THE MATRIARCH by Susan Page

“At the time of her death she had been largely out of the public eye for a quarter century. What caused her, the wife of a one term president, to be not only heralded as a great first lady but loved?” son, George W. Bush

No matter your political leanings, Barbara Bush seems to have a universal appeal. She is tough and loyal and oh-so relatable.

I must admit I’ve harbored some envy for our 41st First Lady. She’s feisty and strong-willed and it seemed everyone around her admired her for it. As a member of the not-overly-sweet club of women in the world, it seems I prickle those around me more than arouse admiration. How does she do it?, I’ve often wondered. How does one fully embrace the life of familial matriarch while simultaneously speaking her truth, maintaining worldwide appeal?

Journalist and biographer, Susan Page, captured many of the things we adore about Bar (as she was nicknamed.) But the lovely first lady, with the ever-present string of pearls, held nothing back during Page’s interviews with her toward the end of her 92-year life.

Her relationship with Nancy Reagan has been a well-known feud. Backstabbing and public slights – the tawdry things reminiscent of Reagan’s tv career more than political position. Barbara doesn’t mix words in describing their ongoing struggle until the bitter end.

Discussing Nancy was something I assumed would be a part of this biography. But an unexpected part of the book came toward the last half. The difficulties Laura Bush had in developing a relationship with her strongly opinionated mother-in-law. The way in which Barbara interfered (…made helpful suggestions…) with the raising of her many grandchildren. The rules she laid down for each grandchild staying at her house during those summers in Kennebunkport, Maine (ie: Breakfast is served between 5-8am. If you miss it, you make your own.)

Reading about these difficulties didn’t diminish my respect for Barbara Bush, but it did let me off the hook just a little. Strong-spirited women have unique obstacles in life. Sometime those hurdles are cleared elegantly and without distress. But more often than not, feelings are hurt, relationships are broken if not severed, and a wake of turmoil is left behind the words and actions. Barbara suffered these difficulties like anyone else. At times she swallowed her words for the greater good. But many times she let opinions loose and had to suffer the unwelcome consequences and apologies later in life.

In the end, this made her even more relatable to me. She was gregarious and funny. She was also flawed and awkward. Ultimately, her fierce heart for her family came first and foremost. She was a fighting mad mama bear when her husband or children were unfairly crossed.

This biography is a good overview of the life of a first lady straddling the sedate role her generation championed and the opinionated aspects of her basic personality. We all walk through that confusing jungle at times. It’s nice to know the woman with a hearty laugh and a self-deprecating humor, stumbled and angered sometimes, but always loved without reserve.

Five stars.
The Matriarch, by Susan Page

Prayer as a Tool for Social Justice

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the fringe of society. The Us and Them. The Others. The disenfranchised.

The following items were a part of three separate readings that (…isn’t it always the way…) seemed to speak directly to my current line of thinking this week. Don’t you always love those ‘accidental coincidences’??!

I read an interview with Melinda Gates regarding her new book, The Moment of Lift. She was explaining some of the ways in which she determines which issues she can get behind and advocate for funds and resources. Birth control in third world nations. Child vaccination in Africa. These are some of the areas in which she has advocated for and given tremendous resources to. Without provocation about religious beliefs she offered:

Faith in action to me means going to the margins of society, seeking out those who are isolated, and bringing them back in.

I have to admit – my initial, gut reaction was to think, ‘If only I had a tremendous amount of wealth and could enjoy giving it away to issues and people who are in the greatest need.’ I envied her money. Not because of the amount of things I could do with it but the ways in which I could freely give it away. It’s good to give $5 to a charity, but how great would it be to actually SEE the difference your resources are making in the lives of those in great need?! I coveted her Giving joy; the endorphins that flood our hearts when we can contribute significantly to someone in need.

And then she continued:

The starting point for human improvement is empathy. Everything flows from that.

It brought me to a recent conversation with my dearest friend, Monica. We were sitting together on the back porch over a bowl of fruit and commiserating over the stumbling blocks the Church in general is facing today. We reflected on our own ideals and how they’ve developed over time. “The difference is when you have an actual face to put to the issue. When you’ve befriended someone who struggles with acceptance in a certain area and now, the issue is no longer an issue. The issue has a name and a face and a good heart and soul.”

The starting point for human improvement is empathy…Melinda stated. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is drawing upon an understanding of what they must be feeling and struggling with because you have wrestled with a similar internal war.

Our life experiences have helped to shape us into a better human being (if not immediately than eventually, if we’re lucky.) But those same life experiences are there as resources for us. Ravines of empathy, waiting to be dipped into. To remember the shame or the disappointment or the ostracization that happened – and what that must feel like for this person standing in front of you. Or that group of peoples mentioned on the news. Being willing to step back into that personal struggle is being brave and kind and compassionate and…empathetic…to those around us.

My physical world is very, very small. I don’t interact with that many people on a day to day basis. It is a season of life that has very few day-to-day characters. So I asked myself: how do I show empathy and how do I go to the margins of society?! How do I, in my small physical world, bring into the fold the marginalized? The struggling?

A few days later I read a small paragraph from a Henri Nouwen book that enlarged my understanding of prayer. We must pay careful attention to the compassionate presence of the Holy Spirit. The intimacy created by the Holy Spirit who, as the bearer of the new mind and the new time, does not exclude but rather includes our fellow human beings. In the intimacy of prayer, God is revealed to us as the One who loves all members of the human family just as personally and uniquely as God loves us. Therefore, a growing intimacy with God deepens our sense of responsibility for others. 

When I go to God in prayer I am stepping into a circle with all of humanity. All of humanity. The homeless that are so prevalent on our California streets. The mother of three. The neighbor. The stranger. The person of decidedly different political opinions as me. As soon as I open my heart to God with my small needs, my deep hurts, my worries and concerns and thanksgivings – I stand with all my fellow humans, there. Together. We are drawn to each other because the Holy Spirit makes it so. We are on even footing. Each unworthy of the grace that has been poured over us in vast supply.

It’s not just me in my bed at night. It’s not just me as I drive in the car alone. It’s not just me. I stand together in those few moments with you and with your neighbor and with your questions and challenges. For a few pristine moments we are one. One humanity surrounded by a holy presence that makes us each equals.

It is from there that my decisions must be made. Be they political, or simple, or religious or complex. Prayer brings us to the feet of Empathy and that is where our choices flow out.

To top it off, a friend recently posted a well-known quote from Thomas Merton (American monk, 1915-1968)

Our job is to love others, without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.

I still struggle – wishing I could make a BIG difference in the lives of others. Wishing I had the resources to pour into others, like the Gates. But instead it is meant for me to stand reverently in the presence of you. To link arms with all of humanity for a few moments of complete unity before God. And to allow that encounter to inform my empathy throughout the day.

Current philanthropists, passed Catholic monks. I have learned from them all this week. Even – a comedy duo with a big Netflix hit. -ha!

How about a little Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to round out this post?

You and me??…we are homies.