Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent 1: Messiah mix-up

In a sleep-deprived fog, occasioned by a delayed flight that got me home at 3 am yesterday, I wandered onto Twitter where two chemist friends noted that they never came away from a reading of Messiah without new insights.  My first thought was they were talking about the classic quantum mechanics text by French physicist Albert Messiah.  Actually, not.  Handel's Messiah was the text under discussion.

Evidence I really am a science geek first and foremost.  I used Messiah's text when I took a year long course in quantum physics as a graduate student (from the physics department, have exhausted the chemistry offerings as an undergrad).

The text is still in print, though Albert Messiah died in 2013 at aged 92.  We pronounced his name "mess-ee-uh" rather than "mess-eye-uh."  I wondered today how he might have pronounced his name, and dove into the interwebs to see if I could uncover any clues.  I discovered Messiah had been part of the French Resistance in World War II (joining at age 19, the same age of my youngest son), worked at Princeton with  Niels Bohr and returned to France to teach and write this text.

I also listened to a few minutes of a presentation Messiah gave in 2009 at Le Ecole Polytechnique.  It was oddly moving to hear the voice of someone whose written words I had spent so much time wrestling with almost forty years ago.  And at the end of the presentation, I learned how he pronounced his name.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent 1: A Little Office for Advent

My brother and sister-in-law's cat waiting
for their return.
We tend to view waiting as problematic, penitential even. And it can be.  We wait for forks in the road, to know our fates, in things trifling and significant.  This waiting can be hard, for change is potentially ahead, with all the uncertainty that brings. Will I get this fellowship? What will the test results show?

But there is the other kind of waiting, the yearning for something or someone to arrive.  We went to California to see my youngest son, who I hadn't hugged since the middle of August, and to see family up the coast.

This sort of waiting challenges my relationship with time.  I want to arrive, but once there I want time to move with the traffic on I-5 on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.  I wait, only to wait again.  For departures. And for the next arrival.  (He's coming home in less than three weeks!  I can hardly wait. Again.)  This waiting is liturgy, a cycle that sharpens senses and soul, and slowly peels my fingers away from the things I cling too tightly to.  A Little Office of Advent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fitting the mold

Math Man is giving a talk today.  As we walked into the beautiful new building where he is scheduled to speak, I felt for a moment  like one of the wives of the scientists and mathematicians of the 1960s, whose biographies I've read on this leave.  Their kids grown, they accompanied their husbands to conferences (where there were special activities organized for them), and to give talks.

Maybe it was the fact that I'd ironed Math Man's shirt for him this morning (to give him more time to spend with a visiting cousin), or maybe it's that I'm not wearing the sort of clothes I'd wear to give a talk in.  Or maybe it's because I don't quite fit in the physical space.

A dean at Claremont McKenna College resigned last week, after sending an email characterizing minority students  as not "fit[ting] into our CMC mold"; a student at Princeton noted that the protests there are steps toward "creating a campus environment that will eventually allow people like me to feel more comfortable on this campus.”

All this has me musing again about fit and comfort in the physical spaces we construct, particularly in science.  I wrote an essay four years ago for Nature Chemistry (Sex and the Citadel of Science) women and science and the various ways in which we do and don't see women fitting into science, including the physical spaces we create to do science in. In it I noted that when I arrived at Princeton, it wasn't an entirely comfortable campus:
"When I pushed open the door to the ladies', I encountered a wall of urinals. I quickly ducked back out and checked the door. ‘Women’. In more than a decade [since they began admitting women,] the only thing this highly regarded research university with a large endowment had managed to change was the sign on the door. "
When I returned to give a departmental seminar many years later, the urinals were gone, so at least in this way, Princeton is no longer sending the message that they are so unsure women will major in science that it's not worth renovating a bathroom for them, but progress toward a campus where all the students can feel comfortable is clearly slow.  (And while I'm fully in favor of bathrooms that accommodate all users, in 1983, I'm pretty sure that's not why Princeton left the urinals there.)

While waiting for Math Man to return from visiting colleagues, I sat down in one of the chairs scattered about for students on the first floor here.  And immediately got the message.  Women aren't to sit here.  My feet dangle a full 4 inches from the floor.  I physically don't fit.

A bit of trivia. The standard chair seat is 17 inches from the floor; the natural seated position for the average male is 17.1 inches from the floor. Chairs are built to accommodate the majority of men, and a minority of women (less than 5% in fact).  It's a subtle statement, and I suspect an unintentional one, but a statement nonetheless.  This is men's space.  Women don't fit the mold.

The good news is that I've discovered there are a variety of seating options around the building, for the long and the short legged among us, and that the seat heights of the chairs in the classroom nicely adjust to accommodate a variety of body sizes and shapes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

DotMagis: Hearing Places

After a month of travel, a delightful mix of work and rest, I was anxious to get home. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to negotiating yet another airport, where each line earns you the privilege of waiting in another. As we approached check-in, we were waved off to wait with a half-dozen others. “Are you sure they sent us to the right line?” I asked my husband, as I watched people in the long queue next to us check their bags for Philly while we waited— unmoving —  behind a rope.  “The sign says Philadelphia,” he reassured me.

Suddenly a young woman appeared, and without any preamble, began to ask us questions in careful English.  “What did you see?” she asked me brightly.  It was a hard question to answer.  I had spent a number of days walking the northwest coast of Ireland, I’d seen the Atlantic stretching out before me, breath-taking cliffs, tumbled-down chapels, and sheep — lots of sheep.  I’d seen Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia, and Michaelangelo’s David.  I took a lot of pictures, but my most potent memories of this trip are as much about what I heard as what I saw.  Why don't we ask people who've been away, "what did you hear?"

The walk where it was so quiet, I could hear the sheep tearing at the grass.  The rocks rolling on a shore far below.  The bubbles breaking in my cappuccino.

The experience led to a short reflection on Ignatius' notion of the composition of place posted today at DotMagis (with a great graphic!).

The mystery of the lines was that they were funneling people off to let trainees practice.  Did we look patient?  Like teachers?  We each got a little gold star on our passports, regardless.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Deserts and detachment: thoughts on my library

Trinity College Library
Paul Campbell SJ wrote today about gratitude (for cars!) and attachments, and Elizabeth Scalia has a post up with a quiz challenging readers to match books with the person who would want that volume if stranded on a desert island, and Robin is wondering about questions to ask herself as she balances at a life cusp. All of which got me thinking about my relationship to books.

I'm just off a long plane ride (the 7th in as many weeks), and the very first thing that goes in my carry-on bag is a book — or maybe several books.  Because I get anxious at the thought of being stranded somewhere with nothing to read.  I brought a book when I was in labor.  And I read it between contractions. At least at first.

These days ebooks should in principle lighten my load.  Except that I carry a charger and an back-up power stick...and a real book, just in case I'm really stuck. What do I read into this need to having reading material close to hand?  It's an attachment to be sure, and one that literally weighs me down at time. The deeper question is whether it weighs down me down metaphysically, are my books windows or doors or chairs - possessions that let light in, allow me to move to new places, or settle down with old friends, with God?  Or are they stumbling blocks, hemming me in?

While I was in Ireland a few weeks ago, I saw a beautiful bowl set into the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic near Slieve League and wondered what it would be like to live in a hermitage there. (Never mind my fear of heights and how I might get to a hermitage that was in the middle of a cliff side — that's fodder for another post about enclosures!)  What books would I pack to take?

Sagas, I think, long tangled pieces of fiction to read in front of a fire, and short stories, to hopscotch across worlds while living in this one small place.  Saints, too.  John of the Cross for the long nights and the desert monastics for the long days (or perhaps vice versa). Poetry, words that can never be exhausted.  Rilke and Rumi.  Marilyn Nelson and Billy Collins.   The Psalms.

And then I think a solar panel — to charge my iPad — and a satellite connection, and wi-fi, so I will never run out of things to read.  And I start to worry that I could never drag it all up the cliff...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Phrase banks for the peripatetic
Where have I been?  Today?  I began at and ended up at  My brother the Geek Guru pointed me to this very cool site which maps three word English phrases to small areas on the globe.  How small?  "" is the pet food aisle at my local Acme.  I also made a brief swing through produce, which is bars.hunter.swift.  Small!

I could have told Math Man to meet me at forum. drama.alas after Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.  Instead we went through a couple of iterations to make sure we both agreed on which fountain we intend to rejoin forces at.  And I can't count the number of times I've waited on one side of a hotel lobby to meet someone who is patiently standing on the other side.

There is a warmth to naming a place that numbers don't carry — even for me, who loves numbers.  In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, God counts the stars, but also gives them names.  I enjoy, too, the randomness of the words.  Are we a bunch who likes laptops, who also gather to celebrate the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours in a small chapel at the back of the parish church?  We may be.  We are a geeky lot.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Walking with saints

On Inis Caoil

Math Man and I have been away for the last month, on holiday first and then some work related travel for me interspersed with a bit more tourist time, hence the light posting for October.

This lengthy time on the road, so far from home, and the many miles of walking I did most days, had me thinking about the difference between going on pilgrimage and taking a holiday.

Pilgrimages have some spiritual destination attached to them, and holidays are meant to amuse, and divert (as long it's not your plane that's being diverted!).  But for me at least, the fabric of this trip, while certainly having as its warp vacation, had pilgrimage as its weft, weaving over and under the threads of rest and diversion.

We spent the first two weeks of the trip in Ireland where Math Man experimented with hard sphere trajectories (golf) and I walked.  One day I walked at low tide across tidal flats to an island with the ruins of a small chapel on it.

Ruins of St. Connell's chapel
There was a small church and monastic house, along with a cemetery with graves dating back to at least the mid 18th century. The church was dry stacked stone, with a few beautifully arched windows. Someone had numbered the stones in the apse, I suspect some reconstruction had taken place.   I said morning prayer sitting on the altar base, an altar stone lying a top it.  

I walked back along the shoreline, then climbed over a stile into the far pasture (no bull to be seen despite the signs, but I stuck to the path next to the cliff, in case I needed a quick escape route).  I walked to the far end of the island, maybe a mile or out, and stood at a little point and looked out over the Atlantic. The rocks were a deep, deep black, against the brilliant green grass and some bright green-yellow seaweed.  The ocean was calm, and deep blue out here; shading from turquoise through light bluegreen to deepest cobalt blue in the bay.  The contrasts between white foam on the waves and the black rocks and that grass was pretty incredible.  There were the remains of at least one other house in the middle of the island.  I had pretty serious hermitage envy. 

Wading back from Inis Caoil
The monastic ruins are said to be where St. Connell had a monastery in the late 6th century; St. Dallen and St. Connell are buried under the walls of the church.  St. Dallen was killed by pirates who stormed the abbey in 596 or 598.  Dallen was said to be a poet, and his severed head, tossed into the ocean by the marauders, was miraculously returned to his body and reattached, Connell then buried him under the walls of the church, where he himself would be buried a few years later.

I was very aware of the sacred history under my feet as I walked the ruins, and the rest of the island.  To pray atop the tombs of saints was an extraordinary experience, but to me the real miracle of the place was not Dallen's reattached head, but the courage of those who waded out here to celebrate Mass when it was forbidden, and those who worked to live out there in the 7th and 8th centuries.  I may fantasize about a hermitage, but it would not have been an easy life then.

If a pilgrimage is travel that moves your soul to new places, this day's walk was indeed a pilgrimage.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Column: Praying for the unnamed dead

Cemetery on Mullet Peninsula, Ireland
This column appeared at on 30 Oct 2015.

The ruined chapel stands on a windswept headland off the western Irish coast. The only way there is to walk, the road ends a couple of miles away. A small cemetery surrounds the tumbled stones of the church, a dry-stone wall keeps the sheep at bay, the grass is knee deep and heavy with dew.

There are a few graves marked with carved stone crosses; a handful have headstones with neatly carved names and dates ranging back hundreds of years. But most of the graves here are marked only with large unmarked stones, hauled up from the beach below.

As I make my way to the chapel, I keep thinking of all the souls buried here, whose names no one remembers any more, whose graves pass unnoticed by many of the walkers here.

Over and over I repeat the prayers for the dead, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them…” May they rest in peace.

The feast of All Souls (Monday, Nov. 2) is upon us, reminding us of our obligation to pray for those who have gone before us, marked with the same signs of faith we were at our baptism. The word “obligation” comes from the Latin “to bind,” another reminder to me of the ways we are bound to each other in the Body of Christ, ties that even death cannot sever: we believe in the communion of saints, and life everlasting.

“Lumen Gentium,” Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, describes our relationship with the dead: “The union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods.”

We pray for the dead that they might be freed from the sins that bound them here on earth; they intercede for us before the Father.

It’s one thing to pray that the dead I know — my mother, my first husband — be freed from their sins, and another to pray for the nameless men and women buried in this Irish graveyard. Yet, we are invited by the Church to do just that, to remember the unremembered dead, not only on All Souls but throughout the year.

As the feast approaches, I’m praying each night for all the souls of the faithful departed — those known to me, and those unknown.