Archive for November, 2012

A Shining Beacon of Light

“Don’t speak to me about grief!” Abraham Lincoln commands his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field in the film “Lincoln.” Mrs. Lincoln fell into a deep depression following the death of her son Willie, and though the Lincoln family had four children, only Robert survived to have children of his own. Abraham Lincoln himself grieved deeply for his personal losses despite battling the south during the Civil War. A great book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” written by Joshua Wolf Shenk, details the deep depression which haunted Lincoln throughout his life, and Shenk characterizes how Lincoln’s personal battles determined his greatness as a president.

Indeed, throughout “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, the audience is privy to a very human, flawed depiction of the visionary 16th President of the United States with the title role played by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. At one point toward the end of the film, perhaps presaging his death, Lincoln laments, “Some weariness has bit at my bones.”

In this way “Lincoln” intricately interweaves both deft and subtle touches. The opening scene, the only battle scene in the film, shows Lincoln reviewing the troops, including both blacks and whites, and two soldiers come up to thank the president for all his inspirational words by reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address. In terming this address one of the most important speeches ever delivered, James McPherson called it, “the world’s foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them.”

Even though the film was a bit of a history lesson for me, it never felt turgid, stilted or plodding. Almost everyone knows that Lincoln was assassinated not long after winning a second term in office, but those who are not history buffs may not be aware of the intense political maneuvering in the final few months of his life. He had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but Lincoln wasn’t certain it was enough to secure freedom for all slaves. In effect, the debate was that the Proclamation seized all property from the seceding states, and slaves were considered property at that time, but it was unclear what would happen to those slaves once the Civil War ended.

It was imperative for Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, to clearly free the slaves yet backlash at the time was fierce. It turned out Lincoln and his advisors were not above “greasing the wheel,” offering patronage jobs for votes. Thaddeus Stevens, the foremost abolitionist of that era, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was forced to clarify his position in front of the entire Legislature to pronounce whether he supported “equality in all things, or only equality before the law.” This turned out to be a very important distinction.

My only critical comment was that the film’s climatic moment occurs right at the very end of the war, and it was unnecessary to include Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford theater in Washington while watching “Our American Cousin” on Good Friday, 1865.

For many, Lincoln and the Civil War have become what I would term a “dead event,” no longer resonating with those in our country who would just as soon forget the past. The movie “Lincoln” sweeps all that aside, making us care very much once again for this president and about this fateful period in history.


Thanksgiving Prayers

When it comes to God, it’s easier not to believe than to believe (that’s my theory).

This morning I came across an essay in the Sunday, November 11, 2012 Chicago Tribune Parade magazine, written by Anne Lamott. Here’s what she wrote:

Counting Our Blessings

“No matter how you say it, grace can transform an ordinary meal into a celebration—of family, love, and gratitude.

“We didn’t say grace at our house when I was growing up because my parents were atheists. I knew even as a little girl that everyone at every table needed blessing and encouragement, but my family didn’t ask for it. Instead, my parents raised glasses of wine to the chef: Cheers. Dig in. But I had a terrible secret, which was that I believed in God, a divine presence who heard me when I prayed, who stayed close to me in the dark. So at 6 years old I began to infiltrate religious families like a spy—Mata Hari in plaid sneakers.

“One of my best friends was a Catholic girl. Her boisterous family bowed its collective head and said, ‘Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts. . . ‘ I was so hungry for these words; it was like a cool breeze, a polite thank-you note to God, the silky magnetic energy of gratitude. I still love that line.

“I believed that if your family said grace, it meant you were a happy family, all evidence to the contrary. But I saw at certain tables that an improvised grace could cause friction or discomfort. My friend Mark reports that at his big southern childhood Thanksgivings, someone always managed to say something that made poor Granny feel half dead. ‘It would be along the lines of ‘And Lord, we are just glad you have seen fit to keep Mama with us for one more year. We would all strain to see Granny giving him the fisheye.’

“I noticed some families shortened the pro forma blessing so they could get right to the meal. If there were more males than females, it was a boy chant, said as one word: ‘GodisgreatGodisgoodletusthankHimforourfoodAmen.’ I also noticed that grace usually wasn’t said if the kids were eating in front of the TV, as if God refused to listen over the sound of it.

“And we’ve all been held hostage by grace sayers who use the opportunity to work the room, like the Church Lady. But more often, people simply say thank you—we understand how far short we must fall, how selfish we can be, how self-righteous, what brats. And yet God has given us this marvelous meal.

“It turns out that my two brothers and I all grew up to be middle-aged believers. I’ve been a member of the same Presbyterian church for 27 years. My older brother became a born-again Christian—but don’t ask him to give the blessing, as it can last forever. I adore him, but your food will grow cold. My younger brother is an unconfirmed but freelance Catholic.

“So now someone at our holiday tables always ends up saying grace. I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins. For a minute, our stations are tuned to a broader, richer radius. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear. Someone grew it, ground it, bought it, baked it; wow.

“We say thank you for the miracle that we have stuck together all these years, in spite of it all; that we have each other’s backs, and hilarious companionship. We say thank you for the plentiful and outrageous food: Kathy’s lox, Robby’s buche de Noel. We pray to be mindful of the needs of others. We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love’s presence, of Someone’s great abiding generosity to our dear and motley family, these holy moments of gratitude. And that is grace.”

(Anne Lamott has a new book out this month, “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” For writers, her book on writing is seminal, titled, “Bird by Bird.” The first book of hers I read is called “Operating Instructions,” about her life as a single mother, just getting sober, and her discovery of God’s presence in her life. She’s a wonderful writer, definitely worth getting to know through words on paper).