Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Something amazing happened in our urban village in the week just ended. There was good news about a wall.
With his permission, I quote one insight that formed the centerpiece for Street Seens’ neighbor Father Walter Wagner in a December 3 pastoral letter marking the start of a season called Advent. Defining it as a time of looking towards a future viewed through what he names “a lens of promise.” He wrote:
I always think that the Berlin Wall offers the best image for Advent, inevitability toppled.
So, what does that mean? It means that one of our residents wrote a letter to his parishioners, his neighbors and ours in this urban village, urging us to take hope in a season of despair, from the image of the Berlin Wall. He reminded us that a bastion of weaponized power could not stand. It was doomed to fall because it was built to divide. A tidal wave of resolute hope totally undermined that weak foundation. Hope triumphed because it will always be more powerful than its opposite.
A new order emerged as a bud, because good people of good will dared to believe in one another. They coaxed growth toward the light and the sun, by sharing a network of aspirations. Their concerted belief that the past is not destiny. These are the people who chose to carve in granite on their country’s National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. that the past is, in fact, not the inevitable destiny of a troubled past, but rather that the past is prologue. That sort of courageous conviction lends the people who share it, a unity that is never held hostage by their deep difference about how they see the details of those aspirations.
Some read the letter in the context of their faith. But a wider network of readers will hear in it the echoes of other spokespersons of hope. The “better angels” named by Abraham Lincoln could easily have been seen as factors in the collapse of that wall that went up in a later time. So might the direct words of an Illinois-born President named Reagan who stood at that wall and made it impossible to deny that human beings who built it and their leaders who thought it was a good idea could also grow in awareness and see that not all ideas are created equal. Anyone practical enough to see that the scalpel is probably a better tool for healers than a sledge hammer. (Allow me a diversion from our conversation to recall hearing a conversation among members of the free press to note that President Reagan allowed an advisor to help him capture and express “the elegance of the U.S. Presidency.” They credited the genius of Michael Deaver and the openness and basic goodness of Reagan as the ingredients for that achievement.)
They listened to the promises of brave messengers who recognized that the path to new life is not alone through partisanship and profitability.
A wise and gifted couple who lived in our parish made certain to include a visit to the Berlin Wall in a family trip when their children were young. The mother-turned-tour-director asked their driver to take them to the “most expensive” hotel in East Berlin. Her strategy was to see how the people lived who thought it was a good idea to build the wall (the couple had no intention of treating the children to a white tablecloth lunch there, but instead headed for whatever passed for its coffee shop.) Having seen the pricey elegance of that neighborhood they then directed the driver to take them to the wall and so allow them to see how “the others” lived in East Berlin. Not long afterward when the wall was destroyed they were happy that an indelible image of its starker realities would remain in their family’s minds and hearts.
Listening to a tourism commercial this week for travel to Israel and a visit to Hebron where Abraham and Sara are buried, it would have been hard to miss the message.He who is considered the Patriarch of all people of varied faiths who share a common belief in a single God, had built no wall to protect against the visitors who came to tell them literally unbelievable good news. They welcomed the visitors and offered them hospitality and, best of all, shared conversation and the promise that a new day could dawn lighted by the millions of stars in a night sky.
Borrowing the final words of Father Wagner’s letter, I extend his message, saying, “May the magic of the season help us to remember where we haven’t yet been.”
When the National Portrait Gallery scheduled an extensive renovation of the museum’s “America’s Presidents,” the exhibition briefly closed from February 26 through March 23. A temporary exhibition has now been installed in the west gallery on the second floor and will remain on view until September 4. The newly restored gallery space will reopen on September 22, 2017.
“America’s Presidents,” the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, is the museum’s most popular exhibition, so a seven-month closure was ruled out. “We don’t want to get letters from school groups saying they are disappointed that they didn’t get to see the presidents,” said David C. Ward, senior historian and director of scholarly programs, National Portrait Gallery. The temporary home for the nation’s 44 presidential images offers visitors a special treat: two woodburytype portraits of former President Barack Obama by Chuck Close. (Obama’s official portrait for the museum has yet to be commissioned.)
Also on display in the space is “Hindsight Is Always 20/20” by contemporary artist Luke DuBois. Working with the state of the union addresses of 41 presidents, ending with George W. Bush, DuBois created “word clouds,” pulling words and phrases from these speeches and arranging them like an optician’s eye chart. The result is a snapshot of what major issues occupied each president as he addressed the nation.
Refurbishing the permanent exhibition, as well as setting up its temporary home, is “an enormous undertaking,” according to Ward. “We’ve been open for ten years, and there’s been a desire to redo the exhibition, from the lights to the historical context,” he said. Besides the 44 paintings, the show also includes a priceless bust of George Washington, housed in a glass case that requires proper security precautions. Still, Ward said the museum’s staff was up to the challenge. “You don’t want to get bored as curators,” he said.
David C. Ward
Ward, who is a walking encyclopedia on presidential history, led a press tour through the temporary exhibition on March 23 before it opened to the public. Besides sharing insights and anecdotes about each president, Ward explained the complexities involved with structuring and maintaining such a popular exhibition. Each president, for example, has his portrait in the exhibition, no matter his place in history. “Franklin Pierce, a mediocre president, is given equal stature to Lincoln,” Ward said. “James Buchanan, considered the worst president, sat in office in the winter of 1860-1861, when the south seceded.” Although Lincoln was elected in November, he was not inaugurated until March, making Buchanan “the lamest of lame ducks.”
The passage of time often changes the public’s opinion of a president. Harry Truman, for example, was not well liked while he was in office. “Truman now gets high marks,” Ward said. “He is seen as a progressive Democrat who was also a straight shooter.” On the flip side, Andrew Jackson, popular while in office, is now vilified for his “belligerent masculinity,” and deplored as an “Indian killer.”
Theodore Roosevelt, who was governor of New York, was distrusted by the party leadership who wanted him out of the state. “They made him vice president for William McKinley,” said Ward. Of course, after McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th president. “You think history is orderly, but often it is based on caprice and contingency,” Ward noted.
While many of the portraits in the exhibition are part of the museum’s collection, others are borrowed from other institutions or on loan from private collectors. Sometimes the right portrait of a president just isn’t available. After the museum received a letter objecting to Dwight Eisenhower’s portrait that showed him in a military uniform, the museum had to search for a replacement. The one now on display came from Susan Eisenhower, a granddaughter, and shows the former president in a blue business suit.
The White House selected Robert Anderson, one of George W. Bush’s Yale classmates, to create the portrait of the 43rd president. The painting shows Bush in an open neck blue shirt relaxing at Camp David. Not all presidents are pleased with the results of the artist’s efforts. Lyndon B. Johnson called his portrait by Peter Hurd “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” That painting, meant to be Johnson’s official White House likeness, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
And not all artists like their subjects. That was the case with Norman Rockwell who was charged with painting Richard Nixon. According to Ward, Rockwell limited the time he had to spend with Nixon by substituting a friend’s hand for that of the 37th president.
When “America’s Presidents” reopens on September 22, Gilbert Stuart’s “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington will be back on view, according to Brandon Fortune, chief curator, National Portrait Gallery. In the temporary space, another Stuart portrait of Washington is on view, showing the first president in the black velvet suit he wore on formal public occasions. Fortune said the portrait shows Washington “at his most human.” She also singled out Abraham Lincoln’s portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy which depicts the 16th president in a contemplative pose.
When the newly refurbished gallery opens on September 22, the space will boast improved graphics and lighting. Interactive touch screens will allow visitors to explore each presidency. There will also be a new website and a new edition of the museum’s book of presidential imagery.
Chances are the museum’s most popular exhibition will be even more popular come September.
Who was it that said, “a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on?” I think it might have been attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. But in any case, whoever said it uttered a classic oxymoron. The late President Gerald Ford rivalled him in the observation that If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.
The formal definition is a conjunction of apparently contradictory words joined to achieve an effect. The Greek roots of the word combine two words that mean sharp and dull or keen and stupid. Those roots provide fertile soil for the satirist. Some of the most notable ones of those is the first person to nominate these two: Civil Servant and Great Britain.
Should you suspect that that individual was a native of the Emerald Isle you may be forgiven. Starting with an 18th Century Parliamentarian named Sir Boyle Roche who rose to address an issue of spending money for a project that would only begin delivering benefits to a future generation is reported to have said, “Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”
There is one school of literary criticism that conjectures that Sir Boyle was an inspiration for the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop in his play The Rivals. But that may underestimate him. Consider how deftly he used the construction when he was quoted as saying that anyone opposing freedom of speech should be silenced. (Shades of some recent news reports.) And thus was born the sometimes innocent, often sly verbal construction known as The Irish Bull. And I’m here to testify that the pattern of speech is alive and well. (And I’m not referring to any recent, contentious confrontations of press and politician.) I favor a definition that classifies the Irish Bull as an apparent contradiction used for emphasis.
As the “token American” recruited to the New York staff of the Irish Government’s Export Board (as marketing communication’s liaison), I knew I’d better get myself up to speed when I heard the following exchange between a phone caller and the Director’s highly professional assistant. “This is the phone number you can use to contact Mr. Mulcahy, but he is rarely there.” And I don’t think she was trying to be ironic. My great source of enlightenment was a delightful paperback title called The Irish Book of Bull: Better than all the Udders. (And No, it doesn’t suggest what you may assume it does.) I acquired the slim volume and can testify that I have done so over and over (even now when it is technically out of print) since it remains to this day the most “purloined” volume in my library. But be assured it is worth the search.
Sir Boyle Roche’s worthy contemporary descendants include the mourner said to have gazed into the coffin of the deceased and lamented, “Ah, he’s not the man he used to be, and never was.” And the comedian who got great laughs with the observation, “So I went out to get on my motorcycle, and there it was, gone.” Or the apparently innocent inquirer who asked, “Are you reading that newspaper you’re sitting on?”
If you are drawn to such word play you may also mount a search for Willard R. Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play. This is a feast for the fun-seeker, copyrighted in 1975 and introduced by the late, great Alistair Cooke who said it was to language what a football was to Joe Namath, a golf ball to Arnold Palmer or a male of the species to Zsa Zsa Gabor. To tempt the palate of those who savor words as fun, here are some appetizers from a section focusing on headlines that linger and which uses the headline “Nudists Take Off.” It includes “Papa Passes”, the headline of an Ernest Hemingway obituary, and the obituary of Abdul Ahzis as “Abdul Ahzis as Was.” Espy opined that he doubted the New York Times was trying to be funny when it described an imminent widening of a strike by hotel workers in these words, “Maids all to go out with Hotel Waiters.” By 1981, Espy had added the title Have a Word on Me: a Celebration of Language.
In an era when words too often seem used as weapons, the likes of McHale and Espy are worth the search. What price insight that leads to laughter? And while you’re at it you may want to search for a copy of James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. It’s a collection of examples of venery, the use of a collective noun to describe a group. A gaggle of geese, for example; or a pride of lions. I can predict that people who sample this book together will be moved to turn the practice into a game or contest. One such event I enjoyed with good friends competing for a good laugh came up with such classifications as “an inventory of archivists”; and “a scuffle of little boys,” “a ledger of CPAs.”
With all due respect for the power of 140 characters, it may be more important than ever to let the words, and the laughter flow. And that’s no Bull, Irish or otherwise.
Last week while digging out from under the tsunami of paper that seems to be the “meany joke” of the computer era I found two old documents I’d like you to read. Let’s start with them and join me in finding where it took me and where I hope it may take you.
Pandora, the Power of Myth and the Road to Hope
Opening Pandora’s box is a phrase that means unleashing troubles. It came into the language from Greek mythology. This is the story:
Pandora was the first woman the gods placed on earth. Zeus directed that she be made and that she be given the best each of the goddesses had to offer (beauty from one, grace from another, etc. …. Her name means “all-giving”): When she came to earth, she brought with her a box that she was told not to open.
So she was really, a living gift from Zeus.
Meanwhile, on earth, Epimetheus was quite taken with her. So much so that he forgot the warning of his brother Prometheus never to take a gift from Zeus. Because Zeus remained really angry that Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and given it to humans. So Epimetheus (whose name means hindsight) only realized after the fact that Pandora was going to mean trouble. In short order, she opened the box and out flew all the troubles of the world. The only thing left inside Pandora’s box was hope.
Mud Creek’s Mermaid and a new way of Seeing
THE LITTLE MERMAID OF MUD CREEK (Originally written as an account of a childhood memory).
When I was a little girl I lived in Illinois in a village a Sunday afternoon car ride away from an even tinier farming community where my Father had been born.Those rides often centered on the farm which Daddy had inherited, but never farmed, having fallen in love with the business of automobiles.
The land was flat and often dry, with great expanses of treeless spaces that were kinder to corn and soybeans than to people and dreams. But near the house there was a strand of trees and running near the house was a small creek which was crossed by a bridge of wooden boards which spoke out its name as the tires of my Father’s sea green Lincoln Zephyr drove over it, saying, “Parump, Parump, Parump.”
Sometimes I would go back to that bridge to look down at the water and let my dreams move with its gentle flow. There was never much water there, I suppose, and less when relentless Illinois summers took their toll.
One summer Sunday, I walked to the bridge, dressed in my Sunday best finery. I can’t remember what dress I wore that day, but I do remember the treasure I had at my wrist. It was a stretchy partial circlet of blue pearls with a blue enameled metal rosebud at its center. As little girls will, I moved the bracelet around on my wrist…uncoiling each end, in succession…tempting fate, until fate snapped the trap. With a splash, the beautiful pearl bracelet slipped off my wrist and splashed into the inelegant bed of Mud Creek. I’m sure I wailed and went back towards the house calling my parents away from their conversation with the young couple who were their tenants at the farm.
The details are dim, but the luminous point of it all will never stop shining as a beacon in my memory. When Momma and Daddy had returned with me and concluded that the bracelet was not to be found, she told me the wonderful and utterly comforting story of what had happened to my treasure.
It seemed, she said, that a little mermaid lived, out of sight, someplace near the banks of that little stream. She always kept herself hidden from view, but she was there nonetheless and she delighted in the stream and in the very special treasure she found in it this summer Sunday.
If only we could see, Mother made me understand as she soothed and carried me along with her story, we would observe a beautiful little mermaid, splashing in the water and occasionally coming to rest on a rock near its bank, revealing the wonderful blue pearl bracelet she wore on the shiny, left fin of her mermaid tail.
What I had learned at the end of reviewing those two resurrected documents included these facts:
Myths are not fantasies but as the great Joseph Campbell knew, they are accounts of a shared human experience so deep that it keeps making sense to people separated by geography and history and unites people who have every reason to be divided.
And as surely as myth is not just a fantasy, hope is not just wishful thinking. At its heart, hope is a way of imagining. A great Jewish sage told the story of two men sitting on benches in the relentless noonday sun. One looked hot and uncomfortable. The other cool and comfortable, because he had planted a shade tree and was imagining how pleasant it would one day make his bench.
The two documents I happened upon this week reminded me that the indispensable gift of hope is at its heart a way of seeing and a brave way of imagining.
In this season that includes both Easter and Passover, the last misunderstandings of hope can be swept away. And how? By the peaceful recognition that real bravery and daring and strength consist in imagining a better world and working to ensure that it will emerge.
Based on that, I started building an inventory of heroes of hope. Finding the documents was pure serendipity. So don’t be surprised if you find this first, provisional list generates responses ranging from, “Who?” to “Of Course!” to “Why in the World?” It includes robbers and saints; legislators and community organizers; doctors and documents, journalists; theologians, children, adults and whole families.
I hope you know many of them, will discover others and most of all begin to compile your own honor roll of hope.
Dismas, was alleged to be a robber who owned up to his own crimes, apologized to the victim to his left, threw in his lot with him and thereby won a promise of Paradise. Dr. Eben Alexander, who came back from days of flatlining with the conviction that he had to spend the rest of his rescued life recounting experiences of the unconditional love that moved Newsweek to headline a cover story “Heaven is Real.” Each child at a Seder who asks what makes the night different and believes the answer about rescue and renewal. Friends of Van Cortland Park, New York City’s third largest Park, and the Network for Peace Through Dialogue that honored them for turning an urban jewel into a safe and progressive place where 6000 children and adults enjoy educational and stewardship programs. Elizabeth A. Johnson, whose Ask the Beasts inspires hope that ecological care will be at the center of the moral life. Author/columnist David Brooks whose Road to Respect distinguishes the resume virtues from the eulogy virtues in a way that discourages the rise of demagogues and those addicted to celebrity. Lincoln as champion of the Emancipation Proclamation and Pope Francis and his Declaration of a Year of Mercy. The 900 Muslim members of the NYPD, The Amish families who forgave the poor, sad person who systematically murdered their girl children years ago in Pennsylvania. The family of Anne Frank, who were turned back when seeking refuge in the United States and protected their child from the prison of bitterness if not the camp where she met death. Mother Teresa who formed an alliance with the young American president of ORBIS, the airborne hospital of ophthalmology to seek treatment and healing for a child of the “poorest of the poor” and changed Pina Taormina’s life in the process and over years of advocacy. Jean Vanier, son of privilege who founded the unique and respectful L’Arche Communities made up of people with disabilities and those who come to share life with them.
The two documents I found this week told me of the value of story telling and really seeing. I was reminded that these are two sure signs that heroes of hope are at work in our world.