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.

 

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The Partisan Divide

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At another time in history, I think it’s safe to say most Americans would have reacted with horror to a black celebrity reporting that he had been the victim of a hate crime, one in which he was beaten, taunted, and had a noose put around his neck. I think it’s also safe to say most Americans would then have been outraged to discover that the celebrity had faked the incident to help his stature in Hollywood. At another time in history, all Americans would have been horrified to discover that a member of the U.S. Coast Guard had been planning to massacre scores of civilians.

In both of these recent instances, partisanship took the place of common sense and a common humanity. On the one hand, liberals were all too ready to pounce upon the strange tale told by Jussie Smollett, a cast member on the TV series Empire. Incensed by a rise in hate crimes that is only too real, they assumed that this was another case of Trump supporters run amok. In the case of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, President Trump and his fellow conservatives have been strangely loath to condemn this instance of domestic terrorism. Why? The supposed targets of Hasson’s rage were Democrats and members of the media.

It has come to a pretty pass when everything that happens in our country falls on one side or other of the giant partisan divide that makes Trump’s proposed “big, beautiful wall” on the Texas/Mexico border look like a puny Lego structure. Mind you, this partisanship has been around for a long time. Republicans resisted when the Nixon Administration was investigated and ultimately disgraced by the Watergate scandal. Similarly, Democrats bristled at the charges against Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But our knee jerk reactions just seem to be worse these days. Maybe it’s the influence of social media and the widespread dissemination of stories online that is responsible for cycles of outrage and partisanship. It takes just a few clicks on a keyboard for any average Joe to become an instant pundit on Facebook or Twitter. Twitter in particular is like a loose handgun sitting around waiting for someone with a hair trigger temper to pick it up and start shooting.

What is it going to take to bring our country together? I pray that it won’t be something devastating like the 9/11 attacks. In the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in our history, we were mostly just Americans, not Democrats or Republicans. Sure, there were disagreements about the incursion into Iraq that grew out of that terrorist attack. But overall, Americans of both parties came together to protect our country against further attacks.

The actions of Jussie Smollett and Lt. Hasson are alleged. Both have been charged with crimes, but in our justice system they are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law. That does not stop anyone from speculating, pontificating, or generally being a know-it-all about their motives, character, and guilt.

It would behoove all of us to get off our high horses and take the time to listen, learn and try to appreciate the nuances of an issue, to pause and get all the facts before jumping to conclusions. Yes, it’s important to speak out against injustice. But we need to view ourselves as human beings first, Americans second, and partisans dead last. Otherwise our fractured country will continue to break apart in a massive case of partisan continental drift.

A Becoming First Lady

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I had mixed emotions while reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir Becoming. On the one hand, I was filled with admiration for the integrity, grace and determination Mrs. Obama has shown since her early days growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the child of blue collar workers who sacrificed everything to give their two children the best possible chance at a good life. On the other hand, I felt saddened and angry at how swiftly the improbable Obama ascendancy to the White House and the substantial progress made during Obama’s two terms in office are being dismantled and discarded by the Trump presidency.

Like many First Ladies before her, Michelle Obama was a reluctant political wife. Her main concerns as her husband campaigned first for state office, then U.S. senator, and finally for the highest office in the land were for her two daughters and their well-being. She strove to keep their lives as normal as possible and did not allow them to become pampered princesses in the White House. She also found a way to use her stature as First Lady to further the causes on which she had been spending her professional life before Barack Obama became president.

During the Obama presidency, the White House became a more inclusive and vibrant place. The many minority staff members were made to feel valued and important. Lesser known minority artists and regular citizens from less privileged backgrounds, especially children, were welcomed time and again to special events and to help with Mrs. Obama’s signature mission: helping children become healthier. Kids from a local school came regularly to tend to the giant fruit and vegetable garden initiated by the First Lady. They were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors quite literally with dishes made from the produce they harvested.

The crucible of political life was not always kind to the Obamas. Too often, mean-spirited antagonists criticized their looks, clothes, or gestures, looking for ways to cast them as “other” and not quite American. Even their teenage daughters were criticized for rightly finding the whole presidential Thanksgiving “turkey pardon” ludicrous.  Through it all, though, Michelle Obama kept her dignity and hope, reminding herself that the majority of Americans she had met in her life were good and compassionate people.

Reading Becoming made me nostalgic for a truly kindler and gentler administration. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the Obamas to relinquish the White House to the hateful man who had spent years questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and had campaigned on a divisive, racist platform.

Still, I will take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook and choose to be hopeful. I will choose to believe, as she clearly does, that we are all still in the process of becoming – hopefully, becoming better people bringing a better world for our children.

Remembering Y2K

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I remember as a child doing the math to figure out how old I would be in the year 2000. That millennial milestone was such a far off phenomenon to my young self. But as it loomed closer, people around the world started losing their minds.

The reason for this anxiety stemmed from a so-called Y2K (i.e. Year 2000) bug in the systems of computers that it was thought would cause massive malfunctions when the year 2000 arrived. Back in the 70s when I was calculating what an old lady I would be in the Year 2K, we could scarcely dream of how many essential systems would be impacted by the computer revolution. Computers back then were giant, unwieldy machines held in university labs. My business school friends were always wandering around campus in a haze with computer programming punch cards spilling from their backpacks.

But the acceleration of technological progress meant that by the year 1999, computers were running utilities, telecommunications systems, military weaponry, and all manner of operations that affected day-to-day life. Therefore, when news of the Y2K bug appeared, people started planning for Armageddon. We stocked our basements with water, batteries, and nonperishable foods. Most people I knew made plans to stay close to home with their families rather than go to lavish New Years Eve parties out on the town. The widespread panic gave new meaning to the famous Prince lyrics, “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999.”

Y2K fears proved to be largely unfounded. Other than minor glitches, most systems sailed through the New Year without a problem. People woke up on New Years Day to the dried up Christmas trees and other remnants of holiday revelry that they had on previous New Years. Life went on.

It’s important to remember in tumultuous times that there were many events in the past which caused people anxiety and worry. In some ways, our country has always been on the brink of conflict or disaster of one kind or another. Our politics have always been fraught. Our young people have always been criticized for not being exactly like us old fogeys  seasoned veterans.

As 2019 approaches, let’s remember Y2K and, as my husband likes to say, “Don’t panic. There will be plenty of time to panic later.”

Happy New Year!

 

Second to None

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jmnlnq8gmyk5u5g4p7ifThere was jubilation in the Second City this weekend as the Chicago Bears not only defeated their nemesis, the Green Bay Packers, but also clinched the NFC North title for the first time in eight years. First a World Series championship for the drought-ridden Cubs, and now a possible Super Bowl slot for our beleaguered, beloved Bears!

Lately, there has been a lot of negative media focus on the state of Illinois finances and the violence and dysfunction in the city of Chicago. In particular, police abuse of black suspects and weekend shooting sprees on the South and West sides make our fair city seem bleak and inhospitable. Particularly in the winter, when the greenery is scant and the temps dip low, it’s easy to bash the “city of big shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg described it in 1914.

Yet my hometown remains a vital, interesting, and important part of the American landscape. It may be true that thousands of Illinoisans have left the state in search of jobs and lower taxes. But a recent report showed that the exodus hasn’t had an appreciable negative effect on the economy here. (“Fitch Ratings Inc. says Illinois’ out-migration a ‘long-established’ trend that hasn’t hurt state’s economic growth,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 2018)

Chicago has a thriving cultural scene that rivals anything happening on either coast. Live theater, professional dance, architectural marvels, and a world class restaurant scene make it easy to find interesting activities any day of the week. We have museums that feature great art work, scientific marvels, and the history of both Chicago and the Earth itself.

There is certainly no evidence of a “brain drain” from our fair city either. People come to Chicago from across the country for access to some of the best medical facilities in the world. The University of Chicago boasts numerous Nobel Laureates and innovators in the sciences and economics. Northwestern University, a quick hop, skip, and jump from the city, is a preeminent institution of higher learning. Its state of the art medical campus features views of the Great Lake Michigan.

Our president and others in the public eye may like to focus on the negatives of a city that is home to 2.7 million people of all different races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic statuses. I choose to see Chicago as I have always seen it: an exciting, boisterous, friendly, and down-to-earth place that I am thrilled to call home.

The Patchwork Quilt of America

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America is not so much a melting pot as it is a splendid patchwork quilt of all the races, cultures, religions, and traditions of the native people and the millions of immigrants who journeyed here over the past few hundred years.

The melting pot imagery took root during a time when complete assimilation into the dominant culture in America was the only road to prosperity and acceptance for new immigrants. Learning the language, of course, made sense. But what of subsuming one’s own cultural and religious practices under a sanitized, “apple pie” vision of what America should be?

Luckily, over the past two centuries, our Constitution has protected our right to be different – to practice different religions, dress differently, celebrate our unique holidays, and wear our cultural identities with openness and pride. As a result, America has been gifted with a plethora of colors and patterns. We have cuisines from all over the world. We have the ability in our big cities to spend the morning in Chinatown, the afternoon in a mosque or synagogue, and our evening at an Irish pub.

Far from being dangerous to American values, immigrants are often more patriotic because they take their freedoms less for granted than those of us who were born into a vibrant democracy. Their willingness to work hard, often at jobs most Americans would decline to do, make them assets to our society, not detriments.

Of course, when cultures clash, it can be unnerving. And there are practices that may be common in some societies that are illegal here in America. The rule of law in these cases should prevail.

The president’s attempts to demonize those people clamoring to come into our country fly in the face of reality. Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens to commit crimes. They are not eligible for welfare or other public assistance that detractors claim creates a strain on our resources. Most of us are the descendants of “aliens” who brought many things to this land – most especially hope.

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The crazy quilt was popularized in American during the Victorian age. Crazy quilts are hodgepodges of shape, color, and design. They don’t seem to go together until a skilled artisan takes the various pieces of fabric and makes something unique and beautiful out them.

America is a gigantic crazy quilt that at times can feel jarring but that ultimately makes our country beautiful and unique too.

Indigenous Peoples Day

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Most of us know that Native Americans were driven off of their tribal lands by white colonialism and later U.S. territorial expansion from the day Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, thinking he had found the East Indies. Far from celebrating Columbus’ “discovery” of America, many Americans feel it would be more appropriate either to eliminate the holiday called Columbus Day or change its focus and rename it Indigenous Peoples Day.

I would support the idea of reclaiming the dignity, traditions, and history of our native people by honoring them with a U.S. holiday. For far too long, Native Americans have been depicted as primitive and warlike people of whom white settlers were justifiably afraid. I will never forget how, as a child, I was terrified of the sinister figure Injun Joe from Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer. Movie westerns portrayed Indians as savage figures eager to scalp poor defenseless pioneers. In this way, white America was able to gloss over or justify the extermination and essentially, the internment, of Native American people on small tracts of land called reservations.

More and more, American history teachers are bringing to light the larger story of American colonialism and westward expansion, a story that includes the unfortunate plight of the Native American. Understanding this history is an important step and should be acknowledged on this day set aside to honor a man whose actions towards the native people were often horrific and violent.

But we must go beyond a mere recognition of the atrocities of the past. Native Americans today suffer from high rates of poverty, alcoholism, and diabetes. Their right to operate casinos is a mixed blessing that brings with it certain unsavory elements. And the destruction of their tribal way of life has marginalized the customs and sacred traditions of disparate native peoples. Instead, Native Americans are lumped together in the public mind as the monolithic “other.”

Our government needs to do more to address the endemic social and health problems of our Native American citizens. Modern Native Americans need to be recognized for their contributions in many areas of society. And Americans need to give up their beloved Indian mascots in order to erase generations of stereotyping of Indians.

So there is much to do in our society to further the cause of Native Americans in our country. And a national holiday in their honor is a great way to start.