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Friday, April 26, 2019

Why Leftists Begrudge Your Tears for Notre Dame de Paris

"16-Year-Old Activist Demands EU Parliament Act On Climate Change As Quickly As Notre-Dame" Forbes April 18, 2019

"Why Black People Are Giving The Reaction to The Notre Dame Fire The Side-Eye … The Money Raised So Expeditiously Shows an Irony When Compared to Tragedies in Our Diaspora" The Grio April 17, 2019

"'Its burning feels like an act of liberation' … the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of 'the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith – just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change.'" Rolling Stone April 16, 2019

"In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame … this is what they call white privilege." South Africa-based journalist Simon Allison

"Privilege Flares in Notre Dame Fire" The Guardian April 18, 2019

My mother was born in Slovakia in a house that her father, a shepherd, built by hand. We visited her village in the 1970s. Even then Aunt Bora lived in the traditional house type: one "black room" that had a fire; one "light room" with no fire, and no heat. Bora had raised eleven children in that house. Above Bora's bed hung a portrait of the Madonna and child. We praised its beauty. Bora jumped on the bed and began to take it down to give it to us. My mother had to fight off this gift. Bora offered us slivovice, low-cost, kerosene-flavored firewater. Other relatives served more expensive Bulgarian champagne. These relatives were members of the Communist Party. Bora knew that she suffered economic penalties because of her piety, "But I will never abandon the Catholic Church."

In America both my grandfathers mined coal. Bits of stories came down to me: my mother foraging through a garbage dump for food. Walking barefoot to school. My father riding the rails during the Depression, seeking work. Finally joining the Army when he was underage and serving under an older brother's name.

My mother had been eager to ensure that after he returned from the war, my father would never mine coal again. Her father and father-in-law met cruel fates in the mines. She moved her husband to Newark, New Jersey, a bustling city that could offer many kinds of employment to a returned veteran. In Newark, my parents discovered that there they were not identified as the grandchildren of serfs, or newly arrived greenhorns, or even Bohunks. Rather, in Newark my parents discovered that they were white, and that some of their neighbors objected to their skin. Violent, racially-motivated crime drove them out of Newark. They bought a tiny house in a new suburb.  

My mother played classical albums in our New Jersey home. As a child I learned to recognize and appreciate Strauss, Grieg, Dvorak, Smetana, Chopin, Verdi, and Mendelsohn. There were so many books that in no room in the house were you ever more than a stretched arm away from a volume, from Man's Religions to The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel. Original paintings by Aunt Madeline and Uncle Joe bedecked our walls. Music and poetry played little role in my mother's professional life. She cleaned houses and worked in factories, often two full-time jobs in one day. Weekends she made time to clean the Catholic Church, so as to help defray tuition for putting her six kids through Catholic school.

My father was not an easy man, not for anyone, except perhaps the men he commanded in the Philippines and New Guinea during World War II, who spoke well of him; and also his confreres in AA. Dad would leave the house in the middle of the night and drive for hours to get a drunk to a meeting. My dad was much older than I and I think the Alzheimer's that would eventually kill him had affected his mind in my early adulthood. No, we were not close, and there was no way we could be close. Continents, tongues, and eras separated us.

Even so, one day, out of thin air, he said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."

We drove the half hour from our small, modest, suburban town back to Newark, my dad's former home. There we pulled up in front of the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It was the Sacred Heart Cathedral.

"I can't take you to Notre Dame in Paris," my dad said. "But I can show you this."

Merely the lines of this structure against the sky – just that – geometric features in space – were sublime. These lines were so entirely right. So much of life is just off, half-baked, not quite what it should be, needs tweaking. These lines were the product of someone or someones who had achieved a higher state and saw what we would see if we were our best selves. The stone was granite-gray against the bright blue sky, and that was right, too. The stone was both masculine and feminine. It stood its ground, unapologetic, brave and solid and protective. It flirted, it flew, it flowed. It whispered, "I can be your dream." It soothed and caressed, "I can heal your pain." The front door alone was mystery upon mystery, and yet clarity upon clarity. "Yes," the stone statues and arches and endlessly ornamented arrows pointed toward Heaven promised, "this is all very complicated, but it is also all very simple. Sit for a while. Observe. And you will come to understand, and you will be part of this. In fact, you don't know it yet, but you are part of this already. Here is a polished wooden statue of a man in a funny hat holding an open book and a quill pen. Here is a monumental stone statue of a bare-foot woman with wild hair dressed in an animal skin. Here is a gilded mosaic of a weeping woman holding up her scarf, that now bears the imprint of a crucified man. Keep watching these characters. In them, you will find your own story."

It took a while to work our way from the street into the main church sanctuary. As complicated as the structure was, from the tip of its towers to the tiles under our feet, there seemed to be a living vine entwining and connecting everything. This sense of an invisible lifeforce was strengthened by organic forms. Columns rose and spread like trees stretching to their crowns. Paths flowed like meandering streams. Cinquefoil and trefoil shapes cropped up throughout, in stone, in the finals of wooden pews, and in stained glass alike, like flowers scattered in a carpet of grass. Once we reached the beating heart, the altar, flooded with colored light from massive rose windows, I knew that my father did not have to tell me anything about why he had brought me here. This was not Heaven, no, but this was a creation of those focused on Heaven. Every hand that had played a role in erecting this self-contained world, every mathematician's mind that crunched the numbers of heights and weights and spans, every wood worker, every mason, every glazier, every storyteller, every tile-layer, knew a piece of Heaven, the master builders orchestrated these pieces, and shared them here, with me.

Years later, in that journey away from being my parent's daughter that all college students take, (only to boomerang years later), I was lucky enough to have a professor named Lowe. He turned the lights off when we took our seats. He projected slides. And he said, "When you go to see the Elgin Marbles … " He insisted that we were part of the story. One day it was "When you go to Chartres cathedral, you will be astounded by the stained glass, especially the Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière …The Blue Virgin." And right then I knew I had to go.

I didn't make it to Chartres till nine years later, after serving two terms in the Peace Corps. Adjusting to a life in small villages had been relatively easy for me. It was all so natural, so tuned to the body's clock: sleeping when it got dark, getting up with the sun, and hand-washing my laundry in Himalayan streams so cold I had to use my Swiss Army Knife to chip my frozen socks and underwear off of rocks. I relearned in those villages what I learned in my childhood home, ringing with music, and in Bora's smoky hut. The poorest of the poor need beauty as much as any rich man. Peasants, porters, beggars, women whose fingernails are always embedded with the black soot of cook fires, sacrifice, yearn for, spend their last penny on beauty, and spirit, and meaning, and to take their place in the transcendent.

Returning to the modern West was painful culture shock. There's a story Peace Corps volunteers like to tell. A volunteer leaves the village, flies back to America, and has a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle of the supermarket.

Before I fully reentered modern American life, I remembered that promise I made to myself in Prof Lowe's class. I budgeted only one day for Chartres cathedral. I spent six hours inside. I cannot fully communicate what I experienced there. I can say this. I have seen the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate, Swayambhunath, the Wat Phra Kaew, The Parthenon, The Dome of the Rock, Yellowstone, the Matterhorn, and yes the Elgin Marbles, and the one place I need, I crave to return to before I die, is Chartres.

There's a feeling we are all looking for. It's a feeling that maybe only puppies, having just suckled all they can of their mother's milk, and just before they drift off to sleep in the warm and cozy company of their siblings, feel. Inside me, it's okay. Outside me, it's okay. Beyond me, to all the worlds, it's all, it's all okay. Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century anchoress. She lived much of her life inside a cell attached to a church. She tried to convey something of this feeling, as she received it in a revelation: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." She also reported that "God is nearer to us than our own soul." That's how I felt in Chartres Cathedral.

New Agers insist that Chartres' power is produced by "ley lines," magical spots in the earth. One New Ager wrote that in Chartres, she could "feel the energy running through me. It is strong, and felt like a regular fine vibration, penetrating the soles of my feet so that my whole body vibrated in time with it … My husband said it hurt his legs! Chartres Cathedral is built on a hot spot, a place where powerful magnetic currents surface, and ley lines connect."

I politely disagree. This is what I think really happened.

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was a little over 30 years. People, as traditional people do today, lived their lives within smelling distance of pig and human waste. They shared their dwellings with flies and vermin; they shared their blood with fleas, mites, and lice. They were hungry most of the time. One storm could wipe out a given crop for an entire year. Early spring, before new crops came in, was an especially hungry time. Wild animals, or even merely rats, took children's lives. No one traveled much and they didn't have much power. Most people could not read. In short, Medieval Europe was like the villages I lived in in the Third World, or a million villages that have existed for tens of thousands of years. What was different? What raised focus from the backside of an ox ploughing a field, what lifted consciousness from bread, and maybe even – oh, too much for which to hope – bread with butter?

These pitiful wretches heard a story, about a God who loved them and died for them, and that story sparked them to master the properties of space, light, stone, wood, color, and storytelling, and they exercised that virtuosity, year after year, decade after decade, alone and en masse, in calm joy and in cut-throat quarrels, to erect cathedrals that awe millions today, in a way that nothing else can, in an era of instant satiation, education, and empowerment. And they did all this, knowing that they would not live to see the fruition of their handiwork. And they did it anonymously, because it was all done for the greater glory of God. But their attempt at anonymity is thwarted by the sublimity of their creations. These people who lived briefly and smelled bad stand as giants of our species stand. They were artistic geniuses.

As night follows day, leftists exposed their envy of the international concern being lavished on Notre Dame de Paris. The themes of their envy are predictable. It is bad to care so much for Notre Dame because the environment. Because black people. Because materialism. Because the poor. All of these leftist sins: environmental degradation, racism, materialism, and poverty, are, in this case, masks. The folks griping about love for Notre Dame are not really advocating for the earth, for people of color, for simple lifestyles, or for the poor.

Rather, their gripes are rooted in leftist views about art, and leftist views about art are more undead, more efficient brain siphoners, than the villains of a George A. Romero film. Mao said, "Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine … [Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy."

Fidel Castro said, "What must be the primary concern of all citizens today? The concern that the Revolution would asphyxiate art, that the Revolution is going to asphyxiate the creative genius of our citizens? Or should not the Revolution itself be the Concern of everyone? … What are the rights of revolutionary or non-revolutionary writers and artists? Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution? No rights at all."

Watch any given video of those mourning Notre Dame in the streets of Paris. Perhaps every sixth or seventh face is black. About twenty percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, and about seventy percent of Latin American and the Caribbean, is Catholic. Leftists raged that we cared so much about the burning of Notre Dame but not the burning of black churches. Notre Dame is a black church.

I'm gobsmacked by my leftist friends who insist that one cannot care both about Notre Dame and the environment. They should read Laudato Si. And Leviticus 19:9 that forbids exploiting every bit of earth. And Proverbs 12:10 that counsels care for animals. Scholar Ellen Arnold points out that "Medieval saints, scholars, and everyday Christians cared about nature, wrote about nature, and thought deeply about their environment. They recognized the fragility of the earth and valued nature as God’s creation. The history of ties between the medieval church and care for the natural world is deeper and richer than we imagine." It should surprise no one that medieval Catholicism produced Francis, a man who made peace with a notorious wolf, and that the founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian friar. My leftist friends could not be more wrongheaded in insisting that there is some uncrossable line between church and environment.

The artists of Gothic cathedrals lived lives rooted in nature – milking cows, chopping wood, tending bees. Given nearly universal illiteracy, images from nature were the only way to convey abstract ideas. These churches' artworks illustrate a God who shows his love by embodying a shepherd rejoicing over a found lost lamb. A God who insists that the splendor of lilies outshines the wealth of Solomon. A God who knows, and notes, each fallen sparrow. In Chartres cathedral, there is a famous window that depicts Jesus as quite literally the pinnacle fruit on the tree of Jesse. These peerless masterworks, Gothic cathedrals, were built without petroleum, plastic, electricity, or earth-moving machines. Lovers of the earth should love Gothic cathedrals.

Materialism? When I mourned Notre Dame, I mourned the verb more than the noun. Yes, I value the palpable thing, the touchable cathedral itself. But I also value its erection. I value the faith, the community, the patience, the humility, the unity, the dedication, the vision that produced these wonders. I recognize that I inhabit an atomized, selfish, impatient, easily distracted world. I despair that we can't build a Notre Dame today. Those leftist scolds tut-tutting about materialism lack the imagination, the vision, to recognize this.

"What about the poor?" leftists rage. In their raging, they remind us of a story.

"A woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on Jesus' head. There were some who were indignant. 'Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days' wages and the money given to the poor.' They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, 'Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them.'" Emphasis added. Nuff said.

Polish poet Leopold Staff wrote, "More than bread, poetry is necessary." This is not a sentiment exclusive to the lucky and the rich. Jews barely clinging to life in the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi occupation quoted Staff in their advertisements for a poetry reading. Materialists can't understand what these Jews knew, what my mother knew when she taught us to appreciate Verdi, what my Aunt Bora, with the Madonna adorning her wall knew, what Medieval artists knew. The poor need and deserve transcendent beauty and meaning every bit as much as the rich.

Here's what really rankles me when leftists rage about money spent to restore Notre Dame. They presume to rage in my name. They assume that I am incapable of speech. They decide for me, just as Mao and Castro did. I deeply resent the left appropriating my misery and harnessing it to drag their tumbrils. They will decide what art serves the proletariat. These leftists would have nothing but contempt for my mother who, after a week of working two manual labor, minimum wage jobs, cleaned a Catholic Church in order to provide, for her children, a Catholic education. These leftists know better than my mother. They know better than I.

But they don't.

Notre Dame tells a story that leftists reject, and that I believe. Their story is an atheist, materialist story. I must believe in the collective, and the collective will create the workers' paradise. The collective will vet donation-worthy art: crucifixes submerged in urine, Mapplethorpe's S&M portraits, a bloodied t-shirt reading "I punch TERFS" – that is, "I am a biological male and I physically assault women who don't accept me as a woman." And yes just such a t-shirt was featured in an art exhibit in a public library.

My leftist friends who rage against the concern for Notre Dame want to be recognized as the Messiah. They want to be the ones receiving the accolades for saving the people. But Marx is not my Messiah. Jesus is. Materialism is not my ultimate end. My ultimate end lies not in this world, this "vale of tears," but in a transcendent reality I can see only as through a glass, darkly.  

I'm wrestling with a couple of chronic illnesses. I work a low-wage job. I will donate to the fund to restore Notre Dame. The amount of money I give will be small in comparison to some donations, but it will represent a sacrifice for me. I will have to go without something I want in order to make my donation. Given my health and money woes, chances are I will never see any restoration. Someday, after I'm gone, a father will take his girl to see the restored Notre Dame, and her eyes will open to the transcendent. My donation will be a part of that. And that is better than anything any leftist can promise me. And my participation in that moment makes me rich.  

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.

This essay also appears at Front Page Magazine here

Monday, April 15, 2019

God through Binoculars is "Insightful, brutally honest, lovely, timeless," Goska is "one of the finest prose stylists we have."

Very grateful for this review

God bless Danusha Goska! Or, more appropriately, God, thank you for Danusha Goska!

Anyone who knows anything about the horrors of the 20th century will know who Whittaker Chambers and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were to the literary world of their times. Now add Danusha Goska to the literary world of our time. If there is a more insightful and brutally honest journalist of this era, I can't think of who that may be.

In God Through Binoculars, Ms. Goska takes us through her journey from her poor upbringing in New Jersey, having been raised by first generation Polish and Slovakian parents through her academic challenges and ultimately successful achievement, culminating in a PhD...Danusha Goska is among the finest minds we have and is objectively speaking one of the finest prose stylists we have.

In this "can't put down" read you will be amazed at the breadth and depth of Goska's knowledge and experience of both the natural and spiritual world. She argues lovingly but convincingly with the "science" community over issues of creation, Darwinism, aesthetics, truth, beauty, purpose, God, and the meaning of life. If you're going to take Goska on, you had better do your homework. Because I assure you, Danusha has done hers.

If you are ready for a work free of the canting nonsense, political correctness, simple mindedness, crass, politically charged messaging of our media world, then this is the book for you. I urge you, for your own peace of mind, to slip away to your own sabbatical and enjoy the thrilling and spiritual journey Danasha Goska will guide you through in this lovely, timeless work.

 God through Binoculars is available at Amazon here

Friday, April 12, 2019

Cooking with My Sister

Cooking with my sister

When your sister dies on International Siblings Day

after two years with a glioblastoma murdering her brain cells one by one, at a very rapid clip, so rapid a nurse temporarily lost her cool, and, in front of my sister's grief-stricken daughter, gasped in shock when looking at the tumor's explosive growth in an MRI image subsequent to an earlier one that had showed the tumor to be pea-sized

and when you are rubbing said sister's feet as she lay in a coma for 24 hours

and when she stopped breathing just after you communicated to your sister, telepathically, "You can go now. There will be people for you to boss around in Heaven,"

you will ponder these events every April 10, International Siblings Day, for the rest of your conscious life.

I resolved not to commemorate my sister's death on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.


Because I feel stupid, and "emotionally violated," for want of a better word, to be mourning people who, if I had died first, would not have mourned me. People, not person. Antoinette died Friday, April 10, 2015. My brother Joe died Friday, April 27, 2018. Phil, October 11, 1975. Mike, November, I think, 1983. Daddy, December 4. Mommy. August, right before 9-11. Artie, Benjie, Tramp, cats, lizards, and various strays. All gone, except me and Greg, and Greg doesn't talk to me. So that's it. I mourn them all.

And because I feel like I'm supposed to let them go. There is a Polish superstition, or at least a superstition of my Polish grandmother, that if you think about people who are gone, they stick around to listen, and miss their chance to get into Heaven. So I should just move on.


Antoinette and I cooked together. Yesterday, day after Siblings' Day, I made two things we used to make together. Cheese pie and Toll House cookies. The cookies I gave to a handsome Italian man who has been kind to me. He seemed unhappy when I delivered them. I wonder if he is diabetic. I am responsible for eating the cheese pie myself.

Antoinette told me that after she moved out of the house, and was living at nursing school, she whipped up a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough and ate it all herself. It was something she'd wanted to do since she was a kid, and of course could not do in that tiny house where we were all on top of one another 24/7. She said doing that got it out of her system. I've never done it, but someday maybe I will.

Cheese pie is something we made regularly. It scratched our itches: it is starchy, fatty, salty, savory, a bit slick, a bit sweet, and a bit sour. Last time I made it, I think, was in Poland in 1989, for Tenia Rybkowska and Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko.

After I left my prison sentence in Bloomington, Indiana, and joyfully returned to New Jersey, Antoinette greeted me by baking cheese pie. Her daughters ate it all. It's okay with that. Traditions should be passed down.

I never used a recipe while cooking cheese pie. It took me a bit of focus to remember what all I needed to buy. Dill is the key thing. Rarely do I have dill in the kitchen, as much as I like it. Proportions were a challenge. How much of this? How much of that? Will this amount of this correspond to that amount of that?

Tasting cheese pie again, after decades of not eating it, was a blast from the past. It is as delicious as it was back then, but … there's no real vegetable component, no lean protein.

We grew up like that. A lot of cheap starches, few fresh fruits or vegetables, and just about no lean protein. It amazes me that we survived as long as we did.

The bowl of raw cookie dough I did not eat. The measuring cups surrounding the bowl are the actual cups Antoinette, my mother and I used back in the twentieth century. I retrieved them from the house last spring after Joe passed. 

Add caption
Final product. 

Starting in on the cheese pie. Slicing a vidalia onion. Should have used the whole thing but chickened out. 

This amount of onion intimidated me, but I really needed more. 

Coastal cheddar. Could not resist. Expected seaweed in the cheese. 

Again, I'm not suing a recipe, so I have to guess at how much cheese to grate. 

Looks like enough 

Is there any such thing as too much dill? Esp since I won't be using dill again any time soon. But oh for some Polish dill soup. Fond memories of Krakow. 

Okay so maybe there is such a thing as too much dill

How much yogurt? 

I found this pan somewhere. Don't blame the scratches on me. 

I grease the pan and dust it with powdered cake mix. Why not? 

The secrete to good cornbread is not to let it get too mixed. Leave lumps. Lotsa lumps. 

Pan too big? Improvise. 

Can this amount of onion, shredded cheddar, and yogurt cover that cornbread, mixed with a can of creamed corn? 

I like rocks, bring them home, and don't know where to put them. This rock, that I found on Garret Mountain, gives me so much pleasure when I hold it. It is heavy and rough. 

Hotel Mumbai and Unplanned: Two Movies They Don't Want You to See

Hotel Mumbai and Unplanned: Movies They Don't Want You to See
All Pain Is Equal but Some Pain is More Equal Than Others

There are a couple of new movies that the very best people do not want you to see. Superficially these two transgressive films don't have much in common. One is set in Texas, the other in India. One centers on a rather average American woman's private thoughts and feelings; the other treats an international event that made front page headlines around the world. Unplanned and Hotel Mumbai are both films centered on pain about which you are not supposed to care. Unplanned is a biographical portrait of Abby Johnson, a woman who changed her views about abortion. Hotel Mumbai is a docudrama about the November, 2008 Muslim terror attacks on six sites in Mumbai, India. The pain cultural influencers want you to ignore in Unplanned is the pain of aborted fetuses and their mothers' later regret. Hotel Mumbai depicts the pain of Indians, largely Hindu and Sikh but also Muslim, caused by Muslim terrorists. It's funny. The left builds its edifice on pain. We must be shamed for American slavery, though Americans fought and died to end it 154 years ago. And yet the left works as hard to silence some cries as to amplify others, to airbrush some histories while splashing others across billboards.

I'm a diehard movie fan. I assess movies on their ability to transport me, for a brief two hours or so, to another world, to wow me with their aesthetics, to spark my own creative juices, to make me care about flickering images on a screen as if they were real flesh and blood. I can recognize the aesthetic value of movies, from Triumph of the Will to Soy Cuba, whose underlying message I reject. No matter your beliefs, Hotel Mumbai and Unplanned are both good movies, and you should see them both.

Of the two, Unplanned has been the most stridently assaulted. TV networks refused to run ads for the film. Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregate site, bestows a 50% or Certified Rotten score on the film. The L.A. Times reviewer has the decency to acknowledge that "with its solid production values, Unplanned has all the appearances of being a real film." In the end, though, it's "pure propaganda." Jordan Hoffman at The Guardian  calls the film "dim-witted" and "a gory mess" that includes "disgusting," "grisly abortion complications" that include "bloody fetal tissue." Evidently Hoffman imagines that abortion is neat and tidy. Hoffman is upset because a "risible" – that means funny – ultrasound shows "A fetus presenting what could be misinterpreted as fear or pain" during an abortion. "We get corny closeups of medical tubes overflowing with what look like raspberry Icees." No, actually, those aren't raspberry drinks; that is human blood. And … "corny"? The destruction of a human life is "corny"? I lack words. The words that Himmler possessed to justify the destruction of human lives. Those are the words I lack.

Samantha Bee, who self-identifies as a comedian, calls the film "Obviously ridiculous. No one should see it. I would not waste time talking about a movie so bad," she said, before talking about it. Many mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times, simply refused to run reviews for Unplanned.

I am not a hardcore anti-abortion zealot. Like many Americans, I hold beliefs that offend both pro-choice and pro-life camps. And I loved Unplanned. If this movie were as bad as critics say, my eyes would not have been glued to the screen throughout. I was never bored. I was always engaged. The plot follows the classic trajectory. A main character, Abby Johnson, moves from her personal comfort zone, in this case, a pro-abortion stance, through personal trauma, to a pro-life stance. She is tested, she changes, and she grows. The script is a smooth-running machine. There are no amateur missteps to distract your attention. The script guides you through Abby's journey, and, as you travel with her, you think about what it means to be a woman, to carry a baby, and to terminate a pregnancy. The production values are high, and if they weren't, I would not be writing this review. I don't care how lofty a film's ideals are. If the lighting is off and the sound is tinny, I leave the theater.

Ashley Bratcher's lead performance as the real Abby Johnson is low-key. I think the film wanted to make Bratcher as average and approachable as possible. More memorable is Robin DeMarco, who radiates Earth Mother warmth in her small role as Abby Johnson's pro-life mother. Robia Scott knocks it out of the park as Cheryl, Abby's boss at Planned Parenthood. Cheryl is every bit the Disney villainess – and that's a compliment. She is beautiful, given to showcasing her trim and toned upper arms in sleeveless tops, and ice cold. Before promoting Abby, Cheryl escorts her to the "P.O.C" room. P.O.C. stands for "products of conception" or "pieces of children," depending on who's guiding the tour. Here workers reconstruct fetal cadavers to ensure that no loose arm or skull remains in the mother's womb to cause infections or other complications. That risk alone give the lie to the "what women do with their own bodies" mantra. If someone else's left-behind arm can cause an infection in your body, you're not really talking about your own body. Cheryl praises pre-epiphany Abby for being able, dry-eyed, to wield tweezers to inspect a fetal arm and hand.

Critics have blasted Robia Scott's performance as over-the-top. These critics really need to spend more time watching videos of Dr. Leana Wen, the current Planned Parenthood president. I have listened to complete interviews of Dr. Wen in which she never uses the words "fetus" or "abortion" but only "choice" and "health care," in a tone as devoid of emotion as if she were a verbal praying mantis. She is a cool master of propaganda, and, being a real person, twice as creepy as the cinematic Cheryl.

Samantha Bee and Jordan Hoffman want you to believe that Unplanned is dishonest, woman-hating propaganda. In fact it is they who are spewing dishonest, woman-hating propaganda. I can't remember the last time I saw a Hollywood movie that was as deeply committed to an individual woman and women at large. I have certainly never seen a film that so graphically, fearlessly, and respectfully depicted what it is to inhabit a female body on a gynecological table, in a lover's bed, or crouching in physical agony on a bathroom floor. The blood in this film is women's blood and the blood of the life women's bodies alone can nurture. Those who have a problem with that are cowards and misogynists. Their problem is with life itself, not with Unplanned.

Hotel Mumbai has not been as severely and universally pilloried as Unplanned, but it's still a transgressive film. Barbara VanDenburgh, the Arizona Republic's reviewer, called Hotel Mumbai unethical, "the wrong movie at the wrong time." Vandenburgh is upset that the film blames the terrorist mastermind for the carnage. There's no "nuance" in such an understanding, she insists. One must discuss "context" and "geopolitical and religious tensions." Yeah. NPR's reviewer merely fell back on the old standby. The movie is racist. Ben Kenigsberg in the New York Times said that the film made him queasy. The violence of the film – not the violence of the terrorists but of the film itself – was hard to take – especially after the New Zealand mosque attack. The New Zealand mosque attack was an utterly wrong atrocity. Terrorist attacks in the name of Islam have occurred regularly since 9-11 and before. One website counts 34,815 such attacks. I wonder if Kenisberg ever found it difficult to go to a violent movie after any of those attacks. All pain is equal but some pain is more equal than others.

Hotel Mumbai is an action movie. Viewers are barely starting in on their popcorn when cinematic terrorists in inflatable boats approach Mumbai's pollution-befouled shoreline. They are taking direction through earpieces from a distant handler. He is urging them to kill without mercy. He tells them that their victims have hurt Muslims. He tells them that their victims have prospered while Muslims have been poor. I don't know if this is a reference to the post-British-imperial-era partition. In 1947, after the British handed the Indian subcontinent over to self-rule, Muslims demanded, and got, their own, separate, homelands: Pakistan and what would become Bangladesh. In the subsequent years, India has done better than Pakistan on most measures. The film suggests that envy was one motivation for the terrorists.

I was once a world-traveler in India and I could feel myself inside the scene where scruffy, multinational tourists in backpacks settle into a cozy-gritty Indian eatery. As they consider their menus, their waiter is abruptly shot dead. They dive under the table. Terrorists enter this random restaurant and begin to shoot. Violence is graphic but not pornographic. You see what you would see if you were on the scene: an entry wound, a fallen body, a halo of blood surrounding the body. The camera neither lingers nor turns away.

Why these diners? Why this restaurant? Just, the film suggests, because the restaurant was handy, and the diners are kuffar – non-Muslims. Allah demands it. Jannah, the Islamic paradise, is the reward of mujahideen. The film does not shy from the terrorists' ideology. They repeat "Allahu akbar" several times. As Ridvan Aydemir makes clear, "Allahu Akbar" does not mean "God is great." Rather, it implies "Allah, the Islamic god, is greater than other deities." The terrorists' handler speaks to them via their earpieces. He urges them on. Clearly, Islamic jihad is his, and his team's driving force. There will be a later scene where a terrorist uses a hotel phone to contact his family and ask if the handler has yet paid the family a promised sum. So, these terrorists is motivated by greed as well as their idea of a god.

After the terrorist team's initial shootings at a rail station, terrified mobs run toward the huge, impressive Taj hotel. They bang on locked glass doors and beg for entry. Hotel staff allow this chaotic, inexplicable mob to enter the hotel, not realizing that even as tourists enter, so do terrorists. No doubt some will view this scene and think of the current migrant crisis in Europe. It's just about impossible to let in genuine Syrian war refugees without also taking in genuine terrorists and others who would do harm to their hosts.

The main action focuses on the hotel. Armie Hammer is David, a ridiculously handsome and wealthy tourist, traveling with Zahra, (Nazanin Boniadi), his equally gorgeous wife, and their infant son and his nanny. Arjun (Dev Patel) is an impoverished waiter with a pregnant wife and child at home in their hovel. While she washes their child in an aluminum pan on the ground, Arjun informs diners of the arcane features of an expensive wine. Jason Isaacs is Vasili, a man with a thick Russian accent who has come to the hotel for an intimate orgy with pretty call girls. As a handful of terrorists strut about the massive structure, shooting anyone they come across, starting fires and tossing grenades, hotel guests and staff struggle to avoid death, and, in some cases, to perform acts of heroism. Scenes are suspenseful, heartbreaking, and inspirational. Given the setting, the film never stops being visually arresting. You are in one of the most exotic and luxurious hotels in the world, where people literally bath in rose-petal-scented baths, watching the scum of the earth slaughter innocents.

Hotel Mumbai is a hagiography for hotel staff, lead by Bollywood star Anupam Kher as chef Hemant Oberoi, a real person. (Other characters are composites.) In 2011, NPR reported, "None of the Taj employees had fled the scene to protect themselves during the attack: They all stayed at the hotel to help the guests … There was the story of the kitchen employees who formed a human shield to assist guests who were evacuating, and lost their lives as a result. Of the telephone operators who, after being evacuated, chose to return to the hotel so they could call guests and tell them what to do. Of Karambir Singh Kang, the general manager of the Taj, who worked to save people even after his wife and two sons, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, died in the fire set by the terrorists … dozens of workers — waiters and busboys, and room cleaners who knew back exits and paths through the hotel — chose to stay in a building under siege until their customers were safe."

Why did they do it? The staff in the film repeat their motto. "The guest is God." This phrase goes back at least as far as the 2,600 year old Taittiriya Upanishad. We say this in Polish, as well, "Gosc w dom, bog w dom." On one side, a cannibal god orders death and destruction. On the other side, God counsels life, love, and personal sacrifice for the welfare of others. Local police also come off quite well. Special forces teams were in Delhi, and did not reach Mumbai till a couple of days after the attacks began. Uniformed police officers, apparently without bulletproof vests or helmets, holding nothing but handguns, entered the hotel and tried to help.

In a movie like this, it's inevitable that the viewer will wonder which characters will survive, and which won't. If you don't want to know the answer to that, please stop reading now. I'll reveal the fate of a couple of the characters, but not all.

David and Zahra are clearly a mixed couple, but while David is apparently American, Zahra could be from anywhere between Madrid and Darjeeling. Once the terrorists enter the hotel, while she and Vasili are hiding under restaurant tables, he throws a cloth at her. "Put this on your head so that they will know that you are one of them."

Zahra rejects the cloth disdainfully. "I'm not one of them!" she insists. At this point, the viewer does not know if Zahra is not a Muslim, or if she is announcing that she is not a Muslim terrorist. Later, Zahra takes a cell phone call from her mother. Her mother orders her to pray. "What good have our prayers done?" She asks, rhetorically.

Eventually Zahra, David, and Vasili are taken prisoner by the terrorists. They are lined up, face down, hands tied behind their backs, on a hotel room floor. A terrorist shoots David. He dies slowly. Zahra witnesses her husband's final moments. The terrorist turns to Zahra. She looks the terrorist in the eyes and says the beginning of the shahada. "There is no god but Allah," she recites, in Arabic. The terrorist hesitates. He orders her to shut up. She simply repeats the same words over and over. The terrorist phones his handler. The handler orders her death. The terrorist cannot bring himself to kill a fellow Muslim.

How is one to interpret this scene? One possible interpretation: the filmmaker is saying that "not all Muslims are terrorists." But there is a less flattering interpretation. Zahra has made clear that she isn't a devout Muslim. Perhaps she recited the shahada as an expedient to save her own life.

Vasili's demise can also be interpreted in many different ways. A terrorist rips open Vasili's shirt, revealing tattoos and a scar. The terrorists discover that Vasili had taken part in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A terrorist fingers the cross Vasili is wearing around his neck. That Vasili has been revealed to be an orgiast and whoremonger is not very Christianity-friendly. I wondered if the film were trying to root terrorism in Western military incursions or Christian theology. Vasili spits on the terrorist. The terrorist beats Vasili mercilessly, mashing his face and breaking his ribs. Even though Vasili is injured and bound, he rolls on his side and bites the terrorist menacing Zahra. Noble at last.

It's not easy watching a film so violent as this, but I'm glad I saw it. I didn’t expect to feel this, but I did – watching this film helped me to honor the millions of victims of jihad who live far from New York's Ground Zero. Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, and indeed Muslims themselves die regularly so that some mujaheed can take his chance at the Janna roulette wheel. Hotel Mumbai offers us a chance to mourn these victims, and celebrate these heroes.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars

You can also read this review at Front Page Magazine here

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

God through Binoculars is "erudite, touching, and sometimes even funny tribute to the Catholic faith that is difficult to put down"

Filip Mazurczak's review of God through Binoculars from Catholic World Report, March 11, 2019.

From the rise of the “nones” to the eschewing of Christianity for Eastern spiritual practices such as yoga, the American religious landscape has been changing for decades. Clearly, the watershed moment was the countercultural 1960s. Danusha Goska, a gifted writer and scholar, came of age during this time. However, unlike many other Baby Boomers, she has clung to her Catholicism, and now she wants to share her faith with the world. Part travelogue, part spiritual memoir, part tribute to the natural beauty of the East Coast, and part collection of anecdotes on religion, society, and her own life that never bore, Danusha Goska’s God through Binoculars is a unique credo and affirmation of faith by a distinctive mind.

While her retreat at the Trappist Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, in the early 2000s is at the center of her memoir, it actually takes up the minority of God through Binoculars, which is in reality Danusha Goska’s spiritual autobiography beginning with her childhood. Goska notes that when people of faith experience suffering, “[e]veryone mentions the Biblical Job.” Reading her memoir, though, it is difficult to not think of Job. Like the long-suffering but faithful Old Testament prophet, Goska has gone through numerous difficulties throughout her life, yet has clung to her faith.

Goska was born in New Jersey to a family of working class immigrants from Slovakia and Poland. She was abused as a child. Later, her inner ear burst, which led to years of vertigo, vomiting, and the inability to navigate three-dimensional space. Not coming from a wealthy family, the costs of college were a burden, although Goska, a talented student, eventually received a scholarship.

Having graduated from college, Goska worked in developing countries in her twenties as a Peace Corps volunteer and eventually completed a PhD in the humanities from Indiana University Bloomington. Her dissertation on negative stereotypes of Eastern Europeans in American culture was later published in book form to much critical acclaim. However, she could not find a tenure-track academic job. Several prominent scholars she had counted on writing letters of recommendation died unexpectedly. Eventually, Goska ended up working as an adjunct professor making a princely sum of $6,119 a year living in the blighted, crime-stricken community of Paterson, New Jersey (Manhattan is where tenured faculty live, while Paterson is the home of adjuncts, she wryly notes). God through Binoculars brings to the fore American academia’s dirty secret, that of excessive reliance on adjunct faculty, people who usually hold doctorates yet make less money than fast food fry cooks and cannot count on such luxuries as health insurance.

God through Binoculars is Goska’s spiritual manifesto. She does not so much explain why she believes as how. Like St. Francis, awe for nature is at the center of Goska’s faith. “The more I learn about nature, the more I can’t be an atheist,” she writes. Her descriptions of the numerous species of birds in New Jersey’s Garret Mountain and the spectacular views of Manhattan, the Verrazano Bridge, and the spires of the Newark cathedral from its peak made me plan on devoting a few hours to the nature reserve during my next sojourn to New York.

Goska identifies as having ADHD, and this is evident in her memoir. The book does not follow a linear narrative and is filled with digressions. However, this is not a bad thing; her digressions are without exception fascinating. Many are related to the animal world, film, literature, or history. The best are her ripostes to Catholic progressivism and her barbs on some of her students who feel such an aversion to Christianity that they cannot admit how indebted they are to the Christian tradition even when she demonstrates that they have culturally Christian, not Aztec or ancient Greek, views on the value of human life.

She writes quite a bit on Thomas Merton, America’s most famous Catholic monk whose later life (and death) and writings were controversial. When discussing Merton’s criticism of Christian missionaries in developing countries, which he himself never visited, as aggressive agents of cultural imperialism, Goska offers this response:

When I think of missionaries, I think of Father Damien, who went to Molokai to serve abandoned lepers and died of the leprosy he inevitably caught there. I think of Peter Claver, who entered the hellholes of slave ships. With tears in my eyes I think of Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, who worked with the poor. They were stalked, beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the El Salvador national guard. I think of Gladys Aylward, a domestic servant. A thirty-year-old spinster, she sank her life savings on passage to China. She rescued discarded female infants and was one of the ‘arrogant’ Christian missionaries who played a key role in ending at least a thousand years of the crippling and torturous binding of Chinese women’s feet.

God through Binoculars is replete with such ruminations and amusing anecdotes. They all form a coherent whole, though, as they help us to understand why Goska believes. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell titled his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”; God through Binoculars is Goska’s account of why she has remained a Christian throughout the years and many trials. At the center of her book is a retreat she took to the Trappist monastery in Berryville, Virginia, more than a decade ago. Facing a difficult financial situation and feeling hopeless, she could not even afford the retreat fee, but the monks waived it for her. She did find spiritual consolation, although not necessarily from the monks, but from her fellow retreatants (especially an Episcopalian with surprisingly similar academic interests she dubs “The Theologian”) and travel companions.

While a fine spiritual memoir, there are a couple issues with God through Binoculars. Goska mentions the declining number of monks at the Trappist monastery and provides a problematic diagnosis of the cause of state of affairs: “I am a member of a church where the voice of a lay woman is without value to the celibate male hierarchy making the decisions. Decisions that, lately, always result in a smaller and smaller Catholic Church.”

First, this diagnosis seems discordant with Goska’s previous spot-on critiques of Catholic progressivism. Changing the Church’s teaching on permitting only men to the priesthood will not stave off declining numbers. Since the 1990s, the Anglican Communion has allowed women to become priests and, eventually, bishops, which did nothing to end its decline. In less than two decades, the proportion of British adults identifying as Anglicans has halved, and among young adults only 3 percent are members of the C of E! Stateside, the Episcopal Church is not doing any better: Philip Jenkins, himself an ex-Catholic who swam the Thames, speculates that the rates of decline in his adopted Church are so steep that the last American Episcopalian may have been born.

There are dioceses in the West that are successful at attracting men to the priesthood. It just so happens that these vocations-rich dioceses tend to be orthodox and traditional, such as Portsmouth in England or Lincoln, Nebraska. Goska writes that during her retreat the monks used the writings of the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, known for many things but not always for orthodoxy. This is a clue as to the source of the Virginia Trappists’ dearth of vocations.

Goska sometimes writes about gross things, and God through Binoculars does occasionally give us too much information, such as she describes the unique reproductive organs of female hyenas or Egyptian deity Sobek’s surreal copulation habits. However, Goska goes a little too far when she tries to drive home the point that Jesus was human and writes that He ate meat, drank wine, and was flatulent, using crude terms. This simply feels wrong.

Still, God through Binoculars is ultimately an erudite, touching, and sometimes even funny tribute to the Catholic faith that is difficult to put down and is an engaging look into the religious experiences of one Baby Boomer scholar who is eccentric in the best meaning of the word.

God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery
by Danusha Goska
Shanti Arts LLC, 2018
Paperback, 274 pages

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"Best of Enemies": Rich, Substantive, Moving. Go See It

"Best of Enemies" is a great movie and you should go see it. It's getting mediocre reviews, and that's disgusting. So many of us yearn for thoughtful, substantive, adult films. "Best of Enemies" is just that, and critics are attacking it because it isn't radical enough for them. Defy these losers. Go see "Best of Enemies."  

It's 1971 in Durham, North Carolina. C. P. (Claiborne Paul) Ellis (Sam Rockwell) is the Exalted Cyclops of the local KKK. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) is a black activist trying to get decent housing for black people. A black school burns and blacks petition to attend the local, white school. Black activist Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay) comes to town to organize a charrette. No, I'd never heard of a charrette, either. It's a French thing. People with opposing viewpoints are organized into discussion groups with a strictly imposed deadline. They must vote in a supermajority to approve any proposal.

C. P. Ellis' Klan is shown violently menacing white women. This is interesting because one justification offered for the Klan's existence was its purported protection of white women from black men. Ellis and his crew shoot up a house inhabited by a woman with a black boyfriend. In another scene, Klan members threaten a white female charrette participant to make sure that she won't vote for blacks to enter the white school.

Ellis' change is subtle and slow. There are no crashing music epiphany scenes. The movie is grounded in gritty day-to-day interactions, like Riddick compelling Atwater and Ellis to eat a school cafeteria meal together.

The entire cast is excellent. The production values are high. Clothes, cars, the songs on the soundtrack, evoke 1971 in the South. One drawback. Making a charrette dynamic drama is a challenge, one the director doesn't quite rise to. Some exposition scenes do drag. "1776" made the writing of the Declaration of Independence very dramatic, and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Twelve Angry Men" made a filibuster and jury deliberations dramatic. I wish director Robin Bissell had taken a cue from these films.

The African Americans in the film are all saintly; most of the whites are sweat-stained, racist wretches or too cowardly to live up to their anti-segregation beliefs. It's patronizing to depict African Americans as flawless. We know that that era included hate and violence on all sides, including white-on-white (Viola Liuzzo and Jim Zwerg) and black-on-black (The Black Panthers and Malcolm X).

Further, the film fudges Ellis' Road-to-Damascus moment. "Best of Enemies" depicts Atwater showing small kindnesses to Ellis. The cinematic Ellis concludes that blacks are not inferior. In fact, though, Ellis' own memoir, he talks about growing up poor and being ashamed of being poor. He worked hard and could not get ahead. He was bitter and resentful and looking for someone to blame. The Klan encouraged him to blame blacks, not rich whites. As a Klansman, Ellis rubbed shoulders with wealthier whites. Outside of Klan meetings, though, those rich whites would cross the street to avoid him. Ellis concluded that desegregation would ultimately be best for poor and working class whites. None of Ellis' class struggle makes it into the movie. Hollywood has a hard time talking about poor whites.

There is a very handsome, very scary Klansman in a small part. I didn't remember seeing that actor in anything before "Best of Enemies." I made a mental note to google him. Darned if it isn't Wes Bentley, who made such a splash in 1999's "American Beauty." After that success, Bentley became a heroin addict. He's back to acting now. We wish him all the best. He has the star power to fill the screen. I found his Klansman genuinely scary.