Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kielbasa, Wives, Babcias, Laureates, Faith

There will always be a place at my table for the Polish. Anyone who has ever contemplated the consequences of commandeering kielbasa off a tailgater's grill at a football game can relate. Throw in halupki (stuffed cabbage) or pierogies sauteing up with butter and onions and you're describing a winter meal(s) with all the stops pulled out.

Prior to 15 years ago, I couldn't have told you much about any kind of Polish food and my knowledge now is limited at best. But there will always be a place for the Polish at my table because my wife has some pretty strong Polish heritage going on. Robin is Pittsburgh Polish with a bit of Italian and Belgian thrown in, which, when mixed with my French/English/Scottish/Irish lineage, gives our daughters a more fully realized conquest of the European genealogical continent, by way of the United States, of course.

This past week Robin's grandmother died, her last living grandparent. Our girls didn't know her well, but referred to her as "babcia" (pronounced "bub-cha"), which is the Polish word for grandmother. Robin had always heard the Americanized version of babcia's maiden name, which her family called "Sway," and reading her obituary, Robin saw for the first time that it was actually "Szwaja"--funny since we have friends who are Szwajas in Easton.

Babcia was hardcore Polish Catholic, heritage, family, and religion. She lived next door to her church and was there like clockwork. The priest at her funeral gave a great description of his view of the Christian life cycle--(paraphrasing) "We are all eternally in the mind and thoughts of God, then we take these bodies and live out our human experience, then we return to the mind of God, though we've really never left it, you see?"

You could change some words around and use that idea to describe a number of religions. There was a peace and lightness and grace about this priest--qualities they should all have but too few actually do--even during a sad time. He was older and spoke in choppy but eloquent, coherent, and clear chops. Thinking about the service later that night, Robin talked about the comfort and (because of the) familiarity she has with the way Catholics do things. She has grown up knowing it and its structure is easy to fit inside.

Growing up Episcopal is not so different in form and structure, but certainly less in degree. Having said that, I was certainly familiar with the services and the words, but never with the whole concept. I've never been able to cross the chasm of unquestioned faith, more akin to Kierkegaard's Knight of Infinite Resignation than to the Knight of Faith.

Reason and Truth (loaded word) have to be at the party as well. Yet, I'm the first one to admit, Reason's bus won't get you all the way to the school either. I've always found myself looking for a middle path, one that brings reason and faith together--not the Catholic faith and not the empirical sciences. Though I've said I'm all about the Catholicism of Thomas Merton or of Mike Keene, but that's not the norm and maybe another story.

The best description of that synthesis of faith and reason that I have found comes across in Mahayana Buddhism, which I found or found me in philosophy class and has continued to build over the years. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama actually cranked out a book titled, "The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason," which breaks it down into a nice, bite-sized back cover blurb:

"It is vital for us to obtain genuine confidence in the nature of the mind and reality, grounded in understanding and reason. What we need is a skeptical curiosity and constant inquiry, a curious mind drawn toward all possibilities; and when we cultivate that, the desire to investigate naturally what arises."

So there we have a bridge from kielbasa to the Dalai Lama, who may or may not have ever sampled any of the former. I'll bet he'd like them if he did and could get past the whole karma thing. But the latest of the things Polish I have found that are welcome at my table is the Polish poet/Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz. His cool, quirky book of poems, meditations, reflections, prose, and aphorisms, "Roadside Dog," has kept me thinking in the mornings and his book, "Second Space," hit me between they eyebrows with ethics and actions and art with relation to God or no God. Here's one called "On Prayer:"

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

Translated by Robert Hass

I dig the idea of compassion and acting and striving for something here and now, regardless of what is at the end/or other end of it all.

Remembering the priest at Babcia's service, both his words and his way of being. And thinking about her faith and her devotion to the church, which isn't mine, but is no less real or valid, and what it meant to her and what it gave her, and it all makes me think, "cool."

So my love and appreciation for things Polish. My wife, my family through her, food and history and culture, religion and its baggage and promise, and Czeslaw Milosz. Quite a full table.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Bastos said...

I also sometimes wish I was a person of faith, a real Polish Catholic Pittsburgher, but I get my dose of religion from Kay Ryan and Mary Oliver.