Sunday, January 6, 2013

Carson? Carson, where are you?

If you do not know who the ‘Carson’ in question is, well, I guess you are not familiar with one of my obsessions in the last year—the BBC drama Downton Abbey. Carson is the butler, the man who runs the show, or about whom as the Earl of Grantham explains in the first episode to a visiting Duke, “without Carson, we’d all be lost.”

So Downton Abbey is on my mind—of course it is. Tonight—in the United States at least—the first episode of Season 3 airs. But I am not in the United States, so I will not be watching the episode to see what happens to Matthew and Mary and to watch the sparks fly between Maggie Smith, the redoubtable Dowager Countess, and Cora’s mother, the new-to-the-show Shirley MacLaine.

I am in Bangkok. The first significant job fairs of the recruiting season always are in Bangkok and for the second year in a row, I left chilly New York for balmy Bangkok. Not that I am out in the balmy air much—this is a work-in-the-hotel-all-day affair. I am not complaining, just reporting.

But I had a rather Downton Abbey feel on my flight here. On New Year’s Day I flew from New York to Amman, unloaded all the Christmas gifts and food shopping from my USA sojourn in my apartment, re-packed with the suits and ties and propaganda for the candidates at the job fairs and headed back to the airport. Actually, that whole bit made me feel like one of the servants, all the schlepping and oh, yes, the heat was not on in the dorms yet so the shower was freezing cold. I felt like one of the hands in the fields, like that man that Mrs. Crawley saved in the first season. But the real Downton Abbey feel came when I checked in at the airport counter, discovered that the propaganda for the candidates weighed 60-some pounds which put me over the weight limit for checked bags. I asked how much the extra weight would cost—knowing that the school would (have to) fit the bill. The counter agent suggested that I purchase an upgrade to business class—that was cheaper than paying of the extra weight and staying in steerage, er, I mean in economy. I agreed that that was a dandy idea and accepted my upgrade and access to the Crown Lounge.

The next 10 hours then were my little Downton Abbey moments. I didn’t have to sit with the “little people,” the working stiffs in the waiting area. I could board when I wanted. And it was as if Carson and Mrs. Hughes oversaw the flight…anything I wanted or started to do, a flight attendant came and helped me. When I boarded they wanted to do it all, from taking care of the bags, to taking off my coat, to removing my shoes, to fluffing the pillows. If I liked the almonds in the little glass bowl for my pleasure, they got me more. If I commented about the roast beef amuse-bouche instantly another found its way on my plate. I liked travelling in the style of the Earl of Grantham! When the meals came (there were two) there was a stiff linen table cloth with nice china and glassware and silverware. I started to do something, and there was the Royal Jordanian version of Anna or William there to make sure I was satisfied and untroubled. The croissants were warm and tasted like Mrs. Patmore had just made them with Daisy in the kitchen!

I hope I made their evening as they served me.

I suppose Downton Abbey has been in my head the entire break! It was on every night on PBS while I was in the USA, then I got a sample on my kindle of a book, The Real Downton Abbey, Christy gave me a memoir of someone who had been in service in the Britain of the 1920s, and in a bookstore I paged through a cookbook based on the series. It is easy to live in this little Downton Abbey bubble! This morning as I walked through our hotel, the Shangri-la (ooo-la-la!!) this one section reminded me of a version of the gorgeous country house on the show…

Anyway, as the USA begins another season I am finishing up a day of interviews. Yesterday we gave 13 interviews after the 2-hour sign-up period, and today we had six interviews and 7 rejections for interviews…in between reading resumes (Why isn’t there a Carson to do that job??!!). I am longing for a week-end…if you know the show, you know where I am going with that one! The Dowager Countess heard that word in Season One and did not know what a week-END was…oh, how lovely for her to always live in her bubble!

Today I got an email from colleague Charlie of animals dressed up and named after the Downton Abbey characters, and since I cannot watch the season opener tonight, I may just content myself with finding the parody of it on YouTube! I will also share my friend Tracy's confession to me on the phone on New Year's Day--she watched both seasons back-to-back...she is also obsessed!

I wonder if poor Mr. Pamuk’s name will come up at all tonight…and yes, I still miss William, our gallant lad who passed away after his wounds in the trenches of World War I France.

I know he wasn’t really real, but it is a fun bubble to find oneself in!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

I know Mary!

It is early morning on New Year’s Day. I am back from the party, and just hours away from getting on a plane and leaving the United States today after my whirlwind, excitement-laden 18-day break. It is quiet at the moment, unusually quiet, but not unusually quiet for that morning when the world tried to make it to the new day and celebrate beginnings and new possibilities. It is quiet and I am quiet. And I am thinking about Mary. Mary, you know the one who doesn’t have a last name?

Christmas was last week but I am still thinking of Mary. Maybe I am thinking of Mary because my niece, Emma, played Mary in the Christmas pageant last week on Christmas Eve. Emma is 14. Mary was probably right about at that age when thrust onto the stage of history. Emma has attended Holy Family Catholic School her whole life and the school ends in the 8th grade. Playing Mary is thought to be the pinnacle for an 8th grade girl at Holy Family.

We all know the role that Mary actually played in the story of the birth of Jesus. However, even though I had been to this Christmas pageant before, I paid more attention to Mary this time. I don’t want to dwell on it very long, but whoever scripted this pageant has a little explaining to do. You see, Mary had no lines! You have the angels, who have lines, and shepherds who have lines, the wise men who have lines, and Joseph who has the most lines, and then Mary, with no lines.

I am not complaining like an uncle who wants his niece to have the most lines—I just found it strange to watch the Christmas pageant, watch this tall, composed Mary, and she had no lines.

But there was a moment in the pageant that made me chuckle—a warm, funny, unexpected moment. As Joseph and Mary walked down the main aisle of this venerable Catholic church and Joseph spoke about the impending trip to Bethlehem, a little voice rang out in the church. A little voice wailed, “I know Mary!” I know immediately who this must be. I had heard about the kindergartener named Michael who loved to greet people with big and bold salutations. He sees my sister and cries, “Hi Emma Mom!!” So I knew who this little guy was who recognized Emma.

No sour grapes over Emma’s lack of lines—although perhaps there is a soupcon of sour grapes; I asked my sister and she said that one year the director’s daughter played Mary and so she had a solo that year. ‘Nuff said.

But as I watched Emma embody the serene Mary, and kept Michael’s pronouncement in mind, it allowed me to think how much we know about Mary.

Once upon a time, in a Galilee far, far away, there lived Mary, a teenager, a Jewish peasant girl. And, God help her, she was pregnant and unmarried.

She dwelled in a land occupied by a great and mighty empire, Rome ... a land occupied, controlled by an army ... a peace enforced by the threat of violence or actual violence: you choose.

The occupation of Mary’s land meant that Mary’s heart and life, and her people’s hearts and lives, are also occupied, occupied by insecurity and fear.

Young Mary chafes at occupation ... at its degrading fear. She decides to undertake an inconvenient, costly journey to visit her elderly cousin. Did I say elderly? Let me tell you about Aunt Elizabeth: she is as old as the hills.

Mary’s journey from Galilee to Aunt Elizabeth’s home in the hill country is probably 80-100 miles. (Imagine an unmarried, pregnant teenager undertaking a journey from Cincinnati, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio, by foot.)

It is a journey and undertaking of many days and many nights. This is a young woman of some spunk and determination, of imagination and resolve. Days later, foot-sore and aching, Mary finally arrives in the hill country. She asks for directions, locates the home of her Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah and knocks.

Aunt Elizabeth opens the door. She is, as Mary expected her to be: old ... old as the hills. Aunt Elizabeth is not just old, she too is pregnant. Ancient Aunt Elizabeth is roundly, profoundly, astoundingly pregnant.

Young Mary and aged Aunt Elizabeth embrace: pregnant tummy to pregnant tummy, womb to womb. Tangled in each other’s arms they are by turns crying and laughing.

And Mary—the young, pregnant, unmarried teenager from Galilee—starts singing. That’s how the gospel of Luke tells it. Mary breaks out into song. It is an old song, old as the hills and saturated in the ancient texts and stories.

And, yet, Mary’s song is also new ... new and fresh, surprising and uprising.

It is a bridge, this song: between the Old and the New, between the past and the future, between the way it is—right now, today—in this occupied, violent, grief-drenched world and the way it will be ... in God’s time.


“My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.” God has looked with favor on a spunky, defiant, unmarried, pregnant, peasant girl in an occupied land.

It is quite a song. It is a song of reversals and revolution. Make no mistake about it: Mary’s song is a revolutionary song for a revolutionary religion. It is a song that issues from the very being of a God who upends human contrivances.

You know what Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and the Marquis de Sade all said about religion ... that it acts as an opiate ... pacifying us and mollifying us ... numbing us to violence ... inuring us to injustice ... to human suffering. Maybe. Maybe some religion. But not the religion of which Mary sings. This is no opiate. I remember once reading an observation by C. S. Lewis where he wrote about Mary’s song: “The Magnificat is terrifying. It should make (y)our blood run cold.”

I guess I am thinking about revolutionary things today anyway—I am off to see the movie version of Les Miserables. In the movie, the young men will ask, “Do you hear the people sing?”

Here we are at the start of a new year—Are you ready? Are you able? Are you willing to join the revolution? Are you willing to be among those who lift up of the lost, the least, the lowly?

On this New Year’s Day I will repeat a poem I love:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the king and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Blessings to you for the new year!