The White Hills of Rockville

Author’s Note: Some of my more liberal-minded readers might not agree with my positions in this essay, and that’s okay. Read or don’t read, the choice is yours, these views are mine. In the words of General Douglas MacArthur: “Last, but by no means least, courage-moral courage, the courage of one’s convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle-the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”

backyardIt’s a bright and sunny Sunday morning, and temperatures have reached their projected high for today of 30º. My family just “attended” Mass via the television, where we streamed a taped broadcast of this Sunday’s Mass from the television ministry of the Passionists order of priests. We are snowed in, thanks to winter storm Jonas, a/k/a #blizzard2016, so no trip out to attend Mass at our parish, the Shrine of St. Jude here in Rockville. As I look out my windows I see white everywhere; something in excess of twenty inches of snow has fallen in the last 36 hours. My yard and the surrounding landscape is a series of white, sloping mounds of snow, sparkling in the sunlight.

sideyardWe’ve already received word, via multiple social media sources, that school has been canceled for tomorrow and Tuesday. It’s hard to imagine that we will have school on Wednesday at this point, and some of my teacher friends are saying the clean-up from this blizzard is so monumental we might be out all week. We were kept home on Friday, when I was slated to start The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. I start my Hemingway unit with a short story that is found in their 7th grade literature textbook, “A Day’s Wait”, a short, innocent yet poignant coming of age tale of a young boy who thinks he is dying because his temperature is 102º and he has confused Fahrenheit with Celsius.

EH 7018P

EH 7018P Ernest Hemingway on safari, Africa. January, 1934. 

When we begin covering Hemingway I give them a brief bio to read and explain to them the significance of his winning the Pulitzer and the Nobel. We discuss his beginnings as a writer, working as a journalist overseas, serving during WWI as an ambulance driver, coming home from the war wounded in action, recuperating and healing through his writing and eventual success as a novelist. We discuss his life story: his four marriages, his adventurous and athletic nature, and his eventual suicide at the young age of 62. We talk about the political incorrectness of two of his passions: bullfighting and big game hunting. Mostly, however, we focus on his writing style in preparation for 8th grade when I use a unit on John Steinbeck to compare the writing styles of the two great American authors.

hemingwayWhile I do teach at a Catholic school, I don’t talk about one of Hemingway’s early short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants”, published just a year after Hemingway’s 1926 break-through novel The Sun Also Rises, which established him as a major literary force.

“Hills Like White Elephants” came to mind today, as I reflected on the events of the last few days. Winter storm Jonas made his appearance to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area on the same day as the annual March for Life, where hundreds of thousands of Christians descend upon the US capital to protest the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion. Our 8th graders attend the March for Life Youth Rally and Mass each year, as a religion field trip, in support of the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception until natural death. This year’s field trip to the event was canceled, as was school for the day.

rod serling march for life imageA good friend of mine, a devout Catholic, posted on her Facebook page a link to a news story entitled: “CBS News Ignores March for Life, Attacks Pro-Life Presidential Candidate Instead”. It was accompanied by a meme of Rod Serling, creator of the sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone, who started each episode with a monologue, “Imagine if you will …”

snow altarIn spite of Jonas bearing down on the nation’s capital, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims did make the journey, some becoming stranded on the interstates on their return trip home. One high school group from Iowa created a snow altar and with the help of a priest from another stranded bus of Catholic school students, attended Mass on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was captured by photographer Chris Coleman and publicized widely on social media.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the story of a couple traveling by train. In true Hemingway style, the background details are as sparse as the word count itself. The male character is unnamed and only referred to as “the American”, while the female character is called “Jig”. Even a cursory reading of this story gives the reader the niggling sensation that this is not an entry from a travelogue. It is much, much more. In casual, yet purposefully encrypted, conversation, the couple discusses “an awfully simple operation”. It becomes quite clear that the man is in favor of this operation and Jig is struggling with it. He goes as far as to say that it is all perfectly natural, “just to let the air in”, and then everything will be alright, back to normal, back to the way things were before.

Much like the media’s avoidance of the coverage of the March for Life, now in its 43rd year, the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” goes to great lengths to avoid directly confronting the decision to have an abortion. The baby is never mentioned, the medical procedure, which at the time and place of the setting of this story, Spain in 1927, was illegal and highly dangerous, is discounted to being absolutely nothing to worry about. The man goes on to say that he has “known lots of people that have done it” … “it’s perfectly simple”.

It is interesting to consider the writer’s voice in analyzing this piece of fiction. Hemingway is careful not to tip his hand, offering not so much as an adjective or adverb describing how the bullet-like sentences are delivered or their underlying subtexts. We can, however, look to his own life for his views on marriage, family, and religion.

At the time of the writing and publication of “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway was in the process of exiting his first marriage to wife Hadley Richardson, with whom he had his first child, Jack, and after their divorce, he converted to Catholicism, in order to marry his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, who was a devout Catholic with whom he had two more sons. In spite of a divorce from Pfeiffer and two more marriages, history documents that Hemingway remained Catholic, donating thousands of dollars to churches and making frequent pilgrimages to religious sites. He spent much time in countries of predominantly Catholic status: Cuba, Italy, France, and Spain. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea can be studied from the viewpoint of an allegory of the Passion of Christ. Was “Hills Like White Elephants” some sort of statement on abortion or was it just a writing exercise on the dynamics of this one relationship?

In the nearly 100 years that have elapsed since the writing of “Hills Like White Elephants”, a lot has changed in America. Abortion is legal and “safe”, if the taking of a life can be considered safe. Political campaigns and elections are polarized by the issue of pro-life vs. pro-choice. Hashtags, the bumper stickers of today, are created and disseminated, both for and against abortion. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the research and development of contraception and fertility. Millions of dollars are spent each year on abortions and the repercussions of those which were less successful. Millions of dollars are spent each year on the legal battle of overturning vs. preserving Roe vs. Wade. Millions of prayers are offered each day for the end of abortion. its a child not a choiceFeminists want the message to be that women should have total control over what happens to their bodies. Their message is that women should have the choice of when to be pregnant, when to have a baby, when not to have a baby. When it is all said and done, they are right: it is a choice. It always has been, even in 1926 Spain. Except in the cases of domestic violence, rape, and incest, it is a choice before, during, and after. It is a choice. Choose carefully.

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Papal Fever: Say Two Prayers and Call Me in the Morning

papal fever searchA quick search on the internet brings up over four million hits about the latest “epidemic” to hit the United States: Papal Fever. Since the moment the Holy Father, Pope Francis, went wheels up in Cuba, America has been swept up in a frenzy of enthusiastic support of this soft-spoken and humble man in his Fiat. It appears this phenomenon affects those of many different beliefs. Papal Fever has taken hold of the young as well as the old, and everyone in between.

walk with francis newspaperWhen we returned to school in late August, our principal told the faculty that we would be making a video about our canned goods food drive as part of the efforts to welcome Pope Francis to Washington. After the short impromptu video, from the corner of my eye I saw the school librarian doing what looked like a soft-shoe dance. Then I heard her singing “We’re walking on sunshine, yeah”. She had this great idea to change the words of the Katrina and the Waves hit single to “We’re walking with Francis, yeah”. I told them both it was a great idea and the principal said, “Tell your screenwriter daughter to get on it!” So, my daughter the screenwriter changed the words to the song to fit the occasion and a school parent with a film production company followed us around for a few days catching everyone “Walking with Francis”. Our music teacher, a lovely, trained soprano, went to a recording studio to record the audio which the talented parent then put together with our video. https://youtu.be/KmJgsJlIpXI walking with francis videoBoth students and faculty seemed to have an extra spring in their step as everyone went about their day, singing “Walking with Francis, yeah!”

walkwithfrancis wrist bandThe Catholic Schools Office sent each student and faculty member a soft wrist band emblazoned with #WalkwithFrancis, asking us each to register for the Walk with Francis Pledge. My parish church announced that some of the tickets allotted to the parish for the Papal Mass would be distributed via a random drawing of those who had turned in Walk with Francis pledge cards. Given the scarcity of the Papal Mass tickets, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting one, but I filled out the pledge card, even though I had pledged online at the beginning of the school year.walkwithfrancis pledge

Several weeks later I was asked to serve on the parish council for my church. I hesitated because of the time commitment, weighing it against my already hectic school days, grading language arts tests, quizzes, essays, and projects for the 35 7th graders and 45 8th graders I teach. Add to that the two plays I direct a year for the school, a straight play in the fall and a musical in the spring, and I really doubted whether I had the time for serving on the parish council. But, in the end, after two weeks of mulling it over, I did say yes. Little did I know what that “yes” would mean! A few days later, papal mass ticketsI received a phone call from one of the parish priests, offering me two tickets to the Papal Mass as a new member of the parish council. Papal Fever reached 9-1-1 status in my household as I scrambled to find a substitute teacher.

My husband and I studied the pamphlet that came with the tickets and plotted out our course of action for the day of the Mass: leave around 9:00, take the Metro, find something to eat after we arrived, and then sit and wait for the Mass. Parking at the Metro and the ride itself was a snap, and a lunch tent was set up near the lawn where the Mass would take place and it was organized and efficient. The line to get through security was quite long and slow but while waiting in it (for almost three hours) we chatted with the people around us. Behind us was a couple chatting with a priest from California. I could hear the conversation, mostly about education, as all three had been teachers. Juniperro-serraThe priest had come from Mission San Buenaventura, one of the mission churches established by Father Junípero Serra, who was canonized by Pope Francis at the Papal Mass.

The people in front of us, three women and a man, had also come from California. A minivan of nine people had driven the entire 44 hours to Washington, DC, without tickets to any of the Papal activities. They had spent the night in the parking lot of the Franciscan Monastery in DC and then walked to Catholic University of America’s campus to wait along the parade route to see the Holy Father in his Popemobile. They spotted a familiar face from their own diocese, San Bernardino in Palm Desert, and he offered them his last four tickets. He told them that he had been standing there waiting for God to tell him who to give them to. The four people in line with us were the four lucky ones to get the tickets.

Earlier in the day I had remarked to my husband that I wondered whether I would see anyone I knew. This turned out to be quite humorous as the day went on and I saw so many people I knew from my parish as well as neighboring parishes, other Catholic school teachers, and so many priests I knew from the Archdiocese of Washington. Even though there were 25,000 ticket holders on the grounds of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it felt like a much smaller crowd.

david muirJust before the Mass started, someone spotted David Muir, news anchor for ABC World News Tonight, who was broadcasting live from the Mass. I stepped over to the fence to take his picture and began chatting with a woman also standing at the fence. She told me the Holy Father would be coming down the street just on the other side of the fence in the parade. As we chatted we realized that we had many mutual friends. Even though we were fortunate to have seats for the Mass, they were in the last section of seats and quite a distance from the altar. view of altarThe Jumbotron was obscured by a tree, so I decided my best opportunity for a good view of the Pope was to wait at the fence for the parade to pass. As the street was emptied and the sidelines closed off to pedestrian traffic, the energy of the crowd at the fence grew and grew. As the Popemobile approached I began taking pictures on my phone, until he was looking straight at me…I completely froze. the popemobile round oneIt is difficult to explain the actual feeling that passed over and through me as it appeared that he was looking straight at me. The Popemobile continued on with him turning to the other side to wave at the people across the street from me. We all staggered off to our seats and then someone screamed, “He’s coming back!” The Popemobile had made a u-turn and was returning along the same fence I had been standing at. My husband thought I had a better view from the lawn near our seats so I stood there with my phone at the ready, hoping to get another chance to take his picture looking in my direction. the popemobile round twoAs the Popemobile continued on past me, I was struck by the way the crowd moved as well, running along the fence as though they could not bear to let him go on without them. As people returned to their seats, many were crying and everyone was smiling widely.

Once Mass started, the atmosphere drastically changed. This enormous crowd of 25,000 people all fell silent and hung on every word from the mouth of Pope Francis. Many of us could not understand him, as the Mass was being celebrated in Spanish, in recognition of Father Junípero Serra’s native tongue. English subtitles were displayed on the Jumbotron, but because our view of it was obscured, I followed along in the program to the Mass. It was a beautiful Mass, with the Papal Choir and musicians adding so much to the liturgy.

tom and michelleAfter the Mass, we lingered for a bit to take pictures of the altar and to let the crowd disperse. We decided to have dinner across the street from the CUA campus and talk about the events of the day. Many of the diners in the crowded and popular restaurant had also come from the Mass. The atmosphere was again congenial and enthusiastic.

three popesI’ve been blessed to have now seen three popes in my lifetime. My family attended Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on April 11, 2004, the Easter Sunday one year before Pope John Paul II died. He was weak and frail but his voice rang out through the square. On April 17, 2008, my family attended the Papal Mass of Pope Benedict XVI held at the home of the Washington Nationals. I’ve only been to two professional baseball games in my life, and have never seen the Nationals play, but I’ve been to Mass in their stadium. So, September 23, 2015, was my third Papal Mass. It was also the first canonization that I have witnessed, and quite possibly my only one.

As I type, the Holy Father is wheels up heading back to Rome. Things in DC have returned to “normal” and so have NYC and Philadelphia no doubt. Fevers have cooled, and I’m sure the soft blue rubber wrist bands will be seen less and less. The local and national news programs will return to their standard mix of crime, politics, and sports. The soft-spoken and humble man and his Fiat will return to his good works in the Holy See. Katrina and the Waves will get their song back, but I will be Walking with Francis for a long time to come.