One Man’s Weeds

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The dandelions are popping up all over a field near my house as spring finally makes an appearance here in the Midwest. On the less tended lawns of my neighborhood, the profusion of cheerful yellow gladdens me.

Why are dandelions considered weeds, plants that need to be eradicated with toxic chemicals? They look so lovely, at least until they go to seed. Even then, the fuzzy grey tops are fun to blow on and scatter.  And you can even make wine out of dandelions!

Walking around our yard with an expert in horticulture, my husband and I will point to plants and ask, “Is that a weed?” I sometimes feel that if you have to ask, maybe you should just leave it be.

As in other areas of culture, deciding what makes a beautiful or desirable plant is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. For instance, we have a Japanese maple in our front yard that my hubby despises. But one would hardly call it a weed. I realize that some plants take over and kill grass or other plants. So I understand why you might want to get rid of such weeds. And truth be told, the foliage of the lowly dandelion is nothing to write home about.

Still, after a long hard winter, I am ready to welcome just about any growing thing around my yard and my neighborhood. Even the cheeky dandelions.

Our Dangerous Attraction to Ourselves

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An Israeli teenager plunged to his death at Yosemite National Park recently while posing for a photo. He had been trying to recreate a popular pose taken at Telegraph Rock in Rio de Janeiro wherein the subject dangles off the side of the rock. The difference was that Telegraph Rock is much closer to the ground than the site at Nevada Fall where the young man lost his grip and fell. (“Israeli teen who fell to death in Yosemite was posing for photo,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2019)

The impulse to document our lives has never been more widespread than today. We carry little cameras around in our phones and snap anything and everything: our friends, ourselves, our food. It’s not enough just to experience that hike to the top of Nevada Fall. We have to prove we were there. More than that, we have to garner lots of likes by pulling a foolhardy stunt like dangling off of a rock.

Our narcissism is actually killing us. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “More than 250 people worldwide have died taking selfies, study finds.” As the lead author of the study, Agam Bansal, points out,

“Taking a toll on these many numbers just because you want a perfect selfie because you want a lot of likes, shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, I don’t think this is worth compromising a life for such a thing.” (WaPo, Oct. 3, 2018)

Indeed.

Recently I had occasion to go through old photo albums, and I enjoyed the memories conjured up by the pictures there. Documenting vacations, holidays, and rites of passage for my children has given me something special to hold onto and recall in the future. But often we overdo the photos and videos of an event and fail to experience it in the here and now. And certainly, no one needs to remember that delightful piece of avocado toast we just had to take a picture of at brunch the other day.

Our modern penchant for selfies may be a sign of insecurity. Look at me, these photos seem to say. Don’t I look fun/athletic/sexy/cool? Maybe it’s normal to want to be seen, and we finally have the technology to make it happen easily. But we need to take stock of this self-centered behavior. Not only is it obnoxious at times, but it just may be the death of us.

 

In Your Easter Bonnet

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Yesterday at Easter Sunday Mass, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time: Easter bonnets! As a female growing up Catholic in the 60s, I was well aware of the requirement that all girls and women cover their heads when entering the church. We girls wore small circlets of lace called chapel veils while some women wore long, flowing mantillas, a Spanish veil. In a pinch, my sisters were known to bobby pin a piece of Kleenex to the tops of their heads!

But at Easter, we got a brand new hat to wear with the pastel Easter dress my mother had sewn each of us girls. I loved my “Easter bonnets” and, remembering them from my own childhood, bought them for my own daughters when they were little. But over the years, wearing hats to Mass has become uncommon. The Catholic stricture for women to cover their heads was removed in 1983. No doubt the chapel veil and mantilla manufacturers cried.

So I was delighted yesterday to see several young girls sporting wide-brimmed white straw hats to complement their Easter dresses. But the piece de resistance was the mother of two bonneted girls, who walked into church sporting a large pink confection that would be perfect for Ascot or the Kentucky Derby. They sat in a pew next to us, and I dubbed them the best dressed family at Easter Sunday Mass.

I realize that hat wearing is still common at some other Christian churches. And Orthodox Jewish women wear hats to synagogue. But for the most part, decorative, fanciful hats for women are a thing of the past. I can’t say I’m all that sorry. I don’t look good in hats and wear them primarily for warmth in winter – or occasionally to shield my face on a hot summer day.

But I do kind of miss the grandeur of the annual Easter bonnet. After all, it inspired a song by the great Irving Berlin. Maybe the bonneted ladies at Mass are starting a trend. Maybe next year I’ll brave it and wear a fanciful hat myself.

How Sweet It Is!

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I’m sorry to say that after giving up dessert for the 40 days of Lent, I haven’t lost my sweet tooth. On the eve of Easter, I can almost taste those dark chocolate marshmallow eggs I crave.

I was really hoping I’d lose my taste for sugar, villain number one according to the latest nutritional advice. It’s sugar, we are increasingly being told, not fat, that we should be avoiding. And I think that’s because as with many things in life, we take our love for sweetness too far.

In the olden days, sugar was a luxury item. It was used sparingly to sweeten coffee or tea. Mother might bake a cake for a special occasion, but people otherwise didn’t get much refined sugar in their diets. In wartime, sugar was one of the things that was rationed.

But as modern technology made all kinds of convenience foods available and cheap, sugary foods and drinks became ubiquitous. One of the biggest sources of calories in the American diet comes from soda pop, which is loaded with sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in particular is a molecularly altered sugar that is believed to interact in harmful ways with the human body. (Thanks for that science-y info, cousin Trish!) And HFCS is the main ingredient in most sodas.

And switching to diet drinks does not seem to help people lose weight in the long run. I think that’s because the artificial sweeteners still make us crave sugar. And I think that is behind my annual failure to curb my sweet tooth during Lent. Not having banished all sugar from my diet, I still want it.

Sugar is synonymous with fun and celebration. Every party features sweets: from birthday cakes to Christmas cookies to Easter candy. When I was a child, in the evening while we watched TV we were allowed to pick out a candy bar for “treat time.” Dessert was always the reward for having eaten those horrible green beans. Sweets are the stuff of childhood dreams. Why else would Roald Dahl have written the fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Why else would the Brothers Grimm imagine a candy-studded gingerbread house to lure the unsuspecting Hansel and Gretel into the witch’s clutches?

Tomorrow the Easter Bunny will leave some delicious chocolate at our house. Luckily, the treats the Bunny brings are far too pricey for me to wolf down in one sitting. So I’ll pace myself (and share with the family). I may never conquer my sweet tooth, but let’s hope my Lenten abstinence from them will help me better appreciate the delights of sugar.

As Shakespeare would say, “Sweets to the sweet!”

Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.

 

Thoughts and Prayers (Part 2)

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54432764_10218769922861934_369198906342375424_n“What if we’ve been thinking and praying about mass shootings for decades and Jesus sent us an army of determined Moms in red shirts”
– @BobbyHoward63 on Twitter

The quote above refers to an activist group of intrepid women who form the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent years, the Moms in their bright red t-shirts have been seen all across the country in statehouses trying to get common sense gun legislation passed.

The mission of Moms is simple: Restrict gun ownership to law-abiding citizens by strengthening background checks and eliminating loopholes in gun laws. Demand the safe use and storage of guns so that children and other innocent people aren’t victims of accidental shootings. Create laws that get illegal guns off the the streets.

As part of a larger advocacy group called Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action was a response to the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that scarred the nation perhaps more than any other mass shooting in the past few decades. The thought that first graders can’t even be safe in the confines of their school got these moms on the march.

Over the past five years, this stalwart group of women has had many successes in the realm of gun safety. Everything from getting background check legislation passed to getting candidates favoring gun safety elected has been part of a slowly winning agenda. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that America can gain control over the terrible scourge of gun violence in our country.

The Twitter quote above reminds me of a story about faith and action. A man’s home was being flooded, so he climbed to the roof and prayed for God to rescue him. After some time, a boat came by and offered to ferry the man out of danger. “No, God will save me,” he assured the would-be rescuer. A while later, a police helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a lifeline down for the man. “No, God will save me,” he said as he declined the rope. Eventually the floodwaters covered and drowned the man. When he got to Heaven, he demanded of God, “I prayed for you to rescue me. Why didn’t you?” God’s reply? “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Sometimes we fall back on thoughts and prayers because we feel helpless and scared. We think meaningful change is out of our hands. The women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America beg to disagree.

Don’t mess with the Moms!

The Pendulum Swings

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The Waitrose candy company has had to apologize for releasing a dark chocolate Easter duck called “Ugly.” People took to Twitter to complain about the name for one of a trio of candy ducklings, the others being named “Fluffy” and “Crispy.” (Jack Guy, “Store withdraws chocolate ducklings over racism complaint,” cnn.com, April 9, 2019) Such is the state of race relations in modern society.

For literally hundreds of years, people of color have had to fight against the perception that their skin color makes them less than: less intelligent, less moral, less human. Blacks who could “pass” for white used their skin color to their advantage while at the same time feeling they were betraying their own people. In the Sixties, the slogan “Black is beautiful” began to reclaim the dignity and power of African-Americans. The Civil Rights movement made great strides towards equality for people of color, but racism continues to persist.

In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on continuing racial bias, particularly in the area of law enforcement. The shooting of black suspects, the mass incarceration of minorities and differential sentencing based on skin color have all rightly been the targets of vociferous protest. But increasingly, litmus tests to determine how “woke” a person is threaten to trivialize the very real threats that racism still poses in our society.

Social norms are like a pendulum that veers wildly from right to left. In the bad old days, African-Americans were called “colored,” expected to be nothing more than servants or laughable minstrels. It was considered funny, not appalling, to don blackface. I recently listened to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast about the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and how he had to swallow so much casual racism just to make it in the world of entertainment. Gladwell includes a snippet of a Shriners Club roast given to Sammy. His so-called friend Dean Martin rattles off a series of horribly racist jokes at Sammy’s expense: references to watermelon-eating and even lynching. And the worst part? Sammy has to laugh at it all to be part of the club.

Today the pendulum is arcing far to the left, and every instance that might potentially be seen as racist is put under the microscope and dissected on social media. Does the hapless naming of a candy duck indicate a deep-seated prejudice towards dark skin? It might. I do think that little things – habits of speech in particular – affect the way in which we perceive the world around us. If the references to the ducks had been sexist, I would have been annoyed. But I worry that focusing on these minor issues will create a backlash and hamper progress in social justice.

Let’s hope the swinging of the pendulum begins to slow and that people of all ethnicities, social classes, and skin colors can feel equally valued and respected in our culture.