Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The New Gnostic

 I have to admit that I struggle with a bit of a Gnostic streak.  I've always appreciated the life of the mind a lot more than the life of the body - I'm the one who used to spend recess hiding behind the maintenance shed with a book while everyone else played kickball.

Lately my body's been letting me down in a pretty significant way, making it even harder to appreciate it.  Of course the thing to do when you have trouble appreciating something as a gift from God is to double down on the thanksgiving - but the most I can muster recently is a sort of sarcastic, eye-roll-y prayer of gratitude: "Gee, thanks, God, for this broken piece of crap that you saddled me with.  I REALLY APPRECIATE IT."

I'm working on it.

Christianity, of course, doesn't just recognize that the physical body has some good and beautiful things about it.  It goes a step beyond, recognizing the Incarnation as the defining moment in human history.  When God became man, that wasn't some kind of drastic violation of the order of things; rather, it was when the true order of things was finally revealed.

In fact, even becoming a physical, bodily man wasn't enough for God.  He wants to actually feed us with his Body and and make us part of it.  The whole yucky mess of human life gets drawn into the whole and perfect Body of Christ.

This, of course, can lead us to Gnosticism on a broader scale.  It can feel easy to acknowledge the Body of Christ as a spiritual reality, but it gets tricky when we're confronted with a coughing, smelly, sweaty manifestation of it sitting uncomfortably close to us on the bus.

Pope Francis has encouraged priests to be "shepherds living with the 'smell of their sheep'" - an incredibly powerful image to remind people that Christian love is not just spiritual but corporal.

Over at her blog, Leah Libresco is facilitating a related discussion about disruptive kids in public places generally and at Mass specifically:
...Babies and children are a part of life, even for people who don’t have their own, and it would seem strange to me to have them excluded from people gathering together to form the Body of Christ.
I don’t claim that anything so sacramental is happening on an airplane, naturally, but it does seem strange to expect that this part of our life and community should be kept out of our way.  It’s bad for the parents, who are isolated, but it seems far from salutary for everyone else to have a norm of kids being mostly invisible, unless you’re in one of their spaces, like a playground.
The contemporary form of Gnosticism looks a little different than the ancient one, but is just as insidious.  Ancient Gnostics demonstrated contempt for the body through strict asceticism - but our contemporary view of the body as a useful or pleasurable tool, separated from its messy fruitfulness, shows just as much contempt for our integrated selves and our shared dignity as participants in the Body of Christ.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


This morning as I bumped pinball-like around our tiny bathroom, trying to get ready for work without sending hairpins and lipstick tubes flying off the edge of the sink, I started thinking about those organizational consultants who write articles on Yahoo News about how to save space, de-clutter your life and become Zen and Feng Shui.  Suddenly I realized that I was actually composing one of these articles in my head, in exact imitation of their usual style.

One of my strengths as a writer is that I'm a bit of a chameleon - I can shape my writing to fit the audience and the style that's needed.  That has served me well in my current job, since I'm asked to do a lot of marketing and PR style writing which is very audience-driven.  Of course the flip side to this ability is that my own writerly "voice" is something that I've never really pinned down.  The uniqueness of a writer's voice has been overemphasized in recent decades (as I talked about here), but it is undeniable that each of the great writers of history, from essayists to poets to novelists, had something distinctively his own in his writing, which was usually then imitated by an admiring horde of also-rans.

I mean...could you read this paragraph and think it was written by anyone but the actual author?
He’s engaged to be married to Stiffy Byng, and his long years of football should prove an excellent preparation for setting up house with her. The way I look at it is that when a fellow has had plug-uglies in cleated boots doing a Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo on his face Saturday after Saturday since he was a slip of a boy, he must get to fear nothing, not even marriage with a girl like Stiffy, who from early childhood has seldom let the sun go down without starting some loony enterprise calculated to bleach the hair of one and all.

My newest writing venture is freelancing for the local archdiocesan newspaper.  I'm very excited about it, and hope it leads to additional opportunities in the future to write for specifically Catholic news sources.  But of course these assignments are hardly exercises in free-flowing creativity...which I guess is why it's nice to have a somewhat-anonymous blog to take a stab at writing that's a little more personal and exploratory.

The other option is to buckle down and write the next Great American Novel, as my dad has always threatened to do.  I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Good News Day

I'm a city kid, and get really excited when I think about what can be created within the context of city life.  A while ago I wrote about the importance of "third places" which can help build authentic community.

My home town of Milwaukee was an industrial center in the Midwest - brewing, manufacturing - and struggled as most such centers did once those industries couldn't sustain it anymore.  It is now going through a slow but unmistakable cultural transformation.  It's not fully there yet, but there are several vibrant pockets of community and cultural life, and lots of possibilities on the horizon.

Here are just a few of the things I've heard about recently:

  • The Rotary Club, a service organization for Catholic business people, is collaborating with some foundations and the Urban Ecology Center to revitalize a portion of the post-industrial riverfront area, transforming it into an arboretum and "living forest classroom."  It will include hiking trails, a canoe launch and several distinct outdoor learning areas for kids, and will apparently be the "most significant and biologically diverse native ecosystem in Southeastern Wisconsin."  Its location is great, too - it connects the vibrant east side of the city with the more economically challenged north side. I'm sure there will be lots of programming drawing in central city kids, who would benefit greatly from what they plan to offer.  I think this is a pretty cool thing for a Catholic organization to do to celebrate its centennial - a true gift to the city.
  • One of the last great movie palaces of the golden age of cinema is located in downtown Milwaukee, but it's been basically abandoned for years and is in a state of disrepair.  Its shabby former glory has really contributed to the general atmosphere of seediness and decay in the city center, which has continued to struggle even as other neighborhoods are revitalized.  Just recently the downtown tourism board moved into the theatre's old box office and started using it as an information kiosk.  It was nice to see some sign of life, but obviously it is still not being used to its full potential.  Now it sounds like a trust is being created to restore the theatre and re-open it as a performance venue, to be used for community arts programming and even possibly as a second concert space for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
  • Downtown Milwaukee is also home to a decrepit shopping mall of sorts.  I believe it must have been built with the intention of bringing some commercial life to our city center, but it seems to have had the opposite effect.  Half the stores are closed, and there are constant rumors that it's being sold, torn down, or converted into condos.  Now arts organizations are staging a quiet coup and moving into to some of the abandoned retail spaces.  The Milwaukee Public Theatre has taken over one large space that has been vacant for years, and has created a spacious new theatre learning venue.  The mission statement of the Milwaukee Public Theatre talks about the arts as a "healing resource," and they do a lot of educational and outreach theatre programming, particularly for public school kids whose education in the arts has been all but eliminated by budget cuts.  It's great to see them with some elbow room and new opportunities.  Across the rotunda, a coalition of small, independent Milwaukee theatre groups has created the Underground Collaborative, a shared theatre workspace which includes an art gallery, administrative offices, a black box theatre and a dance studio.  My husband has gotten involved with one of the companies that shares the space, and they seem to really have their act together - they are energetic, creative and organized, and the space is in constant use.

Cool, huh? 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: NO

I've decided to start a new regular feature on this blog - the Review in Five Bullets.  I read a lot of books and see a lot of movies, so this will be a way to slow down my literary and cinematic voraciousness with a little critical analysis.  Of course, once this feature becomes wildly popular it will be known as R5B and will totally be, like, a meme and stuff.

(Speaking of memes, my siblings and I drew my dad's attention to that meme that's been circulating since Easter showing an image of the Risen Christ with the caption "YOLO. JK."  My dad intoned, Ent-like, "The world sure is different now."  We were all ROFL.)

So, this film.  My husband and I live near not one but TWO beautiful and historic art-deco style movie theatres that show a lot of art-house and foreign films.  We saw a preview for No a while ago and have been wanting to see it since.  It actually came out last year and was recognized at a number of film festivals, then received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  Now it is finally being shown here, in limited release.

It's a Spanish-language film set in Chile in 1988, and is about the TV ad campaigns that led up to the plebiscite that ousted Pinochet from power.

Five bullets, in no particular order:
  • The movie has a strong documentary flavor, due in part to the use of a lot of historical footage both of the political ads themselves and news footage of political protests, police violence, etc.  The skillful editing of the ad footage in particular was crucial to creating the tension of ideals between the "Yes" camp who supported another 8-year term for Pinochet and the "No" camp who wanted him out.
  • Also lending itself well to the documentary feel was the decision to film with the low-definition equipment and techniques that were in use in TV news at the time.  This meant that historic footage blended in seamlessly with the rest of the movie, and it also contributed to a strong sense of time and place.
  • Speaking of the time and, was 80s fashion aggressively ugly. It seems to have been designed to obscure all natural human beauty.
  • I was interested by the conflict within the "No" camp about the most effective strategy in using their fifteen minutes per day of state-allotted ad time.  One group wanted to use graphic scenes of violence and police brutality, hammering home the truth about the Pinochet regime.  The other group thought that, though this would reflect the truth of the political situation, it would underscore the fear people were already feeling and keep them home on election day.  Instead, this group wanted to use advertising principles to create an "appealing" and "positive" campaign that would inspire and unite.  I've observed this tension within current political and social justice movements today, particularly the pro-life movement - I'm thinking of the discussion about whether to use graphic images as part of anti-abortion protests.
  • Although Rene, the ad man in the "No" camp, is the obvious protagonist, there is a secondary protagonist who adds an extra layer of depth: his young son Simon.  Simon is a constant presence by his father's side but has a bare handful of lines.  He accompanies his parents to a protest march which turns violent;  his father leaves him in the car while trying to intervene in his mother's arrest; he sits and watches the ads being filmed.   At one point his parents have an exchange about how much he understands about what's going on around him, and can't agree.  It is never made clear what he thinks about the historic events taking place, but the viewer is occasionally pulled into his point of view as he silently absorbs them.  One of the film's final scenes is Rene marching in the street with a huge crowd celebrating the results of the election.  Simon clings to his neck, ticker tape in his hair,  and watches as his father's face slowly changes from its habitual stoic mask to tears of joy.  This scene is long and there's no commentary: the viewer experiences it like Simon, as a series of images to be slowly processed over a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Christos anesti

Happy Easter, everyone!

It was a weekend full of choral singing, ham, and an epic game of Monopoly.  

And, underlying everything, that joy, always old and always new, the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time.

The liturgical year is such a gift and source of consolation to me.  Somehow each season and each great feast seems to come along just when I need it most, and often some aspect of the mystery being celebrated will come into special focus and bring clarity to whatever challenges I am facing.  This year, just before the Easter Vigil started, our pastor must have accidentally turned on his microphone, so we could hear his words clearly from the front steps of the church.  "Okay, we need to light the fire now, because it's really raining!"

Yes, of course - that should be our response to the rain. Not to huddle inside, not to wait and hope it might be clearer in an hour, but to light the fire.  NOW.
As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.  For he says,
     “In the time of my favor I heard you,
      and in the day of salvation I helped you.”
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
2 Cor 6:1-2