I don’t start radiation treatments until Monday 21, but already I’m exhausted.

What? You think I’m full of self-pity? Listen: I’ve had five teeth pulled, and a feeding tube stuck into my belly, not to mention the mental back-and-forth I’ve been going through.

The idea of cancer doesn’t bother me as much as it did a month ago. It’s just a fact of life – my life, anyway. I just need to get through the treatments (which should be done by early December, not really so long from now).

But the early procedures have made me tired, and the anticipation of my radiation and chemotherapy treatments makes me tired too.

I’ve been napping on weekends, which I never really did before. I think of myself as active and alert, but I find myself logy and weary now.

From my “Comprehensive Cancer” notebook, given to me by my doctors and nurses: “Think of your cancer treatment as a time to get well and focus only on yourself.”



This is very tempting advice for a lazy selfish person like me. To hell with other people!

But something else inside me just wants to go to bed with a book and a crossword puzzle.

From Stevie Smith:

Oh would that I were a reliable spirit careering around

Congenially employed and no longer by feebleness bound

Oh who would not leave the flesh to become a reliable spirit

Possibly traveling far and acquiring merit.


Sweetness and cruelty; or, the Christian religion


I recently picked up a translation of a sixteenth-century Catholic treatise on “Christian tortures,” mostly concerning the various ways in which the martyrs died. There’s a modern (illustrated) appendix explaining how crucifixion works. A Protestant version of the same book – the famous “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” narrating the tortures and deaths of the early Lutherans and Calvinists at the hands of the Papists – was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Before you say “Ugh!” and turn away, ask yourself: why were these books so popular? And why do we continue to be so morbidly fascinated with pain and torture and death?

Let’s look at it more closely. Saint Lawrence (my name saint!) died on a barbecue grille, and is often depicted holding the instrument of his death (see the above image). Barbara was thrown from a high tower by her own father. Catherine was broken on a wheel. Many early martyrs were thrown to wild animals, or torn apart. The Protestant martyrs were mostly burnt or hanged, but often suffered horrible tortures beforehand.

Again: why do we read about these things, over and over again?

Maybe it’s the same reason we enjoy picking at a scab: it’s a mild agony, a remote pain. It reminds us that we’re alive.

Also we seem to like gruesome stories, up to a point.

However: religion – and in particular the Christian religion – seems to like to tell us that pain and suffering and death are a positive experience. We will get there sooner and more smoothly, we’re told, if we accept and even welcome suffering into our lives.

(A co-worker spoke to me once, with great feeling, about her experience in Catholic school back in the 1950s and 1960s. She was taught about Maria Goretti, the twelve-year-old who’d been raped and murdered, and later made a saint (mostly through the agency of her very aggressive mother). She was, therefore, for some perverse reason, presented as a model of Catholic girlhood: suffer, and you’ll go to Heaven.

(My friend said that, even as a child, she was horrified by this.

(I don’t blame her one tiny bit.)

We need to remind ourselves – we, who are comfortable in our lives – that human suffering is very real. But we should not revel in it, or reassure ourselves that it’s the summit of the human condition. And we should not in any way make it a religious trial, as if suffering were a prerequisite for happiness.

This is a poem by Stevie Smith. I’ve quoted it before. It’s her response to the doctrine of Eternal Hell. It’s the most eloquent rejection of suffering in the name of religion that I’ve ever read.

Is it not interesting to see
How the Christians continually
Try to separate themselves in vain
From the doctrine of eternal pain

They cannot do it,
They are committed to it,
Their Lord said it,
They must believe it.

So the vulnerable body is stretched without pity
On flames forever. Is this not pretty?

The religion of Christianity
Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty
Reject this Sweetness, for she wears
A smoky dress out of Hell fires.

Who makes a God? Who shows him thus?
It is the Christian religion does.
Oh, oh, have none of it,
Blow it away, have done with it,

This god the Christians show
Out with him, out with him, let him go.

Interdict in Wisconsin, AD 2012


First of all, a disclaimer. I converted to Catholicism in 1975, while I was attending a Catholic college. Like most modern American Catholics, I have run hot and cold on the Church over the (many) years since then. About six or seven years ago, I decided to give the faith one more try: I attended a downtown Mass almost every day at lunchtime, and even joined my local parish.  I found that it was more than enough, and that I couldn’t do it. There was just too much dissonance: so many good people trying to believe so many ridiculous things. I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, and I left.






There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about a parish in Wisconsin which is going through a miniature civil war. Some years ago, a couple of ultra-conservative priests were sent in to bring the local parishioners (considered to be a little too free-thinking) to heel. Four hundred of the parish’s nine hundred parishioners signed a petition to get rid of the new priests. The new priests were backed by the local bishop, who is now (gently) threatening the parishioners with interdict.



What’s interdict? you ask. Ah yes. I last remember reading about it in a book of English history: Pope Innocent III put all of England under interdict, back around the year 1200. In brief, it’s religious quarantine. Within the interdicted area, you cannot get married (as a Catholic), buried (as a Catholic), baptized (as a Catholic), et cetera.



Are you as amused by this as I am?



I am not an English peasant circa 1200. I am not frightened of a bishop throwing imaginary thunderbolts.



And here’s the thing of it: this was the Wall Street Journal reporting on this story. On one hand, the WSJ is a very conservative rag; it’s all about money, and tends to side (in a genteel way) with the whole Fox/right-wing coalition (no surprise, since the WSJ is owned by Murdoch, who also owns Fox).  So the article is careful not to portray the priests and the Church hierarchy as anything but poor misunderstood bosses and owners.



However: the local parish is losing money. Church attendance is down one-third. Donations are way down. The parish is being forced to close its school.



And income is, after all, the bottom line.



So the hierarchy is trying to threaten the parishioners back into the church.



I say, without any intent at irony: dear Jesus.



I was discussing this with one of my student workers the other day. She was born Catholic, but has (like me) grown away from the Church, largely because of its various social attitudes – toward women, toward contraception, toward a couple of other issues. She was incredulous. “So the Church is basically saying that they’re going to fire their parishioners,” she said.  “I know what I’d do. Just what I’d do if it were a job. I’d quit before they fired me.”



Which is exactly what many of the parishioners are doing, evidently.



Let’s finish with some of Stevie Smith’s poetry:



The religion of Christianity

Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty

Reject this Sweetness, for she wears

A smoky dress out of hell fires.


Who makes a god? Who shows him thus?

It is the Christian religion does.

Oh, oh, have none of it,

Blow it away, have done with it.


This God the Christians show,

Out with him, out with him, let him go.



Sunday blog: Stevie Smith’s cats

It suddenly struck me that today is Halloween, and it might be nice to do something seasonal.  So, instead of the lovely mini-anthology of Snooki quotations I’d planned, here’s one of my favorite Stevie Smith poems.  

Stevie loved reading her poetry aloud; she would sing it and act it out.  It would have been great fun to see her recite this one.


I like to toss him up and down

A heavy cat weighs half a Crown

With a hey do diddle my cat Brown.

I like to pinch him on the sly

When nobody is passing by

With a hey do diddle my cat Fry.

I like to ruffle up his pride

And watch him skip and turn aside

With a hey do diddle my cat Hyde.

Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats

That sit on tombstones for your mats.


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