Monday, January 31, 2011

January 31: Saint John Bosco

John Bosco is the patron saint of editors.  I can find no reason in his biography why he holds this title.  I was expecting him to have started a famous Catholic newspaper or edited the work of some great theologian.  At the very least, I expected him to be a writer of some renown.  He wasn't.  Born in 1815 in Turin, Italy, John was the son of sheep herders.  In fact, he spent much of his childhood tending livestock in the fields.  When he was about to enter the seminary, his mother told him, "If at any time you come to doubt your vocation, I beseech you, lay it aside at once.  I would rather have a poor peasant for my son than a negligent priest."

Since I'm writing this blog post about him, John Bosco obviously did NOT become a poor peasant or a negligent priest.  He founded two religious orders--the Salesian Society of St. Francis de Sales and the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians--both dedicated to the "care of young boys and girls."  Plus, it only took him 46 years to be elevated to the status of sainthood.  Considering the fact that some people wait hundreds of years for that distinction, John Bosco's canonization was like a hundred yard dash.

I really like the advice of John Bosco's mother.  Basically, it boils down to this:  if you can't do something right, don't do it at all.  Of course, it probably sounded a lot prettier in Italian.  I agree with her.  I hate doing any task in a half-ass manner.  If I'm involved with any project, if my name is going to be associated with it, I want it to be done well.

I could stop writing there.  After all, John Bosco is the patron saint of editors, so I'm sure he would appreciate the brevity and concision.  There is wisdom in what I have already written for young and old alike.  But, of course, I'm not going to leave it there.  It's too easy.  Too pat.

So, let me tell you a little story about my years in a PhD program at a prominent Michigan university.  I was taking a graduate-level fiction workshop.  I already had a Master's degree in fiction writing, so I felt pretty confident about my abilities.  I submitted a story to be workshopped.  On the night my piece was to be critiqued, the professor did what she normally did:  sat back, scratched her snaky mane of black curls, and said, "So what do you guys think?"  It wasn't an actual invitation for anyone in the class to speak.  This was our opportunity to wait for her to pronounce judgement, like Nero in the Colosseum.  After a minute of uncomfortable silence and shuffling papers, she opened her pinched mouth and said something along the lines of, "This story belongs in a high school class, not my graduate level fiction master seminar."  I'm sure what she said was more tactful than that, but the result was the same.  She had drawn first blood.  What ensued was an hour-long feeding frenzy.  When graduate student writers sense weakness, they turn on each other like teenage boys at a dodge ball game.  They do this either to deflect attention from their own inadequacies, or to draw attention to their ability to agree with the professor's opinion the most.  At the end of my hour of glory, I felt raw, exposed, eviscerated.  When the class took a break, I packed up my books and left.

I didn't retire to the fields of Turin to tend sheep, but I wasn't able to write fiction again for almost three years.  To this day, when I show off a story I've written, I have the impulse to immediately apologize for it.  A few months ago, when I was cleaning out a desk drawer, I found a copy of my infamous story from that painful night.  I have to admit, it wasn't the best thing I've ever written, but it wasn't that bad, either.

What I learned from that experience is that, as a teacher, I have the power to build up or completely crush my student's confidence and self-esteem.  I try to keep in mind the hurt I felt that night when I now enter the classroom as an instructor.  I don't want to inflict the same trauma on any of the boys and girls in my charge.  John Bosco would appreciate that, I think.

And my professor?  That bitch won the National Book Award for fiction.  Go figure.

Friday, January 28, 2011

January 28: Saint Thomas Aquinas

Last night, I hosted the monthly meeting of my book club.  The fourth Thursday of every month is one of my favorite evenings.  My friends and some family come over, sit around, eat really good food, and talk about a really good book.  I try to keep a handle on the club's literary selections; I can't stand being forced to read a book in which I have little to no interest.  One time, I made the mistake of going to the bathroom in the middle of one of our get-togethers.  When I came back, my club members had selected the books for the next six moths.  (I know I have written about this occurrence before, but I still suffer flashbacks to Edith's Story, a dreadful Holocaust memoir that I endured one November.  I take literature quite personally, and I hate wasting my reading time on books for which innocent trees are murdered for no good reason.  If I sound like a book snob, I am.)

Last night's book was worth the slaughter of a forest.  It was Emma Donoghue's Room, and it ranks as one of my favorite reads of the last twelve months.  It's based on the real-life story of Jaycee Dugard, a woman who was snatched off the street by a man when she was 11-years-old.  The man held her captive in his backyard for eighteen years, raping her on a frequent basis.  During her captivity, she gave birth to and raised two children.  Donoghue uses the basic elements of this news account for her novel.  It's about an imprisoned woman who raises her young son in an 11' by 11' room for the first five years of his life.  The novel is narrated by the five-year-old son, Jack.  Donoghue manages to turn a story premise that has the potential to be incredibly depressing and grim into a heartbreaking, coming-of-age tale.  Room reminds me of some of my favorite novels--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lovely Bones.  It's all about narrative voice.  Donoghue's Jack reminds me of Scout and Holden and Susie.  His point of view transforms his prison into a universe of mother-son love.

Everything outside the parameters of that universe becomes a threatening Wonderland, and Jack must learn to navigate this space.  His perception of the real world is that of an alien, a creature without even the normal vocabulary for "grass" or "wind" or "sun."  That's what is so engaging about the entire book.  Donoghue manages to hold up a mirror to our world and reveal its ugliness, absurdity, and beauty.

Okay, I know this blog is starting to sound like an customer review, but when I read a good piece of literature, I generally become a little obsessed with getting other people to share my experience.  Therefore, for the time being, I'm going to be a cheerleader for Emma Donoghue.  Even my incredible ego won't get in the way.  Much.  I'll admit, when I finished reading Room, I sat back and thought, "Damn, I wish I'd written that."  If you're one of my few constant readers (shout out to my five followers!), you know I have a problem with jealousy.  I admire the work of other writers, but I prefer to keep the literary spotlight amongst my close friends and associates firmly focused on myself.  (Yes, I did write "amongst."  I trying to sound like a serious critic.)  If that means I have to make snarky and mean-spirited comments about other authors, so be it.  Room has had incredible success since its publication.  It got glowing reviews, hit the bestseller lists, and, I assume, will be nominated for all kinds of awards.  It's got that literary-awards cachet.  Usually, for me, that trinity of good fortune kicks my envy machine into overdrive.  In this case, I can't do it.

When a little-known writer comes out of nowhere with a really wonderful book that receives all kinds of recognition and popular/monetary rewards, it gives me hope.  If it can happen to Emma Donoghue, my mind reasons, it can happen to me.  That's why I won't say that Room becomes a little long-in-the-tooth near its conclusion.  That's why I won't say that the novel lacks a polish of craft that could make it truly great.  That's why I won't say that Donoghue lapses into melodrama and stereotype at points--with suicide attempts, a cold and insensitive father, and an exploitative TV interviewer.  I won't say any of that, because it would make me sound small and petty.

Today's saint is Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas was a remarkable guy.  He knew from a very young age that he wanted to enter the religious life, even though his family was titled and wealthy.  But, of course, he gave it all up, because that's just what saints-in-training do.  Aside from being holy and devout, Thomas was a brilliant philosopher, theologian, and writer, even though he was nicknamed the "Dumb Ox" by his fellow students because of his "silent ways and huge size."  Thomas' writings fill twenty volumes, including the classic Summa Theologica.  His work  is "characterized by brilliance of thought and lucidity of language."  If I had been a student with Thomas, I would have hated him because all the teachers would have been "Thomas did this" and "Thomas did that" and "Thomas said this" and "Did you read the paper Thomas wrote?"  Despite the fact that he turned down every "ecclesiastical dignity" offered to him, including Archbishop of Naples, Thomas was still famous in his own lifetime.  And humble.  Killer combo for sainthood.

There you go.  A saint and a bestselling author.  I appreciate good writing, admire brilliant thinking.  I've already said that.  Go and read Room and the Summa Theologica.  You won't be disappointed.  I don't begrudge Emma Donoghue and Saint Dumb Ox their success and glory.  I'm a bigger person than that.  Really, I am.

Friday, January 21, 2011

January 21: Saint Agnes

First, let me put one burning question to rest:  no, I did not have jury duty on January 19.  The trial was settled, and I happily reported to work.  Life was good.  Life was full of sameness.  I have two more days next week for possible jury duty.  If the trials on those days settle, then I will have done my civic duty without having to do my civic duty for the entire month.

Right now, my two-year-old son is sick.  A few days ago, my wife took him to the doctor, and we found out  he has bronchitis, bilateral ear infections, and a sore throat.  He is one sick little boy.  Usually, my son only stops moving to sleep.  Even then, he throws himself around his crib as if he's a spot of canola oil in a hot frying pan.  He just doesn't value inertia very much.  On the other hand, give me a bag of scoop Fritos, a six-pack of Diet Mountain Dew, and an all-day marathon of Inside the Actor's Studio, and an F5 tornado couldn't budge me from the sofa.  My son, obviously, is a different story.  So, when he was content to sit in my lap, suck on a bottle, and watch The Antique's Roadshow, I knew he really wasn't feeling well.

As a parent, there's nothing worse in the world than to know that your child is hurting and not be able to make her or him feel better.  The complete and utter powerlessness is terrifying.  It's like watching the opening scene of Jaws:  you can't save the naked girl from becoming shark bait.  You have to sit and witness it.  Just like you can't make your son's lungs clear up or ears drain fluid.  You just have to squeeze medicine between his lips and wait.

I've written in other posts about my fears that my children will develop mental illness.  Two of my best friends have children with mental illnesses.  One has a daughter with schizophrenia, and the other has a son who was diagnosed with bipolar in the last year or so.  Both of my friends have said to me, "I don't think I could handle my husband having a mental illness."  One of those friends has stated, "I'd send his ass packing in the blink of an eye."  I suppose it boils down to a matter of choice.  My friends have no choice with their children.  You can't divorce a son or daughter.  A spouse, however, is supposed to be a partner, someone who shares the work of home and heart.  You choose your spouse.

Me, I think it would be worse to have a child with mental illness.  It would be like my son having bronchitis, ear infections, and strep throat for the rest of his life.  Nothing I could do would make him well.  I would be in that constant state of powerlessness I just wrote about, watching my child struggle every day.

I fell in love with a woman who happens to have a mental illness.  I choose to stay with that woman, despite some difficult struggles and complications, including sexual addiction.  I can not and will not give up on her, no matter how exhausting the problems may be.  And I have children who may, one day, because of their genetics, develop mental illness.  For a control freak like myself, I have relinquished control over a large portion of my life, by choice and by inheritance.  My marriage is my choice.  My son and daughter are my inheritance.

Agnes is today's saint.  She is one of those virgin martyrs who, at a very young age, was killed because (a) she refused to deny her Christianity, (b) she refused to accept the sexual advances of the guys who wanted her money and body, and (c) she pissed off a Roman judge.  The judge sentenced Agnes to a whorehouse, but she emerged untouched from that punishment.  The men were too frightened to even go near her, and the one man who did approach her was struck blind.  Eventually, Agnes was beheaded, but, like most of the virgin martyrs, she went to her death "more cheerfully than others go to their wedding."  She is now the patron saint of people in love, girls, rape victims, and a religious order named the Children of Mary.

My ten-year-old daughter and two-year-old son are pretty stubborn kids.  If my daughter decides she wants something like an iPod touch, she will eventually wear me down to the point where I'd buy her 10,000 shares in Apple Computer just to shut her up.  My son has thrown up so much food he didn't like that, by the end of dinner, he looked like a vomit-soaked version of Sissy Spacek in Carrie.  Agnes was a stubborn 13-year-old girl; she set her eyes on Christ and never looked back.  Some people think I'm stubborn (or stupid) for sticking with my wife these past eleven years.  My friend with the schizophrenic daughter has told me, "I don't know how you do it."  I would say the same to my friend.

It's a matter of acceptance.  I love a person who has bipolar and sexual addiction.  My friends love children who have serious mental illnesses.  Some day, my daughter or son may develop mental illness.  We can't control our loved ones' lives.  We have to take the back seat on the bus.  That's what really sucks on the lowest level of suckitude.  Sometimes, you just have to watch bad things happen.

I've been struggling to finish this post now for four days.  I can't.  I'm not sure what I'm trying to say.  So I guess I'll just sum up what I have said:
  1. I hate seeing my kids sick.  
  2. I hate seeing my wife sick.  
  3. You shouldn't piss off a Roman judge if you're a 13-year-old, Christian virgin.
  4. And, given the choice between being in control and being in love, I choose love. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18: Blessed Christina Ciccarelli

So I have jury duty tomorrow possibly, and I'm not happy.  I just called the jury hot line on the off-chance that the case may have already been settled.  Of course, I was told to call back after 3 p.m..  It's not that I'm against the judicial process or that I think every person doesn't have the right to a fair and impartial trial.  It's just that I don't want to be a cast member of 12 Angry Men for a day of my life.  I have work to do, classes to teach, books to read, blogs to post.  It's terribly inconvenient to have to worry about the guilt or innocence of a person.

It used to be that, when you got called for jury duty, it was, at most, a one-day commitment.  Imagine my dismay when I opened my letter from the court and found out that I had jury duty for the entire month of January.  It was like receiving notice that I had to show up for seven rectal exams over the next 30 days.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who's ever felt this way.  In fact, I'd lay money that most people who receive jury duty notices immediately start contracting serious illnesses; scheduling prolonged, out-of-country travel plans; or engaging in sexual activity in hopes of becoming nine-months pregnant before the trial dates.

But, here I am, waiting to call to find out if tomorrow morning I will be in a courtroom, feeling like an extra in Law & Order:  SVU.  It's in God's hands now.  Of course, the last time I left jury duty in God's hands, I ended up sitting for 11 hours in a jury box, listening to a woman complain about how dissatisfied she was with the contractor she hired to renovate her living room.  The doughnuts in the jury room were stale, and the pizza we got for dinner that night had green peppers on it.  It was an all 'round lose-lose day.

I know I should accept this situation with humility, maybe even a little pride.  After all, it's supposed to be an honor to be involved in the great experiment that is the American judicial system.  My bitching is just evidence of control issues I may harbor.  I don't like not being the captain of my own ship for any reason, even if it means a person wrongly accused of murder gets the electric chair.  God, however, always throws curve balls my way.  Sick kids.  Uncontrollable diarrhea.  Freak snowstorms.  Jury duty.  My job is to be like Christina Ciccarelli, a 15th century nun who had the whole humble Jesus thing down cold.

This woman, according to my books, had "great piety, complete obedience, and deep humility."  I'm OK sometimes on the piety part, but I frequently miss the mark on obedience and humility, as evidenced by my reaction to my jury duty letter.  Christina was so good at all three, though, that she could obtain healing miracles through prayer.  She also experienced miraculous visions that had her levitating, receiving stigmatic wounds, and, on the whole, resembling an actor in a Cecil B. Demille flick.

So, if I call at 3 p.m. today and am informed that I have to be at the courthouse in the morning, I will show up tomorrow in full Henry Fonda mode, ready to perform my civic responsibility and set an innocent person free, if called on to do so.  I'll try to keep Christina Ciccarelli in mind.  I'll try to be humble, obedient, and pious.

After all, nobody's going to believe I'm nine-month's pregnant.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

January 16: Saint Fursey

Last weekend, there was a story in my local newspaper about a mother from my hometown who stabbed her 11-year-old daughter in the chest and abdomen.  The article quoted the police, saying that drugs and alcohol were not a factor in the incident.  The little girl was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery (she survived), and the mother was arrested.  A picture of the mother accompanied the report.  I'm assuming it was the photo taken when she was booked.  The mother looked numb or stunned.  She didn't look like a person who knew she had almost fatally wounded her child.  Her affect was flat and calm, almost disconnected from the horror of her circumstances.

I have to admit, when I first read the newspaper story, my initial reaction was, "How in the hell could a mother do that to her child?"  It goes against all of my morals/mores/instincts as a father of a ten-year-old girl.  Granted, at times my daughter can drive me to the point of wanting to abandon her at a rest area in a remote section of Utah, but I always come to my senses.  This circumstance verges on horror-movie standards.  I have visions of Gregory Peck trying to stab his tiny son, who happens to be the spawn of Satan, in The Omen.  Somehow, it feels like something only Hollywood could dream up.

Later in the week, my daughter came home from school and told me, "You know that girl, the one that got stabbed by her mommy?"

I nodded.

"She goes to my school," she said.  "I don't know her, though."  She paused for a second.  "Her mommy has some kind of mental disease.  That's why she did what she did."

"That's very sad," I said.

"Yeah," my daughter said.  "My teacher said her mommy didn't know what she was doing."

I didn't know what to say.  I knew I had to respond in some way, but I was at a loss for how to explain to my daughter that the chemistry of the human brain can shift, the perception of reality become clouded and confused.  I hunted for the right words that would make sense of an incomprehensible act of violence committed by a mother against her young daughter.

Fursey is today's saint.  He was an Irish priest born around 567.  He spent a lot of his life travelling in Ireland and England and France, establishing monasteries.  He also had prophetic visions of heaven and hell, saw the "struggle between the forces of evil and the power of God."  The book based on his revelations, The Visions of Fursey, had a huge impact on Dante's writing of the Divine Comedy.

I wonder how the stabbing of a little girl by her mentally ill mother fits into Fursey's vision of the battle between good and evil.  On the outside, the act seems completely evil, an instance of violence against an innocent child.  Nobody is questioning whether or not the mother actually wielded the knife against her daughter.  The questions that remain are the "why" and "how."  Why did the mother do it?  How could she attack her own child so savagely?  It seems like the ultimate act of betrayal.  A parent, the person a child trusts and loves implicitly, becomes an instrument of death.  It's like the Virgin Mary trying to drown the infant Jesus in the town well.

But it's not that simple.

I have no idea what "mental disease" this mother has, or if she even has a mental illness at all.  Those are my daughter's words.  Words that she heard in school from someone trying to provide comfort to some confused children.

Perhaps having a person in my life who suffers from a mental illness predisposes me to compassion in this case.  I can't immediately blame the devil for this one.  It's not that black-and-white.  The world is a broken place filled with broken people.  Horrible things are said and done every day.  Some of these horrible things are said and done in God's name--wars, terrorism, genocide, hatred.  Condemning people because of what their skin color is, who they choose to love, or what God they worship is, at best, ignorant, and, at worst, completely unchristian.  It's a symptom of the world's brokenness.  God doesn't want us to judge and condemn.  That's not our job in the struggle between the forces of evil and the power of God.  I'm sure Fursey would agree with me.

Here's what I said to my daughter:

"Her mommy is just really sick and needs help to get better."  I paused for a second, and then I added, "Her mommy loves her.  I'm sure of it."

In the face of broken lives, broken families, broken minds, our job as followers of Christ is to provide one thing:  a promise of love.