Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Risk of Education


I have been reading The Risk of Education, by Father Giussani, with two friends (really, we've just begun it), and I have been thinking a lot about when I first read this book, and about how my understanding of Christianity was so inadequate then. It was a couple of years into my experience with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I remember being very frustrated with Giussani for not giving concrete instructions about how to do his method of education (CGS is SO concrete in its training method). I had the feeling that ten different people could read any one of his books (at the time we did not have The Journey to Truth... or Is it Possible...? in English) and they would all come away with modes of living the "CL thing" so radically different and contradictory to render the original text useless for helping them discover/encounter Christ. In other words, I found "Risk" to be a very abstract book, "in the clouds," and with very few applications to my lived life. Nonetheless, I liked it!

But now I am coming at this book in a completely new way. First of all, no method can be learned without a living guide. One cannot do the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd without seeing it in action, without the human experience of training (so many people are frustrated because they buy Sofia's books, hoping for a "road map" that they can use in place of training -- but no such luck!). The same is true of CL or GS or "Giussani-style education" -- whatever you want to call it. In CL, you can't go for "training," as in CGS, but it is available -- just not in any pre-arranged or packaged form. One can (and ought to) wrestle with the texts, read and reread them until one has deeply absorbed their meaning, but no amount of study can substitute for meeting the charism, spending time with it, and joining it.

It used to bug me so much when people would ask, "So, when/how did you meet the Movement?" I didn't like the way they used the word "meet." It seemed like a made up use of the word in order to make some "important" point -- it felt artificial to me. In ordinary English we would say, "How did you discover the Movement?" or "When did you first hear about it?" But now I understand why it bugged me -- not so much because something artificial was happening (now I have "met" the Movement, and that's the only word to describe coming face to face with a living Presence) -- but because it was a presumptuous question -- simply being exposed, hearing about, even going to SoC do not constitute "meeting." I met the Movement when I met Father Vincent. Before that, I had been able to glimpse it (as from a distance) when I heard Riro speak, or Father Rich, or Monsignor Albacete -- but my own heart was not sufficiently open for these moments to constitute true "meetings." I even had friends who revealed the charism at work: Giorgio, Sabrina, Terese, and Tiziana come to mind -- but in meeting them, I still hadn't "met" the movement because in becoming amazed at certain things or almost everything about them, I was still making myself the final judge about them -- I thought I had already figured out the wisdom, or joie de vivre, or sanctity they possessed -- I didn't try to follow it to its source -- I didn't try to follow it at all. It was like a sign pointing down a road that I refused to travel because I thought I already knew it and had already been on it.

What was different about Father Vincent? It may have had little to do with him. When the foreign thought entered my mind that day: "This is for me!", perhaps it was just that having moved to a new town so recently, I was less sure of myself, less comfortable with all the answers I was carrying around inside of me. Perhaps, in all my experiences of CL, I had finally reached the "tipping point." Or perhaps, distracted as I was that day, I could still intuit that the Presence of Christ in Father Vincent was strange, new, and yet familiar -- and tremendously attractive -- and it was a face of Christ I hadn't yet made my own (I guess you could say that I had been following one parable exclusively, without taking another, equally rich parable into account) -- and most important, it was a face I wanted to follow, join, make my own.

And now, having met Father Vincent, having met his life, it has been like a "proposal" or "provocation" or "hypothesis" for me to live all of life, in every dimension -- he, or rather the charism that has seized him, is what Father Giussani refers to as an "authority" or a true "educator." Through Father Vincent, I have received an approach to tradition. What is so weird is that I've spent very little time with this priest, and he's kind of spotty about reading and responding to his emails. But my education can continue because I have met the same thing I met in Father Vincent in Father Roberto (but what a wildly different manifestation!), in my friend Patty, in Chris Bacich, in a young guy named Giuseppe who lived in Pittsburgh for a few months this past fall...

But the even more important point is that it (the charism) doesn't depend on these particular individuals. I experience it in my daily life, mostly as a result of the profound and moving experience of School of Community this year, but most importantly in the new fraternity group that Marie and I have formed. A great and rich newness has entered my life since Father Vincent's visit two years ago.

And this richness -- something that is behind and between every word in "The Risk of Education," but cannot be explicitly communicated by any text, save maybe the Bible -- is the approach to tradition, the way of looking at reality (Father Giussani sometimes calls it a "gaze," full of love) that is the treasure of Christianity.

What is the biggest difference between how I lived my Christianity back in the early, rapturous days of discovering the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and who I am today? I think that back then I clung to a kind of dualism -- I wanted to separate my life in Christ from other aspects of my life -- certainly I wanted Christ to help the other aspects of my life, and I brought thoughts of him into every corner of my life -- but still there was a disconnect between these two elements that is hard to explain or describe. I didn't get that every circumstance in my life, every person in front of me, was the Presence of Christ calling to me in a way particular to that circumstance. I thought there were privileged moments in which Christ was present, quite intensely, and there were other moments where he was somewhere in heaven, looking down, connected by the holy telephone line to my brain/heart, but not in front of me, asking something of me in the messy here and now of human interactions. I first found him in scripture, then at Mass, then in the children in the atrium...but CL has managed to educate me to the fact that he is present in "reality in its totality." So now I live immersed in wonder (except when I forget or become distracted!).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Parables and worlds

I promised that I would have a lot to say about the passage, "The whole world is like one big parable," and I like to keep my promises.

In the atrium, when meditating on Jesus' parables, I explain to the older children (the younger ones already know about this and haven't forgotten it yet) that a parable is like a set of Russian nesting dolls. When you open the first beautiful doll, inside you find another one, even more richly decorated than the last; however, with a parable, there is no final, tiny doll in the center, rather the number of times one can open a parable and find something even richer inside is infinite. This year Lizzie, a girl in the atrium, said, "Maybe it's like starting from the center, and each time you get to the next doll, it's bigger and more beautiful, and they just keep getting bigger and you never end...until the whole world is filled up!" Another girl, Michaela, added, "It's even bigger than the world, so the last of all the dolls wouldn't just fill the world, it would fill...infinity."

So, what is a parable?

The parable is a literary text, a method of teaching. It is the method that Jesus used to teach others about his real identity. There are many ways of teaching, but what is significant for us is that Jesus himself used parables for a particular reason.
There is something perplexing to us in the history of catechesis. How is it that when we seek to convey the message of Christ, which he did using parables, we often use the definitional method? Definition and parable are poles apart. How is it possible to define any person, let alone the person of God? How can I describe a person by locking the description in as few words as possible? Still less, how can I do this when speaking of the person of God, by trying to clarify in a few, clear and precise words the mystery of God?
The Gospel follows a different path, the way of parables. The parable method presupposes that we recognize that we cannot exhaust what the parable is proposing, precisely because the parable hides what it wishes to teach. The parable is a type of approximation because we cannot attain a terse definition of whom Christ is, we cannot explain in only a few words what is meant in the Gospel about the Kingdom of God. We have a great difficulty in appreciating this.
The Gospel speaks of the Kingdom of God in many parables that present many points of view. If we used the method of definition we would have to keep all these parables in mind at once...
There is a limitation, which is not restricted to the religious field, to a method that wants only to define or delimit. If we look around ourselves, how many things are we really able to define? ...we can understand and explain facts about nature, but we cannot explain the human person in the same manner. How much less is this possible for the person of God? If there is always something about the human person that goes beyond a precise "definition", then how much more is this true when speaking of God?
The intent of a parable is to conceal, not because the author does not know how to be clear, but because there is a consciousness of the inability to exhaust a parable's meaning, which is only reached little by little. The parable challenges us and reminds us that we can never entirely discover its depths. A particularity of the parable is that it always remains open. The definition encloses and thus closes the door to any further probing; the parable remains always open, available for further penetration and awareness. ...there are always greater and newer things to be found.

The Nature of a Parable

A parable is comprised of an action, a fact; sometimes it is so simple as to seem banal, as in the case of a woman baking bread, nevertheless it is an action which is inexhaustible in its meaning. The parable’s significance extends beyond the action; it is like a façade, which hides a large house. If we stop only to look at the house we will certainly see little, but if we enter through the opening and walk around there will be much discovering awaiting us.
This is also the way to discover the real meaning of a parable. We must not stop at the surface, such as a woman baking bread; instead, we need to enter the house, so to speak, and walk around it in silence and reverence. [...] In the same way, the parable may be said to be an invitation to search...
A parable always has different levels: the ordinary, and also the metaphysical level, which goes beyond our physical senses. A parable takes an element of everyday life and juxtaposes this with a more metaphysical element. Take the example of the parable of the leaven or yeast, in which the Kingdom of God is said to be like a woman baking bread. In placing these two elements together, the impact of their juxtaposition is enlightening for us, illuminating the real message of the parable. There is a flash of light that reveals a new significance, in which the distant concept of the Kingdom of God and the common experience of making bread combine to produce a new revelation of reality.
The parable takes a little incident of daily life and makes it into a sign or indication pointing to a higher reality. Parables lead us to pause awhile to consider a woman making bread, a mustard seed, a pearl, and move us to seek for another meaning. It takes care on our part to understand the parables; by “understanding” is meant more than the solely rational and intellectual sense...
...An image in a parable needs no translation; although it may be translated from one language into another, an image still remains an image, a shepherd is a shepherd. The spirit of a parable is in its aesthetic character, which we need to discover and engage in to discover its meaning.
...A parable explained is no longer a parable. If the parable does not wish to state clearly the meaning of what it wishes to teach, then there is a reason.
A parable conceals not for lack of clarity, but because it is its nature, method and character. If we try to explain it, something of its soul dies, because a parable by its very nature always remains open to new discoveries and interpretations. The day on which a parable is “explained” it becomes fixed, like a pinned butterfly that can no longer fly.
...We contemplate the parables, rather than clarifying them. Contemplation is always open, whereas explanation ties down and limits. We need to live with the parables, staying close to the text, turning them over in our mind, yet without arriving at the point of saying, “this is what the parable means”. There are always old elements to be illumined and new ones to enlighten us. When, however, we say, even to ourselves, “the parable means this”, then how can we free ourselves from that definition or explanation, and continue to probe into and ponder the parable? There is a whole world in a parable. (from a meditation given by Sofia Cavalletti and translated by Patricia Coulter)

So, if there is a whole world in a parable, how can the whole world be a parable? And if it is so much work to try to understand a small, simple parable, how can we approach the world as a whole, complex and filled with contradictions, as a parable, and hope to make any sense out of it? Well, I say, let's forget the objections and dive in! Our working hypothesis is that the parable of the world, in all its detail and our every experience of it, demonstrates God. Let us see what we shall see!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Objections to rude behavior...

... should match the severity of the transgression, ranging from 'Surely I must have misunderstood you' to 'I beg your pardon!' to 'How dare you!' to 'You will be hearing from my lawyer.' Properly used, however, all of these are perfectly polite responses to highly impolite behavior.

--Miss Manners, A Citizen's Guide to Civility
I love Miss Manners. She is funny and wise, and she says that all manners may be boiled down to one important principle: People are more important than things.

For Christians, though, there is only one response to rude behavior: "Thank you." Because every word spoken to us, every experience we have is a gift, given to us in order to help us to grow. It is convenient for us to be on the receiving end of rude behavior. It is useful to us. What is our faith worth if we can become unsettled by an insensitive remark? What difference can Christ's sacrifice on the cross make to people who can't keep their cool in the face of a mere insult?
Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well (The Enchiridion of Epictetus).
Shall we then become stoics? No! We wish for events to happen as they do happen because they are given to us. Let us give ourselves in return to the One who gives all!

Come into my garden...


Everything is embarking on a journey...

Serena's origami


Aren't they magnificent?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

from "A Dancer's Life"

Let's look today at Raven Wilkinson, one of the lesser-known but truly brilliant stars of American dance. The first African American ballet dancer in the Ballet Russes, she toured all across the country with them and was promoted to the rank of soloist with them. A truly amazing dancer, she overcame hardship and prejudice to do what she loved, dance. After dancing with Ballet Russes for six seasons, she left because of the racial prejudice she encountered while touring in the south when a group of KKK came onto the stage and threatened her life. Later, she went on to dance as a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet. In 1974 she returned to her homeland and can still be seen in character parts at the New York City Opera. She was also featured in the 2005 documentary, Ballet Russes. (For some reason my computer doesn't want to italicise the title) For more on Ballet Russes, visit www.balletsrussesmovie.com; photograph courtesy of the New York Times.

-- text by Sophie Lewis

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"The whole world is like one big parable"

This, we can say, is the indicator of our faith's truth, its authenticity or lack thereof: if the faith is truly in the foreground, or if in the foreground there is another kind of concern; if we truly expect everything from the fact of Christ, or if we expect from the fact of Christ what we decide to expect, ultimately making Him a starting point and a support for our projects and programs...
The world is a great ambiguity for the unclear spirit. The spirit of man is tempted by ambiguity above every other thing... The whole world is like one big parable: it demonstrates God, as a parable demonstrates the value it wants to teach, and "those who have ears to hear, listen." Listening to the parables, the secret thoughts of the heart are revealed. What man loves come to the surface in the face of the problems, questions, and difficulties...faced with an obstacle, what you want comes to the surface. If living communion, if living community, if working morning, noon, and night for the community, you wanted Christ, you were after Christ, or after yourself, this is seen in the moment in which the difficulty, the obstacle comes to the surface and would insinuate, "forget about it," or would insinuate, "What've they been telling me all this time? They tricked me!" or, "They don't understand me; they don't value me." It is precisely and only in front of objections and during our trials that we see if the attitude of our spirit is wheat or chaff, to use St. Paul's expression. (Father Giussani, "The Long March to Maturity")


Oh, I have so much to say about this passage! And I will say it, soon, I promise!

Best chocolate cake


Often, when trying to illustrate to friends how Americans differ from the French, I explain that if you are in Paris, strolling down a grand boulevard, and you have a sudden craving for mousse au chocolat and salade verte, you can duck into the nearest cafe and you will have an absolutely perfect mousse, and your perfect salad will be composed of pale green butter lettuce dressed with mustard vinaigrette; then, let's say that you resume your stroll and within a half-hour, you are assailed by another craving for mousse au chocolat and salade verte: again, you duck into the nearest cafe, chosen at random, and you will discover that the mousse and the salad that the waiter sets before you will be identical to the offerings at the last cafe. Now, if you repeat this procedure at five or six different Parisian cafes, chosen at random, in every case, your mousse au chocolat and your salade verte will be perfect, and perfectly alike. However, in America, if you were to try the experiment here, the mousse would be raspberry-flavored in one spot, garnished with mint leaves or sticky syrups in another, or laced with Kahlua or Cointreau in the third...and your salad could be composed of just about anything, from iceberg to hearts of palm, dried cranberries to bits of meat, shredded cheese to banana slices. None of these dishes would be perfect -- all of them would leave you wanting, either because the chef used inferior or ill-tempered chocolate in the mousse, or cheap corn oil in the salad dressing, or any one of the innovations would have taken away from the perfection. France is a country where people still believe in the ideal and pursue it in earnestness. In America, we believe in self-expression, novelty, invention.

Well, the following recipe is the result of months of experimentation -- not to find the cake that best expresses my soul, not to innovate on the theme of the chocolate cake, but simply to find the perfect chocolate cake. Here are my results:

6 oz first quality unsweetened chocolate (I use Lindt or Ghiardelli's)
3/4 cup strong coffee or espresso (decaf okay)
1/4 cup rum or cognac (this is okay, even for kid's cakes -- the alcohol bakes off)
3 1/4 cups of cake flour, sifted (measure after sifting)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened to the consistency of mayonnaise
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
6 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk

Butter and flour three 8" round cake pans. Then line the bottom of each with an 8" circle of baking parchment (not waxed paper!) -- butter and flour again. Preheat the oven to 345ºF. Melt the chocolate in the coffee and liquor -- so not overheat! Mix until smooth and set aside to cool to room temperature. Sift together the sifted cake flour, the cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt. Set aside. Cream the butter on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. While the butter is still beating, add the two sugars, one tablespoon at a time. When all the white and brown sugar are incorporated, scrape down the sides of the bowl and then beat for another 30 seconds. Add the vanilla and beat until mixed in. Then, with the mixer still beating, add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl with each addition. After all six eggs have been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl one more time, then beat for an additional 30 seconds. With the mixer on medium speed, slowly pour in the melted chocolate mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. When the batter is a uniform brown color, add one third of the flour mixture. Mix only until the flour is incorporated. Add half of the buttermilk. Mix again, just until incorporated. Add the second third of the flour mixture, do a minimum of mixing, add the remaining buttermilk and mix as little as necessary. Add the rest of the flour mixture and fold it in with careful, broad strokes of a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, just until the batter is of a smooth, even consistency. Divide the batter between the three prepared cake pans and bake in the center of the oven -- after 25 minutes, begin testing the cakes with a toothpick (stick it in the center of one of the layers) every five minutes until the toothpick comes out clean. Cool the layers for fifteen minutes in their pans. Then use a butter knife to cut around the edges of each pan and carefully tip them out onto a baking rack to finish cooling. Ice with chocolate ganache:

8 oz first-quality semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate (Lindt or Giardelli's are both good)
6 oz heavy whipping cream.

Break up the chocolate and place it in the bowl of your food processor. Process until the chocolate is in small pieces. Heat the cream to the boiling point. With the food processor running, pour the hot cream through the feed tube of the processor. The ganache should form right away. Use it immediately, while it is still hot. Pour it over the bottom layer of cake (already transfered to a plate), place the next layer on top and pour ganache over it, then place the final layer and pour a generous amount of ganache over all. Use a small metal spatula, or the back of a spoon, to spread the ganache drippings over the sides of the cake until it is evenly coated.

If you have leftover ganache, and you really have no idea what to do with it (and no kids to enlighten you), you can cool it in the fridge, roll it into small balls and then roll each ball in cocoa -- voilà, truffles!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Serena!



A crayfish, not a lobster

It was 8:15pm, and I was sitting propped up on pillows in my bed, reading, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. My husband, having been up all night with me the night before as I had "false labor," was fast asleep beside me. As I turned a page, I felt something, a faint twinge in my abdomen. Baby's kicking, I thought -- even though I knew I wasn't feeling the movement of a baby inside me, I was too annoyed to consider the alternative; after nine hours of strong contractions the night before, and nothing to show for them, I wasn't going to be fooled again. Another few pages, I felt another faint twinge. I looked at my watch: 8:30pm. It's nothing. I should turn off the light and get some sleep, too. But I had just gotten to the part in the first essay where Wallace is about to get caught in a tornado while playing tennis, so I decided to keep reading to the end of it. 8:33pm -- another annoying faint twinge. "...Neither of us had noticed that there'd been no wind blowing the familiar grit into our eyes for several minutes--a bad sign. There was no siren..." 8:36pm -- another twinge. "...The air temperature dropped so fast you could feel your hairs rise. There was no thunder and no air stirred. I could not tell you why we kept hitting..." 8:39 -- a little more insistent, but still possible to ignore. "...Then the whole knee-high field to the west along Kirby Avenue all of a sudden flattened out in a wave coming toward us as if the field was getting steamrolled. Antitoi went wide west for a forehand cross and I saw the corn get laid down in waves and the sycamores in a copse lining the ditch point our way..." 8:41 -- I really didn't want to wake my husband, sleeping so peacefully beside me. "...The big heavy swings on the industrial swingsets took off, wrapping themselves in their chains around and around the top crossbar; the park's grass laid down the same way the field had..." 8:44 -- Last night the nurse had told me to call the minute that labor began again: "It's called 'false labor' but it's not really false. It's like the body's warming up or practicing. What usually happens is that when it begins again, things go real fast. So don't hold off! Don't be embarrassed because tonight seemed like a false alarm. Just call. You promise?" 8:47 -- still not very strong, but these silly things were coming three minutes apart. "...but I couldn't have tried to run after a ball I had hit, but I remember the heavy gentle lift at my thighs and the ball curving back closer and my passing the ball and beating the ball in flight over the horizontal net, my feet not once touching the ground over fifty-odd feet, a cartoon, and then there was chaff and crud in the air all over and both Antitoi and I either flew or were blown pinwheeling for I swear it must have been fifty feet to the fence one court over, the easternmost fence, we hit the fence so hard we knocked it halfway down..." 8:50 -- I nudged my husband. "Honey, I think I'm in labor."

"Oh, come on! You're kidding!" My husband doesn't wake up gracefully.

"I'm not sure, it's just that they're coming three minutes apart, and the nurse specifically said I should call."

"You're having another one." It wasn't a question. 8:53. "Should we call Dr. Zum?"

"I don't know. Maybe?" 8:56

"Where's the number?" I rattled it off for him and he dialed. 8:59 After a brief conversation, he handed me the phone. 9:02 "He wants to speak with you." 9:05.

"Hello?...I'm fine. Yes. I don't know if you should come or not...Oh, you're on the way?...Okay, Steve will give you directions. I can't think straight...All right, then." 9:08, 9:10, 9:12, 9:15. I gave the phone back to Stephen.

"I think I'm in transition..." I stopped looking at my watch.

"Hang on a minute," he said into the phone. Then to me, "Dr. Zum says you're definitely in transition, he could tell by your voice."

"Where is he?"

"Don't worry," he said, still holding the phone to his ear. "Dr. Zum is telling me how to do this. I can deliver the baby."

I looked at my husband with horror. "Tell him to step on it!"

"He's trying to find a parking place. He want to know if you feel the urge to push."

"No!" I lied.

My husband hung up the phone and ran to answer the door. Then Dr. Zum stood in the doorway of my bedroom.

"I need to push!"

"Hold on," said the doctor, breathlessly. "Let me wash my hands!" He ran down the hallway to the bathroom. As soon as he returned, I gave one push, and my third daughter was born. It was 10:01pm on April 18, 1997.

Happy Birthday, Serena Marie!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

More on the role of the bishop

• Vatican Council II, Constitutio dogmatica Lumen gentium, 21 Nov 1964, AAS 57 (1965) 5-71.5

26. Moreover, every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is confided the duty of presenting to the divine majesty the cult of the Christian religion and of ordering it in accordance with the Lord’s injunctions and the Church’s regulations, as further defined for the diocese by his particular decision.
• In reality, the ministerial and hierarchical priesthood, the priesthood of the bishops and the priests, and, at their side, the ministry of the deacons -- ministries which normally begin with the proclamation of the Gospel -- are in the closest relationship with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the principal and central raison d'etre of the sacrament of the priesthood, which effectively came into being at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist, and together with it.[2] JPII letter to bishops (Dominicae Cenae, On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist, His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Promulgated on February 24, 1980, To All the Bishops of the Church.)
• The Bishop is the high priest of his flock. "In a certain sense it is from him that the faithful who are under his care derive and maintain their life in Christ" (SC 41).
• The diocesan Bishop is the first steward of the mysteries of God in the particular Church or diocese entrusted to him. He is the moderator, the promoter, and the guardian of the liturgical life of the Church in his diocese. It is he who offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice, or causes it to be offered, so that the Church continually lives and grows (see CD 15; SC 41; CIC can. 387; RS 19).
• Vatican Council II, Decretum Christus Dominus, 28 Oct 1965, AAS 58 (1966) 673-701.6

15. It is therefore bishops who are the principle dispensers of the mysteries of God, and it is their function to control, promote and protect the entire liturgical life of the Church entrusted to them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Long live fiends

While trying to write about the events that led to my birth, I made reference to my grandfather, Wally Deuel, and his book, People Under Hitler. In a review of this book, Ida Nasatir wrote: "As a journalist Deuel was a fiend for facts, for detail, for documentation. His book, People Under Hitler, is packed with them. He doesn't ask you to take his word for anything. He gives you chapter and verse, the name of the law, the text, the exact number of victims."


This characterization struck me -- for a couple of reasons.

We can see now, among intellectuals, a disturbing disregard for facts. Instead, we see what Pope Benedict calls "the triumph of relativism" and "a surrendering before the question of the truth." To be "a fiend for facts" you must love the truth more than your ideas and opinions. In other words, there is something outside you that is more important than what you think about it. But it is my observation that today's academics are trained to believe (from an early age) that what they think about something, anything, is the only thing that matters. "Research" involves finding little bits and shards of evidence to support a claim that originates in the subjective musings of one or more thinkers -- or, in an ideal scenario, the claim is original to themselves. Whether these musings correspond to reality means nothing at all. In fact, I have heard more than one otherwise intelligent scholar opine that there is no such thing as objective reality.
Excellence, in this view, boils down to a question of the most inventive grammar, or the boldest con that can garner the most suckers.

So first of all, this characterization of my grandfather makes him seem unfashionable. Unfashionable.

My grandfather was also an atheist, and proud to be a free-thinker. He and my grandmother didn't have their children baptized (my father, Mike, decided when he was a teenager that he wanted religious instruction, so he biked to a Presbyterian church near his home to have conversations with the minister and was baptized there). So, why does it strike me as odd that he was a "fiend for facts"? He would probably say (if he were alive to argue the point) that it is precisely his atheism that made him so faithful to facts. After all, we know that out of a misunderstanding about what it means to be faithful, Christians have sometimes had difficulty acknowledging facts.

And yet, a Christian (or any truly religious person) would not reject facts in favor of a personal, subjective construction. Rather, out of loyalty to one fact (God), a Christian who has difficulty reconciling other facts with his understanding of the divine, might refuse to engage other facts, which seem less important in the scheme of things. This is an unfortunate tendency, which indicates, in the end, a lack of faith (because if I am certain of a fact, the fact of Christ, then I am confident that reality, in all its factors, is not only true, but also points to and illuminates my understanding of Christ -- even if, at first, I don't see how). Only people who are willing to treat all facts as irrelevant can proceed to subject the truth to their own personal whims. But my grandfather (and others in his generation, too), was devoted to the truth, without ever acknowledging the Truth.

In the primary place where my grandfather worked, carved into the high, white marble wall, with letters painted in gold, are the words, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." When I first saw this phrase on the wall, I shivered a little at the audacity, the blasphemy of it. Because my grandfather worked for a government agency that has no regard for the One who spoke these words. It is an agency dedicated to collecting and interpreting facts. Accuracy in this endeavor is essential; lives hang in the balance. The knowledge derived from this activity is used for many purposes, but furthering the Kingdom of God isn't one of them. The "truth" that those who enter that building seek to know leads to a freedom built by human hands, arbitrated by human intelligence, and decided by human power. It is an anemic, attenuated freedom that can be doled out or rescinded, and the lion's share of it is reserved for those who carry the correct identity badge.

But it strikes me that my grandfather, even without dedication to the one Fact that makes sense of all the others, could make so much sense of the facts he gathered. While many refused to look at or to believe the evidence, he saw the dangerous evil that was gathering in Nazi Germany and was convicted enough to sound a warning.

All of which reminds me of what I tried to write about Emmanuel Ax's performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto #2. If there were no one to be such a fiend for musical notation and for the manual techniques that allow a pianist to wring exquisite sound from his instrument, Chopin's genius would disappear from our lived experience. In fact, an entire stage must be filled with these fiends, in order to realize a single measure of beautiful music.

How we are indebted to all these fiends!

New blog!

My friend Emily has started a new blog, The Life of a Professional Nerd! Take a look...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Becoming a mother

In 1993, my birthday fell on Good Friday. My mother and sister were visiting that weekend because they were hosting a baby shower for me on the following day (my husband and I were expecting our first child, due in six weeks). That evening, after a subdued celebration, we went to the liturgy at my parish. The church was filled, and the veneration of the cross seemed to go on forever. I was hot and achy, and twice I went outside to sit on the church steps to get some air.


The next morning, at 4am, I woke to a strange sensation. My water had broken early.

"What does that mean?" my husband asked.

"The baby will be born in the next 24 hours -- one way or another."

During that pregnancy, I had gone through a process of transformation. I had read A Midwife's Story and A Wise Birth, both by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman. These books led me to an interest in homebirth and propelled me to deeper study. Relatively late in the pregnancy, I had switched from the hospital midwives to a practice of doctors who provide homebirth. When pregnant women are screened for various risk factors, the mortality and morbidity rates for both mother and baby are greatly reduced by giving birth at home. I wanted the best odds for my child.

But now, suddenly all my plans were upset! At 33 weeks gestational age, the baby would need to be born in a hospital. The great thing about having chosen a doctor from Homefirst was that he had admitting privileges at a local hospital. I called Dr. Zum, told him what had happened, and he told me that he'd meet me at the hospital. By the time my husband and I got on the road, it was around 5:30am. We drove north along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive for most of the trip.
From the passenger side, I looked out my window, over Lake Michigan. The sky was clear, and just the upper edge of the sun showed above the water.
But as we drove, the sun seemed to pull its head, slowly and heavily, above the surface of the water.
And as I watched it, I thought -- what a wonderful day to be born!

Chicago was hushed. Stephen and I hardly spoke during the entire drive. When we arrived at the hospital, I was given a bed and was strapped with a fetal monitor. My nurse asked me how my contractions felt, and I explained that I hadn't had any yet. She looked over at the print out from the monitor and told me that I was indeed having contractions, and they were about seven minutes apart. I craned my neck to get a better look at the machine.

"Am I having one now?" She nodded yes. "Is it a big one?"

After a long, incredulous look at me, she said, "Don't look at the machine. Here, I'll show you. Put your hand on your stomach. Now, with your other hand, touch your mouth. If you stomach feels like your lips, the contraction is mild. Now feel your nose. If your stomach feels like your nose, it's a medium one. Okay, now your forehead. If your stomach is hard, like our forehead, it's a big one."

It was absurd! I'd had Braxton-Hicks contractions through the whole pregnancy -- some so strong they made me gasp and wince! Something had to be wrong with the machine...and yet, as I touched my stomach, it began to grow firm, just as the jagged line on the print out began to climb to a peak.

And I still hadn't adjusted to the fact that this baby would not be born at home. As soon as I'd been strapped down on the bed, I began to worry about the cascade of medical interventions -- slowed labor due to lying on one's back could lead to pitocin, pitocin could cause more intense pain, which could lead to pain medication, etc., etc. Medical personnel came and went, speaking about C-sections and epidurals and infections. I closed my eyes and reminded myself that I carry my home with me, that I could go there in my heart -- which is exactly what I did, beginning a silent rosary on my fingertips. By 10am I began to feel the first glimmers of contractions, when they were four and five minutes apart. Though the nurses kept telling me to stop looking at the various machines in my room, I had to fight with myself to remember that I was not there to watch those machines produce my baby.

I had felt uncomfortably hot throughout the entire pregnancy (most of which occurred during winter in Chicago!), and Stephen had opened on of the windows in my hospital room. At a certain point, a nurse crossed the room and reached to shut the window.

"Don't close that window!" I said. In my regular life, it is hard for me even to formulate a mild, diplomatic and polite request, but now I was speaking as her imperial majesty! I think the poor nurse was as startled by my order as I was myself.

"Well," she said, apologetically, "You see, the baby is coming soon, and we don't want it to be cold."

"All right," I said. "But the baby is the only person I close that window for!" Things were happening very quickly, and I was having no trouble feeling as if I was in labor. "Oh! I almost forgot! I need a mirror!"

"What?" said the nurse.

"I want to see what happens -- I want to see. I don't want to miss it."

They very kindly wheeled in a large, oval, full-length mirror. Doctor Zum, who had stayed by my side through the whole labor, now began to put on all the extra paper clothing that was required. I watched as my child emerged, looking more like a sea creature than a land mammal at first. Dr. Zum placed my baby onto my stomach, and I cradled the small, slippery body in my hands. Looking down, I recognized that she was a girl. How I cried with joy!

I only held her for a moment before she had to go to the baby warming table to receive extra oxygen. Even though she was big -- huge for 33 weeks at 6lb, 7oz -- her lungs weren't fully developed, and she was panting rapidly. So, they took her to the nursery for extra care.

As soon as they let me, I went to the nursery to be with her. I placed my fingertip against her palm, and she grabbed hold of it. We stayed like that for a long time. I just watched her breathe. Then the young neonatologist showed up and told me I would have to leave. "I'll be doing some things to your baby that you won't want to watch. Too upsetting for you."

"No, I want to stay. I'll be more upset trying to imagine --"

"No, you have to go."

So, that was that. Dr. Zum met me back at my room, where Stephen and my mom joined us. He told me, "Don't worry. She's just going to put in an IV. The baby will need antibiotics, in case she has an infection. The doctor is probably nervous about being able to find the vein with you watching."

"I noticed that her heel was badly bruised -- all the way up to her knee!"

"There won't be lasting harm from these things that are happening to her. By choosing to breast feed, you are doing her so much good -- the benefits of nursing will far outweigh the painful experiences she's having now."

"No one ever told me that when I was having babies," said my mother.

"Don't blame your doctors," said Dr. Zum. "They didn't know back then. We've learned so much in the last couple of decades."

The neonatologist finally came to give me her report. "Your baby's having trouble breathing, and this hospital isn't equipped to give her the care she needs. We're going to transfer her by helicopter to the University of Chicago. They have a NICU there." Her voice was bright and perky, and I burst into tears.

When she left, Dr. Zum said, "I know it sounds scary when they start talking about the helicopter, but it doesn't mean that the baby's in dire danger. It's just the way that they transport patients from one hospital to another. I'm not worried about your baby. She's doing very well."

The nurse came in to explain that it would take some time to prepare our child, our little Sophie, for her helicopter ride. She told me that when they were ready to go, she would bring Sophie to me so that I could say good-bye. By then it was late in the evening, and Stephen and my mom decided to go home. Ironically, we lived within walking distance of the University of Chicago, and so from our apartment, they could be closer to the baby, who was our priority.

An hour later, two nurses in orange jumpsuits wheeled a cart with a glass incubator on it. My little girl was inside the box, with wires and tubes all over her. Again, I burst into tears. Dr. Zum was still there to pat me on the shoulder and reassure me. Then everyone left, and I was alone in the room.

My father had died in a helicopter crash before I was born, before I ever had the chance to meet him. And now my child...? I was deathly afraid of helicopters. The worst sound I have ever heard was the beating of the rotary wings as that helicopter took off from the roof of the hospital. It seemed to be just above the ceiling of my room, and my whole bed shook with it. But then the silence that followed was worse.

Within minutes, the phone at my bedside began to ring. It was hospital admitting at the University of Chicago, to verify my insurance information. I gave the woman what she needed.

"M'am?" A thought had occurred to me. "You're probably the first person to know when that helicopter lands at the hospital, aren't you?"

She chuckled. "You've got that right!"

"Would you do me a favor? I'm scared to death. She's my first child. Could you please, please give me a call at this number, when you hear that she's arrived safely?"

"No problem! I'd be happy to do it."

That wonderful woman was as good as her word. I only had to wait twenty minutes before the phone rang again. "The helicopter made it here safely! Your baby is in good hands."

"Thank you so much! You have no idea what this means to me."

Three hours later, I got the call from my husband, who had gone to camp out in the NICU waiting area, that a nurse had just come out to tell him that Sophie had arrived safely in the hospital.

We brought her home two days later, and now that little girl is turning f-f-f-f-fifteen years old! Happy Birthday, Sophie!
Sophie Angeline

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What do you see?


I think a lot about birth during the month of April, but rarely about my own birth -- or about what it means to be born.

There is a moment for each of us when we aren't there and then we are. What does it mean? And why?

I have a pair of eyes, through which I see the world. No one else has my eyes, or my mind, which tries to understand what I see, or my heart, which holds all that I see and think together. So what is the point of these eyes, this mind, this heart?

It seems that all the factors that make up our the universe have conspired, through millions of different and seemingly chance events, to bring my own unique point of view into existence. Many ingenious twists of fate had to take place, in a particular order, according to very particular steps, over billions of years, for these eyes, this mind and this heart to come together in the one person I am. This is true for everyone.

What are eyes, in combination with a mind and a heart, able to do? Well, they can see; and with help, they can perceive, penetrate, and even view the world with a loving gaze, a gaze full of love. Human beings are creatures who can recognize and appreciate where they came from. In all the universe, we have the unique capacity to look back at our total environment and begin to perceive our origins. With these eyes, I can return the gaze of the world that gave birth to me. Of course, the same is true for blind people -- only the method is different.

When I was a kid, I used to think a lot about how rich and complicated the world inside of me was. I would wonder at the thought that every other individual person probably does -- no -- has to contain the same richness: a universe of memories, emotions, thoughts, and imaginings. Because the world inside of me seemed so vast and convoluted, I would sometimes feel overwhelmed in a room full of people just imagining all the life that was present in the room. And because I lived in different countries as a child, I was aware that the whole earth was heavy with individual people who each carried a wealth of life within them. During any given half hour, while I was living my own perspective -- my own pleasure or pain, triumph or tragedy -- there were billions of others, who were, each one, living their own, equally real perspective.

Why should there be so many points of view? If someone were capable of hearing and deciphering the words and images that bubble in the hearts of each and every person at any given moment, what would the whole look and sound like? Imagine being God -- with all that noise and all those images! Surely, from a human perspective, it would be a huge, tangled, cacophonous mess. But perhaps there would be recurring themes, leit motifs that would surface from the general babble? Perhaps, from the proper distance, one would be able to discern patterns that would have shape and substance? Still, we know that the divine perspective is not one of great distance, no matter how far away we care to imagine heaven. God is no further away than my own heart is from my body. Far from being detached from my life, he busies himself with counting all the hairs of my head! That goes for you, too. Thinking this way gives me a greater sympathy for Jesus, when he prayed, "O Father, that they all may be one!"

Still, as difficult as it is to understand, it seems that he actually wants to have all these voices, all these eyes in all their own particular positions, trying to make sense of his world, all at once. What is it that he wants us to see?

What do you see?

Before ever a word is on my tongue you know it,
O Lord, through and through.

Behind and before you besiege me,

your hand ever laid upon me.

Too wonderful for me, this knowledge,
too high, beyond my reach.
For it was you who created my being,

knit me together in my mother's womb.

I thank you for the wonder of my being,

for the wonders of all your creation.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Already you knew my soul,

my body held no secret from you.

When I was being fashioned in secret

and molded in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw all my actions,

they were all of them written in your book;
Every one of my days was decreed

before one of them came into being.

(Psalm 139:4-6, 13-16)
One final thought:
If the human being were to come into the world solely through the biology of the mother and father, as a mere brief instant in which all the flux of innumerable prior reactions produced this ephemeral fruit; if the human being were only this, then we really would be talking about something ridiculous, something cynically absurd when we use expressions such as "freedom," "human rights," the very word, "person." Freedom, like this, without any foundation, is flatus vocis, just pure sound, dispersed by the wind.
In only one case is...this single human being free from the entire world, free, so that the world together and even the total universe cannot force him into anything. In only one instance can this image of a free man be explained. This is when we assume that this [person] is not totally the fruit of the biology of the mother and father, not strictly derived from the biological tradition of mechanical antecedents, but rather when it possesses a direct relationship with the infinite, the origin of all the flux of the world..., that is to say, it is endowed with something derived from God.
...There is a "something" in me which is not derived from any empirical phenomenon, because it does not depend upon, does not originate in the biology of my father and mother. It directly depends on the infinite, which makes the whole world. Only this hypothesis allows me to proclaim that the world can do what it wants with me, but it cannot conquer, possess, grasp on to me, because I am greater than it is. I am free. (Father Giussani, The Religious Sense, p. 91)
So, why did I reflect, in my last post, on the factors that brought me to birth? Because, even if I cannot be reduced to my material antecedents, I am so very grateful to them, because without them, I would not be here. They are the means by which God has wonderfully and fearfully made me.

42 years ago


From Bulpitt to Bangkok
In Bulpitt, Illinois, there lived a young woman named Judy, the youngest of five children, who was staying with her parents, taking college classes and working as a stenographer at a bank. Her father was a coal miner, already ill with the cirrhosis of the liver and emphysema that in three short years would kill him. Her mother worked as a butcher by day and managed the family's small tavern by night. The population of Bulpitt was already dwindling rapidly -- the younger generation didn't want to spend their future underground, with the threat of suffocation, being crushed, or slow death by poisoning, and what remained of the older generation simply illustrated, for the young, exactly why they wanted to get as far away from the mines as their dreams could carry them. Meanwhile, the mines were rapidly mechanizing, so that no new wave of immigrants, whose imaginations were preoccupied with different sorts of dread, came to descend willingly into the eternal night of the shafts.

Judy was also preoccupied with dream of escape, so that one day, while sitting at her mother's kitchen table and reading the classified section of the newspaper, her eye fell on the following advertisement:

JOIN THE GOVERNMENT AND SEE THE WORLD
The ad gave a date and time and location, so she went to the high school cafeteria that had been indicated in the newspaper, where she took an exam that tested her secretarial skills. At the bottom of the test paper, there was a question about where she would like to go, with three blanks. She filled them out: London, Paris, Rome, and then underneath, in parentheses she wrote: (or someplace warm).

Within three months she had moved to Washington, D.C. and five months, she was living in Bangkok, Thailand.

Meanwhile, there lived a young man named Mike...

He had played football and studied chemistry at Cornell University, and after a tour of duty with the Marines, he had entered the family business, which his father affectionately referred to as "the pickle factory." His first assignment with "AID" was in Laos, where he lived with the Hmong people in a remote village for months at a time, making brief visits to Bangkok to check in with his superiors.

Mike had once announced to his parents, "I tell you one thing: I do not intend to be bored in my life." He loved animals and kept several cats, a horse, and a pet monkey in Laos. He also read extensively for pleasure and was particularly interested in American History and Literature. He had been born in Berlin, when he was father was working as a foreign correspondent and studying and reporting on the rise of Adolf Hitler (which eventually led to a book, People Under Hitler -- see review at the end of this post, and another review).

Mike and Judy met in Bangkok during one of Mike's short visits. They carried on a long-distance courtship, and then were married, in October of 1964.

The couple moved to Laos and set up house. Almost a year after their wedding, Mike died in a helicopter accident. Judy was three months pregnant with their first and only child, a girl. The U.S. government flew Judy back home to Bulpitt. On April 9, 1966, her baby was born, and

Judy named her Suzanne Michelle.
People Under Hitler by Wallace Deuel
November 18, 1949—Ida Nasatir book review—People Under Hitler by Wallace DeuelSouthwestern Jewish Press, page 3 : Wallace Deuel, a Gentile, is a brilliant newspaper correspondent. He went to Berlin in 1934 when he was 29 years old. While there he tried to pierce the mystery of that world. Endowed with almost dogged patience, he was inquisitive, intelligent, scholarly. Also he had great integrity. As a journalist Deuel was a fiend for facts, for detail, for documentation. His book, People Under Hitler, is packed with them. He doesn't ask you to take his word for anything. He gives you chapter and verse, the name of the law, the text, the exact number of victims. His book attempts to answer two of the most fateful questions of our era: "What was there in the lives of the German people, and all the others, that made the Nazi revolution and the second war possible? What did the revolution and the war, in turn, do to the people it embraced? The first 135 pages trace the rise of National Socialism. There is an unusual chapter entitled "The Germans: Are they Human?" This is Deuel's characterization of the German: "These , then are the Germans: Big, heavy powerful; with unusual capacities for hard work and for enduring privation and pain; on the whole unlovely, ponderous rather than graceful of manner and movement and not seldom gross, and even coarse; a people suffering from a sense of inner insecurity and lack of a sense of form and proportion of balance and control, and constantly striving to compensate for these deficiencies by seeking for authority and discipline to impose order and system." William Shirer, author of Berlin Diary, has called this the "best characterization of the German that any American has yet achieved." Deuel is often struck by the fantastic importance of small things in men. He feels, for instance, that "Adolf Hitler had a mustache like Charlie Chaplin—that was one of the fateful facts of modern times. People thought he was funny. They laughed at him. And while they were laughing, Hitler destroyed them and their whole world around them. There was nothing funny about Adolf Hitler—nothing at all. But thanks in large measure to his comedian's mustache, millions of human beings found this out too late." Deuel sees very clearly what a few Germans, even men like Fritz Thyssen saw too late, namely that Hitler had set out to overthrow all of Western civilization. In a remarkable epilogue he develops this belief. The author tells in great detail how the Nazi dictatorship regulated the life of every German from before birth until after death; of how, for instance, it decided whom you may marry, whether you may have children, what names you must give them, how many pockets you may have in your trousers, how your daughter may wear her hair, how your son may fly his kite, and what funny-paper, if any, you may read. There was NO privacy either in life or death. Even the tombstones were coordinated. Though not a pleasant tale, it is tremendously important to read it. Particularly it is so in this new "atomic age." It is well to recall that Hitler knew enough to know that you have to offer a disillusioned world some faith. He concocted a false one. The lost millions snatched at it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Excellence



Friday night I had the chance to see (and hear!) Emmanuel Ax perform Chopin's Piano Concerto #2 (he's playing a snatch of Mozart in the above clip).

Whenever I go to the symphony, I am so amazed that each of the musical instruments was even invented, that sound exists in such variety, complexity, and beauty, and that there exist people who dedicate their lives to training their bodies to the subtle and refined movements of fingers, lips, and feet that are required to bring this music to birth.

And once, recently, as I watched the conductor's expressive dance, and heard how the music's emotion swelled and constricted in response to the way his weight shifted, I realized that I was witnessing a metaphor for the religious life. Each sheet of printed music is a vocation, but it is not enough for us to each sit alone and play it -- we must all focus our attention on God, who conducts us -- he has the whole piece in his head, and when he directs, then we can play together and the music makes sense. The more we look to him, give our full attention to him, the more beautiful the whole sound is.

Here is an excerpt from Emmanuel Ax's blog:

When to Applaud

All of us love applause, and so we should -- it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be "allowed", or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.

I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty. I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction. On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms 3rd Symphony comes to an end -- it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. I think that if there were no "rules" about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time, and if we feel like expressing approval, we should be allowed to, ANYTIME! Just one favor -- even if you don't like a concert of mine, please PLEASE applaud at the end anyway.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The beginning and end of Christian morality


I've been reading ahead in Is It Possible to Live This Way? and stumbled upon the chapter on freedom. After a long discussion on the true meaning of freedom, Father Giussani writes: "Freedom isn't choice, it's only a possibility to choose because it's imperfect" (p. 76). And then on the next page:

Yet carrying out this correct choice demands a clear awareness of the relationship with Christ, of the relationship with destiny. It's the lived religious sense. Read the gospel...Jesus had made breakfast for everybody -- what care -- and no one dared speak because they all knew it was the Lord. He's near Simon and He says to him, very softly, without the others realizing, He says quietly, 'Simon, do you love me more than these?' This is the culmination of Christian morality: the beginning and the end of Christian morality. He didn't tell him, 'Simon, you betrayed me. Simon, think how many mistakes you made. Simon, how many betrayals! Simon, just think that you can make the same mistake tomorrow and the day after... Think about how fragile you are, what a coward you are in front of me.' No! 'Simon, do you love me more than these?' He went to the depths of everything, to the bottom of everything; so this bottom of everything pulls everything along with it. And Peter, who loved Him, ended up dying like Him... Man finds his dignity in the choice of what he values most in life and from which he expects the greatest satisfaction. (p. 77)

I am so grateful for this text. I have understood for a long time that freedom and morality are tightly bound in Father Giussani's thought. I have also grasped that his denunciation of moralism was never brought on by a disdain for morality. But to have this point so clearly spelled out for us is a gift to everyone in the Movement: "Freedom isn't choice..." There it is, so clear, so transparent! And the heart is not "what I like" or "what I want" -- it's the constant thirst for what I'm made for, my destiny, Christ. I can be seduced to imagine that something I want is my destiny -- if I lose sight of the ever-expanding horizon that calls me with an Infinite love. Moralism's answer, which says we have to suppress our desire, do violence to our desire, is useless, even mortally dangerous, to our souls. It is the solution of a lonely humanity, a humanity that has ceased to listen to the voice that calls each of us by name, a humanity without Christ.

We need to hear Him ask us, "Do you love me?" We need to let that question burn into our hearts every minute of every hour, engage us, draw us through our days. Who will speak this question aloud for us? Because even those who are so blessed to have heard Jesus speak directly to them through metaphysical means, do not hear this question so perfectly and constantly that they can forgo the Eucharist or the people of God, who make up the Church. No, God has willed it that we must turn to one another -- there is no other way -- and remind each other that He asks, He continually asks, "Do you love me?"
If you expect your satisfaction from something that can be dust tomorrow, you'll have dust. But who calls your attention to this? No one can, none of us has the strength to do it for himself: only together can we do it. This is the way that the Church, in the world, calls the world's attention to this... Only in the companionship are you recalled to this fascination with being or this awareness of our own fragility due to something that is a choice -- to be able to choose a good... to adhere to what brings us to destiny and to await destiny every day; to wait, every day, for it to come. (pp 77 and 78)

"Only in the companionship..." It is another unambiguous, completely transparent remark that we cannot sidestep -- we must look it in the face. Who are these people, these fellow Christians, surrounding me? Why has God placed them, and not some others, in my path? How do they reveal my destiny to me? Do I treasure them, as the life blood that connects me to the voice of my Beloved? Do I love them?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

April fools (continued)


This Post is the continuation of April Fools. I have copied it into that post. If you've already read April Fools, then you have already seen everything I've written here. If you haven't read April Fools, you should go here, to start from the beginning.April, by Anna Joelsdottir

The day after Sylvie and Stella were born, the resident who had been so incredulous in the ER, paid me a visit in my hospital room. His head hung, and he seemed really devastated.

"I have to check your wound," he said, from the door, nervous about entering.

"Come in," I said.

"I'm really sorry I didn't believe you." His eyes were pleading. "It's just that you weren't like the other ladies when they're about to have a baby. You weren't screaming, or anything..."

"I don't ever scream," I said. I could sympathize with him. When things get really bad with me, I become very calm and quiet. "What good would it do? I didn't want anybody to panic -- it might make it harder to concentrate on what they have to do."

"How could you think about other people, at a time like that?"

"I was actually only thinking about the baby."

"Well, I'm really sorry."

"It's okay. In the end, it didn't hurt her." I fought to keep the threat out of my tone. He looked so contrite, but I also knew that if things had turned out differently, forgiving him would have taken a strength from beyond me.

"But it could have..."

"Yes, you should think about that. Always listen to your patients." This remark seemed to cause him some pain, but, for the sake of his future patients, I didn't say anything to soften that blow.

As he examined my incision, he let out a low whistle. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "What was the name of the doctor who did your surgery?"

"I don't know." I still don't, but I'll be forever grateful to that kindly man.

"It's such a clean incision! No preparation, no nothing. All that chaos! He just cut... I'm sure you can't appreciate this, but what you have here is a thing of beauty." He shook his head.

"Thanks," I said.

* * *

My next visitor was the specialist doctor, who had administered the ultra special ultrasound when I first found out that Stella had died. He stood at the foot of my bed, and looked at me for a long moment. "May I ask you a question? I'm very curious..."

He didn't have my chart in his hands, and he didn't look like he had come to do anything medical to me. "What is it?"

"After you left the hospital, the last time?" I nodded. "You had to carry your child, your dead child...?"

"I felt like a human tomb, for my own baby."

"But..."

"Yes, I was also still pregnant with a living baby."

"What is that like? I can't imagine how that would feel? What you must have gone through. And now you've given birth to a child who succumbed, but you have another child who is in the NICU?" He really looked amazed and overwhelmed by my experience.

"I don't know. All I know is that it is possible to feel devastating grief and great joy at the same time, that both emotions can exist together." At the time, I remember being under the impression that perhaps everything had happened the way it had so that I could testify to this mind-boggling human truth.

He nodded and then murmured, "Different people respond different ways to terrible thing when they happen. But it seems to me that the only way to cope with them is if you have some sort of religious belief?" That statement came out as a question, filled with urgency.

I nodded. Anyone who knows me knows that I could have said so much, with an opening like that one! But I sensed that he wasn't asking for my credo at that moment. I felt much more that I was in the presence of a man of faith, and that he simply needed confirmation from me that I was aware that I was in much better hands than his. My nod seemed to be sufficient for him.

* * *

Finally, the nurses got the okay to bring me to the NICU again. That afternoon began a kind of ritual that I would repeat every day for over six weeks. The nurse caring for Sylvie would roll a lazy boy recliner up beside Sylvie's incubator. I would scrub and, after I was discharged, change into a hospital gown (of course, while I was still a patient myself, there was no need to change), with the opening in the front, and then settle myself into the recliner. The nurse would pick Sylvie up out of her plastic box -- wires, needles, tubes, and all -- and settle her on the bare skin of my chest. Then she (or he) would reposition all the wires, needles and tubes, cover her with the first blanket, with the built-in bilirubin lights, followed by another stack of blankets, over her back, so that only her tiny head would peek out the top of my gown. This whole procedure was called "kangarooing." The recliners were viewed as part of the medical equipment on the unit. Those in charge had taken seriously the research that indicates that premature babies do better, the more skin-to-skin contact they have with their mothers.

They were also attuned to the fact that medical outcomes are much better for premature babies who receive human milk. Breast pumps, on wheels, were available there, as well as in a private room, reserved only for mothers to pump. They also provided me with my own pump, to use when I wasn't there, as well as with sterilized vials for collecting and storing the milk and a special bag with frozen inserts, for transporting it. Even while Sylvie was still receiving all her nourishment through her IV, the nurses would use a long Q-tip, moistened with my milk, to swab the inside of her mouth. Later, when she was ready to try eating, her milk had to be administered through a syringe connected to a tube that would deposit it straight into her stomach -- one cc every four hours -- it was so agonizing to see her eat so little, and to want so badly to see her grow! She was weighed twice a day, and I measured my happiness in half-ounces.

The nurses had a joke (which was perhaps only a half-joke) for me, each day when I was getting ready to leave the NICU: "Check that woman's pockets!" They knew how painful it was for me to leave Sylvie, and I had observed, once, that she was small enough to fit into one of my pockets. Those nurses truly amazed me. I could be (and was!) mesmerized by their hands, which never stopped moving -- restarting a tiny heart with a brief rub and a tap, measuring out precise doses of medicine, or repositioning the oxygen source to increase a baby's saturation levels. The most breath-taking of all was when a baby needed a new IV. They would dim the lights even further, and a team of nurses would gather around. The tiny needle, which looked really no wider than a thread, was lit with a red light. No one was allowed more than three tries, and when one of the nurses succeeded, she was everyone's heroine for the day. A couple of the nurses seemed to have a special talent for it, and the others treated these special ones as though they were spiritual adepts. It was more astonishing than watching a master cellist's fingers find the precise places on the strings of his instrument, because here, even more than beauty, life itself was at stake.

The other astonishing thing about the nurses was their ability to cooperate with one another without speaking. When the baby they were caring for could be left for even five minutes, they would turn to join another nurse, helping her to complete her tasks.

But the thing about the NICU that struck me most was the extent to which human beings had been able to create these sensitive and complex machines to do the work of the human body -- and also, what poor substitutes these machines were for what the body can achieve without conscious effort. We are indeed curiously and wonderfully made!

* * *

When I returned to my own hospital room that first evening, there was a note from the hospital chaplain waiting for me on my bedside table. This was not the same chaplain as the one who had prayed over Stella, but she was also young and inexperienced. She had been assigned the task of helping me to make Stella's funeral arrangements. She had left some paperwork for me and a brief note, in which she'd written my daughter's name in quotation marks: I need you to fill out these forms, so that the morgue can release "Stella" to the funeral home. Who could have guessed that two small marks of punctuation could cause so much pain and anger? Even as I tried to explain to myself that the chaplain was young and perhaps it was just a problem she had with English usage, I wanted to strangle her. When my nurse came to check on me, she found me sobbing in my bed. Wordlessly, she brought me tissues and then went to sit in a chair in a far corner of the room. She stayed there, for two hours, while I cried. She neither spoke nor took her eyes off my face. Her own expression was one of deep sorrow. She only left after I had quieted down.

The only date that would work for Stella's funeral was April 9, which also happened to be my birthday. By then, I had been released from the hospital. We took the three older girls out of school, so that they could be present. The funeral director had refused to charge us anything, even for the headstone I'd chosen or for the white coffin, the size of a shoe box. He told me that one of his daughters had died, before birth, and he would never charge for the funeral of a baby. He brought a dozen white roses to the funeral. Our Associate Pastor came to preside, bringing flowers as well, in case we'd forgotten. He performed the funeral liturgy in the cemetery chapel. When he sprinkled Stella's coffin with holy water, he told us that the Church recognizes three forms of Baptism: by water, by blood (the martyrs), and by desire. He explained that Stella had already received Baptism of desire, through our desire as parents -- because we had clearly intended to have her baptized. He explained that sprinkling her coffin was in memory of her Baptism. The funeral liturgy was so beautiful and healing. Rather than bringing us down, it made us joyful.

It was raining, and the cemetery was muddy that day. I wanted to stay to watch the burial, so my husband brought the girls back home. Our priest stayed with me, though, holding a big black umbrella over my head. As we stood there, I looked at the other graves near Stella's. Just behind her, and a little to the left, there was a large headstone. From where I stood, I could read the name carved into the granite: Francis Xavier Cabrini. What a gift that was to me! Such a great saint of the Church, who would be so near to Stella's final resting place. I entrusted my little girl to her special care, right then and there.

* * *

I was not allowed to drive a car for six weeks after my surgery. During those weeks, I always had a ride to and from the hospital (45 minutes each way), so that I could "kangaroo" with Sylvie for several hours each day; our neighbors, or my mother, cooked us dinner every night and cared so well for our older children after school, so that it was a holiday for them, and not a time of abandonment and sadness.

* * *

Just to explain the image at the beginning of this post: My friend Anna, one year earlier, had painted a series of pictures, one each day, during the month of April, 2001. I fell so in love with this series that I wanted to buy it from her, but I could not afford to buy all the pictures at once. I had made a deal with her that I would buy them, one by one, as I had the money. We were due to meet on April 2, so that I could pay her for the tenth picture in the series, so I called her from the hospital and left a message on her machine explaining what had happened and canceling our meeting. She rang the phone at my hospital bedside that evening and told me that she would give me the remaining twenty-one pictures, no charge. When I protested, she refused to listen to me. She told me that the pictures weren't hers to sell. They were mine.

* * *

Sylvie's pulmonologist and her retinologist were surprised by her rate of recovery. They each said they had never seen anything like it. Perhaps her recovery can be explained by the quality of care she received in the NICU -- plus all those hours of kangarooing and the breast milk that made up her whole diet for her first year of life. Or perhaps she is particularly blessed because she has her own patron saint, who is her mirror image, in heaven. I am grateful for all the gratuitous goodness that so many people, even strangers, showed us during our difficult time. But I also want to thank Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini and say, Keep looking out for my Stella, please.
Mother Cabrini

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April fools!

Six years ago today this child, Sylvie Beatrice, and her identical twin, Stella Anne, played the best and worst (combined) April fools prank I've ever been subjected to. About a week earlier, I had gone to the doctor feeling like something was not right. The ultrasound revealed that I was pregnant with twins (amazing! miraculous! joy!) but that one of the babies was not moving (joy fled). The doctor kept squinting at the screen, like he was trying to understand what he was seeing, so I decided he didn't know what he was talking about. In my heart, I just knew that both babies were alive. Then, with urgency, he told me that I would need a specialist (he was a general practitioner). He called a colleague, then told me I would be met at the Emergency Room and I should go straight there. This only increased my hope. Why hurry if my little one was already lost?

When I arrived at the Emergency Room, I was indeed met immediately and whisked past everyone waiting in the horrible plastic chairs. My new doctor was older, authoritative, and very courteous. Before I could wonder what would happen next, I was receiving another ultrasound. My new doctor told me that this was the best machine that existed, and that it could allow him to see details that no other ultrasound equipment could detect. Three residents stood around him and slightly behind, watching his every move. He pointed to the screen and said, "There's the first one, see? And there's the second." My heart soared. Then he looked at me, and said, "I'm terribly sorry for your loss."

"The baby's dead?" I was truly incredulous that this expert couldn't see anything more than the other doctor had. What was the point of coming here?

"Hand me that box of Kleenex," he said to one of the residents. Then he laid aside the ultrasound equipment, and handed me a tissue. "I thought you knew?" he said.

"I had hoped..."

"This must be so hard for you." He stared at me with compassionate eyes while I blew my nose. "Do you need some time, or should I continue the examination...?"

"It's okay," I said. "Go ahead."

He returned to his work, pointing at the screen and telling the residents to look closely at various aspects of the picture. "I think I know why all your babies have come early," he said to me. "You have a kind of shelf in your uterus. It's very rare, but it would explain the premature births." He showed me a shadowy line on the screen. "At a certain point, it would get a little cramped in there."

"Is that what happened? To the baby...?"

"No," he said. Then he explained to me that the twins were identical: "Now, when the fertilized egg divides, rapidly in the first few days, it can split into two separate embryos. If it splits early, then each baby develops its own amniotic sac. But your twins split quite late, probably around day 19."

"So, they are in the same sac?"

"Yes, and they share a placenta. That's quite rare." He looked at me. "It looks as though their umbilical cords are attached at the same point. When that happens, it's called Twin Twin Transfusion Syndrome. It means that they shared a blood system. It's a very dangerous condition for the twins. One usually has abnormally high blood pressure and the other has abnormally low blood pressure."

"The other baby...?!"

"Is stable, for the moment. Everything looks fine. But we're going to have to keep you for observation."

They were girls. I asked him to tell me so that we could name the baby who had died. We named her Stella. Because they shared an amniotic sac, Stella could not be born until her sister was. They released me the next day, and told me that the pregnancy should continue normally, now.

On Easter Sunday, March 31, though, I began to feel contractions while sitting at the dinner table. The baby wasn't due for another 11 weeks, and though all my girls had come early, they had never been this early. I decided, even though the contractions were coming quite regularly and with considerable force, that I was not in labor. By the time I realized that the baby was indeed coming, it was nearly too late. My husband rushed me back to the same ER and a surreal nightmare began. I couldn't seem to convince the residents and nurses that I had gone beyond transition, that I had the urge to push. They assured me that they had called my doctor, and that he was on the way. I tried to explain that there were two babies, that I was 11 weeks early, that they were about to be born. "Should I take off my clothes?" I asked. "If you want," was the answer, with rolled eyes. My husband rushed in after having parked the car. I told him that they didn't believe me, that no one would even examine me. He began shouting, "She knows what she's talking about! She's already had three babies!" One of the residents told him, "Stay cool, man." I begged him to at least examine me. He looked at me like I had some sick fetish, but reached slowly for a latex glove, just to prove to us that we were over-reacting. Then his face changed. "She's complete!" he shouted. "I've got a transverse breech! Call a code! Now!"

"Transverse breech..." I muttered. "What does that mean?"

"I felt a hand," he said, without looking at me. It was 12:18am. I had arrived at the ER at 11:56pm. Things began happening very quickly. My bed had wheels, and I was flying through the hallway, into a small white room with no windows and very unpleasant, glaring lights. I knew I was about to have surgery, though no one had told me. The panic was almost unbearable. I was praying Hail Marys out loud, not bothering to count decades. I felt certain I would die. A kindly white-haired man stood at the foot of my bed, and said, "This will happen fast." A mask slipped over my face and then off. I wasn't asleep, but I couldn't move. When they entubated me, I felt myself choke and gag as the impossibly wide plastic tube was shoved down my throat. It seemed unnecessarily cruel to torture a dying woman. Then I felt the tube being pulled back out of my raw throat, and I was wheeled to another room. I have never had physical pain like that before. The general anaesthetic had worn off, but they didn't want to give me morphine, yet.

The phrase, "screaming in pain" seems really stupid to me. I was in so much pain that I couldn't make any noise at all -- I could barely whisper. The clock said 12:50am. My husband was beside me. The nurse came in and told me that the babies had been born -- the first one at 12:25am, the second at 12:35am. I gathered all my strength and whispered to her, "Ow."

"I know it hurts, honey," she said, soothingly. "The doctor has ordered the pain medicine, but we have to wait a little bit." She left.

"Where?" I whispered to my husband. He told me that the baby had gone to the NICU, but that they would bring me Stella, if I wanted to see her. I nodded and said, "Hurts" in such a soft voice, it was almost funny. Such a small sound for such a huge pain.

When finally the morphine drip had been started, they asked whether they should bring me Stella, and I said yes, eager to hold her. They placed her thin, wrinkled body in my arms. I kissed the top of her head, and made the sign of the cross with my thumb, on her forehead. Her eyes were closed, and she was so still. A young girl introduced herself to me as the hospital chaplain and asked if I would like her to say a prayer. I nodded. She intoned this rather silly poem about how we would see Stella in the clouds, and the rain, and in the leaves of the trees (later I wondered -- why not in mustard or truck tires?). I didn't want to ever hand her back, but eventually I had to. Then they brought me two Polaroid photos -- one of Sylvie, also skinny and long-limbed, but her face was contorted with screaming. Never had I seen anyone look so beautiful when angry. The second Polaroid looked like a tangled pile of thick spaghetti. They explained that somehow Sylvie had managed to get her own umbilical cord knotted and tangled with Stella's. No one had ever seen anything like it before. They said it was a wonder she survived, and great luck that she was born when she was, and not a moment later. It was amazing that she'd received any oxygen at all through her cord.

By then it was 2am, and I knew we had to call my parents. My mom said, "This isn't funny."

"I agree," I said. "It's not a prank."

"Yes, it is," she said.

"I wish it were," I said. I finally got her to believe me.

They made me go to my room to rest before they would allow me to see Sylvie. It was nearly noon when they wheeled me to the NICU, and showed me how to scrub with iodine, all the way to my elbows. There she was, all 2lb, 7oz of her, yelling and trying to yank the respirator out of her nose with one hand and the tiny blindfold off her eyes with the other. Her nurse told me, "Girlfriend here is a fighter!"

* * *

April, by Anna Joelsdottir

The day after Sylvie and Stella were born, the resident who had been so incredulous in the ER, paid me a visit in my hospital room. His head hung, and he seemed really devastated.

"I have to check your wound," he said, from the door, nervous about entering.

"Come in," I said.

"I'm really sorry I didn't believe you." His eyes were pleading. "It's just that you weren't like the other ladies when they're about to have a baby. You weren't screaming, or anything..."

"I don't ever scream," I said. I could sympathize with him. When things get really bad with me, I become very calm and quiet. "What good would it do? I didn't want anybody to panic -- it might make it harder to concentrate on what they have to do."

"How could you think about other people, at a time like that?"

"I was actually only thinking about the baby."

"Well, I'm really sorry."

"It's okay. In the end, it didn't hurt her." I fought to keep the threat out of my tone. He looked so contrite, but I also knew that if things had turned out differently, forgiving him would have taken a strength from beyond me.

"But it could have..."

"Yes, you should think about that. Always listen to your patients." This remark seemed to cause him some pain, but, for the sake of his future patients, I didn't say anything to soften that blow.

As he examined my incision, he let out a low whistle. "I've never seen anything like this," he said. "What was the name of the doctor who did your surgery?"

"I don't know." I still don't, but I'll be forever grateful to that kindly man.

"It's such a clean incision! No preparation, no nothing. All that chaos! He just cut... I'm sure you can't appreciate this, but what you have here is a thing of beauty." He shook his head.

"Thanks," I said.

* * *

My next visitor was the specialist doctor, who had administered the ultra special ultrasound when I first found out that Stella had died. He stood at the foot of my bed, and looked at me for a long moment. "May I ask you a question? I'm very curious..."

He didn't have my chart in his hands, and he didn't look like he had come to do anything medical to me. "What is it?"

"After you left the hospital, the last time?" I nodded. "You had to carry your child, your dead child...?"

"I felt like a human tomb, for my own baby."

"But..."

"Yes, I was also still pregnant with a living baby."

"What is that like? I can't imagine how that would feel? What you must have gone through. And now you've given birth to a child who succumbed, but you have another child who is in the NICU?" He really looked amazed and overwhelmed by my experience.

"I don't know. All I know is that it is possible to feel devastating grief and great joy at the same time, that both emotions can exist together." At the time, I remember being under the impression that perhaps everything had happened the way it had so that I could testify to this mind-boggling human truth.

He nodded and then murmured, "Different people respond different ways to terrible thing when they happen. But it seems to me that the only way to cope with them is if you have some sort of religious belief?" That statement came out as a question, filled with urgency.

I nodded. Anyone who knows me knows that I could have said so much, with an opening like that one! But I sensed that he wasn't asking for my credo at that moment. I felt much more that I was in the presence of a man of faith, and that he simply needed confirmation from me that I was aware that I was in much better hands than his. My nod seemed to be sufficient for him.

* * *

Finally, the nurses got the okay to bring me to the NICU again. That afternoon began a kind of ritual that I would repeat every day for over six weeks. The nurse caring for Sylvie would roll a lazy boy recliner up beside Sylvie's incubator. I would scrub and, after I was discharged, change into a hospital gown (of course, while I was still a patient myself, there was no need to change), with the opening in the front, and then settle myself into the recliner. The nurse would pick Sylvie up out of her plastic box -- wires, needles, tubes, and all -- and settle her on the bare skin of my chest. Then she (or he) would reposition all the wires, needles and tubes, cover her with the first blanket, with the built-in bilirubin lights, followed by another stack of blankets, over her back, so that only her tiny head would peek out the top of my gown. This whole procedure was called "kangarooing." The recliners were viewed as part of the medical equipment on the unit. Those in charge had taken seriously the research that indicates that premature babies do better, the more skin-to-skin contact they have with their mothers.

They were also attuned to the fact that medical outcomes are much better for premature babies who receive human milk. Breast pumps, on wheels, were available there, as well as in a private room, reserved only for mothers to pump. They also provided me with my own pump, to use when I wasn't there, as well as with sterilized vials for collecting and storing the milk and a special bag with frozen inserts, for transporting it. Even while Sylvie was still receiving all her nourishment through her IV, the nurses would use a long Q-tip, moistened with my milk, to swab the inside of her mouth. Later, when she was ready to try eating, her milk had to be administered through a syringe connected to a tube that would deposit it straight into her stomach -- one cc every four hours -- it was so agonizing to see her eat so little, and to want so badly to see her grow! She was weighed twice a day, and I measured my happiness in half-ounces.

The nurses had a joke (which was perhaps only a half-joke) for me, each day when I was getting ready to leave the NICU: "Check that woman's pockets!" They knew how painful it was for me to leave Sylvie, and I had observed, once, that she was small enough to fit into one of my pockets. Those nurses truly amazed me. I could be (and was!) mesmerized by their hands, which never stopped moving -- restarting a tiny heart with a brief rub and a tap, measuring out precise doses of medicine, or repositioning the oxygen source to increase a baby's saturation levels. The most breath-taking of all was when a baby needed a new IV. They would dim the lights even further, and a team of nurses would gather around. The tiny needle, which looked really no wider than a thread, was lit with a red light. No one was allowed more than three tries, and when one of the nurses succeeded, she was everyone's heroine for the day. A couple of the nurses seemed to have a special talent for it, and the others treated these special ones as though they were spiritual adepts. It was more astonishing than watching a master cellist's fingers find the precise places on the strings of his instrument, because here, even more than beauty, life itself was at stake.

The other astonishing thing about the nurses was their ability to cooperate with one another without speaking. When the baby they were caring for could be left for even five minutes, they would turn to join another nurse, helping her to complete her tasks.

But the thing about the NICU that struck me most was the extent to which human beings had been able to create these sensitive and complex machines to do the work of the human body -- and also, what poor substitutes these machines were for what the body can achieve without conscious effort. We are indeed curiously and wonderfully made!

* * *

When I returned to my own hospital room that first evening, there was a note from the hospital chaplain waiting for me on my bedside table. This was not the same chaplain as the one who had prayed over Stella, but she was also young and inexperienced. She had been assigned the task of helping me to make Stella's funeral arrangements. She had left some paperwork for me and a brief note, in which she'd written my daughter's name in quotation marks: I need you to fill out these forms, so that the morgue can release "Stella" to the funeral home. Who could have guessed that two small marks of punctuation could cause so much pain and anger? Even as I tried to explain to myself that the chaplain was young and perhaps it was just a problem she had with English usage, I wanted to strangle her. When my nurse came to check on me, she found me sobbing in my bed. Wordlessly, she brought me tissues and then went to sit in a chair in a far corner of the room. She stayed there, for two hours, while I cried. She neither spoke nor took her eyes off my face. Her own expression was one of deep sorrow. She only left after I had quieted down.

The only date that would work for Stella's funeral was April 9, which also happened to be my birthday. By then, I had been released from the hospital. We took the three older girls out of school, so that they could be present. The funeral director had refused to charge us anything, even for the headstone I'd chosen or for the white coffin, the size of a shoe box. He told me that one of his daughters had died, before birth, and he would never charge for the funeral of a baby. He brought a dozen white roses to the funeral. Our Associate Pastor came to preside, bringing flowers as well, in case we'd forgotten. He performed the funeral liturgy in the cemetery chapel. When he sprinkled Stella's coffin with holy water, he told us that the Church recognizes three forms of Baptism: by water, by blood (the martyrs), and by desire. He explained that Stella had already received Baptism of desire, through our desire as parents -- because we had clearly intended to have her baptized. He explained that sprinkling her coffin was in memory of her Baptism. The funeral liturgy was so beautiful and healing. Rather than bringing us down, it made us joyful.

It was raining, and the cemetery was muddy that day. I wanted to stay to watch the burial, so my husband brought the girls back home. Our priest stayed with me, though, holding a big black umbrella over my head. As we stood there, I looked at the other graves near Stella's. Just behind her, and a little to the left, there was a large headstone. From where I stood, I could read the name carved into the granite: Francis Xavier Cabrini. What a gift that was to me! Such a great saint of the Church, who would be so near to Stella's final resting place. I entrusted my little girl to her special care, right then and there.

* * *

I was not allowed to drive a car for six weeks after my surgery. During those weeks, I always had a ride to and from the hospital (45 minutes each way), so that I could "kangaroo" with Sylvie for several hours each day; our neighbors, or my mother, cooked us dinner every night and cared so well for our older children after school, so that it was a holiday for them, and not a time of abandonment and sadness.

* * *

Just to explain the image at the beginning of this post: My friend Anna, one year earlier, had painted a series of pictures, one each day, during the month of April, 2001. I fell so in love with this series that I wanted to buy it from her, but I could not afford to buy all the pictures at once. I had made a deal with her that I would buy them, one by one, as I had the money. We were due to meet on April 2, so that I could pay her for the tenth picture in the series, so I called her from the hospital and left a message on her machine explaining what had happened and canceling our meeting. She rang the phone at my hospital bedside that evening and told me that she would give me the remaining twenty-one pictures, no charge. When I protested, she refused to listen to me. She told me that the pictures weren't hers to sell. They were mine.

* * *

Sylvie's pulmonologist and her retinologist were surprised by her rate of recovery. They each said they had never seen anything like it. Perhaps her recovery can be explained by the quality of care she received in the NICU -- plus all those hours of kangarooing and the breast milk that made up her whole diet for her first year of life. Or perhaps she is particularly blessed because she has her own patron saint, who is her mirror image, in heaven. I am grateful for all the gratuitous goodness that so many people, even strangers, showed us during our difficult time. But I also want to thank Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini and say, Keep looking out for my Stella, please.
Mother Cabrini

* * *
Photo Gallery:
A few hours old

Kangarooing

Mother's Day 2002. At five weeks old, I thought she was huge!

My big girl!

My fingertip isn't really all that big

The day she came home. She's six and a half weeks old, 4'2"

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."