Sunday, August 31, 2014

then sings my soul

I have very recently been extremely preoccupied with things. 
This is less to do with the fact that I like to think about things, and more to do with the fact that all I did for the past several weeks (not “all” I did—I also breathed and slept and ate ice cream with my sisters and ran in the rain and cuddled with my brother’s puppy and read way too many Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and occasionally ventured out of my house to see other humans beside my family) was not only pack my things in preparation for The Big Move to NYC, but also organize all my things at home. 
Engaged in a massive re-organizing initiative, I spent my time discerning what things to throw out, recycle, donate, file away, scrapbook, store in a box, or bring with me to the City.
This organizing meant I had to wade through what seemed like massive amounts of things. Goodness, how do I have so many THINGS? was all I thought for two solid weeks straight. Having to sort through all your worldly possessions makes a vow of poverty sound highly attractive. Things are exhausting.  But here’s the thing when it comes to things. They're very tricky: it’s basically impossible to have all of the things in the world, right. Thus, when you see the things that other people have, chances are you don’t have exactly the same things they do. 
So you think to yourself: why do I not have those things? He has that thing; shouldn't I have that thing? Shoot. All my things are wrong. She has that thing. I should get that thing
All of a sudden, your things look paltry in comparison to their things. 
You don’t have any of the right things. You should have gotten THAT thing instead of THIS thing. No, wait. I have too many things. Why do I have so many things?!
And you're back to square one. Repeat ad nauseam.
Mammon is truly a dizzying, exhausting mental maze.
 The trap of trying not to want things and comparing your things to your neighbor’s things is very easy to fall into. I suppose they used to call this “coveting your neighbor’s goods” it sounds so quaint and biblical, but it’s actually a very potent sap on one's good humor and happiness. It's easy to get sucked into that bog of covetousness, and it's difficult to get out of.  
I was completely bogged down by preoccupation with all my things, when the words of this peculiar, antiquated communion hymn lifted me out of the mire like Archimedes’ lever. 
“I cannot compass all I have/ for all thou hast and art are mine.” 
Very old church hymns usually have melodies that are far from intoxicating, sometimes they are practically soporific. There’s something about the simple, steady steps they take up and down the scale, and then the leap up to that old treble E which challenges everyone in the congregation (except the shrill old ladies who are used to this sort of thing), that makes us lose our interest altogether. 
But, if you are able to actually listen to their lyrics, your heart is pierced by the sweetest notes of divine inspiration.  They unlock themselves, much like Thérèse’s words in Story of a Soul. Once you learn the secret code that unlocks Thérèse's work, all of a sudden her words open up into a cascade of love that waters all the dry parts of your soul. Her words are the sweetest ice water in the muggy, dog-days-of-summer heat. 
“I cannot compass all I have/ for all thou hast and art are mine.” 
Those words were just as refreshing as the words of Thérèse. 
As I heard them, I was taken aback. Like many of the passages in Thérèse’s Story of a Soul, these words seemed to be wrong, because they were so unabashed in their statement of the truth. 
Okay, what? I sputtered interiorly, when the first shivers of wonder had finished coursing their way through my spine. Excuse you, unidentified hymn writer, what are you saying? All that the Lord of Creation is now belongs to me? Like, his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his ability to listen to prayers in Asia while also keeping me out of harm’s way on America’s Eastern Seaboard? This did not seem to be obviously true at first, because I am not omnipotent. God certainly "hast" omnipotence and "art" omniscient, and those qualities are certainly not mine. 
And thank goodness, for I don't really want them.
But, in answer to my disbelief and askance stood the small little host that had just been placed on my tongue. Inside of me, if I dared to believe it, was indeed the Lord of the Universe. 
He was utterly at my disposal, given Himself entirely to me. I could feel His tiny and yet immeasurable presence beating inside of me.
All that He “hast and art” were in that moment, mine. Inside of me, cradled inside my esophagus, which is an utterly unromantic and inconvenient place for the Lord of the Universe to take up residence. The radical humility that would allow a being so great to enter into a space so ridiculous and unworthy as a human body is earth-shattering. I felt my dizzying maze of wants and haves and have-nots and necessities collapse under the sweetness of that presence. 
 I cannot accept, I thought. I cannot accept this gift. How could I ever dare to shelter Him who the cosmos cannot contain inside of me? How could I ever be so bold to claim that all that He is and has is now mine? But there the gift was, already inside of me. All the worries that had coiled up inside of me melted away in the presence of this gift. As this renewed understanding of what was being given to me arrived, a dizzying sense of wealth and richness passed over me. 
But not the disorienting dizziness of things; more like the blinding clarity that arrives with wonder.
So I sang those slow, steady steps up the scale, infused with a new sweetness: 
“I cannot compass all I have/ for all thou hast and art are mine.”

Saturday, August 30, 2014

and the rules are the first to go

Once upon a time, I gave up coffee this past Lent.
I know, I know, it sounds like self-inflicted torture. But it was, surprisingly, one of the best decisions I ever made. Not because I masochistically enjoy depriving myself of the rich, nutty notes of excellent espresso, but because I learned a little bit of discipline (Renee? Disciplined? Cue laugh track.)

Discipline is not my strong suit. In my perfect world, schedules and routines bow down before my every whim; order and structure cave to my desire of the moment; and systems and hierarchies give way to my spontaneous impulses.
Let desire be king, my stubborn will demands.
A typical dialogue with my desires (they're vocal little buggers) would go something like this:
Do I want to stay up late at night watching Sandra Bullock's impression of a Southern football mom in The Blind Side. Yes, I do. Do I have to wake up at 6? Yes, I do. Is it currently midnight? Yes, it is. Is this a responsible decision? No, it's not. Will I do it anyway? Yes I will.
How will I get myself through the next day running on three-ish hours of sleep?
The drug of choice of the over-scheduled and under-slept.

There are so many ways I cut into my sleep, unconsciously assuming on behalf of my poor, beleaguered body that sleep was negotiable, because I could always just slug down coffee throughout the day to keep myself conscious.
But what, I thought, if I didn't have the crutch of caffeine to rely on? How would that change the way I operated? I would have to cultivate that a little bit of discipline. I would have to curb my impulsive inclinations and learn to make prudent decisions about how to spend my time, so that I could give myself the sleep that I needed.

Getting enough sleep is hardly a glamorous task, and doesn't seem like an obvious component of the spiritual life. It is not racy or dramatic, like working with the poor of Kolkata, telling the Pope to get his ass out of Avignon and back to Rome, or saving France from the English. But, that, Lent, I tried to see if this mundane little duty would perhaps help me learn a bit about the virtue that these great saints had possessed.
Lo and behold, if you attempt to live in a certain pattern of life for forty days, that pattern begins to stick. And that is the story of how I stopped worrying and learned to love a good night's sleep, and how I kicked my caffeine addiction. This has probably been one of the best lessons learnt in my attempt to transition from libertine college student to responsible young professional.
Here, however, is the rub:
I have had writer's block for the past several weeks. 
It happens. It was a dry spell. Such is life.
But, the other day, I took a sip of coffee, and I felt the words flow out of me like nectar and ambrosia.
It was like the magical brown liquid had these magical corrosive properties that broke through the silage that had been blocking my creative juices.
Oh dear, I thought. Oh dear. 
What if I'm like one of those writers who's no good if they're not drunk or tripping on acid like Lewis Carroll? 
What if, without coffee, I have no creative powers?
What if, with coffee, I have no will power?
For what does it profit a girl to gain back all her creative powers but forfeit her hard won discipline?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If I'm going to lose sleep anyway, perhaps I should just put in The Blind Side

Friday, August 22, 2014

a happy on-purpose

We were stuck in traffic on I-80.
And "stuck in traffic" is an understatement.
We were no longer on a highway, we were in a parking lot.
We realized we were no longer in a driving situation when a man darted out of his sleek black pick-up truck into the Jersey woods next to the highway.
Although we were all separated into our little motor vehicle spheres, you could see all the heads swivel to watch the only person moving. And although we were all sealed inside our steel vehicles, you could hear the titters rippled across the rows and rows of cars as we all realized that nature had placed definite demands upon this man's body, that he simply had to go respond to.
He returned from the woods with a sheepish yet impish grin on his face.
Breaking rules, I think, has that effect on people.
Then, mass chaos began.
The basics in the car in front of us emerged in a state of heightened ennui from their imitation CR-V and started strutting up and down the interstate in their high-heel wedges like it was a catwalk and we all had front row seats at Prada's fall collection.
They chatted with the nice family from the red Ohio pick-up truck next to them.
The nice family from Ohio got out of their car, as did multiple other families.
Behind us, there were more people on the road than cars, as families stretched their legs, middle-aged women filmed the scene on iPhones, and an Asian couple wandered into the woods on the other side of the road.
It was very surreal.
Not what highways usually are all about.
Speaking of surreal experiences, if you've ever heard the noises of people in the next room come through the vents in your hotel room, that is a trip (as in acid, not road).
Particularly if you are in New Jersey, and their conversations are fulfilling all sorts of regional stereotypes.
You're sitting in peace, and then all of a sudden, a conversation is floating out of this vent like it's happening right next to you.
This is a: an interesting premise for a murder mystery (I've been reading too many murder mysteries this summer.) b. a serious breach of privacy for the poor, unsuspecting people on the other side of the vent. and c. unnerving.
How many conversations a day do I have that people overhear?
If not through hotel vents, through other means.
You know when you walk by people in the food court of a mall, or pass their table in a restaurant, and you hear snippets of their conversation, just one or two words, and they are stamped in your brain like your favorite 6th grade Lisa Frank unicorn stamps.
But I never really think of myself as being in their shoes, as one of those someones who is overheard by passers-by just as I'm uttering a sentence that out of context is inexplicable or disastrous.
It is such a pity we are only allowed glimpses into so many different lives, and we never see the outcome of the story after we've been allowed a small sneak peek.

At dinner, my second-cousin-once-removed (these sorts of title for relations are what make family relations so wonderful, and make you realize the wisdom of a language like Aramaic, which would simply dub these relations all "cousins") told a story at dinner about his apiary, and an unfortunate yet hilarious encounter with his angry autumn bees. I laughed as I hadn't heard myself laugh in too long.
It wasn't my giggly laugh, or my snort laugh, or my laugh that I laugh around good friends who can make me laugh with just a word or an inside joke or a roll of their eyes.
It was the laugh I laugh when I discover something new.
The laugh that I laugh when I find someone wholly wonderful and surprising.
The laugh I laugh when someone is being themselves, simply because they couldn't be anything otherwise.
The laugh I laugh when I think I can actually really see another human being.
Another human who, as Thomas Merton says, is shining like the sun.
There are no words to describe such radiance, but perhaps their are worse responses to it than laughter.

Monday, August 11, 2014

melancholy moonbows

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
--James Joyce, "The Dead", Dubliners

I truly dislike it when writers put their poor characters through all sorts of seemingly pointless emotional gymnastics.  Friends, James Joyces' Dubliners is so sad. So, so sad. It is filled with all the elegant melancholy of a Russian novel. Except, Russian novels possess an aura of grandeur in their suffering, which makes all the torturous exploits the author writes his characters through somehow forgivable, precisely because they are so definitely inevitable.
There is something of this grandeur lacking in the small and squalid sufferings of Joyce's Dublin inhabitants. 
Par exemple:
In his story "Clay," Joyce gives us a portrait in miniature of Maria, a small woman who has very little in the way of material or relational happinesses, except her adopted son Joseph and his family. 
On All Hallow's Eve, she makes her way to Joseph's home, laden down with sweets for children (such as her modest budget can provide). On the tram on the way to Joe's home, she forgets the plum cake.
Just clean forgets it.
Was it in a different parcel than the other sweets?
Did the kind gentleman steal it from her?
And, here my frustration is pointed at the author: Dear Mr. Joyce, why would you make a poor servant woman forget her plum cake on the tram? The poor woman has nothing: it seems nothing but adding insult to injury to make her forget her cherished plum cake. The plum cake we spent a page and a half carefully selecting, purchasing, and glorying in the beauty of is now gone. And I do not understand why.
Seriously. Why did this poor woman forget the plum cake on the tram? Was there a dramatic necessity in this? Is there some great literary device/trope/point that I am missing? If so, could someone who is wiser than I and better-versed in the ancient art of the Literary Symbolism of Plum Cake enlighten me? ["Ahhh, yes indeed, the Plum Cake Motif. Its first appearance traditionally credited to Fragment XIII of the Canterbury Tales, usually located dead center in the Second Nun's tale. Valerian goes missing his plumcake, which creates such a spiritual disturbance within his soul, he is finally able to see his wife Cecilia's guardian angel. The second appearance of the PlumCake Motif is usually assumed to be..."]
 I am very upset about this plumcake. It is a very vexing thing. And a great deal of the vexation arises from my indecision over whether "plum cake" is a closed form compound word or an open form. 
Words, words, words.
So this is one of the first themes of Joyce's Dubliners that struck me: senseless sufferings enacted against unaware and helpless people (perhaps Joyce is making a point about what he thinks of the Creator). 
On the other hand, any time anything good happens to a character, it's almost worse.
When a character finds actual, glorious, beautiful intimacy with another human, when fortune smiles for a brief moment upon a young boy, when a man envisions something beautiful and noble in his future, you learn (after a few pages) to greet this glorious moment not with joy, but with dread. Oh, no, you groan. I know what's going to happen. He's going to cast aside the love of his life, he's going to get to the marketplace too late, he's going to settle for the cheap and comfortable squalor of his life rather than attempt to leave it. Even if he does attempt something better, he'll be doomed. I find it so cruel to get a man's hopes up and then dash them. I found myself wishing in the middle of one story that the good thing hadn't even happened. Thus, Joyce managed to inculcate in one of his readers that famous Irish pessimism.
For, it seems to me that I am much more able to grasp suffering in a story if it arises out of the characters. Goodness, with the way Anna Karenina carries on, you know that there's trouble ahead. Not because she deserves it, or she has merited more than you or I, but because we know that actions have consequences. And when we do ill on the small scale of our daily lives, we reap the consequences on the small scale of our daily lives. This is less about Divine Justice and Punishment for Sin, and more about Newton's Third Law of Physics. The scope of Anna Karenina's story is far grander than our daily lives, and thus so is the tragedy that the story begets.
I understand this sort of story-telling and this sort of suffering.
But there is this other sort of suffering I never quite am able to reconcile myself to: the senseless, "isn't the universe just cruel this way" sort that Joyce paints so poignantly in Dubliners.
 It is a rather pessimistic kind of fiction (realistic, I think Joyce would call it), that doesn't attempt to write until a happy ending comes along. It simply lays before it a brief moment in someone's life and says: well, here it is.
And while Joyce's prose is mournful and magical, I wonder, I really do, if that is all it takes to write a worthwhile story. Not to say that Joyce's stories aren't worthwhile, and beautiful in spite of themselves, but, rising from the ashes of a lost plumcake, one's optimism asserts itself anew and demands answers to all sorts of saucy questions. Such as: what makes art beautiful and worthwhile when its subject is the brutal ugliness of life?
Because, to bolster the argument of my optimism, there are certain authors who have decided that brutal realism is not for them.
Jane Austen, (whose name can never be invoked too frequently to please me) wrote: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest."
This, of course, does not seem to be at all realistic. Because unpleasant people don't get simply written out of your life or relegated to the fringes of your happily ever after. They usually stick around for a good while, and you must learn to deal with them with whatever charity and fortitude you can muster. This is called Building Character, and whatever else the inscrutable Author of Life thinks, He certainly finds this Building Character discipline an advantageous one for us, and writes into our lives many opportunities to practice it.
But, Miss Austen, whose life was not marked by any great and glorious happiness, and was actually marked by some rather larger unhappinesses, as well as many small and ordinary happinesses, determined that elusive grail of "happiness" was probably a euphemism for a well-ordered mind inside a body with well-ordered appetites, living in orderly harmony with others. And she was willing to end a story happily if a character met those qualifications. For, truly, what else could a character who possessed self-awareness and cared about others more than themselves end up with but happiness?
This, one might argue, is a philosophy that fits a sheltered life of a spinster in rural Georgian England, but does not account for those people who have suffered the ravages of war, genocide, and persecution. It may not speak for those who have endured starvation and discrimination, and have lived under the sway of forces outside of their control which have prevented in many ways their happiness.
Perhaps. But it seems to me that the point of telling stories is to not tell all stories in one fell swoop, but rather to tell your story. As much as we try to see with a catholic sort of viewpoint, if you write a piece of art that tries to be all things to all people, you sort of end up with not a piece of art.
So, perhaps, through these stories of men and women who use their sense and sensibilities to find happiness for themselves, we have learned from a spinster in rural Georgian England a little bit more of what happiness is.
By this same argument, through stories of young Irish rapscallions playing truant from school, or a young woman falling in love, or a young man taking advantage of her, or a young husband cradling his crying baby, Mr. Joyce has taught us a little bit more of how he sees his country.
He commented on his own uncompromising, Ibsenite realism, by saying:
I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.
I wonder if the looking-glass (a hyphenated compound word) is so very nicely polished, because our lives leave fingerprints and smudges, cracks and dents on our looking-glasses that we cannot erase and often distort or limit our view of reality.
It seems rather grandiose for any artist to champion his own realistic viewpoint as a perfectly polished glass rather than a lens whose curvature is the shape of his own experience.
Reality is a wild phenomenon who eludes all our attempts to capture it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

tidal tides and declawed lions

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore--on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium.
--Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

I just read the most remarkable, insightful, and terribly funny collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers. Who, is, of course, my new favorite person. She's essentially a feminist and feminine C.S. Lewis, so what on earth is not to love?
Her essays, entitled Creed or Chaos? directly address (before it was even a vocalized phenomenon) the "spiritual but not religious" category of persons that so preoccupies and bemuses modern theologians.

These perspicacious essays reminded me of two things:

Thing the First being a hilarious and scathingly sardonic review of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. When my friend sent it to me, I re-read it over and over again, mining little nuggets of pure gold from it with each fresh perusal. Entitled Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching, the review points out (with little sparing of Mr. Dawkins' ego, but with great wit) what Mr. Eagleton sees as the chief flaw with the book The God Delusion: namely, that Mr. Dawkins does not seem to know what he is talking about. More specifically, Mr. Dawkins does not appear really to have a grasp of either: A. basic Christian theology or B. what that theology says about God.
 "Imagine," says Mr. Eagleton, "someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." 
Oh. my.
[No, no, but tell us what you really think, Mr. Eagleton.]
Mr. Eagleton, however, is not picking on Mr. Dawkins in order to simply take pot-shots at a man he disagrees with, but rather, he uses The God Delusion and his author as a perfect example of a pandemic problem that plagues theological or religious critiques:
"The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster."
Mr. Eagleton points out that there seems to be this strange disconnect between religion and rational thinking. Although there is a long and celebrated history of rational thinkers who have undertaken the study of God, there seems to be a certain bizarre allowance for absolute hogwash to be written on this hazy phenomenon of religion and the even hazier and less-defined subject of spirituality.
Abandon rational thought, all ye who enter here, we might as well write above our church doors.
Dorothy Sayers addresses this very issue in her essays, which chide Christians for ignoring dogma at their own peril.
For certainly, she points out, the dogma isn't the boring stuff of religion that gets in the way of the fun, good-feelings stuff, the dogma is really it. Without dogma, there's no way of describing what exactly the Trinity is, or who exactly this Son of God/Son of Man/[God the Son?]/Jesus Christ/Jesus of Nazareth person is.
And the whole point of Christianity is that this Jesus person is rather important. His importance is not explained vaguely, it is laid out precisely, and its precision hits us as lightning might.
And in this precise declaration of who do we say that He is, we find a greater focal point for the dramatic action of history than we could have ever dreamed. There is more dramatic tension in the words: The Word Became Flesh than Shakespeare are Marlowe could have ever invented.
Mr. Eagleton would agree:
 "The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist"
But the words: "The Word Became Flesh" are not cheap sentiment, nor do they merely appeal to our spiritual 6th sense. They represent an idea, an historic event. And like all other ideas and historic events,  our minds encounter them along with our hearts. Thus, a millennia's worth of thought has been put towards understanding, parsing, illuminating what it could possibly mean for the Word to become flesh, and just how that might influence the rest of our lives, the world, and everything in it.
Perhaps it is not our religions and their dogmas which are laced with antiquated superstition. Perhaps the newer idol of progress is actually the sentimental pipe-dream, the opium of the masses. Or perhaps it is just our age-old friend superbia back to haunt us in a different guise. For it is much more comfortable (in a cheap sort of way), and seems more natural for all us humans to gather around our fellow humans and say: well, it's up to us. We've got to Keep Going Forward. Perhaps the greatest new temptation is this do-it-yourself transcendence. But, as Jeremiah would be quick to remind us: cursed is the man who puts his trust in man. (And you thought you could trust in your neighbors to look after your cat for you. Think again, warns Jeremiah.) It seems that even back in Jeremiah's day, human beings were more into looking to themselves to answer rather than depending upon annoying things like God and boring things like religion and dogma.
Huh. I guess, unlike the internet, sin wasn't invented in the 20th century. Who knew?

 It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it.
--Terry Eagleton

Thing the Second that came to mind as I read Ms. Sayers' charming essays was a quote from a book written by one of my professors at Notre Dame, which goes something like this:
Catechesis is the art of systematic amazement.
--Timothy P. O'Malley
Which, of course, reminds me of the G.K. Chesterton quote:
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. 
Which, of course, is Chesterton's way of saying precisely what Ms. Sayers are saying: if we find religion boring it is because we are missing something. The technicality of theology, Dorothy Sayers would argue, is precisely what ought to fill us with wonder. If we are actually reading what is written, we will find it completely wonder-filled. We only find the dogma stale because we have a blind spot in our vision, and we still have not yet learned to see clearly; we are still somewhat in the dark. 
Perhaps we have not yet allowed ourselves to be amazed.

So that is the outline of the official story--the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like the men He had made, and then the men He had made broke Him and killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull-this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? 
--Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged

Saturday, August 9, 2014

infantile purgations

"I feel quite happy, as if happiness/Did not consist in getting what one wanted,/Or in getting rid of what can't be got rid of/But in a different vision"
--T.S. Eliot, The Family Reunion

The other day at Mass, a baby wasn't crying. He was shrieking. He was screaming with every single breath inside of his miniature infantile lungs. His scream was not a lusty contralto belt but a woeful falsetto trill, laced with all the sorrow that one can accrue in seven and a half months of living.
Even from the back foyer, his piercing cries broke all our eardrums, our will to stay conscious, and our ability to stay attentive.
There was no point in trying to concentrate on anything other than the pain that this poor child must have been feeling, and was inviting us to enter into his sorrow by inflicting a similar pain on our eardrums.
Bravely, the priest soldiered on, and continued speaking in an excellently articulate and composed voice.
I couldn't help but feel that crying babies in the midst of an excellently composed homily must be the cross that clerics must bear for us.
I imagine that it would be on the day when inspiration had finally struck that the delivery of such inspired words would be inescapably marred by the wailing of an infant.
If I had been in that priest's place, I would be so many variations of annoyed and frustrated, put-out and irked, which is generally my response to the slings and arrows of life, (particularly as manifest through a baby's cry). Annoyance.
But, there isn't any part of the human experience that allows you to escape annoyances. There isn't a rule in the universe that says: Oh, your car is breaking down? Well, then I suppose that we'll make sure your sink doesn't clog until next week. That's just not how life works. We have many cliché sayings that reflect this truth: "If it's not one thing, it's another," "Troubles come in threes," "No rest for the weary," "It never rains but it storms."

But I think part of the problem is that we are constructions projects, in the middle of being constructed.
And if you've ever watch a building or a bridge or a small piece of interstate highway being put together, it looks like a mess for 95% of the process.
It looks like much more of a mess than whatever was there before.
And the mess of the construction seems to be an endless process, a blight on the landscape and nothing more.
We understand, from our privileged viewpoint outside of the construction process, that there is a slow and steady order to the disaster.
We know that there is going to be something much better on the other side of this mess.
Unfortunately, the bridge itself does not have the advantage of understanding any of this. And to him this whole construction project just seems like an awful lot of bother.
The key to understanding, just like the key to aging gracefully or learning how to be a friend, is perspective.
For example: I never knew that there was such grace in a fall of a leaf.
I watched one fall, tumbling out of the tree in front of me.
And I doubt that the leaf itself could understand the graceful patterns that it made as it fell.
I'm sure, to the leaf it was simply troubling and confusing, being rolled around in aerial somersaults by geriatric air currents in the morning humidity.
But it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen: watching this small little disc of green float and tumble delicately to the lush grass beneath its tree.
And so our lives must look to those who have the privilege of perspective.
And we, at certain graced moments in our lives, can find ourselves viewing the panorama of our lives from that unique vantage-point.
 What we see is altogether baffling in its beauty.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


People are afraid to remember, because they are afraid to know who they really are.
--Madeliene L'Engle

"I've always thought finding one's vocation should be a hard, long process. Maybe I've translated it to that because I know you have to pray about it a lot--which I have..."

--Thirteen-Year-Old Renée, on vocation, in her 7th grade journal. 
Little did she know how much more prayer awaited her in her future.

Earlier this week, I re-read a great selection of my old journals. It was an excellent exercise in self-awareness; in learning to laugh at oneself; and in recalling old memories. One particular gem was my diary from age thirteen. Not to trumpet my own virtues, but I admire Thirteen-Year-Old Renée greatly. Not only was her egotism unabashed and unpretentious (as opposed to the egotism that plagues us into our adulthoods which hides behind the golden virtues of false modesty and pretension), she was also a connoisseur in prudery. I have never in my life met so confirmed and convicted a prude as Thirteen-Year-Old Renée. And I'm so proud of her for being so and I admire her for cultivating a healthy distaste for all bodily functions. It shows that she spent her prepubescent years reading entirely too many books and vying to get first seed in the draft for the neighborhood games of capture the flag, both properly effective outlets for a thirteen-year-old young woman with an overly active imagination, and a deep propensity for falling in love. Before, they would simply cart her off to a nunnery, now they simply educate her, and similar results are produced. I dearly hope that most people experience a phase of well-adjusted prudery at some point in their life. If one does not feel a distinct embarrassment towards the Facts of Life, I feel that one is not only missing out on a great deal of fun but also a crucial part of the drama of adolescence. 

Reading about one's younger days is a good reality check, because not only does it teach us what was laughable about our past selves, it also teaches us to seriously confront the embarrassing parts of ourselves. As we grow older and our memories grow more selective, it becomes easier and easier to cast a glamor over certain stages of our lives or particular phases that we went through.
Usually, there are parts of ourselves that we shed, like an adult dragonfly shedding the shell of his nymph-hood. This is the joyful and wonderful part of growing up--that we should actually mature. 
That eventually, the hormones churning constantly in our brains settle down into a steady slosh. Rising to the surface, our common sense, masterful captain of the steady ship Reason, finally gain mastery over the tempestuous seas of passions, emotions, and inscrutable and inarticulable feelings that inundate our teenaged selves daily.
Obviously, once we have sailed our way through those dangerous waters, I think very few rational creatures would ever wish to cross backwards over that rite of passage. But, the excellent things about diaries is that they provide a retrospective submarine peek of the vibrant life underneath those stormy waves.
Sometimes, it is embarrassing to admit that we were once that silly, that we were ever so sheltered, that we were so mindless of what lay beyond the boundaries of our experience.
But we'd be more foolish still if we deluded ourselves into believing that we were always so wise and confident as we are today.
There was once a time for all of us when we knew comparatively nothing, when our ideals were so close-minded and informed by such a narrow swath of experience, when we said such callow and idiotic things, when we, in the renaissance of our years, believed the earth was flat and we were marvelously clever for discovering that it was so.
It is in revisiting these earlier epochs that we can begin to understand the journey that has taken us to today. 

Speaking of journeys, several pages after thirteen-year-old Renée weighs in on vocation and how often one ought to talk in public about sex (never), she keeps a record of numbers in the margins.
What are these mysterious numbers?
During our family's road trip to Canada, I grew intensely annoyed with my older sister whose bladder demanded that we stop for what seemed like every few minutes.
So I had a private competition with my sister, in which I decided that, in order to balance out her seeming constant need to attend to nature, I would use the ladies' room as little as possible over the 10-day trip.
 Did I inform her of this contest? Absolutely not. This was my private battle, a personal challenge set out to augment my own sense of self-righteousness.
For what purpose? None, except my own self-satisfaction.
I told you I admire thirteen-year-old Renée immensely.

As I was reading through these old stories of myself, I was happily surprised and somewhat relieved to find little snippets of truth recorded in old journals that mirrored thoughts I had only just recently jotted down myself in a current journal.
The more I read, the more I found self-exhortations that mirrored ones I invoke daily, I found frustration over the same mistakes that I make today, excoriations for the same bad habits and failures, and principles I still hold dear.
It was a joy to remember that the passionate convictions and convicted passions that compose my personality today did not arise out of nowhere. Their nascent growth is rooted more deeply in my personality than maybe I was aware.
This is quite a comfort.
Although the transformation that each whirling year of life brings is as welcome and as necessary as a butterfly emerging from the caterpillar's chrysalis, we humans have a dreadful fear of inconsistency.
To thine own self be true, exhorts the bard, but where, we think, can I find my true self? How is anyone supposed to know what self is true when one is constantly transforming from caterpillar to butterfly?  
In the past four years of perpetual change and rapid development, it is a blessing to receive assurance that you have not transformed as much as appearances would dictate.
Perhaps you have not changed as much as you think; perhaps you have merely grown.

 Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self. The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. 
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. 
Lose your life and you will save it. 
Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorites wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. 
Keep back nothing. 
Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. 
Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. 
Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. 
But look for Christ, and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
--C.S. Lewis, Beyond Personality

Saturday, August 2, 2014

crop circles in the carpet

And there it seemed to end. She had reached the full close and had nothing more to say. She put down a tentative line or two and crossed them out. If the right twist would not come of itself, it was useless to manufacture it--anything added to that would be mere verse-making. Something might come of it some day. In the meanwhile she had got her mood on paper--and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further.
--Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

Portrait of a Wordsmith:
Malleable phrases and tractable, moldable sentences flow from his firey forge.
He bends, twists, swirls the sharp liquid words around his instruments, tools used diligently and deftly. his craft is like none other--he exposes the beauty hidden in the torpid stream of fire and labels it--he gives each radiant spark that flies off his anvils a name, creates a new form and life for the wonders that populate his waking world.
His words filter through our brains and gild the folds of our grey matter. He has wrought magic within our very souls. Our slumbering hearts and minds awake--newly attuned to the call of his anvil; drawn by the ebb and flow of his melodious tides. The song he pens is hard and sure--as tough as fired gold, but as soft as the moss tucked beneath the quivering, tender branches of the silver birch and cinnamon sycamore.
The wordsmith's art is the painting of pictures in our minds. Pictures composed of poetry, of intoxicating influences of rhythm and the sway of symmetry. The pictures, beaten by hammers, molded into iron images have hardened into idols of inescapable and unbearable majesty.
The songs forged in the smithy fire blend together in a bittersweet harmony. The music breaks your heart and leaves you with questions they could never possibly answer:
Why is there so much beauty in sadness?
Why is there so much sadness in beauty?
Why is the deepest joy so full it breaks the heart?
How can heartbreak be so joyful?
To the tune of these mysteries, the wordsmith forges on, bending and breaking and burning and smelting and molding and shaping all the world's mysteries into digestible fragments of one-to-six syllables apiece.

Friday, August 1, 2014

pepperoni in the downstairs frigid air

Around the time that my family became abnormal (this was with the arrival of the fourth child--the Holy One, I call her [up until then, we were perfectly normal and respectable. We had two girls and one boy.
We had one dog. And we only had one mini-van. So far: normal.]), the gentle stasis of our household's cosmos was interrupted.
In addition to our one dog, we also posessed only one refrigerator, and it resided in our kitchen, as refrigerators ought to do.
One magical, joyful, and excellent day, a new refrigerator arrived.
We purchased a lovely white refrigerator to grace our family's culinary temple. 
I was very happy about this, because the first refrigerator was beige monstrosity with faux-wooden detailing which reeked of 1980s bachelor pad. 
At the time, I could not have articulated that this was what our refrigerator reeked of, only that our refrigerator, (like the tall black lamps with strange yellow lampshades in our living room), was not "pretty." 
At that stage in my life, things that were "pretty" included: 
-dresses that had skirts that twirled out around you when you spun (I do not understand why spinning in a circle represented the pinnacle of feminine beauty; and why the height of all glamor and grace was to have your skirt rustle around you as you spun, but it absolutely was for my 6 to 22-year-old-self. All I know is that when you spin, and your skirt spins out around you and then blossoms gracefully around you when you sit down so that you look like a flower sitting in the middle of the berber carpet of your parents' master bedroom floor, in front of the full-length mirror that shows your spinning off to the best advantage, you know without a doubt that you are The Shit. You have Made It. You have Arrived. I don't know why this is. But, undeniably, Skirt-Spinning is the ultimate power pose, and perhaps if we all wore long, flowing skirts to interviews and spun around in them before we presented ourselves to our future bosses, it would increase our psychological confidence or what have you. Who knows?)
-Odette from The Swan Princess
-My Aunt Gail's wedding dress.
-Venus, as portrayed in Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" (I told my mother I wanted that picture hung up in my house when I grew up and for some reason she didn't think this was as good of an idea as I did [But Mom the painting has roses with little gold hearts inside of them floating through the air. Mom, it's pretty])
-The names: Violet, Crystal, Rose, Lydia, Christina, Letitia. Blessed be any girl who was blessed with those names. To this day, whenever I met a girl whose bears the name "Rose," I gasp a bit, wondering how she can possibly bear such a life of elegance that must befall anyone who bears such an ethereal [and pretty] name as "Rose."
-Any refrigerator that was not beige with faux-wood detailing.

So what happened to our 1980's bachelor pad refrigerator? Did we sell it in a garage sale? Did we throw it away? Did we pass it on to a bachelor cousin, and thus perpetuate the bachelor pad lifestyle?
No. No, no. For little did I know (but perhaps my parents suspected) that our family was going through a growth spurt (both individually and as a collective), and in the name of Thriftiness and Additional Storage Space, Mr. Beige Bachelor Pad Refrigerator would find a new home in one of the most mysterious and beloved rooms in the house: The Basement Office.
The Basement Office is one of those places that holds old family secrets like parents' high school year books and scrapbooks from European excursions. The Basement Office is one of those rooms that holds newspaper clippings and articles full of enlightening family information.
The Basement Office is the place you can go to peek at Christmas tree ornaments in July. You lift the lid of the very 1980's green and yellow storage boxes, and a whiff of pine and sugar cookies and fresh snowfall on the driveway greet your sunburnt nose.
The Basement Office is where you stash away all the old baby clothes, and then pull them out again each time the baby comes, informing all your younger siblings: oh, this was mine, originally. Or: I remember when you wore this. You were so little then.
The Basement Office is where you discover a petticoat and silky white flats from your mother's wedding; where you find old quilts and storybooks, and that picnic basket from the Fourth of July ages ago. 
 The Basement Office is full of musty old secrets, locked up like dad's old hunting guns. Many of which whose day has passed, but are safely tucked away until it might come in handy once more.
The Basement Office is a place of nostalgia and anticipation.
The 1980s beige refrigerator joined this happy land of cobwebs and Christmas wrapping paper.
And every trip with the grocery store included sorting out bags whose contents would stay upstairs, in the pantry proper, and which would be sent down to the food storage units that popped up around that lonely refrigerator like a medieval village around a cathedral.
My sister and I would often be the children assigned the task of bringing the groceries down to the Downstairs Refrigerator (as Old Mr. Beige Faithful began to be called).
And somehow, we discovered that we could take advantage of all the food at our fingertips and turn Grocery-Putting-Away-Time into Snack Time. 
As any six-year-old knows, snack time is the best time.
Meal times are okay. But they are usually healthy food times.
Snack time is a time for chaos.
It is a time for Wonderbread and butter, fruit snacks, Ritz Bits, Gushers, and all the foods which are just sugar masquerading under variegated guises.
During our own personal and never-ending snack time, I remember my sister and I once, throughout the course of a week, going through an entire package of pepperoni that had been relegated to the Downstairs Refrigerator.
There it began its days, and there they ended.
Together, we polished off an entire package of pepperoni.
We were disgusting little blighters, that's for sure.

I thought of this adorable little childhood episode when my mother sent me down to the downstairs refrigerator to get tofu and egg roll wrappers.
Peeled out of the comfortable, happy recesses of the sofa by her command, I wandered down to the refrigerator with my head still caught up in the happy world of Oxford, spun into being through Dorothy Sayers' lovely prose. My mind was more focused on the task of solving literary murder than finding tofu. Absentmindedly, I opened a drawer in the refrigerator. 
There, I was greeted my an impertinently familiar package of pepperoni.
Instantly, all the memories I just related sprung back into my head.
And I am somewhat enamored with memory, so I decided to write all that down.
Now, back to the sofa and to Oxford.