Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Royal Wedding and Accidents of Birth

This morning I watched clips from the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey.  Pardon me while I make a pit stop at to get the names of the bride and groom. Right. Prince William and Kate Middleton. Some thoughts:

1. I wouldn’t like to curtsey to my grandmother-in-law on the way back down the aisle.

2. What’s with the forehead hats? How do they stay on?

3. Eye shadow in the brown range might have been a better idea for Kate than that Gothic dark gray.

4.  Prince William is (obviously) going bald.  Is that the result of stress or, as bald men would have us believe, a superfluity of testosterone?

Everyone looked nice, even those with forehead hats, and I was happy to see that Elton John was in attendance. I’m not hugely talented or fabulously rich or a gay man, but he always makes me feel as if I have a representative at these events—someone who might get a little drunk at the after party and speak some small truth.

When I was teaching at a community college in east San Jose, California, my classes were mostly made of first and second-generation immigrants—from Vietnam and Mexico, Central America, Africa, the Middle East. A fair number were not yet citizens.  Some may have been illegal. I had no way of knowing and didn’t much care.

Discussions in my Critical Thinking classes often wandered, or maybe came down to, the topic of birth.  Many students believed, or found it expedient to say, that America was the greatest country in the world.  Some had risked their lives to get here. If their parents both worked two jobs to keep food on the table, if they themselves worked nights and weekends while going to school, that was temporary, a small price to pay.  Eventually they would be every bit as American as, say, George Bush.

Occasionally a student—one in particular, I remember, was from Palestine--suggested that he would never be considered truly American by people who were born here. And for this reason his opportunities—it took a lot of courage to say this—might be more limited. Some students, usually also immigrants, were enraged by comments like this. People who never spoke in class raised and waved their hands until I called on them.  My native students, especially the white ones, typically kept quiet.  I don’t know if they feared the speaker was right, or looking into their own hearts, knew he was.

In the interests of transparency, in Critical Thinking classes especially, I made it a policy during the first class session to out the most general of my views on life, the universe, and everything. After that, however, I tried hard to keep them to myself.  Discussions about birth and human value almost always drove me to break my rule. “Who decides where and in what circumstances we’re born?” I said at least once a semester. “Who deposited me in the body of a white baby girl with a particular set of parents in mid-twentieth-century Sacramento, California, USA?”

Usually about half the class replied in unison: “God.”

“Okay,” I said, “maybe so, but does that have anything to do with what I deserve from life, how comfortable or uncomfortable I ought to be, how happy I am?  Did God choose my birth based on my virtues?”

Some confusion here, but most students ultimately agreed that we get what we work for, that life, starting from birth, not from some nebulous place before birth, is a meritocracy—just like the United States of America. I don’t believe that for a second, but I didn’t go down that road.

“So we have no business pretending that we’re inherently better than others or less than others based on the details of our birth?”

Hesitant agreement. 

“What if you don’t believe in God, or at least not in a god who’s the Big Master Planner? Doesn’t that mean that where you’re born, who your parents are, all that stuff, is just random, a crap shoot?”

Occasionally a student brought up karma and reincarnation at this point, and I invited her to explain those ideas to us. 

I never let this discussion go on too long.  Luck—and that’s what this is all about—is a deal-breaker for some, the first domino that knocks all the others down.  I had good reasons in a class like Critical Thinking to be luck’s temporary spokesperson, but I didn’t want to jar that first domino. “All I’m saying is that the circumstances of our births may be accidental, and even if they aren’t, unless we had previous lives--" I nodded to any Hindu or New Age proponents—“our births say nothing about our fundamental value. We don't earn them.”

If this discussion changed the direction or tenor of my classes, I couldn’t pretend then, can’t pretend now, to say exactly how.  But I remember this morning, as Kate Middleton joins the royal family of Great Britain, scoring all those wardrobe choices and fine wines, summers in Scotland, winters skiing in the Alps, stifling dinner conversations and boring social obligations, that her birth was an accident, too.  Does she deserve all that stuff? No. Do I? No. Does a child born today in the Congo or Bangladesh or Rio’s favelas? Probably not, but those new babies matter as much as William and Kate do.

Here’s where I go off the rails.

Those children matter more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April Love

April is almost over, and it wasn’t too bad. It rained a lot, but it always rains a lot in Bellingham in the spring. It even snowed once, making me think that my basement grow-light seedlings—lettuce, spinach, spring radishes, cabbage—just planted outside, would die. Most didn’t, and anyway, I’ve already got another round started in egg-carton cradles.

The other day April Love, in my Netflix Availability Unknown queue for a year, bounced to Instant Play, just in time to watch it in April.  Made in 1957 when I was four years old, and starring Pat Boone (then 23), Shirley Jones (also 23), Arthur O’Connell and Jeanette Nolan, it’s the story of an anti-social kid from Chicago, Nick Conover (note the Dickensian name), sent to his uncle’s horse farm in Kentucky to clean up his act. The horse farm is barely in business since the death of Nick’s cousin, whom the uncle is still mourning, and who alone could handle the champion trotter Tugfire. Nick’s a car guy, in trouble because he stole a car in Chicago “just for a joy ride.” On his uncle’s horse farm he revives a jalopy in the barn and shows no interest in harness racing.

On a more prosperous farm down the road live two young single women, Fran and Liz Templeton (played by Shirley Jones). You could think of them as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood or Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, but blonde. (Nearly every young woman in this film is blonde, down to the extras at the dance and the harness races.) Liz is the good-hearted, capable sister. She can drive a trotter.  Fran is the hot sister. She drives a red sports car.  Of course our Nick is attracted to Fran, thinking of Liz as merely a “good sport.”

April Love is not a musical in the sense that Oklahoma is, but Boone and Jones occasionally burst into song.  I think it's the songs that made such an impression on me when I watched this film on television over and over again, on Saturday afternoons during the sixties in Sacramento. Nick and Liz (Boone and Jones) each sing a version of a particular song that amounts to a concise summary of fifties gender politics. Nick’s version: “Give me a gentle girl, a sweet and sentimental girl, one whose smile will warm my heart when summer days have flown . . .Give me the wistful type, with eyes the soft and mistful [sic] type, one whose wish will always be to live for me alone.  For her I’d move a mountain, to her I would kneel . . .”  Jones later sings the same song, slightly reworded (“Am I that gentle girl, that sweet and sentimental girl . . ..”) while undressing at home for a shower, clever waist-level closet doors and towels showing her legs and shoulders but nothing in between.  This modest strip-tease is part of the propaganda, too.

Watching this film after so many years, nearly forty of them sexually active, twenty-six happily married, I remember now how confusing it was. I was pretty sure in my teens and twenties that Fran was the girl I wasn’t supposed to be—beautiful but irresponsible, driving her car too fast, tempting Nick, who is trying to reform, into racing his uncle’s car against hers on a public road (as in Rebel Without a Cause, which came out two years earlier).  Fran, who is actually very likeable, is the wrong kind of girl.  Liz, on the other hand, an expert harness racer, has driving hands like a man. That can’t be good.  She herself has to reform, fall so in love with Nick that she stays up all night with him (clothes on) when Tugfire gets sick. She roots for Nick when he races Tugfire at the fair, although her own horse is also competing. She must demonstrate that her loyalty to Nick and Nick alone is worth more than her sister’s beauty—although, let’s face it, Shirley Jones at 23, with the blonde ponytail that curled at the end, was no dog. 

How can a girl be exactly attractive enough? Exactly invested enough in a man’s life that she doesn’t drive him away, doesn’t crowd him, doesn’t endanger his future? If she manages to strike the right note, will she ever have the courage to strike any others?

In the end—you’re not going to watch this movie, are you?—Nick wins the race, isn’t arrested for violating his no-driving probation, and heads home from the fair singing “April Love,” accompanied by the whole damn county. He gives up dangerous modernity in the form of fast cars for fast horses and a girl suited to a peaceful, rural life.  Not too peaceful: the dances in Kentucky are doo-wop rowdy, and don’t forget Liz's lovely legs. 

Boone, by the way, never quite kisses Jones in this film. A conservative Christian, he protested that because she was married in real life, kissing her, even on film, would not be okay.

Today is my sweet husband Warren’s birthday. He’s changing in midlife. He works for a living, but also makes short films and has become a great photographer.  He’s a leader in Bellingham’s transition town movement. The kids call him with all the questions I can’t answer—a long list—and a couple of weeks ago he made a middle of the night visit to the city jail when a friend of one of our kids got a DUI.  If there’s a better man out there than Warren, I’ve never met him.

I write. That’s about it.  Oh, I’m teaching a little now, too, but after so many years of obsessive mothering, I take writing pretty seriously.  It’s hard to rejoin the world (and Warren is my world) after hours in one that I’ve made up.  Warren has to wait that process out. 

I worry that we have less and less in common as our child-rearing years recede. He’s never expected me to “live for him alone,” thank Whomever, but sometimes movies like April Love come back to me, and I worry that I’m taking a big risk making such an issue, even at this late date, of claiming my own life. Is it not wrong, wrote W. G. Sebald, to squander one's chance of happiness in order to indulge a talent?*

Here's Warren.  Don’t get any ideas.

*Thanks to Craig Morgan Teicher, who uses this Sebald quote in his essay, "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living," Colorado Review 38.1. Spring 2011.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Alley People 2

On the sidewalks of my neighborhood, I chat with mothers and small children, gardeners, remodeling crews, although front-yard conversations aren’t very satisfying. They’re either conventional—“How old is your little girl?” I might ask—or somewhere between snarky and flirtatious—“That dog is walking you,” a roofer shouted down at me last week.  Often conversations don’t happen at all. The self-sufficient don’t even make eye contact: horseman, pass by. Teenagers sitting on the hoods of cars or huddled around tailpipes ignore me. Kids walking to or from school sans parents have been instructed never to talk to strangers, never to pet strange dogs. I understand this, but part of me objects. They’re not supposed to talk to me? They’re not supposed to pet Alice?

Conversations in alleys, on the other hand, are always intimate.

Alice and I used to stop to greet an old white German shepherd who lay on a back deck, beyond a picket fence painted army green, a big red heart decorating the gate. The backyard was messy, vegetables planted here and there, open bags of mulch, a Weber barbecue abandoned to the rain, a splintering redwood picnic table.

“Hi there,” I said to the dog, but he always stayed put on the deck. He seemed to be meditating.

One morning we headed out earlier than usual, about seven o’clock, and found the dog sitting a few feet from the back fence. Alice wagged her tail, and I saw that the dog’s eyes were milky, unseeing.

Across the alley a woman in a fuzzy brown bathrobe opened a gate.

“He’s waiting for me,” she said. “I come over before work every morning with a treat, right after I feed my rabbits. Can your dog have one? They’re healthy.”

Alice had already planted herself in front of the woman, a front paw on one of the woman’s bare feet.

“Sure,” I said. I thought I heard a low growl come from the German shepherd. 

“Okay, Jack,” the woman said, moving to the fence. The dog stepped cleanly around a pile of what was probably compost, covered now in mint, and the stack of clay pots next to it. The woman held out the treat, and he gingerly bit down on it, his teeth never touching her fingers. Soft mouth, dog trainers call that. 

“He’s old,” she said.

I’m drawn to people who say what’s important, even if it means stating the obvious.

“Yes,” I said. The backyard might be a work in progress, but the dog’s work was just about finished.

The bath-robed woman had places to go. “Later, Jack."

Jack navigated the obstacles between the fence and the deck without a misstep, and lay back down in the sunshine. That might have been the last time Alice and I saw him, and I’ve never run into the woman again.  Her back fence is tall.  I can’t see over it. But I like knowing she’s there.

I haven’t blogged for ten days, and I’m having trouble finding the point.  Whose red heart is painted on that green back gate?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Alley People 1

If I’m walking with Alice down one of Bellingham’s less subdued alleys and stop to talk to someone over a back fence, there’s a good chance that my opening gambit—drawn from a very limited supply—will be dogs.

Last week Alice spotted a long-haired cat, patchy brown and black, who’d been rolling in dirt.  He put his back up, puffs of dust levitating with the fur, and ran away.  Alice dragged me the length of a few back fences, yipping wildly, until the cat turned a corner.  She stopped to reconnoiter. No cat.

“Sorry about the noise,” I said to a man standing six feet away. Beyond a waist-high, slatted fence, he pointed an electric pruning blade, still off, toward a tree in the corner of his lot that had once been pollarded. A crop of sticks sprang from each fisted branch.  

“My dog gets excited when cats run away," I said. "She wouldn’t hurt them. She just wants to chase them.” The cat might be his, after all.

“I’ve seen you walk by before, out in front.”

“Yep, I think my dog peed on the corner of your lawn once.” On that occasion, not too long ago, he’d been sitting next to the window in a high-backed armchair, crystal vase lamp switched on next to him. He’d watched Alice do her business on his immaculate lawn and shaken his head tolerantly. 

A woman had lived in that house, I decided at the time, but she’d been gone a while.  That was her tolerance on his face, a way to remember her. 

I usually keep these snap judgments to myself although I’m wrong only about a quarter of the time.  (Ask me how I know that.)  If I share them with my husband, he shakes his head tolerantly too, as if nature is calling me in only a slightly different way than it calls Alice. This leads to harsh words.

“Oh that’s all right,” the man said about the peeing event.  He was seventy or so, round-bellied, dressed in a blue work shirt and jeans jacket. “I had a dog, too, a Dachsie. She got cancer.”

“I remember your sign,” I said. A yellow caution sign that said Dachsund Crossing had hung on his front door when we first moved here. When had it disappeared?

“Lost her a year and five months ago today,” he said.

“It’s awful when they die.”

“A guy I know says to me, it’s just a dog. What’s the big deal?”

“He doesn’t get it,” I said. “He won’t get it until he has a dog of his own, and then maybe he still won’t get it.”

The man nodded and glanced at Alice, who was nosing the fence, still hoping, I guess, to spot the cat. “Well, I’ll let you go,” he said. “I got to do something about this tree.”

“What kind of tree is it?”

“No idea, but it’s a pain in the nose.”

Her tree. 

“Maybe you need a new dog,” I said.

“First I need to take care of myself.”

I decided not to ask what was wrong. The man waited politely until Alice and I had crossed the street before switching on the pruner. 

While we headed toward the park, I thought that it must be less painful for some to grieve the deaths of pets than the loss of people. Others find it impossible to grieve for anyone.

I’ve come to the point where pet death and human death are almost on a par.  Grieving comes easier every day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In Alleys with Alice

Broadway, Bellingham—Few houses in my neighborhood have driveways.  Our house does, but we share it with the house next door.  We drive up a short and narrow hill that opens out in front of two detached garages.  Backing down is harder. 

Most homes around here have garages at the back of their property, approachable only by a rear alley. I love these alleys, but I’d have to walk them even if I didn’t, because my dog, Alice, loves them more. Bellingham calls itself the City of Subdued Excitement, but Alice thinks its alleys rock.  

Alice is a nose-to-the-ground dog. Like every other dog, she hunts for other animals’ markings—we call that pee-mail—so she can neutralize it with her own.  She likes to eat things off the ground, too. Our vet calls this “dietary indiscretion.” In our neighborhood garbage and recycling trucks pick up in alleys, and there are always things left on the ground that didn’t quite make it from the can to the truck.  Some of what draws her is human trash. The rest you don't want to know about. I watch her pretty closely, but once in a while she gobbles something up before I can stop her, and we have to put plain yogurt in her food for a few days, and sometimes medicine, until her digestion calms down.

Then there are the backyard chicken coops and the occasional plastic swimming pool that serves as a duck pond. If Alice doesn’t spot the birds herself, I point them out to her, and she applies her nose to a back fence long enough to make an inspection. 

Collies always look like they’re a day or two away from speaking English, but Alice, at least, never quite gets there, so we have to guess what she’s thinking.  I wonder if she knows that chicken meat, her favorite thing, comes from animals like the ones she’s staring at. I don’t think so. Otherwise she’d get excited, bark, something. 

Cats love alleys, too. The term alley cat implies uncertain parentage, I guess, because with so many cats in alleys, stuff happens.  Alice isn’t as polite to cats as she is to chickens, but only if they run away.  She yanks me forward and makes high-pitched yipping sounds well after the cat is out of sight. Sometimes this sets the dogs in the backyards we’re strolling past barking, too. I’ll see a curtain move in a back window, an annoyed human face searching for troublemakers.

Some cats don't run, don't even put their backs up. Alice sniffs. The cats study. We’ve run into two or three cats that walk toward Alice with a take no prisoners look on their faces. Alice has a cat of her own, Katie, who isn’t very nice to her.  She wants no part of cats with attitude. We walk carefully around them, or turn around and walk the other way.

Dogs, too.  Backyard dogs in Bellingham aren’t, generally speaking, watch dogs.  Some growl and bark at us, but most come to the fence, whine, and wag their tails.  Alice does likewise. On days when I can’t take her to an off-leash park, she gets in a little socializing, the odd chat or two, in nearby alleys.

Sometimes I chat as well, with fellow humans. People are different over back fences than in front yards. . . .

Two of our kids, Alex and Mary, with Alice in a Bellingham park, 2009.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Grab your gear, we got a dead Marine

I remember opening lines, maybe because they are invitations. Here are some obvious ones:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, rich. 

From Emma, by Jane Austen

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. 

From David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree. 

From “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot

Here I heard the terrible chaste snorting of hogs trying to re-enter the underearth.

From “The Past” by Galway Kinnell

And I’m not too bad at remembering closing lines. They are usually judgments:

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage. 

You know what that’s from.

As you for crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free. 

From Shakespeare’s The Tempest

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

From The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My heart is moved by all I cannot save/so much has been destroyed/I have to cast my lot with those/who, age after age, perversely/reconstitute the world.

From “Natural Resources,” by Adrienne Rich

She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

From “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor

It’s the middles that are hard to remember, write, live.  Only character makes middles work.

While I was ironing this morning, my mnemonic workout (hey, I’m getting old) involved trying to remember the middle of last week’s NCIS.

The beginning of NCIS is always the same. Somebody discovers a body. Titles. McGee, Tony, and Zeva (or some subset) exit the elevator, mid-banter, into their circle of cubicles.  Gibbs enters double-quick from upstage or downstage and says, “Grab your gear. We got a dead Marine.” Sometimes it’s a dead sailor.

The ending is almost as uniform: The murderer is identified and dealt with harshly or gently, according to Gibbs’ only slightly fallible judgment.

When a story begins and ends the same way every time, you know you’re watching television.

But what happened in between?

The bad thing about NCIS is that all the episodes are alike, so they get mixed up in my head.  The good thing about NCIS is that all the episodes are alike, so I have a formula for reconstructing them.  If I can picture that first scene, the discovery of the body (this one featured a deer—I like deer), I can go the rest of the way, at least until Gibbs takes the elevator down to the lab and morgue, where I tend to get foggy. 

This particular victim wrote the word “birdsong” in his own blood on a nearby rock. McGee discovers that Operation Birdsong is the name of a soon-to-be-published book. A second body turns up—who was in the process of reading the book. Then a third body, also a reader.  At some point the publisher gives up the information that Birdsong is the name (of course) of a highly classified government program. The author is a whistle blower.

I remember now. The murders have nothing to do with Operation Birdsong. It’s a love triangle, the murderer a jealous husband.

How was the murder committed? Forensics is big on TV these days. While I’m extremely fond of Abby and Ducky, I don’t care about the mass spectrometer or the x-rays. Means will always be a memory problem for me. Stabbed, maybe? Were the victims stabbed? 

Why do I (along with 20 million other people) bother? Because of Gibbs, Tony, Zeva, McGee, Ducky, and Abby, as two-dimensional as they often are. It’s embarrassing to admit how much I look forward to my weekly dose of all of them.

The middle of David Copperfield?  I  remember characters--Uriah Heep, ditsy Dora, saintly Agnes, Mr. Micawber, Steerforth. 

The middle of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” The women who come and go, talking of Michelangelo, the lonely men in shirt-sleeves, the mermaids.

The middle of The Tempest?

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

But wait--these lines are from near the beginning.  Caliban? Shakespeare was terribly unfair to him, and that's what I mostly remember. Actually, I never liked The Tempest much.

The middle of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”?

Cricket sings, linnet’s wings.  One-note characters, but such notes!

The middle is where characters make themselves known, most often by taking action, where the evidence accrues, if you want to think of it that way, where we’re all at work.

Friday, April 1, 2011

El Salvador: Oscar Romero

An American introvert travels with a group of Christians to a hot country. Tens of thousands were recently killed there by men trained in or by the United States and armed with American weapons.

 At the embassy, our introvert asks prepared questions and nods politely at the answers, but is inclined to believe instead what radical priests and Marxist labor leaders tell her about what went on, what’s going on, and what might happen next.

 In a village of war survivors, an old woman with a forgiving heart calls the visitors Good Samaritans, and our introvert feels warm inside—until she remembers that the U.S. is wiping its feet with these people’s futures. While that continues, any help that groups like hers can give will count, not for nothing, but for little.  She would like to say this to at least one person in the village. She would like to have a conversation about babies or long-horned cows or Dick Cheney, but she’s too busy following rules she doesn’t entirely understand, and has been made too afraid of breaking, to wrestle out a little decipherable Spanish.

Yet she dreams of sharing the shade of huge trees and of attending black-lace funerals, of the devotion to living and nearness to dying that lends an indelible dignity to slapping tortillas and carrying water. She wants to go home, but when she gets there, she wants to go back, alone, and is afraid to.  She wants to change, to reconstitute her idea of herself.

* * * * *

On Saturday morning as we’re about to leave COO, Blanca asks Greta and me if she can tell us her story.  We know she means her war story, and we say yes.  I don’t catch much of it, but Greta fills me in later. Blanca was an adolescent when she returned to her home in the northern mountains to find her big family shot dead, father and mother and siblings. She herself was shot while running away and lived for some days wounded, hiding in brush. Guerillas found her and took her to their camp, where she was given medical attention, and later trained to be a medic.  The story is worse than this, of course, but that’s the core of it.  In the van, Margaret questions its veracity.

We return to the guesthouse in San Salvador on Saturday afternoon. The next day is Palm Sunday and the twenty-first anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s 1980 assassination.  We worship at the small church where he was killed while celebrating mass, and tour the apartment he lived in across the street. His bloody cassock still hangs in the closet.  Later we join a march of about 30,000 to the national cathedral downtown.

 Ordained in 1942, Romero remained a conservative Catholic until the mid-seventies. He was opposed to Vatican II and subsequent moves by Latin America clergy to commit the church to a “preferential option for the poor.”  He changed his allegiance in the mid-seventies when government forces began what he called “the repression,” massacring villagers and clergy trying to organize.  Sometimes campesinos were killed, it is said, for nothing more than possessing a Bible.

Romero’s appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 intensified the fears of the privileged, as did the radio broadcast of his homilies and his letter asking President Jimmy Carter to stop military aid and promise non-intervention. He anticipated his assassination but continued preaching along these lines: “Those who . . . would save their lives (that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us) they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering . . . quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections. . . . To what good?”

“If they kill me,” he said, “I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”  The war began in earnest after his death.

Director John Duigan’s film “Romero,” made in 1989 and starring Raul Julia, will give you a sense of the love poor Salvadorans felt and continue to feel for this man. (Tom would be sure to tell you that strongman Roberto D’Aubuisson’s men did not gamble for the privilege of shooting Romero. That part, according to Tom, was MADE UP.)

That Sunday, as the march is taking place, Bush II flies in for a total of five hours for CAFTA negotiations with Salvadoran leaders.  Either he doesn’t know what day it is or he doesn’t care.  The nicer posters and graffiti decorating the city square call him a killer. Soldiers of the Bush-friendly government point guns from rooftops at the crowd below.

We visit Romero’s tomb in the basement of the cathedral.  John 12:24 is engraved there on a plaque: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” 

* * * * *

In the spring of 2009, an FMLN candidate is elected president of El Salvador.

On March 23 of 2011, on the eve of the thirty-first anniversary of Romero’s death, President Obama lights a candle at Romero’s tomb.

* * * * *

Am I a Christian? I don't know. There’s very little elbow room in that particular train car. The overhead light is unforgiving yet dim enough that some riders can’t see (or won’t look at) their own hands. The night outside is both terrifying and inviting.

Religion--or Christianity, I guess, since that's all I know--thrives on keeping secrets and telling people what to do.  As far I can see, the liberatory strain that Romero and others stand for doesn't translate well into North American life. We have more to lose. We're addicted to control of all kinds.

I may not have enough courage to be Romero's kind of Christian. I may have too much fellow-feeling to be the North American kind.

I still read Romero. See The Violence of Love by Romero, Brockman, and Nouwen, Orbis Books, 2004.

Divine Providence Chapel, where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while serving mass.