Friday, June 25, 2010


I spotted these two girls sitting off by themselves yesterday at Latika Vihar.

All the other kids were deeply involved in the dance lesson. These two seemed deeply involved in watching - not the dancing, but something only they could see, off in the distance, waiting to be put down on paper.

So I decided to watch them. Instructive! They were intent and purposeful, their heads down most of the time, trying to capture what they were looking at and make it visible to others.

Of course, being human, as well as pretty new to the artistic life, they were curious about what the other one was doing.

 Though they pretended not to be . . .

I love these last shots, conferring with their teacher:

The joy of creation, the presentation of a work of art.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Moment Becomes A Memory

What are these two little boys thinking about? Seven-thirty on a hot and dusty Monday morning and there they are perched on a cycle-cart, gazing at someone - their father? their uncle? an inebriated neighbor? - sprawled on the charpoy in front of them.

Are they waiting for him to wake up and pedal them home for breakfast? Are they resting, in a pause between one piece of mischief and the next? Is their mother just off-camera, buying atta or negotiating the price of onions?

So much of life in India is public and active. There are endless scenes like this one - people sleeping, arguing, bathing, cooking, building, or, like these boys, dreaming and contemplating - to me, mostly just a blur on the road as the car hurtles past; to them, the all and all with me mostly just as distant a flash of someone else's life passing by on the periphery of their vision.

What a treat it is when the car slows down enough to allow a fleeting moment to become a memory: a little glimpse of life which is noted, remarked upon and stored for a possible future revelation.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On Not Using Headphones Sometimes

Like everybody else in this world, I love my own music. There is nothing quite like the little bubble one can create with headphones plugged in and sneakers on, striding through an airport or a crowded marketplace or the streets of the hood, yet totally and utterly alone, encased in a world of one's own making.

But sometimes, perhaps, it's nice to take them off, to engage with all those funny people striding through the same worlds, if only we knew.

Today, in O'Hare Airport for Day Two of my saga, I sat on a little bench overlooking one of the many tarmacs and worked on a story for my blog, without benefit of headphones for insulation or inspiration. A couple about my age sat next to me on the bench and because, I suppose, I seemed totally wapped in my own work, they chatted with each other as if I wasn't there.

I was so touched by their regard for each other, by their concern for the other's comfort. I listened as they spoke on the phone with their children (exactly the way I would have spoken with mine), and then as they took care of each other as one does in airports ("Feel like a cup of tea?" Is that sweet enough for you?").

And so, when I got up to go towards my gate, I couldn't help but tell them how they had moved me.

"I have to tell you," I said, somewhat hesitatingly, "You guys seem like you have such a wonderful relationship."

They looked up, surprised, and then both of them smiled widely and with true emotion. "Oh thank you!" the man said. "Thanks for saying that. Have a great day."

And as I walked away, I knew it would be one of their memories: the day a stranger noticed how much they loved each other and maybe, perhaps, one day when they don't feel quite so loving, they will remember how obvious it was to one who didn't know them and they will recall their best selves and carry on.

I like to think so. And if I had had my headphones on, they would have just been statues on the bench.

Teaching Anand to Cook Eggplant Parmesan

This was one of my favorite parts of the whole trip. Anand has always loved the Eggplant Parmesan I make at home, so when he got his own kitchen AND a friend he wants to impress, he asked me to teach him how to make it.

So Tuesday night, we made a list and went shopping.

OK, so that's a posed shot.

It is AMAZING how expensive it is to prepare one simple dish when you are doing it in a kitchen that is mainly equipped to boil water and make toast.

We invested in spices and pans in addition to the vegetables, sauces and cheeses. And then, of course, discovered that we could really have used a nice slotted spoon to remove the eggplant slices from the deep fry. But improvising is half the fun, as my Mom said one summer vacation at a cottage in Plymouth when we were trying to wrap Moy and Owen's birthday gifts with no scotch tape.

Anand's kitchen is TINY.

We had a hilarious time trying to find spots to put things as we worked - the salad, the fried eggplant slices, the bread), with the top of the fridge being the best option most often. It really makes you realize how lucky most of us are with spacious, well-equipped kitchens (even if that's a relative term - relative to Anand's ours is breathtakingly vast).

I had the amazing foresight to invite my sister Moy, which automatically transforms any activity into a festival.

Unfortunately, Anand and Moy are such good friends, her arrival meant he took her off into the living room for a tour while I slaved over the eggplant.

There they are. You see what I'm saying.

Did he learn anything at all? Will he be able to make it himself? At some point, being a parent means letting go and leaving the children to it.

And here's the lovely lady he wants to make eggplant for:

I wish him well. But Anand, get that broiler fixed! A well-browned top is KEY.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


(This article appeared in the June 4th issue of Commonweal Magazine)


While I took Lent and Easter more seriously than ever this year—in terms of prayer, Scriptural reading, reflection, and discipline—I didn’t go to Mass. In fact, I haven’t been since Christmas.
Most of us have our ups and downs with the church, and this is not the first time I have felt baffled and resentful. But this seems more measured, more serious. One of the precipitating incidents was Fr. Nonomen’s February 26 Commonweal column, “A Holy Order.” While he indicated his appreciation for the special gifts women bring to the church, he ended up sounding patronizing. Instead of confronting the injustices in the church, he avoided thinking about them by focusing on the good.
I believe in the church and want to remain a Catholic. I can’t imagine leaving, or finding a home in another faith, much as I respect other faiths. No religion is without its problems, and no human institution is perfect. But the exclusion of women from full adult participation in the Catholic Church has increasingly become an obstacle for me. I cannot understand, much less accept, the claim that gender should determine who can represent Jesus at the altar.

I can deal with the grasping after money, the popes with children, the Crusades, the persecution of witches, even the sexual abuse of children—we are human beings, and we fail spectacularly and repeatedly (as I have proved to myself on many occasions). But such sins, while institutionalized and elaborately committed and concealed, are not matters of doctrine. They don’t touch the church in its essence. To my mind, the church’s policy on the ordination of women may.

The hierarchy has at times realized its faults and errors, and has even repented—sometimes publicly, though seldom satisfactorily. But in the matter of women, it maintains its insistence on discrimination, justifying it by tradition. Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter to the bishops did more than simply reaffirm the matter. It decreed there was no room even for discussing the question. He effectively backed future popes into a corner by staking his authority on the issue.

My daughter is a brilliant young scholar (sayeth the mother). She graduated last month from Boston College, will spend next year on a Fulbright in Israel, and then will attend Yale Divinity School on full scholarship. In another world, a person with her accomplishments and interests might consider becoming a priest. She’s got depth, faith, wisdom, and compassion, plus a sense of humor, experience with poverty, and an understanding of people with disabilities. The one thing she doesn’t have...well, we all know what she doesn’t have.

And speaking of that missing item, the source of men’s special identification with Jesus, is it not instructive to recall the raging controversy between Sts. Peter and Paul over whether gentile converts to Christianity needed to be circumcised? Their argument is known even today, two thousand years later, as the “Incident at Antioch,” yet the issue itself is irrelevant now.

When does a practice become tradition and therefore unchangeable? Jesus, who had been circumcised, was gone by the time the debate took place, but both Peter and Paul felt confident enough to argue the question on its merits, because it affected the people of that time. Their final decision was not to do slavishly whatever had been done, but to adapt to the very different sensibilities of the newest converts to Christianity.

The ordination of women was not an issue during Jesus’ brief ministry. Yet he left us with principles and rules of conscience that he expected us to apply with intelligence and creativity in whatever place or era we found ourselves.

People like me are often asked why we stay. My friend Gloria says, with a sly expression, “I get what I need,” implying by her tone of voice that she does so by a subtle reworking of what is on offer.
Google “why women can’t be priests” and you’ll find that what’s on offer is a virtual quicksand of pompous verbiage and ethereal images of the Eucharist as a nuptial banquet with a male priest the only possible stand-in for the groom. This vision of Jesus has nothing to do with the demanding love, integrity, and pursuit of justice that following him requires. And it’s important to keep the discourse at this convoluted level. Perhaps people won’t notice that along with all that spiritual authority men have decided only they should have come the temporal, tangible, and delightful powers of one of the world’s oldest and wealthiest institutions. Is there any logical reason that the church’s grooms must also control the purse strings? Is there any theological basis for men making all the decisions, for the church’s near-total lack of accountability?

Ordaining women would not solve the problems inherent in any closed system. And even if it would, that would still not be the reason to do it. Peter conceded to Paul in the circumcision controversy that “if God gave [the gentiles] the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Ordaining women is a matter of justice—of getting out of God’s way.

In the Book of Habakkuk, we find this promise: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” When or if women will ever be ordained in the Catholic Church is anyone’s guess. But while we wait, we can at least dispense with the patronizing. Just as the “three-fifths of a person” concept is no longer tenable, denying ordination to women can’t be made up for by insisting on how essential we are. The problem must be confronted.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Aunt Chris

It's hard to believe that all three of the MacGill sisters have died. They went out in the exact opposite of the order in which they came in: Aunt Sheila, the youngest, left us first. Then Mom. And three days ago,  the eldest: Aunt Chris.

Here they are in the sweetness of their youth. Our Mom is the one on the right with the full-hearted smile. Aunt Sheila is in the middle: enigmatic and mysterious even as a little girl. And Aunt Chris, who died on Wednesday, is the one on the left - her expression full of longing and hidden depths: how I wish I had asked her more questions when she was still alive!

It turned out that she had left a legacy in her parish we were quite unaware of. Even the priest, who didn't know her personally, had heard of her as a formidable presence, a woman willing (one might say eager) to confront "principalities and powers" (the Cardinal!) and to insist on the rights of women as full members of the Church.

At her funeral this morning, we expected very few people.  She was old (86), and having been disabled for several years, she was no longer in circulation. But many more than we expected managed to come. Her friends were - quite simply - amazing. Vivid, articulate, loving and true.

Mary McRae brought her Holy Communion every Sunday, kept her in touch with what was happening in the parish and contained within herself a memory of the person Aunt Chris had been before her own memory began to fail and her faculties to weaken. She was her link and her anchor.

Leona Cooper, a microbiologist and a remarkably accomplished woman herself, told me: "What I loved most about Chris was her brilliance. She was a brilliant woman."

Why does it take a death for us to discover who the people we love really are?

Here's the eulogy I wrote for Aunt Chris:

Eulogies are never adequate. Each one of you will know something about Chris MacGill which I don’t and which I should have. So apologies in advance for all that I don’t say.

The size of the group here this morning is no measure of the influence Aunt Chris had on our lives or in this world.

The size of this group is actually a measure of Aunt Chris’ stubbornness, particularly in regard to her refusal to leave the city of Miami where she lived for over 70 years.

I lost track of the number of times her sisters begged her to move to the North, to settle closer to them, but though she loved her sisters, and their husbands and children, New York and Massachusetts were just too darn cold for her.  She loved the South for its warmth as well as for its gentle hospitality and grace. Miami was her home.

So she remained the magical aunt who visited at Christmas (always coming in by train - she was stubborn about flying too) and who arrived bearing wonderful gifts, and strong opinions and cigarettes and her own bottle of gin.

As children, we would line up outside the room where she slept, waiting eagerly for her to wake up: she fascinated us. She was a single woman in a world full of Moms and Dads and we watched and wondered what it was that made her tick and just how her life was constructed.

In those days, in our minds, she was simply an aunt - and each one of us has specific memories - too many to describe here - of childhood experiences which she illumined by her presence.

But now that we are adults, we realize she was far more than just our aunt or our mothers’ sister. She was a remarkable woman in her own right, quite apart from her relationship to any of us.

It began, perhaps, in her youth, when she and her sisters discovered the Girl Scouts - an organization she was devoted to and which helped develop the strong independence and confidence which marked her entire life.

In an era when few women entered radio journalism, she worked her way up through the ranks of the Associated Press. One of her proudest achievements was serving as Bureau Chief in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Here in calmer Miami, she continued to work at the AP, and was a strong supporter of the Union, of which she was a lifelong, dues-paying member. When I was 16, I lived here with her for almost a year - I remember once the clerks at a local supermarket went out on strike and every chance she got, Aunt Chris would go out of her way to make as if she were going to drive into the parking lot to shop. She would pretend to just notice the picket line and would then make a big production of backing out elaborately, beeping the horn and waving to the strikers. It never failed to cheer them and it never failed to thrill her.

She told me there was nothing in the world like the feeling of solidarity and power the Union gave working people and she never forgot her own experience on the picket line when the AP went on strike and how the sight of her single, lonely little picket sign late one night outside the office where she worked was enough to make an 18-wheeler brake, reverse and back away, refusing to cross her line to make a delivery, even though it just was to another office in the same building.

Justice and equality were tremendously important to her. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 60’s and supported farm workers in their struggle for decent working conditions. Closer to home, as her friend Leona can testify, she was a passionate advocate for the rights of women, particularly in the Church. She would have been sadly amused by the difficulty Nellie had in finding enough priests to cover the many funerals and weddings here at St Hugh’s this week. We trust she is making a strong case for women’s ordination now in the only court that really matters.

The Cursillo movement was huge for her and the friends she made during those exciting days remained her friends to the very end. Two of them, Peggy and Brian are here with us today.

In her final years, life became more and more difficult for her as her health failed and her ability to get around declined. She was blessed by the support of her long-time assistant Bertha, who died just a few years ago and, more recently, by Gennifer Buchanan, who devoted many hours to her care. We also want to thank Mary who brought her Communion every week and Anne Sheehan who came by regularly to play Scrabble with her until she was no longer able to decimate the opposition.

Justin and Maria were steadfast friends to her and their son Alex brought her joy and entertainment. Mary provided practical advice and medical consultation generously and without regard to her own convenience. Moy not only made it a point to visit frequently and to arrange for Aunt Chris to get out to Fisher Island regularly, she also ensured that she had every possible human comfort and hang the expense. Chrissie, though she couldn’t come today, thought of her Godmother as - indeed - another mother and was in constant touch with her by phone and mail.

But it is truly Christopher to whom we all feel a debt of gratitude which can never be repaid. His loving and selfless care for Aunt Chris was an inspiration and a blessing. Thank you, Chris, from all of us.

Aunt Chris loved her sisters dearly  - her twin Pat, and their kid sister, Sheila - and when they died before her, a part of her died too. Now she has been reunited with them in Heaven and though we grieve her loss, we celebrate the restoration of the wonderful relationship the three of them shared. We praise God for the gift she was to each one of us and we look forward to meeting her again ourselves one day in the company of the saints.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.