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.