A New Hope

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IMG_1605Over the years, my piano teacher and I have become friends. B. has always been generous – bringing cards and treats at holidays, making cakes for various occasions. We celebrate each other’s birthdays. I have known B. for over ten years.

So when B. was diagnosed with cancer last August, I was upset and concerned. With no family of her own and no means of financial support when she isn’t teaching, it was going to be a struggle for B.

Over the past six months, B. has endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. She has trouble eating and drinking, and she has been in hospital or nursing home care for the better part of these past six months.  Two weeks ago, as the hospital got ready to discharge B., I was extremely concerned. She had been so frail, and I was worried that she would not be able to care for herself all alone in her apartment.

About a year ago, B. gave me an orchid plant. A lover of these notoriously finicky flowers, B. instructed me to care for the plant by putting a few ice cubes in the soil, letting them slowly water the roots. The orchid bloomed for a time and then went dormant. For the rest of the year, the plant’s large green leaves stayed glossy and alive. But the stem remained bare. Then in February, I noticed the roots climbing over the side of the pot, so I replanted the orchid in a slightly larger pot. Sure enough, large buds began to form. And just last week, the first blossom opened up in all its purple glory.

At home in her apartment, B. is also starting to get better. She is eating and drinking on her own, her hair has come back, and the color has returned to her face. As she regains her strength, I see glimpses of the fiercely intelligent and independent musician and opera singer she once was. I showed her a photo of the blossoming orchid she had given me so long ago. We agreed it is a sign of hope.

As Easter approaches, we celebrate resurrection. And I feel hopeful for B. and the new life that seems to be slowly unfurling for her. And I pray for all those struggling that they find a new hope in this Easter season.

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Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.

Cult of Celebrity

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America’s cult of celebrity is ruining our democracy. Our obsession with being famous brought us the presidency of Donald Trump, a reality TV star more than anything, who gloried in shouting “You’re fired!” each week at a hapless contestant on The Apprentice. Now Trump is playing a high-stakes version of The Apprentice with the highest office in the land.

The ouster of National Security Chief H.R. McMaster yesterday is just the latest in dozens of firings from our volatile president. I used to be worried about Trump’s peopling his administration with military men. Now, as Trump starts combing the ranks of Fox News pundits and resurrecting the career of John Bolton, I’m missing those generals with wistful fondness.

It’s a measure of our fascination with famous people that someone like Oprah is being considered a great presidential candidate in 2020 . And just the other day, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame announced she will run for governor of New York. Of course, we’ve already had the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in California, as well as the presidency of the late Ronald Reagan, an actor who parlayed his work with the Screen Actors’ Guild into a stint as governor before becoming a two-term Republican president.

I’m not saying celebrities have no right to run for office or that their fame makes them unqualified to hold a government position. But I think that if we continue this obsession with electing people on the basis of their fame, we are apt to have Pauly D. from Jersey Shore as our next president (with The Situation his chief of staff).

I understand that voters are tired of business as usual in government. Career politicians whose every move is calculated against their chances of winning re-election have left a bad taste in our mouths. But we still need thoughtful, principled and knowledgable individuals to make laws and shape policies so that our democracy continues to be the thriving and vibrant envy of the world it has always been.

Politics as entertainment has to go. As volatile as this fledgling presidency of Donald Trump has been, I dread the prospect of seeing the reruns in 2020.

 

Measure for Measure

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William Shakespeare knew his Bible. His dark comedy Measure for Measure uses the words of Luke to fashion a tale of sin, hypocrisy, and justice. In the play, the emphasis is more upon getting one’s just deserts in a negative sense. The character who condemns others for their sins also stands condemned for the same sin. Yet at the very end, Shakespeare affords its hypocritical character something truly God-like: mercy.

The words of Luke 6:38 are really about extravagant giving. So often we as humans are worried about having enough – money, time, attention etc. We hoard what we have or give only from our excess. It is really hard – and takes a lot of faith – to give until it hurts.

I like to think of myself as a generous person. I give to charity, try to be kind to strangers, and consider myself a good friend, especially in times of need. Yet I know that I often begrudge the time I spend on others. I may smile and offer to help, but later I can be found complaining about someone’s neediness or constant requests for help. And my donations to causes don’t really cause appreciable distress for materially.

I want to learn to give with extravagant love, not counting the cost. I want to lose myself in service to others. I want to embrace the unloved and the seemingly unlovable. But I’m often afraid or tired or discouraged – even, at times, annoyed. It’s a sad truth of the human condition that we are first and foremost concerned with our own survival. Or to paraphrase a famous saying, “To hoard is human, to give divine.”

Many years ago, I learned of a local family who had lost all of their worldly possessions in a fire. The family had young children, so I asked my daughter if she would be willing to donate one of her toys to a little girl who had lost all of hers. My daughter selected a beloved Little Mermaid “Barbie” to give. Almost from the moment the doll left our house, my daughter had “giver’s remorse.” Although she had several Barbies, Ariel was her favorite. My young child instinctively knew how to give until it hurt.

As we approach the days when we commemorate the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it’s good to reflect upon what self-abnegating love we can share with others in our lives, knowing that “the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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Tomorrow is a favorite holiday for Irish-Americans and, well, just about everyone else: St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago, the river will be dyed an unnatural shade of green, and a big parade will course down (ironically) Columbus Drive to the wild cheers of the Chi-town throngs. Hardier partiers will start their pub crawl at an ungodly hour, and green beer will flow.

Being Irish has always been an enjoyable part of my life. My Dad loved to sing old Irish songs, some of which are very plaintive and touching. So did my red-haired Uncle Jim, who favored the  funnier ones, such as “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” I myself loved to listen to and create funny limericks, thought to be named for an old Irish song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” (Of course, I was never privy to the bawdier versions of these poems.) And Irish tales of leprechauns and banshees and other magical lore from the Emerald Isle were endlessly fascinating to me.

On St. Patrick’s Day, our Catholic school took a holiday, and we would wear our kelly green sweaters. My mom would make corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish-American fare, for dinner. If St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday, the Catholic Church would even give us a dispensation from going meatless on Lenten Fridays. One year my parents even braved the crowds downtown and took us to see the parade.

As I got older, I delved into the history of Ireland and learned that being Irish certainly did not come with a pot of gold. The story of my ancestors was one of privation and persecution. A particular story I read in English class, “The Sniper,” made a big impression on me. It’s a story about the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, and the reveal at the end of the story is that the sniper ends up being killed by his own brother. It  is a metaphor for the tragedy of civil war and the age-old enmity between brethren.

I also learned to appreciate both the beauties and the struggles of being Irish from reading Frank McCourt’s trilogy of memoirs, beginning with his Pulitzer-prize winning book Angela’s Ashes. His memoirs are filled with laughter amidst the sadness, which is a very Irish way of looking at the world.

I think that’s what I love about being Irish most of all. It’s an irrepressible zest for life coexisting with a maudlin sense of doom. The Irish are drinkers, dreamers, story-tellers, and poets, singers and dancers and revelers. That’s the side of being Irish we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

And it’s in that spirit that I say, Erin Go Bragh! Ireland Forever!

Walkout

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180221094543-parkland-other-schools-support-signs-super-teaseTomorrow students in many parts of the country will participate in a national walkout to protest the increase in school gun violence. The walkout is a response to the latest mass shooting to occur at a school: the Parkland, Florida, massacre that killed 17.

What is different about this movement is that it has been started by our children. In the aftermath of the shooting, students at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School held a rally where they spoke out about the epidemic of mass shootings. The public stance taken by these teenagers, many of whom were vilified and accused of being media plants, has inspired students across the nation to take a similar stand.

In my local high school district, there has been a great deal of angst about the district’s response to the planned walkout tomorrow. Parents, in particular, are incensed that the district is not supporting the students’ plan to leave the building for a 17 minute protest. We should be encouraging our children’s passion for an important cause, these parents feel. They worry about the possibility of negative consequences for their children in terms of school discipline.

I wonder, though, if that shouldn’t be the point of a walkout. If a walkout is a school-sanctioned activity, what is the actual meaning of it? If it costs nothing to go outside for 17 minutes and perhaps carry a poster or listen to a fellow student’s speech, why not just hold an in-school assembly on the issue of gun violence and making our schools safer?

In his podcast “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell makes this very point in reference to recent student efforts to force the administration at Yale University to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from school buildings, on the grounds that Wilson was an avowed racist who promoted racist policies as president. The students demanded action, yet they were not willing to refuse to attend a school that elevated a known racist.

That may sound like a drastic consequence, but it is only when people lay something on the line that their conviction speaks loudly and effects change. During the 1960s, college protesters braved not only disciplinary action in protesting the Vietnam War, they faced tear gas, arrest, and even, in some tragic cases, death for their convictions.

I’m not suggesting our children face riot police in order to make a point about school violence and the need to change our laws to make schools safer places. And I’m not opposed to school administrations that decide to allow or facilitate their students’ walkouts tomorrow. But I think children and their parents need to be willing to face opposition to stand up for their beliefs.

Whatever happens tomorrow at my daughter’s school and at schools across the country, I hope that the movement marks a turning point in our response to gun violence, not only at schools, but in all places in the U.S. And I hope that, whatever the consequence, my daughter learns something about individual and collective responsibility for making our world a better place.

Everybody Needs a Friend

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I recently found out that my best friend from childhood had passed away in her late teens or early 20s. Kathy and I were both shy little girls, and we gravitated toward each other because of that. When we were young, we were both obsessed with horses and pretended to have stables of them, each with a unique name. As we got older, we’d spend hours in her quiet room (unlike the bedlam in my family of 13) listening to 45 rpm records on her record player.

Although I got along fine with the other kids in my small Catholic school, it was Kathy I spent time with outside of school. Then in the summer before eighth grade, my family moved away. I quickly made a new best friend in the junior high I attended, one whose friendship I have maintained to this day. But I regret how easily I let my friendship with Kathy slip away.

Everybody needs a friend. A friend is a buffer against the harsh realities of life – the pressures of school, the meanness of children, the dysfunction in families. A friend can make us laugh, share our secrets, and have our backs in tough situations. Family is important, sure. But a friend is someone who chooses to be in your life.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether Donald Trump has any friends. He seems like a lonely figure in the White House. I can’t know for sure, but his relationship with his wife seems frosty and with his son, distant. He always seems to have so much to prove, tweeting away at all hours of the night, viciously attacking allies and enemies alike, needing to have the upper hand.

The Parkland shooter didn’t seem to have any friends. There is some indication that his odd behavior made him an outcast. So when he lost his mother, he must have felt overwhelmingly alone. Without a friend to be that buffer against life’s vicissitudes, he turned into an angry and vindictive young man.

Society needs to recognize the danger of looking the other way while kids are bullied, people suffer from depression, and others are raised by harsh, demanding tyrants who leave them feeling unloved. Not having a friend not only affects the lonely person, but can have devastating repercussions for those around him. It’s important to reach out to those on the margins, to those who spend their time building up paranoid fantasies in their minds – before they do something harmful to themselves or others.

I truly hope President Trump has a trusted friend, someone with whom he can laugh and let off steam, someone who can listen and try to understand.

Everybody needs a friend.