Friday, February 29, 2008

Soup and Psalmody

Acedia might be the monk's noontime demon - the desert heat baking the life of out his prayers, the day now stretching emptily before him, moving with syrupy slowness - but in my life sloth's succubus stamps in the door in February, and is nowise as gentle. It's cold, dark and damp in the world. The end of the term is far off, and the crisp breezes of energy and hope that swept through my office in September have become a howling blizzard of committments and complications. I despair of finding my desk again, it seems pointless to grade one more paper, consult the dean yet again, review the next article. My perfectionist alter ego shuffles papers in the corner, muttering about the quality of the work, good enough isn't good enough, trying to goad me into polishing this task, to the detriment of those in the ever growing queue. I hoard time - and weep when it slides through my fingers regardless. I long for a desert hermitage, preferably occupied by someone else's demons.

Instead, on a bitter cold Lenten Friday, in the depths of February acedia, I found myself making soup. A vibrant orange melange of winter vegetables took shape on my stove, its steam easing the dryness of my kitchen, the familiar practice grounding my soul. It's a process that demanded I be fully present - or the onions would burn. Perfection had to take a back seat to completion. Each addition to the pot was prepped as the previous one cooked, a heap of roughly cut vegetables grew to its proper size on the cutting board, then was cast into the kettle. The tinny sizzling of vegetables provided a counterpoint to the bass thunk of the knife on wood. One layer followed the next, in precise order, the flavors intensifying in the confines of the pot, the aroma growing in complexity. The individual chunks finally surrendered their individuality to the blender, and what had thirty minutes previously been unscrubbed carrots buried in the vegetable crisper and onions perhaps a bit past their prime was gloriously whole and sustaining. I filled my bowl, to find I was no longer hungry. The mere act of making the soup had left me fed.

A few days after my contemplative experience with the soup, I was sitting in my parish chapel, waiting as the Augustinian community gathered for morning prayer. Breviary pages rustling, the leader for the day tossed out the order, "we're on Wednesday Week III", and our assignments, "Frank, will you do the antiphons and Lois, the reading", and slid without a breath into the opening invocation, "O Sacrament of love...". The psalms began, each side's words piling up until they slid into the silence and the other side took up its work, layering on top of the previous strophe. The intensity gradually built, even spoken our voices created a complex harmony. We followed the antiphonarian into depths of the Benedictus, suddenly whole. There we all were, like my soup, the ingredients ordinary (some of us may even be past our prime), perfection a hope not an expectation, gradually cooking down into a fragrant and complex whole. Once again, in less than half an hour I am fed not by the result of our work, but by the work itself.

In her essay, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's" Work, Kathleen Norris points out Amma Syncletica prescription for acedia's demons: psalmody. Psalm soup?

(The Norris essay is lovely...I found it via reverendmother)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Carthusian Echoes

Being far too tired to write anything more tonight (1.5 hour drive, lecture, seminar, 2 hour meeting...), I'll let these speak for me....

My room at the Jesuit Center (a Jesuit Center mug on the sill - I left mine in the car and didn't want to trek through the sleet to fetch it).

The library was three doors down the hall, the peak of the vaulted ceiling has been replaced by a skylight, the sound of the rain and sleet on it yesterday afternoon was quite soothing. As the day progressed, the mist closed in, until I couldn't even see out my window. A mystical mist? It certainly contributed to my sense of enclosure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Penitential Rites

I'm spending the night at the old Jesuit novitiate. I had a good salad with eggs and cheese for dinner, with an eye to a piece of chocolate cake for dessert. As I bussed my dinner plate I watched the last piece of an amazing chocolate cake walk away with a high school student here on retreat (I'm wondering how silent the 40 of them are going to be tonight...)

Sometimes you're asked to surrender a bit than you might have wanted to...

(and yes, I'm blogging from the Jesuit computer...)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Preaching with your hands

The Carthusians are an order of hermits - if that's not an oxymoron - founded almost 1000 years ago. Their monasteries, or charterhouses, are closed to visitors. Neither hospitality nor preaching are their charisms. Books, however, are a treasured resource for the Carthusians. One prior, as his monastery burned (yet again) exhorted the monks, "my fathers, my fathers, ad libros, ad libros; let the rest burn, but save the books!" Writing anonymously (like many bloggers!) and prolifically through the centuries, Carthusian authors preached "with their hands."

Tomorrow, I'm "preaching with my hands", or at least conversing with them, at the RevGalBlogPals Monday book discussion: on the DVD Into Great Silence (filmed inside a Carthusian charterhouse) and the book An Infinity of Little Hours (a chronicle of five novices who try the Carthusian life in the 1960s).

When it's all over and done with - I'm going to practice what I preached and take a evening trip up to see my spiritual director and sit in the stillness.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A second helping of roast chicken

Yes, I really did give up meat for Lent and no, I didn't have chicken for dinner tonight (breaded shrimp with cocktail sauce - definitely a retro Lenten meal). Second Helpings of Roast Chicken is the sequel to British chef Simon Hopkinson's first collection of food tales: Roast Chicken and Other Stories. I read a review of the latter, which lamented that the former was not yet available in the US. I bought them both for my dad from Amazon in the UK -- with a Second Helping for myself.

Second Helpings is a passionate memoir of food. My favorite chapters are "Butter" and "Rhubarb", but each of the entries in this ecletic encylopedia of essays and recipes is a delight. We had a snow day today (at least the kids did, I taught class with their invaluable help), so for dessert tonight I made pain perdu aux pommes - a recipe I've been dreaming about since I found it sandwiched between almonds and beans. 6 egg yolks, 110 g of sugar and 90 ml of heavy cream are certain to offset any of the the health benefits of my day-old oatmeal bread and apples. Think French Toast with vanilla custard, caramel and apples....

Pain perdu (lost bread) is a dish from my New Orleans roots, but the earliest version of the recipe is from a Roman cookbook of the 4th or 5th century:

Aliter dulcia: siligineos rasos frangis, et buccellas maiores facies. in lacte infundis, frigis et in oleo, mel superfundis et inferes.

Another dessert: Break up bread and make larger bites. Soak in milk, fry in oil, drizzle in honey and serve.

Stalking the wild rubber band

It's midnight and Fluffy is crawling into my big bag. No tuna in there; what could she possibly want? The oversize rubber band she is now enthusiastically chasing around the 2nd floor. My gratitude knows no bounds. It's not a mouse!!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Contemplative Cat

Fluffy joined me for my nightly round of meditation a couple of days ago. Folded up on the rug beside me, her continuous purr evoked the ringing of a meditation bowl. I followed the sound into the stillness.

As I settled in the next night, she padded softly across the floor of my study to the nook I use as a meditation space. I waited expectantly for her to settle into her spot on the rug and to hear her purr signal the start of our sitting time. Oh dear... Fluffy is in a carnivorous mood, not a contemplative one! She pounced on my feet, upturned in lotus. I unceremoniously removed her. She came back. I patiently escorted her out and firmly closed the door. She clawed at the door. At which I point I surrendered any idea of sitting in silence, retrieved her and prayed night prayer while she played with the ribbons in my breviary.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Friday Five: Fire and Water

This might qualify as a Friday + Five, as it's almost been 5 days since it was posted.

revhrod poses these RGBP Friday Fives:

In this Sunday's gospel Nicodemus asks Jesus, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Poor old Nicodemus! He was so confused about the whole "water and Spirit" business of baptism.

For today's five, tell us about your baptismal experiences.

1. When and where were you baptized? Do you remember it? Know any interesting tidbits?
I was baptized on April 20th, 1958 at the age of 8 days! I don't remember it :-), but I do have this wonderful photo of me with my mother and her mother. The gown is the same one all my siblings were baptized in, and the slip, embroidered with all our names and the dates our baptisms has been worn by most of the grandchildren at their baptisms. The saddest thing I think is that my mother was never present at any of her children's baptisms, since medical advice at the time was that she should stay "in the house" and rest (?).

2. What's the most unexpected thing you've ever witnessed at a baptism?
I see a lot (given that we baptize at Mass), but nothing spectacular comes to mind. For humor, see #3.

3. Does your congregation have any special traditions surrounding baptisms?
We baptize as part of the regular Sunday service (less common in Catholic parishes), and begin by singing the Litany of the Saints (and other holy folks) down upon them. We all renew our baptismal vows. We all vow to support the parents in their path. The sense that these children are being baptized into a community of faith is strengthened by these customs. My better half enjoys the question we ask the parents each time: Do you understand what you are undertaking? His take on this - no way do any of these new parents have a clue what they're embarking on!!

4. Are you a godparent or baptismal sponsor? Have a story to tell?
I'm a godmother several times over, but am still in shock that two of my goddaughters are now in college!! I can't be old enough?

5. Do you have a favorite baptismal song or hymn?
The sung litany of saints is my favorite, a potent reminder of a community that extends through both space and time. Crash loves it - since his given name appears early; Barnacle Boy is irritated since "his" saint has been purged from the calendar as a pious legend.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scrabbling through Lent

I'm playing Scrabble on Facebook with another RevGal this Lent. It's a good Lenten discipline, where discipline has its root sense: a teaching. So what have I learned so far?

  • Letters are given to us, not of our own choosing, but we must still make words of them. In my heart, can I view 7 vowels as a gift?
  • Holding on to your letters in hopes of using them later risks losing opportunities to speak now. Narthex is a delicious word, but were there wonderful words I failed to make in the waiting?
  • The game is collaboration as much as competition, you have to create places to build words or no one plays.
  • Choosing words entails risk, as well as gain.
  • Your well-made plan may be doused in a flash - you alone are not in control of the board.
  • Hoarding the letters you were granted loses you points in the end.

How is your Lenten play going?

It is requisite for the relaxation of the mind that we make use, from time to time, of playful deeds and jokes. Thomas of Aquinas (seriously)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Michelle and the very bad day

We had an ice storm last night - to the great delight of Barnacle Boy and Crash Kid. At 6 am I heard the thump of teen feet hitting the floor, the quiet padding into the sunroom and then...nothing. I got up, checked the local news website, and there it was - a 2 hour delayed opening. I crawled back into bed to enjoy the gift a few minutes extra sleep. An hour later, just as I was wondering if I should get up, Barnacle Boy appeared at the bedside. "There's a huge puddle in the sunroom!" I wasn't wondering anymore, I was up!

Math Man ended up climbing out our bathroom window to clear an ice dam on the roof, which ended the leak. Meanwhile I used up a half dozen bath towels blotting the area rug.

Barnacle Boy thought we needed fresh chocolate chip cookies - so at 8 am he started a batch. It definitely improved the day -- as did an email from a friend which included this list of how to tell if you were having a really bad day (Math Man bore a startling resemblance to the kitty in photo 13 after his roof sojourn!).

Friday, February 08, 2008

Blogging Bread and Wine

Bread and Wine is a RevGals read for Lent. A couple of Advents ago, my spiritual director suggested "lingering" with whatever word or verse struck me in the psalter - rather than plow on until the end.

This season, I'm lingering in that way with the daily readings from Bread and Wine. The words upon which I've been caught today?

Wangerin "In Mirrors": the mirror of dangerous grace

Book Meme from Terrapin Station

Mary Beth at Terrapin Station has tagged me for this meme...

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Tomes by candidates for office - whether I support them or not!

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Miles Vorksogian (Lois Bujold's short, but concentrated creation); Daav yos’Phelium of Clan Korval (Sharon Lee and Steve Miller elegantly cynical interplanetary scout); Mary Russell (the brilliant woman Laurie King gave Sherlock Holmes' as a wife) - if one of them could not make it, Blackie Ryan from Andrew Greeley's imagination. Dinner and conversation late into the night, with good food and wine and an incredible chocolate dessert.

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can't die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it's past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Ack...I can read almost anything and enjoy it! The Name of the Rose?

Come on, we've all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you've read, when in fact you've been nowhere near it?

This is too close to home. A few weeks back, when dropping off my oldest for his youth group meeting, I got drafted to lead a discussion on the novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" -- which I've never read, or even seen the movie! I had 5 minutes to prepare for a 90 minute sesion- even Cliff's notes weren't going to get me through this. Thankfully, the kids had all read the book in school, and we watched clips from the Gregory Peck movie, so I had something to work with. Once the kids were going, I mostly had to referee. But I'm sure if you asked them, they were left with the impression that I'd read the book!

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to 'reread' it that you haven't? Which book?

Like Mary Beth, I have a good memory for books, so I can't remember this happening to me.

You've been appointed Book Advisor to a VIP (who's not a big reader). What's the first book you'd recommend and why? (if you feel like you'd have to know the person, go ahead of personalise the VIP)

Sherlock Holmes - the stories are short and compelling, and they invite (and reward) careful reading!

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Can I pick two?? I'd love to be a better reader of Latin!! And my Spanish is fluent enough, so I pick French --- all the better to read romances?!

A mischievious fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

Gerard Manley Hopkins' Poems

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What's one bookish thing you 'discovered' from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Some new authors (Julia Spencer-Fleming), poetry (Mary Oliver's Thirst)...

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she's granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

Auto-reshelving and cataloging!! Somewhere I read that you can track up to about 10,000 volumes in your head, but after that a catalog is helpful. We have only about 5,000 in the family collection, but I still long for more organization! Oh, and one of those wonderful sliding ladders would be awesome....

Who to tag?? Postcards from Ann Arbor should give this one a fly, and anyone else who'd like to play, let us know in the comments!!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

All who hunger

Yesterday was a day of fast for many - including me. Shopping a couple of weeks ago I realized that it had been years since my budget really controlled what I ate. In graduate school, I worried whether the budget would stretch that week for meat sauce with the pasta and lasagna, with all that cheese, was a luxury meal, not the freezer stand-by it is today. Steak? Something I hoped my mother might have if I appeared for Sunday dinner...

My sense of wonder at the abundance in my pantry has faded over the years, and these days my weekly grocery concerns swirl around how to limit the calories and sodium in my cart while simultaneously increasing the fiber and calcium (it's an age thing, I know). Do I remember what it is like to hunger for something? to savor the tastes when they came? to desire something so much I would surrender everything for it?

So I fast, to learn again what it means to hunger. To savor. To desire.

The photo is of the latest batch of oatmeal bread. Now on the regular baking rota - which has ramped up as I've given up meat for Lent and so bread and cheese are making more frequent appearances on my dinner plate.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Roux the Day

Barnacle Boy has been working hard to master a kid basic: mac and cheese. Not in the microwave, not from a box. A recipe that begins with butter and flour and his favorite twisty pasta boiling away. He soloed this weekend, no mom hovering over the stove, whisk in hand ready to rescue a sauce gone lumpy, not even a mom acting as his sous chef. I'm emptying the dishwasher on the other side of the kitchen, oblivious to the start of the project. "Mom, is this roux?" Huh? "Uh, yes it is. Do you know what roux is?" "A mixture of flour and butter used to thicken a sauce or soup." This said with the cadence of a Merriam-Websters special, but he is correct. "Where did you learn about roux?" iCarly - which he gets on iTunes!

For the record, his sauce was a velvety concoction, a heavenly choice on a rainy day.

Friday, February 01, 2008


A decade ago we spent a year on sabbatical in the Bay Area, living near a large agricultural area. At this time of year, the strawberries were beginning to come into season. I'd buy grapefruit and strawberries and make a fruit salad in the tiny lab kitchen from the sectioned grapefruit and the fresh berries - with a dash of something to make it sweet.

This week I grocery shopped and bought both strawberries and grapefruit to reprise my 1998 lunches. I sectioned the grapefruit, then squeezed the juice by hand from the halves over the sliced berries. The oils from the skin misted over the bowl and my hands, sending memories of that wonderful year wafting across my mind. Rather than toss in my usual teaspoon of sugar, I warmed a few tablespoons of the juice with some local honey, and macerated the fruit in it.! The scent of flowers and citrus drifted out of the bowl, as if I were standing in an orchard in full bloom.

Macerated comes from the Latin, and means to soak or soften (these days usually in alcohol) -- but it also carries connotations of stripping the flesh away. As Lent approaches, I begin to think about what I might need to strip out of my life.