Wednesday, January 29, 2014

First Word: Tessa Too-Kong: Spaghetti

Salvador Dali’s waxed handlebar mustaches are made of spaghetti curled up at the edges to give him the look of a startled butler or a comical circus ringmaster. Dali caricatured the Shakespearean buffoon, the only one with daring enough to speak the truth in jest, the cat looking at the King (like my new cat Mozart who has turned out to be of mountain lion stock – looking down on the Queen) and say and do boldly what no-one else (politely brought-up) dared. (Is rudeness or plain-spokenness being “true to thine own self”?)
            Dali was intrigued by Freud’s theory of interpretation of dreams and found different ways of seeing or interpreting the mundane… as in poetry we strive to express the human experience by using a different – yet common – perspective, to use words as tools to communicate emotions and experiences that resonate with the reader. The BBC showed a clip of a man with a neurological condition whereby he associated the names of the London Underground stations with the smell and taste of food. So, for example, Tottenham Court Road spelt out spaghetti bolognaise with sausages – for him it was “normal” and he could not imagine life without that experience.
            Dali challenges our senses, his surreal images crossing over into the world of dreams to represent our fears, hopes, desires and yearnings from other perspectives. So, spaghetti could become entrails of tangled relationships or a pile of dog poo, or be hatched from an egg and turn into the worms of worry. Each noodle could be a snake on Medusa’s head or the new way to communicate with Mars. The possibilities are infinite. We just need to follow the long and winding noodle.

Monday, January 27, 2014

First Word: Ellen Hawkins: Spaghetti


It doesn’t matter what the word is, whether it’s loopy and tangled or flat and awkward.  Out of the prompt will come whatever you know is low-hanging fruit. Today it’s cherries.   Cherry-red happens on long summer days when the sun is inclined at such an angle that the fruit ripens without making any effort whatsoever.  The job of a cherry is to grow plump and firm, shiny without and succulent within. The job of a cherry is to be bitten into by sharp little teeth that pierce its skin to loosen its juice which drips past the teeth and down the chin. The job of a cherry is to glow in its bowl and add colour and happiness to the day.
            The job of spaghetti is to be eaten, preferably al dente, with a rich sauce and accompanied by a green salad.  Spaghetti may slip onto the plate in a soggy heap, loose and limp and dribbling in an insipid red puddle. Spaghetti defies control and threatens tablecloths and napkins. It is as common as mud.
            So why does spaghetti, apart from its inclusion as a minor member of the pasta family, now appear on menus in posh restaurants at a price that might afford the owner a new Ferrari?  But look again.  This common, down-to-earth food has done a surprising thing. It remains the staple week-day meal of many growing children while appearing in flashy places in the evenings. It is therefore classy and without class, thereby cancelling itself by being two things and neither, all in the same breath.
Here’s to spaghetti. Here’s to cherries. Here’s to Tuesdays.

Friday, January 24, 2014

First Word: Mary Judith Ress: Charm


The folks in promotion used to send us to what they called “charm school”—a fast track training course for neophytes on how to pitch fundraising talks. As part of our obligations as Maryknoll missioners, we were expected to dedicate time during our home leave to raising money for our missionary work. We were supposedly the “real thing” and could tell “firsthand” authentic tales of want and desolation in our mission lands—as well as human interest stories that would warm hearts.
            I always dreaded having to get up in the front of the congregation and tell my mission story at a string of Masses on a Sunday morning.  But I had been primed to be “charming”—and of course, politically correct.  I was supposed to comment on the Gospel of the day, then tell a mission tale to bring the scripture text home.  Finally, I was to remind the folks in the pews about how we represented them in these foreign lands, so they should be generous in the second collection, or- I was to infer gently -they would all go to hell—which meant that, with hindsight, it was my job to make these these good churchgoing folks feel remarkably shitty.
            The best line in my pitch was to describe the Andean village of Huarochiri—2,000 souls, 10,000 feet above sea level, no electricity until the comuneros built a small dam—then declare, “and when I left, I too believed in ghosts.”
Looking back, I learned a lot more about the U.S. Catholic population than the Catholic population learned about Peru or Chile.
            The first Mass out in the Bronx- in English- was attended by a handful of down-and outers who appeared to be homeless or perhaps mentally ill, an elderly Chinese woman and several stray dogs.  The priest stuttered.  There wasn’t even a first collection.
But at the next Mass- in Spanish- St. Patrick’s was filled to the bursting point.  Three priests concelebrated: the main celebrant from the Dominican Republic was accompanied by two guest priests, one from Spain and another from Guatemala.  As the guest homilist, I sat in the sanctuary next to a deacon from El Salvador who called me Madre. When I whispered that I had known their martyr Monseñor Romero, he squeezed my hand. Yo también. 
            There was a story here: I prayed he’d found someone who’d listen to him.  After Mass, a Bolivian woman in her wide pollera pressed five dollars into my hand and spoke to me in Aymara. I had the sense she was blessing me.
            Across the continent, I spoke in two wealthy parishes in the Bay area.  I found their pastors lonely, even slightly depressed.  At the first parish, the pastor was playing the organ as he waited for me.  A fine musician and a scripture scholar, he longed for a decent theological conversation.  His Masses were high church—he loved the liturgy, the vestments, the Gregorian chant.  His congregation was white and friendly in a non-committal sort of way.  At the coffee hour, I met an ex-Maryknoller.  “I got ya,” he winked.  A fellow member of the club. 
            As I walked into the second parish, some parishioners were holding a Novena to Our Lady of the Philippines.  Half way down the aisle, I realized that most of the congregation was made up of elderly Filipinos who had served at the US military base there.  My missionary appeal would compete with their efforts to collect funds for their folks back home.  As I was leaving, Father Javier confided that next month he was going on a sabbatical.  “Visit us in Chile,” I invited.
            My “ghost” crack worked in parishes both rich and poor.  But I was awfully glad I didn’t have to give mission talks for a living. –Judith Ress

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

First Word: Susan Siddeley: Charm


Can it be undressed? 

            Nigel ‘please sit’ Havers, smooth from Brylcreemed hair through well-cut jacket, creased trousers to two-tone shoes, oozed it. Or was that Noel, elegantly poised, pointedly poignant, so blasé tinkling on a piano. Then again it could have been Adrian whats-his-face with the lopsided smile and head tilt. Trouble is these don’t deal with traffic jams, overflowing litter bins and dust settling in your toe cleavages. 
            Charm lodges in drawing rooms, theatre and at The Ritz; demanding isolation, cushioning behind giant tyres like the ones in you see in open-pit copper mine trucks. Charm works as effortlessly as the electric windows in my car until one day they didn’t. And all the charisma in the world couldn’t fix it…
            I suppose it’s possible flowers can be charming, and maybe Doulton figurines, but give me a smooth-cheeked man (none of your modern stubble) a pressed shirt, sincere ear and a languid tongue rolling words seductive as Neruda’s from his warm mouth, and all over me richer than Jersey Cream, and I’m sunk. (That is cream that barely needs any whisking to turn it into trifle topping for when Nigel, Noel, Cary or Fred call round, carnation button-holes winking.)

Saturday, January 18, 2014

First Word: Tessa Too-Kong: Charm

I said, “He had three wives, so he must have had a lot of charm…” 
            I refer to Nelson Mandela, whose Memorial Service we had attended that morning.   Charm is magnetic, electric.  Take bee charmers – it must be all about energy fields and the aura that surrounds powerful men – it’s almost palpable, as if they have been bathed in iridescence. I saw an Internet video taken by the passing NASA Juno spacecraft of the Earth and Moon – the first image ever – and it wasn’t a stationary globe sitting in space, but a spinning orb on a mission with a defined path, too incredible, a fascination most marvelous, mesmeric, a “heavenly waltz” indeed. 
            So must charm become mesmeric –and if it has purpose, then it must become invincible.  Charm with righteous purpose, majestic… but it’s all too easy to fall for the other kind of charm, the empty platitudes and words of wisdom with no depth, no trueness, no clarity – the kind that seeks to emulate what true magnetism achieves, but with the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement.
            So, what does it take to be discerning? How do you know when you have found the true Mandiba, the One to follow, and when you have been fooled by the false prophets, the Lucifers of this world? Youthful idealism can be led astray. What of the times when Mandela was an outcast and a rebel? What kind of courage would it have taken to continue to follow him then? It is a reminder of the suffering of Christ. The challenge is to find the courage, once you have found discernment. It takes a lifetime.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tuesday Prompt: Ellen Hawkins: Tongue


Cat got your tongue? A teasing question posed by adults to shy children. The child inevitably remains dumb, hoping someone will save him from this puzzling person who is making no sense. There is no cat. The boy’s tongue is where it belongs, in his mouth.
Why do we do this– put small children at a disadvantage with our nonsensical jibes?  Perhaps it’s related to the Santa Clause game in which we tell kids that a jolly gentleman delivers a gift to every child on earth at Christmas– all on the same night.  We prop up the lie with helpers, reindeer and even a wife, the whole wrapped in sleigh-bells, hot cocoa and twinkling lights. We adults tell the story; the children listen, agape. We smile; they sleep, believing our tales. That is, until the child arrives at an age when he begins to trusts his reason more than the adults around him.
By then he has learned that the question, ‘Cat got your tongue?’ has nothing to do with cats or tongues but everything to do with communication.  People—adults and kids alike—are supposed to talk to one another. When we meet, we’re expected to shake hands, give kisses, say, ‘How are you’. If we meet royalty we must bow or curtsy; if we meet the maid we must refrain from curtsying. Each is put in his or her own place. We must make eye contact, or avoid making eye contact. We must shake hands, but which one is the clean one? We must kiss the left cheek first; no the right one. It is all learned from the bottom up, from childhood to adulthood: the how and when to speak to others, and what to believe of the words they offer in return.
            “It’s a pleasure.” 
            “Aren’t you David’s….girlfriend?” 
            "Well, well, well. What have we here?” 
Language is at the heart of all communication. We judge and are judged by it. The child learns something of this the first time he is asked, ‘Cat got your tongue?’