Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 35 (August/September 1993): 12-16.

Sparrows and Lilies

Camille S. Williams

When I was pregnant with my first child, I asked my mother about labor. This woman who gave birth to her first on her own kitchen table (her mother and mother-in-law in attendance) hardly looked up from her work to say, "It's not that bad." Though she nearly bled to death after the birth of each of her children, she said little more when I asked for details. She did indicate that the labor was actually harder on my father. I thought she was joking, but he confirmed her account of his dismay at her experience. He decided after the first labor that he could never put her through that again-they should have no more children. As their fifth child, I've always been grateful my mother changed my father's mind.

Dr. Kartchner, trained by the Army in World War II, prepared us first- time parents for labor by explaining that labor was not pain at all- simply pressure. Our son came breech and pale blue into this world after eighteen hours of intense "pressure" at two-minute intervals. Labor is hard enough. Exhausted and relieved, I was not inclined to correct the good doctor as he stitched up the episiotomy, nor was I interested, later on, in contradicting my mother as she taught me how to bathe our child. I'd had firsthand experience of my limits, and it seemed to me that the pain or pressure was sufficient that God might have found a better way of delivering my children.

I was for a time convinced that women were indeed the braver of the race for simply enduring labor through all the millennia it took to bring us Demerol and epidurals. That superiority complex was short-lived; I had not yet felt the dreadful pull to stay at bedside watching writhing pain tear at someone I loved, and praying that God either take away the pain or make me strong enough to bear it, too.

I've glimpsed a bit of what fathers feel at the birth of their children. A coworker, a proud first-time father, modestly acknowledged at lunch one day that he had helped produce the world's most beautiful child. He assured us his wife was recovering nicely, and our talk turned to pregnancy, labor, and birth. He paused mid-sentence, recounting his wife's struggle; he had no words for what he felt. An experienced father of four explained that his first child came only after a very hard labor and significant short-term injury to his wife. "The next day," he said, "I looked at myself and everyone I passed on the street, and said in my heart, 'You did that to your mother!'" It took him some time to recover from the shock. The fathers round me mumbled agreement about labor's difficulty, shaking their heads and looking away in silent frustration at their own helplessness in the process of birth.

As I listened to what seemed to be their judgment that their respective wives had suffered far more than ought to be necessary, I found myself leaning across the table trying to comfort them. Though I couldn't discount the distress they described, the only words that came to mind were my mother's "It's not that bad." What I meant, I suppose, is that those labor pains are not without purpose.

After four labors and one emergency C-section, I have not forgotten the heaviness of the child pressing to be born, but neither do I dismiss natural birthing as superfluous suffering. What is it I think that I have bought by my maternal pains? Certainly my friends who for years hoped for pregnancy, endured medical tests and self-doubt and grief, love their adopted children no less than I love the children of my body. I am also quite sure that there are many ways of learning love other than through offspring, but in my life, along with my parents and my husband, my children have worked a profound change in my ability to care for others.

I am forever altered by the carrying and the laboring for my children. Slow learner that I am, it took the birth of my first child to see each person as someone else's child, someone else's pain and joy. This radical restructuring of my world left me unable to bear some of the misery we inflict on each other. Whether real or simulated, I cannot watch the maiming or killing of anyone's child, no matter the age.

This could be sentimentality, but I prefer to think that in that relatively short time when body and soul are straining to bring forth the daughter or the son, some of us grasp for the first time that each irreplaceable life requires faith, patience, and more pain than any of us would choose. Labor gives life, and the long wait between conception and birth instills gratitude for each delicate finger and toe, and appreciation for the beauty of the human body and all its functions, right down to the last sleepy burp and snore of the infant snuggled at shoulder.

A relationship that began with the biological connection between parent and child may, through labor and with astonishing speed, become a fierce, inarticulate urge to protect the vulnerable newborn whose face is seen only after long months of worry, long hours of effort. Maybe it is the work of motherly or fatherly nurture that brings about a change of heart linking us with those who have gone before us, with those who will live after us. As our children grow, we are invited to become patient and less selfish through the presence of dependent innocents or the pique of aggravating adolescents. As we and our parents age, we are, in recognition of our own infirmities, enticed to be more forgiving, more repentant, more compassionate. Perhaps it is this witness of familial love that gives us hope beyond the present: we were not made to turn to forgotten dust.

We are each of us bought through someone else's pain and taught by our own suffering that every day's breath is an infinite gift. We are none of us simply biological creatures. Like sparrows and lilies, we are known and accounted for; clothed by more than mortal flesh, the end of our creation is joy.

Camille S. Williams is a poet. Her article "Abortion and the Actualized Self" appeared in the November 1991 issue of First Things.

The Newtape File V

Dear Nephew, my plutonic sprout,

I am pleased as punch (spiked with Demon Rum, of course) at your recent success in instilling in young Missy Smith the conviction that she is "fat" and must starve herself into conformity with the popular image of an attractive young woman as looking exactly like an attractive young man with small breasts attached. The androgyny craze works in our favor. Need I say why? Distinction destruction, of course! This torture of the body in the name of a mandated vision of the flesh is just what the Diabolical Doctor ordered. And it has the additional salutary effect of driving yet another wedge between mother and father, child and parent, in the name of power or freedom or choice or beauty. The more we "disempower" people from working out their own problems the better. The more the outside intrudes in the form of culturally authoritative sanctions against legitimate authority the better. For, left to their own devices, ordinary folks might revert to a vocabulary damning, if I may take one of Our Father Below's words in vain, to our best interests. Hope, Faith, and Charity-these must not abide! Terms of everyday ethics, as certain wretched humans call it, are very difficult to kill. Yet kill them we must and a domestic war of all against all fueled by our propaganda is the most efficient method yet devised for undermining the ethical menace.

May I note a trend very much in our favor? I refer to a further debasement of language, this time in the direction of a salutary "abstractedness." The more people are "deeply concerned" about things far away, outside their purview of concrete responsibility, the better for us. You know that Our Father Below wants us to appear, as often as possible, in the form of an angel of light. Abstract benevolence and sentiment serve us oh so nicely. There are so many splendid examples! I have picked but three for your delectation.

The first is a story I overheard during a visit some years ago to a place in northwestern Massachusetts called "Happy Valley." Moviegoers were crowded into a small art film theater in a town called Northampton, sophisticated far beyond anything yet dreamed of in Fremont, Nebraska, and one trendy couple described their recently concluded trip to Nicaragua, then under the happy control of the Sandinistas, and told of their virtuous labor shoveling manure on a state farm. They were helping the "peasants" to plant crops and fighting American imperialism. Those around the couple trembled with politically correct delight. This was, for me, a perfect moment. A trip to earn political kudos for oneself and to promote an abstraction ("the revolution"). For that very season had brought news of struggling farm families all over America, including some whose farms were being foreclosed in western Massachusetts. But no assistance from the abstractly benevolent went to them, for they were defined politically as an updated version of Marx's phrase-and he was a genial phrase-maker, was he not?-"rural idiots."

A second example ripped from past and present headlines. Think, dear Nephew, of all the prominent men who are what is called "progressive" with respect to women's issues who treat real, flesh-and-blood women before them with contempt. And think, as well, of the pact with Our Father Below some women's groups make when they say that working with a well-known sexual predator may make them "uncomfortable," but if he is "correct" on their issues (abortion, sexual harassment-if somebody else is doing it) then they must mute their ire and stem their scorn. I noticed that the most recent instance featured a "progressive" whose sexual misconduct was well known to women's groups. But they held their fire until after he had been reelected because he was on "their side" on the "key issues." Now they are clamoring for an investigation because the thing has become too embarrassing.

Our Father Below adores this sort of thing: projecting altruism outward toward the correct public policy, the globally benevolent, the politically correct, the theoretically grand, while suffocating virtue that might operate personally, in everyday life. I am particularly fond of grand theories of Justice that diminish by contrast the acts of everyday life called by The Enemy's camp "charity" or "decency" or some other such poisonous possibilities. One of The Enemy's allies (though himself an unbeliever) proclaimed that he should like to be able to "love my mother and also love justice." Thankfully, this nuisance, Albert Camus, was killed at an early age. He was a bone in my throat. He kept insisting that one had to tend to concrete matters concretely, and that one could not leapfrog over particular ties in favor of abstract and by definition impossible ones, as our ally, Jean-Paul Sartre, argued so successfully for so many years.

Here is a third instance, of a similar sort. Another delicious item from my file, a love-letter in the New York Times under the title, "A Man's Child Care Crusade." This is the story of one Richard B. Stolley, editorial director of Time, Inc. who heads something called Child Care Action Campaign. It seems that when Mr. Stolley was young he was an admirably inattentive father. His ex-wife stayed home with the children. "'It was her problem,'" he says. "But this 63-year-old grandfather, an athletic-looking man who jogs regularly and wears Italian suits, has had a dramatic change of mind," so says the Times. I am so pleased their reporter did not catch on. For Mr. Stolley has not changed his mind at all. I confess that I was apprehensive when I began the piece. But I quickly got reassured, for Mr. Stolley, who is "angry" and "outraged" at the child care situation, still wants anybody but himself to care for children. You see, Mr. Stolley used to think child care was something that someone else should do so that it did not hamper him. Today, Mr. Stolley continues to think child care is something someone else should do. But this can be treated as a marvelous change of heart because the "someone else" is no longer a wife but the government or the employer! The New York Times is our solid ally on this front. Too bad the reporter really couldn't decipher Mr. Stolley's line. "Everywhere you look in our society, if child care breaks down, everything else starts grinding to a halt." And what did he have in mind? Did he mean children grow up bereft of love and care and this is bad for children? No, he means "work in this magazine company involves strange hours and depends on child care arrangements." What's good for Time Inc. is good for America! I could not stop smirking for several moments at this giddy portrayal of Mr. Stolley as a transformed sort of guy. A windfall for us and unplanned by anyone, just another delicious example of the "cultural context."

I fear I may have tired you, but these exemplary stories should give you renewed energy for the struggle with the Smiths, precious devilkin.

Your affectionate uncle,

Jean Bethke Elshtain, discoverer and keeper of Newtape's epistles from the Underworld, has a day job teaching political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.


George Weigel

Moral theologians have long disputed the point at which a child reaches the "age of reason." But surely, in these United States, the answer is clear: one reaches the "age of reason" when one can read the box scores (the baseball box scores, of course) in the morning paper. For to grasp the meaning and significance of "S" and "E"-sacrifice and error-is to be put firmly, if not always decisively, onto the path of moral discernment.

An Orioles' fan in principio et nunc et semper, I reached the age of reason during the hegemony of the New York Yankees in the 1950s: a decade in which the Bronx Bombers took the American League guidon year in and year out, with the exceptions of 1954 (which gave rise to Hadley Arkes' immortal mnemonic: "I can always remember when St. Augustine was born; it was 1,600 years before the Indians won their last pennant") and 1959. This annual experience of powerlessness in my formative years might in a more violent era have inclined me to anarcho-syndicalism. But amidst the placid Eisenhower prosperity, it led only to an intense loathing of the pinstriped fiends that brought me close to meltdown in 1960: the year that a bunch of Baltimore rookies (the "Baby Birds and their Incubator Infield," as the Sun put it) led the American League on Labor Day-only to drop four straight in the House That Ruth Built later in September, as Mantle, Maris, Moose Skowron, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard, Yogi, and all the rest ground inexorably toward yet another World Series appearance.

This kind of thing tends to singe one's soul. And thus it took a long time before I could admit any Yankee fan into the company of my friends. (The ecumenism of my meridian years, considered empirically, required less of a conversion than might be imagined. One runs into all sorts of people as one edges ever farther from the homestead; merely to find a Yankee fan in the Baltimore of my youth was as improbable as finding a Republican.) Still, I cannot shake the preternatural intuition that to root for the Yankees is unseemly, unrighteous, even vaguely obscene: something like rooting for the Italians during the Abyssinian War. Steinbrenner's pontificate, the pure type of the degeneration of baseball from epic to circus, has not made me any more forbearing: even to so coarsened a sensibility as that of your typical Yankee fan, the descent from DiMaggio to Reggie must surely be regarded as a frightening example of moral and cultural decline. And so my ancient animosity endures.

But I am weakening.

And it's all the Scooter's fault.

For the catechumens: Phil Rizzuto-"The Scooter"-was the Yankee shortstop from 1941 to 1956, the Bronx's answer to Brooklyn legend Pee Wee Reese. (Whether Rizzuto belongs with Reese in the Hall of Fame is a subject only slightly less controverted than the filioque.) In the early 1960s, the Scooter began doing Yankee broadcasts on radio and television. But what in the world was Phil-for whom the elementary rules of English grammar and syntax are as foreign as the semiotics of Ugaritic-saying?

Turns out he was saying poetry.

At least that's what two geniuses, Hart Seely and Tom Peyer, discovered when they took some tapes of Rizzuto's broadcasts and transcribed them as free verse. Moreover, O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto proves what many of us had long suspected: that no man could spend fifteen years in the majors-at least in the days before Barry Bonds' earring and $7 million annual contract-without developing a certain depth of moral insight, of the sort associated with absorbing losses and playing in pain.

Thus the Scooter's off-the-cuff "Prayer for the Captain" (as Seely and Peyer style it), ad-libbed during the pregame show on August 3, 1979, shortly after Yankee catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash:

There's a little prayer I always say
Whenever I think of my family or when I'm
When I'm afraid, and I am afraid of flying.
It's just a little one. You can say it no matter
Whether you're Catholic or Jewish or Protestant
or whatever.
And I've probably said it a thousand times
Since I heard the news on Thurman Munson.

It's not trying to be maudlin or anything.
His Eminence, Cardinal Cooke, is going to
come out
And say a little prayer for Thurman Munson.
But this is just a little one I say time and time
It's just: Angel of God, Thurman's guardian
To whom his love commits him here there or
Ever this night and day be at his side,
To light and guard, to rule and guide.

For some reason it makes me feel like I'm talk-
ing to Thurman,
Or whoever's name you put in there,
Whether it be my wife or any of my children, my
parents or anything.
It's just something to keep you really from
going bananas.
Because if you let this,
If you keep thinking about what happened, and
you can't understand it,
That's what really drives you to despair.

Faith. You gotta have faith.
You know, they say time heals all wounds,
And I don't agree with that a hundred percent.
It gets you to cope with wounds.
You carry them the rest of your life.

Then there is Rizzuto's paean to the paschal joys of a fresh start, declaimed into the microphone during the first inning of Opening Day, 1991:

If you don't get a little,
A few butterflies,
No matter what you do,
On the first day of anything,
You're not human.

The season, like life, unfolds, and paths diverge in the woods. But the Scooter, an Italo-American Frost, knows that no options means no humanity; thus Rizzuto, before the last game of the 1976 playoff between the Yankees and the Royals:

All right this is it,
The whole season coming down
To just one ball game,
And every mistake will be magnified,
And every great play will be magnified,
And it's a tough night for the players,
I'll tell ya.
I know last night, Being in the same situation many times
With the great Yankee teams of the past,
You stay awake,
And you dream,
And you think of what might be,
If you are the hero or the goat.

Rizzuto as poet occasionally probes the outer limits of postmodernism, as in the closing line of "DiMaggio's Bat".

The wood . . .
I mean,
You couldn't chip that bat.
That's the way DiMaggio's wood was on the
He would ask for that type of wood.
Being an old fisherman
He knew about the trees.

But then he returns, easily and without seeming to press the matter, to the casuistry of the confessional that he learned as a boy:

And he hits one in the hole
They're gonna have to hurry.
They'll never get him!
They got him.
How do you like that.
Holy cow.
I changed my mind before he got there.
So that doesn't count as an error.

The author of "Prayer for the Captain" is, clearly, no Panglossian optimist. And yet for someone who, if he hasn't seen it all, has seen a lot of it, Phil Rizzuto has somehow retained the kind of childlike wonder at creation that characterized the spirituality of his countryman, Francis of Assisi. Thus "Squirrels":

In the backyard we got a lot of trees.
In our home I've watched them leap
From limb to limb.

Did you ever get one in your attic?
They're not too cute
When they get in your attic.
I'll tell you that.

I would not harm a squirrel.
I don't want to get those animal lovers . . .
I got them in my attic.
No, I got,
But I got a squirrel cage
And trapped them in the cage
Then took them out in the woods
Over by Yogi's house
And dropped them off.

This is, by all accounts, baseball's season of discontent. Storm clouds of foreboding hang over the national pastime: idiotic and arrogant owners, greedy and arrogant players, no leadership, lunatic economics, flagging fan interest. The owner/player confrontations may even conspire to produce a 1994 in which no major league baseball is played: an iniquity beyond the combined talents of Hitler and Tojo. But amidst all this tsouris, there is the game: this lyrical game, this intensely human game, this clock-free preview of time-beyond-time. And there are the stories, passed from friend to friend and generation to generation. And there is the ongoing interface of the game and life: because there are people like the Scooter who have the soul to know that neither life nor the game is just a game.

Me, writing something nice about a Yankee great.

George Weigel is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the author of The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism (Oxford). O Holy Cow! is available from the Ecco Press. Phil Rizzuto is donating his royalties to a variety of children's charities.