Thursday, June 30, 2011

Envied silence

(Michelle is on retreat here, but thanks to the scheduled post feature, she virtually inhabits this space as well. The ability to bilocate used to be considered a saintly characteristic....)

In Kamikatsu — a month ago today — I came down with a serious case of hermitage envy (and not for the first time). Sitting on the tatami on the second floor of Nakamura-san's house, the shoji open, I was drawn to the sound of the wind stirring in the trees, by the insects humming as they went about their work, by the still, centered nature of the place. In that moment I wanted a home that was that simple, two rooms: one to cook and eat, one to sleep and work. I desired a pace of life that was less frantically driven. I longed to let go my grasp, be still and know God.

My guys have gone off on adventures of their own, for the last few days it's been just me and the cat at home, and I found that I've subtly shifted into my typical retreat time zone -- and waded deeply into the silence. This morning, praying the Office downstairs, every window open, the wind stirring in the trees, I realized I no longer envied the life of a hermit. The stillness is here, underpinning the chaos. I don't need to leave to seek it, I simply need to clear enough space to see it occasionally (much like the coffee table - which I also cleared off this week.) Perhaps it is enough to know that such great silence permeates this space, even when I cannot hear it.

That said, I'm off to my retreat proper....

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sacramental hostages

(Photo is of my maternal grandparents - she converted to Catholicism to marry him.)

On the Deacon's Bench there has been some conversation about marriage preparation — should widows and widowers do the same preparation as twenty-something first time brides and bridegrooms — and in Ireland a priest has suggested pushing back the age of First Communion to the late teens. What should the Church do to prepare people to fruitfully receive the sacraments?

Ashes and palms are the bookends of Lent in the Catholic Church, threads that weave together two liturgical years, pulling us hand over hand deeper into the Paschal mystery. The palms that we held aloft at the end of Lent one year are burnt for the ashes to ushers us into the next year's season.

These two sacramentals not only hold together the years, but they are sometimes the last threads holding Catholics to the Church. People come to be marked with ashes or to get a blessed palm branch who might not even edge into the vestibule on Christmas or Easter. (Based on CARA's data, roughly 1/3 of Catholics who come to mass rarely if ever, still come to get ashes.)

Is it perhaps because there are no obstacles to the reception of those sacramentals, those bits of grace? We ask no questions, impugn no motives, other than a desire to participate in the life of the Church, to be part of the Body of Christ in this way if no other. The branches are still rooted in the vine.

However, if you want to be married in the Church, or bring your child for baptism or to receive the Eucharist your relationship with the Church can become almost instantly adversarial. Approach via the parish web site, or by checking the bulletin and you will often be presented with a list of requirements and restrictions and demands. Most often there will no explicit connections drawn between the requirement and the desired sacramental encounter. We ask a lot of questions and more importantly, we assume a lot.

It's the assumptions that bother me. Yes, it may indeed be true that most brides select a church for the photographic backdrop it provides. Or that parents are bringing their child for Baptism because they want (are expected) to throw a huge family party. Or that the parents of potential first communicants are woefully uncatechized. But is that how we should greet everyone - by assuming that they are shallow and ignorant and wish to mock the sacraments? Will they not sense our patronizing attitude?

And what of the bride who was raised in the parish, the parents who are not having a large baptism party, the parents who are well catechized and faithful, the mature widowed who want to remarry? You will have to have your bulletin signed to show you went to Mass. You will have to take 40 hours of basic catechetical instruction, no exceptions. You must take a mandatory pre-Cana coursewith the twenty-somethings and learn about budgeting and family planning or a "remarriage" course where you can learn about fidelity and the importance of developing covenantal love (trust me, such instruction would not have made my first marriage last one second longer - I stood there very faithfully while the ER staff tried to resuscitate my husband; and it was quite clear how deep that covenant went was when it was severed). The message we send them is that regardless of what you say, we don't believe you or trust you. We don't care about your preparation for this sacramental encounter, we just need to tick a box. If you really want this sacrament, you'll suffer through something pointless. That's not preparation, that's ransom.

It's not clear to me that this adversarial and regulation driven stance serves either population well. The Sacraments are not cheap grace to be dispensed without thought, but in trying to be certain that they are taken seriously I wonder if we don't take them seriously enough. Sacraments are not a seal of perfection, but a source of grace that perfects.

We can get it right, see the guidelines for the Diocese of Sacramento: The pastor and his delegates must welcome the couple as Christ would, that is, with “a warm and caring, positive and joyful attitude of hospitality” (Faithful to Each Other Forever, p. 59).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mother, interrupted

It's summer and Barnacle Boy is celebrating by watching awful movies, riding his bike to the pool with friends, rummaging through his fiction collection and generally just letting his mind go fallow (ok, rot, Futurama, really?). He's entitled, he had a great first year at high school (he got a perfect score on his final essay for English — tragic figures in Antigone and Romeo and Juliet — that would be his choice of topic).

He was sprawled in the chair in the sunroom yesterday watching something on Netflix. I looked over to see a distinguished guy in a toga stalk onto a Roman balcony and demand, "What is so important that you had to interupt my writing?" Where have I heard that line before? The gentleman was Pliny the Elder (note that in the picture he has a guard at the door, with a spear), and what was so important was the eruption of Vesuvius. The Boy (who visited Pompei this spring) was watching some docudrama about Pompei.

I'm not sure if the moral of this story is for my kids — don't interrupt your mother when she is writing unless a volcano is erupting down the block — or for me — don't assume when I'm interupted that there is NOT a volcano belching smoke somewhere.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Now that my desk is clear (and the floor around it) I'm on to the NEXT THING, or rather the next things. Mary deTurris Poust's family creates a summer bucket list, things large and small that they want to do before summer is out. I've got a bucket load of lists. HPublish Postouse projects. Course prep. Family fun. Writing. Self-care.

I'm very much looking forward the summer's mix of writing projects. I'm still writing my ongoing column for the Standard and Times and contributing another set of Thesis columns to Nature Chemistry. New projects include a column called Spiritual Fitness for the Philadelphia Archdiocese's new monthly magazine (launching in September) Phaith.

I'm also writing occasionally for another new project, Give Us This Day from Liturgical Press. I just got the first issue in the mail (August) - my first piece is in the October issue. It has the daily readings, along with reflections from a wide variety of writers from the hallowed (St. Augustine) to the quotidian (me?).

And…I'm writing a short book for Liguori Press — on what happens when you walk out of the confessional, how do you live into/out of your penance.

Column: Unhurried hospitality

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 23 June 2011.

For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome. — Mt. 25:35a

It had been raining for the last 24 hours, and would rain for the next 48. It’s what you get when a typhoon arrives as the monsoon season begins. Soaked does not begin to describe the state of my shoes. We had been walking the paths that wind between the temples of Mount Kōya since early in the morning, and so the pilgrims’ shelter just outside the precincts of Okuno-in was a welcome site.

The young Buddhist priest who had been guiding us all afternoon took a tray from the shelf. He lifted the wooden lid off a large pot kept warm over a banked fire and ladled tea into four delicate cups. We found a table and let our bilingual conversation about the concept of self-abandonment in Buddhist and Catholic thought swirl around us like the steam from our drying shoes.

Everywhere we went in Japan — from the hut of a hermit living high on a mountainside to the elegant temple where the emperor visits on occasion — we were welcomed with tea, perhaps a small sweet, and unhurried conversation. Far from home, it was a ritual I appreciated deeply.

“A wise old monk should guard the gates of the monastery,” recommends St. Benedict in his Rule. Like our Japanese hosts, Benedict felt that guests should be welcomed graciously. Guests bless the house, and to care for them, is to care for Christ.

No wise old monk guards the doors to my office, but I suspect that Benedict would not thereby absolve me from the requirement to welcome guests — or students or colleagues — graciously. It’s not the tea or sweets I think he would fault me for failing to provide, but the unhurried conversation.

I can’t tell you how often a student knocks on my door with, “I know you’re really busy…” True. Infinity is a concept I grasp in part because it’s a good description of the length of my to-do list. Still, helping my students grapple with the intricacies of calculating pH is one thing on that list, and an important one at that.

Information moves fast these days, a message dispatched from Japan arrives in my Bryn Mawr inbox in a breath. Is this what drives the sense that I must respond quickly and efficiently to each task that presents itself, to always be in a hurry to get to the next thing? I long for the advice of one of St. Benedict’s wise Brother Porters to teach me “how to receive and answer a question.” The Rule notes that humility and charity are essential. Speed and efficiency, while commendable, take a back seat.

As one school year ends, and I begin to plan for the next, I’m meditating on unhurried conversations and the Benedictine tradition of hospitality. How can I make a gate in the wall that my to-do list seems to have erected around my office? Can I truly respond as St. Benedict advises, Deo gratias — thanks be to God — to the next knock on my door?

The fire that kept the tea warm for pilgrims at Okonu-in has been kept burning for a thousand years; communities that keep St. Benedict’s Rule have been beacons for travelers half again as long. No fire burns in my office, no wise old monk ushers you through the door, but I pray my students will know that they are welcome nonetheless.

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
— T.S. Eliot, from The Rock

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Clerical Mysteries

(with apologies to Kathleen Norris1,2 and a tip of the hat to my friend Katherine)

I've spent a chunk of time today clearing out my study to get ready for the summer's writing projects. My study was ringed with (relatively neat) stacks of books and folders, one or two for every project from April and May: columns for the Standard & Times, an essay for Nature Chemistry, student writing, general chemistry lectures. There are moments I wish for a wand to wave à la Mrs. Weasley, or to twitch my nose like Samantha on Bewitched (yes, my age is showing, I saw these episodes when they first ran) - so I can get on to the NEXT THING, but for the most part the gradual clearing of space is proving to be a contemplative exercise.

Slipping folders with drafts and tear sheets into their proper spot in the file cabinet, tucking correspondance from friends and family into a box and cataloging the book collection, let me see where I've been these last few months, in my teaching, my prayer, my writing, my family life. Where were things so crazy I didn't even manage to make a file? Did it really take me two months to answer a note from a friend confined to her bed?

You might have noticed the list in the sidebar of the blog labeled "Fifty Fewer" which is a remnant from a project undertaken four summers back — to clear out fifty things a week from my life. I stopped tracking around 250 categories — but wonder if I should return to the practice, albeit not on the same grand scale, and regularly track what stuff comes into my life and goes out of it. An Examen of Things.

Skimming the full list of Fifty Fewer and thinking about what I tossed/recycled/gave away in the recent tidy, I realize that I live in hope - which may not be a bad thing in many ways, but when it comes to things, might be less of a virtue. I hold onto the tea that I don't care for, hoping that I will grow to like it, or perhaps a visitor would enjoy it. Cooking gear that I don't use — ever. Am I hoping that one day I might decide to poach a whole fish?

My imagination, a faculty I generally would not surrender, also holds me hostage to stuff on occasion. I imagine that I might find a way to unstick the long rusted shut (and already replaced) pliers, or a use for the generic sticky notes that don't actually stay stuck.

The office space is neater, though I will spend a bit more time clearing out files and purging the book collection, and I am on to the NEXT THING. Writing a column — and an essay.

1. Clerical as in filing, not ecclesiastical
2. If you haven't read Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, do.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Column: Impoverished

The sign in the photo gives the name of a waterfall (located below a Buddhist temple above Kamikatsu). The vegetarian cuisine served at the temples is called shōjin-ryōri.

I've been re-reading Metz's small gem of a book Poverty of Spirit, along with The Ten Square Foot Hut (by Kamo no Chomei, a 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk and poet). What happens when we lose access to resources we have always taken for granted?

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 16 June 2011.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. — Jn. 1:1

We had an hour at Tokyo Station to find lunch, pick up dinner to eat later, and the right platform for our train. It was not enough. After a 20-minute hike across the station to the food court, lugging my 25-pound backpack, it became clear that a sit-down lunch was not to be. I ducked into a small grocery store to see what I could find to round out the bag of castellas I’d bought at a local street market in the morning.

After two weeks in Japan, much of it spent in rural and monastic settings, eating simple vegetarian food — and a lot of rice — a yogurt and Diet Coke sounded great. I eagerly searched for the refrigerated case, and was confronted once again by what had been my biggest struggle on the trip. In Japan, I am functionally illiterate.

I know what yogurt cartons look like (at least in the United States), and I while could recognize the pictures of fruit on the side, I could not even sound out the labels. I grabbed what I hoped was a mango yogurt, checked out and dashed back through the station to catch my train. Settled in my seat at last, I pulled off the top of the carton, only to discover I’d bought mango sauce, not yogurt. Sigh.

I spend much of my life immersed in the written word, reading and writing. To be deprived of the ability to read the signs — literally — left me feeling impoverished in ways I had never experienced. Not even when I was a graduate student with bare cupboards and a bank account that hovered around zero, without a car or TV or radio.

I had to rely entirely on my companion who was fluent in Japanese for everything from reading the bus schedule to figuring out what was on the menu in the ferry station automat. Where I slept, how I got there, what I ate, was all in someone else’s hands. I found myself becoming ever more attentive to what was around me, watching people’s faces, aware of intonation and gesture, listening for the few words I understood. Stripped of my own words, I listened far more carefully.

German theologian Johannes Metz notes that our ability to empty ourselves, to be poor in spirit, is not a “vague mysticism” fostered in isolation, but grows in the world, and out of our close relationships with our brothers and sisters. Self-abandonment takes shape in the “radical depths of our human encounters.” I understand my poverty before God all the better for experiencing this poverty of language. I grasp more deeply my utter dependence on God in my dependence of the care of others. I hear the Word more clearly for being mute.

I will return to Japan this fall, taking a group of students as part of a course I am teaching on contemplative traditions. In preparation, I am studying the basic kanji, in order to be able to read the signs well enough to find the ladies room without help. I only hope in learning to read these words, I don’t undermine whatever ability I have to read the signs of God around me. To hear the Word in which I begin and end.

God inspired speech in different tongues to proclaim one faith. May he strengthen your faith and fulfill your hope to see him face to face. Amen. — From the Solemn Blessing on Pentecost

Monday, June 13, 2011


When Crash Kid was young, we had one of those then newfangled tympanic thermometers. It was quick, though not entirely accurate and the Christmas where Crash had an open fracture of his hand -- repaired Christmas Eve -- and the Boy the flu, I have to say it was a godsend. (Though when Crash, too, starting spiking a fever, we had to check his hand ever more carefully, to be sure it wasn't infected. It was a very quiet Christmas at our house that year....).

Crash looked a bit rough around this edges tonight. In an attempt to take his emotional temperature I asked him how it was going. "Meh." "Anything bugging you?" "I don't know." At this point I told him that I wished for the days when I could stick the thermometer in his ear (what would my grandmother have thought of that sentence, I wonder?) and see if anything was really brewing. Couldn't they make an adolescent version? Instead of a temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius, the display might read "Wish school was over" or "Bored" or "Lovesick".

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost and typhoons

[A version of this is cross-posted at RGBP as the Sunday Afternoon Music Video]

It's Pentecost, which always brings to mind the start of this sonnet of John Donne's
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
The Spirit often feels like a boisterous presence among us, shaking the timbers of the churches as well as our souls. Two weeks ago today I was in Japan, my plans to take a ferry across the Inland Sea scuttled by a great wind - a Tai Phun. Yet it was not the great winds and deluging rains that took my breath away, it was the post-typhoon clarity. The water pouring forth from a steep mountain side, folding and re-folding the light of the sun, molten gold in the afternoon sun.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's setting of the traditional Pentecost sequence, Veni Spirtus Sancte, has that same stilling clarity for me. Part of a Mass composed for Pentecost, first celebrated in Berlin in 1990, I find it reaches deep into my soul. Clear, ringing quietly, in the space cleared by the great winds and flames, the Spirit works here, too...

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Column: A morning offering

The photo is of Osamu Nakamura, an artist and hermit living in the hills above Kamikatsu, Japan making tea for us on his mud hearth. (You can read more about Nakamura, and the community of Kamikatsu, here and here, as well as in the book A Different Kind of Luxury.)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 9 June 2011.

The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent;
They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness. — Lamentations 3:22-23

My mother despaired of me. While my brothers scarfed down bowls of Frosted Flakes doused in milk and toast slathered in strawberry jam, her oldest child sipped a sweet milky cup of tea and nibbled on dry toast before bounding out the door to St. Luke’s. Breakfast was supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but I was uninterested.

My day still starts much the same way it did when I was in third grade. With a cup of tea, black and sweet — and with prayer. I reach for God before I reach for my glasses.

Living with electric lights, central heating and doors that firmly shut against the few dangers that lurk in the suburban night, I probably do not greet the dawn with quite the same sense of relief that my great-great-grandmother living in the Welsh hills did. Nor with quite the same sense of God’s abundant favors. She prayed over the coals when she banked them for the night, that God might be merciful and allow the embers to burst into flame once again in the morning. So that there would be light and heat, and breakfast.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius suggests we likewise bank the coals of our soul, deciding in prayer how to offer the day to come before we go to sleep at night. Then, following the long tradition of beginning each day with a prayer, the morning offering fans that intention into sparkling life. Burning passionately.

Morning prayer solidifies our intentions and sets the tone for our day. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests, too, that it reminds us of where our strength lies. The most important fuel for the work of the day is not found at the breakfast table, but in God. Like my mother, worried that I would not have the energy to get through to lunch, God wants to give us the energy and patience we need to manage.

The depth of what we can offer is well captured by St. Mechtilde of Magdeburg, a 13th-century monastic and mystic. She writes of hearing Jesus tell her, “When you awake in the morning, let your first act be to salute my Heart and to offer me your own.” The call that Mechtilde hears is not to see individual bits of our day as potential gifts to God — or potential sacrifices — but to see the whole of our selves, each challenge, each joy, each pain, each breath, as rooted solidly in God. Grace received, grace returned.

By the time I went to high school, my mother had given up trying to get me to have more than tea first thing in the morning. My mother has gone to her reward, but each morning as I spoon tea leaves into my cup in the kitchen, I remember her desire that I have what I needed to start the day. And when I roll over and hit the alarm in the morning, I remember God’s desire that I have what I need. God’s breath, blowing to life the fires banked in my soul the night before.

Lord God, our strength and our salvation, put in us the flame of your love and make our love for you grow to a perfect love which reaches to our neighbor. Amen. — Psalm-prayer from the Office of Readings, Wednesday, Week I

Monday, June 06, 2011

Attending to signs

At age 4 I remember being fascinated with how adults could decode the marks on the page to turn them into words read aloud. I can still remember the summer afternoon when, like a thunderbolt hitting, I figured out the connection, as my mother read aloud from Green Eggs and Ham. I've been reading voraciously ever since.

In Japan, I am back to being 4 again, painfully aware that there was a connection between the marks and the words, but unable to decode it. Signs: in, out,ladies, gentlemen. Menus: chicken hearts on a skewer or seaweed salad, it was all indecipherable to me. Receipts: is this for lunch in Tokushima or that taxi in Tokyo? I had to mark things immediately so I could keep track. Stores: take a guess from the display in the window.

By the time I left I had a couple of dozen kanji (Japanese characters) I could recognize reliably, including entrance, exit, fire, bath, think, peace, numbers, "the usual way". Imagine having to learn to recognize each word as a symbol, without any phonetic cues. Alas "ladies room" was not among the kanji I mastered, and in some rural spots this was an issue. My finest moment was seeing the kanji for Mitsubishi on the side of an office building, the first character was the symbol for three, and I knew from a ride on the Mita train (the kanji, in the photo, reads "three rice paddies line") line that "mit" is a related to three (if you're just counting, three is san, but if you have three of something, it's mittsu). It was just like when I was four again, I delighted in making a connection between printed word and sound.

More frustrating was a trip to the grocery store, where I bought what I thought was mango yogurt. The carton looked like a yogurt carton, it was in the same general section of the refrigerated case as something I knew to be yogurt, and it had a picture of a mango on the side. But it was not mango yogurt, rather a mango sauce of some sort. Tasty, but not quite as filling as I might have hoped!

My lack of facility with the language on this trip, spoken and written, was frustrating, but it gave me a taste of how difficult it is for those who also lack facility with the lingua franca. The blind, the hard of hearing, immigrants, visitors, the presbyopic without their glasses. My antenna were always out, trying to put together enough clues to function. It made me wonder what I miss on my home territory, where I don't have to keep such a sharp eye out for the clues? What signs am I missing?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A shaky ending

We had a rocky start today, literally. A 5.6 earthquake centered at Fukushima (just north of Tokyo) woke Hank and Marc, but not me, about 1 this morning. Marc felt one aftershock, which I also slept through. Off and on during the trip I've been peripherally aware of the earthquakes which frequently shake Japan. When you check the weather at the government site, you also get information on earthquakes and tsunamis. I realize it's the same level of very mild anxiety I have in San Francisco, I'm more nervous about quakes in a city than when I'm visiting family in rural California.

Marc and I checked out of our rooms (Hank is staying in Tokyo for a few days more, then headed off as a volunteer in the clean up efforts in Northern Japan). We got breakfast the station again, and then returned to the temple area we had gone to our first night here. Today we were more awake, as was the temple and street. The temple monks and nuns were out in the street, offering blessings to those who wished, and street stalls were everywhere. I loved the ones selling red underwear, said to help give energy to ladies of a certain age (and I would be of that age).

The grandmothers were out in force for a minor festival at the shrine, and for the bargains to be had on the street. Do not get in their way, as they will be quick to put an elbow in your side and move through.

I found a jar of the base for the yuzu (a citrus fruit) and honey tea that I so enjoyed on Naoshima. It's now tucked into my bags in the hold of the 777 that I'm aboard, forty thousand feet over the Pacific. I'm crossing my fingers it will be intact when I get home. I also bought baby castellas, little egg and honey sponge cakes that came to Japan with the Portugese. The samples rivaled beignets, and the dozen that are tucked into my bag, along with some mango something (I thought it might be yogurt when I bought it in the store, but once opened, I'm pretty sure it's not -- one of the problems with being illiterate) are food for the plane. The food on the way over was pretty dismal.

Hank got us to Tokyo station and put us on the Narita Express to the airport, and I am now 1200 miles closer to home, anxious to be there and see my guys again.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Tokyo indulgences

After a long travel day, we ate dinner late last night at a small yakitori place a few doorsdown from our hotel (recommended by the guys who run the hotel). We had some amazing silken tofu in a peppery, but not fiery hot sauce, along with grilled chicken balls, pork belly with chisu (sp?) (a bitter herb) salt shrimp, asparagus, mushrooms, a wonderful assortment.

Back at the hotel, I donned a yukata and tried out the radium baths (with nano bubbles) that are not only used by hotel guests, but also by thelocal neighborhood, particularly the old ladies. The baths are supposed to be good for your rheumatism and hemorrhoids, and make your skin soft. My sore ankle and knee were definitely soothed by a dip in the very hot water (44C).

We grabbed breakfast this morning in the train station, coffee and rolls, then headed out to a fancy department store in downtown Tokyo (Isetan). I really enjoyed getting to video chat with Chris before we left. After two weeks of being very careful what we picked up, knowing that we'd be carrying it hither and yon, and stowing it, we did some shopping for things to bring back. The top two floors of the store offered traditional Japanese goods and some very modern Japanese hand crafts (little mini kiosks from various high profile galleries in Tokyo). For myself, I bought traditional Japanese wooden shoes, with beautiful black, white and red silk straps, and several wrapping scarves (and the instructions for how to turn them into carrying devices of various sorts). It was fun trying to find things for the boys, but I don't want to spoil any surprises here. The place was very high service, one purchase earned me a seat in a chair, along with an English translator.

We descended to the food hall, which made Harrod's look like a local farmers market. It was amazing: the variety, the display, the wonderful samples. The fruit was a sight to behold, displayed like museum pieces in a future where a cantaloupe was an extraordinary rarity, and wrapped in beautiful boxes if you desired. I bypassed the $50 melon (I joke not) for some tiny sweet Satsuma oranges and two golden kiwi, along with some Shanghai dumplings - in skin so thin you could read the NY Times through it. We ate lunchin a small park on the roof of the department store, an oasis that looked like it might be a small pocket park in Philly, except that it was 8 floors about street level. It was nice to be above the hustle and bustle, nice, too, to have view of Tokyo's towers from a bit of a height.
Near our hotel there is small, offbeat shopping street, not quite all for locals, not quite all for tourists, that we browsed between the day's shopping and dinner. Marc was in search of something particular for one of his sons, so we stopped into the very modern (iPads on the desks to do searches and pull up maps) tourist information office. When Marc asked the young man who was staffing it if he spoke English, we got a very firm "Yep!" in reply. He did, having lived for a while in Fresno. By now it was hot and humid, so I was grateful beyond measure when Marc spotted a vending machine (not hard, they are everywhere, even on rural roadsides) with Coke Zero (that's the challenge, it's not served in restaurants, and diet drinks are rarely found in the vending machines). It was cold anda real treat in ways that a cold fizzy drink is not when I can just grab one from the stash in the basement, or the 'fridge at work.

We traversed Tokyo (about a 45 minute trip by train and subway and lots of walking) to have dinner in Rinpongi, our only fancy meal of the trip (we've been sticking to the equivalent of the local pub and take out places). The restaurant specializes in vegetarian cuisine, specifically vegetarian sushi. We ate sushi that looked like it might be salmon, or uni (sea urchin) but was all faux, recreated using vegetables. The meal was many small dishes, all exquisitely plated. In many ways it was a deconstructed version of the monastic meals we had eaten earlier in the trip.

The trip to dinner was a long walk, on top of a day that had included lots of walking, and my ankle, which had not bothered me at all this trip, was rapidly puffing up. We took a taxi back to the hotel - another huge splurge for this trip - the fare made me blink not twice, but four times. And while I bet the bath would have felt amazing, I opted for my futon.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


Now we are on our way to Tokyo, on the shinkansen (the bullet train), something that seems amazingly luxurious in comparison to the some of the places we've stayed or eaten, and some of the conveyances we've used (little local buses that threaded their way through what I would have thought were impossibly narrow streets). We took the ferry to Uno, then two trains to get us onto the shinkansen to Osaka, changing there for Tokyo.

All told it will take us about 8 hours to get from the beach on Naoshima to our hotel in Osaka. We grabbed a quick snack in the station before getting on the first bullet train, I managed to select and order a piece of sponge cake stuffed with cream and fruit at one of the fancy French bakeries that currently dot Japan (everything was labeled in Japanese and the delightful young woman behind the counter had about as much English as I have Japanese). She came round the front so I could pick out what I wanted and when she went to pack it up she asked me a question with numbers in it. I was confused, she tried again. Ah, she wanted to know how long before I was going to eat the cake so she could pack it with the right number of ice packs. Not being sure, I said two hours, which resulted in four little ice packs, neatly tucked into their own ventilated paper frames, being popped into my cake box, along with the cake and fork (but no napkin!). That went into a blue bag. Marc and Hank opted for less elegantly packed (but equally rich) savory snacks at the place next door. Since we won't get to our hotel until around 8:30 or 9, dinner will be late tonight; snacks are a good idea.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Japan, I feel a bit like I did when I finished the Exercises, lots of things stuffed into my brain (and my bags) that need to get taken out and given some space to expand.

Beware the tanuki

At Naoshima the last two night, we slept in pao, yurts, a few yards from the beach overlooking the Inland Sea. Lodgings this trip have been simple and utilitarian, as befits the quasi-pilgrims we are, and these might have been the simplest so far. I loved falling asleep to the sound of the ocean right outside my door, something I treasure about the Jersey shore, too. And this was a much quieter space than the Jersey shore - no boardwalk (but ice cream available at the little cafe near the front). What Naoshima has that Sea Isle City doesn't is tanuki - small civet cats. You sometimes see statues of these outside Japanese houses, mischevious little animals akin to raccoons, I think. We saw one crossing the road high in the mountains outside Kamikatsu earlier this week.

There were signs at the place we stayed in Naoshima addressed to the tanuki: don't play with the humans' shoes, don't eat the humans' food and use the bathroom in your own house, not the humans' (we suspect this last is an indrect hint for the humans, the bathrooms are a bit of a schlep at night). We were warned to take our shoes into the yurt, not leave them outside, lest the tanuki make off with them (and since I have just the one pair of shoes with me, that would be a problem).

The first night I drifted off to the gentle sound of the waves shushing on the rocky beach, only to be woken somewhere in the middle of the night by a tanuki scrabbling at the yurt wall just outside my window, determined to get inside. He was, at the last, foiled, but the encounter gave me odd dreams the rest of the night.

This morning Marc and I went to tour the Chichu museum, another Tadao Ando building on Naoshima. The building is entirely underground, there is no structure protruding whatsoever, yet several of the galleries are lit by natural light. The collection is small, 5 Monet's in a setting that is as arresting (perhaps even more?) as the paintings. You walk into the room (in slippers, no shoes; they brought Marc an extra large pair slippers, even here the slippers are often huge on me), coming face to face with a huge canvas, framed in the dark doorway, on a white wall that virtually glows. The floor is one inch square cubes of grey and white marble, with clear separations between each cube (the mortar has not been worked into the cracks). The corners of the room don't meet at right angles, but are curved, giving the sensation that you aren't quite sure where the space ends, where are the walls? The paintings seemingly float in midair.

The museum also houses three more pieces by James Turell, include one that was a lighter version of Backside of the Moon. You climbed up a set of black marble steps into a room lit by blacklights and neon tubes. The walls fluoresced pretty strongly and again there was the sensation of not being sure where boundaries were. I was fascinated to note that when I took off my glasses (which screen out a fair amount of UV), the sensation was enhanced, just how much do we see in the UV?

Column: Courageous hospitality

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 2 June 2011.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Mt 25:35-36

Market East Station at 10 pm at night is eerily empty. It’s always felt like a bustling and chaotic space to me, as I expertly thread my way through a crowd to catch a rush-hour train home after a day in spent in a quiet archive downtown. Now I feel like I’m awkwardly negotiating a gauntlet of misery, and am glad of the tall young man walking protectively at my side.

A wiry bearded man in his twenties confronts us as we emerge from the stairway onto the platform, “I’ve had a tough day and need some help.” As we sit on a bench to await the train, an older gentleman, his short hair peppered with gray, bends over to whisper, “M’am, can you help me? I need to find something to eat.”

Typically urban encounters, I know. And still, I wonder how to respond to these voices — and how I will respond to Christ when He asks me, “Tell me how you cared for me.” At one level, I want to help, to immoderately empty my purse of what it contains: chocolate, water bottle, money, breviary. Food, drink, security. Prayer.

But frankly, I worry about my own responsibility to my children and husband to be safe. So I usually don’t respond at all, staring ahead as if I do not hear, immersing myself in what I am reading, or, as I do this evening, remaining steadfastly focused on the conversation I am having with Mike. But I have heard, I am aware, I am attending.

Practically, I understand what advocates for the distressed and marginalized recommend, to support trusted organizations, which can dependably and effectively deploy resources to help. And I do, but my conscience still bothers me. How does Christ wish me to respond in these difficult circumstances?

C. S. Lewis struggles eloquently with this question in his sermon, “Weight of Glory,” preached in an Oxford church at the height of World War II, at a moment when relationships between neighbors were inarguably fraught. Lewis closes with the observation “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

The Church, too, understands our conflicted nature. In one of the sets of intercessions prescribed for Morning Prayer we pray: “Forgive us for failing to see Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome, and for our failure to reverence your Son in their persons.” If, as Lewis suggests, our neighbor is the holiest object we encounter aside from Christ in the Eucharist, this might be the most difficult thing asked of us as Christians: not to see Christ in the poor, or help him in the distressed, but to reverence Him in the troublesome. Not tolerate. Reverence.

Seriously, try contemplating the reverence due to Christ the next time someone steals your parking spot at the grocery store on a rainy day. I find it stunningly difficult. It is at least consoling to know the Church recognizes that I do fail of having this attitude as a matter of course, and prays for us all: forgive us this failing.

Sometimes when my sons ask me for something, they also ask me to skip the motherly lecture and give them a simple, “yes” or “no.” It reminds me that “no” is a response that acknowledges the dignity of the supplicant. It may not be prudent to empty out my purse to a pleading stranger in the station, but perhaps I can at least acknowledge the dignity of the person asking and say, “no.” It is but one small step toward reverence, but one the Church herself prays I can make.

May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

— Fr. John O’Donohue in “To Bless the Space Between Us”

For another take on this issue, see Googling God's post on loneliness.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Light and darkness

Naoshima, where we are staying for two days, is sprinkled with art installations, including a series of houses that have been reconstructed and then serve as galleries for a permanent collection. The most striking of the installations was (in my opinion) in Minimidera, built by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The piece inside is by James Turell, called the Back Side of the Moon. The docent at the door briefs you before you go in to this incredibly dark, silent spot.

You walk through a short bent passageway so dark that you have to put your hands on the wall to feel you way. The wall is slightly corrugated and I could hear the fingers of the person in front of me brushing up against the wall, the tap of the docent on the wall warning us of a bend. You reach the room and the docent there firmly took my arm and guided me to a bench to sit. She murmured instructions in Japanese, which of course were lost on me. I sat there waiting for my eyes to adjust. At first, all I could see were the afterimages, the places where the bright sunshine outside had left my cones saturated. They were sharp and angular, the shapes of the walls and plantings outside.

After a few minutes I was surprised to find my eyes had adjusted and I could see the faint outline of what looked like a screen on the wall in front of me. The docent invited us to stand up and walk around if we felt comfortable (thank heavens we are traveling with Hank, who is fluent in Japanese). I walked tentatively toward the screen, though assured that the floor was flat, I was still afraid of falling. I then realized that there were two light sources to the sides of the space, looking like misty tunnel entrances. I nearly walked into the back wall, there was so little sense of depth in this space. I paced between the two diffuse regions of light at either end of the room, fingering my prayer rope and breathing prayers.

By the time we were gently shooed out of the room I could stand at the entrance and see people walking about, slowly feeling out the room. I want to go back, it is an incredible place to sit, to stand, to walk, to pray.

The unabashed slurping of the noodles in the restaurant at lunch was a fascinating thing to listen to, the sounds of joyful eating.

We saw several more art houses in Naoshima, including Ishibashi, which looks much like the abbot's quarters at the temples we saw in Kyoto. The house seems like a sketch of a Zen Buddhist monastery, wall screens are partially painted, with intricate detail in one corner, fading out to nothing. The screens are by a noted artist Hiroshi Senju, who painted the screens in Philadelphia's Japanese house in Fairmount Park.

Go'o Shrine, a Shinto shrine on top of the hill on the far side of the island from where we are staying has an installation as well. A glowing set of glass steps rises up the from the ceremonial floor to the shrine doors. Underneath the shrine is a narrow passageway (you nearly have to sidle in) lined in oxidized metal, which bends sharply at the end where there is another glass staircase, reflected in a pool at your feet. The pool of water is so still it looks almost like a glass mirror, the staircase is lit from above (the top step is embedded in the ground above). I wished I had my tripod to take a photo -- and that they were allowed!

We went back to Minamidera. I walked in the space again, amazed at how little light you need in such utter darkness to see your way. There is no way a photograph could ever capture the sense of light and the simultaneous sense of endless depths and no depth.