Sunday, December 28, 2014

Who's rejoicing? Good Christian Men or all of us?

Heinrich Suese
In dulci jubilo,
nun singet und seid froh!
Unsers Herzens Wonne
leit in præsepio
und leuchtet als die Sonne
matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O.

On his FaceBook page, Deacon Greg Kandra has a photo of a hymnal turned to a hymn titled "Good Christian Friends Rejoice" with the comment "Really?"  He found the substitution of "men" to "friends" awkward, but that is not where the discussion went.  One comment smugly noted "That's how it was in my old church's hymnal, and we sang it EVERY YEAR. I sang the real words, though." Mmm.  Unlikely. The 'real words' — or at least the original — are quoted above. Pretty sure no one was singing those today.

The discussion has gotten sad and ugly, many people want a return to "the original" or purport to sing "the real words."  And then there is the litmus test crowd, real Roman Catholics would not care about the use of the men to mean "all people": "any woman who would be offended by that isn't in my church anyway..."  Or "Our language does reflect that male is the general form of humanity and female a special form; the male is prior. To eliminate this would require much more dramatic changes in our language. There are woman who want to do that, but most of them see that they cannot be Christians. " Heavens, someone needs to take some Latin, and read all of Genesis, not just the one story where woman is created from man.

But the real irony of the whole thing is that "Good Christian men rejoice" is a far stretch from the original, which begins "In dulci jubilo, nun singet und seid froh!" In sweet jubilation, let us sing and rejoice!  No men, Christian or otherwise are referenced in this verse or either of the other two.

All this said, it's a hymn with historic significance. The text of the hymn is from the 14th century. It first appears in the life of Dominican mystic Heinrich Suese, and may be the oldest example of a vernacular Christmas carol.  It's a macaronic text (one that mixes Latin and vernacular rather indiscriminately).

While I'm not thrilled to know that my sense that men refers to the male of the species and is not an inclusive term makes me unwelcome to some of my faith, or less than truly Christian, I am pleased to thereby have discovered Suese, who defended Meister Eckhart against heresy, and recorded the words to the lovely hymn "In dulci jubilo..."  Let us rejoice!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato
via Wikimedia commons
Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . who for us and for our salvation," as the Nicene Creed puts it, "came down from heaven." 

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see.

— Frederick Buechner in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubters Dictionary

I'm not a Christmas romantic.  At one level, I cherish the holiday trappings:  the cookies, the tree with the ornaments, the oddly useful things tucked into stockings, the carols.  The traditions which tie me to family and community of faith. There is beauty here, and indeed, grace.

But this is a holy day, one that I find more wrenching than Easter. This emptying, Mary of Jesus, the pouring forth of the Word into the world.  To hold God within you, to feel His movements, then labor to send him forth, into a darkness she had no wish to inhabit.  To be riven by Light, that God might dwell among us.  This is not touching, it is terrifying.

On the last Christmas of his life, Alfred Delp, SJ reflected on Christmas as an event that “burned away our romantic concepts.”  In a dim church tonight I watched the flames skitter across the charcoal in the censer, swung it gently until the smoke rose, then watched the presider add incense, and crush the briquet, until it flared brightly and carried our prayers aloft.  I heard the words of the Gospel through a fragrant veil, watched the flames in the candle burn away.  "The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear."

My friend Robin is preaching about cataclysmic shifts tonight, about how the ordinary combines to form the extraordinary. Mysteries that take our breath away.  Unthinkable darkness run through by Light from Light.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The sacrament of puttering

"I remembered an older friend who kept backing up into things, who posted a note on his dashboard that said, Slowly, and Majestically; i wrote s.a.m on my wrist. I pulled on some baggy pants, in case I accidentally ate a few more cookies than might be ideal. THEN, and only then, I got up, and went to the kitchen, where I put the coffee on, and did the sacrament of putter while it brewed."  — Annie Lamott on FaceBook
I had a list.  A list of things to do.  Laundry.  Baking.  Grading.  Wrapping. Letters to write.  Books to read.  I had plans.  Plans to cross things off my list.

Pope Francis in his remarks to the Curia yesterday, spoke about the ills that might afflict not only Curial officials, but all of us.  He wondered if excessive planning was one such ill, in which we fall into the temptation to lock up and drive the Holy Spirit1, to thwart the power of the unexpected, the unimaginable.  I've been thinking about overturned plans all week, after Robin's sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, and the sermon by one of the Augustinians at Mass on Saturday night, about what happens when things get turned upside down.

So that well-planned list?  I crossed nothing off.  Instead I served at the funeral of a friend, holding the censer by his casket, watch through a veil of incense as the pastor prayed him over the threshold to eternal life.  I went to the market and braved the traffic in the parking lot, thinking I should write s.a.m. on my wrist, too.  Slowly and majestically, rather than slowly and angrily.  Slow, as it turned out, wasn't negotiable.  I went to the grocery store and waited in line (slowly and majestically), and rejoiced with the woman in front of me that our sons would be home with us today.  I admired his photo on her phone, a handsome young man shaking the President's hand.  I drove The Egg to an appointment.  I bought boxes.  I made dinner (that wasn't on the list) while The Egg deep cleaned the kitchen.

I puttered about in the sacred.  Slowly and majestically.  My Sagehen Egg2 noted how much he enjoyed this slow day, just being present to what there was to do (those kitchen counters), and who there was to be with.

"Despite all our attempts at domestication, God deals in surprises."  Margaret Guenther

1. Most of the translations I have seen used "domesticate but the language is stronger in the Italian: Preparare tutto bene è necessario, ma senza mai cadere nella tentazione di voler rinchiudere e pilotare la libertà dello Spirito Santo...
2. Sagehens are his school mascot. The Egg is a nod to his role in "Shrek the Musical."


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent Ordo

"Tree Cave, by RA Paulette, Feb 2013" 
by Max shred - Canon Digital Camera. 
Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons
Commenter Katherine wondered on my last post how I carve out retreat space within the end of the year chaos.  Probably in much the same way Ra Paulette carves these incredible spaces out of the sandstone caves in the desert. Painfully, slowly and by hand.

This Advent, having decided to try to carve out what retreat time I could within daily life (as my director of the Long Retreat would say - channelling Ignatius, "adapt, adapt, adapt.."), I began by thinking what were the retreat essentials for me.  Besides post-it notes and my own pillow.

They sound obvious.  Prayer, liturgy, confession, sacred reading, good preaching, walks.  Structure, a daily ordo, with a sensitivity to the Spirit's movements.  And solitude. Right.  With a line outside my office.

The caves were a helpful image.  I was not going to be able to construct a cathedral sized retreat over the course of these three weeks, this was going to scratched out of the stone of my calendar, carved with the tools I had to hand, not some precision sandblaster.

Mass and morning prayer are already there, a skeleton on which to hang this retreat time.

So, I picked a book of Advent readings off the shelf (Watch for the Light which includes readings from Alfred Delp SJ, Annie Dillard , Dorothy Day, and Thomas Aquinas).  One a night.

I put as inviolable on the calendar two events:  an evening of Advent lessons and carols, and an Advent vespers service (with a short talk on the women of Advent:  Anna, Elizabeth and Mary).

I did the same with confession.  Yes, it would be lovely to make an appointment to celebrate the sacrament with my long time confessor.  Instead, it would have to be a gray Saturday in a cold, dark church.  Grace wins out , regardless of the space.  Ex opere operato.  Grace wins out, even with a perfunctory confessor (which I hasten to add was not the case!).

Ah...yes, and solitude.  I've been parking further up the hill, necessitating a walk each evening.  I've seen snow fall, pressed into a relentless rain, wondered at stars spangled across the sky and at the deep blues and pinks of these Advent sunsets.  It's five minutes -- and full of grace.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Long Retreat

I would run away from it all if I could.  The end of the semester chaos hath descended.  Stacks of grading totter on my shelf, no sooner cleared than the next assignment comes sliding under my door.  Exams are being written (more grading!).

Fraught meetings alternate with cheery social events (often featuring the same players).  Writing deadlines peer 'round the corner, waiting to pounce when I'm not looking.  I long for a hermitage to flee to.

When Sunday's homilist talked of Advent as a long retreat, I was transported six Advents back, to an end of the semester that was arguably crazier than this one (surgery, overseas trip, major project for the college, writing), and the last days before I left to make a long retreat, the Long Retreat — the Spiritual Exercises.

I've been itchy to get away, to spend a night on retreat, but for various reasons cannot.  So instead, I'm making a long retreat, carving out spaces for silence and prayer in my days and in my week. Slowly, painfully, by hand (much like sculptor Ra Paulette has carved these caves into the desert).

Photo is of my sunrise at Eastern Point, on the Long Retreat.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Silent preaching: Sick and you cared for me we cannot preach the word of God by our mouths, we may do so with our hands. — from Chapter 28 of Consuetudines Cartusiae

Guigo, the fifth prior of the Carthuisan monastery of the Grand Chartreuse, 1was reflecting on the work of copyists, not of homilists, in this line from his collection of Carthusian customs, but I thought of his image of preaching with our hands when I was asked to contribute two homilies to the third volume of of the Homilists for the Homeless project.

Edited by Deacon Jim Knipper, Sick and You Cared For Me contains homilies for each of the Sundays of Year B in the lectionary cycle.2 Each of the writers contributed his or her work to the book, preaching literally with their hands, and all the proceeds go to care for the poor.  We have raised more than thirty thousand dollars with the first two volumes.

I am preaching on the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time (which won't appear next year, or any year soon) and on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The homily for the 9th Sunday reflects on the story of the man with the withered hand, who was healed by Jesus on the Sabbath - about Simon the Stylite on his pillar and the ways in which Sabbath is a time for noticing.  On the 21st Sunday, where the readings are from Joshua ("as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord") and John ("these teachings are hard"), it's about Ignatius and the meditation on the two Standards. Choose.3 

There are homilies from many voices and traditions. Contributors include Richard Rohr, Jesuits Rick Malloy SJ (his mother was my neighbor for many years) and James Martin, Mike Leach, Fran Szpylczyn, Jan Richardson, Mags Blackie (how many books of homilies have two Ph.D. physical chemists in them?!).

I am giving away a copy of Sick and You Cared For Me to celebrate the start of the new liturgical year. Leave a comment, and on Friday, I'll draw a winner.  Prefer a sure thing?  You can order a copy from Clearfaith.

1. This is the monastery featured in Into Great Silence - a beautiful film that opens in Advent and covers a full liturgical year.
2.  Homilies for cycles A and C are in Naked and You Clothed Me, and Hungry and You Fed Me, both of which won awards from the Catholic Press Association.
3.  I chose in writing this not to reflect on the "wives be submissive to your husbands" passage from Paul.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An outsized hunger

Math Man gave a public lecture as part of his new professorial chair, and in it he spoke about math and social justice.  He begins every math class he teaches by asking students what world problems they are most concerned about, and then they talk about ways in which math can make an impact.

The next day, over lunch, I was reading an article about immigration reform which noted  "For a rich country, the United States has an unusually high level of food insecurity—a polite term for hunger—in part because hunger is so common among unauthorized immigrant families, who can’t collect SNAP benefits. "

This seemed unlikely to me, given what I know about the demographics of hunger, and the relative populations, so I looked up a few numbers and did a rough calculation. Estimates are (based on surveys in LA and NYC) that 40% of households with undocumented immigrants in them are food insecure. There are about 4 million undocumented immigrant households in the US. About 18 million households are food insecure in the US (15% of all households). If you ignored the undocumented immigrant households completely, 14% of US households would be food insecure. Hunger is common among immigrant household, but those are only a small percentage of the total households. We are a rich nation with a hunger problem that cannot be principally ascribed to undocumented immigrant families.

So why does the author of the Slate piece think the undocumented immigrant population is so large that it accounts for much of the hunger in the US?  Probably because we are not very good at estimating the size of populations, and as this recent study shows, people in the US are particularly bad at it, worse than almost any other country in the world.  If you ask people in the US what percentage of the US population are immigrants, the average guess is 32% while the actual value is 13%.  We think 15% of the population are Muslims (it's 1%).  As a country, our mental image of who our neighbors are is woefully inaccurate, particularly when it comes to those we consider 'other' or troublesome.

I think of Colbert's quip:  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”  We are a rich nation with an outsized hunger problem.

For more math and social justice in the recent news, Math Man pointed out this analysis of data on Pennsylvania school funding as one example of simple math that uncovers an uncomfortable truth: poor districts with a higher percentage of non-white students get less funding than equally poor school districts with mostly white students.  The math can't tell you why, but it can show you what is — a contemplative stance.

The image is from this post at Macmillan's dictionary blog by Michael Rundell, about the use of the word "hunger."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

O Lord, open my lips

"O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise."  These are the first words I say when I come to the Liturgy of the Hours each day.  They come from Psalm 51, the Miserere.

They are said, too, before the first words of תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, the Standing Prayer, the keystone of the Jewish liturgy:  יז אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח; וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ.

The prayer that should never be interruped, was interrupted on Tuesday in a synagogue in Jerusalem. And then seven people were dead.  Four rabbis, a police officer, two attackers.

This morning I prayed with this unsparing photo of the carnage up on my computer: the prayer book soaked in blood, the white and black stripes of a man's tallit stark against the crimson, the strands of the tallit tangled with the detritus of the emergency response.  I wanted to look unflinchingly into the horror, not to pretty it up for prayer, or to try to tuck it onto my list of terrors to pray never come close.  I thought many times about whether to use the photo to illustrate this post.  But for now, it is merely linked, and instead my prayer space is here, the red strands of the stole gently evocative of the scene in Jerusalem.  Perhaps too gently.

As I prayed, I was acutely aware that nearly every word coming from my mouth was sacred first to the Jewish tradition.  Psalm 36, Judith, Psalm 47, Tobit.  Our texts weave in and out of each other, the Benedictus and the Amidah.  May the dawn from on high break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness.... He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us...

We pray, and our prayers weave in and out of one another's sacred texts, criss-cross through one another's sacred spaces.  We cannot separate ourselves from this horror, say that what has happened has not happened to us, does not call us to wail aloud, to beg with the psalmist that the bones that have been crushed might be made whole.

We want to call the words our own, to possess them, yet we begin by acknowledging that we do not even hold the key.

Open our lips, O Lord, and guide our feet into the way of peace.  Make us whole.

Fran of There Will Be Bread pointed us to Alden Solovy's prayer for mothers at To Bend Light this morning.  The last line of the prayer kept winding me back to the Benedictus:  May the dawn from on high break upons us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Infusions of grace

I got my flu shot today, by dint of putting it on the shopping list.  The pharmacy at the huge and amazing grocery store offers flu shots.  Even better, there is no waiting around.  I did the paperwork, and while there was nominally a fifteen minute wait, I got one of those beepers they give you at a restaurant while you wait for a table, which went off while I was in the baking aisle (getting caraway seeds for my general chemistry class — and yes, that really has to do with chemistry).  I headed over, signed the paper, and in under 2 minutes was back to shopping. This is multi-tasking I could get behind.

I watered the plants, I got my haircut.  There is food in the 'fridge. I prayed.  And it is all grace, infusing the quotidian with the mystical.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Border crossing

This  video, whose title comes from Walter Burghardt SJ's definition of contemplation, was made by the delightful and talented Mariel Carr to go with a review of Addy Pross' What is Life? I wrote for the Chemical Heritage Magazine. I love the title the editor gave it, "Border Crossing" which certainly described not only the book, but in many ways my life.

Next Tuesday (Nov 18)  I'm giving a talk about living on this edge between science and religion for the Institute for Religion and Science at nearby Chestnut Hill College, but part of me wonders if I can do any better in 60 minutes than this 6 minute film!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Contemplating science

Sandwiched between a morning meeting and my noon class, I was trying hard to put the finishing touches on some visual materials for class.  But I couldn't resist watching the live stream of the Philae landing on the comet.  It brought back memories of watching the space launches when I was a kid, sprawled on a cushion on the floor of the cool basement where our black and white TV lived.  "T minus 10 and holding..."  Dreams of walking on other planets flitted through my head.
And as a scientist, I could imagine the tension in the room,  hoping that all these years of work by so many would be successful!  I loved the way people jumped for joy when it appeared it had landed, and the focus of one of the women on the team who even in that moment, was critically evaluating the data, "The altitude hasn't changed," she murmured to another team member.  (It turns out the lander may have bounced...)

Suddenly my research student was knocking briskly on the door, "Do you have a camera?  There's an osprey in the courtyard!" It wasn't an osprey, but a large red-tailed hawk perched on the light outside my office.  It seemed quite unperturbed by our presence, more intent on finding a snack in the leaves.

I love drinking deeply of the created world, I love the way science pulls me into wonder and joy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tired Tuesday

Blessed Fran of the Many Consonants sent me this postcard a few days ago.  It's a portrait of St. Brigid painted by Bro. Mickey McGrath.  Fran thinks Brigid looks like me, I think my hair is much too gray.  But Brigid's prayer space does looks like mine (no tabernacle, but I sit on a small prayer bench, with lit candles, a sacred heart with streams of color fluttering under it,  a mosaic of the Spirit on the waters).

It's been a busy semester, and an exceptionally busy last week. Today was the first day I've had off the hamster wheel since we got back from visiting Crash across the sea.  A Tuesday for being tired, and for catching up.

The postcard has been propped up on my desk for the last week, inviting contemplation, inviting me into stillness. I love the image of the Holy Spirit resting in Brigid's arms. She and God, simply still. A dwelling place for God in the Spirit.

I long for that stillness, for that closeness to God.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Litany for the dead

The ordo today called for the Office of the Dead, it's the memorial for the dead of the Augustinian Order.  There were only six of us at prayer today (yesterday it was a dozen, one day last week there were just two of us), and we kept the office plain.   At the intercessions the prior asked us to simply say the names of deceased Augustinians we wished to remember.

The names dropped into the center, between the two sides of the choir, arising like incense between the altar and tabernacle.  My two-decades gone spiritual director, the priest who came out late one night to anoint Tom, my mother's friend of sixty years who died this last spring.  The names.  Men I never knew.  Men I shared prayer with for years.  Gone before us, marked with the sign of faith.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Taking tea

Another Japanese pot of tea, water coming 
to the boil at Nakamura-san's hermitage.
"Bring your own tea," says my dad, "I know you like the fancy stuff."  In truth, while a cup of sweet, black, tippy Assam in the morning is an incredible grace, and a pot of Rose Congou when an afternoon writing sessions falters is a gift, I'm perfectly happy with a cup of Lipton tea.  As long as the water used to make it was at the boiling point.

I despair of getting a good cup of tea when traveling or out to eat, resorting to stuffing an electric kettle with my PJs (so it doesn't take up extra room in my bag), hunting out microwaves — and, I confess, when truly desperate for a caffeine fix, drinking a Diet Coke.  The Irish travels were a joy, a decent cup of tea could be had anywhere.  Even at fast food places.

The trouble is not the tea, but the temperature.  The correct temperature for brewing black teas is 212oF.  The advent of the Keurig hasn't helped things, for while "Keurig believes that the optimal temperature for brewing coffee, tea and hot cocoa is 89°C (192° F),"  I don't.  Different flavor compounds are extracted out at different temperatures, so tea brewed at too low a temperature tastes different, and frankly, not to my liking, de gustibus non est disputandum1 notwithstanding.

When I stay with my dad he pulls out a little tetsubin, a small cast iron Japanese tea pot.  He warms the pot while bringing a kettle of water to the boil, and sets out a mug for me on the counter.  The sugar is tucked in my mother's now classic Corningware sugar bowl.  It's the perfect pot of tea, brewed with bags of Lipton and love — and water of the correct temperature.  What else should I expect of an organic chemist?

1.  In matters of taste there can be no dispute.  But proper black tea must be steeped in water just off the boil, green tea is better at 180o.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The communion of saints

Saints with attitude/c. MJD 2014
The photo is Crash's, from the facade of Strasbourg's cathedral. Today, standing at the font at the start of Mass, we read the names of those who had died from the parish this year, interspersed with the Litany of the Saints.  I was serving, holding the cross, standing next to the deacon while the pastor incensed our Book of the Dead.

As the incense rose, memories too, rose and mingled.  Bringing the boys to this very font to be baptized.  Standing in the back of a different church, spreading the pall over Tom's coffin, the incense hovering over the aisle.  Funerals of friends and family.  Easter candles.

I held up the cross and led the procession down the aisle, as the choir sang the litany and the assembly responded.  I wondered if this was what it might be like after I die, carrying a cross down an aisle, calling on the saints to pray for me.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An unforced pace of work

I am spending the night at the old Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville to see my spiritual director, I haven’t been up here since the beginning of the semester. Last time a note was tagged to the bulletin board noting the temperature in the pool, today there is a notice about the start of hunting season. The canopy of leaves is barer, if brighter. The moon is a bare crescent, not enough to light an after dinner walk, even on the paved paths.  Time turns.

The semester is half spent, 7 weeks finished, 7 weeks to go.  The first seven have felt relentless, as if I’m stuck on a hamster wheel, spin, spin, spinning.  I’m hoping (longing) for a return to a workload that allows for some breathing room over these next few weeks. Philosopher of science and physicist Gerald Holton suggests in his book The Scientific Imagination that ideas flourish (at least in a scientific setting) when the pace of work is unforced, rather than a frenetic rush.

I picked up Walter Bruggeman’s Sabbath as Resistance:  Saying No to the Culture of Now this weekend, sampling bits and pieces while curled up in a chair, ignoring the prep work I needed to do for class today.  It’s made me wonder not only about sabbath rhythm over a week, but also the ways in which my days breathe.  Am I on a forced march from morning until evening (as in this PhD Comic strip) or do I have time to stop and contemplate, wonder, pray, muse, think — eat lunch?

I woke before dawn, tossed on sweats and my walking shoes (hurrah, I managed to arrive with both shoes this time) and walked a mile out from the house, to watch the sunrise, to pray, to live into kairos.

Funniest moment, in the middle of Mass, the workmen repairing the cloister suddenly began hammering blocks of stone into place, as I tried to read, with a straight face, "... in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Math Man and chaos

I first met Math Man at new faculty orientation, on a hot and steamy August day.  I, with four years of college teaching under my belt, had come at the provost's invitation to share what wisdom I had with my newest colleagues.  Math Man jokes that his one-liner about his research — "I design chaotic billiard tables." — was what caught my attention.  It's a line, he still jokes, that attracts a certain kind of woman (geeky).  Fast forward to the end of first semester, and it might be that we have been on a date.

This summer he helped develop this TedEd lesson about billiards, chaos theory, and the climate.

We expect things to be linear, turn the tap a small amount and the temperature of the water changes a tiny bit.  But not everything in nature is linear.  For example, you can make a small change to the concentration of one reaction in this reaction, and suddenly the entire beaker starts flashing through different colors.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Round about on pilgrimage

We're in Ireland, on pilgrimage.  Well, perhaps Math Man is on pilgrimage -- under both the oldest definition, which simply means a wanderer from foreign places, to the current which carries the connotation of a journey to a sacred place. As soon as Crash announced he was studying this fall at Trinity, Math Man started planing the trip.  Four rounds of golf, a thousand kilometer loop, three iconic courses. Oh, and some time in Dublin with our son.

I love to walk, so for me, as long as there is a good walk to be had, I am happy.   This morning, in the rain, I had a most marvelous walk on an utterly empty golf course, then into town and along the sea wall.  Math Man is out playing this incredible course with just a caddy, no one else was so crazy as to go out early this morning.

Pilgrimages ought to offer difficulties, I suspect. Roads that are less than direct, wrong turns, trying weather.   We left Ballybunnion late yesterday afternoon, headed to the ferry across the Shannon.  Though the GPS took us round two sides of a triangle, we made it with a safe margin. We cross, then decide we will take the N67, the larger road, slightly longer route, along the Atlantic coast.  "Follow the signs for the Wild Atlantic Way," advised our innkeeper from last night.  We drove to Kilkee, only to find the road closed for repairs.  A construction worker offered directions around. We backtracked nearly to Kilrush, and turned north again. The road was single lane, and the tractors were heading home for the night. The cows were all resting their heads atop the stone walls that lined the road.

We intersected with the N67 again.  Only to find it closed again in less than a kilometer.  We asked directions.  "Go back to Killrush...take the road to Cooraclare"  We did, finally finding the road to Cooraclare.  For more than an hour, the GPS told me it was 45 minutes to our destination, no matter how far we drove, we never got any closer.  A mystical pilgrimage?  Was there a task we needed to do?  A novena to say?

In the end we arrived at the hotel I'd booked us. Late, dark, tired, it looked more like something out of The Shining than anything else. The coffin like base to the narrow bathtub, made me think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  But the staff in the bar was delightful, we watched Ireland tie Germany in the last 10 seconds of a soccer game, drank cider and ate a good meal.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Trigger warnings

The student plenary voted to ask faculty to consider placing trigger warnings on class materials and syllabi.  I know from painful experience, how distracting triggers are when they appear, and how difficult they can be to avoid.  And I know that I've brought up examples in class that trod on painful ground for students, a risk I take in electing to teach chemistry within a context, not as a sterile set of numbers.

On Sunday — which would have been Tom's 58th birthday — I opened up the Sunday paper to find this spadea.1  I was riveted by the red balloon.  The aneurysm which killed him would have been at least as large at the balloon in the illustration, it still strikes me an unimaginable that we could not have known something of that size was inside of him.  It's odd, too,  to think about Tom at 58, older than our parents were when he died, twice the age I was when he died.  Does it make sense to think about someone being dead for more than half their life?

Probably not.

But it may explain today's funk, and last night's uneasy dreams.

1.  I love that there is word for these foldover sheets on newspapers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Memory charms

Photo of Thomas Great Hall
at Bryn Mawr College

c. Bart Everson.  Used under CC license.
Yes, I work at a place that bears a passing resemblance to Harry Potter's Hogwarts.  In my building, as at Hogwarts, not every stairway goes where you think it does.  I teach Potions to first year's at times and since I've an exam in progress this week, there may be some that wished for a memory charm.

The battery on my little pedometer ran out last week, which I discovered when the TSA people had me run it through the X-ray again.  I finally got around to doing something about the lack of electrons yesterday.  I thought I had another battery for it, but couldn't recall where I had put it in my study.  Ah, I did remember that the device had sent me an email when the battery was low last time, complete with information on the battery type.

I searched "fitbit battery" in my email and what came up but an message with the subject:  "fitbit battery is clipped to the wall folder hanger in my study."  It felt like magic. How did I know I'd need that information?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hermeneutic of exhaustion

It's been a crazy couple of weeks, where despite my best intentions, I ended up working 12 straight days without a break.  Mindful of nettles and myrtle, I am grateful for work that is sustaining, in literal and metaphorical ways, and that is extraordinarily stable.  But a number of conversations this week have left me thinking about how we read the rhythms of work and rest.  Are more hours construed as more devoted, more passionate, or just more?  Is rest something that we must collapse into, or is it built into the order of our day?  We speak of a well-earned rest, but what does it take to earn such grace?

Of course, the ability to ask these questions is itself a luxury. A few weeks ago, the New York Times had an article about shift work, and the ways in which the lack of a predictable and regular schedule, — a rhythm of work — can make it difficult or even impossible to meet the basic needs of life, from a place to live, to time for sleep and care for a family's children.  Over these days I've been aware of those I see working odd hours: the grocery store clerks re-stocking early in the morning, the baggage people there when my plane lands at 9 pm, the woman working the desk at the hotel overnight.  No matter how out of control my schedule feels, the bulk of it is not this much out of my control.

After this crazy busy rush, this weekend I made time to do my laundry, to sit and meditate in the warm rose and cobalt blue light of the parish's stained glass windows.  I walked with Math Man, wrote and read.

This afternoon I picked up Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings, a Trappist monk from Holy Trinity Abbey, written in the late 1980s after he'd been a Cistercian for almost a quarter of a century.  It's a practical book in some ways, grounding the customs of a monastery in Benedict's rule and lived experience in equal measures, which reminds me of First Initiation into Carthusian Life (it oh so practically covers laundry as well as prayer).

Cummings notes that while being and doing are two parts of who we are, and both need to be appreciate.  But being comes before doing, being trumps doing.  I risk doing so much that I fail to be, that I lose the ground I  stand on.  God, in whom I live and move and have my being.

Two other thoughts from the chapter that I'm thinking about.  "Monastic manual work brings me again and again up against the obduracy of things." and the notion that we might take on more work than we should to insulate ourselves from what might be found in prayer and contemplation.

And in all this I learned this is a journal called "Mystics Quarterly" (they reviewed Cumming's book when it first came out).  Do mystics need a journal?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thorn bushes and nettles, cypress and myrtle

In place of the thorn bush, the cypress shall grow; instead of nettles, the myrtle. Isaiah 55:13a

I was the reader at Lauds this morning, the text from Isaiah's 55th chapter:  Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the water.

For some reason I looked at the rest of the chapter later today.  Thorn bushes and nettles, cypress and myrtle. I could make a list of today's nettles:

I spent over 90 minutes with UPS on the phone today, trying to figure out why their insurance people still haven't managed to pick up The Egg's broken computer, despite repeated assurances over the last three weeks that "it will be picked up tomorrow."   
A piece of research equipment that was ordered last week was "stuck" in the system. 
Unbloggable work issues. 
But images of the cypress trees in the cemetery at Wernersville are dancing at the edges of my vision, reminding me of a late evening walk there last week, and the deep welling water that was God in the silence.

Cypress and myrtle.  Their growth means there is water stirring somewhere.  Cool.  Quenching. Life-giving water.

The company that made the sink offered to replace it. 
And public safety called, they found my breviary, dropped from bag as I got out of the car in the parking lot this morning.  And as it doesn't have my name in it, it took them a bit of detective work to figure out who it might belong to.   
My students.

Cracks are how the light gets in: Catastrophic fractures and community

"There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That's how the light gets in." — Leonard Cohen

The picture at the left feels to me as if it were pulled straight from Leonard Cohen's lyrics from Anthem, the cracks are beautifully brilliant in the morning sun, alive with the light.

I have an entire box of these glittering stones.  It used to be my bathroom sink.  Yesterday, the sink underwent a catastrophic, spontaneous fracture.  More precisely, my sink blew up in my face.  Without warning.

I was watering the plants on the window sill and had set the succulent in the cache pot to soak for a minute while I wiped down the ledge.  I reached out to turn the water on and the sink exploded, blowing chunks of glass ten feet out the open door and down the stairs. And I screamed.

I hasten to say that it was tempered glass, and other than a few scratches on my arms, I was undamaged.  I was however, most certainly unnerved.  I stood there, amid the sparkling glass, in my sock feet, looking at the completely destroyed sink and said, "What the f--k just happened?"1

There was this odd crinkling sound, as the glass chunks continued to fracture.

I cleared a path out of the bathroom, found a pair of shoes, corralled the cat (who wanted to investigate), then dashed to answer the phone.  It was Math Man, just calling to say hello in between golf game and afternoon meeting.  It was good to hear his voice. "Should I come home?"  No, I assure him, it's just a mess to clean up and I'm unhurt.

But what happened?  The sink and water and room were all at the same temperature, I'd just had the water on a minute before.  Nothing hit the sink, the pot had just been sitting there. Had I gone momentarily mad and smashed the sink with...with what?  No hammers up here. I did what any reasonable human being with an internet connection would do.  I did a search.  I typed in "glass sink e" at which point Google suggested "glass sink explodes."  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I was not alone.2

1.  The first time I ever heard Crash use the word, he hadn't realized I was in the room.  I can't quite recall what had happened, but it was definitely worthy of an imprecation.  He blanched.  I looked at him and said there were times and places to use that sort of language, and that this was certainly one of them.  Which made him blink.
2.  Community is a wonderful thing.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Corpus Christi

Me, no glasses.
On this day, forty nine years ago, I received the Eucharist for the first time.

I still have the dress, but not the veil, which was my mother's communion veil, too.  We sat in the front pew, which meant I could see what was going on.  I was so nearsighted in those days that I had no idea you could actually see each individual leaf on a tree.  But since I'd always seen the world in a blur, I never noticed, and it wasn't until third grade when I was moved to a seat several rows back in the classroom that I realized I couldn't read anything on the flip charts.

My mother, wearing the same veil.
Father John Sullivan heard my first confession the day before, and Father John Coholan, a Maryknoll missioner and English professor, who learned his role only a few minutes before Mass began, was that Sunday's celebrant.  I was the only first communicant, having been accidentally catechized the spring before, and both my parents and the pastor (who had quizzed me over the summer) were convinced I was prepared for what I desired and not inclined to make me wait a full year more.  So on a warm September Sunday, I knelt at the altar rail, and to the words "Corpus Christ," I responded, "Amen."

I can still remember the aching desire to receive, and my relief that my parents and pastor took my request seriously.

Someone asked me this morning why I am marking 49, not 50?  It's a perfect square of a sacred number:  7 x 7? Once a geek, always a geek.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Dropping the other shoe

Crash heads to Ireland.
I drove up to the old Jesuit novitiate on Monday night to see my spiritual director, and to take a brief, but much needed plunge into the silence.  I was looking forward to two long walks, after dinner and early in the morning.  Somehow between taking my sneakers from the house to the car (along with my overnight bag, my lunch and my school bag), I dropped one.  Or perhaps I knocked it out of the back of the car when I was unloading the teaching supplies I picked up midmorning?  All I know is that after dinner, when I walked back to the car to get my shoes, there was only one. The left.

The shoes I had worn to work were not precisely walking shoes, but would certainly do as long as  I stuck to the paved paths.  I let go of the plan to walk the hedgerows toward the frascati and just headed down the hill toward the Jesuit cemetery.  I sat on the benches and prayed for the men buried there, and my own beloved dead.  I watched the full moon climb higher in the sky, astonished at how clearly I could see the craters on its surface.  And I contemplated my missing shoe, and what it might have to say about the other things I am missing (and not) in my life.

The Egg begins his college orientation.
A post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, about surrendering what I have been given, and what I hold onto appeared today at DotMagis, and as is often the way of it, others are writing funny, beautiful and poignant reflections about letting go and holding on. To memories, to visions of church and to kitchens.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Depths of Plum

"Slivka" by Maciarka - Own work. Licensed under 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 
The plum tree out front has been ransacked by the local squirrel population.  As soon as the green fruit appeared, I started seeing them sampling the fruit.  The last few weeks, as soon as I spotted a deep violet globe in the depths, a squirrel would be on it in a flash, chirruping gleefully.

Reading an essay last weekend I ran across Natasha Trethewey’s elegant poem Tableau with it's warm images of plums, so plump I wanted to pluck them off the page and eat them.  Which reminded me of William Carlos Williams' short poem This is Just to Say...which I imagined could inspire the squirrels to ask me for forgiveness.

I have eaten
the plums
that were on
your tree 
and which
you were probably
of turning into jam 
forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so warm.

As I hung laundry out to dry in today's warm breezes, perhaps prompted by the images of the man's hands on the plum in Trethewey's poem, my hands moving on the line reminded me of my great-grandmother's hands hanging out laundry behind her warm sandy brick house in Illinois. The rhythm of it as she hung the sheets. Clip, slide, smooth, clip.  The snap of sheets in the wind.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

On the razor's edge

When I came home from the hospital after Tom died, everything was still as we had left it three days earlier. Used towels hung on the racks, rumpled sheets, Tom's razor and shaving brush still on the counter in the bathroom.  It was surreal.  Life was utterly ordinary when I went to work on Wednesday, and unimaginably not when I returned.

I went into the bathroom, looked at it all, and realized that he had no use of these things anymore, nor would anyone else.  I put the razor and brush into the trash can next to the sink, and systematically went through the house removing the traces of the last day, subtly altering the terrain to accommodate one, not two.  My exhausted parents watched, but did not try to stop me.
We came home this week to the detritus of a less permanent and  harrowing departure, but the after images of that other return home remained.  His razor on the counter in the bathroom, his towel hanging on the hook behind the door.  His tousled sheets. For a moment both realities were superimposed.

Once again I put towels in the wash, put away shaving cream and razor, and hung my robe on the door, transforming the guys' bathroom into a space for a soaking bath.

Now is not then, but neither time nor grief is precisely linear, they crisscross the everyday, crashing into each other at odd moments, in unexpected ways.  Like in the bathroom.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Scunthorpe Effect

by Tuxyso - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons 
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
We dropped The Egg (the child formerly known as The Boy) off at college earlier this week, then returned to welcome our own new students.  I spent yesterday morning advising first year students in a Harry Potter like hall,  this afternoon at a safety refresher (how long does it take a lab coat to catch on fire?) and various moments in between fielding placement emails and finalizing my syllabus.

Math Man has gone off after work today to play golf, it's a gorgeous afternoon by any measure and I've settled down on the patio to catch up on some writing.  The blog stats showed a huge increase in hits today.  My post entitled "Magic Kingdom," which while about California is not about Disney's Magic Kingdom, appears on the first page of Google search results for the last week.  Hence, I am a prime target for blog spam.

In search of a term for the inadvertent use of high traffic search terms (blog homographs?), I discovered the Scunthorpe Problem, named for the North Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe whose residents found themselves blocked from AOL because their town name included an unfortunate string of letters (characters 2 through 5).

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Magic Kingdom

From top of stairs leading down to the arroyo.
The Boy is going to college in California, and we are out here to drop him off, staying with my brother and his wife (The Artistes) in their wonderful Craftsman home in a historic district of Los Angeles.  Yesterday we drove to  Santa Monica to dip our feet in the Pacific.  We walked down to Muscle Beach, where I managed to blister my feet on the sand, which made the cold Pacific water feel all the more delightful.

This is a beautiful place. The sand is white and fine, the ocean turquoise, the sun bright, the humidity low.  Palm trees sprout from the sand, and gnarled trees shade the walking path along the ocean.  Be on the look out for celebrities shopping, says my brother.

My eye is so caught by the show and beauty, that as with a magician distracting the audience, I miss at first what is in plain sight.  The homeless woman stretched out on the grass in a sleeping bag.  The man sleeping behind Santa Monica's camera obscura, a blanket over his face to keep the sun from his eyes.  The young man who mentioned where he lives when we checked out.  On the far side of Los Angeles from this upscale shopping center.

From the bottom of the stairs leading down
to the arroyo. Math Man on the right, Mme. 
Artiste on the left.
We made that very drive in fact.  At almost 6 pm it took us over an hour and a half to go 24 miles on the highway.  An average of 16 mph, if you do the math.  I can bike that fast on the flats.  Our sedate speed let me notice the tent jammed between the chain link fence and the sharply inclined verge, the boxes tucked up against the buttresses of the underpasses, the encampment in a vacant lot, unseen from the street, a blur when the highway is moving fast.

This morning, after an amazing brunch in a nearby town, we walked the neighborhood, peering into front gardens, admiring the architecture.  Madame Artiste was the driving force behind the neighborhood's official historic status, and did the architectural survey, so she is full of details.  We walked down the eight flights of stairs to the arroyo, and checked out a terraced back yard, then I turned around to see that the very ordinary concrete steps we had come down, were not so ordinary after all.

I wonder what extraordinary beauty, which person dearly beloved by God I missed asleep on the grass in Santa Monica.  Can I learn to turn around?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Flying quietly

Burbank Airport
This reflection appeared at on 18 August 2014.

…if you receive my words and treasure my commands
Turning your ear to wisdom, inclining your heart to understanding;
If you seek her like silver, and like hidden treasures search her out,
Then will you understand the fear of the Lord; the knowledge of God you will find;
Then you will understand what is right and just, what is fair, every good path;
For wisdom will enter your heart, knowledge will be at home in your soul…

— From the second chapter of the book of Proverbs

About once a month I take a long walk, to a spot at the edge of a field where there is no one within a half-mile of me in any direction. I stand there and listen. To the distant sound of traffic on 422, to the wind stirring in the leaves overhead, to the chitter of cicadas in the summer and the whistling of the cardinals in the winter. To God.

I might be alone in the silence, but these days I’m not alone in my desire to seek it out. Recently there was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the growing popularity of silent retreats, as people seek to escape the noise and frenzy of daily life. While many people today might associate silent meditation retreats with Buddhism or other Eastern traditions, there is a long tradition of silence in Catholicism as well.

Reflecting on the many Christian religious orders that practice a discipline of silence Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi points out that silence is not just for the women and men who have chosen a cloistered contemplative life. “Reflection, meditation, contemplation are as necessary as breathing,” he said. “Time for silence — external but above all internal — are a premise and an indispensable condition for it.”

Silence lets us turn our ears to God’s wisdom, gives us time to search out the treasures hidden within.

While you don’t need to go on retreat to find pockets of silent time to spend with God, a dedicated time of retreat in a place apart from our daily rounds can help make those spaces easier to identify in our everyday lives.

Silent retreats can be short, as short as a few hours, or last several days or a week. Five years ago, I spent a month in silence, making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in a secluded retreat house on the Atlantic coast. In January, I spent an hour of grace-filed silence as part of an evening of reflection at the IHM Center right here in Bryn Mawr. The month spent listening to God was a tremendous gift but even the hour taken from the start of a frenzied semester contained blessings beyond counting.

If you are encouraged to find more time in silence to listen with God, but not quite sure you want to dive into a weekend retreat or are not able to get away from home, here is one way to try taking some silent time without leaving home.

Schedule an hour (or perhaps less if you are new at this) and find a place where you can sit or walk undisturbed. A park or a church are obvious spots, but I’ve walked through Philadelphia, and sat in libraries in bad weather. St. Ignatius advises starting a time of prayer by praying for a particular grace, so before you head out to walk with God, or sit down with Jesus, ask for what you desire in this time of prayer. Wisdom, strength, forgiveness? Then listen to what God has to say back. Gently, without strain. At the end of the time you have set aside, say an Our Father.

Know that silence in a retreat, even one as short as what I suggest here, is not always a gentle or consoling experience. It can feel dry or empty as if God is not there at all, or it may open the door to a distracting cascade of images and thoughts — at times I feel as if my to-do list starts dancing the macarena as soon as I sit down to pray.

Even Jesus had a hard time when he retreated to the desert for 40 days. A directed silent retreat offers time each day to talk over what is happening in prayer with someone who is familiar with the church’s long history of contemplative prayer and meditation and who can direct you to helpful advice drawn from this tradition.

“Give yourself to prayer at intervals, as you would to food,” advised St. Comghall, a 6th century monk honored as one of the 12 apostles of Ireland. Find some time with God to let wisdom enter your heart and knowledge make itself a sure home in your soul.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Feast of the Assumption: Wracked with an ineluctable longing

Mary, Seat of Wisdom
12th century
Mabon Madonna at St. John's Abbey

" imagination is caught — not by Revelation’s dragons and diadems, or John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, or even the queen draped in gold of Ophir — but by the woman in labor. I can feel my body recall the times I labored to give birth to my sons.

To be in labor is to yearn with your entire being, to be wracked by an ineluctable longing to come face-to-face with what has been kindled within you...Mary once labored to bring God’s hidden face to light, so that we now might yearn with all our being to see the face of the God of Abraham and of Jacob."

— From a reflection for the Feast in Give Us This Day

I've been humming the Alsott setting of Psalm 45 under my breath off and on all day, preparing to cantor tomorrow.  I've been thinking about young people joyously going off, and about how much I will miss them.  I've been meditating on longing.  What do we desire? My oldest, wrung from me so many years ago, comes home for a few days tomorrow.  I long to see him.

I pray for friends who long to see children they have lost.  Lost to addiction. To illness. To accident. To war.  To violence. To suicide.

I pray to learn from all of this how to yearn more and more deeply to see God's face.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

All that is hidden

High speed line tracks in Bryn Mawr.
Yesterday I rode the Norristown high speed line four stops down the road to get to a meeting.  Crash has one car in DC this week, so he can move his stuff home from Georgetown and get packed up for Ireland, Math Man, who this summer could have had a new name, Man of Many Meetings, had an appointment for which he needed a car and The Boy was off at work.  So I rode my bike and took the NHSL and walked.

SEPTA's high speed line, might elsewhere be known as "the train" but since Philadelphia has two other rail systems serving it (regional rails and Amtrak), we have the "high speed line."  Fares on the line are cheaper by a factor of two than the regional rail line, it takes longer to get into the city riding it, it is far less plush and it runs longer hours.  All of which means that there are fewer investment bankers riding it.

As I waited for the train, the early morning shift at the hospital was getting off.  The two people next to me on the platform were chatting about feeding their kids over the summer, exchanging tips on where to find cereal inexpensively and in bulk, hard to come by in the city, and the gas to get to a Costco is expensive.  "Did you see the 10 for 10 deal on lunch meat?"  This isn't food insecurity, precisely.  This is simply what it is like to live on a budget in what amounts to a food desert, where you don't have the time or extra money for gas to bargain hunt, or the time or energy to cook from scratch.  (And Philly is working a lot of different angles to help improve this situation...)

But it made me think what we miss about each other, how much is hidden from us, when we drive about in our little bubbles or ride the bus and train plugged in to phones and iPods.  Turn your ears, says Proverbs.
Turning your ear to wisdom,
inclining your heart to understanding;
If you seek her like silver,
and like hidden treasures search her out,
Then will you understand the fear of the LORD;
the knowledge of God you will find;
Then you will understand what is right and just,
what is fair, every good path;
For wisdom will enter your heart,
knowledge will be at home in your soul…
                                                    — from Proverbs, Chapter 2

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Universal Design

A punch card, what I used when I first began writing 
computer code.
8289, 8290, 8291...

I'm running a simulation, creating a set of miniature universes, designed to let me explore what happens if I staged their creation over and over again.  Ten thousand times in this case.

The mathematical model behind it all is called the Monte Carlo method, enabling my universes to evolve by a combination of rules and random chance.  Though I usually use these methods on chemical systems, this time I'm modeling a social system.

I've been working on the code off and on over the last week, and this afternoon had it in shape to run some quick models to make sure the code was working.  Once I was sure (or as sure as you can be) that the code had no significant bugs, I put a 30 minute simulation on to run and went for my walk.  The results were encouraging, so I started a longer run, then went to have dinner.

It reminded me of graduate school days, when I would put a job on to run while I went home for dinner, then go back to the lab to get my results and queue something up for an overnight run.  Yes, these were the days before machines were webbed into each other, no way to call in and get the results from much further away than the little room in the Physical Sciences building that had no windows and several terminals, wired into our research group's Harris computer (see a photo of one here, the large boxes on the left are the computers, the washing machine sizes things on the right are hard drives, 40 MB — not GB, MB — hard drives; our large drive was 80 MB).

When I was in graduate school, I could track my jobs by ear, the disks would begin to scream when the jobs hit a particular point in the code that was I/O intensive, either trying to stash the values of integrals as fast as they possibly could, or peeling them back to reassemble into a final value.  My silent solid state drive offered me no such clues to progress, so even though I know that it slowed my code down a tiny bit, I inserted a counter, so I could see what it was up to.  The eight thousandth ninety-first universe, when I began writing this.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Book review: Habits by Susan Sink

Habits on my desk, and yes, that absolutely is a 
St. Ignatius bobblehead holding down my notes 
for a chemistry essay in progress.
Susan Sink, who I wrote about earlier, has a terrific new book, Habits; a collection of one-hundred word stories based on the oral histories of Minnesota Benedictine sisters.  It's funny and sharp and poignant, particularly in the small details.  After a couple of weeks praying the psalms with the Benedictine monks, who keep a lot of space open around the words, I enjoyed, too, the layout of this book.  One story per page, where there could be two or three.

A story about "particular friendships" ends with the note of a young woman come to the community from a farm where she slept four to a bed.  This said much about life in early twentieth century Minnesota, in a few spare words.

You can read one of the stories here (click on the photo that comes up to read the story).  I encourage you to browse more of Susan's stories while you are there.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Vampire Children

Bela Lugosi as Dracula  Via Wikimedia Commons 
I met a friend last night for an ice cream cone.  I texted her when I arrived, "My book and I are here.  Sitting on the wall by the vampire children."

There is no seating for the little ice cream shop, but the wall between the parking lot and the back drive serves well enough for outdoor seating.  There were already two mothers sitting there, with their four young kids running off steam, evidence of their choice of ice cream and water ice flavors on their faces.   When I had settled down to read, they ran circles around me, until their mothers asked them to the leave "the lady" alone.  I think the "old" was unvoiced.

One of the urchins had a line of cherry red water ice running from his mouth, and when his mother asked him to wipe it off, teasing him that he looked like a vampire, he decided that he was a vampire, and so certainly should not wipe the sticky stuff off.  Pretty soon, the whole lot of them were vampires, huddling by the garden, shooting glances my way.  "How much blood do you think that woman has?"1

Maybe I should have had more garlic on my tomato salad?

1.  About 4.7 liters is a good estimate.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Luminesce: For the feast of Ignatius of Loyola

Ite, omnia incendite, et inflammate! 
Go, and set the world on fire!  
— St. Ignatius of Loyola to St. Francis Xavier, upon missioning him to India

A few weeks ago, at the end of an evening gathering of writers I was at, a priest/writer closed the night with a poetic blessing.  One word in particular wove its way through her benediction, "luminous..." which my brain insisted on rewriting as the imperative "luminesce!"

Luminescence is light that comes from within a material, photons shed as atoms and molecules change state.  It's not reflected, it does not consume like a flame. It's kenotic, releasing what has been hidden within.  

The usual translation of Ignatius' words to Francis Xavier is, "Go, set the world on fire!" (Or the looser translation I found here:  "Go kick some butt!") But like the archetype eats/shoots/leaves meme - without certain knowledge of the punctuation, it's ambiguous. Does inflammate go with omnia or with ite?

I might be willing to translate it as "Go, set everything alight, and be aflame!" Pour forth the light that has been poured forth into you.  Luminesce.

Happy feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola!

Warning on the video. I found the music to be grating, mute it and play something lilting and classical.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The effects of plastic spectacles on the condition and behaviour of pheasants

"Blinders (poultry)".  Via Wikipedia 
Since I've come back from my stint in Collegeville, I've been trying to start each day with a short warm-up writing exercise.  I've been avoiding fussing over prompts (or at least avoiding link diving through the interwebs in search of a "good" prompt) and using ones I've used while teaching or that we used at the workshop.  I pick, set the timer for 10 minutes and write.

I remain mystified that I can write 300 words (that with some editing could be just fine) in 10 minutes, but can struggle to produce that many in a morning "on topic"?  I may try some quick writing with the essay I'm working on now.

Today's prompt was to write the beginning of the essay with the title The effects of plastic spectacles on the condition and behaviour of pheasants.  A paper with that title appeared in a literature search I ran yesterday (which I assure you had nothing to do with spectacles, pheasants or plastic -- so I'm at a loss to tell what keyword made it pop up, and I was too disciplined to actually look at the paper).  As I know nothing of avian eyeglasses, I was free to make it up, and did...
We offer a choice of frames, lively and colorful for the male of the species, that won’t fall off during particularly high-spirited mating displays.  For the ladies, something genteel, as befitting the decision maker.  Both anti-glare, and polarized lenses are available upon request.  As many find lenses fog up when they are flushed by the dogs, ask about our anti-fog lens cloths.  Young pheasants can be fitted for their first set of spectacles when they fledge...
I spent some time working through how you might keep spectacles on a pheasant.  Do they wear monocles, the lenses held in by pure muscle power?  Do they go over the head with a strap, like WW I aviator googles? Over lunch I looked up pheasant spectacles.  They are a thing, it turns out, used to prevent caged birds from pecking out their own feathers or cannibalizing their eggs.  They are also considered cruel, as the bridge is inserted through the bird's nose to keep them from sliding off. While I am frequently annoyed by glasses that slip down on my nose, this is not a solution I would be pleased with, either!