Friday, August 28, 2009

Grace on sale

"Can I get Jesus points?" wonders my nephew. "Jesus points?" Ah - indulgences. After dinner, I wandered toward the living room, intent on corralling the first teen I encountered into helping cleaning up from dinner. "Scout Boy, would you empty the dishwasher?" "Uh...." "You can get Jesus points." I offered. For that, he'd empty. When he hit his toe on the stove, and moaned, I suggested he offer it up. "Huh?" "Redemptive suffering, you can offer it up for someone else's suffering," I explained. "I get it. Buy one, get one!"

Worse still than Bonhoeffer's cheap grace - BOGO grace?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Color Blind - Not!

Gannet Girl - prompted by Portia's beautiful post, has been musing about color. And I've been reading (and writing) about spaces, spaces for teaching, spacse for liturgy. For me, color matters a great deal. I used to despair when Math Man dressed Barnacle Boy or Crash in colors that clashed, and my guys still enjoy teasing me by putting out very mismatched placemats on the table (orange stripes on top of a green flower jacquard tablecloth anyone?). Color in a space makes a big difference to me. When a favorite chapel - small and filled with light, with white floor and walls -- was redone in heavy rusts and browns, it ceased to be a favorite place to pray. Fastest way to keep me out? Orange! Followed by rusty brown and beige.

I love deep cobalt blues, or blacks with splashes of brilliant jewel tones. But what matters more to me than the color, is the light. I love watching the interplay of light on surface and on colors. So it's probably not surprising that stained glass, with the sun streaming through it, is color come to life in my eyes. This window is one I wish I could sit in front of.

A few years back, I painted my study, tucked under the eaves, deep, dark blue, with white ceilings, and white shades. A few colorful pieces are on the walls (and one - from Stratoz - suspended in the window). (When Barnacle Boy first saw it, he looked quizzical and asked, "Why did you paint it black?" I realized with a start that it did look black to him, he's color blind. Good thing this was not his bedroom!). But what I like best about it is how it warms in sunlight and lamp light both....

I am quantum mechanic - I'm all about light!

The stained glass window is by Dennis McNally, SJ, depicting three of the principal meditations in the Spiritual Exercises.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Troll toll

On America Magazine's blog, Michael Sean Winter's talks about the experience of getting a "creepy" text message, prompted by something he had written. Meanwhile, model Liskula Cohen has gotten a court order to determine the identity of the blogger who created an entire blog to malign her. Trolls - anonymous, incendiary and rarely polite - are everywhere it seems. Trolls can be annoying, disturbing, and on occasion, threatening. Right wing blogger Hal Turner has been charged in connection with threats on the lives of federal judges.

A troll message of the disturbing sort -- sent to the email address I use for my columns in the Catholic Standard and Times-- appeared in my inbox a week ago. It suggested I would be interested in browsing material that was nothing but bigoted vitriol. What bothers me most? That anything I've ever written would even suggest that I would think this way? or that anyone could assume that to be Roman Catholics would be to believe this nonsense?

Post script: The Ethicist at the NY Times has an interesting post on his blog about this issue.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Column: The Sluices of Heaven

For the record, it appears that 1 cubit is 45 cm.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 20 August 2009.]

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, and on the seventeenth day of the month, that very day all the springs of the great deep burst through, and the sluices of heaven opened. And heavy rain fell on earth for forty days and forty nights.
— Genesis 7:11-12

It hadn’t been raining when I left early for Mass, but as I rehearsed the psalm, I realized the sanctuary was growing ominously darker. Soon rain was pounding a tattoo on the slate roof of the church. The front doors opened to reveal sheets of water rippling in the wind — and an utterly drenched Chris, who had ridden his bike over only to have the heavens open on him as he arrived.

“Does anyone know the conversion between cubits and centimeters?” joked my friend Lisa. It truly seemed as if the sluices of heaven were open wide and we should all be building arks.

When Mass ended, I piled the sopping bicyclist into my car and headed home through the rising waters. My thoughts were on dry clothes, a cup of tea and the remaining loads of laundry from camping — I was not seriously entertaining thoughts of floods or ark construction.

I wonder what those on the earth were thinking when the great flood came; when did they realize this was not just another storm but a catastrophe in the making? My moment of truth came when, laundry basket in hand, I flipped on the basement light to find water lapping at the bottom step and inexorably soaking the boxes we had foolishly left on the floor until we could get around to sorting them.

Muttering imprecations, alas, not under my breath, I mustered my sons to help me deal with the sodden mess that our basement had become. For the next eight hours we mucked out the mud and water and hauled up what could be salvaged and out what could not. There was a lot of time to talk, to listen and to think — about arks and floods, about pasts and futures, about what to keep and what to toss.

It had been a while since I’d delved into the story of Noah from start to finish. It appears but twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, in Lent and over a few days in Ordinary Time. Away on a retreat, I decided to spend some time soaking in those three chapters of Genesis.

Rather like my basement, which I will admit is a jumble of outgrown toys and boxes, the narrative of the great flood is a tangle of two perspectives. The vivid voice of the Yahwist source woven through the precise and prosaic tones of the priestly authority brings unexpected life to a story often reduced to a recitation of the animals boarding two by two to amuse small children. There were depths in it I had forgotten.

God asks Noah to save everything that “has the breath of life” and to bring along what might be needed to provide for their needs and the needs of Noah’s family. Sifting through what was in my basement brought me to reflect on what I thought I needed to keep safe. As I put away things on higher shelves I began to ask myself, is this something I would have taken on the ark? Do my family or I need it? Does it breathe life into our lives? Or should I let the floodwaters take it?

In the end my basement was a cleaner and less cluttered space, but the clearing out had gone further than the physical bits and pieces. With so much space, I had always given into the temptation to hang on to things, to keep or get things “just in case.” Then God sent a flood and a chance to begin anew.

“Do I need this?” I now wonder before packing something away in my ark of a basement. Maybe not.

Father, guide us, as You guide creation according to Your law of love. May we love one another and come to perfection in the eternal life prepared for us. Grant this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The communion of saints

On Sunday, I went to Mass at St. Patrick's in Washington, DC. The church was renovated about 15 years ago, and like my parish, kept the depth and beauty of the old, while allowing the Vatican II liturgical reforms to reshape the space. The dome above the sanctuary is surrounded by icons of sixteen saints and blesseds and as I waited for Mass to begin, those contemplations of the Exercises which invoke the communion of saints began to rise once again.

I thought of my own personal saints, those who have gone before me "marked with the sign of faith" - then realized with a start what the date was: August 16. It was the 28th anniversary of my first marriage.

We celebrated our fifth anniversary nine months to the day before he died. We briefly wondered if we should do something special for the 5th, but I can remember Tom saying "let's wait for the 10th!" There was not to be a 10th for us to share, not even a 6th. Hard to imagine that now we would have been married for so long. I sometimes wonder what our lives would have been like if the events of April 15, 1987 had not happened. Would I have a child in college? or two? But I can't imagine a world without Crash and Barnacle Boy.

Math Man and I will celebrate our 17th anniversary soon - and I realize that I celebrate the "odd" years as utterly as the "special" ones, and in fact each day as gift. But I still feel as if I'd somehow slipped out of the time stream for a while, and the proper order of things is upset.

Last night I dreamed of Tom ... it was so vivid, the communion of saints all over again. Grief is not linear.

I wonder if the recent story line in Funky Winkerbean prompted some of this?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Word Wraps

I am at the ACS meeting in Washington DC, here officially as "press" rather than as a chemist. It's a very different way to see the meeting. I went to a press briefing this morning (on something crossing chemistry and theology, no less). The press center is tucked away next to the registration area, and has everything a writer might want: food, wireless access and a steady stream of caffeine and conversation.

Listening as a scientist to a talk, and as a writer to a briefing turn out to be slightly different experiences. Both require critical listening, but listening as a writer prompts me to think far more about the words the science is coming wrapped in. The shorthand scientists use sounds almost staccato in this context. "Measles naive" instead of "never exposed to the measles virus" or "no evidence of viremia" instead of "no measurable virus in the bloodstream". As one of my teachers at a science writing workshop suggested, one goal for a science writer is to slow it down.

We try to be both precise and concise, but I wonder how often the combination in giving a talk, or even reading a paper in the literature leads to attentional processing deficits? An interesting experiment in attentional processing is to present subjects with a rapidly changing sequences of letter, interspersed with numbers. If two numbers are placed too close together, subjects can "miss" the second letter while their brain is busy processing the first. (Experienced meditatators are better at this task than those who don't practice being "attentive".) Pack too much into a sentence, and your subjects or audience might miss bits.

Friday, August 14, 2009


I'm just back from a week long program at Smith College on contemplative practices in academe. The gathering was rich in experiences (contemplative jazz and dance meditations), people (from the rising of the sun to the setting - or at least NYC to BC) and ideas (regret and imagination). Relative to a science conference, there were far more words swirling around. My thoughts have been swirling around words lately, too. I wrote a piece for Nature Chemistry on the use of the word "topology" by chemists (as opposed to mathematicians) called Stretching Topology and keep seeing oddities in words everywhere. A swirl or two:

  • Girlsenberrry ice cream (as opposed to boysenberry...)

  • The PDNWOTGIYAGA signs on the fences around the grassy areas. (Please do not walk on the grass if you are going across.)

  • Seen on the back of an Ace bandage box:

Protection levels:

Standard Advanced Premium
Light Support
Moderate Support
Advanced Support

Really? Advanced does not supply advanced support???

Friday, August 07, 2009

Shark Week

It's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Barnacle Boy, like SFO Mom's kids, is a fan - a big fan. He grieved that we came home from vacation (where hotels have cable - unlike home!) before it began. Though thanks to the miracle of iTunes, he can buy an episode or two.

He celebrated by making these cupcakes (from Hello, Cupcake)...they are almost as much of a kid dream as Shark Week. He eats the sharks and watches the sharks eat.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Column: God in the rough

For the record, do not use water to wash off banana slug slime. Really. It makes things much worse. And according to Nicholas Kristof, interesting things happen if you lick one - though we did not try this. And if the scene below looks familar, it may be because Return of the Jedi (the scene with the Ewoks on Endor) was filmed here.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 6 August 2009.]

God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.
— Gen. 1:16-18a

Anxiously I patted around the edge of the tent, looking for my flashlight to take a midnight walk. Finally finding it stuck under the foot of the sleeping bag, I crawled carefully over my husband, trying not to wake him. Once out of the tent I realized with a start that I had no need of a light, there was just enough moonlight to let me safely thread my way through the tents and gently glowing fire pits dotting the campsite.

I just spent eight days camping in the redwood groves of Northern California with some of the more adventuresome members of my family — 17 of us ranging in age from 7 months to 77 years old. We slept on the ground, hauled water from the pump and cooked all our meals over an open fire.

With no cell phone service, no Internet and no electricity many of the things we take for granted, from a quick Google search to find out what might take the banana slug slime off my 5-year-old nephew to hot water to lights were not as easy to manage. But, no one seemed to mind; there was enough to do what we needed.

In the summer of 1998, Pope John Paul II, himself an enthusiastic camper, reflected, “In the era of technology our life risks becoming always more anonymous and merely a function of the production process. In this way, man becomes incapable of enjoying the beauties of the Creator and to see in them the reflection of the face of God.”

Stripped of technology, our lives ran on very different clocks while camping. We woke when the sun peeked over the cliffs and towering redwoods. The kids’ bedtimes were determined not so much by their parents but by the lights that “governed the day and the night” (and how far they’d hiked that day). I re-discovered long forgotten aspects of God’s “lesser light.” The moon ceased to be merely a bauble — albeit a beautiful one — hung in the sky, and as it lit my midnight excursion, I could see again in its gentle light God’s care for me.

As the days passed, I grew more aware of how much of modern life creates a buffer between God’s created world and me — and as a result, blurs nature’s reflection of God’s face.

Cooking at home offers me the illusion of ease and control. Four minutes after I hit the switch on my teakettle, it is merrily bubbling away. Camping, I put a heavy pot of icy water drawn from the pump on the fire. Twenty minutes — or more — later I might have boiling water that tastes ever so faintly of the smoke from the wood over which it was heated.

In Sollicitudo rei socialis Pope John Paul II reminded us “we must never lose sight of that dimension which is in the specific nature of man, who has been created by God in His image and likeness. It is a bodily and a spiritual nature, symbolized … by the two elements: the earth, from which God forms man’s body, and the breath of life which He breathes into man’s nostrils.” Cooking over that unpredictable open fire, drinking my morning cup of tea tasting of the wood and the earth, was to recall how and what I am created to be.

Roughing it with God these last days has sharpened my vision of His face in creation. As heavenly as a hot shower felt at the end of the trip, I already miss this unmediated time with God. I come back wondering what modern layers I can on occasion do without, that I may better know that I am dust, given life by His breath alone.

"Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh

Monday, August 03, 2009

Wait, wait, don't tell me

Crash has a new line (old line: "let's go with that"): "Wait, wait, so you're telling me that when Barnacle Boy does _______, it's OK, but I can't ____________." He deploys it when I make requests along the lines of "Please stop {pick ONE: bickering with your brother, bothering your brother, repeating what I say to your brother..}" This is the newest variation of their Greek chorus.

Now when I hear him start, "Wait, wait" - there is no need to tell me. I know what's coming.

Teen travel tip #176: Pack extra patience and ear plugs.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Stop, Thief!

We had a long drive up from Oregon's Gold Coast where Math Man had an amazing time golfing, and Barnacle Boy, Crash and I explored the environs. We clambered over dunes, took a horse ride across the beach, saw a whale cavorting with her calf off the rocks, and tried windsurfing.  (So far I am on the only person I know who can get sea sick on a windsurfer - but it was fun up until then!)

The promised treat at the end of the drive was a late dinner at a restaurant we'd all enjoyed two weeks past after another visit to Powell's Books (the largest independent book store in the country - Barnacle Boy got lost in it, figuratively and literally!  (And we bought so many books, I had to do some quick rearranging of things at the airport this morning to avoid fees for overweight baggage.)

After dinner, Math Man and I headed to the car to dig out the map to the hotel for the night, while the boys took one last look around.  As I'm pulling my camera off the seat and throwing it over my shoulder, a man comes running out of the restaurant, crying, "Sir, excuse me, sir!"  At that moment, Math Man turned around, and the man stopped dead as he saw the inside of the car.  "Oh," he said, "your car looks just like ours!"   Thus began this odd conversation about THEIR rented car (parked two spaces up from ours, and indeed identical) and ours:  "It's a nice rig, yes?" "Uh, yes..."

He thought we had broken into his car.  Maybe I should stop wearing black shirts?

In all seriousness, I'm glad that the gentleman was not (as my brothers would say) "packing", but seemed an over-socialized NPR sort -- "Excuse me, sir.  Please stop rifling my car"??  It could have, as Crash would say, ended badly.