On Bishop Finn

I was sitting at church listening to a priest talk Bible tonight when I thought, I really don’t believe in clergy.  Awkward.  Especially as it is my secret retirement plan to become clergy.

Our priest is kind and thoughtful and smart, I should say, nothing against her, or any of the other clergy I love, but the whole concept.  I don’t know.

Perhaps it is common knowledge my thoughts on bishops are, Why?  And the idea that they are all knighted one after another from St. Peter is a lovely but silly idea.  I mean, spiritually, tradition passed down, sure, but who ever knew God, capital G, to be contained to ceremonies and handshakes?

And the idea of a pope is actually offensive to me.  Seeing the pope, when I was in Rome, all I could think was that people thought he was closer to God than I was, and that is offensive.

My Lutheran upbringing either formed me well, or fit me well, maybe both: we had bishops in administrative form only, in my experience anyone could hand out communion if she said the right words, and in a pinch, anyone could baptize, leading us to enjoy baptizing (some of) our cats.

(Later I turned Episcopalian so I could kneel and kiss crosses.  Basically.)

Today Bishop Finn resigned.  Finn has been a specter hanging over many of my Kansas City Catholic (and former Catholic) friends.  Any time we talked church matters, I would express my sympathy.  I have no personal outrage about his particular crimes– he enabled awful things to continue, and he was caught, and he was punished.  I heard and felt just as much sense of disrespect, that in a position of leadership he had directed and not led.  That he did not listen.  He kept his position of leadership and was unable to rebuild relationships within the church.  That’s what really gets me.

A long time ago he should have seen he was making his people weaker, not stronger.  When people aren’t listened to, it creates an incubator for infection.

I don’t believe anyone has authority on spiritual matters.  I do listen to people whose sense of these things is in harmony with my own spiritual experience.  I listen to strangers.  I listen to my life, and texts, particularly The Bible, but other works of art, too.

On the subject of clergy, then, I am an extremist sort of Protestant, I wish we would rotate who did the ceremony and who gave the speech.  But then I know a lot of people don’t want any responsibility like that, don’t feel qualified.  Maybe they should.

I just hate the sort of hierarchy that naturally follows from one person being the person up front all the time.

Again I love many people who are clergy, and becoming so, people who seem perfect for such a role, ready to be nurturers and speakers and contemplative, it is not about that, the effect on them, so much as it is the effect it seems to have on others.  As many times as clergy tell people they are not God, people want them to be.

Jesus had the same problem.

I know: now I’m really in trouble.

The leadership part of teaching weighs on me, and I’m constantly reevaluating it, what is my responsibility, what is the kids’.  What do I have to offer them.  When to step back and let them make a mess.  When to discuss and when to just say no.  Oldest child stuff, too. Problems with authority and problems being authority.

Anyway I know that listening is always where to begin.  It starts relationships, offers possibility for diagnosis, and sometimes even cure.

National Catholic Reporter on Finn’s Resignation

Young American

IMG_0078A couple of months ago, I was on the subway, and in a classic liberal fashion, I was talking out my guilt to some innocent bystander, and I said, “I don’t think we should teach about the Holocaust any more.” What I meant, I realize now, was: “I can’t teach about the Holocaust. I can’t do it.” When you tell me something is hard to do, I am usually inspired.

This places a close second to the evening that, at closing time, instead of going somewhere else to make out with a charming Jewish boy, I instead castigated him for not knowing about both creation stories, and directed him to go home immediately and study Torah.

I can’t do it. I really can’t. I don’t have the balls. Or the guts, or whatever it is you need. I am too without armor. I don’t have nightmares. Maybe if I did, I could.

When I was studying the Holocaust, I shivered and I wandered and there was not enough yoga or prayer and I got too drunk and art was more like food to me than usual.  I could hardly eat, though.

And hearing about anti-Semitic violence reminds me of all that.

I read that some white guy had gone crazy and started shooting outside the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City. It took me a while to feel it. Then I did, and it hit me in the same place where I felt it when my students got shot four years ago. The violent deaths all hit in the same spot with the same kind of sharpness. Cancer and Alzheimer’s and heart attacks are different, an ache.

I was at the JCC for work, most recently. They have a day care center where we did research.

We also did research at the federal building’s day care center, which always reminded me of the one in Oklahoma City, and the photos of the wounded kids being taken out of it.

I’m sure I was also at the JCC to pick someone up, or to see someone perform something, when I was in my Jewish groupie period.

A crazy white guy also shot up the parking lot of my Kansas City Target, ran into the mall where I had gotten my photo taken with Santa and the Easter bunny.  He went in there and kept on shooting.

This is our Christian season of mourning. Three days til our biggest mourning day.  All the sermons, I realized, in the four long days I’ll spend at church, all the sermons will be about this.  The priests are writing them now.  “Our Jewish brothers and sisters.”  They will be in all the prayers.  “The victims of the shooting,” at my old church where we had a candle lit for every person killed by “community violence,” and the candles got lit, one by one, every year.

Yesterday I felt like I was on vacation. It was seventy degrees and I wore a dress. I went into The City for this literary festival. I never bothered with such things in Kansas City, but one funny side effect of being here is that I have all this room in my life, and I get to decide what goes in it. I spent four hours or so listening to people read and tell stories. I thought I hated readings because if you don’t like the work, you are stuck there, unlike an art show. I didn’t mind too much when the work wasn’t great, though, I was happy to be out of the house and entertained and sort of social without having to work at being social.

In line for the bathroom, the woman ahead of me was someone I knew. She was in my session at the conference last week. Small town.

One session was about music venues of New York that have shut down. It seemed very cool, and God forbid anyone should try to be cool, but I was hungry, and that was what was happening at the place with the food. So I ate and listened.

One woman had bleached blonde hair and wore a pink hoodie and said she had gone to Sarah Lawrence. I went to Sarah Lawrence. She was a scholarship kid, she said. I was a scholarship kid. She had to scrounge for money for the train into the city. Seven dollars each way, it was, I think. She had an internship at the Village Voice. I, uh, did not.

And I wouldn’t have wanted one. While she was having these drug-softened and drug-enhanced adventures in a New York club so fabulous that she was asked to recount the tales at a literary festival, I was soberly reading St. Augustine and making pilgrimages to the Met.

At least I did a little underage drinking. At least I wandered into some sex shops, saw some good drag. But goodness, I was so afraid, afraid of sex and all manner of drugs and other people as well as myself. She probably was, too, but I kept cautious, thinking that would protect me, and she acted out, and we were probably more the same than different.

Then I was home again, and New York was no longer mine.

Instead of learning about art and art scene downtown (I think it was still downtown then, though probably creeping to Brooklyn), I learned in Kansas City. Instead of a hungry sort of ambition, there was a haunted sort of impudence. People were still poor and scrappy, but there was much less flow. There were not choices of scenes. If you liked art, or you were a writer, there was what there was.   There wasn’t all this extra stimulation, people from all over, all these places to have adventures. You had to, much more so, make your own. There was a solidity to things, a steadiness, that was frustrating and also, probably, good for me.

Do I wonder if I missed something? I do.

I did sit at those readings and think, a couple of times, I have read at a thing like this, and I could have written something better, funnier, more engaging, for this occasion. That was a nice feeling.

At the end of the nightlife eulogies, the woman next to me said, “Did they talk about Mud?”

“I think it was mentioned,” I said. “But no one really talked about it.”

She explained she was not a music writer, but had been there for another event. “I was in this booth and had this forty-five minute chat with someone and he had his hat down mostly over his face, we had a nice conversation, and then he looked up, and it was David Bowie.”

“That’s a great story,” I said. I wanted to ask her more about it, but I didn’t know what to ask.

I still wish I had danced to “Young American” when I was in London and I was one. It was a minor playlist oversight on the part of an otherwise lovely Nigerian DJ.

I am sorry, sort of, that people flew me out to New York three years ago and put me up and taught me about teaching the Holocaust and I didn’t do much with what they gave me. We all get gifts we don’t know what to do with.

Pictured: Iowa somewhere, I think.  I had no idea how to illustrate this one.

Here, There

A new gallery opened last night in what they are calling the Stockyards District.  Bill Brady is showing artists from here, there (New York) and everywhere (LA), and word on the street (in the Star) is that the space “rival[s] many in New York.”  Whatever that means.  When they pull out pistols, of course Kansas City would win.  No one shoots anyone in New York anymore.

At any rate, I had the feeling I needed to be especially well dressed and smell especially good.  Maybe we’ll get more national attention (post Nelson expansion, post Kauffman Center), but it will have a big fat cow head on it.  At least the cow is cute and friendly looking, in spite of his looming execution.

I liked two pieces at Bill Brady: one with two skulls and a bunch of pulling, tense triangles, and one slashy color study with a composition I couldn’t quite figure out.  There was a tall pile of “YES”es that reminded me of “Yellow Submarine,” and made me wish there was a full bar graph of different answers: “MAYBE MAYBE MAYBE MAYBE,” “NO NO NO WAY.”  Maybe maybe maybe I was annoyed because they were already out of wine at 7:30, but they had a lot of work that didn’t interest me.

The space is indeed largest in the area “in volume,” (I had read that in the Star article, I think), a distinction so odd I think it’s meaningless.  The Tate Modern has volume, but this kind of volume doesn’t seem all that useful.  The ceiling was so high, and the room so square, I felt like I was in a trash compactor.  I know.  That’s me being weird.  It’s a great big white box, and that is great for a lot of art display.

I think of New York as the most masculine city, but maybe Kansas City is actually the masculine one.  New York is looked at, and Kansas City looks.  One of the great joys and trials of being a woman is that you are looked at.

The Dolphin, one of our most reliable galleries, had one of its strongest shows.  Straight ahead of you, there’s a painting of an ashtray and a virgin cigarette and a gleaming shot glass, as clean as God’s fingers.  (That’s Arthur Miller’s simile; sorry, year five teaching “The Crucible.”)  I loved the execution of that one.  Such sharp edges.

In the front room, a series of photographs reminded me how Kansas Citians are lookers and not looked at, as the feminists say, we act instead of appearing.  Us at the opening of the Kauffman Center.  Us at a school board meeting.  Our streets.  Our bluffs.  Our Loose Park, those plummy pink flowering bushes.  My intersection of Gillham and 39th, an “x” I see every single day, with the tennis courts glistening.  The compositions were quiet.

I think if I were younger, I would have thought they were weak, but now I permit some quiet and I have patience for some subtlety.  Where I live is being looked at.  My sycamores, some of my favorite trees in town, who are on my usual walk, were there on a cloudy day.  It hurt me a little that they were naked and the light was so thin.  Those trees in summer are as juicy as a Gauguin.  They could beat any Polynesian gooeyness.  But there they were, talking quietly like they were in a library, with the swing someone hung dangling between a few people in coats.  People who are not looked at, people who look.

The largest room has a painting by one of my favorite painters, Eric Sall, who is messing with peach paint.  I used peach in some paintings for my bathroom.  It’s such a horrible color, it was a great challenge to make something I liked.  His compositions and his textures always interest me.  Also in that room was a perfect array of diamond shapes in intriguing colors.

Notes from the Occupation

What is it?  The 99% Occupy thing consists of: hippies (wearing sandals, playing catch), libertarians (fun to drink with, but rather standoffish), conspiracy theorists (shiver), lefties who finally have some people to hang with and satisfy their collectivist longings (cute), union folk (with their union ball caps), and a lot of dogs.  The dogs seemed to be having the most fun.

I went by the Kansas City site last night.  I missed the march.  I just Occupied until the speakers started.  An old guy set his lawn chair next to me, and asked when the speakers started.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I just got here.  Did you not march, either?”

“I can’t,” he said.  “I have nerve damage in my feet from Vietnam.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I was at the first one of these, you know.”

“Here?”

“In Selma, Alabama.”

“Wow,” I said.

One guy had a sign, “Lenin 2012,” which I found adorable.  I have always had a romantic attachment to the old-school, means of production, Emma Goldman kiss my ass left.  I’m an extremist at heart and a pragmatist in action.

Of course there was a drum circle of sorts, and a folding table full of books with suspiciously plain covers.  There was a beautifully organized committee chart.  The guy manning that station was giving a radio interview as I walked by.  There was the woman with the button table.  Unfortunately, I didn’t fall in love with any of the buttons.

First, the artist John Salvest, who created the IOU/USA monument out of shipping containers, spoke.  He thanked the crowd for bringing the piece out into the world.  Sadly, we were sitting facing the IOU side.  I like the colors of the containers, and the varied patterns on their sides, the occasional white numbers or brand names.

There were some speakers from an urban environmental group, and they talked about how the crowd was lacking faces of color because a lot of people of color had given up.  Also, I thought, a lot of people are at work, even on Sunday evening, picking up every dollar they can, or spending their only day off with family.

Another speaker last night was an economics professor at UMKC.  I was delighted for him.  How often does an economics professor get to address an enthusiastic crowd?  He talked down the notion of abolishing the Federal Reserve, insisting that it was a symptom, not the problem.  The other professor who spoke read a list of demands, including health care and free (fully government-funded) education.  I was cool with almost all of them.

But: I can never get on board with the “Americans are the best workers in the world” business.  You know what they call people who think they are born better than everyone else?  Nazis.  We don’t have to be better than everyone else to have self-respect.

I also don’t understand how the government is supposed to force companies to keep jobs in the U.S.  Even for me, the leftist, that sounds like a huge, complex, and potentially dangerous kind of government intervention.  Globalism seems to have as many benefits as risks.  And I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle.  Maybe they could stop subsidizing gasoline so much, so transportation isn’t so artificially cheap, but the government can’t tell businesses where to do their business.  I just don’t see that working.

That said, political movements like Occupy do work.  The political activism of the ’60s and the socialist movement in the United States (we used to have a real one) accomplished a great deal.  We have racial integration and we got out of Vietnam.  We have unions, even if they’re weakened.  We have Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare.  Leftists movements haven’t made this a leftist country (it’s still quite conservative), but they have pushed us that direction.  They have made real changes, and this one might, as well.

(Photo is from facebook, posted under  “everyone is welcome to use.”  I only sketched.)

Gangsters

A story of Tom Pendergast: “This was back in the ’30s.  These kids were freezing.  They slept in their coats.  They had no coal.  The mom went to ask Pendergast for help, and right away a truck pulled up with a huge load of coal.  Every night, ever after, before they ate dinner, this woman would include in the prayer, ‘And God bless Tom Pendergast.'” Ah, the good old days of family values and small government!  The storyteller and I rolled our eyes.

For the last six years, I’ve taught at a local history program, here in Kansas City, focusing on 18th and Vine.  A teacher should show interest and enthusiasm, but mine had worn out.  So I focused on gangsters this time.

The awkward thing about teaching kids history is that so much of Kansas City’s greatness was fueled by lawlessness and vice.  A lot of people got beat up and shot near election day under Pendergast, and a lot of musicians had jobs and swapped ideas.  It’s also awkward that many of the inheritors of the legacy of the civil rights struggle are wistful about segregation’s charms.  “Everyone got along then.  There wasn’t all this crime.”  Well.  It depends on how you define “crime.”  Just as slippery a term as “gangster.”

In, say, 1923, heroin was legal, but alcohol wasn’t.  My Nebraska great-grandfathers closed down his tavern and sold liquor out of his barn instead.  Criminal?  Betting “on the numbers” and shooting craps in the subterranean Subway Club on 18th Street was illegal, while today our state governments use the very same games to pay for critical basic services like schools.

The best part of this year was being taken on a walking tour of the area by a local expert.  I had never done that before.  The hotel next to the famous Musician’s union was one of the last whorehouses in Kansas City, he said.  There’s still a battered sign that says, “Clean rooms.  By the month, week, or hour.”

He once took a group of Japanese tourists to the spot, and two women ran out with razors in their hands.  “Who’s the instigator?!  Who’s going to jail?!” a third, maybe the madam, yelled.  Our eighth grade students were hot.  It was 95 degrees, heavy humidity.  Thank goodness we were talking about prostitutes.

We heard some stories about the guys who ran numbers.  Maybe they picked up the mafia’s cut from the clubs?

We knocked on the door of the musician’s union, the Mutual Musician’s Foundation.  I’ve been in there with students for the last six years.  Sometimes we have a musician play for us and let the kids play along.  Sometimes they tell stories about how they learned to play instruments.  The union and the black newspaper, The Call, are the only two institutions still vital after all these years.  In the last couple of years, though, there has been a lot of fighting and turnover at the Foundation.

Someone opened the door a crack, we asked to come in, explained about the kids, and the answer came back, “No.”  She slammed the door.

Maybe there were gangsters in there, maybe criminals.  Nah.  I think they were just rather negligent in keeping history open to everyone, and welcoming people to our city’s greatest treasure.

Niche

There was a hawk sitting on the window air conditioner, three stories up.  There was me.  But otherwise the place was dead.I kind of figured there’d be a lot of liquor bottles, but mostly the empties had held water or pop.  Westport Junior High has been closed for a year.  Across the street is Westport High, a place much mourned at its closing.  I didn’t hear much about the junior high.  It’s a red brick building with plenty of architectural flourishes.  Bold, proud ionic columns on each side of the main door, and those curls like Hawaiian surfing waves roaring over it.  At some point, they built a clumsy-looking parking garage to the west of the main building, and a bridge from one structure to the other, about three stories up.

I walked around the whole place.  Imagining a kid getting pushed down the steps.  Kids screaming and waving down at people below from the bridge to the parking garage.  Kids walking around there in the worst state of their bodies, in the worst moods of their lives, enduring the worst social traumas.  In the back, there’s a long, paved strip of blacktop, only one runner’s lane wide, that looks like it might loop around the field back there.  It doesn’t.  It just stops.

The school where I work is much plainer.  It’s also red brick, but our only decorative features are a few images around the front door: an oil lamp, an open book, some Latin that I don’t know what it means.  Inside, we have the empty niches where saints and Jesuses used to preside.  There are still crosses embedded above them.  Once a kid was perched up there during passing period, and I didn’t think that was such a great idea, so I said, “Do you know who used to sit there?”  He looked up at the cross.  “Oh.”  “So maybe you don’t belong there.”  He smiled and got down.

In places, it’s crumbly, but our school is alive.  I went by today to pick something up, and the voices of the students are, as always, scampering around and bouncing up new expressions.  There’s usually someone in the garden, picking collard greens– a kid who doesn’t want to be at home and couldn’t get a summer job.  In the library, there are kids gossiping about what happened at a party last weekend, and what someone said on facebook.  The summer school kids burst out at 12:30 and zip in to bug the library kids.  There’s football weight lifting and volleyball practice and cheerleading practice and open gym and people coming in to pick up bags of produce from the garden for tonight’s dinner.

I love schools, places where people were vulnerable, and places where they changed, for good or for ill.  At my school, I know the stories: my mother, my aunts and uncles, my friends, friends of friends, people who only exist in stories that I pass along over pitchers of beer– they’ve given the walls character, and it pleases me to see it still so alive.  We don’t need perfect schools in the inner city.  We just need schools that are healthy enough spots for kids to grow.

News Flash

Title.newsflash.jpg

Yibbet Turman here, reporting from Kansas City, Missouri, where something almost happened, but it turned out nothing did.  The world is looking a lot like a Chopin nocturne, due to the fact that everything almost got destroyed, but it turned out nothing did.  The trees are still looking solid and strong.  Except that maybe they’re not.  The clouds are just sitting up there now, scenery again, not the main event.

In a local coffee house, the owner and his kid and the patrons headed across the street to where they could get a basement, and sat it out with twenty old ladies wearing brightly colored pants.

In another local coffee house, a patron holed up in the bathroom with all the baristas and got to know them maybe more than she wanted to.

(What can I tell you?  I’m highly connected to the world of coffee.)

In a local high school, a student objected to the defensive posture she was ordered to take, claiming that her back needed protection, but her behind did not.  Students fiddled with their cell phones, begged to know how soon they could go to the bathroom, and teachers patted shoulders and sneaked away to watch the radar on a television hung above the treadmill, and made jokes amongst themselves that really weren’t appropriate.

In a local hospital, a day-old baby and a day-old mom were taken into the hallway, away from windows, and the mom planned to tell the baby the story, when she is old enough.

The people in Kansas City have just had the shit scared out of them because Joplin got it so rough.  Joplin is a town we have heard of.  The people who died weren’t just the unlucky in trailers and driving out alone.  And their town, all the buildings we think of as being “real,” making the place the place, lots of them are just gone.  We’re used to shrugging off tornado warnings.  Right now it’s harder to resist imagining your house as a pile.  What would it be like, folded down, and scattered?

Spring is not easy.  To get to spring, here, we have to ride out the clashes of the clouds.  After our blizzard and our record snowfall, we feel like we deserve an easy spring and we’re not getting it.  Now joy is dangerous (it always was) and sun is not sunshiny, it’s the interruption of clouds so dramatic they look computer generated.  This summer is having a difficult birth.

image “borrowed” from: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Sesame_Street_News_Flash