to plunge back into some Wilkie Collins. I need an absorbing, crazy read like No Name (reviewed here) in my life. I’d started Poor Miss Finch a couple of weeks ago, and will probably return to that. 

— 5 –

Now, movies.

I started watching Rocketman. I did like a few Elton John songs as a teen, but am definitely not a fan, but I was curious about the structure of the film and wanted to see the sections about his early life. Ended up watching the whole thing, not because it was great, but simply because of inertia, I suppose.

I did like the structure – I mean, why not tell a sketchy biographical tale of a living musician by making it a musical of sorts? I actually liked most of the musical set-pieces quite a lot. I think they worked. But the psychological trajectory and personal motivation offered was superficial – to be expected when the piece is produced by intimates and is about a living figure – and formulaic.

Bernie Taupin emerges as the one person you wouldn’t mind spending time with, to be sure.

— 6 —

Il Posto via the Kanopy platform. I gather you’re not supposed to say this is Italian Neorealism, since it’s not immediately postwar, but, well, you could have fooled me. It’s slow and observant, and I liked it quite a bit.

It’s the story of a young man from a village outside Milan who travels to the great city to test for a job, gets the job and begins working at the job. That’s it. It offers us a fascinating look at Italian life in the period and a rather trenchant, mostly wordless critique of white-collar work in large companies.

Except he won’t, and that’s what is so crushing about Il Posto. Antonietta comes to represent the youthful dreams that stagnate in an office building and the drudgery a job enforces. Once Domenico accepts his position as a messenger, Olmi breaks away from his lead for the first time. He takes us on an evening tour of the off-the-clock activities of the accounting staff that Domenico will eventually join. Some have very common, uninspired existences, others harbor their youthful folly as if it were rare treasure. There is the older man who goes to the pub and sings a song that is intended for someone not so advanced in years, and the would-be novelist who scribbles out his book in secret, hiding his light under a towel. Domenico tells his new boss that he may still go to night school to pursue the vocation he wants, but Olmi is showing us the true likelihood of that happening. Domenico’s father told his son that a job like this one is for life, and as the boy will learn, these positions tend to only open up when somebody dies.

Much of Olmi’s framing is intentionally expressionistic. The corporate world alternates between imposing, with the workers appearing small next to the business structure, and claustrophobic, cramped into their own little spaces. On the other hand, though Ermanno Olmi and cameraman Lamberto Caimi shot Il Posto in such a way to show life as it was, hoping to render the dreary gray of an average day, the black-and-white photography has taken on a nostalgic beauty over the years. Domenico and his peers just look more stylish, with their clean haircuts and their suits and ties, than we expect our youths to look today. Looking at Il Posto is like looking at photographs in a vintage magazine back issue: by being frozen in time, the images seem simpler, more desirable, than the busy world we’re used to today. Maybe that was by design. Maybe Olmi wanted it all to look hopeful and modern if only to add to the impact of the crushing blows to come.

The subverted ending of Il Posto sneaks up on the audience. We’ve been trained to expect something more, just like Domenico. We realize that there is nothing else mere moments before he does, and we can only brace ourselves for the heartbreak that is coming.

— 7 —

The Virgin Spring (1960) | The Criterion Collection

Finally, in a move that will please Son #2, I finally watched The Virgin Spring – his pick for his #1 Bergman. Here’s his review, and here’s his list. 

(He’s currently working his way through Hitchcock)

Okay, okay. I agree. It’s a great film, and I’m glad I finally watched it. I’m not an afficiando of Bergman’s films, but I have come to understand a bit about his spiritual-wrestling throughreading my son’s reviews. 

The standouts of that violence made the contemporary New York Times critic say that the movie was a thin morality tale below Bergman’s talents, but there’s actually so much more. What is there just isn’t spoken about, but it lingers in the background of everything. The conflict between the paganism of Odin and the monotheism of the new Christianity isn’t a stand-in for a simplistic good vs. evil battle. Instead, there are interesting shades within each character that drive the ideas even further. The father, Tore, obviously clings to his old pagan ways and has been dragged into the new Christianity by his wife Mareta. Their daughter, Karin, is beautiful and eager to look her best for her mission to deliver candles to the church, but she is also haughty, entitled, and manipulates her parents with ease. Ingeri, the pregnant Odin worshiper the family has taken in as a ward, prays for Karin’s defilement but confesses to Tore after the crime and begs for the punishment Tore will mete out to the perpetrators.

Where this movie stands out in Bergman’s filmography most for me is the thematic thrust of the film. The Virgin Spring came out in 1960, just a few years after the existential The Seventh Seal and right before the Silence Trilogy, and yet the thematic point isn’t a form of rejection of religion. In fact, the titular spring is an embrace of the idea that man’s concept of God, as manifested by the Church, is correct. It’s a natural extension of the story he was trying to tell, but also an artifact of the fact that he didn’t actually write the movie. God is still silent in the face of the violence placed upon the innocent Karin, but the existence of the spring that shoots from where her lifeless head had laid for a day, opening up immediately after Tore had promised to build a church of mortar and stone on the spot, is God’s communication. He speaks more in that than in anything else Bergman made.

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Had a very strange, unusual experience yesterday. Encapsulated in this Instagram story:

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No, I’m not going anywhere, except to Atlanta to take people to the airport. But it does mean a few days of (I hope) great productivity. What it doesn’t mean is a trip to Ikea on that Atlanta journey, since the hints I’ve read online indicate that there’s a considerable wait just to get into the store, which just reopened about ten days ago. Forget that. Let’s digest:

Writing: I have something due on July 20. Haven’t started writing it yet. Hopefully over the next week I’ll get it about half done as well as get myself in a sort of groove, so that once people return, the hard part of framing and envisioning will be done and I can just write a few hundred words in between music practices and food prep and other shenanigans.

I am putting up a chapter a day to the novel I wrote about here. Two up so far, one more coming later today.

I’ll be in Living Faith on Sunday. You’ll be able to see it here. 

A lot of my book sales are seasonal, specifically– Christmas and then Easter/First Communion/Confirmation related. I don’t have access to book sales from the various publishers that publish my books, but I do have some metric that Amazon provides authors. I don’t think it’s just Amazon sales, but I’m not sure. Anyway, not surprisingly, compared to previous years, this spring’s sales have been laughably miniscule. Totally expected. Shrug. The interesting thing, though, is that over the past two weeks, there’s been a rather dramatic uptick. Not at the typical height of April/May, but about four times as high as a normal June.

First Communions are back, baby!

Listening:  As reported, we have moved on from Brahms, Haydn and Prokofiev(you can listen here to the entire playlist – it’s public now – and he got “Excellents” from all three judges in the competition) to Gershwin (the big three Preludes plus Novelette in Fourths and Debussy’s First Arabesque. That’s the summer playlist, with him beginning to tackle the entire Moonlight Sonata as his big project for next year. Plus, I think the teacher is wanting him to do some Chopin Etude.

Watching: A bit of a blip in movie watching, as work schedules, hanging out with friends The Man in the White Suit (1951) - IMDband a new video game have interfered. After Hobson’s Choice, we stayed in England and took in the Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit

A low-key satire about human beings’ response to innovation and change. Alec Guinness portrays an unassuming yet committed young scientist who is trying to invent an indestructible fabric. He seems to succeed, but the initially-welcomed development is soon understood to have repercussions for almost everyone – from the big business tycoons to labor. It’s a movie about persistence, creativity, resistance to change and yes, my favorite theme, unintended consequences. Not as hilarious as The Lavender Hill Mob or quite as dark as Kind Hearts and Coronets,  but a gem of a film.

A Nanoscale Perspective on The Man in the White Suit - 2020 Science

We watched in on the Kanopy platform via the library, and followed it withthis Buster Keaton short,also on Kanopy.

Reading:  Wandering about the internet, searching through book blogging and reading sites, I happened upon this entry focusing on a mid-century novelist who apparently penned relatively short, sharp and dark books. I’m sold. I picked up The Girl on the Via Flaminia  – reviewed here, and read it in an evening.

(My main go-to for books like this, the Internet Archive, has been hit with legal action restricting what books it can make available for borrowing – books that you could borrow for a week or more are now only available for an hour. Hopefully they can get that straightened out soon. I discovered that this was available via Hoopla from my local library. It seems to me that Hoopla’s holdings have greatly expanded since the last time I checked, before Covid.)

I enjoyed it very much, although, you know, it wasn’t a laugh riot or anything. Set in Rome during the last stages of the Second World War, it’s about an American soldier who attempts an arrangement with a young Italian woman. A step above prostitution, in his mind, but is it really? Aside from the interesting landscape of wartime Rome, it confronts us with important questions about victory, defeat and occupation – and the impact of these Important Events on ordinary people, who simply want to live their lives.

I’ll be reading more of him.

Now I’m reading The Boarding House by William Trevor, which I also borrowed digitally from Hoopla. It’s quite a strange book. I started it last week and gave up after twenty pages, but then returned to last night. I’ll stick with it this time.

Cooking: Three major recent successes:

Madeleines. They were Son #4’s favorite bakery good from France years ago, and it just wp-1592919871186.jpgoccurred to me a couple of weeks ago that I should try to make them. Ordered a pan for the purpose, and followed this recipe – success! The recipe is correct though – these are not items that keep. They really are only good the first day.

These ribs. I ended up marinating them for almost three days (kept meaning to cook them, but life interfered). Delicious. Excellent. And yes, the Chinese cooking wine does make a difference. (Obtained, along with the ribs, from our local mega-Asian grocery store. $2.99 a bottle.)

A bone-in ribeye cooked via this method – the reverse sear.This is the second time I’ve done this, and I’m sold. Yes, I splurged on a higher cut of steak (when you’re only buying one, and you do it once a month….go ahead), so that makes a difference, but this method really does produce a wonderfully juicy steak, no resting required.

Now…no cooking for a week!

 

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—1 —

Thanks to Catholic World Report for picking up one of this week’s blog posts – reprinted here. 

Look for me in Living Faith next week. Friday, I believe.It will be here. 

Here’s a post on St. Rita for today. 

— 2 —

I thought this was just excellent:

By focusing so minutely and carefully on their ordinary holiness of life, rather than solely on his martyrdom, the film points out a further irony. We look to the martyrs as heroic precisely because of the martyrdom. But what led the martyrs to their martyrdom? We can be blinded by our need for heroes, blinded by the particular heroism of martyrdom; fascinated by it, the rest of the martyrs’ lives remain hidden to us by our own lack of interest, our narrowness of vision, like the way our desire for stunning miracles can obscure from us the ubiquitous and ordinary but just as holy ways of God’s providence.

If the Church canonizes and so proclaims a saint to us in order to provide objects of admiration and thus models of holiness for us to emulate, then it is really a kind of cheap grace for someone like me to admire Jägerstätter’s martyrdom; I cannot connect with him at all in his martyrdom, except hypothetically—well, if I am ever in that situation, I pray I will do what he did. Right, if I am ever in that situation . . . But what the film shows is that his martyrdom was the fruit of the holiness of his ordinary hidden life. And that is a portrait of the life of a man I can connect with, a life I can seek to emulate—a man at home with his wife, children, friends, a job, living a life that is hidden, “unhistorical,” but holy.

That hidden life was not a conscience hidden from the world around him. It was the life of a conscience as clear and bright as a cloudless day, alive in its impact upon the lives of those around him. For me to emulate that hidden life would not be cheap grace. And maybe, just maybe, it would not then be cheap grace for me to pray, if I am ever confronted with a situation as bad as he was, however unlikely that is, that I could emulate his martyrdom, because I have already emulated the holiness of his hidden life. “If you found out you were going to die in fifteen minutes, what would you do?” “Same thing I have been doing.” The Little Way, day by day.

— 3 —

Well, I love this. In the Milan Duomo, on the feast of the Ascension, the huge and elaborate paschal candle holder is…raised to the ceiling during the proclamaion of the Gospel. 

In the Roman Rite, there is a rubric that simply says the Paschal candle is extinguished after the Gospel on the feast of the Ascension, and therefore lit again only for the blessing of the baptismal font on the vigil of Pentecost. In the Duomo, the rite is something a little more impressive, as you can see in this video of Pontifical Mass held last year on the feast of the Ascension (starting at 21:38, with the beginning of the Gospel. 

More, including the video, at the link.

Catholic traditions are the best – unfortunately, our local version of Pentecost petals from the ceiling is not happening this year, for reasons we can all guess…

— 4 —

Continuing the tradition of the Church Mothers and Fathers – in the Arctic.

But another type of desert, which also features extreme weather and hardship, is the site of a new monastic community: the white desert of ice, snow, and cold in the northern hemisphere, specifically in the tiny village of Lannavaara, in Swedish Lapland. Home to only about one hundred inhabitants, it is located 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. It is here, amid silence, prayer, and very low temperatures, that two religious sisters are laying the foundations for a new order at Sankt Josefs Kloster (the Monastery of St. Joseph): the Marias Lamm (Mary’s Lambs) community.

The community’s story begins in 2011, when Swedish Sister Amada Mobergh received permission from the bishop of Stockholm, now-Cardinal Anders Arborelius, to undertake contemplative religious life in Sweden. Sister Amada, who converted to Catholicism in her 20s while living in London, had spent 30 years as a member of the Missionaries of Charity, serving in India, then-Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Italy, Albania, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In a 2015 interview with the Italian Catholic news agency SIR, Sister Amada recounted that after discerning that a more contemplative life was God’s will for her, she and another sister, Sister Karla, visited several monasteries in southern Sweden. While Bishop Arborelius expressed his happiness over their decision, he had made it clear that he would not be able to support them financially, since the Catholic Church in Sweden is very small. Following a series of what the sisters considered miracles, they were able to find temporary free accommodations far to the north. “We arrived December 24th, 2011, the temperature was -30 C. I immediately understood that this is where I had to be,” Sister Amada recalled in the SIR interview.

After a year and a half, the sisters had to move, in part because their residence was too small to accommodate all the people who had begun to come to visit and to pray with them.

— 5 –

From McSweeney’s: “What Your Favorite Requiem Mass says about you.”  

As someone on FB said, “I suspect the infamous Onion Trad is now writing for McSweeney’s.”

(I never was a part of any conversations about the “infamous Onion Trad” but it was very clear to me for a time that there was someone who wrote for the Onion who was very familiar with Catholic life and lingo. )

Anyway:

Victoria: You, an American, went to “university,” where you discovered you held very strong opinions about Requiem masses. None of your “friends” cared…

….Fauré: Someone very close to you has given you a “live, laugh, love” print, and you don’t have the heart to tell them how you felt about it…

…Duruflé: You taught yourself Latin, and now phrases like “vita incerta, mors certissima” are staples of everyday conversation. You pay too much for your glasses.

 

— 6 —

This week, I read Greene’s Ministry of Fear. It’s one of his self-described “entertainments” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain extraordinary writing and engagement with important themes. 

It’s got one of the more compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read in a novel. We meet a man, Arthur Rowe, in London during the Blitz. He happens upon a church carnival of sorts, which brings forth all sorts of memories of childhood – a completely other time, distant in more ways than one. A strange thing happens to him there. He wins a cake – made with real eggs – because the fortune-teller, for some reason, told him the exact weight – someone tries to get him to give up the cake…and we’re off in a story of espionage, intrigue, mistaken identity and memory loss.

There are loads of near-perfect passages and descriptions, which I’ll highlight below, but what I want to focus on is the theme of pity.  Greene wrote this novel during World War II – the only book he wrote during the war –  while on post in Sierre Leone – the setting of The Heart of the Matter, the theme of which was also the contrast pity pity and real, authentic love. 

Which, incidentally, is also a theme of both Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, who uses the term “tenderness” in this famous quote, but I think pity is an apt synonym:

“In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

Essentially – and this is the case in the book – pity is essentially dehumanizing. Or, as Green puts it in the novel, Pity is cruel. Pity destroys.

And of course, loss of innocence factors large here, as Greene’s protagonist is always recalling a more innocent past  – both his personal past and his country’s – in the context of bombed-out, continually threatened London. A dream he has while sheltering:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass. People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.”

His mother smiled at him in a scared way but let him talk; he was the master of the dream now. He said, “I’m wanted for a murder I didn’t do. People want to kill me because I know too much. I’m hiding underground, and up above the Germans are methodically smashing London to bits all around me. You remember St. Clement’s – the bells of St. Clement’s. They’ve smashed that – St. James’s, Piccadilly, the Burlington Arcade, Garland’s Hotel, where we stayed for the pantomime, Maples and John Lewis. It sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the thrillers are like life – more like life than you are, this lawn, your sandwiches, that pine. You used to laugh at the books Miss Savage read – about spies, and murders, and violence, and wild motor-car chases, but, dear, that’s real life; it’s what we’ve all made of the world since you died. I’m your little Arthur who wouldn’t hurt a beetle and I’m a murderer too. The world has been remade by William Le Queux.”

I enjoyed Ministry of Fear – even as I was, not surprisingly, confused by it. Some more quotes:

He had in those days imagined himself capable of extraordinary heroisms and endurances which would make the girl he loved forget the awkward hands and the spotty chin of adolescence. Everything had seemed possible. One could laugh at daydreams, but so long as you had the capacity to daydream there was a chance that you might develop some of the qualities of which you dreamed. It was like the religious discipline: words however emptily repeated can in time form a habit, a kind of unnoticed sediment at the bottom of the mind, until one day to your own surprise you find yourself acting on the belief you thought you didn’t believe in.

 

His heart beat and the band played, and inside the lean experienced skull lay childhood.

 

 

— 7 —

"amy welborn"Here’s a short story for you that’s about a hundred and seventy-five levels below the writing of Graham Greene. It was a finalist for the Dappled Things J. F. Powers competition, but not the winner. So here it is – I wanted to put it on a platform that was not my blog, and Wattpad was the quickest way to go. It undoubtedly does not quite fit the site, but it was easy and let me keep my italics, so it won.

It may not be there forever, as I’ll still keep looking.

And here’s a novel  –     from Son #2! (Check out his other writings here)

 

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—1 —

Well, that was interesting. Somehow, this post went viral, as we say, yesterday, with thousands more hits than I usually get around here. Very odd. I still don’t know why or how.

This also got a big bump, mostly because Ross Douthat retweeted a reference to it. Just glad to get the message out there!

Click back for other posts – on how 9th grade homeschooling ended up and on season 2 of Fargo. 

The other “extended reach” story of the week involved musician son-in-law, who had a song featured at the end of Tony Kornheiser’s podcast. 

— 2 —

The Real Lord of the Flies. A fascinating piece.

 

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.

Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”

They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).

Much more hopeful turn of events than in the novel.

— 3 —

America ran a very nice piece on Wyoming Catholic College:

The first class every student takes is an introduction to the Experiential Leadership Program, ELP 101. In the summer before the start of the new school year, freshmen take a wilderness first aid course, then embark on a 21-day backpacking trip in the Wyoming backcountry. Like most everything at W.C.C., the course is grounded in Western philosophy. “The term ‘gymnastic,’” the Philosophical Vision Statement of the college reads, “comes from the Greek gymnos, meaning ‘naked.’ Gymnastics, broadly speaking, refers to the naked or direct experience of reality.” Through their direct encounter with the grandeur of nature, the founders believed, students would grow in virtue.

Students continue their outdoor education all four years at W.C.C.: a week of winter camping after the first Christmas break; week-long hiking, rafting or rock-climbing excursions once a semester; and a required course in horsemanship. But it is the 21-day trip that forms the foundation of what will follow in and out of the classroom.

“There’s nothing more empowering than when those students can go backpacking in wolf country and grizzly bear country by themselves without an instructor,” Mr. Zimmer says. “And that allows them to know that [when they take] the final they’re going to have in humanities or Euclid or Latin, they’re going to be fine. Just like their 21-day trip, they have to put effort and energy and time into their training.”

Ms. Stypa agrees. “There are so many nights out there where you’re freezing or it’s raining, and your sleeping bag got wet and someone has a blister that needs to get taken care of. And it’s 11 p.m. and you’re supposed to get up at 6 a.m., and it’s just hard,” she says. “That toughness that it gives you sticks with you when you come back into the semester when you’re slammed by paper after paper.”

She also described a more subtle connection to the classroom. “You’re just thrust into the wilderness, into the mountains and these mountain lakes, snow and wildlife and lightning storms. It’s terrifying, and it’s beautiful,” she says. “And then we come back, and we study poetry, and we talk about ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And I think you really draw on your experience and fill your imagination as you’re reading the Great Books.”
Jason Baxter, an associate professor of fine arts and humanities, also finds a deep resonance between the freshmen expedition and the Great Books curriculum. “There’s something severely beautiful about ancient texts, which are not trying to accommodate us in any way,” he tells me over tea at Crux, the corner coffee shop staffed by students and frequented by faculty and local residents alike. “And there’s something fascinatingly analogous to the Wyoming landscape, which is severely beautiful but does not exist in order to accommodate human beings. Without railroads or now interstates, we would not be here.”

 

— 4 —

You know the tune Tuxedo Junction? 

Well….Tuxedo Junction is actually here in Birmingham, Alabama. I did not know that until this week.

The second floor of the Belcher-Nixon building located in Ensley was the dance hall and center of all The Junction happenings. Many talented performers hailing from Birmingham got their beginnings by entertaining there.

Among these was the acclaimed musician and performer Erskine Hawkins. In 1939, Hawkins released the Birmingham favorite “Tuxedo Junction” in honor of his hometown. He writes about the magical place that he can count on to raise his spirits, where he can lose himself by dancing the jive all night to his favorite jazz.

 

— 5 –

A really, really good piece on fear and faith, taking off from Cyprian or Carthage’s work On Mortality – written in a time of plague. 

The paradoxical nature of a Christian view of life and death shows up remarkably in Cyprian of Carthage’s treatise On Mortality. Written only a few years after he became bishop in 248, in the midst of a ravenous plague that nearly destroyed the Roman Empire, Cyprian reflects on what it means for Christians to be alive to God, and so not to fear death.

The plague broke out in Egypt around 249 (the “exotic” East for a Roman) and had reached Carthage by 250 or 251. Historian Kyle Harper suggests either pandemic influenza (like the Spanish Flu) or a viral hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola). Ancient sources say that it could have carried away 5,000 persons a day, decimating the population by as much as 60% in some cities. Another source says that it seemed to spread through contact with clothing or even simply by eyesight. It is often called “The Plague of Cyprian” because it is the Carthaginian bishop who provides one of the most graphic accounts of its effects: severe diarrhea (“As the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow”), fever (“a fire that begins in the inmost depths, in the marrow, burns up into wounds in the throat”), and incessant, “intestine-rattling” vomiting (§14). In some cases, a person’s hands or feet were putrefied to the point of falling off, resulting in disfigurement or a loss of hearing and sight.

It was not a physical loss of sight, however, that worried Cyprian most. It was rather a loss of spiritual sight. 

 

— 6 —

Cyprian invites his hearers to see the plague as revelatory for how we view our life in reference to God. As an occasion for Christian sanctification, a time of plague reveals what we really care about, what we really love. The plague, in other words, makes visible what normally remains hidden in our ordinary lives of comfort and distraction. 

What a significance, beloved brethren, all this has! How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race—whether those who are well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontery, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!

Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God: that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown. (§16)

The plague is a test, a spiritual exercise, not a death. 

 

— 7 —

"amy welborn"Here’s a short story for you. It was a finalist for the Dappled Things J. F. Powers competition, but not the winner. So here it is – I wanted to put it on a platform that was not my blog, and Wattpad was the quickest way to go. It undoubtedly does not quite fit the site, but it was easy and let me keep my italics, so it won.

It may not be there forever, as I’ll still keep looking.

And here’s a novel  –     from Son #2! (Check out his other writings here)

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Noreen: Camus says knowin’ we’re gonna die makes life absurd.

Betsy : Well, I don’t know who that is. But I’m guessing he doesn’t have a 6-year-old girl.

Noreen : He’s French

Betsy : Ugh, I don’t care if he’s from Mars. Nobody with any sense would say something that foolish. We’re put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. And when this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord… Well, you try tellin’ Him it was all some Frenchman’s joke.

We just finished watching season 2 of Fargo. 

I’d watched seasons 1 and 3 a while back by myself. But they’re both old enough to appreciate it now, so when Better Call Saul ended and the lockdown continued, I thought it might be a good choice to fill some time. It’s rough, and Coenesque and violent, so perhaps it’s not your cup of tea. Lots of exploding heads. Sorry. Know that going forward. I don’t “recommend.”  People are just too different, with varying tastes. I mean. Don’t watch it. You’ll hate it. There.

Anyway, as I said, I’d watched the bookend seasons, but never season 2, for some reason. So this was my first-go through, and I’ll say that I enjoyed it very much. I’m torn about ranking the seasons , though. Perhaps a rewatch will change my mind, but I still think I like season 3 the most, although what season 2 has going for it is a far, far bigger heart than either of the other two. All of the characteristic Noah Hawley/CoenesqueVision aspects are there – extreme violence, weirdness, randomness, chance – but this one has a greater number of sympathetic characters that provide more of an anchor in goodness than the usual almost solitary-figure in the others.

Hanzee Dent - Wikipedia

The cast is amazing – from Patrick Wilson to Jean Smart to Ted Danson to Zahn McLarnon (above) to Bokeem Woodbine (below).

Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan in Fargo's Season 2 | Mike ...

I wrote at length about season 3 here, but was surprised to see that I seem to have never written about season 1. Well, I won’t begin now. Let’s just move on to two.

As per usual, what we have here is a battle between good and evil in the upper Midwest. Here, with the added attraction of evil v. evil driving a great deal of the action as well.

It’s 1979. The big picture here is that the Kansas City mafia – modern, business-oriented and efficient – wants to take over the Gerhardt family mob that runs the northern territories, rooted in their German heritage, out of the rambling family farmhouse.

Jean Smart on 'Fargo': Performance in Season 1 | TVLine

Getting things in motion, as usual, is an accident. The most hapless Gerhardt son, in order to prove himself, puts out a hit on a judge in a waffle restaurant, but on his escape, distracted by (yes) a UFO, he pauses, and in that moment, is struck by a car driven by local beautician Peggy Blumquist, played by Kirsten Dunst. Who’s married to local butcher Ed, played by Jess Plemons, which means that for most of the series, I called him “Todd.” 

The resultant mess and attempt to clean up the mess and avoid trouble gets the Blumquists deeper and deeper into trouble and, without their knowledge, also brings the Kansas City and Fargo sides closer and closer to outright war.

There are lots of fantastic lines in this season of Fargo, but the best probably go to the Blumquists who say things like:

Hon, you got to stop stabbing him.

and

It’s just a flyin’ saucer, Ed. We gotta go.

Well, I guess you had to be there, huh?

Trying to figure all of this out and somehow stay the bloodshed and dig out justice are local law enforcement, some of whom are fools, but two of whom – Lou Solverson and his father-in-law Hank (played by Ted Danson) – are rocks of integrity, humanity and courage. Lou’s wife and Hank’s daughter – Betsy, featured in the scene at the top of this post – is suffering from cancer. During most of the course of the show, she’s part of a clinical trial, taking pills which may or may not be the real thing – or may just be a placebo.

Everyone, it seems, is fighting a battle.

The primary link between seasons 1 and 2 here is, of course that Lou Solverson is the father of Molly – the good cop with sharp intelligence and sound instincts at the center of season 1.

As one expects, the Fargo world is sharply drawn, hilarious, bloody, tragic and ultimately, even in its crazy absurdity and outlandishness, about an important reality: the reality of goodness and the reality of evil.

In season 1, evil was personified in Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who may not be the devil himself, but could also be a close relation. He wreaks havoc and destruction on his own, certainly, but his diabolical nature is expressed most powerfully in his role as Tempter. He tempts every single person he encounters, and that temptation takes a particular form: the temptation to see other people as less than human – as no more than animals. Prey, if that’s what you’re into and that’s what you need them to be. Why not?

Evil here is not so individuated. It’s widespread, although it’s just as senseless. The only check against this evil is the goodness and courage of people like Lou, Betsy and Hank, who refuse to objectify human beings, who are content with the beauty and simplicity of human life on earth, instead of lusting for more just because.

Lots of folks have written about this season, but I just want to take a quick look at the setting. I think it’s very important.

The show is set in 1979, and this is about more than simply situating our season 1 characters properly. For the social, political and economic setting is mentioned constantly and is a vital part of the mix.

What’s at hand are first, the repercussions of war – mostly Vietnam, but World War II as well. Most of the male characters served in one capacity or another, and suffered because of it – although one describes a moment of grace he experienced as well. But mostly, this is a time, and these are people who are in a way shellshocked. Some have been desensitized to brutality and violence by what they experienced, others made more determined than ever to right wrongs when they encounter them.

Secondly, there’s the tail end of that Carter-era malaise and the glimmers of Reaganism – Reagan as an actor and as a candidate plays a part in the show, offering, it seems hope (
The first episode is called “Waiting for Dutch.”) – but, as it turns out – false hope.

Third – you have the bumping up of the new, late 20th century all-business ethos up against family and small town.

Fourth- and you won’t be surprised to know that this is my favorite aspect of the show’s 1979 setting – there’s the drive for self-actualization and personal growth that’s in the air, personified here in Peggy Blumquist’s quest to be someone. She lives in a sea of beauty and travel magazines. She’s committed to going to a self-help seminar with her boss. She endlessly jabbers on about being “actualized” and “realized” all the while being absolutely clueless to the reality of the situation around her. Dunst is fantastic in the role – aggravating and heartbreaking all at once.

Why Kirsten Dunst Could Be TV's New Style Icon (With images ...

I had that sweater. I HAD THAT SWEATER. 

The world, it seems, is a brutal place. Life is short and hard and random and even kind of weird (hence the UFOS). Evil is actually real. How do we respond to that? Do we give into the temptation to just try to get more of what doesn’t last anyway? Do we try to make ourselves feel more alive by dehumanizing and objectifying others? Do we deny our own suffering? How do we face the randomness and the chance? Do we pay attention, own up and try to grow – or do we deny, close our eyes and shut our ears?  Do we try to fabricate an alternative reality for ourselves, ignoring the ground under our feet at the moment?

Do we look at this strange mess and just declare it meaningless?

Or, as sick as we are, do we accept why we’ve been put on earth, hold the six-year old all the more tightly, and keep carrying her?

 

 

 

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Who are you?

How did you become that person?

Did you have a choice?

Better Call Saul JMM Review – /Film

 

****

Well, now, Better Call Saul. That was a neat hat trick.

We were all fixated on the the moment and…that’s when Jimmy became Saul… 

…when all along we should have been looking for…that’s when Kim became…

well, not Saul, because she’s her own person. But…someone. 

SPOILERS. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled. Although it was almost two weeks ago, and if you wanted to watch it, you’d have done so by now.

It wasn’t a shock though. Whether or not the creators had an end game in mind since the beginning, to their credit,  the seeds have been there: Kim might have been an ethical rock in Jimmy’s life, but face it – she was also Giselle, and she was very, very turned on by that particular game.

There’s no reason for me to do a complete run-down and analysis here. You can get that elsewhere –like here. I also won’t spend much time weighing in on the is it better than Breaking Bad question. At this point, I’d say no. They are very different shows, and BCS is fantastic, but I still think there is a thrill-ride edginess to Breaking Bad that makes it all the more delectable. BCS is more of a slow burn and careful character study, and it’s great, but I think, at this point, BB still wins in my book. We’ll see, though. One more season to go. Sadly.

This has been an interesting season because, at least on the surface, Jimmy’s major foil is no longer a part of the picture – Chuck, his brother. Even last season, when Chuck was dead, his presence loomed large. I think for that reason, the dynamic is a little looser, less tightly focused this season, and therefore, Kim’s change edges onto center stage.

I love this show for what it is, but I’m also fascinated by it from a creative perspective. The creators of this had a “problem” – not in a bad sense, just in terms of a situation. We know Saul Goodman (we think) from Breaking Bad. We know what he’s like in that world, we know what happens to him by the end of that timeline. The question BCS explored was – how did he get that way? Where did Saul Goodman come from? They could have approached it from a million different directions, but they went with this particular storyline of character origin and transformation, and it’s just been fascinating to watch. And no, we’re not there yet. The Jimmy/Saul we now know at the end of season 5 of BCS is still not the Saul Goodman who casually suggests to Walt and Jesse…why not just kill Badger? And, furthermore, hits on…Francesca. I confess, of all the distinctions in the character between shows…that is the one that strikes me as the knottiest. Will they just ignore it? Or will they come up with some ingenious explanation? I’m betting on the latter.

Which brings me back to Kim. All along – really, from the beginning, up until the second-to-the last episode of this season, I’ve been one with most of the rest of you viewers, dreading Kim’s fate. Something terrible must happen to her we said – it’s the only explanation for how Jimmy became Saul. 

Er…well…maybe not?

A completely different scenario flashed through my head during that confrontation with Lalo in the penultimate episode. What if…I wondered…during the Breaking Bad timeline…Kim’s not dead or in witness protection…or left Jimmy in disgust…what if she’s actually become some super-successful attorney working for some part of the cartel? And what Jimmy/Saul is doing is…related to her work, a cover for it or even in reaction to it? 

The possibilities are endless, and intriguing, and, from the perspective of creativity and art, quite suggestive.

And note a theme – the theme that dominates both shows. Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul focus us on broken, hurting human beings who might, indeed, have reason to blame their troubles on external factors – sickness, other people, family dynamics, threats – and who make a choice, ultimately, to go with that blame and let it control their decisions. Pride drives Walter White, and to some extent, Jimmy McGill. Jimmy’s trajectory is all the more painful because he really does mean well, and he really does try – while Walter White is pretty terrible from the beginning (something viewers tend to forget). But Jimmy is ultimately driven just as much by pride as Walt is.

Further, both shows are also about how that original sin, as it were, spreads. It’s like Genesis 1-11 brought to life in New Mexico, but with lawyers, drugs and money instead of forbidden fruit, grain sacrifices and ziggurats.

It was the great, overarching theme of Breaking Bad and while less dominant here in Better Call Saul, it still plays a part, especially, we now see, in the dynamic between Kim (magnificently played by Rhea Seehorn, perhaps one of the best female characters on any television show, ever) and Jimmy/Saul.

Who is Kim? We don’t know all about her, but we do know that she has worked very, very hard – to a fault. She is driven and meticulous with a ethical core – that is, however, sorely tempted and tried by the satisfaction of being Giselle, and all that means.  She can also justify the scams and deceit up to a point, since sometimes what she gets into is for the sake of a greater good. Ends justifies the means, and all that.

It’s about the difficulty of doing the right thing and the pull of doing the wrong thing.

So how do we become who we are? And who are we, anyway? Internal, external forces, innate factors, genetics, circumstances, emotions, reactions. Whoever we are at any given moment emerges from all of that muck – just as these characters and who they are emerge from the the muck of their fictional lives and the muck of the creative process.

It’s messy. But here’s the thing:  in the end, someone has to make a choice.

(From season 3)

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

 

Yes, Jimmy McGill had an overbearing jerk of a brother.  Yes, he’s got a skill for manipulation and an attraction to showmanship. Yes, Kim Wexler (apparently) had an insecure childhood and is attracted to the power of dramatic exaggeration herself. Yes, Mike and his son, Nacho and his dad.  Yes, Walter White got lung cancer and was ripped off by his former friends and partners.

But I think what’s clear from both Better Call Saul is the persistent power of the reality and value of free will. We really do believe in it. And we believe that there are right and wrong uses of that free will. It’s why we watch shows and read books like this with such engagement and, at times, anxiety. That engagement shows that no, we really don’t believe everything is relative or all choices are equally valid and your truth is as good as my truth. We can be amused at the highjinks and gasp in dread and admiration and at the audacious moves, but most of us, despite the entertainment value of all that, stick with it because we really do want these pretend people to figure out how to use their pretend powers for good and stop, you know, helping the other pretend people get away with murder.

And we’re into it because we’re in it. Rising from muck ourselves every day, we’re pushed and pulled too. We’ve got our skills and our gifts and tragedies, our opportunities, our curses and we’ve got something else that the pretend people have, but ours are too real because this is real life:

Choices. 

 

Better Call Saul Season 5 Finale: Peter Gould Interview

Am I bad for you?

 

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amy-welborn11

 

St. Patrick's Well, Orvieto

What is this and what does it have to do with St. Patrick? See the end of the blog post…

From The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints:

How do you teach a classroom that’s as big as a whole country? How do you teach a whole country about God?

St. Patrick’s classroom was the whole country of Ireland and his lesson was the good news of Jesus Christ. How in the world did he do it? Well, it was only possible because he depended totally on God.

….

God gave Patrick the courage to speak, even when Patrick was in danger of being hurt by pagan priests who didn’t want to lose their power over the people.

Patrick’s most famous prayer shows us how close he was to God. It’s called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” A breastplate is the piece of armor that protects a soldier’s heart from harm.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left.

I also have a chapter on the beautiful Lorica prayer – or St. Patrick’s Breastplate in The Words We Pray. You can dip into it here and buy the book here. It’s one of my favorites of those I’ve written.

Here’s the last page of the chapter:

amy_welborn

The point of St Patrick to me has always been he went back. He (like Isaac Jogues and many others) returned to the people who had caused him much suffering. Why did he return? Because he knew, first hand, that they needed to hear the Gospel. The Gospel is about forgiveness and reconciliation. Who better to bring it to them?

St. Patrick's Breastplate

St. Patrick’s Breastplate in a Wordcloud. Wordcloud made via this. Feel free to share.

The photograph at the top of the blog post is of St. Patrick’s Well in Orvieto, Italy, taken during our 2016 trip. No, St. Patrick never traveled to Italy, and no one thinks he does, either. The assumption is that the name of this very deep, intriguingly constructed well is derived from the awareness of “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in Ireland, a cave so deep it led to Purgatory.

This incredible 16th century feat of engineering is 72 meters (174.4 feet) deep and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. Two staircases circle the central opening in a double-helix design, meaning that one person (or donkey carrying empty buckets) can travel down the staircase in one direction and never run into another person (or donkey carrying full buckets) coming up in the other direction. Seventy-two arched windows in the interior wall of the staircase filter light through the well and illuminate the brick and mortar used to seal it.

Why does a tiny town on top of a plateau of volcanic rock (or “tufa”) have such a thing? For the same reason it has such a stunning duomo! After the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII was held hostage in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome’s holy fortress, for six months. He finally escaped dressed as a servant and took refuge in Orvieto. It was the perfect spot with its vantage point over the valley.

It didn’t, however, have a reliable source of water without descending from the plateau, something the Pope feared could be a issue if it were sieged. To solve the problem before it existed, Pope Clement VII commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, a visionary young Italian architect, to create a well that was at that time called “Pozzo della Rocca”, “Well of the Fortress”. Research had already been done to find the most suitable spot for a well and so the design and construction of Pozzo della Roca was begun immediately. It was finished 10 years later in 1537, under the reign of Pope Paul III.

It wasn’t until the 1800′s that the well got its new name, as it reminded some of the “well” or “cave” in Ireland called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory”.

amy-welborn10

(I always like these vintage books more for the art than the text….)

Finally, you might be interested in this, dug up from the Internet Archive: A Rhymed Life of St. Patrick by Irish writer Katharine Tynan:

Irish nationalist writer Katharine Tynan was born in Clondalkin, a suburb of Dublin, in 1859. She was educated at the Dominican Convent of St. Catherine and started writing at a young age. Though Catholic, she married a Protestant barrister; she and her husband lived in England before moving to Claremorris, in County Mayo. Tynan was friends with W.B. Yeats and Charles Parnell.

Involved in the Irish Literary Revival, Tynan expressed concern for feminist causes, the poor, and the effects of World War I—two sons fought in the war—in her work. She also meditated on her Catholic faith. A prolific writer, she wrote more than 100 novels, 12 collections of short stories, reminiscences, plays, and more than a dozen books of poetry, among them Louise de la Vallière and Other Poems (1885), Shamrocks (1887), Ballads and Lyrics (1891), Irish Poems (1913), The Flower of Peace: A Collection of the Devotional Poetry of Katharine Tynan (1914), Flower of Youth: Poems in Wartime (1915), and Late Songs (1917). She died in 1931.

 

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