Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent: The Spiritual & Commercial Countdowns to Christmas

I grew up with cardboard Advent calendars of various types. There were 25 little cutout doors that when you opened, showed a picture underneath of some sort of present, and on December 25th the picture was of the baby Jesus, he being the ultimate gift. It took some real restraint as a child, not to open them all at once the first week.

There is a wonderful online version of the classic idea from Jacquie Lawson. You enter through a snow globe that you download, and by clicking an ornament on the background you get an animated scene with music or an interactive tableau, like decorating a wreath or gingerbread men.  You cannot click ahead, because the the flash activations are connected to a clock. Petty sneaky.

I try to use this time—marked by both the commercial world's great expectations for the season and the spiritual rites of Advent, both leading to the end-of-year odometer turnover that is our New Years—to see where I am spiritually.  Sometimes I find grace in the most unlikely places. Other times, like now,  I feel parched, yearning for the cool, enlivening sense of life and love and purpose that started with the waters of baptism.

T.S. Eliot captured this sense of dryness in The Waste Land

From 'What the Thunder Said'

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

Of course It's not all parched out there. There are clever people who have made wine rack advent calendars. Now, that's the spirit.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"I Have a Rendezvous with Death"

It almost defies imagination--like many elements that were the life of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—that the man whose life force was extreme would declare his favorite poem to be Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." (Wouldn't a life-affirming Yeats or Keats poem have served him better?) And that he would "often ask his wife to recite it."  You might expect this kind of reveal to be on a list in People Magazine, but it's on the Kennedy Library site, so one would expect it's true. Seeger died in World War 1, on the Somme.

Things I Have Always Known about JFK
It's not that my family had formal discussions about our first Irish-Catholic president, but growing up I seemed to amass many tidbits about JFK from my parents and grandparents.

•Papa Joe Kennedy wanted his first son, Joseph, to be the first Irish Catholic president, and started grooming him very young. When Joe died in WWII, Papa turned his eyes to Jack, and that was it. Jack had no say in the matter. Joe was smarter than Jack, and might have been a better man for the presidency.

•Papa Joe "bought" Jack the election through a combination of old school dealmaking and straight out bribes and corruption.

•His Addison's disease.

"Kennedy was diagnosed with Addison's in the 1940s. In 1955 he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an insufficient output of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include many of those associated with Addison's, as well as paleness, intolerance to cold, depression and a low heart rate."

•Sister Rosemary was "slow" and her father wanted to "fix" her. He brought her to have a frontal lobotomy when she was 23, while her protective mother was away in France. It incapacitated her permanently, and she lived on the grounds of a convent in Wisconsin until she died in 2005 at 86.

•Jackie wanted to divorce Jack before the election because of his rampant infidelities, and Papa Joe paid her a huge amount to stay.

•There was a second son, Patrick, who was born in the White House but died after only three days. (See below.)

•I wrote about Ted Kennedy's death here.

Things I Learned Later
•Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born on August 7, 1963, and died August 9. It was an emergency C-section for Jackie, and his lungs weren't fully formed.

•Lee Radzwill, Jackie's sister, had been in Greece on on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. He says 'you should go to your sister to console her.'  Lee ends up bringing Jackie back to the yacht in Greece for her to recover from her son's death. That is where she meets the shipping magnate she will marry in 1968. Hmm.

•The gorgeous couple in the above photo are grieving parents of just three months.  And then they get in that car.

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air-
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath-
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

(President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, arrive at Love Field in Dallas on a campaign tour with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated. (Art Rickerby/Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

“Three Irishmen Walk into a Ferry Waiting Room . . . Again“

 If they had walked into a bar, Kevin, Dermot, and Joe would have been no more than an obscure trio in the long tradition of Irish jokes.

But instead, they are part of the memorable fictional world of Conor McPherson’s 2002 play Port Authority, which I saw in 2008 at the Atlantic Theater Company, and again today in the closing performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly. It is one of the joys of theatergoing, to see different stagings of the same play.

Our characters are in a ferry dock waiting room in Dublin harbor, erroneously referred to as bus station by many critics back in 2008, I guess because New York's Port Authority is a bus terminal. But that was the jetty of Dublin harbor on the Playbill cover. The set at the Irish Rep was more successful in conveying the time/place, with the blue sky over a horizon of water.

Each of our trio is a million miles away in his own thoughts, which he gives voice to as we all raptly listen in.  It is a tour de force of monologue writing and acting across three stages of man: the senior (Jim Norton/Peter Maloney), the middle aged (Brian D’Arcy/Billy Carter), and the twentysomething (John Gallagher/James Russell). They speak of life from the perspective of their age, and of love, which knows no such boundary.

With the barest of sets and the absence of any action, it is the sheer power of language and tale-spinning that pulls you in. Each is able to give you a sense of the entire life of that man, just from these revealed thoughts. That's what makes this such a special, powerful play. That primacy of the spoken word reminded me of HBO’s In Treatment, where another Irishman, Gabriel Byrne, absolutely commanded our attention, all the while sitting in a chair.

A line in Terry Teachout’s rave review of the play back in 2008 surprised me. He described it as a “series of interwoven monologues by three unhappy Irishmen.”

Unhappy Irishman. It never occurred to me that these men were unhappy. From my own experience, there is something about the Celtic soul that doesn’t think in happy/unhappy terms. Life is. There are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. So be it.

I saw Martin Sheen back in 2008 on The Graham Norton Show. Graham asked him what the secret was to having such a long and happy marriage. Sheen answered, it’s not really about happiness. What makes a loving marriage work is if your partner helps you to experience joy. It’s a subtle, important distinction which McPherson understands.

Each of our waiting-room Irishmen speaks of specific moments of joy within his tale. There is also deep disappointment all around, and they all wish many things were different.

But they are Irish. Their wit and wisdom and whisky will sustain them, until the final Ferryman comes to take them across that other river.

(photo, Doug Hamilton)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday: Life and Death 100 Years After the Great War Started

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetary, Ypres Salient. 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Cross is built on site of a German pillbox.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Trench photo in the Flanders Field Museum, Ghent, Belgium

* * * * * *

I recently returned from Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings.

On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughtered.

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]