Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Science and Sanity in the Valley of COVID

 As we reach the end of 2021, and approach two years of COVID, I find myself wanting to look back and assess a bit, because there are two opposite trends that I see.

On the one hand, there are the basic facts of the pandemic: the virus is worse than the common respiratory viruses to which we are accustomed, and two years in we continue to see above-average death rates among adults as a result.

Among those who are 65 or older, we're seeing about 8,000 more deaths than usual per week, which amounts to 20% above the normal rate.  (This data comes from the CDC Flu View dashboard which you can access here: https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/mortality.html )


Among adults under 65, there have been an average of 5,000 more deaths per week than is normal over the last twelve weeks.  This is 40% above the normal death rate: younger adults are less likely to die in general. 

The group which is clearly not dying much from COVID is kids. The average deaths per week for people under 18 is slightly lower than usual.


The other thing worth noting about COVID is that despite the much discussed breakthrough infections, the vaccines really do work quite well in preventing serious disease (as well as someone well preventing spread in general.)

Looking at the CDC data on COVID hospitalizations by age group for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, even for those over 65 people who have been vaccinated are less likely to end up in the hospital with COVID than unvaccinated 18-49 year olds. 


For all other age groups, vaccinated people are about as likely to end up in the hospital with COVID as are kids, which is to say: very unlikely.

So on these basic facts, the COVID hawks (which is often but not exclusively the left and the 'elite') basically have the story right. COVID is a virus which is causing real ill effects on the American population, and the vaccines really do help a great deal.

And yet, this same group of COVID hawks and elites, increasingly showing themselves as incapable of dealing with the pandemic as a human phenomenon with any sense of perspective. We're treated to a steady trickle of despairing pieces about how people have "given up" on ever living normal lives again. The federal government is requiring kids aged 2 and up in Head Start sponsored pre-school programs to mask all the time, despite the fact that such young children are virtually unthreated by the virus and masks aren't terribly effective anyway. Many areas require people to ritually wear masks while entering restaurants, before taking them off to eat -- something which perhaps does much to visually telegraph concern but does nothing to actually protect people. The private college down the road from us laid off a large number of faculty this year to cut costs, but is still spending significant amounts of money on having people spray disinfectant on all surfaces multiple times per day -- a most shown to be ineffective eighteen months ago.

And aside from these petty gestures of unseriousness, many of our managerial elites seem unable to even figure out what are reasonable measures by which to judge success or failure, emergency vs normality, etc. Two years in to the pandemic, many COVID hawks still seem to be working with the implicit assumption that with sufficient diligence  we will somehow be back to a world in which COVID simply does not exist. Even as with high levels of vaccination and the apparently less severe (but more easily spread) Omicron variant, the metric of case counts becomes less important, politicians and health officials still routinely act as if trying to enact restrictions to get to zero cases is reasonable approach.

By comparison, those (often on the right) who shrug off the usefulness of COVID vaccines and sometimes indulge in a shifting set of excuses to ignore the seriousness of the virus, often have a more healthy basic attitude towards life and the death: There are dangers in the world. Death could come at any time. We must do what we can but also live our lives and accept that we do not know the day or the hour when our lives will come to an end.

On the one hand, I'm deeply saddened (and more than a fit frustrated) that some of those who have faced their own deaths or those of their friends or family have done so needlessly. The COVID vaccines really are quite safe and are good at preventing the virus from being more severe. And yet, this group has a better understanding of the basic issues of life and death. 

We cannot reduce risk to zero. At this point, it's become clear that we also are not going to reach zero COVID. Though deaths and severe illness will be lower if everyone was vaccinated, it is also the case that this may mean that deaths will be higher in the next decade than in the last. Our status quo ante was, all things considered, pretty good from a health point of view. Certainly, we desire to see medical science to continue to defeat infectious and genetic diseases. We want to see new treatments that allow people to live longer and healthier. But there is no guarantee that we were entitled to the death rate of 2019. 

As COVID becomes endemic, the increased death rates of the last couple years can be expected to moderate. Most people will have some degree of immunity due to vaccine or having had the virus. And the virus's desire to have live hosts will select towards less deadly variants. But we may find ourselves living in a slightly shorter-lived world than we were before, and to do so in constant anxiety and strife will not change that fact, must make it more unpleasant. 

On the grander things, those who realize that we must live our lives with the understanding that death is at the same time unexpected and inevitable have the right of it.



Thursday, December 30, 2021

Africa and the Demographics of Future Catholicism

 I've got a new piece up at The Pillar which was very interesting to work on, in that I both learned several things I hadn't realized before about world demographics and I learned some new technical and data visualization skills.

The topic is the demography of African Catholicism, and no we couldn't help entitling it "Demography Reigns Down in Africa"

There are two key things to understand about why Africa will be a key part of the face of global Christianity in the coming decades.

First, is that Africa converted to Christianity rapidly during the first half of the 20th century.  In 1900 Africa was only 9% Christian, despite a history of Christianity on the continent dating back to not long after the apostles.  By 1970, 40% of the population was Christian. Today, Christians make up 50% of Africans (42% are Muslim and 8% follow indigenous religious traditions.)  Catholicism has been a significant part of that growth.  In 1900 2% of the population was Catholic.  By 1970 it was 12% and today 18% of Africans are Catholic.

Second, however, is the unique demographic growth of Africa. Commentators used to talk about the Global South as one overall phenomenon, but today Africa stands apart from all all regions as the only continent with a fertility rate significantly above the replacement level. As a result, Africa will become an increasingly large player in all aspects of the world in the coming decades, from the global workforce to the Catholic Church.


There's a lot of detail in the article, and of course I recommend subscribing to The Pillar if you haven't done so already. Although a paid subscription helps support our work, you still get all the articles with a free subscription and simply having more subscribers helps us too!



Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Picking Up, Again

Entrance Hall of Saint-Paul Hospital, Vincent Van Gogh

The effect of the last month -- and today marks a month since I stared at a positive pregnancy test -- has been chaotic. It's as if the world turned upside down, and everything in the house crashed around. And then, once I picked myself up and started arranging the furniture and the cabinets so that we could move forward living on the ceiling, the world flipped back over. Now the house is right-side-up once more, but everything I'd started neatening is on the floor again, and I'm bruised in mind and body. 

I don't know what moral one takes from all this, except that being a middle-aged woman is a bitch. But one thing which has jolted me, pleasantly, is the startling kindness of so many. In my darker moments -- and I believe this is true of many of us who could be described as the Older Brother type, those of us who go through life with a stiff upper lip and a minimum of drama, who pick up after others and don't tend to bleed all over the place -- I've wondered if anyone would take a step out of the way if I ever needed help. Lo and behold, many steps were taken. People appeared on my doorstep with food. A nurse friend came over at night to check my blood pressure and oxygen. The Knights of Columbus started a prayer chain. And so many gracious friends sent me messages after I wrote about being pregnant unexpectedly and about miscarrying, sending me love, and telling me their own stories.

It's hard to strike the right balance in talking about pain that's still raw. I wasn't ready to talk about being pregnant, and neither was I ready to talk about miscarriage. Maybe I'm still not ready. The difficult thing about being human is that we must communicate, and that means that sometimes it's necessary to talk about imperfectly processed things. I don't know that if that kind of vulnerability ever feels easier. But I've had to do a lot of it lately, and I have been comforted, not by having my burden lifted, but by others carrying their burdens next to me. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

West Side Story

I can tell you what I saw on screen during West Side Story -- stunning visuals of a neighborhood half demolished to make room for the gleaming Lincoln Performing Arts Center, swirling dresses and a fiery red petticoat, dancing that knocks the breath out of you, and some heartbreaking, star-quality performances from Mike Faist as Riff, the fey leader of the Jets, David Alvarez as his Sharks counterpart Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita, who's ready to make it big in America. Faist in particular is riveting: gaunt, abandoned, a leader of men, and hot damn, can he dance.

All the men can dance here, and dance in character. Every male in America should be required to dress like either the Sharks and the Jets (properly laundered, of course, unlike the slum waifs here), though of course the look depends on being rail thin and having the exquisite careless grace of trained dancers playing tough guys. Gee willikers, Officer Krupke, I could have watched them boys all day, so many different beautiful faces.

Speaking of beautiful faces, the luminous Rachel Zegler plays Maria with a deep reserve of inner strength. She's more than a match, vocally and craft-wise, for Ansel Elgort's Tony, one of the film's rare missteps. I don't know whether Elgort's understated performance and punch-pulling vocals were a directorial choice or an actor trying to fill a role he isn't ready to play; I suspect there's a mix of both. Elgort's singing should have been pushed one level richer, but the fault seemed partly in the sound editing that didn't allow his lines or his voice to linger on notes the way that Zegler's sweet singing demanded. He looks right, but his stoic performance is a puzzling choice, especially given the few places where he's allowed to shine. An electrifying game of keep-away with a gun in "Cool" shows that Elgort has the dance chops for the role, anyway.

There's lots of updated script doctoring of the the type I like: deeper character moments, more backstory for everyone, everyone treated as a human, every situation treated as complex. Rita Moreno, the original cinematic Anita, gets a lovely role as the widowed proprietress of Doc's Drug Store. Some of the dialogue is unsubtitled Puerto Rican-accented Spanish, and this is entirely correct. (You'll know exactly what's going on because the actors can all act.) I don't hold the original movie in exaggerated regard, although I know almost every note of the score by heart. This version is directed by Spielberg, and that means we're in competent hands and can relax. 

So that's what I saw. Here's what I can tell you about how this new West Side Story struck me: I walked in the theater sad and grieving, and left happy. And then I dragged all my older kids to see it today, and they left happy. And if it comes to my small historic local theater, I'll see it again, and leave happy again. And I'd take all of you with me if I could. But since I can't, go see it for me, and be happy.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

What To Expect When You're Not Expecting

Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, Vincent van Gogh

The good news is that my ultrasound shows nothing. Not only will I not need a D and C, but I can let go of the worry of passing the baby in a public restroom, a particularly wearing concern when I have spent a quantity of time in clinics and hospital, where everyone wants a urine sample. ("Is it okay if there's blood too? Sorry, I can't help it.") There is still blood, but it is apparently within the range of normal. There is a wide range of normal.

I am not an expert in miscarriage, and not only that, I'm not an expert in my own miscarriage. My one previous experience was when I was 17 years younger, and it was, though not painless, relatively fast. But there's nothing wrong, besides the essential wrongness of the thing itself, with a miscarriage taking longer. There's nothing abnormal about the quantities of blood I have shed, as I realized when faced with the utter unfazedness of the ER doctor and the midwife who felt that the ultrasound could probably wait until Monday; in short, the professionals who see a lot of this sort of thing, as opposed to the worried chorus of everyone telling me to go in, get it checked out, just in case -- none of whom will be paying the ER bills, of course. What was happening was normal, and normal is a wide range.

There is a certain kind of reverse Chicken Little fatigue that drops on you when you realize, "This is going to be okay." The hapless fowl felt the nut pinging his skull and thought the sky was falling. Here, the sky actually has fallen, but it's also just the seed falling to the ground, again, cracking open, like the seed is supposed to do. My shell has been fragile lately, and I've cracked again and again. Biblically, I suppose that means I'm blessed; all I know is that when I've tried to toughen up my shell this week, I've ended up cracking harder in the end. Deal with it now or it will deal with you later -- that's something you can always expect.

I'm still bleeding, I'm still cramping, but it's going to be okay. I feel normal, for the first time in a long time.


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Unfruitful

Still Life with Brass Cauldron and Jug, Vincent Van Gogh

I am sorry to tell you that I have been miscarrying since Saturday, and I am still miscarrying in the wee hours of Wednesday. I have been in labor, of a sort, for day, and I am wearing down -- between the cramps and the blood and the effort required not to take these things out on the innocent, which is everyone including myself.

Perhaps you know the tired smell of old blood, the first indicator that something is wrong. I do.  And I know the smell of the clots, huge slithery malignant plops of blood. And I know the smell of fresh blood, copious amounts of it, cups and cups passed into the little pot of the frog potty which has been sitting mostly unused in my bathroom for ages, so convenient for searching for the slippery little sac which shows that baby has been passed whole, without leaving bits inside. And I will surely find, in days and weeks to come, elusive spatters of blood turning dead and brown in my bathroom, reminder of a semi-week of loss.

The ER has assured me that apparently one can go on soaking several pads an hour and cramping until one's follow-up appointment, as long as one is not light-headed. One has not been been light-headed. One has been all too conscious, awake in the middle of the night, quivering in pain or fury or self-pity or any number of the emotions which everyone assures me must be so all over the place right now. Perhaps they are right: the ER tech doing my ultrasound asked my name, and I found myself dripping tears into my stiff blue surgical mask. 

I have put a lot of effort into remembering that feelings are not a guide to anything except feelings, but as I drag into the eighty-fourth hour of dull ache and more (though less) blood and no reassuring sac, the feeling of grace is stripped away and I am laid bare to the reality of grace. Mankind cannot bear much reality, and neither can womankind, who already are confronted with the reality that their bodies will betray them. So little is in our control, and all we do is try and lay a good foundation on which to rebuild after the storms. Maybe that's the only fruitfulness there is, in the end.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Fruitful

Jakob Seissenegger, Portrait of a mother with her eight children, 1565

"Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." -- John 12:24

This doesn't seem to get easier any way I say it, so: having just turned 43, I'm pregnant with my eighth child, who will be born a week before my second child goes off to college.

I've spent a lot of time over the past week and a half falling to the ground and dying, and staring at the wall, and screaming into a towel in the bathroom so the kids won't hear me. It is an odd quirk of being human that sometimes you are called upon to exemplify what you believe, even when it is not convenient or fun. Hello, I am pro-life and follow the teachings of the Catholic Church about marriage and sexuality, but I didn't think I'd have to be literally open to life again. If this is what the purification of purgatory feels like, this stripping away of every illusion I have about who I am and what I can control, I hope I may go straight to heaven when I die.

I am no longer young, even by the reckoning of the Ancient Houses of Men, and now I know that there are many doors that are closed to me, and I cannot see the doors that will open in the future. 

And so, having donated all my baby clothes and thrown out everything except the changing table, which is still in use after almost twenty years, and having mentally moved into the next phase of life, I find that I'm still fruitful, just not in the ways that I choose. Which is the story of the grain of wheat: it falls to the ground, not of its own will, and cracks open, as everything that grows must do, and the old husk is consumed by fruitfulness. I fear, selfishly, for my old husk. It's not in the greatest shape, after falling to the ground and dying seven times before, but it's the husk I have. I am scared of the ways pregnancy will consume me, ways I may never recover from. 

It is early days, and I am still adjusting, but there is no point in keeping pregnancy a secret when soon I will need all the help I can get. I'm sure I will get it too; the congratulations pouring in have a manic undertone of relief -- thank God it's you and not me. I know; I've been there. 

None of this has to do with Baby, who is already doted upon by the siblings whose most fervent wishes have been granted. Baby is a gift, and is loved, and will, as the kind priest told me while I sobbed in confession, be a great source of joy. I know this. Intellectually, I know and believe all these things, and my life is ordered so that I may live what I believe. But even Jesus prayed that the cup may pass, and sweated blood. It's only human.

Readers of Mrs. Dashwood: I had a premonition that November would be a difficult month for writing, though I had no idea. It seemed an important story to tell at the time; it seems very distant now. Perhaps my mojo will return, and the idea will bear fruit, or perhaps that's part of the husk that will die. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Surveying Catholics

 It's been quiet in these pages for a while, in part because of a series of guests over the Thanksgiving week, and in part due to other writing projects, but now that those are behind us I wanted to link to one of the things which has been taking up a great deal of my time lately. 

I had the opportunity to design, conduct, and analyze the Pillar survey of Religious Attitudes and Practices, something which start-to-finish took about three months.  

There are several large surveys which religious questions as well as other political and sociological ones, such as the General Social Survey and the Cooperative Election Survey, and other surveys occasionally touch on religious questions such as the often discussed result which Pew Research found in 2019 that only about sixty percent of Catholics who go to Mass on a weekly basis believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But there are fairly few surveys focused primarily on religious subjects. Via The Pillar's commitment to producing original data-driven journalism on the Church, I got the chance to make an original contribution by organizing and running one.  If you'd like to support the continuance of that kind of journalism (and get articles delivered to your email twice a week) it's worth subscribing

The Catholic Church is famously not a democracy, and more generally it seems clear to any serious believer that matters of doctrine are not set by majority rule, so doing a survey on religious belief and practice is necessarily diagnostic. We tried to design a set of questions which would help us understand the beliefs and practices of Americans in general, and more specifically the beliefs of Catholics and those who were raised Catholic but no longer practice the faith.

The high level result is a snapshot of a country in which 22% of Americans are cradle Catholics, 2% are Catholic converts, and 10% were raised Catholic but now describe themselves as belonging to some other faith (or none at all.)


Conversion turns out to be a major component of American religion.  Almost 30% of survey respondents now describe themselves as some other faith than the one in which they were brought up. But the Catholic Church has fewer converts, on a percent basis, than any other religious tradition.


In additional to the overview linked above, I wrote five detailed articles for The Pillar analyzing the results, and we also made the data publicly available for others who would be interested in using it for analysis. You can reach all of those via the overview here. I hope people will find it interesting.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 10

Previous.

Autumn at Norland had always been a season of more than usual beauty — the wild leafy glories of Nature fenced by the delights of a well-tended estate. But Devonshire was a wet country. Lady Middleton might repeat at every opening that there had never been such a season for rain, never that she could recall, and Colonel Brandon regaled them all with such dreadful tales about the hurricanes in the East Indies, and Sir John declared that the hunting was as good sport as ever you’d see, but Mrs. Dashwood could find little relief from the hopeless drizzle. The cottage was new and tight, with never a leak in attic or at window. But one could walk each room with but a few steps, back and forth, back and forth. She had not the heart to refuse Margaret when she begged to go outside, though she watched with an anxious eye for the first croaks of an impending cold.

And then — oh, joy!— a bright ray of hope pierced the clouds. Marianne’s ankle was sprained, which was of course a lamentable affair, but in the most fairy tale manner a man had actually carried her right over the doorstep. And such a man! Even Margaret, who had witnessed the whole thrilling episode (and had related it to everyone who came to offer their sympathies), was captivated by Mr. Willoughby. He was just what a proper gentleman should be, so prompt to act when a lovely girl tumbled down the hill to land at his feet. According to Margaret, Marianne had been swooning when Mr. Willoughby swept her up in his arms and bore her heroically to the cottage door, with stride unchecked. Mrs. Dashwood could not quite credit that; she had seen Willoughby stagger into the sitting room and gratefully lower Marianne onto the sofa. But all slight awkwardnesses were as nothing compared to the elegance and sincerity with which he begged leave to call again. Mrs. Dashwood had not needed the hint from her daughter’s bright eye to invite him to inquire about Marianne the very next day, at his earliest convenience. 

From that moment the gray skies held no menace. If they were at home, Willoughby was there too. His presence was a tonic. Marianne, with her remarkable ability to set the mood of the entire household, was always in charity these days, moved to raptures at the least provocation. Often Mrs. Dashwood smiled over her work in the corner of the room, as she listened to Marianne and Willoughby discover that their views on all subjects were exactly in harmony. Well she remembered the bliss of her own first, instant love. Daggers of nostalgia stabbed her heart, as she saw her own happy story playing out once more. It was only natural; everyone remarked on how like Marianne was to her, and here was another proof. For it was love at first sight. Mrs. Dashwood knew how it would be when she saw her daughter, who had never even been touched by a man, in Willoughby’s arms. If she had had even the slightest hesitation over his character, she would have prevented him from returning, and so let Marianne’s first lightning shock of physical contact wear off before it could develop into obsession, but Willoughby was all that a gentleman should be, and spoke exactly as he ought.

Willoughby was not the only caller. During Marianne’s week of confinement, all the world, or at least the portion of it that visited at Barton Cottage, dropped in with fruit or flowers or a new book for the invalid. Margaret took to keeping watch at the window each morning, to give the first news of the day’s company.

“Mama, come see!” she exclaimed one morning. “Mrs. Whitaker is here, with her matched bays, and see, even Philip on his stick!”

A youth, leaning on what might have been a dandy’s cane, moved up the path with deliberate steps, accompanied by a tender woman, the careworn model of her son’s fragile beauty. 

Mrs. Dashwood hurried to place the most comfortable chair near the fire. 

“You shall sit here, if you please,” she said as she welcomed Philip Whitaker, who hesitated in the doorway of the sitting room under the smiles of a bevy of rosy-cheeked girls.

“Yes, we shall recline together, and refuse to let our mamas fuss over us for at least an hour!” cried Marianne, ready to cosset a fellow sufferer. “And you shall have my cushion. Elinor shall arrange it just so; she is an excellent nurse.”

Mrs. Whitaker and Mrs. Dashwood sat at the small table near the window, just far enough from the children that they could converse uninterrupted, if they spoke softly enough.

“I am so glad to see Miss Marianne in spirits,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “It grieves me to see young folk suffer. There is time enough for that when they are older.”

“You are very kind,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Yet a sprained ankle is almost no suffering, soon comforted by thoughtful friends and healing day by day. In this case, youth is the best medicine.”

“But not medicine enough, I know, to prevent the the irreparable loss your family has already suffered. Forgive my want of consideration; I thought only of the difficulties of my own child. I would give much to see this light always in his eyes.” 

“There is nothing to forgive,” said Mrs. Dashwood, offering her guest a fragrant cup of tea. “How can one compare grief? It must be shared, not divided into shares.”

As she sipped her tea, Mrs. Whitaker gazed thoughtfully at the corner near the fireplace, where Marianne was in peals of laughter over some clever remark of Philip’s, while Elinor pressed him with sandwiches and blankets, and Margaret wriggled gleefully on the ottoman.

“Your daughters do you much credit, Mrs. Dashwood,” she said. “One does not often meet with such true amiability and taste in young ladies, even among what are counted as our best families.” 

“They are good girls,” said Mrs. Dashwood modestly.

“You must have great ambitions for them.”

“Not as the world defines the word. I would have them marry well; that is, with mutual love, with respect, with comfort but not ostentation. Happiness in marriage is not a matter of chance, I believe, but it has more chance to prosper when it is built on a solid foundation of friendship. Such friendship is my great ambition for them.” Mrs. Dashwood paused, but honesty forced her to speak. “My daughters, however, are fortunate enough to have nothing to tempt fortune hunters. Their character must be their dowry.

“I, too, wish such happiness for Philip,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “But he has neither the safeguard of poverty or of health to guard him from an adventuress who cares more for an advantageous match than for character.” She studied her cup as if the leaves held any wisdom. “But to a young lady who could be his true friend, he could offer great friendship in kind, as well as security for her —  and for her family. And the Misses Dashwood seem to have a talent for friendship.”

Both mothers now affected to read the tea leaves. By the fireplace, Marianne had pressed a volume of her favorite verse on Philip, saying, “There is but one poet today, Cowper. But I insist upon his being read with true feeling, or not at all.” 

“She is in deadly earnest,” Elinor said with mock terror. “If you do not come up to her standard, she will seize the book and show you how it should be done — if she does not first fling it at your head.”

Philip did not seem the least bit frightened. “I will submit with good grace to any penalty of your choosing,” he said. “But I must give fair warning that you could not have selected a trial more to my liking. When one is denied the opportunity to train the body, one must train the voice instead.”

He opened the book, found some familiar lines, and began to read:

"Candid and generous and just,
Boys care but little whom they trust,
An error soon corrected —
For who but learns in riper years,
That man, when smoothest he appears,
Is most to be suspected?"

His was no idle boast; his voice was flexible and sensitive, now dwelling richly on some poignant vowel, now playing lightly over rhyme and rhythm. Such power and grace supported by such a frail body drew the stinging tears to Mrs. Dashwood’s eyes. And not hers alone; Marianne gave a shuddering sigh as Philip shut the book.

“You have found Cowper’s very soul,” she breathed, with shining eyes. “I must hear the second stanza again.”

The general clamor gave the suddenly reticent Mrs. Dashwood the cover to speak in Mrs. Whitaker’s private ear.

“Dear Mrs. Whitaker,” she said, tracing the design of her spoon with agitated fingers, “You well understand a mother’s fondest wish for her daughters, and I am fully conscious of the honor you do my family. But I find I must mention, though I am not fully at liberty to say much, you understand, that Miss Dashwood and Miss Marianne have both already set their first foot upon that path. There is a young man that Elinor knew at Norland, a quiet, sensible, open gentleman, whom I am sure, though she has not confided in me, will make an offer when next he comes to visit. As for Marianne…”

A clamor outside drew both their attention to the window, as several visitors converged on the cottage at once.

“Well, you shall see yourself, ma’am,” Mrs. Dashwood concluded, in a diminished voice. Never before had she been conflicted at Willoughby’s visit, but she could wish that he had not chosen this moment to appear. However, his presence put an end to the necessity of explanation. At his entrance into the room, Marianne was transformed. Though her courtesy to Philip did not lessen, she took no pains to conceal that her entire being was attuned to Willoughby’s presence.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Whitaker with quiet regret. “I see.”

And so did Philip. And so did Colonel Brandon, entering with Sir John upon Willoughby’s heels, and so did Elinor, and she and the Colonel acknowledged one another, across Willoughby’s breezy banter with Marianne, with a narrowed, allied glance.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Archbishop Gomez on the non-Saving Power of Wokeness

I'm a natural contrarian, so when a number of people erupted in rage over Archbishop Gomez's address on "wokeness" last week, I pulled it up in a browser tab, determined to read it for myself.  It's been a long couple weeks, so it was only today that I finally got around to reading it.

It's a very short address, and as such it's necessarily very brief in its argument.  This necessarily means that one must read it on the assumption that it is brief and is not treating everything mentioned in the maximum possible depth.  I read, for instance, people who were outraged that in one sentence it mentioned Pelagianism, and in one sentence Gnosticism, and yet it did not provide an in depth analysis of the precise teachings of each of these heresies.  Well, of course not.  That's not what people do when they make one sentence mentions of a thing. But I did think that, as an overall outline of thought, it made some interesting and cogent points.  So I'll outline briefly here was struck me.

He breaks his talk down into three sections. The first speaks of secularization. He notes that the US has been secularizing for some time, but he argues here that the events of the last two years have hastened that move. He says that COVID and recent political/cultural turmoils have proved a turning point, but he says that this is not a sharp turning but rather an acceleration of trends that were already in motion. 

I think history will look back and see that this pandemic did not change our societies as much as it accelerated trends and directions that were already at work. Social changes that might have taken decades to play out, are now moving more rapidly in the wake of this disease and our societies’ responses.

...

he new social movements and ideologies that we are talking about today, were being seeded and prepared for many years in our universities and cultural institutions. But with the tension and fear caused by the pandemic and social isolation, and with the killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman and the protests that followed in our cities, these movements were fully unleashed in our society.

This context is important in understanding our situation in the United States. The name George Floyd is now known worldwide. But that is because for many people in my country, myself included, his tragedy became a stark reminder that racial and economic inequality are still deeply embedded in our society.

We need to keep this reality of inequality in mind. Because these movements that we are talking about are part of a wider discussion — a discussion that is absolutely essential — about how to build an American society that expands opportunities for everyone, no matter what color their skin is or where they came from, or their economic status.

The latter part of this is something which I think is essential to keep in mind when evaluating what Archbishop Gomez is saying. He clearly states that he believes that there is racial and economic inequality still deeply embedded in our society and that these factors led to the killing of George Floyd. This is, thus, not a "nothing to see here!" argument as some have portrayed it. What, then, is he critiquing?

Enter the second part, which is entitled "America's new political religions". Here Archbishop Gomez lays out in brief what he sees as two competing stories, that is, two explanations for our purpose and how we are to find meaning in the world we face.  Here is his brief summary of the Christian story:

We are created in the image of God and called to a blessed life in union with him and with our neighbors. Human life has a God-given “telos,” an intention and direction. Through our sin, we are alienated from God and from one another, and we live in the shadow of our own death.

By the mercy of God and his love for each of us, we are saved through the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Jesus reconciles us to God and our neighbors, gives us the grace to be transformed in his image, and calls us to follow him in faith, loving God and our neighbor, working to build his Kingdom on earth, all in confident hope that we will have eternal life with him in the world to come.

In contrast to this, he summarizes what he describes as a rival salvation narrative which is presented under the guise of social justice.
We cannot know where we came from, but we are aware that we have interests in common with those who share our skin color or our position in society. We are also painfully aware that our group is suffering and alienated, through no fault of our own. The cause of our unhappiness is that we are victims of oppression by other groups in society. We are liberated and find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power in the name of creating a society of equity.

Clearly, this is a powerful and attractive narrative for millions of people in American society and in societies across the West. In fact, many of America’s leading corporations, universities, and even public schools are actively promoting and teaching this vision.

This story draws its strength from the simplicity of its explanations — the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries.

But this narrative is also attractive because, as I said earlier, it responds to real human needs and suffering. People are hurting, they do feel discriminated against and excluded from opportunities in society.

We should never forget this. Many of those who subscribe to these new movements and belief systems are motivated by noble intentions. They want to change conditions in society that deny men and women their rights and opportunities for a good life.

Of course, we all want to build a society that provides equality, freedom, and dignity for every person. But we can only build a just society on the foundation of the truth about God and human nature.

Some people reacted oddly to the opening phrase of this section, "we cannot know where we are from" but I think it clearly indicates a view in which it is not clear how the world was created or what the meaning of the human person is. He is saying that according to the modern story, we do not know what the purpose of the human person is, but we know our identity and thus with whom we must ally during racial and class conflict.

I think it's also important to note that he says here that the attraction of this view is that it is correct about both the existence of injustice and the need for each person to be treated with justice and dignity. What, then, does he say is wrong? The key phrase, I think, is "find redemption through our constant struggle against our oppressors, by waging a battle for political and cultural power" and also "the world is divided into innocents and victims, allies and adversaries."

Indeed, I would expand this out and say that this has become the key story of both the Trumpy right and the woke left in our country. Both ideologies seem to define themselves increasingly by identifying enemies whom they claim to be utterly depraved. The only solution is to wage all out cultural, political, and sometimes literal in-the-streets warfare against the other side and to defeat them utterly because they are perceived as irredeemable.

And what corrective does he provide from a Christian perspective? He says later:

Our Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI warned that the eclipse of God leads to the eclipse of the human person. Again and again he told us: when we forget God, we no longer see the image of God in our neighbor.

Pope Francis makes the same point powerfully in Fratelli Tutti: unless we believe that God is our Father, there is no reason for us to treat others as our brothers and sisters.

That is precisely the problem here.
I think this is the key critique which Gomez is leveling at the 'woke' left. Like it's opposite movement on the Trumpy right, it is often focused on the destruction of its opponents as an end unto itself. The entire point of "cancellation" is to render someone unemployable permanently. Whether it's a right wing congressman running an animation showing AOC being killed, or protesters chanting "kill the pigs", the problem with these movements is both that they do not value the humanity of (and wish the good for) their opponents, and that they are willing to engage in wrong and destructive acts (the storming of the Capitol, the looting and burning of neighborhoods, the threatening of violence against their opponents) and justify those acts as somehow being all right because of the cause in whose name they are done.

What does Gomez propose instead? 
My answer is simple. We need to proclaim Jesus Christ. Boldly, creatively. We need to tell our story of salvation in a new way. With charity and confidence, without fear. This is the Church’s mission in every age and every cultural moment.

We should not be intimidated by these new religions of social justice and political identity. The Gospel remains the most powerful force for social change that the world has ever seen. And the Church has been “antiracist” from the beginning. All are included in her message of salvation.

Jesus Christ came to announce the new creation, the new man and the new woman, given power to become children of God, renewed in the image of their Creator.

Jesus taught us to know and love God as our Father, and he called his Church to carry that good news to the ends of the earth — to gather, from every race and tribe and people, the one worldwide family of God.

That was the meaning of Pentecost, when men and women from every nation under heaven heard the Gospel in their own native language. That is what St. Paul meant when he said that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. 
Of course, in the Church we have not always lived up to our beautiful principles, or carried out the mission entrusted to us by Christ.

But the world does not need a new secular religion to replace Christianity. It needs you and me to be better witnesses. Better Christians. Let us begin by forgiving, loving, sacrificing for others, putting away spiritual poisons like resentment and envy.
One critique I've heard of this is that Gomez is saying that Christians do not need to do anything different, that they can complacently ignore injustice in our country because they are already assured that as Christians they are good people. It seems to me, however, that this not at all what he is saying. He says that the Church has been "antiracist" from the beginning, in that all are included in her message of salvation. But he also notes that the Church has not always lived up to its principles and its mission. Indeed, one might go so far as to conclude that the reason why there has been injustice which has created the conditions in which the secular 'woke' movement has sprung up is that too often Christians have failed to follow the teachings of Christ. Thus, he sees the solution to racial injustice not in ignoring it but in calling Christians to actually act as Christians.

Does this mean that, as another critique I've seen claims, he is simply coopting the 'woke' message but refusing to acknowledge the movement from which he has stolen it? No, I think this is also clearly not correct either. He says earlier that while the secular social justice militants of the moment have correctly identified that there are injustices in our society which need to be remedied, that the actions they advocate are often wrong. The goal of justice is right, but the means are wrong. Justice will not be achieved by the destruction of others, but rather by their conversion and redemption. 

Yet another approach combines these two objections, and holds that the secular 'woke' social justice movement is simply an acting out of basic Christian teaching and that any wrongs or excesses that may occur are either the actions of outside bad actors or at, at worst, minor excesses which must be excused because the result being sought is good. This approach strikes me as being overly optimistic about the nature of the wider 'woke' movement, which is heavily secular and is both explicitly tied to movements obvious conflicts with Christian morality (abortion rights, gay marriage, trans ideology, etc.) and also with actions which are not moral regardless of their goal. While on the surface, those who argue that the secular social justice movement is identical in its aims to Christianity seem to at least be adhering to Christian doctrine, I think that the end result is much like those who look at a broader Republican movement and argue that since it's pro-life it's at core just Christianity and any bits which may not fit with that are just flukes. 

In the end, I think that the virulent attacks on Archbishop Gomez for having delivered this talk to some extent underscore his point. He worries, among other things, that the secular social justice movement is too focused on identifying enemies and not focused enough of the conversion and salvation of each person. And indeed, the reaction to Gomez's speech seems often enough to have been that people identified him as an enemy and proceeded to vilify him, despite the fact that his address stated repeatedly that combatting racial injustice was the necessary task of Christians. 

Since he clearly agrees with his attackers on this point, it seems rather as if the reason that he's being attacked is for failing to fall neatly in line with a particular secular political movement which is intent to divide the world into allies and enemies.




Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 9

Previous

A night’s good slumber, when it can be had, is the best cure for most ills. Against all her expectations Mrs. Dashwood slept well, and when she woke the world was hopeful again. It was impossible now to dream of romance, but there was still good to be had from honest work and a life of moderation. Today Margaret was outside exploring, and she was sitting companionably with the big girls after breakfast, but tomorrow they would would rise at six and embark on an ambitious program of economy. Perhaps she would work new covers for the chairs in the sitting room, or concoct a batch of polish for the furniture from the receipt in her book of household management, if there was still beeswax to be found. Today they should have a hearty ragout to fortify them for the work ahead…

“Mama, it is three miles to the nearest butcher, and you did not order meat for a ragout,” said Elinor, in that tone which meant she was practicing cheerful fortitude. “Do you not recall that you accepted an invitation to dine again at Barton Park this evening? I wondered at it, for you were out of sorts yesterday, but Sir John pressed so that it was difficult to refuse.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Dashwood, chagrined at herself. “I… I did not recall. My head pounded so by the time the carriage came around, that I must have been willing to say almost anything to get one step closer to home.” She closed the receipt book with more force than she meant, and a torn corner fluttered to the floor. “It is not becoming to be so dependent on Barton, for dinner or for a carriage. We must be a byword in the neighborhood, the poor relatives spunging on Sir John and Lady Middleton.”

“I do not believe it troubles anyone but us,” said Elinor. “At least, it seems to be a great relief to Colonel Brandon to have us in the house. Lady Middleton’s habits of conversation are less to his taste than yours are.”

Mrs. Dashwood darted a glance at her daughter, but Elinor was bent with studied attention over the chair cover she was embroidering.

“Colonel Brandon is an amiable gentleman,” Marianne moaned, “but must we always talk of him? Naturally his talents are superior to dear Sir John’s, but why can he not use them for some grand purpose? Yesterday the wind was stirring up the trees in the valley — such a sad and solemn sound! And when I murmured Cowper’s lines on mortality— 

“Like crowded forest-trees we stand, 
And some are marked to fall” 

—he only urged me to put on a shawl against taking a chill, like an old grandfather.”

“He was quite right, Marianne,” said Elinor slyly. “You will catch your death of cold if you persist in your irrational disdain of flannel waistcoats.”

Mrs. Dashwood sighed as the girls dissolved into giggles. Colonel Brandon’s flannel waistcoat was a running joke with them, a sign of everything prudent and unyouthful. Even Elinor, who defended the Colonel with scrupulous fairness, was inclined to treat him as a venerable elder rather than a man of wisdom and experience. Marianne was actually cruel, though unconsciously so, in her reflections on his age and infirmity, as she called it. To be considered infirm because one’s joints ached! To be considered unable to love because one was old enough to be her father! 

“Your father wore flannel waistcoats when I met him,” she said, speaking lightly, as if it was a subject of no import. “Surely you would not hold Colonel Brandon to a different standard than your own dear father? And although I was eighteen and he thirty-five, as Colonel Brandon is now, somehow the waistcoat seemed less important than the dear man himself.”

“But there can be no comparison with Papa,” insisted Marianne. “You were the one great love of his life, and that is a circumstance of such romance as to make a flannel waistcoat completely irrelevant. It might be different if he had truly been in love with John’s mother, but of course he married her for her money.”

“How can you say such a thing?” cried Mrs. Dashwood. “One does not become unloveable because one has ten thousand pounds. I could not know the first Mrs. Dashwood, of course, but Mr. Dashwood always spoke of her with real affection. The match may also have been advantageous, but it would be a terrible reflection on your father’s character to accuse him of marrying without love. Perhaps John derives some weakness of character from his mother, but he also inherits her loyalty and devotion to those he loves.”

“But a first love is sacred,” argued Marianne, jumping up and pacing, carried away as always by the excess of her enthusiasm. “All the poets attest to it. There is no comparison between the purity and intensity of the youth’s first love, and the utilitarian compact of convenience with an older man who needs a nursemaid as well as a companion. Every sensibility revolts at the idea.”

“Marianne,” said Elinor quietly, but with enough firmness to make Marianne fold up sulkily in a chair and subside. 

“You have a prejudice against second attachments, Marianne,” said Mrs. Dashwood in a trembling voice, “but I assure you that the first all-consuming ardor of one’s youth is not the deepest or truest form of love. Believe it or not, one can even fall in love again with the same man, again and again, and each time richer than the last.”

“Of course, Mama,” murmured Marianne, entirely unconvinced. 

Next

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 8

 


Previous

She felt worn when they arrived at Barton, and there was no peace to be had over tea. Mrs. Jennings was in fine form, and Lady Middleton was constantly calling her mother to order. There was no relief in this, however, for Lady Middleton was governed, not by any sensitivity to the feelings of others, but by a pedantic set of social rules which admitted no variation. Mrs. Dashwood found her rigidity and repetition more exhausting than the jolly coarseness of the inoffendable Mrs. Jennings. That good lady was hospitable to a fault. Her way of making visitors feel at home was to tease them and supply them liberally with snippets of gossip. When one was in spirits, her sallies were often amusing, but it was a hard thing to bear them after a long walk and a dispiriting self-examination. 

Mrs. Dashwood felt herself smile and heard herself making all the conversation that civility required, but she was at an infinite distance from the room and everyone in it, watching the petty and pointless interactions with pity and disgust. What fools they all were, condemned to this life of tea and tedium which was taking place with the most mundane of variations in every manor and townhouse and cottage in England! The ring on her left hand gleamed dully, a niggling reminder that once she had felt something. If she could be alone, entirely alone, perhaps she would be able to cry out in pain, but she was always surrounded by eyes, and ears. Even her private bedroom in the cottage, with its paper-thin walls, offered no respite. She thought with longing of the forbidding masonry of a convent cell. What bliss to be locked away forever!

Then somehow, finally, dinner was at an end, and Marianne, as always, stalked directly to the pianoforte. Even here there was no isolation, for Sir John exclaimed through every song, and Lady Middleton repeated at every pause that she had given up music upon her marriage, you know. Only Colonel Brandon, seated next to her in the corner, was silent, and mercifully did not turn his face toward her when, at last, the music gave her cover to sneak her handkerchief to her eyes.

“See how the Colonel dotes on Miss Marianne’s playing!” Mrs. Jennings bellowed across the room. “We’ll make a lover of you yet, sir!” 

Next

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 7

 


This was frustrating to write -- not in terms of composition, but literally. Every time I started typing "El...", my fingers automatically completed it as "...eanor", the name of my oldest daughter. And every time I started typing "Mrs. Da...", my fingers automatically completed it as "...rwin." I think I've caught and changed every instance, but I beg your pardon if the error ever makes it into an installment.

***

Previous

Mrs. Dashwood was of a amiable temperament, not inclined to solitude. Though her first sacrificial impulse on removing from Norland had been to bury herself in mourning in the country, she found that a cottage had little do to with the secluded life when one’s neighbors were the Middletons. Sir John’s carriage was always in readiness, and his day was devoid of pleasure if he could not prevail upon Mrs. Dashwood or the young ladies to indulge in some sociable scheme. A delegation from Barton appeared daily at the cottage to impart news to the fair inhabitants, or drink tea, or pass a civil message from Lady Middleton, or to gather them to go calling on the other families in the neighborhood. In this way, Mrs. Dashwood met the Careys, a merry family consisting of a pair of giggly sisters near in age to Marianne and Margaret followed by any number of brothers filling up the nursery, and the Whitakers, an elderly couple whose only surviving child was a invalid son who watched the vivacious Dashwood girls with hopeless eyes.

She found she had plenty of opportunity to impart wisdom to Colonel Brandon over the following fortnight, as he often traveled in Sir John’s company, whether to hunt or to dine or to pay a call on the Dashwoods. The golden days of late September were ideal for long rambles in the country surrounding Barton. Sir John, though an avid horseman, was no great walker, and often ended up riding home early to urge Cook to more lavish preparations for tea when the wanderers should return. Hence it was that Mrs. Dashwood found herself walking with Colonel Brandon and her daughters down a quiet lane along a valley in the hills surrounding Barton. The hills were wreathed in an warm autumnal glow, reflected in the rosy faces of the girls as they called each other forward to see some rustic marvel or botanical oddity. Mrs. Dashwood and the Colonel followed companionably at a more sedate pace.

“Have you completed your plan for improvements on the cottage?” Colonel Brandon asked. 

“One does not talk of alterations in terms of completion,” said Mrs. Dashwood, laughing. “There is always more to do on a house, as you must know yourself.”

“We have completed no plan,” said Elinor, joining the adults. “Indeed, we have hardly begun. But have no fear, Colonel — you shall see an altered cottage before the end of the decade.”

“Yesterday Margaret was describing to me her designs,” said Colonel Brandon. “I must say that I was most impressed. Where will you put these secret staircases and treasure chambers and priest holes?”

“Who is to say there is not a secret staircase already?” Marianne called back. “Why should we be condemned to a life of commonplace practicality by the misfortune of living in a house constructed not ten years ago?”

“Maybe we have a ghost,” said Margaret wistfully. “Did anyone die while building the house, do you know, Colonel?”

“I do not,” he said, with regret. “I was seldom much in this neighborhood before five years ago, and by then the cottage was already mouldering in hopes that one day a family of young ladies would find it romantic.”

“A family of young ladies finds it very modern, and very convenient, and very snug indeed,” Mrs. Dashwood said. “We had grown accustomed at Norland to think of a comfortable house as one with many rooms, and even at Stanhill before that — but only Elinor will remember well — we had many good-sized apartments. But Barton Cottage is teaching us moderation.”

“In everything but plans for alteration,” Elinor remarked to no one in particular. 

“Must we always speak of cottages, and schedules, and budgets?” Marianne demanded. “Come, Elinor, you at least are not too old to spoil an outdoor ramble with indoor business.”

“Marianne is much like you, is she not?” Colonel Brandon asked as Marianne, chased by Margaret, seized Elinor and whirled her through a cloud of leaves. 

“So I have often heard,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “She is the most like me in face, certainly — or as I was these years ago. Experience changes us all. Only children believe they will be young and strong forever.”

“I can attest to the effects of experience on my own face,” Colonel Brandon admitted, “but I am not brave enough to speculate about the age of the Dashwood sisters when their mother is indistinguishable from them.”

“You are most gallant, sir!” Mrs. Dashwood said, blushing with what she hoped was matronly dignity. “But honesty will not allow me to cede any of my four decades. I am content to be as I am, and to pass the burden of youth on to my children.”

“Burden, indeed!” The Colonel seemed weighed down with his own thoughts. “Youth is a time better remembered than lived. Even if one was permitted to relieve the past, it would be of no avail without the wisdom of age. How many missteps might have been prevented?”

“How can one be sure that other missteps might not take their place? Or what wisdom, gained through adversity, would be lost?”

They walked in meditative silence, stirring the leaves underfoot with each step. 

“Would you wish no past deed undone?” he asked abruptly, without looking at her.

“I… I do not know,” she said, startled. “I can think of many times I have been in the wrong, especially when I think of Mr. Dashwood. How heartily I have wished some unkind remark unsaid! But when I recall how generous he was in overlooking my many faults, I would not lose one instance of his goodness through a sterile perfection.”

“This is the rarest kind of family happiness, where even faults serve to increase love.”

Mrs. Dashwood had the curious impression that were she to ask him about his past regrets and mistakes, he would be pleased to answer, but her own curiosity made her hesitate. What right did she have to be so bold? Was she forgetting all propriety in the delight of having real conversation with a gentleman? What would her daughters think of her, and she not even widowed a year? What would Henry think of her, he who had always been so cheerful and trusting? Was she abusing that trust now? Why did she find such solace in kindly words from a man, as if she could not be content with the support of her daughters?

What would Colonel Brandon think of her? 

“Oh, Mama, come and see!” Margaret rushed up and grabbed her mother’s hand, pulling her briskly away from the temptation to talk like an adult. “We’ve found an manor house ahead, a big old-fashioned place, with enough room for a whole portrait gallery of ghosts.” 

“That must be Allenham,” said Colonel Brandon, catching up. “Old Mrs. Smith lives there, but she rarely goes out or receives visitors. I have met her once, and Sir John is neighborly with her. If you would like to see the grounds, I may be able to speak to the housekeeper.”

The girls perked up, but Mrs. Dashwood turned toward home. “We cannot trespass upon your kindness so far. And it is time for tea.”

Next

Monday, November 08, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 6


Previous

Voices in the hall announced the return of the party to the nursery, and a moment later Sir John and Lady Middleton entered. Marianne followed a moment later, in a fine flush which her mother instantly recognized as the clear sign of temper being held imperfectly in check. Lady Middleton was telling some interminable story about the antics of her child, the sort of thing which only a mother can appreciate. The child’s mother, that is; anyone else’s mother would have rather decided opinions on whether a child’s tantrum were a sign of its adorable independent mind, and anyone not so fortunate as to be a mother would be bored to tears. Marianne was clearly bored to something — her eyes flashed with the fire of all the remarks she was biting back. She threw herself on the sofa next to her mother.

“My head aches so,” she said, just in a tone calculated to fall just barely out of earshot of Lady Middleton and Sir John, who could not be detained for a moment from recounting all the nursery news to Mrs. Jennings. “Who was it who said that children should be seen and not heard?”

“You have never heard it from me, my love,” said Mrs. Dashwood mildly. “As a result, I am sure that some of our own guests may have felt overwhelmed by the effusions of little girls, as you recall that you yourself once were. Allow me to present you to Colonel Brandon. My second daughter, Marianne. I should present my eldest first, but she seems to be detained.”

“How do you do, Miss Marianne,” said Colonel Brandon, standing as he had been ever since she and Lady Middleton entered the room, but as he bowed to Marianne he clutched the back of the chair as if he wished to sit down.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said Marianne, with a perfunctory nod. “Elinor and Margaret are still upstairs with the small heathens. Mama, can you not tell Lady Middleton that I am taken ill and must go home? I am sure that Sir John would lend me his carriage.” 

“I am sure that you will rally admirably, Marianne, and spend the evening behaving exactly as you ought,” said Mrs. Dashwood with asperity. 

Marianne, chagrining her mother by the barest scraping of courtesy to the Colonel, drifted to the window and gazed over the lawn with romantic disdain. 

“I must beg your pardon, Colonel Brandon,” Mrs. Dashwood said, suddenly unwilling for this serious man to think poorly of her children and their upbringing. “Marianne is so tall that I sometimes forget how young she is, and still practicing the courtesies that come naturally to adults.”

“Not so naturally to all adults,” said Colonel Brandon. “Miss Marianne reminds me very much…,” and he hesitated, “…very much of a young lady I once knew, who also suffered from the sick headache when she was vexed. Forgive me! I do not doubt that her headache is genuine.”

“Marianne’s headaches are sometimes most conveniently timed for allowing her to avoid precisely what she does not wish to do,” said Mrs. Dashwood almost snapped, but quickly recovered herself. “The loss of her father was a grievous blow to her health and her manners both. But you must forgive me, I fear. I do not mean to offer excuses for rudeness, nor to pour out my small history of family sorrows. No family is immune to mortality. I am sure that the sad story is so familiar that there is no need for me to play upon your kind sympathies.”

“You could never do so, ma’am,” he said. “Indeed, I have every confidence that the example of loving parents will guide your daughters even through the temporary trial of youth. The young lady I spoke of had not the advantage of Miss Marianne; she had nothing but wealth, a poor substitute for a mother’s counsel.”

“The poor dear! Even a mother’s counsel is imperfect sometimes. But to be without it entirely!” Mrs. Dashwod sighed. “It is a difficult thing to raise a child, sir, and it seems impossible to do everything well.”

He sighed too. “It does indeed.”

The summons to dinner came, and the Colonel offered Mrs. Dashwood his arm. “Come, you shall tell me all you know about raising daughters, and I will promise to nod attentively and exclaim in all the right places.”

Mrs. Dashwood laughed. “Oh sir, I would not presume so far upon your patience, nor am I convinced that I know enough about the topic to advise anyone.”

“Be assured that you know more than I do,” Colonel Brandon said, with no sign of raillery.

Next

The Passing of a Legend

 Long time readers may have heard from time to time of our cat Anathan.  Named after the theater at Franciscan University, he starred as the kitten in "You Can't Take It With You" back in the spring of 2000, where he distinguished himself one night by escaping into the audience, where he peed on the theater carpet.

He came to live with me off campus as a young cat during the 2000-2001 academic year, during which I was a senior. And he's been with us ever since. He flew to California to live with us in our young-married apartment. Then he flew to Texas where we bought our first house. He watched over (though not, perhaps, with great approval) the arrival of numerous children.

This baby is now 13

Last year, we celebrated his 21st birthday. We knew he was born some time in February 2000, so we assigned him a Valentine's Day birthday, since it seemed so contrary to his personality.


The old man has not been well all year.  I took him to the vet back in the spring, where they said they'd never treated a 21 year old cat before. They asked if he still showed an appetite, concerned by his increasingly skeletal physique. Given that he had recently tried to pull the deli meat out of a sandwich while I was eating it, I had to say that his appetite was just fine.

But over the last year his health has not been great. He had become so stiff in his joints that he had trouble keeping himself clean, usually a bad sign in a cat. And during the last week, he went into a steep decline. He couldn't even engage in his favorite activity: jumping onto the dining room table to try to steal people's food right off their plates if they looked away for a moment.

This weekend he suddenly stopped eating and clearly could no longer move well.  Still his independent streak was there. He insisted on going outside this afternoon, and settled himself in the sun in the front yard.  I was cleaning his litter box in the back yard and left him there, thinking that a cat who couldn't walk twenty feet without resting wouldn't go far.  Five minutes later I looked across the street to find him across the street getting a dish of water from the neighbor. I hurried over, and the neighbor told me that he'd been attempted to sun himself on the asphalt in the middle of the road, and so the neighbor had moved him to the sidewalk. (What the neighbor must have thought on picking up this skeletal animal, I can't imagine, but I explained he was only a few months short of 22 years old. The neighbor said he had just had to put down a 15 year old cat and was duly impressed.)


By the evening, he was whimpering as he tried to settle his stiff joints into sitting, something he had never done before. I had hoped that he would be given the chance to die naturally at home, but it was becoming clear that to drag things out longer when he was not eating and was in pain would not be kind to an animal with no understanding of the meaning of pain. I called the vet, who agreed it was time, and told me that cats can linger for weeks without eating.

So I took the old man to the pet urgent care and held him in my arms as he was put down.

Rest in peace, old man. You were a legend and always lived by your own rules.




Sunday, November 07, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 5

Gentle readers, I am sorry for the slow progress. When I was hesitant to start NaNo, this was the very week I feared: tech week for our show. Still, here are a few words.

***

Previous

A moment later he was in the room, and Mrs. Jennings was making the introduction. How curious it was, to exchange courtesies with a man with a love child! Mrs. Dashwood wondered how often she had made polite conversation with someone with a guilty secret. Perhaps everyone had something to hide, and it had been naive of her all her life to assume that everyone’s life had been as uneventful as hers. And yet, not so: had she not worn the heart of a man who had been in love once before? Was she not even now a widow, cast out of her happy home and forced to rely on the kindness of relatives? But this was no secret, because it was all known to Sir John, and even now Colonel Brandon was saying, “Sir John tells me that you are well-settled in Barton Cottage, and that he has never met such a charming family of ladies in all his life.”

“Sir John’s enthusiasm carries him astray,” Mrs. Dashwood replied, smiling, “for he forgets his own dear wife and mother-in-law.”

“Never in life!” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Lady M. was always too stiff to be charming, and with me the less said the better — though I’m not one to say less. Charlotte is the best of us, would you not say, Colonel?”

“No one can meet Mrs. Palmer without being pleased by her cheerful manner,” said Colonel Brandon, bowing, and try as she might, Mrs. Dashwood could detect no furrowed brow, no flash of eye or flush of cheek, no hint of thwarted love. 

“Mrs. Jennings tells me that you have been in the East Indies, Colonel Brandon,” said Mrs. Dashwood, sitting at a small table near the window. “I would dearly love to hear about parts unknown, for I have never traveled, and my life has been most unthrilling.”

Colonel Brandon sat at the table too. “I am in Mrs. Jennings’s debt,” he said, “for otherwise I would would have been compelled to tell you myself that I had been in the East Indies as one of my few pieces of conversation, and I could not have made it sound half as exciting as she must have done.” His glance toward Mrs. Jennings was amiable, but Mrs. Dashwood wondered if there wasn’t a hint of concern, as if he was wondering what else Mrs. Jennings might have said. 

“There now!” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Own I’ve done you a service, Colonel.” 

“You have already heard me admit it, ma’am,” said the Colonel. 

“I cannot believe,” said Mrs. Dashwood with smile and a shake of her head, “that there is so little romance in the far side of the world that you could make it sound uninteresting. For those always confined to the small circle of home, there is no friend as fascinating as one who can tell of distant lands.”

“And yet for the exile,” said Colonel Brandon, with the hint of a smile of his own, “there is no friend as fascinating as one who can tell of home.”

 Next

Friday, November 05, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 4


Each time I sit down to write I have to spend a quantity of time flipping through my copious notes and post-its from several years ago, when I first conceived this project. I'm grateful to have all that analysis (and you can see above all my color-coded tabs, only now I can't remember what the colors mean) at my fingertips. Unfortunately, I didn't make a big master timeline, and now I'm having to put everything together in order. Sense and Sensibility is its own fan fiction, for those who only know the movies -- there are so many little details and hints not followed up on, not worth jamming into the economy of a screen play, even for a several-episode miniseries. 

Plotting a novel, and in particular working in the gaps of an established story like this, is the only place in life I am so methodical and detail-focused in my planning.

I beg your pardon for repeating yesterday's installment at the beginning of today's post, but since it was part of this scene I felt it made sense. 

***

Previous

Though long established in London, the family of Jennings was unknown to society, being notable only for happy marriages and a gift for trading. By means of both, they contrived to build up a minor empire, being of such a merry and forthright disposition as to win the good-will of their neighbors, without provoking the envy that wealth often breeds. When Ned Jennings, a man of no little ambition and foresight, took as his bride a robust lass from the house of one of his City competitors, he married for love as well as policy. And it was love, mostly, which compelled Ned, a man of business in death as in life, to advise his wife as he lay expiring, “Wait until war is declared, Nell, and then buy for all you’re worth.”

And so Nell Jennings, widow, poured out ready money on ‘Change at the trough of the stock market drop in 1803, and reaped the dividends when old Boney flouted the Treaty of Amiens in May. The family’s fortune was so firmly established that she could aspire to the pinnacle of parenthood: educating her children to be as decorative and unfunctional as any scion of nobility. Two handsome daughters survived childhood to be delivered to a finishing school, where the daughters of wealthy merchants and impoverished nobility studied French, manners, and each other’s elder brothers. Pretty Charlotte was married just this past winter (and already increasing!) to a political gentleman named Palmer, and they were an oddly-matched couple: she laughing all the day long, like her mother, and he saying nothing except to contradict, which was how you could tell he was in a good humor. Charlotte would have been better paired with jolly Sir John Middleton, but she was too young when he came courting, and and he was not too fine to refuse Mary, who was an uncommonly handsome girl in her way and always the pink of fashion. Her great school had taught her good-breeding and little else, and if she hadn’t much conversation, her manners were bought and paid for.

So Mrs. Dashwood learned from Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law freshly arrived from her London house, before dinner was even served at Barton Park. 

“I depend on seeing Charlotte here before long. Lord, how she will doat on your girls! I went to her as soon as I heard that Barton Cottage was to be settled by Sir John’s cousins, and not an ugly one in the lot, he said, because Mrs. D had been an uncommonly fine girl in her day, and of course her daughters must favor their mother. And so they do, especially the young lady in the worked muslin.”

“That is Marianne, my second daughter,” said Mrs. Dashwood, trying to find her footing in the kindly sea of Mrs. Jennings’s conversation. Mrs. Jennings had neither a malicious nor a discreet bone in her body. She immediately pressed all new acquaintance to her ample bosom, and at the slightest provocation told them her entire history so that they too could participate in the family memory.

“Three daughters to marry, and no father to broker the deal,” Mrs. Jennings sighed, and to Mrs. Dashwood’s alarm, for she could never see the tears of others without being overcome herself, the good lady dabbed at her eyes with a comically small square of linen. “I know how it is, my dear, for I had to provide for my own girls myself, and Ned not there to carry his share. Many’s the night I sat myself down in a chair and told him he ought to be glad he was not there, for I’d give him such a piece of my mind for leaving me right when the work was hardest and his girls needed him most. But then, I told him not to mind me, and that I’d forgive everything if only he’d come back, no hard feelings. There, there, my dear, I have a fresh hankie, and you’re welcome to it, for often’s the time I’ve worn my own out.” 

“Thank you,” Mrs. Dashwood murmured, accepting the handkerchief with watery gratitude. She and Mrs. Jennings were alone; Lady Middleton had taken Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the nursery to meet her children, and Sir John had practically dragged his visitors upstairs, declaring that he knew the children already loved the Misses Dashwoods because he had already told them what fine ladies they were. The two widows sat in the privacy of a huge windowed nook overlooking Barton Park’s lawn, where a gentleman was walking toward the house.

“There now, that’s Col. Brandon,” Mrs. Jennings exclaimed. “Such a well-mannered, grave man, and you would never take him to be such a particular friend of Sir John, as unlike him as he is. But then, who would have guessed that I would put out a daughter like Lady M., forever being correct? There is no accounting for love or friendship, and opposites attract, they do say. I knew the Colonel would be here, for he suffers from a great disappointment, and comes back to the place where he lost his heart.”

“That is most tragic,” said Mrs. Dashwood, attempting to sound politely aloof and only managing to convey a great curiosity to hear more. “But would it not be more prudent to keep far away to avoid renewing the acquaintance? Surely Lady Middleton, who is such a model of good-breeding, would not encourage his visits?”

“Lord love you, it was never Mary!” Mrs. Jennings rocked with merry horror at the thought of anyone pining for the waxen Lady Middleton. “He was quite taken with my Charlotte when he came back from the East Indies, though he never said anything, for she was still at school and he never saw her above twice, though he did invite us to his estate at Delaford when Sir John and Lady Middleton were coming. He was on the point of making an offer, so I heard from Sir John, who dearly wished the connection, as did Lady M., for they hold the Colonel in such great respect that I daresay they are a bit afraid of him. But I wouldn’t have it, you know.” Mrs. Jennings leaned in toward Mrs. Dashwood and lowered her voice as far as she was capable of doing, and Mrs. Dashwood, to her own shock, found herself leaning in to catch every word of this appalling gossip. “You would never guess it to see him now, for he’s the perfect gentleman, and quite forlorn these days, but he has a natural daughter tucked away somewhere in Dorsetshire, whom he adores. I never met her myself, but she comes every now and then to Delaford, and my maid heard from his cook that Miss Williams is a pretty, flighty little thing — much like her mother, I guess, for no one would describe the Colonel as handsome or bright-eyed. Well, a man is a man, and many’s the mistake repented at leisure, but I could not desire the connection for my Charlotte. She was too young then — though not to put too fine a point on it, the Colonel must have been none too old himself when he knew Miss Williams’s mother, for she’s 16 if she’s a day. But truth to tell, the Colonel and Charlotte don’t suit at all. A man needs a sensible wife if he’s to manage a love-child, and no one has ever accused Charlotte of having the least bit of sense. But it’s all a great secret, so I am resolved never to speak of it to anyone.” 

Mrs. Dashwood gazed at the figure on the lawn with fascination. Certainly he did not look a figure of romance. His mild, sun-burnt face was composed more in scholarly preoccupation than along stormy heroic lines. She must remember never to judge by appearances, for if she did she would have relied instantly on his steadiness and character. Her acquaintance with rakes and seducers of women was all but non-existent, but though such villains must win women’s trust with guiles, she felt instantly that this man would merit trust, not compel it. 

Next

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Mrs. Dashwood, 3


Sorry to be short, chums, but that's the way it has to be, especially this week and next when there is No Time.

***

Previous

Though long established in London, the family of Jennings was unknown to society, being notable only for happy marriages and a gift for trading. By means of both, they contrived to build up a minor empire, being of such a merry and forthright disposition as to win the good-will of their neighbors, without provoking the envy that wealth often breeds. When Ned Jennings, a man of no little ambition and foresight, took as his bride a robust lass from the house of one of his City competitors, he married for love as well as policy. And it was love, mostly, which compelled Ned, a man of business in death as in life, to advise his wife as he lay expiring, “Wait until war is declared, Nell, and then buy for all you’re worth.”

And so Nell Jennings, widow, poured out ready money on ‘Change at the trough of the stock market drop in 1803, and reaped the dividends when old Boney flouted the Treaty of Amiens in May. The family’s fortune was so firmly established that she could aspire to the pinnacle of parenthood: educating her children to be as decorative and unfunctional as any scion of nobility. Two handsome daughters survived childhood to be delivered to a finishing school, where the daughters of wealthy merchants and impoverished nobility studied French, manners, and each other’s elder brothers. Pretty Charlotte was married just this past winter (and already increasing!) to a political gentleman named Palmer, and they were an oddly-matched couple: she laughing all the day long, like her mother, and he saying nothing except to contradict, which was how you could tell he was in a good humor. Charlotte would have been better paired with jolly Sir John Middleton, but she was too young when he came courting, and and he was not too fine to refuse Mary, who was an uncommonly handsome girl in her way and always the pink of fashion. Her great school had taught her good-breeding and little else, and if she hadn’t much conversation, her manners were bought and paid for.

So Mrs. Dashwood learned from Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law freshly arrived from her London house, before dinner was even served at Barton Park.  

Next