REMEMBERING DORA

She died years ago – on New Year’s Eve. That’s probably why I’m thinking of Dora Ronca today (New Year’s Eve, 2020 as I write). She was the Gypsy Violinist, Vaudeville legend, “last rose of summer.” I believe I interviewed her in ‘76. The nation had turned 200. Dora, at 97, was nearly half as old – but slender, be-rouged, be-jeweled in flowing skirt, her aquiline face bordered by witchy strands of black-dyed hair. I was Norwood Bureau reporter for the Daily Transcript. A local merchant told me of the old lady with the great story who regularly wheeled her shopping cart up Dean Street, and lived in a modest Cape with her widowed niece.

She was an outrageous flirt, patting the narrow sofa space next to her by way of invitation. “I’ve had many beaus,” this nonagenarian told this twenty-something reporter, “but I never cared for any of them – until you.” Charmed , amused, adhering to future pandemic-era social distancing protocols, I smiled, reached over and accepted from her long tapered fingers a plastic sack of jumbled memories – news clips, photographs, reviews by hyperventilating early 20th Century show biz scribes describing “the handsomest girl in the extravaganza, a “stunning brunette with a wealth of black hair, large brown eyes and a fine figure” decked out in faux Gypsy regalia – head scarf, sleeves of red velvet edged with ball trimming, dress embroidered in white chrysanthemums as she performed “a crashing Hungerian melody” with “fire, abandon and verve” on her exquisite 1645 Stainer violin.

The gypsy persona was Vaudeville shtick. Dora was French Canadian, if anything (Roncoeur) One reviewer-wag thought her name, Dora Ronca, made her a cigar, but added, “her name is the worst that can be said about her.” The clips revealed that she’d shared the footlights with better known legends – Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, then just a “droll juggler.” Asked about them, she said, “yes I know them.” No past tense. To Dora they were still out there , still performing.

She’d played Boston, New York, Paterson, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, Paris…Newspapers ran obituary for her Boston Terrier. A Syracuse musical instrument dealer named violin strings in her honor. The plastic sack contained, among other mementos, a receipt for a meal in Monte Carlo.

Vaudeville faded, her career ended, the violin disappeared. The rest of her life’s drama was blank. The plastic sack contained an unopened letter returned from WWI-era France informing her that a soldier-correspondent had been killed in action. A lost beau (and I’ll be she did care for him). Her last husband – there had been many – had been military, so she had VA privileges. Months after my story ran, she fell ill and was admitted to the VA hospital in Providence. (New Year’s Eve.)Her niece told me Dora looked up at the hospital building as they wheeled her in and said, “I played here.”

At the funeral home viewing, I saw laid out before me a very old woman with cropped snow white hair – not the fiery, flirtatious rock star of yore.

It was at the Columbia Theater in Cincinnati, November 4, 1906 that she played her violin sweetly as the audience sang sadly, “Tis the last rose of summer, left blooming alone. All her lovely companions are faded and gone.”

Goodnight and Happy New Year, Dora. It was fun.

ONE DUMB ANNIVERSARY

This day, December 30th, is a peculiar “anniversary” for me ( the 47th by my count)– and it’s very peculiar that it sticks in my memory. It’s the day I (accidentally) set the Rubbish Room ablaze at the Elm Farm Supermarket on Morrissey Blvd. Yes, an accident. Dumb accident, though. My punishment was to clean up the mess.

I was a bundle ( or bag) boy at the time at that neighborhood market where my brother Doug had worked before me — and I really enjoyed the uncomplicated business of filling up a customer’s paper bundles (no plastic in those days), loading them into trunks and backseats, cadging the occasional tip. (Maybe I should have made a career of this. I’d been trained as a cashier but wanted no part of handling money and ultimately was granted my request for demotion. I’m not much of a capitalist.)

These were, as it happens, somewhat grim and traumatized times at home and in the world. My father was mortally ill with cancer. And the whole universe was still recovering from the shock of a Presidential assassination a little more than a month before. I guess I was finding a little gleeful escape in my after-school workaday chores — and especially when, periodically, I’d get assigned to burn rubbish in the Rubbish Room off the back loading dock.

Boy, did I love that! Solitary labor in a windowless cell of concrete walls, wildly stuffing collapsed cardboard into a huge furnace. I’d whirl and pivot as I hurled, jammed or otherwise stuffed collapsed shipping boxes and cartons of every dimension into the huge open maw of that raging beast. A supermarket generates tons of empty cardboard boxes, as you can well imagine.

(Just so you don’t think I’m totally weird or suffer from pyromania, I believe all my fellow bundle — or bag — boys enjoyed that occasional assignment of unsupervised work around a warm furnace — especially in winter — away from the cold managers, cranky customers and blustery external elements in which we were compelled to chase down shopping carts left at odd extremities. But they may not have thought of it, as I did, as a kind of ballet or ritual — or perhaps ever gotten as reckless as I did at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1963.) I’d always love the challenge of cramming as many boxes into the furnace as possible — to the point where you’d see no fire. Then the flames would slowly start gnawing away at everything until fire really raged — and I’d push a button and lower a heavy steel door, ending any danger that hungry beast would breath fire out into the room.

When the fire had died down, I’d push the “open” button. Up would go the heavy steel door, in would go more junk.

It was Christmas time and all the waxed boxes from frozen Christmas turkeys were piled high around me. Boy did they burn! Occasionally, a bit of flaming debris would pop out into the room — and occasionally ignite more debris. No problem. I’d hastily pluck up all the burning matter and pop it into the furnace. Occasionally, more than one little fire got going. Again,no problem. I’d gingerly pick up ALL the burning stuff — I wore heavy gloves — and pop it all into the fire. I guess this added to this rote exercise a minor thrill of danger — the same sense some otherwise sensible citizens might relish at July Fourth backyard fireworks festivities.

But I wasn’t counting on any fireworks. And on this particular December afternoon, one fiery little bit of trash after another got going and my ballet suddenly turned into a fire dance. As the title of a currently popular novel says, there were “little fires everywhere.”

Up to that point, I’d reveled in the sense of “control” I’d always enjoyed while “playing” with that fire. But now, I was introduced to the sensation of facing a fire “out of control” from my own carelessness. And now there was smoke — lots of smoke. And now more fire. Then — everything seemed ablaze, and I was forced out onto the loading dock, looking back in at an inferno. Smoke was now belching out into the open air.

I went (calmly) into the adjacent meat department and (calmly, sheepishly and shamefacedly) announced to the guys in bloody white butcher coats, “ah, fellas, there’s a fire out there.”

What followed had a little air of comedy. The meat men quickly joined up a hose, hooked it to a big running sink and charged for the dock. They jerked up short at the swinging doors.

Time for the real hoses.

Soon the air was full of the sirens. I guess it was BFD Engine 20 responding from down Neponset Avenue. It was, ultimately, a minor fire that took minor effort to extinguish Water was blasted into that little concrete room, leaving a charred sodden mess in its wake.

Lesson learned. Don’t play with fire, master Wayland.

And — don’t forget to recycle. It keeps cardboard away from the likes of me.

SLOW COUNT

Somewhere in The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton writes: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.”

The year 2020, which is creeping to a close, contained very few adorable trivialities and one grand and damnable calamity — the pandemic — which opened like a sinkhole beneath us.

I must, as we slide down toward the socially distanced ceremonial finale in Time Square, get hold of Chesterton’s The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, which, I’m told, contains this prophetic line: “Politicians do not understand much, but they understand politics. I mean they understand the immediate effect of mobs and movements.”

We’ve had mobs in 2020 and, for movements, the disingenuous rabble organized under the ameliorative and deceptive title, Black Lives Matter. Of course they matter! So does the nuclear family which BLM has targeted for disruption. You have to read down pretty far in the group’s manifesto before getting to the alleged reason for its founding, i.e. police violence against blacks. (As for the nuclear family, political commentator David Brooks wrote a protracted argument in favor of re-imagining the nuclear family in Harper’s. I read it. I was not convinced. Far from it.

Which reminds me of another Chestertonian bon mot someone turned up for me in G.K.’s collected essays: “Politicians will not make a land fit for heroes to live in. It is heroes who make a land fit for all the other poor people to live in; even such poor little people as the politicians.”

Touche’

Now, let’s imagine a socially distant mob in Time Square doing a very, very slow countdown….10…..9……8…..7…

Backwards! That was 2020 alright. And it looked so good, so promising last year — so balanced and symmetrical up there in lights and in the headlines. Not long after the lights faded, the ink dried on those headlines (on what few broadsheets remain on what newsstands remain) and the page refreshed on our laptops and iPads, 2020 turned into annus horribilis. We’re still dealing with the hangover.

But our hopes are young, even if we aren’t, in a decade that’s still young.

Happy New Year!

AND SO WE BEAT ON, BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT….

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and the only light was the shadowy moving glow of a ferry boat across the sound…”

The beginning of the end — of Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carroway’s closing meditation on Jay Gastby who’d come a long way to that “blue lawn”of Long Island to pick out “that green light” at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock….”He must have though his dream was so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, back there in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night.”

Not every word perfect, all from memory.

It is the day after Christmas. It’s all “falling action” in the story of this fraught year now.

Will this republic be pulled apart as it journeys into a new year and regime change? Can it sustain itself in the face of these atomizing forces? That’s how that keenest of observers, Joan Didion, exploring and writing about the scene in Height Ashbury in 1967 (that putative Summer of Love), diagnosed the entropic forces at work among the baby boomers nesting there – as a process of “atomization.” We are being reduced to our particulate parts as a nation, i.e. ground to fine powder. And it ain’t now, nor was it, really, in ’67, love potion or fairy dust.

I was, in fact, working in the mountains of California as a Department of Interior maintenance man during the summer 0f ’67, at a ranger station and visitor center where the Sequoia seed that could, over centuries, grow up to be the largest living things on earth, i.e., the sequoia redwood, was preserved under a small plexiglass dome that I polished daily. Nature, tall and redolent and mysterious and full of promise, was my companion. I would like to get back out there to my old workplace for nostalgic reasons — see again what I guarded during the Summer of Love as it raged in San Francisco Bay. See that enshrined seed that, under that little dome, won’t grow into anything — just go on, growing our wonder.

So (as Nick ends his bittersweet rumination sitting on that blue lawn looking off into the Sound of night) he declares that “we beat on ( then, in 1925, and now, as we head into this new year), “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. “

And we debark nevertheless, facing forward….tell me the alternative?

HOPES AND FEARS…

It is pre-dawn, the darkness and silence before the dawn of Christmas Eve, 2020. The silent morning before the Silent Night. How silent, ever, is that night, when, year after year, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee….” ?

There will be some unpeaceful musings in what follows, for which I apologize. It is a time, as Christmas dawns, to love, forgive, pray and unite. But I have these fears…

Fears — and who can doubt it, reality being reality — that as we edge ever closer to the end of this year, our pandemic or political woes are certainly following us like a stalking beast and will stay with us across the New Year meridian. For some of us who care about religious freedom and conscience rights, the intense political fears are just beginning, for we shall see inaugurated the putatively “Catholic” rosery bead-rattling Joe Biden, a visibly border-line senescent past-his-prime pol, pretender and (forgive me) well-known blow-hard , along with his running-mate, our future co-leader of the free world, the latter a culture-bound California liberal who can giggle and charm her way through an on-air interview with hip-hop DJs and sing the joys of pot but who apparently regards membership in one of the worlds largest religious charitable organization, the Knights of Columbus, to disqualify one from public service, especially the federal bench. I’d venture to say that while Kamala Harris is very familiar with Snoop Dog,et al., she’d never formerly heard of the Knights until she learned that a judicial candidate from Nebraska, whom she was in the process of grilling, was a member of the Knights and therefore suspected, by virtue of that membership and his Catholicism, to be oppose to a woman’s sacred right to chose to abort her unborn child. She would never believe any judge could separate their personal beliefs from their judicial obligations to follow the law — simply because her idea of a judge, I suspect, is precisely someone who’s liberal political preferences must override any law. (The right to an abortion is, I acknowledge, the law of the land — but so too is a judicial candidate’s right not to be subjected to a religious test when he or she seeks federal employment.)

Future President and Vice-President Biden and Harris plan to pack the court, if at all possible, until it reflects, not the rule of law, but political preference. If the results of two Georgia election run-offs go the Democrat’s way, they will have the power to do that and ever so much more.

But I digress, bitterly and out of the hopeful spirit of the season and this Christmas moment. Sorry. Yesterday, backing out of my driveway, I looked left as I rolled slowly back, unaware that an unknown neighbor in this basically very friendly community was coming — perhaps a little too fast — from the right. He leaned on his horn and yelled something unpleasant. I don’t know what; just know it wasn’t pleasant. That moment, in my mind, dimmed the coming glow of the Christmas lights that had yet to be switched on and illuminate street after street. I wanted to yell at the vanishing fellow motorist, “Merry Christmas!”

I will drive north to Tallahassee, Florida today — about a five hour drive up long, peaceful stretches of U.S. 19. I will spend Christmas Eve in the pleasant company of friends close enough to be, for all intents and purposes, relatives. I will attend Christmas mass somewhere on Christmas Day.

Hope will conquer fear, I pray, for those hours. We must keep praying, all of us, that hope goes on conquering fear, hour by hour for as many hours as their are in a year or a lifetime. And I must open my heart to the hope that those I see as arrayed against me, politically, socially, culturally, religiously — against me and all those who share my hope and my beliefs — will undergo a conversion of heart and, heart joined to heart, truth and love triumph.

Too much to hope for? Christmas is always about hoping beyond the visible horizon. Just ask any child.

Merry Christmas!!

DARK AND EVEN DEEPER….

I wrote up the December 21st (Winter Solstice) piece for Facebook and wound up revising it and tightening it a bit — and realized, prodded by some fond FB friends, that I’d neglected to include in my little meditation the amplifying incident on Monday night of the night time conjunction (at least to the human eye) of Saturn and Jupiter. How marvelous! And how sad that I only thought of it near midnight and, sadder still, did not go out to search for it. Many said they could not see it, but some did, even at dusk when it truly appeared how we imagine the Star of Bethlehem to appear. Yes, I never should have left out reference to this starry event.

But here’s how I wrote of the Solstice in Facebook:

I’m one of those blithering fools who waxes all gooey over the solstice – the sun on its northerly or southerly trek. In June it’s that day when daylight lingers on rooftops and lake surfaces, seemingly never to die away. We hope for such a day without end. Today, December 21st, is about darkness, the shortest day of the year. And this, I submit, is another time of hope. Somewhere, sometime, some ardent English teacher might have graced our ears with some saint’s or famous poet’s thoughts on light and darkness, even as we dozed, dreaming of the closing school bell. Perhaps, if we were lucky, it was Robert Frost’s, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I love that poem – a dead poet’s undying meditation set, we are told, on “the darkness evening of the year.” That would be this evening, therefore, if we are going strictly by science. The solstice. Or perhaps it was just the darkest evening in the poet’s troubled soul. We all have those dark nights. The woods, he tells us, are “lovely, dark and deep.” Robert Frost knew about deep darkness. He was, in the words of another of his poems, “acquainted with the night.” That is bad darkness, where dark thoughts and deep, dark memories fester, where dark deeds hide in dark spaces. But this winter darkness watching a neighbor’s woods fill up with snow “between the woods and frozen lake” seems a good darkness, like the darkness before the movie show or the big concert or when we turn the lights out for the singing of Happy Birthday over the cake and candles or the darkness that enhances the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel – or the glow of the Hanukkah candles. The earlier that darkness comes tonight, the sooner we see those multitudes of Christmas lights brightening every country lane and city square. We are a few days from what is, for many of us, a very Big Birthday and the singing of Silent Night, Holy Night. It’s been a rough, noisy, unholy year. Plenty of death, sickness, broken or delayed hopes, dreams and bank accounts – bad darkness. Let’s enjoy, while the solstice lingers, the peaceful darkness of the deep woods, church, synagogue, mosque or home sanctuary. For, the poet had to move on reluctantly from those dark, peaceful woods, as we must ultimately, from that dark, peaceful place within us, realizing, perhaps also very reluctantly, that we have, as the poet reminds us, promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. Yes, miles to go before we sleep….

DARK AND DEEP….

It is the shortest day of the year. Who has not heard, at least once in their lives, Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”…. The poem indicates that this meditative pause happened on “the darkest evening of the year.” That would be this evening.

There will be abundant darkness after early nightfall tonight all over the land. But no snowy evening where I am (in Florida). though here and there some northerners have scattered about their Christmas decorations some artificial snow — an act of nostalgia for something that was not always pleasant or easy to deal with, but which, in the early going, can be one of Christmas’s gentle visual enhancements (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…”)

Wherever we are, even in the depth of the city, there is some wooded arbor, some darkened space we can pause and stare and meditate after nightfall — some place that is “dark and deep.” It might be a chapel. It might be our own little room.

I’ve written of unpleasant darkness, of light deprivation, of the black seal that covers over acts and places of evil-doing. But the good darkness of the theatre before a satisfying play or the room where we have lit the birthday candles on a cake, of that proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” — that darkness before the dawn, that darkness allows us to enhance and appreciate the light. Perhaps the white — or whiteness — we dream of at Christmas or anytime — is light. We are four days from Christmas, where is manifested, in its dark, deep solemn recesses The Light. The Ultimate Light. And in silence we are able to meditate on it — Silent Night. O Holy Night.

It has been a painful year of fear and pandemic and bitter political divides and destruction, absurdly, carried out in the name of “equality”– a dark year in many ways, waiting and hoping for the light and peace of mind, peace over the land. That pain, that negative darkness cannot be dispelled easily or, perhaps, until the end of time, or the end of our individual lives when, if we have faith and have persevered, we hope, along with St. John Henry Newman, for “a safe lodging and peace at the last…” For, as Newman so beautifully put it, “the night is dark, and we are far from home.”

We have been told there will, someday, be an end of time. But the light — the candle, the flame — that Christmas light in our hearts is called Hope. We work in hope of brighter moments, or changes of heart, including our own and, of course, changes — sometime painful changes — in the conditions of our personal and national lives.

That is the hope that can lighten our heart, God’s own light, as we wait for Christmas, stopping by those woods, so “lovely, dark and deep.”

SPEAKING OF DARKNESS…

Soon the solstice will be upon us, primordial night. Happily, lawn to rooftop lighting brightens hearth and home across hemispheres. Thank God for those holiday lights! We mortals don’t like darkness. Spirits dip and lies thrive when the light dies. But light, lives and truth are about to die in my native Massachusetts. The Massachusetts House and now the Senate have voted overwhelmingly to codify – i.e. cast in icy permanence – the lies codified nearly half a century ago in Roe v Wade. Lie number one — that, in defiance of all modern science has taught us, we aren’t extinguishing a human life during an abortion or that, body and soul, woman aren’t being emotionally, if not physically damaged by the experience. Or that men meant to be fathers don’t, however privately, share the pain or, in failing to do so, commit a grave offense against justice and the obligation to love and support those with whom they — we — are intimate.

Massachusetts already swings the gate wide for abortion rights. This bill rips the gate off the hinges, News accounts unfailingly make it sound like a “strengthening of reproductive rights” (where but in Red China are we denied the right to reproduce?) or a matter of enhanced “health care.” Strange how we hide our lies. Among other outrages, it would eliminate the requirement that women (girls) under 18 gain parental or judicial consent before they abort their child.

Pro-choice Governor Charlie Baker is proposing a couple of amendments and send the bill back for re-working. In effect, he’s clinging to a branch with two fig leaves as he struggles to balance himself on a very slippery slope. He’ll be accused of trying to quiet the Bay State’s faint and overmatched anti-abortion voices. But I suspect he’s hearing other rational voices in his deep heart’s core, muttering “this goes too far.” Good luck, Charlie. No distance is too far in this culture of death. I fear the blood-dimmed tide will ultimately sweep you down that slope. I pray not. Stand your ground.

I confess I long thought unplanned, unwanted life a burden on the planet and on that same hearth and home we now brighten with holiday lights. I liked being liked and being “woke” before we called it that. But you have to be Rip Van Winkle to stay truly Unwoke to such natural realities, or for a lie as large as this to survive in your head in broad daylight.

Time and again on Facebook, I see friends, relatives and former colleagues, male and female, happily cradling new children and grandchildren, delighted at all the anticipated joys, sorrows and challenges we humans bring into the world. We’re a beautiful, indispensable mess, we mortals.

Yes, I’m Catholic and I know “liberal” Catholics often take their stand against the Church on the seemingly antinomian pronouncements of the current pope. Well, good old Francis just yanked the rug out from under them. He’s appalled and fighting hard against an abortion-on-demand measure being proposed in his native Argentina. “Is it right,” asks the redoubtable Jorge Mario Bergoglio, “to eliminate a human life in order to solve a problem?” And, just in case you don’t get the point, he compares the abortionist to a “hitman”. His strongest allies are a group of women living in the slums of Buenos Aires, the very people the “woke” masses assume would want to be liberated of their burdensome unborn.

Francis’s new book is called, “Let Us Dream.” Yes — and let us live!

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

Most literate folks have heard the name T.S. Eliot. They might only know that the blockbuster musical Cats was based on verses contained in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a whimsical minor work from the man who gave us that early 20th Century dark cry from the heart, The Waste Land, a broken jumble of literary fragments and dreadful, dream-and-nightmare-like evocations and images thought to reflect the broken state of the world post-WWI.

Eliot underwent a conversion to Anglican Christianity and in the early 1930s and wrote a pagaent called, “The Rock” as part of a fundraiser to build suburban churches in England. Many critics to this day dismiss it, call it “hack work”. And critics and readers who embraced Eliot in subsequent years were probably wary of his religiosity, preferring instead to find affirmation of a pervasive nihilism in works such as “The Waste Land” or, just as likely, hoping to follow Eliot toward whatever light he’d found, though their own hearts weren’t all that invested in the journey. (Speaking of “journey”, Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is a great Christmas poem.)

But, enough. For this Tuesday of this Third Week of Advent, here are some pertinent lines from Eliot’s “Choruses from “The Rock”:

We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,

The light of alter and of sanctuary;

Small lights of those who meditate at midnight

And lights directed through the colored panes of windows

And lights reflected from the polished stone,

The gilded carven wood, the colored fresco.

Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward

And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.

We see the light but not whence it comes.

O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee.

JOY TO THE WORLD

The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation.

Everything is created so that this story can exist, the encounter between God and his creature.

Pope Benedict XVI, address at the opening of the 12 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 6, 2008

Fifteen days until Christmas.