Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A retreat in a can

I've spent much of the last 2 weekends on my knees - but not in church. The upstairs study is getting a much needed make-over, starting with demolishing part of closet (which act committed me to repainting the entire room). Last year at this time I was packing to go on an 8-day silent retreat. This year WMGK is counting down the top 500 hits on the radio, most of the neighborhood kids have come to "help," and in the midst of it all I still have to think about what's for dinner! But I decided I'm still getting my retreat.

When you don't have 5 kids in the 12' x 12' room with you, prepping a wall to be painted can be reflective. The moment of transformation does not come quickly. Careful attention has to be paid to the walls. Where should I patch? What needs sanding? The dust, dirt and grime need to be cleaned from the surface one last time. To see all this, things have to be moved out of the way, and while the prep work could be done solo, now it's time to have some help to discover what might be in the way of the new creation. In the end, I mask the windows and trim, working my way inward from the edges.

My kids (and my better half) remind me of "The Little Red Hen": "Who will help me scrub the walls?" "Not I!" The fun is in the actual painting, and when the time comes to roll the actual paint onto the walls, I have lots of volunteers! Not until I pull the final bit of masking off, can I be sure that the new space will work.

One retreat in a can, stir well before applying.

The room looks great - except my color blind 8 year old asked me why I'd chosen black (it's dark blue).

Sunday, May 29, 2005

You know you're a geek when...

...you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and check your e-mail while you're up.

...you clean out a large closet and fantasize not about a walk-in dressing room, but compact shelving for the books you keep amassing.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

From 0 to 60 in under 10 seconds

There are days when I dream of driving a zippy BMW like the one Halle Berry drove in the James Bond flick. Alas, the household budget doesn't include a line for sports cars and my commute to work is a 35 mph zone all the way.

Motherhood meets my need for speed. Tonight, at 3:15 am, I woke from a very sound sleep to, "Mom, nose bleed!". (Actually, all I remember hearing is "nose bleed," but the caller who is curled up beside me on the sofa assures me he used my name.) I went from dead to the world to fully functional by the time I got downstairs. I'm amazed at the way your mind can register, process and respond to a call when I think I'm unconscious.

Now, of course, that the nosebleed seems to have stopped, it's 4:03 am and I don't know what to do with all the extra adrenaline. It was useful in the moment, but I'm done now. The birds are just waking up....I wondered when that happened.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Matter and Form

Years ago the now-retired cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia was moved to demand, "Why is that woman [me] studying theology?" More annoyingly, I'm sure, at his seminary! To his credit it's hard when you have a ringer in the crowd, and I doubt he was expecting a theologically trained chemist to be on his pastoral visit to my campus. So why do I study theology? What does it have to do with quantum mechanics?

I've decided to submit a paper to a conference in the fall on the legacy of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit scientist and theologian who drew strongly links between science (in his case paleontology) and religion. My basic premise is that de Chardin's theology can bring a new perspective to sacramental theology, particularly when viewed through an Augustinian lense.

De Chardin speaks passionately of the tangible encounter with God:

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite, adoremus!

That vivid image of being assailed by the divine, in everything we touch and that touches us, drives me back to Augustine who saw sacraments as the visible signs of invisible grace. I want to treat of things "sacramental" rather than of the Sacraments (the seven of which the Baltimore catechism -- and the Council of Trent -- say: an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace). Sacraments, with both a small "s" and a big "s", work. They are, as theologians are wont to say, efficacious. De Chardin's sees the universe as inescapably sacramental. The grace pounds at us. Augustine implies a similar outlook, that God and his grace seeps through the physical visible signs.

Each sacrament has its proper matter and form (res et verba). Baptism's water and invocation, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." are both necessary to bring about the grace of the sacrament. Sacramentals too have may have matter and form, such as the blessed water we use to make the sign of the cross as we enter or exit a church. Would we see matter and form differently from de Chardin's perspective?

At the cemetery, as we stood around my mother's grave, her pastor blessed her one last time, sprinkling water over the casket (as the rite demands). Sprinkle does not do justice to Fr. Ray's blessing. The water poured over her casket, sparkling in the sun like our tears, washing the dust off the top. It was not just grace brought forth, but abundant grace. Full and overflowing.

Sometimes I think we are chintzy with the matter of the sacraments, as if we must somehow horde the grace, or there won't be enough. De Chardin pushes us to consider the abundance of the created world, and to use that created reality to mould ourselves into image and likeness of our creator.

I've got two days to polish this thesis into a 200 word abstract. In search of grace....

Friday, May 20, 2005

Qui cantat, bis orat

I've used Qui cantat, bis orat, a quote from St. Augustine that translates roughly as "to sing is to pray twice" as my e-mail tag line for the last couple of years. (I don't put the English translation underneath, which prompted my father to send me a book of Latin quotes -- and their English translations -- to me for Christmas last year.) The tag appealed because of it's source (I belong to an Augustinian parish) and because I sing for the parish.

But why does Augustine privilege sung over spoken prayer? I can't find the original source of the quote, so I'm not sure what was in Augustine's mind, but I do know what's in mine. Singing, particularly with an audience, is risky. I tell people that I sing solo instead of jumping out of airplanes, it's the same irreverisble mix of panic and thrill. You are exposed when you sing, and lack of confidence (as well as of pitch) are difficult for those singing with you, or listening to you, to overlook. Prayer is risky and exposed as well. We express our inmost needs, hold out our most difficult hurts for comfort, and risk being changed and challenged by the grace we receive.

Our lives begin in the rythyms of our mother's wombs. Her heartbeat and breathing are the first music we hear, and are inextricably wound up in how we grow and are nourished. When we sing, particularly in prayer, and perhaps most of all in community, we reach down into those first experiences of the grateful sharing of food that is the Eucharist. Our singing nourishes us and we grow by it, when we enter into it together.

The space spanned by spoken prayer is smaller than that of sung prayer. The range of the voice, the changes in rythym add a depth to the prayer that speech cannot reach. Sung prayer can be layered on top of sung prayer, a multi-dimensional function that cannot be captured as speech. As St. Paul said to the Romans, "the Spirit herself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."

Sometime when I cantor, I am so worried about the notes and the words, that I can't pray the psalm. Last Sunday, I literally shook at the ambo. When I know the music so well that it wells up effortlessly, then, then I understand what Augustine means. It can be joy, as in the Christmas psalm, "All the ends of the earth have seen the power of God..." echoed back by the congregation, filling the world with song. It can be sorrow, singing to shepherd my mother to new life, weaving the words and music over her coffin like the lullabyes that wrapped my cares away for the night as a child. When sung, it is surely well prayer.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Devil that Doesn't Wear Prada

I've been wanting to read The Devil Wears Prada since it came out, but couldn't quite justify getting the hardback -- or really even the paperback for just a "beach read". As part of the entropy reduction project on the home front, I've been clearing out shelf space and bringing the books in to work to leave on the free books table. (A remarkable number seem to find a good home in this way!) Dropping off the latest collection I discovered a copy of The Devil free for the taking. I'm still ahead on the entropy front, though. I left 3 bags and only took 2 books.

It's mesmerizing. It's not the descriptions of the Jimmy Choo's or an insider's look at the fashion industry that has me sucked into this book -- it's the tyranny of the boss. Part of me reacts to my life the same way Andrea does to Miranda. The laundry dings, and I spring into action like Andrea does at the ring of her cell. The clutter that threatens to encroach on every horizontal surface sends me on a hunt for a mauve piece of paper that may be (or may not be) still in the house. I don't have that much more to go on in my quest than Andrea did when tracking Miranda's siting of some vintage dresser in an antique shop. Except that the clutter doesn't seem to be sociopathic.

Like Andrea's relationship with Alex, I sometimes feel that kids and spouse has to taken second place behind tending the demands of the clutter and the laundry. It's for them, I say, but I'm not sure they care at any given moment that they won't be able to find the band camp registration paper or a clean pair of socks tomorrow morning. How can they live in the moment, while I'm continually living in the next?

The Francl Statement of the Second Law

"No cyclic process is possible whose sole result is a flow of heat from a single reservoir and the performance of equivalent work." Lord Kelvin

This is the Kelvin statement of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Though Kelvin did not aim to describe a weekend in my life, it's not a bad start. I am the single reservoir, I'm pretty heated, the proceses are cyclical (I empty the laudry from the basket, wash it, put it back and it quite regularly appears in the basket again -- except for the underwear hanging on the hooks in the bedroom), and no matter how much heat I give the kids I can't seem to get an equivalent amount of work back.

Frankly, I prefer the statistical approach to the 2nd law. I never appreciated the nuances of entropy until I had kids. Today, between laundry loads I was trying to clean the upstairs study in preparation for painting it next weekend (having pulled the inside out of the closet last weekend, the paint job is very necessary!). I made great progress on getting things in order, only to come downstairs to find the kitchen in utter disarray and an entire division of little green army men deployed on the sunroom floor. Net progress toward order was clearly negative, as the 2nd law requires.

A sudden thought? If my life (or at least my house) should miraculously get ordered, does that mean that somewhere, some other poor soul's house has become even more disordered than mine ever was? I suppose the 2nd law actually requires that the disorder gets spread around, so that my orderliness leaves a little mess in everyone's house.

A colleague and friend suggests that there is, somewhere in my house, waiting to be discovered, my own personal reservoir of disorder. It's probably under the laundry.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Rule of St. Benedict

The phone rang at 5 tonight, dragging me back to "real time". I'd spent much of the afternoon working on a draft of a paper and was finally making major progress with a sticky section. The call was for my husband, the person on the other end felt compelled to advise me to write the message down. I would say that I felt like a secretary, except that secretaries are professionals, and I would never presume to advise one on how to record the message being left. I felt like a child.

And it was 5 and since my other half had to be out of the house by 6 with our youngest for an event, and was not yet home, I needed to turn off academic mom and enable the housekeeper mode. I managed to get kids fetched from school and dinner on the table before the witching hour. Witching described my attitude as well as the hour. The writing had been going well, and I needed about an hour to pull the section together. At times like this I fantasize having a stay at home spouse, allowing me to emerge from my study to scrubbed children and a prepared meal, and return to the cocoon at meal's end.

Instead I'm trying to cultivate a Benedictine attitude. The rule of Benedict recommends work, prayer and study in measured proportions. The work is itself is meant to be prayer, the study to fold into prayer.

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul.
Therefore the sisters should be occupied
at certain times in manual labor,
and again at fixed hours in sacred reading."

Pocket pets

The CDC has announced that "pocket pets", e.g. the hamster that shares this study, are potential carriers of salmonella. This is bad news for the hamster owner, who is morally opposed to hand washing. The CDC would approve of the effect that hamster has had on the cat -- the very elderly cat has succeeded in jumping onto the hamster cag. This feline study suggests that with the proper motivation, even the very infirm can be helped to exercise. The hamster, of course, is terrified, which can't be good for its cardiovascular health, but you can't have everything.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Access Codes

Access Codes

Geeky Mom laments her responsibility for the myriad of details that keeps the family running. My other half pleaded for a halt to my travels this spring, he was overwhelmed by the logistics. Why the moms?

When I was young, I was sure that my mother never slept. When I called, she appeared! Thinking back, with 6 kids -- 4 under 6, she probably didn't ever sleep in those days. I've come to realize that the concept of 24/7 access to mom by kids is not a linear function of the number or age of the kids. All two of mine, well past toddlerhood, track me down in the bathroom (I swear a light goes on when I close the door), in bed ("Mom's sleeping," I hear my husband call, unheeded by the owner of the feet pounding up the stairs), and on the road (thanks to the cell phone, I'm a first responder to domestic disasters thousands of miles away). Despite a parenting partner who can do it all, when the kids need something, I'm the first person they call.

We're trained in the womb. Mom is there 24/7, with warmth, comfort and sustenance - and she doesn't have to be shared with siblings. Dropped into the cold world, I suspect my kids miss these days more than they realize. I think I miss these days more than I'll admit. I still remember my mother holding me after my first husband died. I could hear her heart beating, feel her warmth in the midst of desolation, and be comforted. I held her as she died last month, longing to comfort her, longing for her comfort.

Maybe holding the one string, that stretched ever so long umbilical cord, is what makes us feel responsible for the rest of the strings that hold it all together. These are the ties that bind - and there's no breaking them (or break for the weary!).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

It's all Greek to me

I'm convinced my kids are studying classical Greek drama on the side.

First Child: We heard about middle school today. The lunch is 2.25 a day, that's twenty-five cents more than at the elementary school, so I'll need 11.25 a week for a lunch ticket. You can have a cell phone...

Second Child (simultaneous with the first): We had closet day today, and made masks in art.....

Mother: [Second Child] please let your brother finish.

First Child: Yeah, [Second Child] let me finish.

(Second Child wails loudly)

Mother: [First Child], if I had wanted a Greek chorus effect, I would have asked for one!

Second Child (still wailing): Yeah, [First Child]!

You can replay the scene several times in a 2 mile car ride, if you or your passengers choose. First Child and Second Child parts may be swapped at will.

Classical studies are a great foundation for an interesting life.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Of violinists, evolution and contempt

PZ Meyers cheers on Richard Dawkins and his position that religion is a delusion and God is an imaginary friend, made up by adults not ready to face the world alone. I generally agree with PZ's attempts to clarify the concept of evolution and to fight the good fight when it comes to keeping it in the schools at all levels, but his endorsement of Dawkin's "casual contempt" strikes an off note. As both a trained scientist and a trained theologian, the tacit assumption that the question of the existence of God can be addressed by science strikes me as unwise. God's existence cannot be directly determined by any experiment. You can believe, you can not believe, you can believe I'm delusional -- but neither of us can prove a thing. Faith in God does not preclude faith in science, the two positions are in no way necessarily exclusive, though as the comments on the post make clear, they are for some people.

Is my (potential) delusion harmful in any way? Is there a need to correct it? It's not in conflict with any measurable reality, I care for my family (if you ignore the dust bunnies massing under the beds), pay taxes and hold down a job. Yes, some people who share my delusion behave in ways that are inappropriate, or hold beliefs in clear conflict with material reality. I would note that there are those who do not share in the delusion who also exhibit inappropriate behaviors and hold beliefs that are in conflict with material reality (UFO abductions anyone?). I'm not sure the common issue in all this is the delusion, but perhaps the issue lies more in the lack of respect for others.

It all reminds me of a story I once heard. A gentleman arrives in the ER, in clear need of psychiatric care. He begs the staff to let him call his agent, "I'm a world class violinist!" "Right!," they say. Next morning, sure enough, his agent calls...he is indeed a world class musician. Moral, if you're delusional about one thing (literal creationism), you may not be delusional about everything.