There is Always Dog Hair in my Coffee

Coffee with Dog HairIt is easy for me to think that I am the busiest person of my acquaintance (I would go “in the world,” but that seems melodramatic, even for me).  Day-to-day, week-to-week, especially during the academic year, I have this feeling of always being behind, never catching up.  One misstep, one half an hour spent not time-on-task (TOT) and all is lost.

Of course I don’t spend every moment working.  There is social media after all and fun articles about the Royal Family to read.  One must keep up.  I recently read a rather helpful article about people taking time away from Facebook and Twitter.  It was helpful because it did not say give it up entirely – the opposite of all those people I met in grad school who told me scornfully that they don’t watch TV.  (And I was in grad school before all this online streaming thing, so they were hardcore.  Not like the people who tell me they don’t have a TV but watch EVERYTHING on their laptops.) Maybe I should do that.  Maybe I should go on a social media break.  But, I am supposed to have a presence on the interweb to promote myself as a historian or whatever.  I must be engaged and the Twitter is the place to do that, professionally speaking.  (And since I have very few followers on Twitter and even fewer here, I am not worried my presence will be missed.) There, however, are moments when it seems all this presence is a waste of time. If I am present here, I am not there.  If I spend time on research, I do not get my students’ papers graded.  If I spend an hour composing a post here, I do not prep classes.  Not to mention the other things my job requires.  I come to lead a cluttered professional life.

I lead an actual cluttered life with piles of whatever here and there in my house.  The whatevers are the usual things: mail, books, that article I don’t need today, receipts from the bottom of my purse, and anything that falls into the category of Not Sure What to Do with That.  (I am not alone in my dropping; I have an academic spouse, too.)  I see this habit of piling as one of my many moral failings.  I should have a clean and well-ordered house.  It seems the right thing to do.  People with clean and well-ordered houses are successful people, people who get their work done on time and get ahead.  Yet, if I spend a weekend cleaning my house, I spend the ensuing week catching up.  So, what happens? I don’t clean my house (enough) and I always have dog hair in my coffee.  We seem to exist in a cloud of dog hair that sticks to the furniture, our clothes, and winds up in my coffee.  Or water, or wine, and unlike transubstantiation, it does not transform into something better.  It is just a floating, solitary dog hair.  Always.

The reality is that I am not the busiest person of my acquaintance.  I know many people who have much more grading, course prep, reading, meeting with students, committee work, family, social obligations, and on and on. And what’s worse, they are productive with their scholarship and they are active members of their communities.  And they are nice, lovely people. The old so-and-sos…

Unless you think this is just a long-whiny rant about how I am a bad person, I can assure that is not my intent.  (OK, so maybe 20% rant.) I do wonder how people get ahead in this game.  I do wonder how people manage to complete their tasks, have something that resembles a social life, and occasionally get a good night’s rest.  Or does everyone have dog hair in their coffee (metaphorically speaking) and they just hide it better?

 

 

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A New Resource for American Catholic History Available: Sisters Justina and Blandina Segale and the Santa Maria Institute

Sometimes a project can come together very quickly.  An article is with some efficiency.  That book review is only one month late.  Book projects, of course, take longer.  Much longer.  And then sometimes, certain labors of love take a very long time to be released into the wild that is the community of scholars and teachers of history.  Yesterday, I am pleased to announce my labor of love (shared with M. Christine Anderson and Judith Metz, SC) that is The Journal of Sister Justina and the Santa Maria Institute, a new American Catholic History Classroom hosted by American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University, went online.

Well, our American Catholic History Classroom featuring Sisters Justina and Blandina Segale (Sisters of Charity and biological sisters) and the Santa Maria Institute (a social settlement house established to aid Italian immigrants in Cincinnati, OH) is available for teachers and scholars everywhere!

And, better yet! I got to talk about why this exhibit and working with everyone at CUA’s archives are so wonderful as a guest contributor to the archives’ blog: The Archivist’s Nook.  Go see what I said.  Check out other posts (subscribe to it even).  And while you’re at it, explore the wonderful resource that is the American Catholic History Classroom!

To Live in a World with Justice

The Keepers Episode 7 RecapIn early June, I watched the fifth and sixth episodes of Netflix’s The Keepers.   Then, we went on a bit of trip and then I got distracted, but after long last, I watched the last episode of this documentary series that seeks to find justice for Sister Cathy Cesnik and for the people who were abused by Joseph Maskell.  I kept looking at episode seven on my list of shows to watch; I heard other people talking about it.  Then The Keepers was nominated for an Emmy.  Well, I thought to myself, I better finish it.  And so I have.

Honestly, episodes five and six left me muddled.  Why did this documentary series get made?  The introduction of possible suspects in the fifth episode – two men whose family came forward with stories of truly disturbing and violent behavior – is followed by episode six and the confusing and underdeveloped look at Sister Cathy’s friends, Gerry Koob who claimed to love her and Helen Russell Phillips who was her roommate.  (Russell, as everyone calls her, is a huge mystery. At times she is accused of being complicit in the murder and at others it is suggested she was frightened into silence.)

As I said, these episodes left me muddled.  I tried to take a step back to think about the information – the testimony – as a historian.  When I read diaries, personal journals, and letters, I have to evaluate what the author was really saying, what was left out, what was the perspective.  I can rely on other documentation to fill in the gaps.  When I conduct oral history interviews, I have to remember that the same rules apply.  As a historian, writing the account of a past event requires that I work very hard to not preference one source without criticism.  At the end of the sixth episode – which I watched right after I finished five – I was left wondering what more is there to this?

Episode seven, reintroduces the Archdiocese of Baltimore as a spectre in this murder.  Maskell was accused of abuse before the Archdiocese transferred him to Keough HS.  Before all the violence, abuse, terror, and very possibly the murder of Cathy Cesnik, the Archdiocese of Baltimore knew that Joseph Maskell sexually abused a child.  They moved the problem.  What did the Church authorities think would happen?  (I know, I know, stupid question to ask.) The filmmakers return to Joyce Malecki and drop information about the Malecki family living in the same parish at which Maskell was assigned, St. Clement’s – the same parish from he was moved because of accusations of abuse.  Joyce’s brothers comment with frustration and sadness that when they die, the mystery of their sister’s murder will die with them, unsolved.  One brother died in 2016.  There is no justice for Joyce.

A bill continually is proposed to the Maryland legislature to extend the statute of limitations to report sexual abuse, because victims of abuse do not always have the ability to come forward.   The bill never makes it to vote; it is killed by the committee.  The filmmakers show us that the Archdiocese of Baltimore (through their legal representatives) are the chief opponents of this bill and it is suggested that the Church influences the committee leaders to kill the bill.  At no time is a priest, monsignor, or bishop on camera.  The Archdiocese denies any foreknowledge of Maskell’s actions. We are left with more questions – or one question – Will there be justice?

If the filmmakers wanted to call attention to these murders and the abuse, this series accomplished this goal. If they wanted to call attention to the horrendously wrong and bad position the Church took in the face of sexual abuse, they did that too.  One thing they apparently did not want to do is explore religious life in the 1960s and 1970s.  Everywhere it is dropped into this documentary series – the all-encompassing Catholic culture of Baltimore in the 1960s that allowed priests like Maskell to rule without question and justice to fail.  We hear about the changes of Vatican II to priests through Gerry Koob, who wanted to leave the priesthood because he fell in love with Cathy Cesnik.  We hear brief encounters of Eucharistic celebrations in Russell and Cathy’s apartment, and the experimentation conducted by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.  Yet, does anyone know what that means?  Experimentation in religious life could be anything.  In the case of Sisters Russell and Cathy, it meant they lived in an apartment instead of a convent.  It meant they might not wear their religious habit. (Why do the filmmakers keep showing viewers images of Sister Cathy in full habit, but barely touch that she wore secular clothing towards the end of her life? Did she not wear the habit because she was in a public high school or because her community decided to experiment with secular dress?) We learn in the seventh episode that the SSNDs forced sisters “experimenting” to chose the convent or to leave religious life all together.  Did they really give members of their community ultimatums and make it that clear cut?  From what I know of religious life at this time, it wasn’t that simple.  But, I am a historian of women religious and a casual observer would be yet again reminded that Catholic religious life was an abusive and oppressive existence and thank goodness all those women left religious life.  Yes.  In some cases, it was.  But it isn’t as simple as that.

Let me just remind my one reader that I am not an apologist for the Church.  I don’t like oversimplification of the lives of women religious.  It is not in the interest of the filmmakers to explore religious life in in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, if they wanted to solve the mystery of who killed Cathy Cesnik (and possibly Joyce Malecki) they did not do that either.  They really wanted to.  Some of the interviews with one of the suspects and with the representatives from law enforcement left me with the impression that they thought by simply asking the question, they presumed they would get an answer. “Did you kill Cathy Cesnik?”  “Why yes, I did.” Case solved.  At one point in the midst of the interview with Baltimore police officials, the amateur sleuthing which in one way shined light on this case and the possibly corrupt mishandling of it, also may have compromised the case going forward. We end with Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins committed to finding Sister Cathy’s killer and Jean Wehner (Jane Doe) assuring her interviewer that Archdiocese of Baltimore, the perpetrators of abuse, and the officials who protect them, won’t be able to hide their guilt for much longer.

Will they?  Will justice prevail?  I don’t have the answer, nor does The Keepers.

The Keepers – Episodes 1 & 2

I heard about The Keepers on Netflix about two weeks before it aired for the first time.  I have waited another week before starting the series. I watched the first two episodes this afternoon in one sitting.  I had to stop before I continued with the next episode.  I am not opposed to binge-watching shows like all the cool kids are doing, but I as the second, gut-wrenching episode came to an end, I knew I would sit on my couch consuming one episode after another until it was over.  I had to get up and walk away.  I knew if I kept watching, I would miss something important.

The way many of us watch programs now is hurried.  We start a series and in many cases we can run right through the entire season of a show in a week or less.  (My husband and I are currently making our way through the eleventh season of Midsomer Murders; thankfully there are many more seasons to go.)  I still watch a few shows on “regular networks”and I must wait week-to-week for a new episode.  As much as I hate a cliff hanger, I do love the anticipation of that new season.  I often record these shows on my DVR and watch them later, so I don’t have to sit through commercials.  (I started this speed watching of programs when I was in graduate school in the 1990s and “taped” my soaps.  One just didn’t admit to watching soap operas in women’s history programs in the 1990s.)  In graduate school I also learned to speed-read books (of sorts).  I now know how to “read” a book in an afternoon.  Slowing down to really absorb and consider what an author has presented takes patience (not to mention time).

And time is what I need to absorb the significance of what went on in the late 1960s – early 1970s at Archbishop Keough and Catholic Baltimore at this time.   This new documentary series examines the cold case of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, SSND in 1969.  The first episode introduces the murder – or murders.  Another young woman went missing four days after Sister Cathy and was found dead soon after. Her murder has not been solved either.  So far in the first two episodes, we hear from former students and victims of abuse, the family and friends of the murdered women, some journalists who investigated the cases, and some former police officers and detectives involved in the case.  The police so far have a marginal role thus far.  Some former School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) appear and their testimony of religious life in the 1960s in the context of Vatican II is interesting.  So far, no SSNDs or Roman Catholic Church representatives have appeared.

As a historian of women religious and twentieth-century American Catholicism, I watch these episodes with an eye towards history of this period.  Recent scholarship has begun to look more thoughtfully at women who left religious life and the consequence of clerical sex abuse.  What happened to the Church in the twentieth century that produced such priests-abusers?  Why were there school sisters who could not or would not call out such atrocities in schools and parishes?  And, as the second episode suggests, why were there men in positions of authority – like law enforcement – contemporaries and friends of the chief priest abuser in this account – who not only protected this man, but participated in the abuse?

The second episode is difficult to sit through.  When I heard about this series, I worried to myself – will it be salacious?  Will it exploit?  Is this another example of horror that is numbing us into not caring?  (Or rather, numbing me?)  I think this is why I waited to watch it.  Now that I have started, I will continue to the end.  I hope.  At the center of this episode is the testimony of Jane Doe – who is identified, as is her family, and provides frank and at times stoic accounts of what she endured.  As I listened, I found myself questioning what I had heard.  What did she say happened?  It can’t be real.  And here’s the thing – so much of what we see in programs and the news is horrible.  The line between real and made up – fact and fiction – is blurred.  Reality programs are contrived for better viewing and ratings.  Crime dramas are “ripped from the headlines” and depending on what channel or service you watch, those stories are sanitized or laid bare in a way that one questions the intent of all that exploitive violence.

No, the testimony of the women in The Keepers is real and it deserves time.  It deserves me sitting with it and letting it sink in fully.

All Good Things Must Temporarily Pause Until the Next Time

ArchiveBoxes.jpgWell, finished Day Two of the research trip.  It was also Quiche Day at the convent.  There were about five different types of quiches to be had, plus salad. I think the quiche was made with a real crust with real butter, not the fake Pillsbury dough crust I usually use when I make quiche or pie.

On the whole it was a good day.  I got through more than I thought, despite having to accept I wouldn’t get through everything.  (I feel like that could a metaphor for life or something.)

I looked at a series of files that spanned a decade, which allowed me to see some change or evolution (historians love change over time). I read mostly correspondence and some news clippings.  Many of the letters I looked at were “circular letters,” which are correspondence to be circulated among the members of the different local houses or convents within a community.  Often they are from a provincial or generalate superior and are a means of circulating information.  Like a lot of official correspondence, they can skate over the surface of information, except when laying out details of communities Rule or customs, but they do say something.  When they are a part of a larger span of letters or files, it is interesting to see what other records reveal in conjunction with the circular letters.  How do we interpret what we read? How do we evaluate?

There is more to examine in this collection as is there in the entire Mercy Heritage Center.  The Mercys archivists have done good work with records management.  Much of the records that were transferred to Belmont were in good order with finding aids.  The Center staff are processing the collections and working to digitize the records for future researchers.  I highly recommend looking into its collections and visiting.  And besides, it might be Quiche Day when you are there.

 

 

Never Enough Time: How to Keep Up the Pace in the Archives

Day one of the Great Fall Research Trip down, one day left.  (Hey, it’s Fall Break, not Spring Break, or Summer Holidays. Fall-only-two-days-Break.)  Things have changed since the first time I entered an archives.  Sure, pencils still rule the day, but now one can use digital camera things to take pictures! (As long as they are approved by the archives.  Don’t go snapping pictures unless you have permission!)

The trouble with archives is that they are full of cool things to read and look at.  Yes, this is a true statement.  Now, do all those cool things apply to one’s current research? No.  Of course not.  They may however be of use at some point.  Or they may have the potential to be of use.  Or they are just very interesting and therefore the shiny object which could drag a researcher down a rabbit hole.  It is important to stay focused and keep moving.

And now we have digital cameras to take pictures of the shiny things for free!  But no, we will stay time-on-task because if the copies are free, my time is not and cannot afford to come back before I need to produce a conference paper.  Here, however, are a few helpful tips for keeping up the pace:

  1. Skim and search for keywords: Most historians learn (especially in graduate school) to read quickly.  If you have any sense of what you want to find or explore, look for those keywords. And the copy everything around it. (Remember, with digital camera, you can read that document in full later.)
  2. Get the full citation: Make sure you get the whole citation for future reference.  Literally.  Sure, sure, you may think you will remember it or have everything you need, but you will one day need to email all of your friends and listservs and then maybe grovel to the archivist to find that source’s citation and you will waste time.  Trust me.
  3. Bring mints: You don’t have time to take a break for snacks or lunch or whatever.  Keep your head down and your blood sugar up.  If you must break for lunch, make it quick. If you can, bring food that doesn’t require refrigeration.  Unless you go to a religious archives where they invite you to lunch at the convent, which is really awesome.  Again, religious archives have cool things.
  4. Don’t hydrate too much: This seems self-explanatory and slightly indelicate to explain why.  Besides you aren’t supposed to have liquids in the archives. This is not one of those new-styled libraries where there aren’t any books, but they have coffee shops. (To be honest, I do like that I can get coffee in libraries, but I am morally opposed to having the coffee, or any other food or beverage, near books.)
  5. Occasionally stretch your legs: You may find yourself getting tired when you spend eight hours in an archives.  Stand up, stretch, maybe take a quick stroll down the hall (especially if you didn’t heed the above advice).

The first day also reminded me (as if I needed reminding!) how good religious archives are.  There are wonders to be explored and there are good people working in these archives.  The Mercy Heritage Center has lots of cool things and I would highly recommend it.

Something About a Bike and Getting Back on It

This morning, I got on an airplane and took a nearly two-hour flight to use an archives.  I am currently settled in a local hotel organizing my notes and contemplating some grading that I really need to do.  I am about to spend two days at the Mercy Heritage Center and explore some files I hope will help me write a paper I will give next April.  Suddenly, after a couple years of not having something to research, here I am.

Is it like starting over or starting again? The subject of my paper has to do with the Sisters of Mercy – not new – but it is in an area I haven’t really explored before – so new.

When the Mercy book was finally published, I had to start thinking about what the next project would be.  (This isn’t the first time I have thought about this.) I am not in a solid work place. (By solid, I mean a contract more than a year or tenure-track.  Fine – whatever – making due.)  But what this means is that I have to figure out how to be engaged with scholarship while making it affordable. And fit into my schedule.  (I don’t claim that I am the only person in the known world to have such things to consider.)

And I would really like to write another book.  I think I have another one in me.  It’s either that or write a historical murder mystery involving crime-solving nuns.

I have lists of projects or potential projects and this is the first time one of those items moved from the “potential” phase.  I used a call-for-papers for a conference at the Cushwa Center to help propel me back into research mode.  (Since my paper was accepted, I have to write it. Funny that. That said, a paper proposal is a very good way of kicking oneself in one’s posterior.) One reason this trip is at all possible is that I get a little research funding in my current position.  Without it, I would have to fund my plane, hotel, car rental, food, and photocopies out of my own pocket.  This is not cheap.

So, I got on a plane and here I am.  Ready to get started.  New leaves are turning over.  Horses are being climbed onto again.  Bikes are being ridden again.    Maybe I’ll even go to the gym again and get in shape.  New day.