Sunday, March 22, 2015

Waking from the Nightmare

"... for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again..." - Luke 15:24

On Saturday morning my daughter Ellen and her friend Ciara drove our Honda Fit to visit friends at the University of Vermont, a roughly three hour trip from our home here north of Boston.

At about 10:45, my wife, sitting next to me, received a call on her cell phone, and I heard the hysterical voice of a young woman on the other end. Tricia's eyes opened wide and without a word she handed me the cell phone. It was Ciara. [ For what I was about to hear I in no way blame Ciara. Given what had just happened to her a few minutes before it is amazing she could even operate a phone at all.]

In the old days they would have called her "hysterical." Between sobs I could hear phrases like "the car swerved" and "I'm so sorry" several times. It took about 10 seconds of soothing talk for me to get her to calm down enough to answer the one question I needed answered - was anyone hurt? In those 10 seconds I tried to push away from my mind the implications of the fact that it was Ciara calling me and not Ellen, that Ciara was saying how sorry she was  - and that Ellen's was not one of the voices I could hear in the background. But I could not ignore those implications and I was convinced I was about to be told that my daughter was dead.

I thank God and the engineers at Honda that this wasn't what I heard. Ellen, Ciara said, had a bloody nose but did not otherwise seem seriously injured, and was at that point lying on the ground covered in blankets waiting for the police and firemen to arrive. [It turns out that Ellen also endured a minor fracture of her lower back, from snapping forward over the seatbelt. There is no spinal cord danger in the injury, and no explicit treatment. She will be sore for several days and it should heal itself over a few weeks.] Ciara said she herself was uninjured. [And it turns out she had broken her left thumb, which indicates the state of mind she was in at the time of the call.] After a few more minutes of conversation I told Ciara I would be driving up immediately and would also try to contact her parents. I left a message on her home answering machine telling the story as I knew it - leading with the fact that there did not appear to be any serious injuries.

At the time, and during the drive up to Vermont, I didn't feel anything one way or the other about what had happened. It was just as though I were driving up for one of the many pickup/dropoff runs to college.  I even continued listening to the audiobook I've been enjoying while running. That may sound callous, but it is something I have become used to as the way I naturally respond to stress. When I was younger this emotional distancing worried me. Was I some sort of monster? Doesn't a normal person feel something in such situations? I've reflected on this many times since and concluded that, yes, in some of the cases where this emotional distancing has occurred to me - indifference might be a better word - it is worrying and I should be worried about it. (I may write a post on this sometime, for it was through this that I learned the distinction between the spiritual and the emotional.) But at other times it is in fact a good thing, for it has allowed me to keep a level head in times of crisis. I take no credit for that because it's nothing I consciously developed; it just happens. It could have just as easily been that I fall to pieces in a crisis.

I didn't actually start to feel anything until I saw Ellen lying in bed in the hospital room. And the feeling was elation or rather joy. The words of the Gospel at the top of this post came to my mind. While she was out of sight behind a closed door getting a CAT scan, I also began to feel the emotions I should have felt during Ciara's original phone call. A sick feeling at the pit of my stomach like I had just been punched. The hope that what you are in is merely a nightmare from which you can wake up, fighting with the knowledge that this was indeed no nightmare.

But for me it was merely a nightmare, and when the door opened up and I saw her again, I woke up from the nightmare and experienced again the joy of seeing her talk and smile. These emotions alternated for the next few hours, along with emotions that are true enough to have become clich├ęs: Feeling like you had a reprieve from a death sentence,  feeling like you are truly appreciating someone for the first time. And there was also a deep pity for the mothers and fathers that weren't as fortunate as I was, and for whom the nightmare was not merely a nightmare. All these emotions finally began fading away in the drive back home. Maybe fading away because Ellen was simply sitting next to me.

The particulars: It appears that Ellen overcorrected from a drift, then overcorrected from the correction and ended up rolling the car on the interstate in Vermont. The Fit tumbled and, we think, also impacted some large boulders in the median that tore off the front end. Neither Ciara nor Ellen remember the accident itself, only the moments before and then finding themselves upside down in the car off the highway (the Fit ended up on its roof).  The car was a comprehensive wreck but the passenger compartment remained intact. I've still got a daughter (and a daughter's friend) because they wore their seatbelts and Honda knows how to design a car. And there is always the rosary I kept in the cupholder.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I just saw the Disney film Cinderella with my daughter. I had heard that it respected the tradition and irritated feminists, so, being a lover of the classic fairy tales well told, I didn't want to miss it. I was not disappointed. [Everyone knows the story - and there are no surprises in that regard - but if you don't want to know some of the nice touches Kenneth Branagh added don't read on.]

Cinderella tells the tale straightforwardly, with enough fresh interpretations to keep the well-known story interesting, yet without compromising the integrity of the tradition. For example, the Fairy Godmother is first seen as a poor and somewhat disgusting beggar woman. Cinderella, having just been denied an opportunity to go to the ball by her stepmother, is despondent as the years of oppression she has endured finally overwhelm her. The Fairy Godmother as beggar woman asks her for some milk; Cinderella immediately puts her own problems aside and serves the beggar woman, who sloppily slurps down the milk. Only after allowing Cinderella to reveal herself through this act of charity does the Fairy Godmother reveal herself.

A fair amount of time is spent on backstory, providing details on how Cinderella ends up living with her stepmother and stepsisters and tying up some loose ends. For instance, if the stepmother is so nasty, how did her good father end up married to her? Cate Blanchett is terrific as the stepmother, and in one of her final confrontations with Cinderella, tells the story of what happened to her. She is twice a widow, once before and the second time with Cinderella's father, and the loss of two loves has embittered her and, finally, twisted her into a villain. And in fact we see a degeneration of the stepmother as the film goes on. We first see her as she marries Cinderella's father, and at that point she is hardly an out-and-out villain, although she is clearly no innocent. It is only after Cinderella's father dies that she descends to the point of no return. There is a wonderful contrast here with Cinderella, who has also suffered two losses, first her mother and then her father. But Cinderella refuses to allow tragedy to embitter her.

It is the theme of that refusal that makes this interpretation of Cinderella unique and powerful. Its origin is also told in the backstory when Cinderella's mother, close to dying, reveals the secret to life, which is to "have courage and always be kind". She insists that Cinderella vow to remain true to these ideals, which, naturally, Cinderella tearfully does. The linkage of courage and kindness is profound, for it takes courage to be kind. It also answers the feminist criticism that Cinderella is merely a passive victim awaiting rescue by a prince. This Cinderella is not passive, but she is not active in the manner of worldly overcoming approved by feminists; instead she is active in the manner of the Gospel, answering hate with love and cruelty with kindness. It is not easy for her, and it is only by recalling her mother, her mother's wisdom, and the vow she made to her that she is able to endure. While the stepmother gradually becomes a complete slave to the bitterness and envy that consumes her, Cinderella remains free by the active fidelity to her ideals.

But there is more to it than that. Cinderella's mother also links courage and kindness to magic - that is, a transcendent hope. Here we have the purely Christian element in disguised form. And it is just here that the secular/feminist criticism has some bite. Suppose that no Fairy Godmother arrived when Cinderella was despondent after being denied an opportunity to go to the ball. Then isn't Cinderella just the doormat the feminists say she is? Branagh's manifestation of the Fairy Godmother as a beggar woman helps to answer this. Cinderella still treats her with kindness despite her despair and reveals the depth of her character, a character that will endure even if there is no such thing as fairy godmothers. The stepmother and stepsisters are driven by circumstance, imagining a future with the prince that is even more unrealistic than fairy godmothers. And when those worldly outcomes don't turn out, they are destroyed, as the stepmother destroys herself in her bitterness. Cinderella's character, by contrast, a character developed and formed in terms of her commitment to her ideals, endures despite circumstance. If there are not fairy godmothers Cinderella will remain who she is; melancholy perhaps but consoled by the memories of her mother and father. This is further reinforced after the ball, when Cinderella begins to reconcile herself to the possibility that she will never see the prince again. The memory of the ball, she decides, will be added to the memories of her mother and father and will be enough for her. This is the summit of pagan or non-Christian virtue. In a world without the Gospel, despair is not inevitable, even if the love we ultimately desire is not attainable.

But there are fairy godmothers or, to interpret the allegory, Christ did rise from the dead. The last shall be first and the first last, the meek shall inherit the earth; these are not mere hopes but truths. Cinderella's virtue is good in a world even without fairy godmothers; but in a world with them, it opens her up to a destiny not available to the vicious, and not because the vicious are vicious but because they have no time for fairy godmothers.

Some other nice touches from the film: On alighting from her carriage, Cinderella is momentarily hesitant to climb the steps to the ball. "I am really a common girl, not a princess." Her footman answers - "And I am really a lizard, not a footman. Let us enjoy this time while we can." Nice. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand - and nature is swept up in the redemption of man.

The film ends with Cinderella forgiving the stepmother - forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.