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.