Friday, June 22, 2018

Cosmopolitan lemonade

As I made a pitcher of lemonade this afternoon, barely sweetened and tinged pink with a dash of cranberry juice, I thought of my maternal grandmother/

She died in 1967, a few days after my youngest brother was born.  I was inconsolable, as much from the shock that no one had told me she was that ill as from the loss.  As a parent looking backward in time, I feel for my father, who broke the news to me as gently as he could, while trying to juggle a wife and newborn in the hospital almost an hour's drive away, the care of 4 other kids and working full time at a job an hour in the other direction — in the days before paternity leave.

My most vivid memory of my grandmother is from a summer's visit to Long Island.  She took me — then a slip of a 6 year old from rural Illinois — to New York City. We saw the Empire State Building and went to see the Statue of Liberty.  I remember tired legs, but not the view.  Did we climb to the crown? 

And she made pink lemonade, a heretofore unknown-to-me beverage, from scratch. The sharp sweet smell of the lemons and the blush of the grenadine she swirled in.  The waffled aluminum ice trays with their levers that cracked the ice loose, leaving behind a smattering of chips. I can still remember how sophisticated and well-traveled I felt, sipping from a glass on her back kitchen stoop with a mint leaf floating on top.

What I made, I learned by peeking in my mother's 1950s cookbook, is perhaps more properly called a shrub than an "ade," the difference (according to Betty Crocker) being the use of sparkling water as the base.  As I sit in my study listening to the trees rustle and birds twittering and sipping a cranberry shrub, I might still feel ever so slightly cosmopolitan.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Escucha! Exercises on the border

Listen, I'm sorry that didn't listen last night before dinner.  Or afterward.  Perhaps when I pray Compline, I thought. Wrapped in the comfortable dimness, solaced by the familiar prayers, perhaps then I will be able to listen to the children taken from their parents without weeping.  My finger hovered over the white triangle, wondering how this might sound to my husband in the next room, whose mother came to the US as a child — alone — fleeing the Nazis.  I let it go.

The last intercession for Morning Prayer today opened with an imperative "Remember the poor and the afflicted..."   And so after closing my breviary, I hit play. I listened for 7 minutes and 47 seconds to children wailing for their parents, to a young girl pleading to call her aunt so that she could be with her mother again, to harried consular officials trying to sort the situation and to the exasperated, mocking voices of the border patrol, "Well, we have an orchestra here..."  It's in Spanish, and I didn't need the subtitles, removing yet another layer of insulation. 

I replayed it and listened with the ears of the Third Week, hearing again to the confusion and existential pain of children taken from their parents.

The Third Week of Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises is a contemplation of Christ's Passion. The Third Week demands presence, not just to the externals, to the physical suffering, but to the internal anguish that is set out for us on the cross.  To see the pain of rejection and feeling hated, as David Fleming SJ puts it in his translation of Ignatius' text [197].  The Third Week demands that we slow it down, to watch and listen and experience again and again.  Until we can etch into our hearts what mercy looks like. This is a schola affectus, lessons for the heart in recognizing mercy and salvation in the midst of rejection and evil.

¡Escucha!  ¡Mire! The Third Week is playing on our borders.  Can I — can we — put ourselves in the way of the Passion.  Look!  Listen! Have we learned what mercy looks like? Does it sound like wailing children separated from their parents for what is the equivalent of a speeding ticket until the parents cough up the fine?

I hear you saying, but these are people crossing our borders, they are likely to be criminals and they are taking away resources from citizens. This isn't anything at all like speeding.  Just for a bit of context, in 2016 speeding accounted for more than a quarter of all traffic fatalities, more than 10,000 people (NHTSA).  Compare that to the total number of murders in the US in the same year:  17, 250 (FBI).  Arguably most of those were not committed by people who crossed the border without proper documentation.  If this is about the safety of people, tell me why we don't have a zero tolerance policy for speeding. Why are we aren't pulling children out of the cars of people stopped for speeding? It would certainly deter parents from speeding. In Pennsylvania alone the annual cost of traffic deaths due to speeding is almost a half billion dollars (CDC). The cost nationwide of traffic deaths and injuries exceeds 400 billion dollars, well beyond any estimate of the cost of undocumented people in the US.  A zero tolerance for speeding could make Americans safer and save us a lot of money.  Why aren't we on this?  Right.

In the Exercises of the Third Week, Ignatius expects a response that goes beyond tears, that extends beyond our own sorrow for what we have brought to an innocent.  He expects action. What will I do? Certainly not advocate for family separation for speeding tickets. 

¡Escucha!  ¡Mire! 

Friday, June 15, 2018


The Tweet that kicked it off.
There's been an ongoing thread on Twitter about the use of the title "Dr." for someone with an earned doctorate.  The debate got kicked off by Canada's Globe & Mail's new guidelines. (It and a variety of other publications confine the use of "Dr." to medical professionals, on the grounds that the public so tightly equates that title with medicine that it would confuse their readers.)  Dr. Fern Riddell objected and Twitter lit up. (Follow #immodestwomen)

This poster identifies as female and says its not about the 
use of Dr. or gender.
This is a fraught space, where women's titles (M.D. and Ph.D.) alike tend to be downplayed or simply ignored.  Women who insist are told you shouldn't flaunt your credentials like that, it's unseemly.  "Humility Dr Riddell"  Or, I'm male and I'm not insulted by the use of Mr. or my first name, why are you?  And well, if you don't want to advertise your marital status, just use Ms.! (I note that Emily Post has lots of advice about titles, and virtually all of it is about women and their marital status.)  And if the Post Institute's advice matters to anyone on Twitter, Ph.D.s and M.D. alike may use "Dr." socially as well as professionally, and if you don't know their preference, stick with "Dr."

I'm with Dr. Riddell on this.  My title lets you know that even though I'm a grey haired sixty year old woman, I have some seriously earned expertise.  It distinguishes me from the Food Babe - otherwise we're just two women arguing about common sources of vanilla flavoring, and it might be useful for a reader to know that one of us has a bachelor's in computer science and the other a doctorate in chemistry.  And because, at first glance most people don't think I look much like a scientist at all.  Even in contexts where they might reasonably guess that I was.

At the last professional conference I went to, I was at a social event, populated entirely by conference attendees wearing name badges.  As I stood chatting with a group of five colleagues, someone I didn't know joined the circle.  He shook hands and introduced himself and got each person's name in return. Well, not mine. Because when it came to me, he moved right past my outstretched hand, to the next guy.  Emily Post would have called it "the cut direct."  It was awkward.  It got more awkward.  No, I'm not here with my husband.  Yes, yes, I understand that the print on these name tags is small, so you mistook my institutional affiliation for a marital one. No, thank you, I'm passingly familiar with electrons and their spin states.  Yes, I had heard someplace that they aren't really spinning balls.

I'm writing about this triviality because I'm so spitting mad about the so-called biblical justification for tearing children away from their parents, I couldn't put two coherent sentences together about it. (They are getting a bath?  I really hope that is not true.)

In truth, my name is a complicated thing, and outside of the very narrow professional realm, I respond without comment to a variety of monikers.  I'm Mrs. Donnay to various friends of my kids, for example, and Michelle Francl-Donnay, no title, when I give retreats.  And to one dear, now departed friend, I was always "Dr. Michelle."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Flash flood warnings

I looked at the clock in the kitchen.  "10:32 am," I announced, "and it's officially summer."  I'd dispatched the morning's batch of email and was ready to grab a fresh cup of tea and start to draft something less...administrative.

I long to turn off the faucets of email. The drip drip drip of offers from every company I've ever dealt with.  The political fundraising emails with five bright emojis embedded in the subject line is screaming "the world's on fire!"  Sometimes I can let them go, let them burble by like a stream, pretending the flow is just a soothing background noise.  Sometimes the drain is plugged up, and every email I send is immediately responded to in triplicate, the water in my inbox rising exponentially, until it spills over onto the floor, the flood washing away time to think, to write, to plan, to listen.  And sometimes it's a literal flash flood warning, tumbling into my inbox from the township I live, the township I work in and the college.

I'm tempted as summer marches in to leave an away message on my email.  I'm writing.  I'm thinking.  I'm leaving space to muse.  I'm cleaning my office and reading poetry.  Write back in August if it's still seems urgent then.

I've done it before. When I left to make the Spiritual Exercises in January of 2009 I put just such a message up: 

I'll will not have access to email for the next month. All incoming messages will be deleted. If you need a response, please email me after February 9.

I discovered three things.
I am not that important.  As far as I can tell, time and the world kept right on moving.  Nothing awful happened and two or three people wrote me emails in February about things that were important. 
Email has a short event horizon.  Once you are past that, you can't be dragged in.  Last week's full out emergency has been dealt with (or not).  The next one is already fulminating and will quickly wash away the dregs of the last .
You will simply not be believed.  One person wrote me over and over, begging me to respond. (She copied someone else on the emails, which is how I saw them. The other person in the list was seriously amused.)  Though the email said I had no access and would be deleting any and all incoming messages, she assumed this was mere hyperbole.  Fun fact: the task she was hoping I would tend to was not due until a full month after my stated date of return.
And perhaps there is a fourth piece of wisdom I gleaned from that experience. Despite having stepped out of email for a significant period of time, it remains difficult to consider doing so again.  There are practical concerns, it requires more than simply creating an away message. I do have responsibilities that must be taken care of even when I'm officially off the clock, and while I am privileged to be able to wrangle assistance with those, I still have to wrangle the coverage, and be aware that someone else is doing some work for me.

It's the more existential concerns that bite.  I worry about missing out on some incredible opportunity. What if the WaPo invited me to be a regular columnist? Right?  I worry about missing out what's happening at work. But what really worries me?  That the world won't miss me at all.

There are two interesting and relatively recent pieces in The Atlantic on not responding to email.  One on ghosting your email from earlier this year; this one on the reaction of senders to discovering that you sent your email to the trash while you were on vacation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Universal questions

I have a new shirt.  On the front is a hashtag #ImUniversal.  Youngest looks at it this morning and says, "Are you universal over the p-adics?  If so, I have some questions for you."  This is a joke, having to do with a sticking point in his current research problem.  I was pleased that I got the joke and impressed with his wit before 9 am on a summer's morning!

p-adics are a class of numbers, like the integers or real numbers (in some ways they are parallel to the real numbers).  You can read about them here or here, but I don't guarantee that you'll be any more enlightened after you do.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Less is less

Breviary. Sleeping Bag.
Each time I stay overnight at the shelter, I bring a little bit less, I pack in a bit more haste. I won't after all, be away from home for more than a dozen hours, for all that it includes a night.  I really don't need anything.  I will sleep in what I have on. If I didn't bring a sleeping bag or pillow, there are blankets and pillows here.  My phone, a book, my breviary. A toothbrush.

Haste.  It seems such an uncontemplative attitude.  But for me, here and now, I venture, it is the deepest part of the contemplation.  It's a bit of agere contra — Ignatius' notion of pushing back — I tend to be a prepared traveler.  I make lists, I pack early.  My bag is replete with extra batteries and music and a book and get the idea. So instead I grab what I can on the way out the door. The sleeping bag from the closet.  A pillow off the bed.  And leave without turning back.  No phone charger - oh well.

But it goes deeper than that, it's a chance for me to have eyes for the women who have had to leave home in urgent haste — flee, don't stop for anything.  The people for whom "take what you can carry" means "grab your children" not your phone charger.  It's a chance to consider the forces that drive families to take children and what they can carry in a single garbage bag and sleep on inflatable beds in shelters.  Not just once, but again and again. Each dawn they must rouse the children and leave. Each night they unpack, knowing that whatever comforts are here are ephemeral. Tomorrow they will sweep the dregs of a night's succor into a bag and hustle out the door, babes in arms and underfoot. 

This contemplation-in-haste is not at all about what is good for me, as much as I certainly learn each time about what I don't need, and how to let go of the material things that bind me to this earth.  It is about looking to a place where I am not the center, where I choose not for my good, but choose for the other.  Nor is anything I can do likely to stop the tide, or even slow it. E pur si muove.  Yet still I go.  Hope is a funny thing.