Wednesday Witness: Another Step on the Road Home

My bride and I met while working at Wall Drug, on the edge of the Badlands in South Dakota. I was selling boots and moccasins that summer; she was selling hats and western wear. The day she started at the store, I had been working about a week. Her supervisor had gone to Mass (“On a weekday?” I thought.) and asked me to keep an eye on things and show the new girl how to run the register when she arrived.

So I did. It wasn’t long before I wanted to spend all my time with her, even accompanying her to Mass, which I hadn’t gone to in years—and when I went back to Yale in the fall, I missed her.

I had a job for the School of Music’s Concert Office that took me all over campus and several classes at the far end of Hillhouse Avenue, so multiple times a week (sometimes several times a day), I walked past St. Mary’s on Hillhouse (good photos). Sometimes I would see sandaled and habited Dominicans greeting students as we passed by, and I loved the tall stone steeples, which, unlike the numeorus other gothic structures on campus, announced the presence of the divine. When the I finally (inevitably) decided to go to church and pray for (at least daydream about) the girl I hoped to marry, those gray steeples and thick wooden doors were the ones that welcomed me home, if only as a heathen dabbler at the time.

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Men’s Club Speaking Gig: ‘Little Lower Than the Angels’

IMG_0716Late last month I was invited to speak to the Men’s Club at Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in South Minneapolis, where our former associate pastor at St. Michael, Fr. Joah Ellis, is now pastor.

The event was an annual lecture they have called Decuria Schola; the talk was titled “Little Lower Than the Angels: Creation, Evolution, and the Origins of Authentic Manhood.”

If you have time, the video is below—it’s not much to watch, but take a listen and let me know your thoughts.


Lost Howls of Youth

Now it seems like too much love is never enough/You better seek out another road/’Cuz this one has ended abrupt — Temple of the Dog, “Say Hello 2 Heaven”

I woke this morning to a text from an old friend that Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell had died. A short while later I saw another friend had tagged me in a post on Facebook: it occurred after Soundgarden’s apparently triumphant return to Detroit last night, and the early speculation is suicide. He was 52.

I don’t generally go in for the extended mourning of celebrities. They are just folk, like we are: pray for their souls, and for peace and consolation for their families. Then again, sometimes a song, an image, a voice is so tied to a particular period in one’s life that there is no escaping the impact. Chris Cornell’s voice was the howl of my youth — the closest thing to a rebel yell I ever sounded in my relatively serious and square teens and twenties. His bands — especially Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog — were a part of me in my younger days. Continue reading

A Higher Education

As we crossed the plains of North Dakota this weekend, I made a surprising discovery: my college roommate Frank is now the Honorable Franklin R. Parker, assistant secretary of the Navy.

We were headed to Bismarck to register Brendan for his first-year classes at the University of Mary. Jodi was driving, and I sat hunched in the back seat of our little commuter car, giving Brendan and his mom some quality time up front. We had been talking to him about things that change as you move through life: interests and priorities shift, people you were close once slowly drift away. “It just sort of happens,” I said. “Often it’s not even intentional: my buddy Frank from Yale and I used to be in touch a couple times a year — we would at least exchange letters at Christmas — but this last winter I didn’t hear from him and our Christmas letter bounced back to us. They must’ve moved.”

I sat a moment, then said, “Of course, he is an attorney and has worked for some pretty big firms, so I could probably find him again in just a few minutes on Google.”

* * * * *

I pulled out my phone, entered “franklin r parker,” and voila: “President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts.” To be sure this was, in fact, Frankie Parker of Durfee Hall D-21, I dug deeper and found his official bio page on the U.S. Navy’s website

That’s him. That’s guy I roomed with freshman and sophomore year, whose parents took us to see Ray Charles perform in New Haven, who stood up as a groomsman in our wedding at tiny St. Liborius Catholic Church in Polo, South Dakota, and whose own wedding  was a Chicagoland mashup of African-American and Asian influences with a little Cherokee thrown in.

I shared my discovery with Jodi and Brendan, and for the next hour or more, periodically shook my head, murmuring, “Wow…Frank Parker…working for the President…who knew?…assistant secretary of the Navy..huh…”

If I’m honest, a small part of me was, not jealous, but curious if I could have been something more. As evidenced by his resumé, Frank is a smart fellow, and he’s always been better at making connections than I am — but I did well in college and well in every job I’ve had since. What is it that separates two men with an Ivy league education and a liberal arts degree, such that one goes on to graduate school, prestige, and power, and the other works retail, starts a family, and lands at his local church as faith formation director?

Ever have that happen? It’s not envy — I don’t begrudge him his success or even want what he has. It’s  more like a form of pride or vanity, wondering if I could have been more than I am.

* * * * *

Ultimately I remembered something I wrote during freshman year at Yale: I came East for an education. It was never about a career for me, and I never planned to stay there. I came to learn all I could at one of the great old universities our country has to offer. And I did.

Brendan is a smart young man. He can do almost anything he sets his mind to, and for years his goal was the Naval Academy and the Marine Corps, until he began to grow deeper in his Catholic faith and realized he wasn’t sure he could trust our country’s leadership to deploy him to only just wars. Then his focus was engineering, until he began to think specifically about what he liked (understanding how things work and making stuff, like his Dziadzi) and what he didn’t like (lots of math, computer work, and CAD, like a professional engineer). He’s always loved history and enjoyed theology and literature — so he began thinking about studying, teaching, and writing about the things that he loves.

I can’t fault him for that.

* * * * *

We spent the night in the Expressway Inn in Bismarck (nicer and quieter than it sounds) and the next morning, headed out of town and up the hill to the University of Mary for Mass and registration activities. I hadn’t visited yet, and though I knew it was small, I hadn’t imagined what small might look like in this case. My last higher-education employer, the University of Minnesota, has about 51,000 students; my previous higher-ed employer, Ferris State University, boasts 14,500, and Yale has around 12,000, with a bit more than 5,000 undergraduates.

UMary, by contrast, has a total enrollment of just 3,000 — a tiny cluster of stone and concrete buildings hunkered on the edge of a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River. The buildings aren’t beautiful in any conventional sense; built in the middle of the last century for the wear and tear of young people and the wind and weather of the plains, they are low, solid structures with the quiet strength of stones unmoved by the world and its ceaseless spinning.

* * * * *

We started our day in a tiny chapel, well lit and peaceful, with a handful of prospective students and their families, current students, and administrators. We were first to arrive just behind the priest, a gray-haired Benedictine, and prayed in silence until Mass began. It being the feast of St. Mathias, the readings were focused on the selection of Mathias to replace Judas among the Apostles and Jesus’ command to love one another.

In his homily, Fr. Anthony contrasted our current presidential election process with the prayerful selection of St. Mathias, and contrasted the fame and power of our political leaders with the relative anonymity of St. Mathias both before and after his selection: basically the only things we know for sure are that he was with the other apostles in following Jesus from the beginning through the Resurrection and that he died while sharing the faith with an unbelieving world. He does not appear to have been self-seeking, but to have had one desire: to “to go and bear fruit that will remain” and to lay down his life.

I have reflected on his homily numerous times since, and while I don’t fault Frank for working hard to be where he is in his life, I am no longer curious where else I could be.

* * * * *
After Mass I told Brendan and Jodi I had a tremendous sense of peace about UMary. “This is a good place,” I said.
The original school was founded by Benedictine nuns at what was, at the time, the end of the railroad tracks headed West. During the opening session of the day, the current religious sisters who live in the monastery at the edge of the campus came to pray over the incoming students and their families. They ended their prayers with a beautifully harmonized sung blessing, and we were separated into smaller groups from the rest of the day. 
Brendan was assigned an upperclassman to his liking: a triple-major in history, Catholic studies, and secondary education; the drummer in a rock band who was studying Polish in hopes of doing graduate work in Poland. Jodi and I talked with various campus representatives, including an administrator in Admissions who said our parish’s reputation precedes us and asked what we thought it was that makes St. Michael a special place. We also wandered the campus, talking and taking a few photos, and I ended the day with a sense of great joy: I believe Brendan is where he belongs.
It is true, practically speaking, that students should enter college with some sort of plan for what they want to do with a degree — otherwise the time and money are potentially wasted. But I believe it is also true that, for good students, a structured approach to the liberal arts can help create flexible, resilient young men and women who are prepared to lead, to sacrifice, and to preserve our culture in the days to come. I believe, in choosing UMary, Brendan has chosen a higher education (higher even than Yale in the ways that count most), and I’m proud and excited to see where this path leads.

Book Break: Holy Week by Jerzy Andrzejewski

Somewhere along the line these past few years I picked up an English translation of the short novel Holy Week by Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski. I bought it knowing almost nothing about the book or the author, because I used to study Polish in college, as a tribute to my maternal roots, and because Polish literature can be hard to come by. Andrzejewski is perhaps best know for his novel Ashes and Diamonds, which was turned into a well-known Polish film of the same name by Andrzej Wajda, who has also made a film version of Holy Week. I saw the movie version of Ashes and Diamonds in college and liked it, so I took a chance on the book.

The novel tells the story on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the tragic burning of the ghetto and elimination of Warsaw’s Jews during the days leading up to Easter of 1943 — from the perspective of a handful of Poles whose lives are variously entangled with each other’s and with a young Jewish woman trying to evade the Nazis and their Polish informers.

It has stood on my shelf for a at least two Holy Weeks now, until this past Tuesday, when I took it up on a whim. It is a short novel — just 125 pages — with four chapters covering each day from Tuesday to Good Friday. I took this as a sign and read it a chapter a day, finishing the book’s final chapter this morning.

This is a provocative book that reads a bit like watching a play. The Polish characters reflect the range of Polish responses to the uprising and “liquidation” of the Jewish inhabitants. Most display some level of antisemitism, ranging from mealy-mouthed rationalization of the it’s-complicated variety to thankfulness that the hated Nazis are nevertheless solving the Poles’ “Jewish problem” for them. Only three adult characters avoid being painted with this brush: 
  • Devout Catholic wife and expecting mother Anna, whose unquestioning morality enables her to help her husband’s Jewish friend even as her faith in God and her husband begins to waver;
  • Idealistic and aggressive Julek, who insists upon doing what he little he can to aid the Jewish uprising and points out others’ equivocations: “I know perfectly well what it means to suit one’s anti-Semitism to one’s tastes. We merely find the so-called methods distasteful. The point is there shouldn’t be any methods in the first place!”; and
  • Well-to-do landlord Zamojski, who at least avoids aiding the the anti-Semites, but who may himself be concealing his Jewish heritage.
The juxtaposition of Irena’s struggle to survive and the ever-present cloud of smoke and sounds of gunfire and explosions from the ghetto against the backdrop of Polish Christians enjoying spring and preparing for the Easter holiday as best they can lends the novel an almost surreal atmosphere. The story was written and published quickly and courageously in 1945, and was not popular among Poles, whose nerves were too raw and wounds were too fresh, and who found the various expressions of racism and nationalism rang uncomfortably true. Even today, this book pricks the conscience, making the reader reevaluate how he or she perceives others and wishes to be perceived — and what circumstances might limit their charity on behalf of a neighbor who is unlike themselves.
The book reads like an English translation from the original Polish — certain expressions do not ring true to American ears, but make sense in the Polish context — and the story will end too abruptly (and without sufficient resolution) for some tastes. Still, it is a quick and thought-provoking read. If you are interested, it is available through the Great River Regional Library in St. Michael, or you can borrow my copy.