Monday, January 31, 2011

In search of the mute button

I started a last post in the book discussion that Robin and I have been having off and on since the summer. That post (like my prayer) is still in pieces, but I decided that posting this bit from the cutting room floor might help me see more clearly where the piece for Robin's blog is going, as well as the piece on distractions for my column in the Standard.

The photo is of a snowstorm on the Long Retreat; Braces Rock in the background.

On Friday it will have been two years since I finished the Spiritual Exercises. Blizzards came and went over the time I was on retreat at Gloucester, and the current run of snowy weather brings with it memories of the profound silence that enveloped those days.

When I came back from the 30-days, I found the relentless soundtrack of suburban Philly to be, well, relentless. I sought out pockets of silence where I could find them. The radio in my car remained resolutely off. Television had even less appeal than the radio. Everything was a bit too loud, a bit too bright and a bit too bristly. Urban Spiritual Director summed it up well, my skin felt as if it were on inside out.

The sense of being battered by the soundscape gradually faded, but the other night as I slid through the snow shrouded darkness to retrieve Barnacle Boy from the far side of the township, Elton John spilling from the speakers, it returned full force. I hit off on the radio, and drank of the bracing silence.

My prayer of late has felt tattered, like a flag snapping in the wind until its edges shred. My to-do list plays in my head like a top 100 countdown when I sit to pray, and I can't seem to find the mute button. In Into the Silent Land (the book that Robin and I have been discussing on our blogs over the last few months) Marty Laird suggests that distractions in prayer are an "education by ordeal," a metaphor I would definitely endorse at this point.

I can't control the weather — real or metaphorical, exterior or interior — but perhaps I can seek out more of those pockets of silence. To turn off what I can, and contemplate in stillness what I cannot. To become what Catherine deHueck Doherty called a poustinik (after a dweller in the poustinia, the desert): someone who walks in inner solitude, immersed in the silence of God.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Column: God of the Untidy

"We must not be too high-minded. I fancy we may be sometimes deterred from small prayers by a sense of our own dignity rather than of God's." C. S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

My attempts to keep neat while cooking were not only fruitless, but made the process more difficult. And it made me wonder how often I want things neat and tidy and above all predictable in my relationship with God. But whose dignity am I trying to protect?

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 January 2010.

I went down to the potter's house and there he was, working at the wheel. Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? says the Lord. Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel. — Jer. 18:3,6

Snow days smell of cinnamon in my house. The sudden gift of a day without classes or tech call for the latest drama production lends itself to slow things, like the baking of cinnamon rolls, which must be left to rise three times.

As the snow sifted over the driveway, I pulled out flour and butter and eggs and set to work, not bothering to put on an apron. Soon the counters looked as if the storm had moved inside, and my attempts to knead the bread without getting flour on my just-washed jeans were falling flat. The neater I tried to be, the harder it was to really stretch and shape the dough. And every effort I made to keep the cinnamon filling from dotting my pristine white turtleneck went for naught.

As I stretched and turned the dough I thought about the images in Isaiah and Jeremiah of God as the potter. Of the wheel turning as God's feet kept time on the treadle. Of God's hands covered in wet clay, His face speckled with the spray from the wheel. And His hands firmly shaping and reshaping, until His creation emerges.

These images remind me that God does not hold us — His creations — at arms length. God is actively shaping me, unafraid of getting splattered in the process. And it made me wonder if I am too worried about being careful with God, too worried about the mess to allow God to shape and reshape me.

Dumping the dough on the counter after its first rise, I could feel the warm dough come to life under my hands. In Genesis we are reminded that from the beginning we are made from the clay of the earth, by God's hand, in God's likeness. And if I am made in God's own image, I imagine I am also made to work in clay and earth and flour, to get my hands dirty.

In a reflection on physical labor, The Practice of Carrying Water, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of cleaning the bathrooms in her parish's homeless shelter: "Scrubbing the bowls one by one, I thought of Saint Francis kissing lepers...I thought of Mother Teresa bathing the dying of Calcutta. By the time I reached the third bowl I was entirely out of spiritual fantasies, free to remember that...I was made of the same stuff as other humans."

We are all clay. Being potters in the image of the Potter, we are not meant to hold each other at arms length either. Am I unwilling to dig into the earth and do some of the labor God does? To think first about others and less about what I look like?

By the time I reached the third rise of the rolls, I was also out of spiritual reflections — and covered in flour from head to toe. I finally gave in and simply delighted in making a mess of counters and clothes both. Trying to keep the mess at arms length was ultimately impossible. God isn't worried about keeping His hands clean, why should I?

God our Father, gifts without measure flow from your goodness to bring us your peace. Our life is your gift. Guide our life's journey, for only your love makes us whole. Keep us strong in your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Monday, January 24, 2011

Negatives attract

A few days ago I tried to post a link to my latest column on Facebook. My attempt was quickly rebuffed, with the notation that the content had been previously reported as abusive. Prayer, solitude, Henri Nouwen? Abusive? OK, maybe referencing the rock opera Tommy and Karl Rahner in the same breath is a bit beyond the pale - but abusive?

I dutifully filled out the form to contest the decision (by a human? which human?) and within a day all was resolved.

Meanwhile while doing some research for a piece in an upcoming Nature Chemistry column on the roll of blogging in chemistry (due out in March), I ran across a fascinating paper in the European Physical Journal B: "Networks and emotion-driven user communities at popular blogs." The authors mathematically analyzed the topology (connectedness) of a large network of blogs and posts, assessing the emotional content along the way. (If the word bipartite doesn't scare you, read the paper.) They noted that large communities grow around posts with very negative language - and in the absence of such posts, there ends up being far less "cross-talk" between blogs. Nasty posts acted as glue.

Their data suggests that being negative also makes you popular in the blog world. More negatively worded posts attract more comments. Negative language in the comments attract more comments. Being obnoxious acts as a amplifier.

When I look at blogs — on any topic, science, theology, parenting — that provoke rather than explore or reflect, I've noticed that they tend to have many comments. (A couple come to mind, but I find myself reluctant to name names…though it strikes me it would be an interesting experiment to stir things up and see what happens to my comment box!)

Robin and I were wondering about our guest book blogging adventure, which we wished had excited a bit more conversation. Clearly we are too nice!

And I did roughly assess the emotional tone of my post (word cloud above) to find that 7% of my words were tagged "positive," 1.5% negative and less than 1% "hostile"!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Robin on The Doorway into Silence

My scars (mostly) don't show, I tend not to wear shorts so you can't see the surgical scars that cover my right knee and you might know me for years before you learn that I was widowed. Like Robin, the word "healed" sounds a bit too simplistic for me most of the time (and I'm similarly allergic to "closure").

I rather firmly believe that God grieves and rejoices - that the silence with which we engage in prayer is not a bland equilibrium.

Here is what Robin has to say about suffering, silence and contemplation, in her last contribution to our discussion of Marty Laird's book Into the Silent Land:

I hate the word wound. I hate the sound of it, that "oooo" sound. I hate the look of it: those three open letters in the middle. It sounds and looks like vulnerability, and I don't want to acknowledge how vulnerable we are.

I am suspicious of the word heal. It sounds and looks like the word easy. It seems too easy. Many, many people have used that word in addressing my life experience of the past two years, and I basically think, as they speak to me, "You have lost your mind. There is no healing here."

Those conversations and this book have made me think about what healing is, however ~ or about what my unexamined assumptions about healing are.

I have a huge scar down my middle. A physical scar down my physical middle. It's from the car accident when I was seven, from an emergency laparotomy done to determine whether my spleen was bleeding and needed to be removed. (It wasn't and didn't.) It's thick and ugly, made worse by a twin pregnancy and several decades of living.

I never even notice that scar. I remember well the day the doctor yanked the stitches out ~ the terrible pain, the screaming. But it's completely healed: I can't feel it, it has no impact whatever on my life, and I don't care about it one way or another.

Is that what I think healing means, I wonder? No feeling, no impact, no concern about something that was once a gaping wound?

I think that I am wrong.

I wrote a brief introduction to Michelle's last post on my blog, in which I said that I remain fascinated that there seems to be a direct, albeit often obscure, pathway leading from crisis and loss to silence and contemplative prayer. And then I opened the book in preparation for writing this final post, and was surprised to the point of laughing. Look at what Martin Laird has to say:

The doorway into the silent land is a wound. Silence lays bare this wound. We do not get far along the spiritual path before we get some sense of the wound of the human condition.

It occurs to me now that what this book articulates, at least in part, is that healing is the opposite of what I have been taught and assumed. And it tells us that healing is discovered in silence.

Opposite? Well, like many people, I grew up in another kind of silence: the silence of avoidance and denial. A family in which stiff upper lips and movement forward were encouraged. And my family was traumatized. Believe me, when a young mother and her baby are killed in a car accident, trauma hardly begins to describe the consequences. And yet, you would think, to look at us a couple of years later: no feeling, no impact, no concern. We must have been all healed, right?

Now I am not seven, I am all grown up, and I have had to contend with sadness in the last two years such as seems indescribable and incomprehensible. And what do I now think leads to healing?

A direct gaze.

As complete a degree of feeling as is tolerable, and then some.

An acknowledgment of the impact.

Caring very much.

Healing, in other words, does not mean that pain is eradicated. It means that we learn to integrate it into our living so that it is no longer disabling, stopping us in our tracks. It means that we learn to integrate it into our living so that we recognize it in others and can stop to offer presence and companionship.

And where did I learn this? Where did I come by this knowledge that I cannot yet apply?

In silence. The silence of God.

I come from a religious tradition in which word ~ language, speech, proclamation ~ is central. I learned a lot about words and Word in seminary: Greek words, Hebrew words, preaching words. Jesus as Word. The Word. I am engaged in and with words and Word every day.

But silence I learned about in other places, and I have learned about it most of all in the vast silence which has been God's response to my child's death. There are no healing words for such a terrible thing. And the Word, who for all time is God, responds accordingly.

Only in silence is there space for genuine healing to occur; healing that makes it possible to feel, to accept impact, and to care.

I wonder, now, whether I would have found my way into this silence of God in other, more preferable circumstances. To some extent, I can answer in the affirmative. I recall the first time that I became convinced of the presence of God: in the vast and wild silence of the world that lay before me in the midst of Glacier National Park, during a week of backpacking in which that cathedral of granite and sky and long stretches of wind-blown grass affected me in ways that no written or spoken words ever could.

But alongside that silence, the silence which communicated creativity and goodness, lies another. A silence which communicates sorrow and compassion for the pain of our human experience. Laird tells us that "there is deep conversion, healing, and unspeakable wholeness to be discovered along the contemplative path" but that, paradoxically, "this healing is revealed when we discover that our wound and the wound of God are one wound."

Is there a wound of God? Some of my readers know that I have been engaged in an on-and-off discussion with one of my professors (for nearly two years now!) with respect to whether God suffers. My professor distinguishes between the human Jesus who suffers and the divine Jesus who cannot because, he says, for God to participate in our suffering as we do would subvert the perfect goodness of God who overcomes all suffering. I am not sure whether Martin Laird would agree, or what to make of that distinction myself. But I do believe, although my own experience has been one of halting and unsure steps both backward and forward, that "contemplative practice places us . . . where the balm of divinity annoints broken humanity."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Column: Of prayer and pinball (with apologies to The Who)

My thanks to Inward/Outward, who in October posted the tidbit from Henri Nouwen that I quoted here -- and which has been bouncing around my head since then. The reflection by Karl Rahner, S.J. appeared in Die Presse, an Austrian newspaper, on December 22, 1962. I found in in a collection (alas out of print): Everyday Faith.

And finally, here's a link to a clip of Elton John's performance in Tommy - the real pinball wizard!

The photo was taken at Eastern Point Retreat House in an early summer's fog. The ocean is there - really!

Publish Post

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 19 January 2010.

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?
— Ps. 24:3

A few weeks ago I was multi-tasking away in the kitchen: sorting through school forms, responding to student email, organizing the week’s dinners, drilling Latin vocabulary, all while a pot of chicken stock simmered on the stove.

For a moment, I felt like Tommy, The Who’s “Pinball Wizard,” pulling levers and snapping flippers, while lights flashed and bells rang and glittering silver balls danced around the machine. I’m just racking up points. Four for figuring out a tough Latin cognate, two for dinners using up leftovers. How do you think she does it?

The game is seductive. How many points can I collect before a ball misses its mark and it all ends with an obnoxious honk and a flashing “Game Over?” I end up bouncing tasks off a multitude of bumpers, each item dispatches with a neat quick flick of my pen, though no lights flash or bells ring to advertise the win. It’s definitely all in the wrist.

As crazed and demanding as the ongoing pinball game of my life is at times, it’s hard to ignore the comfort that conquering a well circumscribed set of tasks and clear goals brings. It gets tempting to shortchange my prayer time in favor of getting one last task completed or catching a few extra minutes of sleep, the better to tackle the list tomorrow.

But being productive in prayer, as Father Henri Nouwen points out, requires the commitment of unproductive time: “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.” It takes more than a bit of discipline, humility and courage to spend time with God, and God alone. Without multi-tasking.

In his reflection The Answer of Silence, Karl Rahner S.J. sounds a similarly bold call to abandon what seems to be most urgent, and seek God: “Have the courage to be alone.” This is practical advice he is offering, no mere rhetorical device: seek out a quiet path or a lonely church; find a room where you can be alone; wherever you go, he says, go!

Once there, wait. Silently. Don’t talk to yourself, or even to God. Just wait. Just listen. Patiently. Without expectations. And courageously. For this takes courage beyond measure.

What might we see, alone with our God, standing in His holy places? Ourselves — and each other — as we truly are, cracked and broken and glorious and beloved of God? God, mysterium tremendum et fascinans? God within us, and without?

And most frighteningly of all, what if we hear nothing? In Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin, the monk Corrigan tells his brother that his prayer has been reduced to the point where there are no words on either part, his or God’s. He is sure only of this: “God listens back.”

I’m still learning to be unproductive in prayer, still practicing how to listen patiently in stillness and solitude. No lights blink, no buzzers sound, there are no points to be counted. Success lies only in going — faithfully, quietly and alone — to stand in His holy place. The place where God listens with me.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
— John O’Donohue, from “For One Who is Exhausted" in To Bless the Space Between Us

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Grief Observed

The next piece of the conversation on Marty Laird's Into the Silent Land is up - my post at Robin's Metanoia.

Find the rest of the discussion under the "Book Discussion" tab at the top of the page.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Alarms, Excursions and Stained Glass: A night at Wernersville


On Wednesday I drove up to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville to see Patient Spiritual Director and spend a day and a night in silent silence (as opposed to the less quiet silences I've been writing about here and there.) Going at all was a near thing, as we had snow and howling winds the night before. But Math Man dug me out and once the boys were on their way to school, I headed out in time to make lunch, if not Mass.

Stained Glass

About a year ago, I wrote about this stained glass window by Dennis McNally SJ, depicting key movements from the Spiritual Exercises which I'd found through People for Others. I, along with Stratoz and others, wondered (to no avail) where it was - in hopes of spending some time sitting contemplatively in front of it. On Wednesday, I was walking down the 3rd floor hall and ran into a Jesuit friend. He was chatting with another gentleman. First names were exchanged, but when my lanky Jesuit friend mentioned that Dennis was an artist, at St. Joe's University, my brain put two and two together and asked, "Do you work in stained glass?" Yes, and yes, he was the artist who imagined this gorgeous window. Dennis McNally, SJ - you can read about the window here.

Alas, it does not exist — so sitting in front of it is not in the cards (unless you have a 8'x8' square in a wall somewhere that is crying out for a stained glass window). Apparently the center window — The Two Standards — was deemed too modern for the intended setting (the chapel at the Maryland Province Infirmary).


Around 9:30 at night, I finished up what I was doing in the library, cleared up my books and papers and went off to pray in the main chapel. I went in my sock feet, clutching shawl and breviary, to sit on the floor in front of the altar. (There's just enough light there to pray the Office by!) I blessed myself from the holy water font at the front, and as I took a step in to the chapel proper suddenly lights began to flash (including around the tabernacle) and alarms began to hoot. My first thought was I'd transgressed some boundary - had I missed a message that said the chapel was off limits? Surely both Lanky Jesuit and Patient Spiritual Director would not have failed to mention this. Second thought was, Lord, I am not worthy to sit at your feet? Rational thought kicked in about 30 milliseconds later. Fire alarm. I headed (in my sock feet, no coat, the wind chill is in the single digits, and did I mention there was snow on the ground?) out the door, pajama and robe clad retreats streaming behind me. Mercifully the alarm stopped before I got out the door.

Just in case, I retrieved my shoes from my room. Back to the chapel. I sit on the floor, compose myself and breathe. Suddenly, I hear an alarm again. This time it's softer; it sounds like it's coming up through the floor of the altar. "The crypt?" I wonder. I get up, seeing if I can find the source. I track it out of the chapel and into the front foyer, where the alarm station reads "Fire Auditorium" Uh-oh. No sign of a response anywhere, so I head for a phone. On the way, I run into a security staff person. Yes, they know. Yes, they're working on it. I go back, alarm is off. I settle to prayer again. Breathe. Chirrup, chirrup…there's the alarm again.

I've been having trouble with distraction in prayer (which is the subject of a post for my conversation with Robin about Into the Silent Land!)- and all I could think was, "God, this is not funny." In the end I did manage to stay my hour. In silence. No further alarms.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Column: Does silence have to be quiet?

Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him is a mighty tempest. — Ps. 50:3

On my travels last fall I spoke to a group of university students about contemplative practices. As we were talking about ways to set aside space and time for contemplation, I noted they had a well-used meditation space in their college library. The library stacks open onto an internal courtyard, with shops and a food court on the bottom floor. The whole building hums with noise, the characteristic hush of a library punctured by the sounds that bubble up from below.

When I mentioned that the space wasn’t very quiet, one of the students quickly countered, “It’s very silent. I usually study nearby because of that.” I agreed that relative to the rest of the campus and even the library, it is quiet. But on my scale, not so much. A nearly empty retreat house in the dead of winter at 3 in the morning — that’s silent.

Or maybe not. Conceivably the student was right, his meditation space is a silent spot. Lately I’ve been reading French Catholic laywoman Madeleine Delbrêl’s reflections on silence. Delbrêl, who founded a lay community dedicated to living the contemplative life within a city, has a very different definition of silence from mine. She poses much the same question as the student: “Why should the wind through the pines, the sand storms, and the squall upon the sea, all count as silence, and not the pounding of the factory machines, the rumbling of the trains at the station, and the clamor of the engines at the intersection?”

Why do I consider the stirring of dry leaves as silence, but the train clattering on the tracks and the babble of student voices as noise?

Composer John Cage’s most famous piece might be 4’33" — which consists of someone sitting at a piano without playing a single note for four minutes and 33 seconds. In a biography of Cage, No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann suggests that Cage intended the stretch of silence as a frame, to hold our attention on the sounds neither audience nor musician controls, and underscores Cage’s contention that everything makes music.

Perhaps Delbrêl’s sort of silence is similarly a frame to hold up to the world, to focus my attention on the fact that God is present all around me. A way to remind me that I do not control how the world unfolds, neither the sights nor the sounds nor the people around me. “Silence,” she observes, “does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God.”

Abba Poemen of the early desert fathers, too, points out that silence is as much an internal attitude as an external attribute: “If you are silent, you will have peace wherever you live.” As I take a deep breath, ready to start the new semester, I’m planning to tuck Delbrêl’s handy frame in my pocket — to pull out whenever the decibel level rises beyond what I can bear. Perhaps with its help I can recollect myself in the open space inside of my heart, and peer out to discover anew God is all around.

“It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention…” — Mary Oliver, from Praying

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Robin on Meeting Sadness with Silence

Robin (of Metanoia) and I began this project in the hot days of summer, now I look out at my window at branches coated in snow and wonder whether I can endure a walk with a windchill in the teens. Robin's eloquent post below begins to tease out what I think is one of the key points of Laird's book, that contemplation does not leave us unchanged at our deepest levels. As C. S. Lewis said, "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God — it changes me."

Links to the complete conversation are under the "Book Discussion" tab at the top!

Now, over to Robin:

Last summer Michelle and I embarked upon an ambitious plan for guest-blogging discussions of the book Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, O.S.A. If you take a look at the links in the tab above, you'll note that we ran out of steam and became distracted (irony of ironies) by other things. But I have at least two posts left in me, and I'm offering the first of them today.

Chapter Six of Into the Silent Land is entitled "From Victim to Witness: Practicing with Affliction" and is the chapter in the book most securely nestled into my heart. It presents three scenarios in which individuals wrestle with prayer in the context of great suffering caused by different factors: fear and anxiety in human interaction, insurmountable physical pain, and the hold of addiction.

Al of them -- fear, physical pain, and addiction -- have been dropped on my doorstep by grief.

"If you want to make fear grow," Laird says, "run from it." Alternatively, you might engage in a practice of watchfulness, a combination of looking directly at the source of your anxiety and simultaneously letting it go. Contemplation has been described as a "long, loving look at the real" by Walter Burghardt, S.J., and it seems that Laird is describing much the same practice. Rest, observe, absorb ~ let go of the natural impulse to react spontaneously and impulsively, even in an interior sense.

With respect to physical pain, he urges us to be still before its predations, to become a witness, rather than resisting it or seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome. I was profoundly surprised, for at least the first year, by how physically painful grief is: by the pounding head, the ache in the small of my back, the burning joints, the sleepless nights. But as I began to observe it, it began to make some sense. Each aspect of physical pain was in some way connected to the loss, and became a venue of recognition: Yes, there is it.

Unlike many grieving individuals, I have not responded to my sadness with alcohol or drugs. (Although there has been some joking around among my online group of bereaved mothers with respect to margaritas and Southern Comfort!) Food continues to be my issue and the sokution would appear to be the same: Let go of the stories that support the compulsions, and look directly into the emotion behind them.

I remain ambivalent about the practice of letting go. I still find narrative in contemplative prayer to be, on the whole, much more personally satisfactory. But what has been interesting to me is how meaningful this practice of stilling the internal drama has become to me in the ordinary course of my days. I have given it enough thought that it is becoming, while not second nature, maybe fourth or fifth.

One of the things that we bereaved parents all struggle with is the feeling of the knife in the gut when we are reminded, concretely and daily, of what we will never have. Earlier this week, I ran cross a wedding announcement in an alumni magazine. The groom is someone with whom my boys began preschool; they all followed a similar educational trajectory well into high school. He's finished law school, gone to work, and married a beautiful and accomplished young woman. My momentary response was that familiar feeling of being crushed by sadness, envy, and despair. And then -- okay, maybe it took some time, but eventually: I was able to breathe freely and simply absorb the pain of it.

I cannot muster up the least bit of excitement about being a victim of anything. I am choosing, by becoming increasingly attentive to God's silence, the alternative posture of compassionate witness. It's a long, long road, but it seems to offer a more loving witness to God, too, as well as to myself and my companions on this journey.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pleasure and Pain Cycle

"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."

The quote (and varia) is attributed to Ernest Hemingway and legendary sports writer Red Smith, among others, but I suspect writers across the centuries could relate, whether they were using quill or keyboard.

I've been immersed in writing for the last few days, at one point so deep into reworking an essay that I looked up to find 4 hours - and lunch - had come and gone. The piece was particularly tough to start, at times it felt rather like trying to find a way into an egg. There are an infinite number of ways and places to crack the shell, and it's smooth and hard and inaccessible until you decide to break in. I finally settled down on one approach to cracking the topic and words began to flow onto paper and then to the screen.

This time 'round, I was acutely conscious of the cycle of pleasure and pain that accompanies writing for me.
  • Writing a new piece? Pain. Fear. Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Writing the first draft, in the abstract? It's a pleasure to turn things around in my mind, to crawl through archives and jot bits onto paper.
  • Writing the first draft, as in putting actual words onto paper? Pain coupled with doubt. Do I have anything worth saying?
  • Editing a draft? Pure pleasure as I nip and tuck my thesis into place.
  • Final draft? Pain. Surely this is awful.
  • Encountering a piece months later? Pleasure. Amazement. I wrote this. Surely not!
With four different pieces headed out the door this week, there are moments when I think writing is not about opening a vein, but more like mosquitoes biting, each piece draws a bit of blood and leaves me with a welt to scratch. Pleasure. Pain. Pleasure. I itch to write.

Photo is from pietroizzo via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Polyemes not polymers

"Hey Mom, your tag is up," noted Crash absently as he sprawled in front of the computer. I peered at the screen, trying to figure out which window my blog was up in and what was going on with the tags. I made a non-committal noise, still scanning the screen (on which Crash was seriously multi-tasking). "Your TAG," repeated Crash, gesturing at his neck. He meant the tag in the back of my sweater, not the tag on the blog. Got it.

Context can be everything when it comes to words. The meaning of tag (a word or phrase affixed to a blog post) and tag (the strip of cloth attached to my sweater) are related, both having to do with the classification of an object (or not - as in the case of a missing grey V-neck sweater, retrieved when Math Man pulled it out of a drawer and commented that his sweater had gotten really tight, the size on the tag would have been a big clue as to why). Tag and tag are homographs, words written identically, and polysemes, words with related but slightly divergent meanings. (Homonyms are also homographs, but with different meanings — bark like a dog and bark of a tree, for example.)

Confusion can arise when you don't have the context for one of the two meanings. I posted here about sin (a shorthand for the mathematical function sine), but one of my more theologically attuned readers spent time trying to figure out what the post had to do with sin (the moral failing).

I got similarly tangled today while reading the "forecast discussion" on the National Weather Service site. (I love reading the back room chatter of the meteorologists, and how they decide what numbers to post on the shorthand forecast. I'm definitely a weather junky.) THE MODELS ARE OFFERING HIGHLY VARYING SOLUTIONS WITH REGARD TO THE SYNOPTIC SYSTEMS AND THEN RUN TO RUN CONTINUITY IS SOMEWHAT LACKING AS HAS BEEN THE CASE THIS SEASON. [Ed: yes, it's all caps in the original]. The only other place I'd encountered "synoptic" was with respect to the Gospels. I wondered if the meteorological synoptic was a polyseme of the scripture scholar's synoptic. As it turns out, no! Synoptic systems in the weather sense are large scale features - spanning thousands of kilometers. Synoptic Gospels are different eyes on the same events (and then there is John).

Secular and secular are similarly polyemes.

And for another good laugh about words and pronunciation, see this hilarious video my friend Fran tipped me off to.

Wondering about the title? My writing program kept trying to "correct" polyeme to polymer. Clearly it has chemistry leanings :)

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Column: Creative Winds of Chaos

The Rilke translation is my own, for better or worse. An alternative is here.

My kids joke that I can make the second law of thermodynamics say anything! Which may true, I certainly invoked it here and here.

I'm still working on coming to letting the chaos recreate me (since I can seem to neither outwit it nor channel it)! This may be a life long process...

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 6 January 2010.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. — Gn. 1:1-2

I sometimes wish I lived in a universe that flowed smoothly, without turbulence or chaos. One where I could reach into a drawer and find the measuring spoons — not have to hunt them up. Or where the pin from my shawl isn’t on the bathroom shelf, standing in for the wrench to adjust someone’s retainer.

For better or worse, I live in a “make-do” household, populated by pragmatics who live by the principle: “If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” When we’re traveling or camping or snow bound, I love the can-do attitude of my guys. But I have to confess that there are times at home when all I want is to lay my hands on the spatula before the egg in the pan burns.

As a scientist I grasp intellectually that the second law of thermodynamics — the one that says that chaos drives the universe — prevails in this world. Certainly as a mother it’s utterly clear to me that events move in such a direction as to create the largest mess. No matter if I’m dealing in dishes, laundry or molecules — the things of my life are anything but neatly arranged.

My first instinct when faced with a mess is to try to tame it. Tidy things up if the blast of teen-aged energy has blown itself out, or attempt to contain an incipient disaster with motherly cautions, spread out newspapers and offers of a screwdriver instead of the hammer.

I wonder if I should instead get out of the way. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, reflecting on creativity, suggests that there is nothing haphazard about this stance of messily making do, rather it is a creative impulse that can bring something altogether new into being. It is what we lack that ends up bringing forth our greatest strength.

Sounding a similar theme in her essay “When the Spirit Blows a Gale,” spiritual director and writer Margaret Silf looks to this passage from Genesis, where the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters, poised to bring the universe into being. The first steps, she says, is to trust that the Spirit is hovering over the chaos in our own lives, as much as over the first moments of creation.

Last month a great wind swept over us, making me think again of this passage in Genesis. I delighted in watching the snow flow like sheets of gossamer silk off the roof, even as the work we’d done to clear the back stoop of snow was summarily undone. I wondered if I could treat the winds that stir the drawers in my kitchen — and my life — with equal parts of delight and trust.

Genesis reminds me that in God’s hands, chaos is the stuff of creation. From it the world first came to be. And in the chaos of Jesus’ passion and death, we were created anew. As a new year begins, I’m trusting the chaos in my life to God’s hands and waiting to see what the breath of the Spirit might blow into being.

Wolle die Wandlung. O sei die Flamme begeistert,
drin sich ein Ding dir entzieht, das mit Verwandlungen prunkt;
jener entwerfende Geist, welcher das Irdische meistert,
liebt in dem Schwung der Figur nichts wie den wendenden Punkt.

Change is in the air. The flame stirs to life
that which is inside you, that which craves re-creation;
the Spirit breathes, shimmering, onto earth
and finds in love the point on which all life turns.
— Rainer Marie Rilke, from Sonnets to Orpheus II, 12

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Podcast: Packing for Epiphany

Two years ago the Feast of the Epiphany found me, unlike the Magi at the end of their quest, just beginning a journey. I left behind family and work to spend five weeks in a retreat house on the coast of Massachusetts, making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I would spend thirty days in silence and prayer.

Packing turned out to be a spiritual exercise in itself. What would I need for 30 days in silence in the middle of winter on the Atlantic coast, living in a room just big enough for a single bed and with only a single drawer for storage? St. Gregory the Great and the Magi inspired me to leave more empty spaces in my suitcase - to pack instead the myrrh of self-denial.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A soothing cup of tea - in more ways than one

I took a fall skiing last week, my skis went in one direction, my knees in the other. The audible pop sounded and felt much like what happens when I break the cartilage in the joint of a chicken. Argh.

Not surprisingly my knee hurts, and ice and ibuprofen are what Patient Spiritual Director calls "ordinary graces" — which I do not disdain.

Sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea is also good therapy, but it turns out that the tea is more than psychologically soothing.

Adding around 100 mg of caffeine (roughly what's in my big mug of tippy Assam tea) to 400 mg of ibuprofen makes it 2 to 3 times more effective in relieving acute pain. In 1904 Charles Scott Sherrington coined nociceptive to distinguish between the psychological response to an unpleasant stimulus (nociception) and the physiological response (pain). Caffeine enhances the antinociceptive activity of NSAIDS like ibuprofen, but I think it also mitigates the psychological response. I wonder what Prof. Sherrington would make of that!

Full disclosure: I fell in the lift line, my skis got entangled when I tried to retrieve the pole that got stuck in the snow. I'd love to say I did this catching an edge on a glorious powder run.

The chemistry heavy version of this post is here for the truly geeky....