Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Write Like....Dan Brown?

I threw a half-dozen of my columns into the text analyzer I Write Like to see what might happen. This, this is what happened! Dan Brown???

I write like
Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I'm not alone in wondering what the criteria are for similarity — Margaret Atwood put in her own work, to find out she writes like Stephen King.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Delicta graviora

It was 10:30 in the morning as I crossed Market at 7th and slid between the line at the food cart and the walls of the Free Library. The woman was heaped on the walkway to the library. Her green aluminum cane made a sharp contrast to the sun washed red brick of the entryway. She slumped, asleep, over her belongings, exhausted already by the heat that had just begun to rise. Her lined face, pink with heat, was turned to passersby. She looked like my mother, sleeping restlessly in pain.

I stood there for a fleeting moment. I wanted to reach out and hold her. I wanted her to bring her to a cool, safe space to sleep. I wanted to ask what she needed. I wanted to help. And yet...I did none of these things. I walked on down 7th, headed to a cool, dry archive where two librarians would bring me the books I desired, without my lifting more than a finger.

We wrangle over translations and whether we are sufficiently reverent with the body of Christ when we receive in the hand. We issue lists of grave sins, such as "the taking or retaining for a sacrilegious purpose or the throwing away of the consecrated species" and meanwhile here lies the body of Christ crumpled and abandoned on the sidewalk. And I walk past. This is what I will have answer for to Christ when he asks, when I was thirsty, did you give me to drink? This is delicta graviora. Its not on the list.

Photo from dgphilli.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why Do You Pray Redux

Crash posed the question on his Facebook account in the spring: Why do you pray? It's a hard question, and I've been chewing on it off and on since he asked. Various friends have weighed in and I have a growing list of answers (some of which are just more questions).

Why not?
It can't hurt.
What else are you going to do?
I'm afraid not to.
I can't stop.

Respondents range from teen-agers to Jewish mothers to Jesuit priests.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parenting Tips from Star Trek

Check out Dr. Emily's new strategies for teen parenting, inspired by Star Trek:
"By implementing a command structure, I can eliminate the debate (which is generally just a delaying tactic) and move on to Actually Getting Things Done."
Read the rest here.

Column: Patience is not a fence to contain the unruly

Last year I let him jump off the cliff into the waters of Crater Lake. That was easier than letting him drive to the bookstore. Motherhood is not a rational state of mind!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 22 July 2010, the feast of Mary Magdalene.

His mother stored up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and men. — Lk. 2:51b-52

Increases in stature are de rigueur in my household these days. Chris has grown an inch and a half since Christmas and Mike, long taller than I, now sees eye to eye with his dad — much to Victor’s dismay.

I’ve known since the doctor announced, “You have a son!” that one day I would look up to my children. These days it seems there isn’t much I need to do to assure their physical growth beyond stocking the refrigerator with astonishing amounts of food. It’s the growth in other dimensions that I fret over.

This passage in Luke was one of my mother’s favorites. Over the years it’s grown to be one of mine as well, one in which I find both comfort and challenge. The memories stored in my heart are a joy I cherish, but I hear, too, of a challenge to grow in wisdom not only for my sons, but for myself.

Bede the Venerable, a Benedictine monk in seventh century Wales, reflects on the ways in which Mary’s growth is entwined in her Son’s, and how she might have coped with the uncertainties inherent in being a parent. Luke tells us she holds within her the memories of His words and actions, and Bede suggests “what she beholds in the present, she waits to have revealed with greater clarity in the future.” Or as St. Augustine puts it more bluntly, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”

This week, I’ve been praying hard for patience and wisdom all around. Mike got his permit to drive. As I handed Mike the keys to the car, he had the same mad grin on his face as when he realized he could crawl. And I had the same feeling in the pit of my stomach, just magnified. Negotiating the stairs is one thing; Lancaster Avenue at rush hour, quite another.

I envy Mary’s patience, her ability not only to surrender her desires for God’s desires, but her surrender to the uncertainty that comes with that territory. If she had never let Jesus learn to walk, He could not have left home, to preach, to teach, to heal, to redeem. At the moment she first let go His hand, she could not imagine where this would lead. Yet she let go. Marveling at what is before her now, awash in the past, patiently waiting to see what will unfold.

As Mike cautiously pilots his way around Coopertown learning to drive, I’m gaining patience. I’m growing more aware that patience is not just the ability to momentarily hold back a stream of motherly advice about gear shifts and stop signs. Nor it is it waiting with gritted teeth to see what happens. Will he stop in time?

Patience draws on that reservoir of memories in my heart. Patience is knowing that as the past lends clarity to the present, so this present will open more clearly in the future. Patience is a sanctuary of trust, built stone by stone, not a temporary fence rolled out to contain an unruly crowd. So I remember those wobbling first steps, and when I see that same fierce look of concentration on Mike’s face now, I can let go (mentally) of the brake. He is on task. And may even stop.

More deeply, it’s a reminder to ponder in my heart what I know of Mary’s Son. To let those things color my present, to help me wait with patient trust for what will be revealed. It seems that these summer driving lessons will yield more than just a license for Mike — perhaps there will a measure of patience and wisdom offered to me.

Lord God, open our hearts to your grace. Let it go before us and be with us, that we may be intent upon doing your will. We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Night in the Museum or A Variant on the 30-days

When I was in elementary school we lived in a small town outside of Chicago. The local rec department had a terrific summer program, drop-in arts & crafts, boating lessons and field trips galore. My favorite trips (besides the outings to Cubs' games) were to the Museum of Science and Industry - what I called the "push-button" museum for all the interactive exhibits. I could go again and again...and did. We were on our own in the museum, something that is probably unthinkable in these hypervigilant days, trusted to return on time to our yellow school bus for the long trip back home.

When I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler I didn't dream of running away to the Met in New York, I dreamed of hiding out in the Museum of Science and Industry. I would have slept in the U-boat.

My brother Geek Guru (who I think I could have counted on to be my co-conspirator in such an adventure) sent me an announcement for a competition to spend a month living in my all time favorite museum. The ground rules, oddly enough, are much like the 30-days: limited communications (no cell phone, but blogging encouraged), sleeping in small and odd spaces. Though instead of days of silent meditation hidden away, you essentially become an interactive exhibit.

Alas, I'm not on sabbatical, and am so committed for the fall that there is no way I could go, even if I could survive the competition. But a girl can dream, can't she?

Photo of The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL. Photographed 9 April 2006. © Jeremy Atherton, 2006. Used under CC license.

A version of this is cross-posted at Culture of Chemistry.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Venturing Into the Silent Land II: A Word into Silence

Robin of Metanoia and I are reading about silence this summer. We both were intrigued by Augustinian friar Martin Laird's book Into the Silent Land and decided it would be fun to have a blog conversation about it. The conversation began here and here (on Robin's blog).

This time we're talking about prayer words (if you're reading along, we're traipsing about in Chapter 4).

With that preamble, let me turn the space over to Robin:

OK, I admit it. I've struggled a lot with what Martin Laird has to say in Into the Silent Land about using a prayer word or phrase as a method for focusing one's way into silent contemplation. My readers are going to get the better part of this posting, because Michelle is going to write something thoughtful and eloquent for my blog, while what I have to say is: This is a lot more confusing and difficult than it sounds.

The concept? Yes, all good. It's been recommended for centuries that a prayer word is a useful device for stilling the mind, and Laird puts it well when he says that our minds are so incessantly busy that in order to quiet them we need to give them something to do. He offers three doorways through which a prayer word might take us: first, it is an anchor or refuge to which we can return, again and again, as our mind wanders this way and that, despite our best hopes and efforts for stillness; second, it helps us to let go and forget ourselves, so that we can release our commentary and live into the present moment; and third, it helps our attention move from our thoughts to our awareness of our thoughts, and to move into the silence out of which the Word emerges.

I'm sure that we can all imagine the comedy of errors that ensues for most of us when we try to pray this way, as the intent and committed mind rambles from prayer word to undone dishes to whether or not Monday is a holiday or a mail day to prayer word to did I let the dog back in to prayer word to the agenda for tonight's meeting to the need to pick up some milk to the condolence note I have to write to how angry I am at the person who overlooked my very important personal needs last week to oh, yeah, the prayer word . . . you get the idea.

If nothing else, that word lets us know how distracted and inattentive we truly are!

And yet . . .

There was a winter day, many, many months ago, when the text with which I was praying happened to be the one in the title, "Be still and know that I am God." I know that it was winter because I went for a three or four mile walk in the snowy woods, meditating on that text, word by word. It was, ironically, a discursive meditation in the extreme; I recall in particular that I was very interested in the word "know" and all of its possible meanings. (Yes, including the sexual one.) My son had died only a few months earlier and knowledge of God, whether cursory or intimate, seemed a most unlikely possibility. But there I was, tromping around in the snow, mind flying at about 500 words per minute, reflecting on the apparent predicate of stillness for knowledge of God.

It seems that God calls us into that stillness in spite of ourselves.

And so, I try. Not well and not effectively, but I do try, and sometimes my word is, in fact, like a shepherd's staff, pulling me back toward that first doorway.

And the word? I have a strange one. Some writers suggest "Jesus," while others urge something lacking in connotation. For a long time, I tried the word "Holy," but it is now a word attached to much of the sadness in my life. So my new word is "Grass."

No laughing, please.

It's a word that does have connotations for me, a girl who grew up in Midwest farming country and associates grass with a leisurely summer afternoon spent looking at the sky~ a childhood form of contemplation. More recently, it has both caretaking and Eucharistic associations; one of our seminary professors was found of pointing out his conviction that the grass upon which the people sit in the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the Gospel of John is a detail intended by the writer to make a connection to the green pastures of Psalm 23. I almost got derailed a couple of weeks ago, when I happened upon a reference in which grass is a symbol of transience (Isaiah 40), but I found, in the end, that I am not disturbed by that thought. The prayer word is, after all, intended as an aid to move us toward silence; in this case the prayer word is transient while the Silent Word to which it directs our attention is not.

Yes, I sigh: as Anthony Bloom and nearly everyone else acknowledges, when it comes to prayer we are all always beginners. But a prayer word, however artificial and functional it may seem to the 21st century mind, is evidently a doorway into a silence not constrained by contemporary limitations.

Read my response to Robin here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ballistics and Jesuit Education

I dreamed of parabolas last night. Arcs tracing a path from artillery to target. I need no help from Carl Jung to figure these out. We went camping on the weekend, with Crash and the Boy and an assortment of their friends. We went white water rafting, we ate camping food, we tied knots, we slept in tents, we forewent showers and we practiced many new skills, most of them having to do with shooting things or fire or both.

Crash has known MacGyver since kindergarten, though they are now in different high schools. I'm cooking dinner on Saturday night when I notice MacGyver carefully cleaning the Saran wrap which had been over the brownies, then scrounging up a rubber band and an empty Gatorade bottle. "What are you making?" I wondered as he started cutting off the bottom of the bottle with his knife. (Meanwhile, I'm sitting on my maternal urge to say "don't cut yourself with that knife!" as it is clear the young man is expert.) "You'll see."

He puts a long stick in the fire, blows it out, then sticks it into the open mouth of the bottle. (Now I'm sitting on the nerd's urge to say, "Be careful you don't burn a hole in the bottle.") I'm still clueless as to what the device he's created will do. He taps the smoke filled bottle on the saran wrap and voila, a perfect smoke ring comes out. Cool!

Cooler yet were the artillery made from ziploc bags. (Instructions for the device shown in the photo are here for the curious.) The downside of these? The ammunition. Do not use rocks. Marshmallows. We have plenty. You will not lack for s'mores. It's a good thing Crash has a hard head (to match his hard bones).

Wondering why this post is tagged Jesuits? MacGyver is getting a good Jesuit education. It's where he learned to build that ziploc projectile launcher. AMDG.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Pools of silence

It was 106oF (314 K for those of you who prefer SI units — you know who you are) when I left home Tuesday to drive up to see Patient Spiritual Director. My appointment wasn't until the next day but I was in deep need of a time out — before someone made me use my crabby mommy powers for evil, not good.

I was searching for a place where no one would pop out the door, flip on the porch light and ask my advice about a stuck mail a queue in the midst of my nightly Examen, or arrive in my study at noon to inquire about dinner (and to be clear, the discussion was about the meal to be eaten some 7 hours in the future and was prefaced by the acknowledgement that I'd asked not to be disturbed except for emergencies).1

There is no air conditioning here, or very little. The basement chapel is cool, and the little first floor library where I am typing this, but certainly not my room or the main chapel or the balcony or the dining room! I spent my first prayer period floating in the gloriously cool, blue, silent, oh so silent pool. I alternately ghosted from one end to the other and just floated. Arms out wide, surrendering to the clear waters, I made no effort to stay afloat, though float I did. It was a deeply embodied experience of Ps 31:6 (Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, LORD, faithful God..).

The heat inside the old building wasn't as awful as you might imagine and I had somewhat the same sense of surrender as I walked back. Supported by the thick muffling air, I floated along through the dim corridors, neither hot nor cold.

In the end it was the little parlor with the computer that did me in. (That should teach me to plug in while I'm trying to unplug?) The window was open a mere crack, while the computer and printer merrily churned out BTUs and the fan only runs on when you flip on the light. I did what I came to do. I lingered not, and ultimately retreated to the artificial cool of the first floor library.

My room alas, was like a oven. I thought about sleeping outside.3 I thought about sleeping in the basement crypt.4 I thought about sleeping in the pool.5 I thought a lot about sleeping, I just didn't do much of it.

In the end, the prayer soaked out most of the kinks, and I floated, sleepless, but not discontent in the immense pool of silence that shimmered in the heat on the hill.


1. Emergency was explicitly defined as any situation in which someone is bleeding profusely or other any situation that engenders a similar level of panic2 in the victim or rescuer. (Yes, Math Man asked for a definitition.)
2. Not knowing what, if anything, has been planned for dinner is clearly an emergency under the rubric described in note 1. At least if you are a 14 year old who has grown a 1/2 inch in the last three weeks.
3. Then I thought about the fox I saw earlier this summer.
4. Would someone think I'd fainted in front of the altar? (No tabernacle here, just an altar…)
5. Would the novitiate security find me and kick me out? Would I drown? Would it be crowded with other desperately hot retreatants?
6. Of course there must be endnotes, I'm an academic, not a mystic!

Column: What if night were a place and not a time?

I watched the night descend sitting on a bench at Eastern Point on retreat this summer. The sense of being intentionally and inexorably turned away from the sun to look into the depths of the universe was strong. A bit from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast ran through my mind as I sat there: "There is a mysterious woundedness that somehow goes with great blessing. When we truly encounter the night in all its beauty and terror, we have no assurance whatsoever that we are going to come out unscathed."

If I could write fiction, I'd write a short story about visiting the night....

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 8 July 2010.

By day the Lord ordains His kindness and by night His song is with me — prayer to the God of my life. Ps 42:9

What if the night were a place and not a time? What if you wanted to see the stars you had to walk to the night side of the earth? Would we ever go? Could we ever look? Would we stay very long? Or would we peek over the edge and depart as quickly as we could?

I had gone out to sit on the beach as the sun set. The bench faced east, not west, so instead of watching the fiery exuberant swirls of red and gold over the bay, my view was one of an impending darkness extending further than I could see. The blue of the clear sky slowly deepened, the stars came into focus.

As I sat, I could sense the earth spinning in space, the planet’s face — and ours — turned once a day toward the vastness of space. We look out into the universe each night whether we wish it or not. It reminded me of when Chris was young and wanted to be certain of my full attention. He would take my face in his hands and turn it toward his.

Does God turn us to face the immense once each day so that we will have to look into the depths of eternity? Did he touch the earth and set it spinning like a top so that we must see where we came from, where we are going? To be assured of my full attention? What does He want me to see?

Suddenly the sunset feels like a distractingly noisy party, the rise of the night, like walking out the door into a quiet and still street, where you can hear the cicadas and the breeze in the trees. In his commentary on the translation of Psalm 42, biblical scholar Robert Alter notes that while this verset is often read as our response to God for His goodness, our song to Him in the night, the Hebrew implies that God also sings to us in the night. What do I hear in the quiet streets of night, where God sings to me?

In the stars whose light is so strong we can see it at inconceivable distances, I hear of my powerlessness and God’s strength. No light that I can kindle will ever compare. There is a taste of eternity in these photons first sent streaking across the universe years ago that touch me only now. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever now shall be. I feel God’s timeless hands on my face, seeking my attention, seeking me.

I wonder if this is what God wants to sing to me this night, of a poverty of spirit, of an emptiness into which he can set His works afire? Is this the place that Johannes Baptist Metz calls “the meeting point of heaven and earth, the mysterious place where God and humanity encounter each other, the point where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.”?

In my world, night is perhaps more of a place, and less of a time. I could back away from that spot on the edge of the night where I could begin to see and hear and touch my poverty in the face of God’s infinite richness by flipping on the light, or by walking back into the house. What do I risk by staying?

An emptiness into which God can set His works aflame in me, like the stars of the sky? Will I go?

May God shield me;
May God fill me;
May God keep me;
May God watch me;
May God bring me this night to the nearness of His love…the peace of all peace be mine this night in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

— Closing prayer for St. Patrick’s Compline, Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings From the Northumbria Community

Monday, July 05, 2010

Towards a Philosophy of Odd Numbers

I'm sitting in the garden, in the heat of the late afternoon drinking iced tea and waxing philosophical about the laundry that I'm not doing at the moment.

There are some problems too knotty for even philosophers to touch. Take the problem of dualism and socks, for example. If philosophy can take a crack at what it means to be human, why can't it tell me why I never have an even number of socks return from the wash? Why doesn't dualism work for me here?

Dualism is a pervasive philosophical concept and one that I find only marginally appealing even when applied to things other than socks, I'm going to admit.

There is light and darkness, good and evil, male and female, left and right. Dualism has an appealing kind of tidiness to it: thing either are or are not. Yet, I wonder how often we impose dualism on the universe rather than find it there.

We match socks, reflecting the underlying dualism of feet: right and left. But socks generally speaking, don't have a right or left, still we insist on pairing them and fret when they don't. (I do have two very fancy pairs of running socks that claim to be chiral - right/left specific.)

Once you admit of an intermediate state, things can quickly get more complicated. Consider the quantum mechanical case where you have two degenerate states (think "equal in dignity") where any intermediate state in the spanned space is an equally valid solution to the problem at hand. Or the biological tags male and female. XX and XY genotypes are only two of a larger set of expressed and viable possibilities, and the resulting phenotypes are more complex yet.

Are my unmatched socks trying to tell me something?

Photo is from looseends via flickr.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Public Writing

I'm a link in the summer stage car pool these days, my usual shift is the 4:30 pickup. One of my passengers is a tall, bohemian 17 yr-old who tells me he writes — once a week for an hour at the local coffee shop.

Crash tells me that's where you go to be seen to write. Am I a real writer if I prefer the solitude of my study? It's not clear my passenger thinks so. Crash and the Boy offered to bring up cups of cocoa and sit in the comfy chair in my office and watch me write, if that's what I need!

I'm with Kafka on this one: "You said once that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess...that is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes."

I spent two hours on line at PennDOT today with the (dashed) hope of getting Crash a permit to drive. Twice as much time, and as big a crush as the coffee shop, and no way could I write. Particularly the piece that is percolating — on facing the night and the darkness. My hat's off to my teen passenger - writing briefly in the noisy square.

Photo by practicalowl via flickr.