Hi from California!

August 31, 2009 at 8:58 pm (Family)

Youngest and I are in San Diego visiting my beloved sister.

Photo 115

As you can see, we decided to take advantage of the plethora of plastic surgeons and hair salons to have some work done:

Photo 118

Photo 117

My sister looks great:

Photo 132

Youngest will surely look all So Cal after another week here:

Photo 141

More when I get home …

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Girl Meets Elephant

June 18, 2009 at 2:30 pm (Childhood, Family, God, Lectio)

Well, a certain commenter has got me thinking about religions and denominations and world views, and at the risk of blabbing my theories all over the internet (but isn’t that what blogging is all about?), I would like to share this poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which is actually a re-telling of a Hindu myth:

saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

When my children ask me about religion, I always tell them this story about the elephant.

blindmen

My own zig-zag spiritual path has involved encounters with each of the following:

1 Raised Post-Vatican II Catholic, including the spiritual renewal of the 1980s

2 Assembly of God during high school, including a summer working at an AOG camp and a mega-conference during which I evangelized using the four spiritual truths

3 Living in Japan with a family who practiced the combination of Buddhism and Shinto typical of the Japanese

4 A nameless church that met in homes

5 Collegiate studies in comparative religion that introduced me to Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hindu, Confucianism, etc.

6 Marrying basically a pagan (in the best sense of that word)

7 Discovery of the Catholic mystics

8 Continued reading in a variety of religious traditions: chakras, Kabbala, whatever I run into that feels like Truth.

I hope that where this has finally landed me is in the camp of humility at my inability to understand what is really going on. I fully acknowledge that I am a blind woman running into various parts of an enormous elephant that I am unable to see. I think it is very possible that each of the world’s religions taps into a pure vein of what is the ineffable divinity at the heart of the universe. I KNOW it is very possible that we really haven’t a clue, and that if we WERE to experience the divinity in its resplendent form, that our nervous systems would not be able to handle the load.

canal

In terms of EXPRESSION of spiritual experience and outward communication of and participation with community in spiritual life, I fall back on the experience of Christmas in my hometown. Lockport, New York, was settled by immigrants from Ireland and Italy who found work in America digging the Erie Barge Canal. Because so many settled in Lockport, the city has always been predominantly Catholic. However, there is quite a difference between the Irish-Catholic traditions and the Italian-Catholic traditions.

Take Christmas for example. In my house, we ate potatoes and roast beef and opened one gift on Christmas Eve listening to Nat King Cole and drinking eggnog. Imagine my surprise to find out that my Italian friends had the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What?! Fish!? That’s not Christmas!!!!!

beeffishes

But I am absolutely convinced that the feeling of Christmas in each household is the same. Family. Food. Gifts. Magic. Mystery. Light in darkness. What specific food and music is involved is beside the point. And some people grow up on roast beef, discover the seven fishes through a spouse, and have suddenly found their celebratory home.

Now, if sacrificing small children is what it takes for you to be singin’ and swingin’ and gettin’ merry like Christmas, I am probably going to have a problem with that, in the same way that “killing the American he-devils” might make me think twice about Jihadist Islam or stockpiling weapons to prepare for Armageddon makes the Branch Davidians seem not quite aligned.

But I cling to “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and I keep reminding myself that it is a very large elephant and I am a grasping blind woman. The shelf of “Bibles” that make me feel aligned is large and eclectic. The very fact of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama makes me feel God. The art of Sher Fick makes me feel God.  The novels of Haven Kimmel make me feel God. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop makes me feel God.

mertonsher

used worldbishop

I am completely open to being told I am wrong about all this. Therefore, I would welcome a discussion here. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or throw in some new ideas of your own.

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Down the Up Staircase

June 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm (Childhood, Family, Farming, God, Rant)

graduation

For many years after we moved to our farm in rural upstate New York, I had a recurrent nightmare that I had not really graduated from Amherst College. In the dream I would be my waking age of 24, eventually 30 and later still 37, and yet I would have to return to Amherst for three more semesters, leaving my husband and child – then later two and three children – back at home. In most cases the dream began mid-semester, and I was very behind in my Religion course, owing a paper I had not yet started, nor had I even attended the class, leaving me unable to even start it.

This dream, needless to say, bothered me quite a bit, so much so that I dug out my Amherst diploma and my Phi Beta Kappa key and placed them prominently above my desk to remind me that I really HAD graduated. I also hung my Master’s diploma and my permanent high-school teaching license. But this did nothing to stop the dreams, which continued to recur once a month or so.

I am sure my mother and father, watching me receive my Amherst diploma in 1990 and then leave Massachusetts with my fiancé to buy a farm in Central New York, must also have wondered if I had really graduated. Or if I had, with a degree in what? Tractor Operation?

DadMy father had grown up in Western New York, youngest child of second-generation Irish immigrants on both sides, on a small farm, hating it. He hated killing chickens and he hated milking the cow and he hated the No Irish Need Apply stories he had heard, and so he embraced America – the jazz and the City, and he dreamed of nights in a Harlem club, ringed in cigarette smoke, writing. Thanks to the GI Bill, he had just matriculated at Columbia’s Journalism school when his father’s death put an end to his dreams. He instead attended nearby Canisius College, studied accounting, cared for his widowed mother, landed a post in the GM executive building, and married the sparkling platinum blonde at the water cooler.

Meanwhile, my mother had also moved up in the world, from the ten-year-old whose mother (my grandmother) had snatched her and her brothers from beatings by her alcoholic father and evictions from apartment after apartment and had found respect caring for the children of the well-to-do, and my mother grew to become a popular high-school socialite. Later, with her high-school secretarial diploma in hand, she spent two years working at the Vatican and then returned to Western New York, the world-traveler and eye-catcher in the secretarial pool at the radiator plant.

Helped by America’s post-World-War-II prosperity and GM’s solid position in the Big Three, my parents managed to gain a firm toe-hold in the middle class, with a house and car and three healthy children. Even so, my mother always feared her own exposure as the sole non-college-graduate at Mothers Club, and my father’s unspoken dreams and unwritten books eddied around our feet like discontented waves in that house on Harrison Avenue.

We three children all felt it and sought to climb beyond the middle-class staircase landing, especially when our academic shining also served to blind others to the dark issues muddying the dull glow of the existence my parents had hacked out of their respective pasts. The Irish genes carried intelligence as well, and my siblings and I had a clear and unobstructed path to most any college we chose and beyond. My sister eventually earned a PhD and a prestigious educational consulting job, and my brother added an MBA to his engineering degree to move far above my dad in the GM hierarchy. By the mid-80s we all three were riding the up escalator of the rising middle-class.

preppy In 1985 I was catapulted from my GM hometown into Central Massachusetts to land among the nation’s elite at Amherst. A veritable conspiracy of forces had propelled me there. In 1980 The Official Preppy Handbook hit my junior high school like contraband. We Italian and Irish immigrants’ children, still virtually loam-footed from digging the Erie Canal, pored over this book like a National Geographic full of naked bushmen, as stunned and confused by what we saw as by Papua New Guinea’s painted tribes.

Oddly enough, my best friend that year was suddenly plucked out of our canal town by the remarriage of her divorced mother to a movie magnate in DC. Her new life bestowed upon her a stone mansion in Georgetown and attendance at a prestigious all-girls prep school. She was the real thing, not the pseudo-preps my friends and I were at Lockport Senior High School in our K-Mart Oxford cloth shirts and Dickies.

The three prongs of that mighty trident – parental dreams, best-pal jealousy, and my own intellectual inheritance – prodded me to apply to the Little Ivies, and the Amherst acceptance clinched it by topping 1983’s US New and World Report listing of Top Liberal Arts Schools. The world was my oyster, and I was invited to sit smack in the middle of that pink cushiony mollusk.

However, something happened once I got there. Very few people are able to analyze their own historical context clearly, much less a young woman way out of her league among peers who were comfortably inheriting positions at the top of the heap. I was so stimulated by the rarefied intellectual atmosphere that I did not recognize the signs of decadence and over-consumption that were sweeping the national economic landscape and intensifying my culture shock.

Once the novelty of it all wore off, some underlying sense of unease set in. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb at Amherst; after all, it was not hard for me to pick out the other scholarship/work-study students. I remember my shame at how easily my name was forgotten or never learned by my wealthier classmates. I remember one in particular who wore his Exeter legacy like his own skin and another who co-opted our student art exhibition into her own personal soiree. I was shocked by this, though moral indignation took a back seat to intimidation and insecurity.

Nevertheless, by the time I met, fell in love with, and accepted the marriage proposal of a UMass Ag School graduate in my junior year, I was quite happy to turn around on the lingerie floor and take the down escalator past my parents and even further down, to our economy’s basement: farming. It is true I had fallen in love with an Ag major, and it is true that he was also a borderline Marxist, but it is also true that the chance to buy a farm and work very hard at manual labor struck a deep and resonant chord already vibrating within me, where law school or marrying a future Wall Street executive did not.

povertyIt wasn’t until years later, when I ran into Dr. Ruby Payne’s 1998 Framework for Understanding Poverty, that my subconscious collegiate reasoning was clarified. In the public education world, Dr. Payne’s theory is used to explain why it is so difficult to help students rise out of generational poverty. Personally, I was not so much struck by the “hidden rules” of the lower class (which engulfed me both in rural Central New York and my hometown) as I was by articulation of the hidden rules of the upper class, which I had divined in college but not previously seen articulated so clearly. This very prize had been right there, tantalizingly just inches beyond my fingers, and I could have quite easily ridden that late-Reagan/early Clinton wave right into fortune and luxury, but I did not. There was something in that glittering mirage that turned my stomach, that made me turn around, that made me run down that up staircase as fast and as far as I could.

Dr. Payne differentiates among the three sets of “rules” followed by the generational poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy with regard to seven different value sets. In terms of possessions, the poor focus on relationships, the middle-class on material items, and the wealthy on one-of-a-kind objects, legacies, and pedigrees. With food, “having enough” is the hidden rule for those in generational poverty, “quality” is important to the middle class, while the wealthy focus on “aesthetic presentation.” Regarding fighting, the poor resort to physical means, the middle-class to discussion, and the wealthy to social exclusion and lawyers. The poor focus on present time, the middle-class to planning for the future, and the wealthy to preserving past history and traditions. While the poor base their acceptance of others on liking, and the middle class judges a person’s achievements and success, the wealthy consider connections and social standing.

Of course these are generalizations and the many exceptions mock any indication of this theory’s irrefutability, but reflecting back on my Amherst days, this theory resonated with my own take on the unspoken social forces that caused me considerable unease in college, even granting the excesses of the era. I saw and heard and experienced these rules that guide the wealthy, and I turned and walked away from them. Social exclusion, preservation of tradition and legacies at the expense of justice, social standing as more important than people – these were not values I was raised with, and they were not values I aspired to adopt.

escaltor

My husband and I chose instead one of the hardest rows to hoe, literally, and have sacrificed literal blood, sweat, and tears to dig our way out of the debt required to buy, equip, and stock a dairy farm. And yes, I felt foolish sometimes, and yes, that subconscious need to return and “finish” my Amherst degree seemed to indicate my doubt that I was right to turn and descend, my underlying sense that I had missed something that Amherst could have taught me about success and comfort and the easier life. Perhaps I just needed a few more semesters to get used to the idea.

The current economic downturn, however, has turned this all on its head. Even the middle-class status my family fought to attain appears to be crumbling. My older brother, whose GM division was sold to Delphi, just lost the retirement health insurance he had worked 40 years to earn. My mother’s generous widow’s pension is in question as GM itself has just teetered into bankruptcy. Many of my fellow 80s grads moved to the Bright Lights, Big City and became Less Than Zero, and the Wall-Street-bound might very well now be without work. Furthermore, the wider world, through the basics of supply and demand – is stealing away, at lower-but-welcomed wages, the very jobs that formerly bought us our large houses and multiple cars and weight problems.

I heard recently that in 2006, the average income of the country’s 400 wealthiest people was $263 million – each. Had it been $263 million total, that would still have been over $657,000 each – surely more than enough. But no, it was $263 million each. This meant that the wealthiest 1% of the population took home 22% of the national income. Picture a room in which there are 100 loaves of bread. One hundred people enter the room and ONE person takes 22 of the loaves for himself, leaving the other 99 hungry to split up the remaining 78 loaves. One person gets 22 loaves; the others each get less than four-fifths of one loaf. That’s the number 22 compared to .78. Would anyone want to admit to being that person? I would not, especially if this amassing of wealth was in the name of “preservation of tradition” to allow for “aesthetic presentation” and “social standing” won through “social exclusion and lawyers.” Hello, my name is Mephistopheles.

00000000CH109_US_ECONOMIC_SNow that two decades of economic growth and over-consumption are coming to a screeching halt, I would love to credit myself with prescience, but I think it was something more like a good grasp of reality. In the environmental world, exponential growth is simply not possible. A species’ population will grow until it exceeds the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, at which point it will drop off. A parasite will thrive only until its host sickens unto death. Even in the nursery school playroom, the other children will ignore the child who takes two toys, but when that same child takes ten toys, the scene devolves into Lord of the Flies.

I would sneer with an “I-told-you-so” smirk were it not for the faces of my own three children. Despite my climbing down economically to live on a farm, I still find myself imaging my own progeny at Harvard and Yale – the next step beyond my own college achievements. However, now that my eldest is thinking about college, I am fearing that schools like Amherst might be nothing but a dream. Like many parents in these economic times, I can only foresee for my kids a lower standard of living than my generation’s. I was expected to go one better than my parents, but there is the very real possibility that our kids will have to go one or two worse. Shrinking endowments, limited post-graduation job opportunities, a big non-American world now demanding its fair share. I suppose what’s coming is exactly what I felt was justified twenty years ago: a more equitable division of the world’s resources. But I find myself cringing at that how that will affect my own three babies.

The most dire and Apocalyptic predictions have us all holed up in bunkers, defending ourselves from rampant flu viruses or terrorists and happy merely for enough to eat. If that is coming, I suppose my husband and I made the wisest choice possible. At least after Armageddon we’ll still have plenty of milk and beef. I keep imagining those I love all ending up here with us, as jobs and economies continue to fall.

Rather than peddling credit default swaps or sub-prime mortgages, we joined the low-paid ranks of those .5% who provide the other 99.5% with their low-priced foodstuffs. I would never suggest that farming is easy: far from it. It takes everything my husband and I have and know to keep this enterprise afloat. Agriculture is a desperately competitive business, not because marketing experts are outmaneuvering each other to sell the “better” product but because high input costs and low prices for product make economic survival near impossible. It takes a profound knowledge of biochemistry, agricultural economics, management strategy, and a vast array of technical and mechanical skills to keep this dairy ship afloat. But we do it because it seems right.

farm

Many a day it also takes an infusion of philosophy to keep us in it. When life seems so much easier in another place, it takes the ideas of Marx and Thoreau and Merton and Willa Cather and Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and Gaston Bachelard for us to carry on. And for this I am extraordinarily grateful to my Amherst years for giving me these.

My Dad was a veritable Hoover of ideas , just a great quiet curiosity vacuum for information and news and thoughts, and I still own the 40-volume Harvard Classics set my father bought in 1938. I also have his college copy of Readings for a Liberal Education. They sit in my study on the bookshelf he purchased to hold them, a bookshelf that sat in his own farmhouse way back. I also know that in his eyes they are not a rebuke of the choice I made to receive the pearl of great value, bought with all my parents had, and to bring it back to the country and hurl it before bovine; the presence of these texts is neither ironic nor anomalous here in my farmhouse in rural New York. They are, instead, the ultimate integration of all my father held dear.  Because I think, really, that this is what he wanted and what he wanted for me: a life of the mind. Not the trappings, not the belief that I deserved more, that the well-educated deserve their 2200%, but rather that the profound and lyrical ideas of the world’s great thinkers are themselves the pearl of great worth.

And in that regard I did continue upward; that is the true height to which I have climbed. I have not used my knowledge to hoard more than my due; I use it to provide food to others – many others. My Amherst legacy is in the vast network of connections I am able to see, the literature to which I have been exposed and continue to seek, and the knowledge and analysis skills I pass on to my children.

Several years ago I stopped having that recurring Amherst dream. Perhaps it was turning forty. Perhaps it was hearing tales of the bubble bursting. I guess in middle age I have found peace with the choices I made twenty years ago. My mother has also, and I am sure my father, were he still alive, would affirm that I have attained that dream he had back on his own family’s farm.

I made a choice to grasp the brass ring of knowledge and bring it back down to the humus, the very root of existence, of humanity, and of humility. I can only hope that if we as a country are forced by world-wide inevitabilities to all do the same, that the wisdom we sought in order to attain our great wealth is enough to sustain us even without the financial  rewards.

harvardclassics_-_classics

Feel free to join my rant in a comment or rant at me.

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Anniversary? Perenniaversary?

June 2, 2009 at 12:49 pm (Asperger's Syndrome, Family, Farming, Gorgeous Writing, Marriage)

I was reminded that this Tuesday just past was our anniversary at 6 PM that night when I got a beautiful e-mail from my sister. I chuckled a bit when Andy came in at 6:30 PM, and I said to him, “Hey, it’s our anniversary.” He chuckled, too, and said, “Oh, yeah. It is, isn’t it.”

zeke

Zeke the Hound wants to give me away

serious porch

Kath, me, Andy, David; Dress made by Kathleen McCarthy, sister and anam cara

Part of the reason we are both kind of blasé about June 30 as any kind of significant date is because we had already bought the farm and been living on it for six months by the time we wed. In our own minds, we had already been married half a year.

Also, of all the moments that seem important in our marriage, that particular hour on that particular day in 1990 seems like a live coal in the sea. That was the easy part. It’s the 6,935 days since then that have been the “marriage.”

However, we also decided, Andy and I, that our cavalier attitude about our wedding day is perhaps not quite healthy. We probably should at least REMEMBER the day we wed.

Part of what makes me uneasy about celebrating THAT DAY as so important is that it somehow trivializes all the others since, like saying, “Gosh, THAT day of fun and ceremony and family and laughter, THAT day was awesome, and everything since doesn’t really measure up.”

Latin geek that I am, I just love teaching the Latin root “ann/enn” to my students – so many cool words come from it: millennium, annuity, biennial, bicentennial, superannuated, and of course anniversary, literally “the turning of the year.” It is how I keep straight annual flowers from perennials. Annuals last for “one year” while perennials (adding the prefix “per,” meaning “through”) last “through the years.”

Perhaps this is why I dislike the word “anniversary.” As I am likely to mutter sarcastically in the greeting card aisle, “Whew! Just barely made it ONE MORE YEAR so we can remember that joyous wedding day again!” At this point the owner of the store calls security and says “Would you get that damn Latin major OUT of here!”

So, for all you Latin lovers out there, may I suggest a new name for anniversary? How about perenniaversary, to celebrate making it “through” one more year and still going?

This is most likely just a pet peeve particular to my unique and annoying mix of etymology addiction and Asperger’s survival. So take it as such. If you like it, feel free to adopt it.

Meanwhile, at least my beloved sister gets it and sends appropriate sentiments. She said:

hugTurn the page.
Write your names together once more.
Dance a bit on the porch.
Smell the dark sweet night air.
Sleep beside one another.
It is enough.

She also sent this poem, which is lovely:

The Book
by Fred Andrele

lake tree

Photo Mary Warren Bonafini, fabulous sister-in-law

Did I meet you in that little shop
where the book of love is kept behind the counter?
Impossible, except our names are there
in golden script upon the luminary page.

Who would have thought the string bean boy,
the girl who squats and hops like garden toads
would find each other in the deep immensity
but there you are, my fingers trace your name.

I see mine linked with yours by radiant hearts
the shop’s proprietor, his quiet smile,
before the book is closed, takes up the feather pen
turns the page, and writes our names again.

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and THIS is Joy ….

May 9, 2009 at 3:43 pm (Family, Farming, God)

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