Saturday, October 29, 2011

Perpetual Motion

My at home to-do list is usually scrawled on the blackboard in my study. This morning, preparing to dash madly about before I left to celebrate Robin's sacring I grabbed the chalk to make a list of the essential chores I needed to accomplish.

I had to do one last read of Crash's college essay, sift through a few more choices with Math Man for the major house renovation that is underway here (both bathrooms leak, and the kitchen cabinets have reached critical -- the work seems on par with a triple bypass, if not a heart transplant, but that's fodder for another post), and pack.

The last few items from last week's scramble were still there. At the top of the list: pack.

What does it say about your life when "pack" is perpetually on the to-do list? I've packed for three different trips in the last eight days. Where am I? Where am I going? What am I doing?

Perhaps this: "Wherever I am, at home in a hotel, in a train, plane or airport, I would not feel irritated, restless, and desirous of being somewhere else or doing something else. I would know that here and now is what counts and is important because it is God himself who wants me at this time and this place." Henri Nouwen in the Genesse Diary

There is a storm in the Northeast. I read, sifted, packed and left. I arrived at the gate one minute flight was cancelled. As were the rest of the flights for the day. I booked a seat for tomorrow, and dashed for the train back home. Oops, downed lines on the tracks, no train from the city out to the 'burbs. Trolley to the rescue! So far, my flight for tomorrow is still on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Signs from God: End Blasting Zone

It's been a crazy week. At times it's felt like I'm living in the midst of an improv show (drama, not comedy) or as if one of those flash mob companies is staging something in my office (though no one has yet broken into song). As I drove up the turnpike last night to see Patient Spiritual Director, I passed a sign that said, "End Blasting Zone." Is this a sign from the Holy Spirit, I wondered? Is it possible that the fireworks will end?

One can only hope. And I can say that there were no outbursts of craziness in the silence. Unless you count the werewolf mask my confessor lent me....

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Take a note, Siri

It may be some measure of the chaos in my life at the moment that I viewed the three hour drive down to Virginia yesterday as a contemplative moment. Time shifts are still plaguing my days and nights. Not just the physical desynchronosis of jet lag, but all the things that were put aside when I went to Japan (meetings, papers to grade, essays to finish drafting, Crash's college essays to read, The Boy's chemistry questions to answer, did I mention the meetings?) have popped back into this time line. It seems as if I still need to live the last two weeks of my life here, despited having lived those two weeks already in Japan.

My talk for the conference had been put together before I left, but I was still mentally rehearsing and polishing it on the way down. I wanted to talk out a couple of the transitions and remind myself to add a few bits here and there. In days past I would hit the speed dial on my phone and record 30 second tidbits to be transcribed by the mysterious souls inside Jott. Transcripts would appear in my email, jogging memory, jumpstarting writing.

Now I have Siri (yes, I caved and have a new iPhone — my old one being old enough that AT&T doesn't even give it away for free anymore). I held the button on the phone and asked Siri to "Take a note." We had a brief argument about what I wanted to do, but finally she conceded, "I can do that for you." I dictated away in spurts, trusting that her chipper, "Got that." meant my ideas were safely drifting in the cloud, waiting to descend on me when I had a keyboard handy. I ended and had Siri email the notes off to me. And this is what I said?

"What else to think about the purpose of writing or reading about Jesus is on right track oneself integrating the table I want to bring with the idea that template basis.they've the burning layers on the BlackBerry."

Oh dear. I couldn't decode most of the notes, I tried reading them aloud, to no avail. (The last reference to burning layers is to a quote from Teilhard de Chardin.) Siri is a beta release. I can tell.

More about the talk (Melville, Moby Dick, Gloucester and flame) when I catch up to myself!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Parsing the universe

I've two more trips coming up (to a conference in Virginia where I'm giving a keynote address about writing, the contemplative mind and the whole person, and to celebrate with Robin). After the intensity of the last few weeks, I'm looking forward to curling up with a book of an evening. But what to read next?

Crash found this guide to NPR's list of 100 best SF and fantasy books. I've read most of the books on the list, but what I really enjoyed was the flow chart! Snarky but on point..."Like a little time travel with your love story?" "NO" "Tough" (points to Time Traveler's Wife and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series).

So what should I read next? Thoughts? I'm tending toward fiction and zombies, please (I still feel too much like one after the jet lag for comfort!)>

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Counterpoint: Chemistry and Calvin

It's a frequent trope in musical theater, two solos sung in counter point — often underscoring two characters vying for affection, or perhaps attention. Cut to last night, in the living room:

The Boy (chemistry book open on lap): So, I'm not really getting this ratio thing. If you have a higher atomic number, you want to lose neutrons...
Crash (simultaneously, European history notes in his lap): Do you know anything about Calvin?

Mom (attempting to diffract): Yes/Yes.

The Boy: Why do you get beta decay?
Crash (at the same time): What is Calvinism now?

Math Man (entering stage right): What did they say about the kitchen?

Two simultaneous conversations I can almost handle, the third sent me over the edge. I diverted Crash by asking him if he knew Calvin's five points, suggested to The Boy that he might have done enough nuclear physics for the night and then fled for my study!

Read about Calvinist chocolates here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Jet lag. I crossed too many meridians. My clock and the wall clock have become desynchronized, and I'm waiting for one to catch up to the other.

I keep visualizing two circadian rhythms chasing each other, until they finally fall into phase which each other, which reminded me of the biorhythm craze in my high school days. I computed my biorhythms for today, which certainly well describe my physical sense (toast, totally toast). I suppose I could be at an intellectual peak, if I only I could rouse myself from the sofa to do something with all that cognitive potential! Instead, I think I'll do laundry...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Column: Lost and Found in Translation

The new translation of the Roman Missal launches with the First Sunday in Advent this year — less than two months from now. There will be things I will not miss in the old translation (some of the institutionally prosaic opening prayers, for one) and others I suspect I will miss deeply ("one in being"). Fr. Jeremy St. Martin (in the video) works with the deaf apostolate in the Archdiocese of Boston. I learned some ASL when I was on leave at Livermore National Labs (a colleague was deaf), and kept it up (useful for communicating with children in public places). As a result, most of the neighborhood kids learned "stop" and "bother" (as in "stop bothering your brother!")

For another, more poetic (and yes, there is poetry in ASL), interpretation of a setting of the Lord's Prayer, see the video at the end! Play it with the sound turned off...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 September 2011.

We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. Acts 2:9-11

I hadn’t seen Israel for a couple of years when I ran into him while visiting my dad in California, but I was still greeted with a cheery “¿Como estas?” when he saw me on the path. We talked about the work we were doing and as I struggled to find the words to explain — in Spanish — the little book I was finishing, he good-humoredly noted, “Your Spanish has gotten a lot worse!” “Es verdad,” I sighed. It’s the truth, and I mourn the gradual decline of my second tongue. It hinders not only my conversation with Israel, but my conversation with God.

“To sing is to pray twice,” St. Augustine purportedly said. I feel similarly about having multiple languages to pray in — they lend a depth and a life to my prayer, much as a cathedral choir’s rich harmonies shimmer and dance above the assembly’s firm unison.

With more or less prompting, I can still manage to get from “Our Father…” to “Amen” in five languages. Each time I pray the Our Father, no matter what the language, the other four weave their harmonies over and under the melody line. Pater noster. Father, first and foremost. The assurance that sounds in the strong beat of santificada sea tu nombre. The unadorned ordinariness of unser Brot - our bread. The hand that moves from forehead heavenward in the sign language version, an embodied reminder of where I look for help.

I relish the murmurs of multiple English translations, too. Three years ago, when I went on retreat for 30 days, the instructions said to bring only two books along: a copy of the Bible and a copy of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In my first meeting with the Jesuit would direct me in the Exercises, I sheepishly admitted that while I’d obediently left novels and science journals home, I’d brought not one, not two but three different translations of the Psalms along with me. The rich chorus of voices rang clearly amidst the silence of those weeks.

In mathematics, to translate something is to pick it up and move it to another place. In a few weeks time, we will move to use a new translation of the Mass. We will be reminded of our status as pilgrims — not curators of a static tradition, but followers of the living Word.

A part of me is braced for this journey into the wilderness, to a place where the words have yet to wear a smooth path through mind and soul. I will miss hearing aloud the words of the Eucharistic prayer that consoles me so deeply in my struggle to negotiate the demands of being wife, mother and teacher with the desire to “stone-still at God’s feet, listening to Him alone”: He stretched out his arms between heaven and earth. My tongue is sure to trip on the threshold of “consubstantial” — still hunting for “one in being.”

Yet I’m also looking forward to hearing new notes sounded in my prayer, to another layer woven into the glorious tapestry that is the Church’s public voice. No matter what language or what translation we use, how simple the melody or intricate the harmonies the words are set to, we are called to sound as a single voice. For we are a single Word, made flesh. The Body of Christ.

If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond "Amen” and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words, "the Body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true. — St. Augustine

Another setting of the Our Father. Play with the sound off to better "get" the poetry of the ASL.

Monday, October 10, 2011


I feel like I've lived through Monday twice (which I have, or at least through a Monday that lasted 36 hours). We left the hotel near Kansai Airport about 10:30 on Monday (Kansai time) and arrived at JFK at 1 pm on Monday (EDT). It took us another 2 hours to get all the students cleared through immigration (it's slow for non-citizens), collect bags, and rent two vans. And then there was still a 2 hour drive home (with a van full of sleeping students, very quiet!).

It was lovely to land and find text messages from The Boy and Math Man greeting me. I've missed them, and Crash and Fluffy. The Boy made his amazing pasta for dinner tonight, a perfect welcome home meal.

What else I missed (yes, I've noticed it's all food):
  • The Boy's pasta
  • Chocolate (I haven't eaten ANY since September 25th)
  • Pizza
  • Meat (most of my meals were meatless)
  • Apples (lots of citrus and Asian pears)
There's food for thought here....

Photo is of baskets at Nakamura's house in the mountains above Kamikatsu.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Tea kettles

I have a tea kettle in my office — but not in my floor. And not one that makes such a delightful noise when it comes to the boil. This hearth is set into the floor, there is a tiny charcoal fire underneath the cast iron tea pot and is hisses and burbles and sounds much like the wind through the pines. What I could use in my office is a mizusashi, a stoneware jar to keep extra water!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Prayer, posture and tea

This is a photo of where I sat for morning prayer today, taken after I walked up the road, across the bridge and a few turns up the mountain road. Later in the day, I waded out to one of the rocks mid-river and sat, watching the water. It flowed like thick glass over the rocks; I was sure if I touched it, it would be solid. In other places it burbled like a spring, throwing up drops of water like popcorn, that danced and dazzled in the sunshine.

In the afternoon we visited the local tea teacher, who patiently and kindly led us through the tea ceremony. My knee will only let me briefly kneel in seiza position (back on your heels, with your big toes crossed and about 3" between your knees), and as a result I definitely felt out of kilter. It was awkward to bow, and harder to stay upright. I ended up sitting with my leg crossed, which isn't great for the knee either, but I couldn't figure out any other posture that would be remotely polite. Among other things I wondered about what we think of people in liturgical settings (and there are direct and deliberate parallels between the tea ceremony and Catholic liturgy) who are not in the "correct" posture. I can't genuflect for example, and so substitute a profound bow. How do (or even should) we read each other's posture in liturgy, and even in private prayer?

You can read the adventures of the whole crew here, it's hard to believe that tomorrow we will pack up the bus and make our way back to Kansai, with a short stop in Tokushima to have lunch and do any last shopping (we need another bag!).


I loved the patterns on the water, photographed from the bridge just upriver from where we are staying. The movement of each wave out from a clear center, their crisscrossing leading to constructive and destructive interference. Whose paths do I cross, how does what I do ripple out and interfere, positively or negatively?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Six Reasons Not to Lose Dr. Francl

Part of traveling with a group is counting -- have we lost anyone? The current running joke is that we can't lose me for various reasons. The current list of reasons not to misplace Dr. Francl:

1. She has the device to upload photos to your iPad.
2. She does IT support.
3. She has the snacks in her bag.
4. She has the wi-fi hot spot.
5. She has the money for ice cream.
6. She has the Benadyl and the Dramamine.

Grains of wisdom

Today we spent the morning working in a citrus orchard, picking fruit. What role does physical labor play in the contemplative life? In Koya-san the abbot Hideo told us the story of an older monk, who kept the strict rules of his sect, which do not permit any physical labor. One day when all his servants had the day off, he wandered around, hoping someone would refill his coffee cup.

The rice that I saw newly planted in the late spring is being harvested now, tied up to dry in the paddies.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A different kind of luxury

How much stuff do you need? I had a wonderful lunch today, cooked over a mud hearth. Instead of quantum mechanics, I taught two students how to thread a needle.

We brought a gift from Pennsylvania to Kamikatsu - a piece of stained glass made by Wayne Stratz, riffing off the photos I had taken at my last visit to Nakamura. I bound photos of Wayne at work to show to Nakamura - and he very much enjoyed showing the students the hearth and tea pot that Wayne had captured in glass. The photo at the top is of the onions that got folded into the soup for lunch.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Walking the women's path

Yesterday I walked part of the women's path that encircles Mount Koya. Until the late 19th century, women were not permitted to enter the mountain enclave, but would still make arduous hike up to the gates, then walk from shelter to shelter around the entire perimeter. It was not a simple stroll, this path clings to the edges of the mountain and certainly drives home the notion that women belonged on the margins.

This morning we met one last time with Hideo, the young abbot who has been giving us intsruction in meditation. His hands are always on his prayer beads, a constant reminder of the call to prayer. I gave him a copy of Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life by Thomas Moore (there is an excerpt featured in last Friday's wisdom story at People for Others) as the concept of contemplation in daily life was one of the threads of the conversations we had had.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Photo is of Hideo's hands.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Structures of silence

Enclosures aren't always physical. How do we enclose silence with a set schedule? Is silence easier in the morning? At night? While eating?

The adventures of the crew are here

Photo is of a Jizo image, nearly enfolded by a cypress tree trunk in the graveyard at Koyasan.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Pilgrims east and west

As we made our pilgrim's way from Osaka to Koya yesterday (three trains, two taxis and a bus), we were rushing through one station to get onto a bus (track work - it made it seem just like home and SEPTA) when Hank called back, "It's St. Ignatius!" Sure enough, there is the Jesuit seal and a Jesuit gazing up at a cross. Given the rest of the stuff on the poster, we actually think it's St. Francis Xavier, who came to Japan in the 16th century.

We are staying in a very old monastery here. No central heating, though there are space heaters. It was 10 C (50 F) in my room last night, 14 C now (57 F). The hot bath last night felt amazing, I shared it with 4 older Japanense women, who spoke no English and enjoyed my "wakarimasen" (I don't understand) to their overtures. They worried the bath might be too hot and very hospitabilty offered to add cold water. Thankfully, I like the water hot.

Read about the adventures of the crew traveling here.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Hot springs and cool breezes

The heat has finally broken here, just as we head up into the mountains where it will be cooler than Kyoto. The abbot at the temple where we have been staying looked at us as we left and said, "You're going to freeze on Koya." We assured him we have more layers. On the way from Kyoto to Osaka (where we are staying the night before heading off to Koya-san in the morning) we stopped at a hot springs/bath. I have soaked out ever single kink I might have, in waters that bubbled with minerals, slid down slate sheets, and poured into traditional Japanese tubs. And my students let fish nibble their feet....

You can read the adventures of the crew here.

Photo is from the Moss temple.