Baltimore Catechism, or Why I am a Democratic Socialist

My cousin sent me a 1949 edition of the Baltimore Catechism in mint condition. I suspect it has now both monetary and spiritual value. It is not the same catechism I remember from my parochial school days. That catechism had a dark blue cover and, to the best of my recollection, only contained questions and answers. I can still smell the thin pages of the dark blue paperback Baltimore Catechism, so fresh and new at the start of each school year. This earlier edition is thicker with a tan cover and includes all the traditional Catholic prayers, explanations of every answer, and accompanying Scriptural quotation. At the end of the book, a complete text of the order of the Mass and explanations of each part are given along with all the prayers in Latin. I have enjoyed reading at random the questions and answers.  After the distance of too many decades, I appreciate what a comprehensive foundation the Baltimore Catechism provided. The Catholic faith is so fully explicated here. It is but one path that an individual can choose to lead a moral life.

I also have come to appreciate how memorization of these answers embedded those articles of faith in my belief system. The nun would call upon students in turn to respond to the questions that had been assigned for us to memorize. The value of memorization in the mental development of a child cannot be overestimated. It is the way we acquire language also—our mother constantly repeating words and phrases, songs and nursery rhymes to us. It is not a matter merely of indoctrination but of mental agility to memorize a poem, a prayer, or the Gettysburg Address. Even in high school the memorization of a Shakespearean soliloquy was required.

In looking over the answer to the question: What must we do to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves? along with the two following questions that expand on the answer, I realize Catholicism formed me to be a Social Democrat. The answer states:  To love God, our neighbor, and ourselves we must keep the commandments of God and of the Church, and perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I remember standing up to recite the answer to the first of the two crucial follow-up questions. The nun asked: Which are the chief works of mercy? I dutifully responded: The chief corporal works of mercy are seven:

  1. To feed the hungry
  2. To give drink to the thirsty
  3. To clothe the naked
  4. To visit the imprisoned
  5. To shelter the homeless
  6. To visit the sick
  7. To bury the dead

These corporal works of mercy pertain to the care of the body. The nun proceeded to the next question that directs the care of the mind and/or spirit. She asked the student seated behind me: Which are the chief spiritual works of mercy? Jim obediently stood up and answered: The chief spiritual works of mercy are seven:

  1. To admonish the sinner
  2. To instruct the ignorant
  3. To counsel the doubtful
  4. To comfort the sorrowful
  5. To bear wrongs patiently
  6. To forgive all injuries
  7. To pray for the living and the dead

So to translate this to what is happening on the political scene in my country today, I am enjoined to provide a home for the refugees seeking asylum in my land. I refuse to allow children to be confined in cages. I provide the needy food, shelter, and clothing. I insist that all citizens who are sick have free and/or affordable health care. I support quality public education for every citizen and access to free and/or affordable post-secondary education. In regard to the spiritual works of mercy, I do not remain silent in the face of lies. I point out violations of justice and decency. And I agree with Nancy Pelosi that those who scandalize the young must be admonished but also must be prayed for in all humility and sincerity.  I am not writing this to be or to sound sanctimonious, but to uphold what morality means regardless of religious affiliation.  In doing so I pray to adhere also to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that the Baltimore Catechism elucidates—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The catechism goes on to enjoin the cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I am not wrong to demand these virtues in the leadership of my country. I can see over the expanse of the years that Catholicism fed my patriotism and my thirst for knowledge. Furthermore, I expect that leaders practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. An ignorant leader cannot instruct. A leader without compassion cannot comfort the sorrowful.



Where Bound after Inland Waters?

I recently published my twelfth novel, Inland Waters. Whenever I complete a novel, I feel like it is the last one I will ever write. Thus, it is also said, that each day should be viewed as the first day of the end of one’s life. With this book, I am more confident than ever that I have completed my last navigation into novelistic waters–not that I think it was an unsatisfying voyage but because my true love is a float upon a still pond rather than a long oceanic passage. That serene pond is the realm of poetry.

All my novels have admittedly been relatively short books as novels go, rarely exceeding three hundred pages, rather than extended circumnavigations of the global seas. I am not capable of writing a tome like Les Misérables nor do I wish to attempt a 1400-page saga. In this latest novel I zoom in on a small community situated on the southern shore of Lake Superior representative of American culture at this point in history to tell an age-old story in my inimitable fashion that salvation occurs with one individual interacting with another individual in the imitation of Christ.

Since I am old frog writing in a remote pond, a broad readership is beyond my reach, or indeed, my ability to gain. From time to time I offer free ebooks on Amazon for friends and acquaintances as a feeble effort at self-promotion. I am constitutionally unfit both by nature and my advanced age for the amount of time and energy marketing demands. Therefore, I send this message in a bottle upon the vast cyberspace sea and remain here in my log house secluded in the Flathead Forest to contemplate what my next writing project will be.

I have indicated what it will be already. I will embark upon the Sea of Poesy.  However, in anticipation that this may be a swan song, my last grand literary aria, it will be a verse-novel along the order of Anthony Burgess’s Byrne, Alexander Puskin’s Eugene Onegin or W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs.  I am not so vainglorious as to believe I am of the stature of these writers or can achieve what they have in the annals of literature, but I am that bookish frog working in obscurity who reserves the right to write what she wants to write–not for an audience, not even for the fame she may have aspired to in her younger days, but because she cannot keep herself from singing. I return to my first love–poetry.

I have chosen the subject of this verse-novel–a woman in American history, whose name I do not want to reveal this early in the process. She intrigues me because so many points in her biography parallel my own experience. On the verge of another national election in which so many women are poised to win high office, she is a harbinger of their emergence and importance on the political stage. This poetic narrative will be no longer than my shortest novel.

I return inland to the still waters–to my pond. Rib-it, rib-it!


Trumpery: Building Vocabulary with Wilkie Collins

The surest way to permanently limit your vocabulary is to never look up an unfamiliar word. Limiting your reading to contemporary news articles or popular books written at the fifth-grade vocabulary level is another way. Fortunately, I have loved reading Victorian novels since I was in seventh grade. At that tender age I had no patience in pausing to look up a strange word in the dictionary, preferring to glean meaning from the context for the sake of getting on with the story. With a Kindle e-reader all I need do is place the cursor before the unfamiliar word, and presto, the built-in dictionary calls up the definition.

Needless to say, Victorian novels are not written at the fifth grade level. They are a trove of new additions to my vocabulary and some archaisms that could be restored to common usage. I stumbled upon Wilkie Collins after watching a PBS broadcast of the BBC production of The Lady in White, his 1860 novel. Although I had heard of this novelist, contemporaneous with Charles Dickens, I had never read any of his books. I picked up his 1868 novel The Moonstone and could not put it down. It is a delightful whodunit that strikes me as obvious precursor to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Quirky characters like Gabriel Betteredge, who reads Robinson Crusoe as his Bible, and Drusilla Clack whose inveterate Christian proselytization and distribution of religious tracts add a layer of humor to the mystery that unfolds around a stolen diamond bequeathed to the lovely Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. Love interest, opium addiction, suicide, and class distinctions complicate the plot.

But on to my main thesis of vocabulary development through the reading of richly-textured Victorian novels. Numerous times throughout The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins uses the word trumpery. Here is  the definition from the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary:

n., pl. -ries 1. something without use or value. 2. nonsense; twaddle. 3. Archaic. worthless finery, —adj. 4. of little or no value; worthless, rubbishy. [1425-75; late ME trompery deceit < MF tromperie = tromp(er) to deceive (MF: to trifle, play with. orig. to play the trumpet; see TRUMP) + erie -ery)

As can be imagined, my mind quickly leaps to the trumpery on full display on the world stage and written across the headlines of newspapers and magazines at home and abroad. Of course, the infamous Trump family! The German immigrant Friedrich Trumpf (variant Drumpf) who listed his name on the 1910 US census record as Fred Trump had no inkling what future significance that change in the spelling of his surname would have. His grandson is now the quintessential example of trumpery in operation, speaking nonsense and twaddle, a person of little or no value in promotion of the welfare of his countrymen or the international reputation of the United States. He blows his own horn all the time, trumpeting his vainglorious delusions. All wind–just like a blowhard, an incorrigible windbag. Everything that issues from his mouth is useless and valueless. Trump is the trumpeter, trumpeting out trumpery for all to see and hear. He has caused the coinage of a new word–trumpism. This is the practice, the attitude, or the mindset to willingly accept lies as truth and to deny facts and scientific evidence in order to cling to unfounded opinions for emotional rather than rational or logical reasons. It is also the preference for and the tolerance for listening to incoherent babble–the twisted syntax and repetitious, low-level vocabulary of an ignorant man–rather than the desire to be uplifted and inspired by oratorical eloquence.

It is not surprising then that I am not going to listen to the trumpery to be broadcast tonight from the US Congress–the State of the Union Address. My time is more productively spent reading my next Victorian novel.


1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich

Nothing is more delectable than a 948-page book about books for a voracious bookworm. In his introduction James Mustich states that there is nothing comprehensive or authoritative about his list; in fact, he invites debate about his choices and his omissions. What can be said about his selection of 1000 books is that his list encompasses a spectrum from classical to contemporary authors that covers a wide range of genres including memorable children’s literature and is evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction. Mustich seems to have an affinity for the memoir, selecting many forgotten gems from that category. He does not neglect mysteries, science fiction, biography, nature, or travel books. The entries appear alphabetically by author’s name or by title if unattributed. A miscellany of special lists at the back of the book organizes the selections under such intriguing categories as: Read in One Sitting, LOL, Cities in Fact and Fiction, Offbeat Escapes, Novel Pleasures, Soul Food (to name just a few). Actually, there are more that 1000 references, because after each featured book he recommends similar books for further reading. In addition, he footnotes other notable works by the same writer. The general index includes every author and title either featured or footnoted. Reading his short essays on authors and their books is a pleasure in itself, possibly as delightful as reading the books he describes. He has a way of capturing the essence of the work, imparting his fascination with it, and providing more than one reason for reading that particular book. There is something for every reader’s taste in this mammoth compendium of worthwhile reading.

This book is a feast for the bibliophile. A younger bookworm might attempt the audacious task of reading all the books. At my advanced age, as I read through the delightful entries discovering books I had never heard of and enthusiastically reading what he had to say about books I had already read and loved, I compiled two lists: “To Read” and “To Re-Read.”  The books on my re-read list were selected because I had first read them when I was very young, and in retrospect, I do not think I appreciated them fully. Mustich’s commentaries made me feel I should give them another shot.

As a bookseller and a reviewer of both old and new books for the mail-order catalogue A Common Reader, Mustich is highly qualified to compile a list of 1000 books to read before you die. This book was more than ten years in the making and represents a life-time surrounded by books. After I heard Mustich talk about his list in a television interview, I knew his book was the one book I needed to buy next. Cozied up in the recliner, I have passed hours on end sampling this or that entry.  Mustich’s descriptions of books that he has enjoyed beg for re-reading for the sheer artistry of his graceful and fluid prose. His enthusiasms are contagious.  Mustich has written a resource for every book club looking for its next month’s selection.  It definitely has served as an invaluable guide to the creation of my own two lists for the rest of my reading life, particularly because I am predisposed now to read more of the enduring books of the past than to grab the latest best-seller off the shelf. Countless other readers have found those tried and true books illuminating; consequently, they have the potential of furnishing the greatest rewards.

Literary Ghost at My Table

During interviews prominent authors are often asked what dead writers would they invite to a dinner party at their house. If I were to be the hostess at a gathering of literary greats, the one notable guest I would want at my table is Walt Whitman. I would seat him at the head of the table.

I would interview him. He would do all the talking and I would do most of the listening as he responded to my main question: What do you think of America at the end of the year 2018?

I can only conjecture his responses and that would be an interesting exercise. Based on my re-reading of what is called his 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, I can speculate on what he would say. His thoughts on the state of the Union are particularly pertinent in the light of current events because he viewed himself as the quintessential unifier, the universal androgynous man, who heralded the promise of greater and greater democratic vistas. He sang the vigor and vibrancy of a nation stretching from sea to shining sea. He sang the virtues and the dignity of the common laborer, the builder and the shaper, of the future. He encompassed the vast panoply of Americans in his song of himself. Unity in diversity was his anthem.

Would his eternal optimism prevail in our tabletop talk? How would he see the current occupant of the White House contrasted with the serious Illinois rail splitter who could also laugh at himself–the man in the stovepipe hat who visited the troops at Antietam and the wounded in war hospitals?

“Mr. Whitman, will democratic institutions survive the assault on the rule of law and the freedom of the press?” I ask.

“Call me, Walt,” he says. His face is somber and sad like Honest Abe’s at Gettysburg. Walt’s old lips begin to move. “The man I loved said once: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time.'” He pauses and continues, his eyes assuming a hopeful glint. “Some of the people were bamboozled into thinking a fool could rule well.  The attacks on democracy like the secessionists’ attack on the Union cannot last, because the tide of history is not on the side of division. The reserves of sense and sensibility will yet arise from the depth of the American spirit to remove a despot and demand justice for all. It is our history; it is inexorable despite shipwrecks and drownings in our course. The alarums have sounded; there are those hurtling toward the breach to rescue democracy. I cheer them on; I yet sing them on to victory. They are brawny and brave, muscled and sinewed for the task. They have built our bridges, paved our roads, erected a great city on the Hudson, on the Potomac, along the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans. They toiled in the blast furnaces of Pennsylvania; they have mined the coal in West Virginia; they have launched the rockets from Cape Kennedy, which I was not alive to watch but viewed from my perch above it all. Take heart, lift up your spirit, for there remain reserves of energy yet in this America I hear singing.”

“Then this is a temporary setback?” I say.

“Despots are not loved. Despots eventually are brought down by their own fatal flaws. Time and again we have seen this. So shall it be ever. Lies are snares that entrap the tellers. This I believe; this I proclaim, and so should you also. Look to the noiseless patient spider to learn that the web’s gossamer threads of the soul will extend and hold. The interconnections among all species, all climes, all ethnicities, all ranks and files, will be recognized. I found the common ground and so shall this generation. I endured four bloody years, tending the amputees and shell-shocked, wounded myself in soul, but through the turmoil and the sorrow, the nation was renewed and lived to flourish. The tide comes in; the tide goes on; on Paumanok Island I watched it roll. That is the way of the world; that is the assurance of survival, of life everlasting in the cradle of time. As it was then, so shall it be now. The nation will endure.”

“That is a hopeful message amid all the chaos,” I say.

“I saw chaos once too, and it departed, the shattered fragments reconstituting into a more perfect union–not perfect–more perfect, I repeat myself, and if I do, so shall it ever be. Endless cycles moving toward perfectibility. When all around is destruction, hold fast to the floating plank of hope. Thus spoke that lanky, dark-suited figure in his second inaugural address: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’  As we approach the year 2019, the task facing the nation 126 years after my body gave up my spirit to the ages is still to bind up wounds and unite our diverse population in the chant of freedom. Here again in this prosperous and bountiful land, we must rededicate ourselves, one and all, to the revivification and extension of democracy.”

I pass a serving plate to my guest, “Help yourself to more turkey, Walt.”

He chuckles. “You forget. I need no more food for the body.”

Then I thank my dinner guest for offering me his food for the soul. “Please come again, Walt,” I say.

“I shall. All you have to do is summon me. You will find me under your feet and in the blade of grass. I am here.”

The vision of his bearded face vanishes from the head of the table and I am left in peace, holding his volume of poems between my hands.

The Magic Mountain: A Novel for All Seasons

Over the last three months I have read this book through twice studying its multifarious meanings in the beautifully-wrought translation from the German by John Woods. The title was familiar to me, as it is frequently mentioned as essential to the western literary canon. My conscience pricked me when I realized, as a septuagenarian and a literature major, I was guilty of never having read Thomas Mann’s novel, hailed as the most influential work of twentieth century German literature. The Magic Mountain was first published in 1924. Mann received the Nobel Prize in 1929. It is a hefty tome that demands mulling over dense passages laden with symbolic and philosophic portent. The sense of humor that Mann injects into weighty themes is delightful, if at sometimes macabre.

What is magical about this mountain? That is the question that constantly ran through my mind as I read. The mountain is magical because time is obliterated there. The mountain air has a transformative and soporific impact on Hans Castorp, who visits his cousin in the Berghof sanatorium located in the Alps and lingers there for seven years. Is it the seven-storey mountain of legend? What wisdom does Castorp gain from his long stay? Questions like these bombarded my consciousness and persist.

The Berghof is populated with patients from around the world. In a microcosm of Europe it seethes with bizarre characters sick in mind and in body. The two doctors who head the sanatorium are as peculiar as the people they treat. The rivalries, the division of the tables into ethnic groups, the disputes, and rampant nationalism mirror Europe on the brink of the Great War. The stiffness, intellectualism, and militarism of the German national ethos receive special treatment in the twin characters of Hans Castorp the engineer and Joachim Ziemssen the military man. The disputatious philosophers–Settembrini the Italian and Naptha the Austrian Jew and converted Jesuit–represent another dichotomy. They fight for Hans’s soul, but he eludes being trapped by any one ideology. In miniature the seesaw relationship between life and death, between love and hatred, are enacted. With the outbreak of World War I, Hans can no longer retreat from the forces infecting Europe just as he could not escape being infected by the languorous isolation on the mountaintop. He joins the soldiers in the trenches. The open-ended conclusion, a graphic depiction of combat, leaves us to guess whether Hans dies on the battlefield or survives.

It is singularly propitious that I am reading this particular novel in light of events on the American scene and at the exact moment of the centennial marking the end of World War I. The day I write this is Veterans’ Day, originally celebrated as Armistice Day. The illness, a tubercular disease borne on the air, known as nationalism has re-infected the political environment at home and abroad. The cure is not to be found on a mountaintop, although it is appealing to flee from the flatlands of contention and political involvement. Relevancies to contemporary events pop up from chapter to chapter. Relevant to me personally is the fact that I live in a mountain retreat, presumably immune to civilization’s contagion. Here I have sought healing, peace, the solitude to contemplate and to meditate, to study and to read–I am a simulacrum of Hans Castorp.

The novel is divided into seven numbered sections and these sections are further separated into titled subsections. In the subsection “A Good Soldier,” the last one of section 6, Settembrini and Naptha engage in one of their long debates.  Settembrini’s statements in this passage remain the most memorable and relevant today for me:

For the man who loves his fellow man, there can be no distinction between what is political and what is not. The apolitical does not exist–everything is politics . . . .The social problem, the problem of human coexistence is politics, is politics through and through, nothing but politics. And the man who consecrates himself to it–and he who withdraws from that sacred task does not deserve the name of man–belongs to politics, foreign and domestic. He understands the craft of Freemason is the art of governance. (p.505-6)

The practice of any art requires dedication, education, experience, persistence, and character. When politics is viewed as an art, national leaders will appear again who practice politics as the noble profession it can be again.

A vocal opponent of Nazism, Thomas Mann emigrated to the United States in 1939 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1944. Yes, he was one of those immigrants–targets of fear mongers today– who taught at Princeton University and who lived in Los Angeles until 1952. The Magic Mountain unavoidably reflects the political climate of the times. In this regard, for great writers the apolitical does not exist.

Happy Endings

I find myself curiously in need of stories with happy endings. Not the ones that end with “they lived happily ever after” in saccharine fairy tale fashion along the lines of the scullery maid marrying the handsome prince. I’m thinking of the kind that does offer hope, that enlightens, or inspires in a regenerative way.

Typical plot resolutions include:

  • The main character changes for the good through achievement of some self-awareness or improved fortunes.
  • The main character stays the same and the status quo is preserved. (At least he doesn’t kill himself but lives unhappily ever after.
  • The main character dies either of unnatural or natural causes.
  • The author affords an ambiguous or open-ended conclusion, meaning the reader guesses at the character’s fate. I like to call this the stalemate ending.

There may be other types of endings, or variants of these basic models. In any event, no others come to my mind. The benefit of an open-ended conclusion of a story is that it leaves room to write a sequel.  Or another author decades later can seize the opportunity to write a novel-length epilogue for that story. In this day and age, I prefer the happy first alternative. I crave to see the characters experience some light at the end of the tunnel and emerge into the sunshine. Oh, well, Pollyanna me!

My burning need for happy endings perhaps arises from the wish to believe that most people do learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are correctable. The question is how many mistakes does an individual have to make before he corrects course. The story of a bumbling idiot who never learns from his mistakes would veer toward a comedy. However, I am not in the mood for a lot of slapstick laughs nowadays. I am too chapfallen at the reality of a buffoon elected to high office in the United States. Consequently, my optimistic hope persists that a portion of the American electorate will learn from that mistake.

Disregarding the reason on the national scene to wish for a happy ending, there are other reasons to esteem happy endings in fiction. They nourish the soul; they lighten the load; they brighten our path when in our personal life we feel too dismayed and disheartened to cling to the hope that ultimately even evil can work for the greater good of the individual soul and the world soul. In times like this, I cannot feed on distress and disaster. I have to gorge on stories of courage and endurance. I want stories in which truth prevails over lies. I crave to read of spiritual growth and self-awareness triumphing over vice and ignorance.  This is not entirely fantasyland, for in natural disasters people do rise to the occasion to help their neighbors, acting more courageously and unselfishly than they ever had before. In dark times I need to be uplifted and inspired, so I must turn to writers who hold up a beacon, ones that restore my belief that nobility still resides in human nature, that illustrates that a man has a spark of the divine as well as of Mephistopheles.

If it is true people do choose what they want to believe, then concomitantly they choose to read what supports those predispositions to believe this or that. However, with self-reflection they can also achieve some self-awareness to realize that they are catering to their inherent prejudices and then choose to exercise more dispassion. A core disposition I have is that we possess an internal autopilot that signals us to change course when we realize we have made a mistake. Those who choose to ignore the warning and stay on the same course will have an unhappy ending. Those who heed the flashing red light choose to have a happy ending.