Tag Archives: college

Celebration: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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My son graduated from college this past June. It took him seven years, due to a hiatus, a transfer, and several changes of major, and there were times I thought I’d never see the day. So when the moment finally arrived, it was time to celebrate.

Now, I grew up in the sixties in New York in an Italian American family, and for us celebrating always meant one thing: inviting family and friends and cooking a meal for them. These meals invariably came in two varieties—formal dinner or cookout—and the circumstances dictated the choice.

The following obliged a formal dinner: all religious holidays; birthdays and other events that took place after Labor Day and before Memorial Day; functions to which clergy, wealthy people, politicians, lawyers, doctors, dentists, business associates, current clients, potential clients, current Anglo in-laws, or any future in-laws were to be invited.

Cookouts were never required but were permissible for celebrations that did not demand a formal dinner and took place from Memorial through Labor Day.

Whether the verdict was formal dinner or cookout, there were rules and procedures to follow, and the women in my family taught me them when I was young. These rules and procedures were immutable. They could not be broken or bent. Never. Not once.

Formal dinners began with an aperitivo, with the group seated in the living room drinking soda, spumante, Campari, or, in my father’s case, a Bombay gin gimlet. At mealtime the hostess called the guests and assigned them seats at the dining room table. The hostess always sat at the end closest to the kitchen with the host presiding at the other end and guests placed boy-girl-boy-girl down the sides, spouses split, and children clustered.

The formal dinner meal required four courses, all wholly homemade:

A medley of antipasti such as calamari in tomato sauce, chilled scungilli salad, and stuffed clams or shrimp; a primo piatto such as lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, or minestrone (forbidden in summer); a secondo piatto of seasonal vegetables such as sautéed escarole or broccoli rabe and meat such as sausages, pot roast, or spiedini di vitello (permitted in summer only); a dessert such as ricotta cheese cake or cannoli accompanied by vodka-soaked orange slices.

Finger foods and sandwiches were banned.

The table was pivotal at formal dinners. The number of seats available at the fully expanded dining table strictly limited the number of guests. No cramming was permitted, and no one could eat in the kitchen, on the couch, or while standing.

The table required a fine linen cloth and napkins, china, crystal, silverware, flowers, and fresh candles. Extending one cloth with a second one and mixing dinner services were forbidden. If any napkins, plates, glasses, or utensils were missing from a set, the only option was to shorten the guest list.

What’s more, for formal dinners, the hostess had to do all the planning, cooking, setup, and serving. No one else was permitted in the kitchen, though female relatives could help with washing up.

I confess that over the years I pared down the food for formal dinners and let my husband do the cleanup, but otherwise I was scrupulous. This is why my family always fled the scene as I engaged in preparations. The ordeal invariably transmuted me into a frenzied bitch.

And once the guests arrived, I couldn’t focus on the conversation, felt disconnected from the group, so tense was I that everything be perfect, that the timing be correct, that no one enter my kitchen and discover dirty pots.

Thank God our convocation celebration could permissibly be a cookout, which had only three rules: the meal had to be outdoors, drinks could not be served in cans or bottles, and metal utensils were required.

Yes, instead of a formal dinner, we would host an evening barbeque. It would take place in the garden, and guests could sit where they pleased, at the wooden patio table or on the lawn chairs, porch steps, or grass. All the food would be self-served from a hodgepodge of pottery platters placed on a gingham-covered buffet. Plates and napkins would be paper, with utensils a mishmash of pieces from old, retired sets.

Our cookout meal would be simple. To begin, we’d set out chips and guacamole. Then my son would toss a big salad, my husband would grill beef and salmon burgers, and I’d boil corn on the cob. Dessert would come from Whole Foods: ice cream and graduation cake.

I no longer live in New York, though, but in Seattle. Here the sixth month of the year is often referred to as Junuary. True to form, the day of the cookout broke with wind and heavy rain. AccuWeather predicted no improvement and an evening of fifty degrees.

What was I to do? Switch to a formal dinner? Impossible. We’d invited several more people than could fit at our tiny table or be equipped with matching dinnerware, and we’d already spent a fortune on fixings for finger foods.

This was clearly a disaster—till I remembered The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk a route to Santiago de Compostela, a city where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred.

Last September my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We hiked 200 miles from Léon in stages, many with Fr. Lukasz, a sprightly, thirty-something priest, and a group of young adults from the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.

Fr. Lukasz set the pattern of our days right at the outset of the journey. The fourth stage was typical. We rose before dawn and departed Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square. As we walked beneath the moon and stars, guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

By midmorning we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that marks the Camino’s highest point. There we stopped for morning prayers before descending the pass through several villages: Manjarín, Acebo, and Riego de Ambros, where we walked through a grove of giant chestnuts and a green, wild-flowered vale. After crossing a Roman stone bridge over the río Meruelo, we stopped at Molinaseca, a mediaeval town where we would spend the night.

Fr. Lukasz’s practice was to celebrate Mass every evening at the local church. When we arrived at a destination, he’d call the parish priest to make arrangements. Our Mass in Rabanal had taken place at the Iglesia de la Santa Maria, a twelfth century Romanesque chapel. There, the Benedictine monks had sung us Vespers and then joined us for our English-language Mass.

In Molinaseca, though, Fr. Lukasz could reach no priest on the phone, so at six pm we gathered at the parish church to see if we could rustle someone up. The place was shut tight and deserted.

We decided to try another church. Walking up a hill, we found the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Angustias tucked into the slope. This eleventh century stone chapel has a bell tower at its center with a courtyard on either side enclosed by iron palisades. Every door was bolted, every gate padlocked.

What were we to do? Have the Mass outside? Unthinkable. More rules govern Roman Catholic Masses than formal dinners in my home.

Like those formal dinners, the Mass has four components: introductory rites, when the priest enters the church and promenades to the altar as the parishioners sing a hymn; the Liturgy of the Word, when the priest reads from the Gospel and gives a homily; the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when the priest prepares the bread and wine and gives communion to the congregation; concluding rites, when the priest dismisses the church.

Every part of the Mass requires a fixed set of prayers, each with a designated posture—sitting, standing, bowing, genuflecting, kneeling—each in a specified location—pew, aisle, ambo, altar—some with a designated gesture—signing the cross, striking the breast, folding the hands.

At Mass, the altar is central. Most often it’s covered in white linen with a crucifix on it or close by. A corporal—another, smaller cloth—must be placed front and center on the altar. There the priest will prepare the Eucharist, pouring wine in a chalice and placing the hosts on a paten—a special communion plate. All serving vessels must be made of precious metal. Two lit candles are required at the altar, though four or six are preferred.

Knowing these rules and procedures, I assumed we’d have to cancel our Mass in Molinaseca, given the closure of the church.

Fr. Lukasz was unfazed, though, and his flock flew into action. Bordering one church courtyard was a gravel lot edged by a curb. There sat a knee-high stone baluster abandoned in a corner. Two muscled pilgrims dragged and rolled it to a central place. Inside the palisaded courtyard a broken marble slab leaned against a wall. Three pilgrims scaled the iron rails and heaved the slab to the other side where others reached up to receive it, hauled it to the baluster, and set it like a tabletop.

Fr. Lukasz whipped some items from his backpack: crucifix, corporal, chalice, flasks of wine and water, hosts, paten, Missal, two votive candles in red glass. He set them on the improvised altar and invited us to Mass.

That evening the sun set tangerine as Fr. Lukasz led our celebration. Passersby joined us in other languages—Spanish, Italian, French. Some of us stood on the gravel, others sat on the curb, few ever changed postures, no one bothered to kneel. After the Eucharist, a breeze came across the mountain and we sang Taizé hymns. I can’t remember ever feeling more communion or a greater peace.

This is why I calmly ditched the rules at my son’s commencement celebration. We pulled a plywood board from our basement and placed it on our dining table, making it big enough for our guests. We covered it with a threadbare cloth, the only cloth large enough we had. We set it with mismatched plates and flatware, paper napkins, and partly used candles. As the rain fell outside the window, our guests chose their own seats, drank their beers from bottles, ate corn and burgers with their hands. All of us chatted and laughed.

Oh, that Molinaseca feeling.

Once, a woman named Martha knocked herself out cooking dinner while her sister sat talking with Jesus. Martha complained about her sister’s idleness; it was the women’s job to serve. Jesus didn’t take her side. Instead, he told Martha to relax and to emulate her sister, who better knew what a celebration was.

 

This essay was originally published in Good Letters, the blog of Image Journal.

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Dodging Bullets

 

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They arrived as strangers—freshmen at Seattle Pacific University who’d come to take a course in college writing: A tall girl with a flowered backpack and blond hair fishtailed to one side. A brawny boy with a knitted cap and a ready, brilliant smile. An elfin girl in a madras skirt whose black bangs fluttered with her lashes. A lanky boy in soccer shorts whose green eyes lit his freckled face.

Within days I learned some names and habits: Peter* always strode in early and grabbed a seat by the window in the back. Kaitlin routinely said “Good morning!” and sipped a caramel latte during class. Pilar daily sat before the lectern and lined up sharpened pencils on her desk. Abdul was almost always late and bowed when he slipped into the room.

Within weeks I came to know much more—their sufferings, blessings, worries, hopes, weaknesses, and strengths:

Lindsey had mangled her arm when her boogie board was thrown on Maui sea stacks. She hoped to become a doctor, strove to be on dean’s list, and wrote meticulous papers that were somewhat tedious to read.

Yoel had fled his native Eritrea by perambulating deserts through the night. English was his second language, which he spoke with a lovely lilt. His dream was to become a Christian rock star. Writing essays made him anxious, but he loved crafting spoken-word poems.

Justin had spent some time in Haiti constructing dorms for orphans. A youth leader at his church, he planned to become a minister. His essays were passionate and insightful, though a bit disorganized.

Sarah had found her friend’s body in a bed with a suicide note. She suffered from frequent nightmares. Her goal was to become a counselor who worked with troubled teens. She volunteered for a hotline and wrote gripping narratives.

What wonderful young adults—full of life, heart, experience, potential. It’s no wonder that over the quarter, I grew to love every one of them.

Still, at the end of our last class, I had to say goodbye. I praised them for their learning, wished them a good summer, watched them walk out of the classroom, drove home feeling sad.

When I reached my house, I checked my email as a message was arriving:

!! SPU-Alert: Campus Lockdown: Hello Jan Vallone—Emergency! A campus lockdown has been initiated. This is not a drill. If you are on campus, find the nearest available room and lock the door. If you are on campus, but locked outside a building, seek shelter off campus immediately. If you are not on campus, stay away.

A strange mix of emotions swept over me—confusion, panic, numbness. Wanting more information, I clicked the Seattle Police Twitter line:

Police have found two victims with gunshot wounds @ scene of @SeattlePacific shooting. One suspect in custody. Vics at Otto Miller Hall.

Turning to my TV, I found the breaking news. Onscreen was the campus I’d just left, leafy Seattle Pacific, brick buildings under blue skies.

I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. The street by Otto Miller Hall was clogged with ambulances and police cars. Gurneys were queued on the sidewalk. Medics and officers were running all about.

I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. A reporter said six people had been shot, a gunman detained. Police were searching for another suspect who was still on campus and armed.

A student who had exited the building said she’d seen some injured students in the lobby and one who appeared to be dead. All were sprawled on the floor, which was strewn with bullets and blood.

“Oh my God!” I screamed at the TV. Where were all my students—Pilar, Justin, Lindsey? Were they dodging bullets, or were they already dead?

The Seattle Pacific shooting wasn’t the first to shake me. In 1993, a disgruntled client entered 101 California Street, an office of my husband’s law firm. He shot nine people dead. Like my husband, I was a lawyer, so I feared for both of us.

In 2006, a gunman who claimed he hated Israel entered the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one woman and injuring five. I was then teaching in a nearby Jewish high school, and we worried we’d be next.

In 2012, a shooter known for angry outbursts entered Café Racer in my neighborhood. He murdered five and maimed one more. My daughter works at a nearby Starbucks, and I fret for her every day.

Who isn’t edgy about shootings? They’ve occurred in so many venues, no place now seems safe—not the theater, mall, supermarket, temple, church, train, playground, street, restaurant, stadium, or museum. In schools alone there were thirty-seven shootings during the first half of 2014.

At Seattle Pacific, the facts soon cleared. A lone gunman had wounded two students and killed freshman Paul Lee. None of my students was harmed, though several had been in Otto Miller. A few were Paul’s close friends, and many knew him. All were traumatized.

The gunman at SPU didn’t know any of his targets. His profile is common for mass shooters. With a history of mental illness, he complained he was lonely and unloved, said he just wanted to kill.

I wish shooters could understand that the strangers in their crosshairs are Kaitlins, Peters, and Yoels—people they could grow to love who could grow to love them back, people who could help them fill the void that makes them want to kill. It takes only time, attention, interaction.

If shooters could comprehend this, they’d discard their bullets. But they either can’t or won’t. Something inside them is broken. They aren’t going to change; it’s the rest of us who must.

The causes of violence are complex, but that doesn’t excuse our longtime inaction. Together, we must modify our statutes—be they mental health, gun, commerce, or free expression laws—to make killing sprees less likely. Individually, we have to  compromise.

We can’t accept a life of dodging bullets or death on a shooter’s whim.

*Names have been changed.

Isaac Unbound

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Deborah* sat across the café table, cappuccino growing cold, tears brimming, lower lip trembling.

“Jake’s situation isn’t improving. He just got a fifty-seven on a pre-calc test despite the daily tutoring I arranged for him. And before I registered him, I checked the instructor on Rate My Professors. He’s supposed to be the best. Jake just doesn’t put in enough time. He tries to compute in his head to cut corners, and that equals mistakes.”

Deborah often talked to me about her twenty-one-year-old son. Jake had attended a noted East Coast university, but flunked out sophomore year. Now, he was taking summer classes at the local community college.

“So, the question is whether I should have him drop the course, take a W and audit what’s left, or enroll him in an online college pre-calc course and hire a qualified tutor to get him through.”

I shifted in my seat. “Sounds confusing, Deborah.”

She leaned toward me across the table. “It seems like I’m always trying to fix a never-ending academic fiasco when there’s no progress. I just long for the tiniest forward motion, anything to give me hope.”

I tried not to turn away.

“But after four semesters of disasters, optimism comes hard. The other day, I had a long talk with the vocational psychologist and Jake’s tutor, and at this point I think Adderall could really help.”

At this, I winced reflexively, and she noticed it.

“Oh, I don’t like the thought of medications either. But Jake’s on the verge of failing everything again. You know, it gets me so upset. The pot, the booze in the backpack, the total disregard for college tuition.”

Now her tears were flowing, her voice catching in her throat. I grasped her hand. “Deborah, I know it’s hard.”

And I did.  Because the story I was hearing was one I could have told about my son Sean and myself: Me choosing his college, filling out the application, editing his essay. He receiving early acceptance and a scholarship.

Me steering his course selection, packing his belongings, setting up his dorm room. He smoking pot on campus, skipping his classes, being suspended.

Me pleading with advisors, managing to cinch a medical withdrawal and readmission option. He bolting from a counselor’s office, moving out of state, becoming a ski bum.

The grief. The desperation. The compulsion to intervene more.

Deborah and I aren’t alone. Recent studies show that during the last decade, fierce competition for prestigious college slots and jobs has boosted parent involvement in college students’ lives.

One report shows that technology has made intrusion easy: eighty-six percent of college freshmen report having frequent, sometimes daily, electronic contact with their parents, who often initiate the exchange.

Another study shows, though, that despite their best intentions, parents who run their college children’s lives do more harm than good. The surveyors asked 297 college students about their parents’ roles: Are they involved in selecting classes? Do they contact professors about grades? Do they meddle in roommate disputes?

The study also asked the students to report their own levels of contentment, depression, anxiety, and self-determination pursuant to the theory that all humans need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be happy.

The conclusion? While parents may think it helpful to phone their children’s professors to haggle a B+ to an A–, doing so causes their children to feel depressed and anxious by undermining their ability to develop problem-solving skills and become autonomous, competent, connected, happy adults.

I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to have Sean living in another state, skiing away his early twenties, tying my hands. Or how painful it was for me to hear that he wouldn’t be home one Christmas because he had to man the slopes. Or how surprising it was for me to receive his phone call Christmas Day:

“Mom, this job sucks. No skiers showed up today for lessons. It’s Christmas, I’m bored and lonely, and I haven’t earned a cent. I really need to do something to get the hell out of here.”

The hard lesson for me: Hard lessons benefit children.

The hard lesson for Sean: College is worth the hard work.

Shortly after that Christmas, without prompting by me, Sean researched universities and found one that suited him. He completed a transfer application, wrote an honest essay, was admitted to the school. He negotiated transfer credits, changed his college major, found a part-time job.

This September Sean will be a senior.

Hopefully one September Jake will have discovered his direction too.

Meanwhile, every September, the story of Isaac’s binding will be read in synagogues worldwide to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a narrative I now surmise is about an over-zealous parent much like Deborah and me.

In the story, God puts Abraham to a test. He tells him to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles his donkey, takes Isaac to the designated spot, builds an altar and stacks it with firewood. Then he binds his son, places him on the woodpile, and whips out a knife.

At this moment God’s angel says to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son…and in your descendants all nations…will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”

The test, most theologians say, was to ascertain Abraham’s willingness to lead his son to the precipice, then bind and murder him. Perhaps though, this isn’t the case. Perhaps God was teaching Abraham that parents must guide their children to heights where burning is a risk, but that’s the easy task. The test is to unbind the children despite impending dangers and to trust they will survive and ultimately be blessed.

Do I claim to know when Deborah should stay her hand and unbind Jake?

No.

But I suspect she’ll figure it out, though the lesson will be hard and put the twosome to the test.

*Some names and minor details have been changed and consents obtained to protect the privacy of the people mentioned in this essay.