One Woman

November 19, 2018

Every morning, on a street around the corner from where I live, an elderly lady appears with a mop and bucket and cleanses the street in front of her house. That house, between a bank and a neat, newish frankfurter bar, is a surviving fairly scarce example of dwellings that have not given over their ground floors to international telecommunication conglomerates, smart boutiques, or homey cafés. But, despite all the resources belonging to these, she is the one who impresses with her small but regular effort of neighborly conscience. She neatly outlines a rectangle of spotless paving stones that is the length of her house and bisects the street’s width. There is no air of better-than-thou exhibitionism; one feels sure that she has merely continued what her own mother and grandmother did before her when the town had not yet become such a draw to the free-spending holiday-makers who often act as though it belongs to them. It’s also an opportunity for her to have short conversations with her passing neighbors—whether lifelong or gone-native immigrants like me.

I find it impossible not to think of hers as a sort of sacrament that witnesses to a very personal civic responsibility and a loving service to her immediate surroundings—this daily simple act by a fulfilled lady in the street named Jesús.

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The news is full of truly sorrowful stories of how a President and his party’s legislative majority make a priority of something they call “tax reform,” but which is simply taking money away from the needy in order to inflate still further the riches of less than one percent of the population who live in wealth unexampled in all human history. This is to reward the people who make those elected leaders themselves rich as rewards for following the bidding of the richest of the rich.

Today, all around the world, people attending Masses hear a story commonly called “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.” Saint John the Evangelist, who included it in his Gospel (6:1–15) that was to become canonical, was clearly set on putting forth lessons that have nothing at all to do with whether or not such an event literally happened on such and such a day in Galilee (any more than the similar story about Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42–44 —also heard at today’s Mass—need be read as mere history). It strikes me that what is important to note is principles that are taken for granted in the narrative; and they are ones directly applicable to what’s so very wrong about the current push to rob the poor to give to the rich—which, while exemplified by the current Washington regime, is all too far from unique around the world.

  1. The Apostles automatically accept it as a given that the people must be fed when Jesus saw a crowd approaching and asked “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” These people are out for a day’s excursion by the lake to listen to a man whom they had seen going about doing good. They’re not in danger of starving, but it’s significant that Jesus immediately assumes that his right-hand men will agree with him that feeding these people is to be taken for granted. The contrast with what assumptions he could make about current leaders, whose very last consideration is the needs of powerless people, is already striking.
  2. Philip says to Jesus that they’d need a lot of money to go buy food for all these people: “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” So these are not do-gooders who ignore hard facts. But nothing is said about getting the people to buy their own food, nor does the question of how “deserving” these particular people might be enter into it. No one is saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
  3. No one asks why these people have come unprepared. That might be an interesting question for another day, but it has no bearing on what is seen as the immediate issue.
  4. Andrew tells Jesus that he has spotted a young boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. I don’t know if he had asked the kid if he’d be willing to contribute this food, insufficient though it was for thousands of people. If he were a budding Wall Street climber, the child might automatically say, “Hold on! What’s mine is mine and these people are not my problem.” But would you say that in Jesus’s presence? No, and the boy would know that this was the wrong gathering in which to come out with that kind of thinking. People who loudly claim to be followers of Jesus today often say much worse things, making incoherent their claims to be his disciples. But the people that we find ourselves among are often cause, as much as result, of our attitudes and behaviors. The rarified Senate gymnasium and the House of Representatives dining room don’t seem to have unmixedly good effects on their denizens.
  5. Nobody mentions long-term consequences at all, much less the give-them-an-inch-they’ll-take-a-mile principle in which the poor become lazy unless they are constantly made to face harsh reality. In the event, there was an abundance of food left over after the people had had their fill. It’s as though the writer knew that, in the future, rich societies would have the means to wipe out all the hunger in the world immediately, given even a minimal will to do so, and, with good management, would still have plenty left over.
  6. And this was no merely utilitarian help given to the people. None of this, “You’re poor and should be grateful for bare sustenance that comes from generosity of your betters.” Jesus urged them to relax, sitting down on grass that Saint John considers it relevant to tell us was lush and thus comfortable. This catering emergency was being turned into a rather nice occasion, even before the people heard the nourishing words that they had come for.
  7. And we have no record that Jesus went on to talk to them about the caring actions of his gang or to draw lessons from it. As so often, his actions spoke for themselves.
  8. Jesus didn’t hand out the food himself but depended on his followers to do carry it to the people. “God has no hands but our hands.”
  9. As for what I (a believer that “there are more things in heaven and earth. . . than are dreamt of,” certainly by me) would regard as a side issue, namely the question of whether this records a miracle or a myth: Saint Augustine points out somewhere that it’s rather silly to be blasé about the fact that a few grains of wheat can lead to a whole field that produces a rich harvest and then worry about the unlikelihood of this particular feeding of the thousands. Why marvel only at the unusual and accept without particular remark the absolutely normal thing that is equally remarkable—equally “miraculous”?

I’m no scripture scholar, much less a theologian; but I’m a person who had read the newspaper before I went to Mass this morning, where I went to be fed by what we call “the living Bread” the multiplication of which has continued unceasingly through the ages, both for the rich and the poor. It’s not as though the lessons encased in this story, as rich as the most resonant ancient myths, are hard for an open mind to grasp (somewhat like, for instance, that of the manna for the unattractively grumbling Israelites in the desert). Nor are the lessons little-known or difficult to comprehend. They have to be ignored or explained away by those who call themselves Christians but care nothing for those outside their tribe or class, including even the most innocent children about whom they can be particularly brutal. The same master who taught his first followers to look after others also did not shrink from what can sound like threats but are really just straightforward statements of the ultimate misfortune of being that kind of self-seeking character. We can’t say we weren’t warned. The illusion of total self-sufficiency always finally ends in tragedy.

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From the Molt Honorable President de Catalunya, via Twitter

 

Wednesday June 6 was the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion and day of an enormous storm in Sitges, where I live. Streets became rivers, carrying large garbage dumpsters and even motor vehicles in their rush toward the sea. My electricity was off all day until 4 p.m., at which point I decided that I didn’t have to cancel the dinner party scheduled for that evening but did have to get cracking on shopping and other preparations. My kitchen has no windows and is thus more than usually dependent on electricity for its usefulness. The first couple arrived a little before 9, and the other arrived about half an hour later.

While all four guests were having aperitifs (one couple on their second and the other on their first) I went into the kitchen for something or other and bent over from severe pain in my chest and one arm. While I’ve never seriously thought about having heart trouble, I remembered something that I had read about a suspected heart attack, closed myself in the nearest bathroom and coughed heavily, as I had read that one should do. This didn’t seem to have any effect, and I decided that whatever this was would pass and that I’d conceal it from the guests. This was a meal that was almost entirely prepared when they arrived, so I could devote myself to waiting for my pain to pass and on being as good a host as possible.

This plan fell though, simply because I couldn’t even stand up properly. I thus told my guests that, while it was undoubtedly no serious problem, I needed to lie down for a moment, while pain in my chest and right arm passed. One kind guest relieved me greatly by telling me that it couldn’t be my heart, since the pain would be in my left arm. This cost precious minutes in dealing with the situation at hand, and I will always try to remember that fact before offering pseudo-medical advice in an emergency, however kindly meant.

I lay down on the bed in a room just off the saló, where my friends were drinking and conversing amusingly and where I could hear and talk to them, but the pain, if anything, became worse. After what I now realize was far too long a space of time, I agreed to let them call for emergency help, whereupon another kind of delay ensued. The person on the other end of the phone naturally wanted address and so forth, but he or she also demanded the identification number that is required for all residents of the Spanish state. This consists of a long series of digits and letters that I have by no means memorized and probably never will. So I had to get up off the bed and go retrieve the number. After all those items of information were conveyed, the emergency person then required that they be repeated! (I was not too enveloped in pain to cry out jokingly, “If you were calling about a death, the body would be in rigor mortis by now!”)

My friends soon told me that help was on the way. It occurred to me that I needed to move into a larger room, the better to accommodate the expected help, so I betook myself to a larger room and a double bed. In what seemed only a few minutes, six men surrounded my bed with all kinds of machines and other equipment. I was having things injected through my appendages and mouth from all sides. Early on, I heard the Spanish word corazón (heart) on my right and protested that there was nothing wrong with my heart, only to hear, on my left, the Catalan word infart (heart attack), and the man on my right told me that I was in the middle of a massive heart attack. I remember little else about those moments except that I vomited, a peculiarity of mine being that I almost never do that, even if I want to. I was later told that it was normal in the situation that I was in.

The next thing I remember is being scooped up bodily by some men and being placed in a chair that was then carried through the room where my guests were and to the curb where an ambulance (and some neighborhood onlookers or tourists) waited. As I was carried out, with all the things that you might expect me to be thinking of, two things predominated: I demanded my wallet with my CatSalut card in it, which grants me free health care in Catalonia, and then my phone.

“Where is it?” asked the friend who was going to ride up front in the ambulance.

“On the harpsichord.” Unlikely though it seems to me even now, I could say exactly where my wallet was and where my phone was. I was now wearing only the black pants that I had started the evening with and knew that I’d need the former and desire the latter.

The six life-saving men now turned me over to a driver and an attendant for the trip toward Barcelona, to Bellvitge, which is just outside that capital and has the premier cardiology center in this part of the world (some telling me later that it’s the best in Southern Europe). During the half hour or so that it takes to get there, the woman in the back of the ambulance with me conducted a friendly, normal conversation, telling me how unusual it was for them to enter a house in distress and find, as she said, a nice set of guests having drinks, appetizing smells coming from the kitchen, with table all set and candles lit: “Tot a punt!” she exclaimed.

Someone would ask me periodically from then on, where my pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. With the morphine, I could tell them that the chest got down to 7, but the arm remained at 10 for hours. I was alert enough to be slightly amused by being for the first time part of that scene from so many TV dramas in which the gurney is pushed with great speed down corridors with people jumping out of the way. We arrived in an operating room that reminded me of high-level recording studios, since there were more people behind glass with computers than there were people who would have more direct contact with me. Since I was in considerable pain, it seemed that we waited a long time for the top specialist who was traveling from X (I being in no state to catch the name of the place, even if it was one that I would have recognized). Since that must have been sometime after 10:30, I wondered if he was in the middle of another typically late-night Catalan sopar.

I had been told that a catheter would be inserted into my heart through my arm (right arm), which would in turn install a stent into the principal artery to my heart. I signed something.

Being unaccustomed to such treatments (having been hospitalized only once before in my life), I didn’t think to ask how long the operation would take. This would have been very helpful to me, since I was to remain awake and wondering, “Will this go on for two hours or fifteen minutes?” I don’t know how long it took, but I did notice that, as they wheeled me into Cura Intensiva Cardiològica, that a clock on the wall registered 1 a.m. on the dot.

The chest pain was entirely gone! The arm continued to hurt for an extended period, but much less than before. Herewith, I will end the detailed account. But, as I was wheeled past the neighbor who had ridden in the ambulance, I thanked him profusely and apologized for what must have been a tedious wait, as well as for his missing (as I had, too, of course) the chicken in coconut milk sauce, etc. left behind in Sitges. He said, “They’ve eaten it,” and it made me feel happy to know that the party had gone on despite my inconsiderate suspension of it.

On the next day, one of the other dinner guests arrived with a charger cord for my phone (essential by then) just after another friend had come with another one. Never had attention felt more gratifying. I was by now realizing that my dinner guests had saved my life. If I had been home alone, I’d almost certainly have taken several ibuprofen tablets and maybe some bicarbonate of soda, gone to bed, and died. So this was an educational experience to be stored up. Later that day, I was loaded into another ambulance and taken to intensive care closer to home, the Hospital de Sant Camil in the town of Sant Pere de Ribes, about a ten-minute drive from my house, my total hospital time being five days.

Emergency over, I’m not sure when it occurred to me—but it did occur to me impressively—that, at no moment during it all had I feared dying or even seriously considered it. (I was too occupied with trying to issue instructions for my phone, health card, and thinking of the practicalities of the dinner that I was leaving to others.) I did pray while we waited for the specialist in Bellvitge and during the operation, but not for my safety—only to gain access to the company, divine and saintly, that I thus was able to be conscious of. It also provided an almost aesthetic atmosphere that wonderfully transcended the merely technological and functional one of an operating room.

After five days in which I received sobering lectures from a cardiologist, who will now be “mine” in our nearby hospital (“Part of your heart has died irrevocably. It’s now up to you to take care of what you have left and to live a normal life via healthy practices”), I found him remarkably breezy and confident in our final interview. I then put on the clothes that a friend had brought from home (sets of my house-keys now being community property) and realized that I had forgotten to ask for shoes. So I walked out of the hospital to a friend’s car, and from his car to my front door, barefoot, just as I had come into the world, long ago and far away.

It was lovely to walk into my own home and find it in good order (the kitchen having been cleaned by the generosity of my erstwhile guests, during which activity the electricity had again shut down), but a dramatic moment occurred when I went into the back bedroom from which those men had carried me. Syringe reservoirs, bloody gauzes, empty medicine bottles, and former contents of my stomach were all over the place. It was like the dwelling of a junky. I closed the door and focused instead on my “garden,” a typical Sitges patio.

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I tell this much of the story here and now, after two weeks, because hardly any of my friends abroad know that I’ve had this adventure. It’s not that I wanted to keep it from them (and a couple did get rumors via Sitgetans and other people in this country, through social media, since I live in a small town with a big reach), but I didn’t see the point of alarming them when I wasn’t capable of responding adequately to any concerns that they might have and alarms that might not have anticipated the happy recovery that I’m now two weeks into. My gratitude is great to literally hundreds of people who got wind of my attack via a friend’s post on Twitter and sent me messages (reaching even to the President of Catalonia, who sent me the message pictured above), but transatlantic communication from me was then almost entirely beyond my energies, even with our modern tools for it.

I’m a very fortunate person. Not least among the evidences of that are my friends.

 

Això respon a una pregunta que em fan sovint a Catalunya des que vaig immigrar aquí fa gairebé cinc anys

This is in answer to a question that I’m often asked in Catalonia since I moved here almost five years ago.

CLICK

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I have sometimes thought that, if you want to know, in one easy step, much about how a person was brought up, simply sit down with him or her and put a hunk of cheese between you. I’m a habitually non-interventionist person in other people’s affairs, but when I see someone cut away the rind while leaving a considerable margin of edible cheese on it, I want to jump up and take the knife out of their hands.

What does their practice mean? I’m convinced (and I’ve given this some thought) that it means that they were brought up with lots of money and no urge to economy. I’ve known extremely rich people who were at least as conscious of waste as I—anything but rich—am. I can understand the Fifth Avenue matron who goes around turning off unnecessary lights all the time (based on personal observation), but I’m at a loss when confronted with people who don’t even notice waste.
There’s a British expression of contempt that I know only from fiction: “Cheese-paring.” I imagine that it refers to us who have horror of waste.
In fact, I just Googled the term for the first time:
cheese-paring
adjective
1.
extremely careful with money.
“cheese-paring methods necessitated by desperate shortages”

This must be one reason I get along with the Catalans, since this is traditionally a chief complaint about them by the Spanish.

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We began with a new verdict in which Spanish justice justified a brutal rape. That it is of far more than local interest is shown by the fact that the story has since been picked up by media around the world; and we continued to other stories that seem to be part of the same syndrome of immunity for crime if it’s committed by the right people.

Here’s the video:
http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/266719191.html

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There have been some distressing instances recently of Spanish judges accusing people, not of actual past acts, but of presumed intentions to commit or incite certain acts deemed by the court to be criminal. From the bench, they claimed to see crimes in the future of people who were clearly completely innocent but whom they imprisoned preventatively.

Jean-Marie Vianney (1786–1859), a priest so much beloved in France that his body is still on display behind glass, earned his renown by his creativity in judging, or non-judging, others. An example of this came when a widow was disconsolate over the recent death of her husband, who had committed suicide by jumping off a bridge—her assumption being that he died unrepentant of the sin of killing himself and thus fitted himself for hell. Monsieur le Curé, far more imaginative than the despairing woman, consoled her with: “Remember, Madame, that there is a little distance between the bridge and the water.” Thus, they had no right to draw limits on what his state of mind may have been before he died. This applies to many situations in which we don’t have windows into the minds of others.

It’s no wonder that the 230 inhabitants of the little town of Ars, where Vianney served the people, became renowned for their thoughtful consideration of human responsibility, which included suspension of judgment against neighbors when it could be justified. This had such a startling effect in the decades after the French Revolution that, by 1855, the number of people coming to consult the Curé d’Ars had reached 20,000 a year.

There is plenty of evil around us, but it’s good not to assume it until we’re forced to.

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VIDEO of this program