Sunday, May 30, 2010

First In Line...

Well, I really don't know if I will be first, but I certainly want to say LOUD and CLEAR--HAPPY BIRTHDAY, baby brother.

My younger(much younger) sister, my brother, and me

It all began 60 years ago. I was just 5 years old (OK, math whizzes, figure it out quickly). My pregnant mother and another missionary woman, along with me, were encamped at Victoria Falls. We were awaiting the birth of . . .a baby something. Brother? Sister? Who knew? In the middle of the night, my mother went into labor. They loaded me, mostly asleep, into the car, and drove to the hospital. The missionary woman helped my mother into the hospital, leaving me asleep in the car. When I awoke, I was alone.

That's how I first experienced what life would be like with this new baby in my life--a brother, as it turns out. I know I have written about this traumatic introduction to my brother
before. but it's a great story to trot out in celebration of his 60 years on this earth.

So, in honor of this event, I will forego any sibling stories. I will simply say, again, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, brother.

My brother and his wife (then to be) 30 years ago, and my brother and my sister-in-law, last summer at their son's wedding.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wolf at the Door

Years ago, when my son was still a little boy and I was reading stories to him, I read him the wonderful children's novel Julie of the Wolves. I have previously written about this, so I won't dwell on it, except to say that the novel features wolves in an absolutely positive light, and humans not so much so. In fact, before I had ever even heard of Sarah Palin and the abhorrent practice of shooting wolves from fixed wing aircraft, I was completely distraught to read about it in Julie of the Wolves.

Perhaps no other animal has been so vilified in human literature and expression. The title of this blog is but one of many expressions--the supposed origin for the expression "wolf at the door" that you will find on the Internet suggests it comes from the children's story "Three Little Pigs." Hmmm--I suspect the origin goes further back into human mythology.

If you should happen to be teaching a class on literature for children, you could try this exercise. Surprising how many children's stories use the wolf as villain.

But, I am not really thinking about wolves in children's literature or even in common expressions. The wolf I have buzzing around my head right now is the novel I am currently reading: Wolf Hall. I may write another blog about this work when I am finished. Suffice it to say that it is a most engrossing read. I didn't realize to what the title referred until I perused the handy guide just inside the novel's cover: Wolf Hall is the name of the Seymour family home which existed mid-1500s in England. No such residence stands today, the place having long ago fallen into disrepair. The novel centers on Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII throughout a major portion of his reign.

Simultaneous to reading Wolf Hall, I encountered another wolf this weekend. My husband and I attended a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado, which was performed at Wolf Trap. If you have never been there--and if you live in some proximity to Washington, DC, it is a treat of a place to visit. I admit it is the most tenuous of links--the word "wolf" in the novel title and the place name. Sorry about that.

Back to the various wolf expressions we use. "Wolf at the door" means to keep hunger or poverty at bay. The current economic times certainly have many people busily working to keep away the wolf at the door.

I had an interesting conversation this past week--I went to my hairdresser for a haircut. In an effort to engage in small talk--something at which I am woeful--I asked: so how's business been? Fantastic, she said. This week things have really picked up. Then, she observed, that the hair business is one of the last ones to be affected when the economy slows down, and one of the first to pick up, when the economy recovers. Maybe, the wolf will be kept from the door. Unless, he needs a hair cut!
Cover photo of the "The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs"--this delightful book was a birthday gift I received from a friend several years ago--a reworking of the traditional child's fairy tale, told from the wolf's perspective.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

On Not Going to the Movies. . .

For long-time readers of this blog, you know that I love going to the movies. Would you believe there was a time when I stopped going altogether?

Why, you might ask? Well, I went through a (ahem) religious period during my college years when I was attending a small liberal arts Christian college. The teaching at the time was that movies were at the very least questionable. In fact, they just might be. . .immoral.

One incident from my childhood illustrates this antipathy toward movies. When I was about 8 years old, my parents and I (and younger brother) were staying with my paternal grandparents. At the time, my favorite aunt was living near by, and she had me with her for a day of entertainment. Somehow, she decided to take us to the movies. She swore me to absolute secrecy, as my grandfather sternly disapproved of "the movies."

I have NO recollection what the movie might have been. She might remember. Whatever it was, it thrilled my small girl self. And, the moment we returned to my grandparents' house, my promise of secrecy went right out the window. As my aunt recalls it, we got back to the house and I ran inside and PROMPTLY announced--
guess what, Grandpa, we went to the movies!

My sternly disapproving grandfather sternly disapproved indeed.

That antipathy did not really spill over into my personal choosing to see movies. I recall seeing the Walt Disney movie "Fantasia" when my parents and I (and younger brother) visited California, during this same time. And, as a student attending boarding school when we returned to (then) Rhodesia, I went to see movies on our Saturday outings.

But, for some reason, when I began as a freshman at college, I was seized with the conviction that movies were immoral. I eschewed them for quite some time. And, then the movie "The Cardinal" came out. Some of my college girlfriends were going. Did I want to go? Did I?

I must have worked around in my reasoning, because I decided--OK, after all the subject matter is religious. I went. I found the movie most entertaining, if not somewhat maudlin. What I particularly remember about this movie is one scene where the central character, who is by now a cardinal (hence the title), learns that his sister is pregnant. When she is due to deliver her child, she learns that the baby's head is too large for the mother to safely deliver. The cardinal is faced with a decision. Give permission for the fetus's head to be crushed, and the sister thereby saved OR refuse permission in which case his sister will die.

He chooses the latter course. At the time, I was thunderstruck. How could someone make such a choice? Choose an unknown infant's life over the life of his own sister? As a confirmed Protestant, I was also quite relieved to not have that burden as part of my own religious understanding. I might give up movies for a time, but giving up your own sister? Never.

So, what triggered this rather peculiar memory and walk down memory lane? The
current news--that's what.

Herewith, the barest of details: a 27 year old woman was admitted to a Catholic hospital. She was eleven weeks pregnant with her fifth child. She was diagnosed with right heart failure, and doctors told her that she had 100 percent likelihood of fatality if she continued with the pregnancy. A hospital administrator who was a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, gave approval for an abortion to be performed, as permissible under Catholic guidelines that allow some procedures that may result in a fetus' death to save a maternal life. When the bishop heard about it, he AUTOMATICALLY excommunicated the nun.

That story yanked me back in memory to my reaction in seeing the scene from the movie "The Cardinal."

With all due respect to faithful and deeply sincere Catholics everywhere, what kind of morality is it that instantly excommunicates someone who exercised her best judgment within the confines of her religion in order to save a life? And, further, how is it that the particular bishop could instantly render swift retribution when we read daily of other bishops who dither and dally and seemingly are unable to do anything about persistent and endemic abuse of children by priests?

My short-lived determination that movies were not moral has long since ended. Most things are neutral--it is the use in the particular instance that is moral or not. I make no claim to have the moral fortitude that Sister Margaret McBride has. Her decision has cost her a life-long call. My decision to forgo movies only cost me a season of new movie releases.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Vino Veritas

What visit to France could overlook wine? While wine was not a primary reason for our trip, we did participate in several wine tastings--something I have never done before in a schooled way.

Throughout history, humans have used wine. Once again, it is not my intent to try to convey the history of wine-making, and wine tasting--but if you want to learn more,
here's an interesting site to explore. The earliest evidence of wine dates back to 7000 B.C. In some ways, it is not at all mysterious why humans would have continually made and consumed wine--or other forms of alcohol, such as beer--frankly, with water not being pure, and in fact many times being contaminated, wine was a safe drink.

The U.S. has a checkered relationship with alcohol in general, and specifically with wine. Obviously, the zenith or nadir (depending on your point of view) regarding alcohol occurred when the 18th amendment was passed, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol. Interestingly, it did NOT prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Prohibition lasted all of 13 years.

The history of wine in the U.S. has undergone changes. One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was a most enthusiastic oenophile--so enthusiastic that John Adams once complained about having had dinner with Jefferson, and having to listen to yet another boring paean to wine. Jefferson imported French wines, and tried to establish vineyards in Virginia to help nudge along wine-making in the infant United States. That enthusiasm must have been short-lived, as Americans developed wine amnesia and, for almost 2 centuries, completely forsook an educated wine palette.

Our wine tastings in France took place in three very different venues. One was in the basement of a former monastery, a second was in a family owned winery in the Beaujolais region, and the third in what had once been the special project of the Pope--the fabled

The setting of the first tasting--in Beaune--was at Marche aux Vins. The location is immediately adjacent to the fabled
Hotel Dieu with its fantastic tiled roof.

We descended into the cellar where wine barrels lined the sides. However, our guide told us the barrels were "just for show." While the wines we tasted were "interesting," nothing said--send a case back to the U.S. There is an annual auction of wines sold here every year to benefit charity. Certainly a unique way to raise money for charity.

Since our river cruise took us down the Rhone, we were in prime wine country. Many wines in the area bear the "Cote du Rhone" appellation, as wineries dot the hills all along the river. Our second tasting was of Beaujolais. This wine, frequently associated with new wine, is the specialty of many vineyards. Beaujolais nouveau is wine that is fermented for just a few weeks, and sold on the
third Thursday of November. Because it is a young wine, it is light, and not at all nuanced. Perhaps that is one reason many oenophiles eschew it.

Our tasting was at a family owned business, where wine-making had been the business for generations. The current owner had recently switched to all organic farming, and had been at it long enough to receive the requisite certification of an organic grower. He was clearly proud of that accomplishment.

Our final tasting was just outside Avignon. When the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon, the presence of the popes in the area helped boost what was already a flourishing wine-growing area. Pope John XXII seems to have made wines from Chateauneuf (which means "new castle") the virtual house wine, and granted the appellation of "vin du Pape" which morphed into
Chateauneuf du Pape.

The wine growing conditions seem almost totally inhospitable. The soil in the area is--STONES. It was most surprising to see the vines, all trimmed for a season's worth of growth, rooted in this stony soil. Further, while we were in Avignon, we experienced a touch of the infamous
mistral wind. How on earth vines can produce grapes is a mystery. Even more surprising (at least to me) was the fact that vines are allowed to produce strictly limited clusters. For top wines, only 6 bunches of grapes. Some vines are allowed to have 8 or 10 bunches, but under no circumstances more than that.

There are various vineyards all growing grapes in this area, all of which can be labeled "Chateauneuf du Pape." The wines, whether white or red, are all blends. For red, the base grape is grenache. Other varieties of red grapes are used in the blend, depending on the harvest, the taste of the various grapes in a given year. There are 13 varieties that may be used in the blend for reds. For white, there are only 6 varieties that may be used.

After 3 different wine-tastings, I felt a little better informed. But I would not for a minute hold myself out as an expert.

What I did come away with is a greater appreciation for wine, wine making and wine tasting. Such an appreciation is not a common thing in the U.S. By that, I do not mean to imply that there are not people who understand what wine varieties there are, or even what is involved with tasting. I do mean to suggest that the general attitude to alcohol, in general, seems to tilt too much to abuse of alcohol. College students, make that high school students who seem to think that getting roaring drunk is a rite of passage.

But, ranting is not the purpose of this brief reprise of sipping some wine in France. Maybe in a future post.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

It's Complicated

Today is Mother's Day and, while I am happy to celebrate it, and even to receive cards and gifts from my children, I approach Mother's Day with a somewhat rueful attitude. Yes, it is a day to celebrate, but it's also a complicated day.

Here's why.

My mother died on Mother's Day, so at the same time I celebrate and call up with deep gratitude the memory of my mother, I also feel a frisson of grief.

Since Mother's Day is celebrated, in the U.S., on the second Sunday in May, the specific date moves around. While the actual date my mother died is May 12, I think of her death twice--on Mother's Day. . .and again on May 12.

I am certainly not alone. Obviously, there are my siblings--my brother and my sister. We all experienced the same event, and therefore have the same thoughts--recalling our mother on Mother's Day AND recalling her death.

But more than that--I had a co-worker who had gone through the exact same loss. I was working at the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The two of us were executive assistants to the Secretary of Health. This woman was particularly close to her mother--more than a mother/ daughter relationship. More like best friends. The mother lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and had driven to central Pennsylvania to visit with her daughter on Mother's Day. She then drove back south to D.C. On the way, for inexplicable reasons, she crossed the center line on a four-lane highway (without center barriers) and crashed head long into an on-coming car. She was killed outright, as was the mother in the other car. On Mother's Day. At the time, I was so struck with the sad irony of losing your mother on Mother's Day.

I recall reading a book, some years ago, by Robert Fulghum. He is a minister, and wrote--in his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down on It--about the conundrum of preaching year after year on Mother's Day. Part of his dilemma arose from the fact that he is not a mother--so how to preach about the wonderfulness of being a mother. But beyond that, he pointed out that not everyone has a wonderful mother. So, he posed some hypothetical questions. Here's the toughest one:

" How many of you find Mother's Day painful, especially when it involves thoughts and memories of such matters as adoption, abortion, divorce, suicide, rejection, alcoholism, alienation, abuse, incest, sorrow, loss, and words like stepmother, mother-in-law, and unspeakable obscene references to motherhood?" (p. 100)

Well, you can imagine the reaction he got. He said the congregation got very quiet; he also looked out and saw the pain. Also, predictably perhaps, he was attacked as members left the service--by at least one person: "Shame, shame, shame for spoiling this day."

I find that anecdote searing in its honesty. Not everyone has (or had) a wonderful mother. For people who were abused by mothers, what does Mother's Day mean to them? For women who are failing as mothers, what do they feel?

See--it's complicated.

But, this day--I rejoice to have been blessed with having a wonderful mother. My memories are the source of joy for me--even sufficient joy to take away the sting for its also being the anniversary of her death.

And, as I wrote last year--beyond my mother as mother, I am also blessed to have had other marvelous nurturing women in my life--my stepmother, my aunts, and my mother-in-law. Nothing complicated about that.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Religious Wars

No, this is not going to be a post about the current culture clash in the U.S. wherein some people of a particular Christian persuasion and belief believe they have figured out TRUTH for all of us. To them, I say--go read Winesburg, Ohio. We can all know truth (lower case t) but if we believe we have Truth (upper case T) we are most likely wrong.

OK--enough of that.

Almost everywhere we went with city guides and local guides in France, we heard some reference to the religious wars. At first, I was thinking--huh? Religious extremism has taken hold in France? Well, yes and no. No, not currently. Yes, in the past. I find the denouement of France's religious wars somewhat instructive, perhaps even for U.S. history.

Many parts of Europe went through volcanic struggles as Christianity moved from "one true faith"--Catholicism--to dual expressions of faith in Catholicism and Protestantism. Frankly, I am far more familiar with England's struggles--bound up as it is in Henry VIII's marriages--than any other part of Europe. I had an inkling of knowledge about Germany's struggle, of course including Luther and his connection to peasant uprisings. I even had a bit of knowledge about Spain, where religious struggles focused more on the driving out Muslim invaders by "los reyes Catolicas" (Ferdinand and Isabella) and on exiling Jews from Spain--same monarchs.

But France? Religious wars? Nope--nothing--no knowledge.

I will not for a minute try to cover the sweep of French history that
the religious wars encompass. It is enough to say that, in general, these wars had to do with a century of fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Naturally, powers aligned with each side, so frequently the subject at hand had to do with who would inherit the throne, or who had just inherited the throne, or who people did not want to inherit the throne. Some hot religious topic, right?

The map below, from, gives you some sense of the deep divide within France that these wars caused.

Basically, areas marked in red were Catholic controlled, areas marked in pink were Protestant controlled. The Huguenots were the lead advocates of Protestantism.

Before all the conflict resulting from Catholic vs. Protestant, France was also the scene of an internecine religious war, when the Avignon papacy arose. Once again, the genesis of the religious conflict arose out of a struggle for power. French kings exercised their control over papal selection. When the pope died in 1304, the French cardinals and the Italian cardinals fought over who would dominate and elect the pope. For a year, the papal throne was unfilled. Finally, Pope Clement V was elected--and tipped the balance toward France.

To demonstrate that power shift, the seat of the papacy was eventually moved to Avignon, France, and remained there for 70 years.

Papal seal in Avignon Papal Palace

We visited Avignon and saw the now long abandoned Papal palace. It is a huge cavernous unoccupied building. I couldn't help but think of Shelley's poem "Ozymandias." Admittedly, this poem talks of temporal power. But, even popes die and their kingdoms fade away. Here's the visual evidence of that.

Exterior of Avignon Papal Palace

Ceiling of Papal Dining Hall

Painted walls in Papal bedroom

Interior courtyard of Papal Palace

Simple stained glass windows

The Avignon papacy ended when Pope Gregory XI moved back to Rome, but the schism in the Catholic church continued.

When Napoleon rose to power, 4 centuries later, he added to this convoluted religious history. Coming after the French Revolution, as he did, Napoleon benefited from some of the ways in which France had changed. The power structure, of church holding sway over things temporal, had shifted. But Napoleon was still unhappy with the extent of temporal power the church retained. So, Napoleon set about demoting various cathedrals--now you have a cardinal and have a cathedral; now you don't. By simple decree, Napoleon undid much of the church's power structure in France.

Back to our guides and their assertions--actually more than assertions. They would say "religious wars" with almost a note of horror in their voices. Today's France is the heir to this demonstrable separation of church and state. Our guides indicated that no French politician would use his or her religious stance as a means to garner support. The French simply wouldn't stand for it.

I came away from this part of our trip to France wondering. The U.S. has experienced a civil war. Will we be wise enough to steer away from repeating that history? Will we escape the turmoil that a country divided over religion experiences? Will we ever reach the enlightened state where we would have politicians who would NOT use their religious stance as a means of garnering support? I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. . .