Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ted Kennedy's _True Compass_

December 17

"What book is that?" The 70ish woman then glanced at the title of the book I'd come back to the church to retrieve. Identifying herself as the security guard, she'd let me into St. John's upper church after it had been locked, turned on the lights for me, leading the way leaning on a cane. Seeing the photo of John, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy on the back cover and of Ted on the front cover, she grabbed the book from me, kissed each face in both photos, and gave the book back to me.

"I love the Kennedys," she declared.


It was 1960. I was nine, with a tenth birthday coming in November, when my sister Liz introduced John Kennedy to me. A presidential election was upon us. "We're for Kennedy," she told me. And when I learned more about him, I found it easy to see why. Politics to the child I was then was something adults talked about. A grandfatherly man was president, a general from World War II, but not someone whose policies or views directly impacted my life in any way I understood.

But this man, this John Kennedy--he was different. He was young, had a beautiful wife, young children, charisma... and was a Catholic, as we were. I fell in love instantly. This man had to win, and he did.

The White House then became a magical place--there was laughter, glamor, fun. I began to read the newspaper, watch the news conferences, feel connected, as much as a pre-teen could be.

The Cuban missile crisis gave us all a serious scare, of course. I wondered if we'd emerge alive. Yet even during that ten-day period, I had a dream in which I was several years older and walking with my sisters or friends, talking about what a scare we had and how it turned out all right after all. Fortunately, that dream came true.

But what I couldn't have foreseen--what no one foresaw--was November 22, 1963, and the heartbreak that followed, both personally and politically. I lost my father in 1965; the Vietnam war escalated; I feared for my brothers and my male friends who faced the possibility of being drafted. A glimmer of hope in Robert Kennedy's candidacy for president was extinguished by his assassination. Two of the Kennedy brothers in only five years, lost to assassins' bullets.

I held out hope for Ted, the youngest of the brothers, but the Chappaquiddick incident put that hope out of reach. I wasn't about to judge his actions, although I knew many would and that it would be difficult to launch a presidential campaign in the wake of this incident. In 1980, he tried, and my heart kept telling me to support him, although I was torn; my mother by then was campaigning--and running as an alternate delegate--for Carter, and her reasons for supporting Carter made sense. In any case, neither one ultimately won, and we ended up with twelve years under two Republican presidents, neither of whom I could endorse.

My interest in politics by then had become marginal. Certainly I voted--especially after reading about people waiting in line for twelve hours to vote when Nelson Mandela was running for president of South Africa. I realized I'd taken voting for granted and could not do so again after that. But my life revolved around grad school and my dissertation and my various jobs in teaching and editing. I did go to a march on Washington to protest the first Gulf War. I wrote to legislators from time to time. But that was not the center of my life.

I would from time to time hear the wonderful, musical Boston accent of Ted Kennedy, ,knew he was fighting still for health care reform. But I have seen health care reform battles come and go, and I didn't hold out much hope that even he, as powerful a fighter as he was, could buck the tide of insurance and pharmaceutical companies (we're now closer but with so many obstructionist voices I still am only guardedly optimistic).

When Ted Kennedy became ill, I knew I had to send him a letter wishing him well, not only because of what he and his family represented for me--despite the clay feet that sometimes they had--but because he never had stopped being true to what he believed in and fighting for it in the Senate. Through three Republican presidents--with a respite while Clinton was president--he didn't lose sight of the ideals he'd stood for when he first entered the Senate. He had ups and downs, personally, but he stood where he stood through it all. I have the note, a small typed note with a signature, that he sent back and I plan to keep it.

I made sure to watch his funeral mass. It evoked memories for me, mixed memories: the Kennedys were so intertwined with my childhood, their background--a large Irish Catholic family--so close to what I identified with... including their love for sailing and the ocean--that I could not stop watching.

The tributes reminded me that this was a man who, at heart, cared deeply about his family and friends, was able to cross party lines to make things happen, was able to make friends with people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

His book, True Compass, brought back many more memories. Again, I could not stop reading, despite the many other things I knew I had to do. My own past was resurrected in this book.

And finally, what struck me deeply about this book was that he had through it all, held to his principles--and his faith. Of late, religious faith has seemed to be the exclusive property of the so-called Religious Right, and thus has been viewed with suspicion by those of a more liberal persuasion. No one talks about the "Religious Left."

Yet True Compass has helped to restore my own faith. Religion isn't just for cardboard piety and being against gay marriage or women priests. It also means, as it did for Ted Kennedy, standing up for poor people, who otherwise had no voice. It required a more difficult balance than the simplistic pronouncements of the Right. And Ted Kennedy wasn't afraid to speak at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's own school, about his beliefs.

Surely his beliefs must have been shaken to the core by so much grieving--the loss of his brothers his sister Kathleen, and his nephews David, John, and Michael. Surely it must have discouraged him to see his fight for health care reform beaten back time and again. He expresses understanding of those who want to "shake a fist at God." He recognizes his own imperfections. Yet he perseveres. For me, the most telling words in his book, are these:

"All of my life, the teachings of my faith have provided solace and hope, as have the wonders of nature, especially the sea, where religion and spirituality meet the physical. This faith has been as meaningful to me as breathing or loving my family. It's all intertwined.
"My faith, and the love of following its rituals, has always been my foundation and my inspiration. Those foundations have been shaken at times by tragedy and misfortune, but faith remains fixed in my heart, as it had been since my childhood days. It is the most positive force in my life and the cause of my eternal optimism. I have fallen short in my life, but my faith has always brought me home."

I must take the book back to the library today, but I will soon buy myself a copy to keep. Meanwhile, I want these words on my blog to come back to when my foundations are shaken.