09 November 2000

Living in the House by the Side of the Road

A jumbled reflection on the election just past

There is a moment from my Catholic-school education that I will never forget, circa sixth grade--a year of stern nuns with fearsome face-smacking and hair-pulling disciplinary styles. We were being prepared for Confirmation in that flinching, maturing setting. One day, we were taught that over the centuries, Catholics have often been persecuted and even murdered for their beliefs. Even in our lifetimes, the teacher explained, such endangerment may lurk right around the corner. If persecutors arise in modern times, she said, and if we were ever challenged at gunpoint to state our faith, it would be a mortal sin to deny being Catholic at that moment just to save ourselves. Clearly, martyrdom was a long-standing tradition we were expected to uphold. 

I see now how this was the perfect Confirmation prep, as we were about to choose a saint's name to represent our Christian ideals going forward. I recall many of my classmates handily choosing names that were familial or sonorous (e.g. Marie), but I could not do that. Instead, I spent hours perusing a book I found in Mom's library, The Lives of the Saints. This 1930s volume featured lush artistic renderings which increased my interest in a saint's tale; unfortunately, it seemed that every passage I read with eagerness would suddenly end in martyrdom.  In fact, the saint I really connected with was Cecilia, she of cascading long hair, beatific face (seated at a piano in her picture, interestingly), and musical patronage. But Cecilia was martyred under brutal and vivid circumstances. I could not hitch my star to that, so to speak.

Finally, my deliberations led me to Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, sophisticated world traveler, finder of the True Cross, cat-lover, and an exceptionally long-lived saint who died of natural causes in her early 80s. Multiple Christian sects revere her--I liked that, too. Even at age 12, I was beginning to realize that my Christianity was less bordered than the Catholicism in which I had been raised. Helena, as it happens, is the patron saint of discoveries, converts, difficult marriages, and divorced people. I could not have chosen more accurately. Moreover, three decades later, I realize that Helena was the root saint's name for my great-great-grandmother, Ellen Finn, whose teenage journey from Ireland to Maine was surely guided by this adventurous patron saint of discoveries. (I didn't know enough about etymology or genealogy to put that together at age 12, so here's a retroactive pat on my preteen back.)

I've been reflecting on these moments from my childhood because they caused me to become immensely less brave about my beliefs…to cocoon them inside, so as not to be challenged. Martyrdom, to me, seemed much less persuasive a way to effect change; I rather preferred Helena's approach: traveling among disparate peoples, inspiring hope, living as an independent maverick female, and maternally supporting her son's world-changing reign as emperor. (Adult Nessa has learned that Helena and Constantine were imperfect, sometimes authoritarian figures, but let's remember them as Lives of the Saints did, for these purposes.)

My young-adult transition from Catholicism to the Society of Friends has not been kept secret (and lest we forget, Quakers have been martyred too), but I don't proselytize, and I believe that prayer is best held privately, as Christ demanded (fascinating information about that here: http://www.religioustolerance.org/prayer.htm). For some reason, political beliefs dwell in the same realm for me. Thus, my lifelong liberalism (honestly! I supported George McGovern, even!) has been something I've rarely promoted. In college, I did find myself arguing vigorously with some of my fraternity brethren, because I just could not tolerate Reagan's policies anymore--I felt those were dangerous, teetering as they did on a chilling Cold War precipice, and damaging as they were to the poor as well as children's educational futures. Those passionately defended arguments left me thwarted and shaking. I stopped doing that sort of thing thereafter.

So, here's a little retroactive bravery for you. I voted for Mondale and Dukakis, Clinton and Gore, Kerry and Obama. Many of those ballots ended up as hopeless as my college-age debates, pushing against a tide of conservative bluster and anti-intellectual sentiment that constantly made me feel beleaguered and disenfranchised. Yes, friends, I'm one of those saps who espouses that Christ himself was a liberal. I believe our government exists because we citizens need its myriad services: protection, infrastructure, education, guidance, all of which I believe the Constitution set up firmly.

Now, I'm not a hook-line-and-sinker liberal, and I won't share why because, see above, not so brave and usually private. But I am someone for whom the last three-odd years of national political discord has been painful in the extreme. Friends on Facebook, pundits on Fox and elsewhere, all decrying loudly and angrily many things that I hold to be self-evident. And I have kept my counsel because I was a scared potential martyr. Seriously, that is exactly how I felt. If Romney won--which the right wing insisted he was on track to do--I feared for myself, and my beliefs. The same fears arose in me during the second Bush administration, when citizens were advised that speaking out against the President in a time of war was tantamount to treason. Gosh, that seemed martyr-like to me. I've wondered why that policy did not apply to the 44th President, but who am I to judge?

I do not like to offend people whom I love, and I despise arguing and discord. So I have tolerated months of ceaseless Internet propaganda that inflamed and infuriated me. I tried very hard not to answer that propaganda in kind. Today, I find myself at a dizzying pass: my presidential vote has been successful for the second time in eight years. Even more to the point, policies I believe to be humane and important have been enacted; women's personal rights have been upheld. There has never been a time in my entire adult life when I felt this nearly in step with my government. (Let's not consider my pacifism…not likely to see that honored in the near term.) 

I seek to peacefully believe. Story of my life. Perhaps I should be more of a crusader, but as we sang at my childhood folk Masses: "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me." For those friends whose political landscape has just shifted seismically, who are feeling beleaguered and disenfranchised: I empathize with you entirely. I will not mock you, berate you, or despise you. But I am allowing myself joy this week, internally, and here in this modest little post, as bewildering as it is to feel such satisfied inclusion.

Coda: Years ago, I bought an embroidered sampler at a yard sale that reads: "Let me live in my house by the side of the road/and be a friend to man." Having written the above, I was reminded of that phrase--which I always loved, but never quite knew why. Googling just led me to the full poem by Sam Walter Foss, which I'd never read before. Joyfully, it completely summarizes what I'm trying to say. You may read it here: http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/foss01.html

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