Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.

St. Pat Tricks

What does it say about a saint when the celebration of his day is excessive drinking? Virtue and vice, while not nearly as Manichean as sometimes made out to be, nevertheless conflict in such a setting. Like many American mutts, I have some Irish heritage. I wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, as it’s the done thing. I avoid any celebrations, however. When my job calls for travel to college campuses, I know to avoid the time around St. Patrick’s. Indeed, I’ve taught on campuses where Spring Break was always scheduled around St. Pat’s so as to minimize property damage on campus. Send them off to Florida, where they can be some other electorate’s problem.

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This is an interesting dichotomy. We live in a fairly permissive culture, at least when it comes to things like sex and violence. We nevertheless have built a Prohibition-Era-like mystique around alcohol consumption that makes our college-aged kids a little too curious. Binge drinking and its predictable aftermath have become far too common. Put them together with an Irish saint and all bets are off.

Historically, the Irish have been maligned in what is an acceptable way. Few complain when a nationality is non-ethnic on the surface but non-welcome nevertheless. The Irish have been historically oppressed, but today we forget all that. We hold parades with bagpipes to bolster solidarity, but only if the taps are freely flowing. Drinking with holidays is nothing new. Even Judaism has its Purim and other religions may, from time to time, relax strict rules on the evils of alcohol. But what does it say about a saint that there is apparently no other way to celebrate his day? Wearing green, yes, but that may be entirely accidental. It is, after all, a Dionysian rite of spring, our apparel matching the verdure we soon anticipate as winter wends its weary way out. Even so, I’m glad not to have to be on the streets of a major city when the parade marches by. Even with my Irish ancestry, I prefer to celebrate in my own quiet way, just by wearing green.

Away in a Manger?

The holidays are a time for getting together. At a friend’s house over the weekend, we were talking about nativity scenes. I mentioned a story about how a nativity scene had been missing the infant Jesus and he said he’d be right back with a solution. I have to admit that I’ve never seen Sweet Baby Jesus porter before. “Place that in your manger,” he said. I assume this is a seasonal brew, intended to draw the semi-religious toward a kind of holiday cheer. Now, blasphemy in a bottle is nothing new. In fact it’s quite common, I expect. Nevertheless, a bottle that says “One sip and you’ll claim the name” might be offering a salvation that it simply can’t deliver.

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Growing up, Christmas never had any connection with drinking. My father was an alcoholic, and inviting this particular spirit to the holidays seemed misguided. Still, I recognize that in many cultures tipples were a way of coping with the excessive periods of darkness. Even in these days of ubiquitous artificial lights, I find that the darkness just outside bears a considerable weight. We festoon our houses with colorful lights to ward off the night. We prepare special foods to take our minds from the bleakness outside the window. And yes, some turn to Sweet Baby Jesus to offer its own kind of shine.

The holidays mean many things to many people. The commercial aspects appeal less and less as the years go by, but having some time off work to be with family and collect my thoughts grows more important each year. What makes a day holy, I expect, is that you have things that are otherwise difficult to find. Life, for many, is a long series of denials of what they really want. When the holidays come, they indulge. Who am I to begrudge someone else of what makes their ordinary days sacred? Who indeed?

Dry Nation

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!

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Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?

Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.