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Well, we are back, and as is always the case with travel, we wonder if we ever left at all.

That first dinner in the Argentinian restaurant? It was barely a week and a half ago, and seems as if it were months. Months.

So no, we didn’t die, and while this will be mostly a summary post with links to all of the trip entries, I want to address the general issue of safety.

For you know, even though we did see a lot of Americans in both Mexico City and Puebla, outside of the all-inclusive resorts on both coasts, Mexico doesn’t seem to factor very strongly as a potential travel destination these days. People are not really sure why they might want to go, and they’re concerned about safety.

I can’t speak to the first question, for my answer is not going to be the same as yours. I travel – and take my kids traveling – because my interest in history and culture takes me places, and also because I’m deeply interested in how people live – in my own community, across the state, the country and in other parts of the world. And – although this should be the subject of a separate blog post – I want to educate my kids on that score as well: the world is much, much bigger than the 8th or 11th grade corner of one particular school in Birmingham, Alabama, and so let’s not let that one tiny corner define or limit us.

But safety? Here you go.

People hear “Mexico” and they immediately fling up State Department warnings in your face. And I will confess that the first time I went to Mexico – to a small town west of Saltillo back in the summer of 2010 for a parish mission– I almost backed out because of safety concerns. I think I was skittish anyway – although that might have been mostly a factor of it being barely a year since Mike died – but then not long before one of the final commitment deadlines there was a major incident in Monterrey – I have no recollection what it was, but it was random and although Monterrey is huge and wasn’t close to General Cepada (the town where the mission was going), it struck me as vaguely threatening especially since the University of Texas pulled its study abroad students out of Monterrey in response.

But I didn’t back out, and we went, and as I walked around the town with my kids as they ate ice cream and played on the town playground, I wondered what in the world I had been so worried about.

 

So by the time 2014 rolled around and my kid had for some reason become obsessed with the Maya, I didn’t think twice about renting a car and driving us around the Yucatan (wary, though, of rip-offs and scams, both at gas stations and, unfortunately, by the police at traffic stops.)

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That is not to downplay safety concerns. There are certain areas of Mexico I wouldn’t go – border towns, some other towns known for crime, most related to the drug trade. You do hear of tourists being victimized in resorts on both coasts, but most often there is some kind of explanation – it is, not, to say, totally unpredictable and random. So for example, just a week or so before we left, a US family of four was found dead in a condo in Akumal near Tulum, which in turn is near Cancun. As it turns out, the family’s tragedy wasn’t due to violent crime, but has been traced to carbon monoxide from a gas leak. Absolutely a reason for caution – that’s a real danger in substandard and unregulated construction – but it doesn’t go in the “violent Mexico” file, either.

I’m not making any comprehensive claims for safety in Mexico. There’s serious crime in Mexico City, and, I’d guess, in Puebla. But I can say that as we walked around most cities, both day and night, I felt absolutely safe.  Both cities were bustling with people, mostly in family groups. Shops and restaurants were open, street vendors were all over the place, and the feeling was just as it is in any similar community. Sure, you’re going to see a few more soldiers and police standing around with big guns than you are in the United States, but guess what? You see that in Europe, too now. As I said in my post going through my trip-planning process, when I initially honed in on Antigua, Guatemala as a Holy Week destination, I thought, “How odd that I feel safer planning to be at a big public event in Guatemala than I would in almost any European country.”  Consider that last spring break at the end of March, we went to London. The week before we went, a terrorist rammed a van into a crowd on the Westminster Bridge – where we would walk –  and a couple of months later, another attack occurred in the Borough Market – where we spent time. We’ve been to Barcelona and walked on La Rambla.  In August, 2017, a terrorist rammed a van into a crowd on that street killing thirteen. We’ve been to Christmas Markets in Germany – in 2016, a tractor-trailer barreled into a Berlin Christmas market, killing twelve. This carjacking, which made the national news just a little over a year ago, occurred three streets from my house.

I am not afraid of walking around in Mexico City.

Mexico was great, and I fully intend to return – hopefully at some point to the Oaxaca area (for me)  and (not on the same trip) to Palenque for my son. At least. As a beginning. I’m fascinated by the layers of culture in Mexico and the complexities of the Mexican identity. I’m not a romantic about Mexico – it has a fraught past and present, but what country doesn’t? And although I believe that US immigration is broken (who doesn’t?), Mexico’s approach to both immigration (from its south) and emigration (to its north) is characterized by cynicism, hypocrisy and opportunism. But you know what? Justin Trudeau is a tool and supports wretched public policy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to go back to Canada some day.

So. Here are the posts from the trip, in order. Oh, let me offer a few more practicalities for those interested.

We stayed in:

This apartment in Mexico City. Very well located, right next to the Four Seasons Hotel, one block of La Reforma, two blocks from the Chapultapec Park.

This hotel in Puebla. It was good for us because the room was very large – it was a family room, which meant there were four beds in two sections. The hotel was an old building with lovely tile floors and enormously high ceilings and a balcony. It might not be for everyone though – if you want a newer, shinier type of hotel experience, or at the very least, you want a good shower – stay somewhere else. Not having ever been to Puebla, I just wasn’t sure if I went for a higher priced hotel, what I would be paying for – I didn’t know what the centro was like – if it was clean, super-noisy or what. Now having been there I can say that any hotel you pick in the centro will be just fine.

Last night: Marriott Courtyard Mexico City. It’s more expensive than many hotels you would find, but you absolutely cannot beat the convenience – it is attached to Terminal 1 , from which all international flights (except for Delta) leave.  As we were trudging to check our bags Monday morning at 5:30 AM, I was so glad we hadn’t stayed anywhere else..

We didn’t take public transportation in Mexico City – we either walked or did Uber, which worked great for us. Same in Puebla. I was open to riding the subway in Mexico City – even though it’s kind of notorious to the point that they’ve instituted “Women and Children Only” cars – but we never needed it.

Mexico is a very inexpensive destination. Your dollars will go a long way…

 

Background – why we went to Mexico during Holy Week.

Sunday 3/25 – the trip down and the first evening in Mexico City.

Monday 3/26 – Teotihuacan and going to the movies in Mexico City.

Tuesday 3/27 – The National Museum of Anthropology, other parts of Chapultepec Park, and Lucha Libre

Wednesday 3/28 – The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Thursday 3/29 – Bus from Mexico City to Puebla;  Holy Thursday in Puebla

Friday 3/30 –  Good Friday in Puebla 

Saturday 3/31 – Holy Saturday I – Cholula Pyramids and astonishing churches

Saturday 3/31 – Holy Saturday 2 – Vigil-hopping and street food

Sunday 4/1 -2 – Easter Sunday – Mass in the Cathedral, museums and dance – and the bus back to Mexico City, and then the trip back on Monday. 

And this post!

For more photos and videos, see Instagram. 

 

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It’s just a little more than a week away.

Are you getting your meal plans ready? Because you’ll probably want to take a look at the Gallery of Regrettable Lenten Food before you go shopping:

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But seriously – 

If you’re on the lookout for resources for yourself, your kids or your parish or school, take a look at these.

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  • The Word on Fire ministry is more than the Catholicism or Pivotal Players series – as great as they are! There are also some really great lecture series/group discussion offerings.  I wrote the study guide for the series on Conversion – a good Lenten topic. 

  • A few years ago, I wrote a Stations of the Cross for young people calledNo Greater Love,  published by Creative Communications for the Parish. They put it out of print for a while…but now it’s back!

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This booklet was published in 2017 for  Lent 2017, but even though the specific readings aren’t the same..hey, it’s all still Lent. It was published by Liguori, also available in Spanish.

(pdf sample of English language version here)

Kindle version of English booklet. 

Paper version. Still time to order with Prime. 

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The Spanish-language version is not available in a digital format, but here is an Amazon link, and yes, you can get it soon via Prime. 

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PDF sample of Spanish language version. 

Contact Liguori at 1-800-325-9521 for parish and school orders. No promises, but they can probably get orders to you by next week.

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Looking ahead to First Communion/Confirmation season? Try here. 

Also – some older posts on Lent – feel free to link and to take the graphics and use as you wish.

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— 1 —

Recent….reads:

“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.

 

 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.

 

–4–

Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.

 

— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?

Meh.

Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:

 

— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.

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It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….

 

 

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

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— 1 —

Well. That was a week.

Drive back and forth to Kansas, then come back to work on a project that came my way a IMG_20171104_174016.jpgbit more than a week ago, and I took it on, knowing that it was due today (11/10) and I’d be traveling for four days in the middle of it.

Done! Last night! Ahead of schedule!

So where was in Kansas and why? I blogged about it on Monday – at Benedictine College in Atchison, a strong contender for my now-junior-in-HS’s matriculation in a couple of years. The journey there and back lasted from Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening, with various stops along the way, including the City Museum in St. Louis and the Truman Library. As I said, check out the travelogue here. 

 — 2 —

So, yes, one short-term project completed, and now several months of work of a different sort ahead of me, as well as whipping up a final draft of that Loyola book. And other things.  I’m learning a lot. About…things.

— 3 —

Today’s the feastday of St. Leo the Great.  Here’s a good introduction to this pope from Mike Aquilina.

The Tome of Leo on the nature of Christ.

He’s in The Loyola Catholic Book of Saintsunder “Saints are People who are Strong Leaders.”

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— 4

On the homeschool front? The usual. The “special” classes are over now, which frees up time, although next week, he’ll be going to a special homeschool frog dissection and a daytime Alabama Symphony concert, so yes, we keep busy – especially since basketball has started up again. He finished Tom Sawyer, read a couple of short stories early this week – “The Necklace” and “To Build a Fire,” and has moved on to The Yearling. Which I read when I was about his age. And…I guess I liked it.

Well, no guessing about it. I vividly remember reading The Yearling and just….being torn up by it.

(And yes, Amelia is wrong. My full name is Amelie. I imagine that whomever my mother ordered the bookplate from just couldn’t imagine such a foreign name being bestowed on a true American child.)

— 5 –

We’ve done a bunch of science stuff at home this week, mostly simple demonstrations involving steel wool, alum crystals and candles. Not all together, I hasten to add. Next week I’ll do a more comprehensive Homeschooling Now post, because I do enjoy writing about all of those rabbit trails.

— 6 —

We did fit in a little jaunt to our wonderful Birmingham Museum of Art. There’s free admission, so we have no excuse not to go regularly. There’s been a fairly recent shift in administration, and it shows. There’s a new sort of brightness and cleaner feel to the galleries, and I really do think some of the description cards have been rewritten – even those on the pieces I’ve seen several times seem different – more informative, less fussy.

The occasion for our visit was a special exhibit focused on Asian art and the afterlife. It was a small exhibit, but with very interesting and even engaging pieces presented well.

As we poked our heads in the Renaissance and Baroque galleries, I noticed a piece I had never seen – it must have just recently been brought out. It’s a Spanish Baroque wood polychrome statue of St. Margaret of Corona, and it’s….breathtaking. Look at this photograph (I didn’t take it – mine didn’t turn out, and so this is from the Museum’s website.). Do you see? The detail and the natural feel are almost startling to behold.

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Image: Birmingham Museum of Art.

Go here for more views and more information. 

— 7 —

St. Nicholas day is less than a month away….and don’t forget Bambinelli Sunday!

 

St. Nicholas pamphlet. 

St. Nicholas Center website. 

 

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

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Born in 1925, if she were still alive, she’d be 92. A year younger than my own mother, which is always odd for me to think about.  And given her mother’s longevity (Regina died at the age of 99 in 1995), if lupus hadn’t taken her, she might well still be alive, indeed.

I’ve written quite a bit about Flannery over the years.  Most recently, I’m in Catholic World Report today, commenting on a new documentary that’s been produced about her – the only one out there at the moment. 

I was in the area, and was hoping to go to Andalusia yesterday, on the way from Florida back here. But fortunately, I checked the opening hours and saw that the farm is only open Thursdays – Sundays. And it didn’t seem a great use of time to haul everyone off I-75 just to visit her grave, even though it was the day before her death anniversary. So we went to some Indian mounds instead. 

Some other posts and writings on Flannery O’Connor:

This one on the collection of her book reviews for the Atlanta Archdiocesan paper. 

Most of what O’Connor reviewed was non-fiction, and she did not like most of the fiction she did review – J.F. Powers, Paul Horgan and Julien Green being the unsurprising exceptions in the otherwise flowerly garden of pietistic fiction she endured.

The non-fiction choices are fascinating, although not a surprise to anyone familiar with the contents of O’Connor’s personal library and the scope of her reading we can discern from her letters. She was very concerned with the intellectual life of American Catholics and indeed saw what she was doing for the papers as in some way an act of charity in which readers might be encouraged to read beyond the pieties.

She was especially interested in Scripture, dismayed that Catholics did not read more of it, and quite interested in the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Again, perhaps not a surprise? She was, as is well-known, quite interested in Teilhard de Chardin, and reviewed a few books by Karl Barth, as well.

“The Enduring Chill” played a part in my last visit to my parents’ house after I’d sold it:

Secondly, the association of the breaking through of the Holy Ghost with coldness.  A chill. An enduring chill.  There are a number of ways to look at it,  since the “chill” is of course a reference to fever,  but  this morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Flannery’s continual argument against the modern expectation that “faith” is what brings us  contentment and satisfaction.  In the Gospel today,  Jesus says Peace be with You.  But that’s after the crucifixion, you know.

Image result for flannery o'connorAlso on Asbury’s mind- primary, really – was his mother.  How he blamed her for his own failure as a would-be artist, and how what he wanted to do most of all was make her see this.  To give her an enduring chill that would be the result of her awareness of what she had done to him.

He would hurt her, but that was just too bad.  It was what was necessary, he determined, to get her to see things as they really are. Irony, of course, comes to rest on him in the end as the Holy Ghost descends.

So I read and talked about this story about parents, children, disappointment, blame,  pride and being humbled.

Then I drove up to Knoxville, alone, thinking about Asbury, about that Holy Ghost, about peace be with you and doubt no longer.

I drove up to see my father’s house for the last time and sign the papers so someone new could live there now.

Tears?

Sadness that my father died six months ago, that my mother died eleven years ago, that my husband died three years ago. Sadness for my dad’s widow.  But then tempered, as I stood there and surveyed the surrounding houses and realized that almost every person who lived in those houses when we first moved in, is also dead.

Remembering that forty years ago, my parents were  exactly where I am now, watching the preceding generation begin to die off, absorbing their possessions, making sense of what they’d inherited – in every sense – and contemplating where to go from there.

There’s nothing unique about it.  It’s called being human. Not existing for a very long time, being alive for a few minutes, and then being dead for another very long time.

And in that short time, we try.  I’m not going to say “we try our best” because we don’t.  It’s why we ask for mercy.  Especially when we live our days under the delusion of self-sufficiency, placing our faith in ourselves and our poor, passing efforts, closed to grace…when we live like that…no, we’re not trying our best.  We need it,  that  Divine Mercy. We need it, and as Asbury has to learn, we need it to give, not just to take.  More

A summary of a session I lead on “The Displaced Person”

There is a priest in the story, the priest who brings the family (the Guizacs) to the farm, and then continues to visit Mrs. McIntyre. He is old and Irish, listens to Mrs. McIntyre’s complaints about her workers and the difficulties of her life with a nod and a raised eyebrow and then continues to talk to her about the teachings of the Church.

He is seen by the others as a doddering fool, talking about abstractions, not clued into the pressing issues of the moment, telling Mrs. McIntyre, for example, about what the Son of God has done, redeeming us,  “as if he spoke of something that had happened yesterday in town….”

And at the end, as Mrs. McIntyre watches the black figure of the priest bend over a dead man ” slipping something into the crushed man’s mouth…” we see why he spoke of it that way.

It did happen yesterday in town. It happens today.

He’s here.

The priest, too, is the only character who recognizes transcendence.  Every time he comes to the farm, he is transfixed by the peacocks (see the header on the blog today), a fascination the others think is just one more symptom of foolishness and “second childhood.”

You must be born again….

And here is the “irony.” Although steeped in Catholic faith and sensibilities, we know it is not ironic – but to the world’s eyes, it is. That the priest who expresses the mysteries in such matter-of-fact, “formulaic” ways, ways which even theologians today fret are not nuanced or postmodern enough, which they would like to dispense with in favor of…what, I am not sure, unless it is one more set of windy journal articles…this priest is, as I said, the only character who can recognize beauty and the transcendent reflected there. And the one who embodies Mercy.

Flannery O’Connor always said that she found the doctrines of the Church freeing – and this is what she means.

And the story ends:

Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.

A couple of interviews I did with KVSS on Flannery.

And….my piece “Stalking Pride” – which I think is a decent introduction:

Robert Coles answered the question well when he wrote of O’Connor, “She is stalking pride.” For Flannery O’Connor, faith means essentially seeing the world as it is, which means through the Creator’s eyes. So lack of faith is a kind of blindness, and what brings on the refusal to embrace God’s vision — faith — is nothing but pride.

O’Connor’s characters are all afflicted by pride: Intellectual sons and daughters who live to set the world, primarily their ignorant parents, aright; social workers who neglect their own children, self-satisfied unthinking “good people” who rest easily in their own arrogance; the fiercely independent who will not submit their wills to God or anyone else if it kills them. And sometimes, it does.

The pride is so fierce, the blindness so dark, it takes an extreme event to shatter it, and here is the purpose of the violence. The violence that O’Connor’s characters experience, either as victims or as participants, shocks them into seeing that they are no better than the rest of the world, that they are poor, that they are in need of redemption, of the purifying purgatorial fire that is the breathtaking vision at the end of the story, “Revelation.”

The self-satisfied are attacked, those who fancy themselves as earthly saviors find themselves capable of great evil, intellectuals discover their ideas to be useless human constructs, and those bent on “freedom” find themselves left open to be controlled by evil.

What happens in her stories is often extreme, but O’Connor knew that the modern world’s blindness was so deeply engrained and habitual, extreme measures were required to startle us: “I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see.”  More

flannery o'connor stamp

No, this isn’t the real one, but an imagined redesign, which I like very much.  More on that here.  

It’s ironic that a stamp issued in honor of a writer who was determined to present reality as it is – prettifies the subject to the point of making her unrecognizable. 

Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.

-Flannery O’Connor

 

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Well, after several months of dipping, a day or two of  immersion here and there and finally a stint of sustained reading, I have finished Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel.  What a delight.

I had heard of the 19th century writer and early sociologist, but didn’t know much. Then I listened to the episode of In Our Time dedicated to her and I was intrigued, mostly by the fact that she had taken an extended journey to the United States and written about it.

The fruit of that travel is in two works: Retrospect of Western Travel and the more topical Society in America. 

It’s too bad de Toqueville gets all the love, because Martineau offers just as much. Retrospect is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, an astonishing first-hand view of the United States in its early history which includes encounters with most the most eminent personages of the age, from Andrew Jackson to Emerson, from the Beechers to Garrison.

And she goes everywhere.  New England and the Middle Atlantic, all through the South "amy welborn"from Charleston to New Orleans and up to Kentucky, and throughout the Midwest. She covers everything, from a close reading of the political system, to social morays to intellectual and religious life. Her impressions of slavery are particularly acute and impassioned.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about volume 1 – go back and take a look, especially if you want to read about her irritation at this newfangled obsession called a rocking-chair. 

I highlighted so much in reading that I can just skim the surface of sharing what interested me, so skim I shall. Different points will strike different readers. What interests me in writing of this kind are the moments in which I see the present in the past – in which Martineau notices aspects of American society that are still a part of our makeup, in which she happens upon quirks or incidents that might still be familiar to us today. I’m also interested in observations she make that confound our impressions of the past. Don’t look for rhyme or reason in these quotes. I’m just going through what I highlighted in volume 2 – most recently read – as the moments struck me:

At a school program in Cincinnati (a city, by the way, she believed should be nation’s capitol.)

Many prizes of books were given by the gentlemen on the platform; and the ceremony closed with an address from the pulpit which was true, and in some respects beautiful; but which did not appear altogether judicious to those who are familiar with children’s minds. The children were exhorted to trust their teachers entirely; to be assured that their friends would do by them what was kindest. Now, neither children nor grown people trust, any more than they believe, because they are bid. Telling them to have confidence is so much breath wasted. If they are properly trained, they will unavoidably have this trust and confidence, and the less that is said about it the better. If not, the less said the better, too; for  confidence is then out of the question, and there is danger in making it an empty phrase. It would he well if those whose office it is to address children wore fully aware that exhortation, persuasion, and dissuasion are of no use in their case; and that there is immeasurable value in the opposite method of appeal. Make truth credible, and they will believe it: make goodness lovely, and they will love it: make holiness cheerful, and they will be glad in it: but remind them of themselves by threat, inducement, or exhortation, and you impair (if you do any thing) the force of their unconscious affections: try to put them upon a task of arbitrary self-management, and your words pass over their ears only to be forgotten.

(Her comments remind me of the present day in which we think if we just tell children and young people to have self-esteem and believe in themselves!  ….it will happen…)

She often comments on the generosity of Americans:

This account of our three first clays at Cincinnati will convey a sufficient idea of a stranger’s impressions of the place. There is no need to give a report of its charitable institutions and its commerce:  the details of the latter are well known to those whom they may concern; and in America, wherever men are gathered together, the helpless are aided, and the suffering relieved. 

However, she notes as well the “illiberality” of many Americans – by which she means prejudices, and right after this passage, she comments on anti-Catholicism. (Martineau was a Unitarian, and no fan of Catholic practices, but she was also committed to freedom of religion and expression. Although she does infer that one of the reasons that prejudice is bad is that it might just prompt the growth and strength of the object of prejudice….)

The Catholic religion spreads rapidly in many most of the recently-settled parts of the United States, and its increase produces an almost insane dread among some Protestants, who fail to see that no evils that the Catholic religion can produce in the present state of society can be so afflictive and dangerous as the bigotry by which it is proposed to put it down. The removal to Cincinnati of Dr. Beecher, the ostentation and virulent foe of the Catholics, has much quickened the spirit of alarm in that region. It is to be hoped  that Dr. Beecher and the people of Cincinnati will remember what has been the invariable consequence in America of public denunciations of assumed offences which the law does not reach; namely, mobbing.

To more prosaic topic – corn on the cob.

This day, I remember, we first tasted
green corn, one of the most delicious of vegetables, and by some
preferred to green peas. The greatest drawback is the way in which it is
necessary to eat it. The cob, eight or ten inches long, is held at both
ends, and, having been previously sprinkled with salt, is nibbled and
sucked from end to end till all the grains are got out. It looks awkward
enough: but what is to be done? Surrendering such a vegetable from
considerations of grace is not to be thought of.

On New England education, class, and a contrast with Old England:

Their common and high schools, their lyceums and cheap colleges, are exciting
and feeding thousands of minds, which in England would never get beyond
the loom or the ploughtail. If few are very learned in the villages of
Massachusetts, still fewer are very ignorant; and all have the power and
the will to invite the learning of the towns among them, and to
remunerate its administration of knowledge. The consequence of this is a
state of village society in which only vice and total ignorance need
hang the head, while (out of the desolate range of religious bigotry)
all honourable tastes are as sure of being countenanced and respected as
all kindly feelings are of being reciprocated. I believe most
enlightened and virtuous residents in the villages of New-England are
eager to acknowledge that the lines have fallen to them in pleasant
places.

But she has harsh words for Harvard College:

The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those
of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic
college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of
pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her
principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she
will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a
considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. [Almost 200 years later…has anything changed??!] She has a
great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in
comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will
therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls
are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly
salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed
to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent
and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and
more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise,
whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the
time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer
with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic
classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to
work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is
made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle
and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but
“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and
hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest
orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new
ones.

When I was at Boston the state of the University was a subject of great
mourning among its friends.

Martineau was hard of hearing, and used an ear horn. She visited schools for the visually and hearing impaired in a few cities and observed:

The benevolence which undertook the care of this class of unfortunates,
when their condition was esteemed hopeless, has, in many cases, through
a very natural delight at its own success, passed over into a new and
opposite error, particularly in America, where the popular philosophy of
mind comes in aid of the delusion. From fearing that the deaf and dumb
had hardly any capacities, too many of their friends have come to
believe them a sort of sacred, favoured class, gifted with a keener
apprehension, a more subtile reason, and a purer spirituality than
others, and shut out from little but what would defile and harden their
minds.

Martineau wrote extensively on what she saw in the slave-holding South, but also gives an interesting view of the impact of abolitionist activism in New England, and includes this very wise and still very true observation:

The same delusion (if it be mere delusion) is
visible here that is shared by all persons in power, who cannot deny
that an evil exists, but have not courage to remove it; a vague hope
that “fate, or Providence, or something,” will do the work which men are
created to perform; men of principle and men of peace, like the
abolitionists; victims, not perpetrators of violence.

And what strikes her as one of America’s most telling features?

The only times when I felt disposed to quarrel with the inexhaustible
American mirth was on the hottest days of summer. I liked it as well as
ever; but European strength will not stand more than an hour or two of
laughter in such seasons. I remember one day when the American part of
the company was as much exhausted as the English. We had gone, a party
martineau retrosepct western travelof six, to spend a long day with a merry household in a country village;
and, to avoid the heat, had performed the journey of sixteen miles
before ten o’clock. For three hours after our arrival the wit was in
full flow; by which time we were all begging for mercy, for we could
laugh no longer with any safety. Still, a little more fun was dropped
all round, till we found that the only way was to separate, and we all
turned out of doors. I cannot conceive how it is that so little has been
heard in England of the mirth of the Americans; for certainly nothing in
their manners struck and pleased me more. One of the rarest characters
among them, and a great treasure to all his sportive neighbours, is a
man who cannot take a joke.

Americans love their enthusiasms as well, and for Martineau, these enthusiasms, however nutty they might be,  point to something deeper: an imaginative spirit.

When Spurzheim was in America, the great mass of society became
phrenologists in a day, wherever he appeared; and ever since itinerant
lecturers have been reproducing the same sensation in a milder way, by
retailing Spurzheimism, much deteriorated, in places where the
philosopher had not been. Meantime the light is always going out behind
as fast as it blazes up round the steps of the lecturer. While the world
of Richmond and Charleston is working at a multiplication of the fifteen
casts (the same fifteen or so) which every lecturer carries about, and
all caps and wigs are pulled off, and all fair tresses dishevelled in
the search after organization, Boston has gone completely round to the
opposite philosophy, and is raving about spiritualism to an excess which
can scarcely be credited by any who have not heard the Unknown Tongues.
If a phrenological lecturer from Paris, London, or Edinburgh should go
to Boston, the superficial, visible portion of the public would wheel
round once more, so rapidly and with so clamorous a welcome on their
tongues, that the transported lecturer would bless his stars which had
guided him over to a country whose inhabitants are so candid, so
enlightened, so ravenous for truth. Before five years are out, however,
the lecturer will find himself superseded by some professor of animal
magnetism, some preacher of homœopathy, some teacher who will
undertake to analyze children, prove to them that their spirits made
their bodies, and elicit from them truths fresh from heaven. All this is
very childish, very village-like; and it proves anything rather than
originality in the persons concerned. But it does not prove that there
is not originality in the bosom of a society whose superficial movement
is of this kind; and it does not prove that national originality may not
arise out of the very tendencies which indicate that it does not at
present exist.

The Americans appear to me an eminently imaginative people. The
unprejudiced traveller can hardly spend a week among them without being
struck with this every day. At a distance it is seen clearly enough that
they do not put their imaginative power to use in literature and the
arts; and it does certainly appear perverse enough to observers from the
Old World that they should be imitative in fictions (whether of the pen,
the pencil, stone, or marble), and imaginative in their science and
philosophy, applying their sober good sense to details, but being
sparing of it in regard to principles. This arbitrary direction of their
imaginative powers, or, rather, its restriction to particular
departments, is, I believe and trust, only temporary. As their numbers
increase and their society becomes more delicately organized; when,
consequently, the pursuit of literature, philosophy, and art shall
become as definitely the business of some men as politics and commerce
now are of others, I cannot doubt that the restraints of imitation will
be burst through, and that a plenitude of power will be shed into these
departments as striking as that which has made the organization of
American commerce (notwithstanding some defects) the admiration of the
world, and vindicated the originality of American politics in theory and
practice.

Finally, she has an interesting section on “originals” in America:

There must be many local and professional oddities in a country like
America, where individuals fill a larger space in society, and are less
pressed upon by influences, other than local and professional, than in
Old World communities. A judge in the West is often a remarkable
personage to European eyes…..

….Originals who are so in common circumstances, through their own force of
soul, ruling events as well as being guided by them, yield something far
better than amusement to the observer. Some of these, out of almost
every class, I saw in America, from the divine and statesman down to the
slave.

Martineau ends her book with a remarkable reflection on travel itself, which I’ll share in the next post. 

 

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— 1 —

 

Back from NYC Sunday night, and nowhere near as productive a week as I had hoped this week, especially with one kid in piano camp all day every day. I’m hopeless. Well, maybe not. I did get a sample for a book proposal done, and will send it off to the editor today for his perusal when he returns from vacation. But that’s about it. Sad!

— 2 —

We have some ch-ch-changes in store for the next school year, about which I’ll write more when August hits. Short version: we are returning to Homeschool Land with my youngest for 7th grade.  The situation is disappointing for him (it was basically his

"amy welborn"

Never cleaned it up…a good thing.

decision) because he wanted to like it, and it’s possible that in the future, things will refashion themselves and it might work out for him. It’s difficult to discuss – impossible to discuss without getting specific, which I don’t want to do and would be unfair. Who knows what will happen in the future? We don’t know – for right now, he’s looking forward to next year – Mom has promised  – promised – that except for math, it will be Unschooling all the way, plus he doesn’t have to get up so darn early, he’ll be able to maintain the friendships he forged during the year, he’ll have more time to work on his music and it will be quality time – not I’m-exhausted-from-school-and-I-have-to-squeeze-practice-in-before-homework time, and he gets to start off the school year in September with a photography class at the local Catholic homeschool co-op – a far better way to spend your Thursday mornings than parsing participial phrases.

— 3 —

I got a little frustrated with myself last night because it occurred to me I haven’t been reading many books over the past few weeks. I spent several minutes searching the house for Doctor Thorne, which I never did find, and can’t even recall the last time I saw. What? How did this happen?

Then I realized…television. After a desert time, over the past few weeks, good (to me) shows have been airing again – namely Better Call Saul and Fargo, and, at a far lesser level, Veep and Silicon Valley. Seriously – far lesser level. But BCS and Fargo have been absolutely intriguing this season (I watched season 1 of Fargo but not 2, btw), but since they are structured like novels, with an endgame in sight, I find it impossible and fruitless to try to write about them until the season finale has aired. It’s that way with Fargo in particular, which is either a pretentious collection of arresting images about truth, falsehood, 1960’s LA, Peter and the Wolf and Communist East Germany or something almost profound – but I’ll only know when I see how it all turns out this coming week.

— 4 —

That said, I was interested in something the AV Club guy wrote about Fargo (don’t read the original if you plan on watching and don’t want to be spoiled for a major plot event – I’ve chosen the excerpt so it doesn’t reveal it)

[Reference to a feud between two brothers….]  without understanding that the feud wasn’t a cut-and-dry case of extortion, it was just some cartoons poking other cartoons. I appreciate that this reveal was always in the cards, but the timing of everything means that not everything lands quite as it should.

Image result for fargo season 3What the writer is referring to is a conflict between brothers – he is saying that the feud didn’t seem to him to have depth as it played out because we didn’t know the specifics about the events causing it until this second-to-the-last episode.

But here’s the thing: What we did know was that the basics of the feud involved one brother trading something of value in a moment of weakness.

Does that sound familiar?

Yeah, it’s Jacob and Esau, blindingly obvious to me since we first met these two.

So this interests me. The feud had some resonance and more depth for me over the season because I understood it as an expression of another story I know very well. Perhaps the series creatives could do better in not assuming that familiarity and drawing themes out more explicitly, but it’s interesting to me that they don’t think they should have to, and what people are missing without that familiarity.

 

— 5 —

That said, and without seeing the last episode yet, I have hope that I won’t be disappointed in a series which has the Worst Bad Guy With the Grossest Teeth admitting:

The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is that there is good. Because otherwise, who would care.

And it happens in an episode called “Aporia” – which forces me to look stuff up and get a little more knowledge in my brain. Always a good thing.

— 6 —

 

I was talking to someone who has another high-school age kid, and this kid is an athlete. The parent was telling me some things about the experience and it took me a second to process what he was telling me…I thought I didn’t understand…I thought he was kidding…but…

Every family is responsible for raising $2000 for the team, plus there’s a $300 fee for participating, plus we’re responsible for selling a certain number of ads for the programs….plus..

…there was some other fee, but I don’t remember what it was.

You know, there are a lot of aspects to American culture I look at and grumble, That’s what’s wrong with us today…but this? This expectation that for a high school sport for which a family already sacrifices much of its summer and free time during the school year….that family still has to raise/fork over $3000 or more??  Really?

Stop. Step away. 

— 7 —

My book sales are certainly seasonal – the saints books and Friendship With Jesus peak from Easter to early June, Bambinelli Sunday at Christmas (duh), and the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days around Mother’s Day and Christmas.

The Prove It books have a couple of bumps during the year as well – in the early summer when schools publish their textbook lists for the coming school year, and then August-September when more people (like me) are paying attention and finally getting with the program.

If that’s you – I have a few here for sale. Check it out!

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

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