Tuesday, June 30, 2020

I write like...

Found on Twitter, an algorithm to match writing to other authorial styles. So who do I write like? Depends. Margaret Atwood (Ordinary Jewels) but not Margaret Atwood in this riff off Margaret Atwood's Solstice, then it is Chuck Palahniuk. The Nature Chemistry pieces apparently echo Arthur C. Clarke.

Maybe I just write like myself.

Friday, June 26, 2020


This is the solstice, the still point
of the sun, its cusp and midnight,
the year’s threshold
and unlocking, where the past
lets go of and becomes the future;
the place of caught breath, the door
of a vanished house left ajar. — Margaret Atwood  in Shapechangers in Winter

The solstice comes twice a year. At this cusp, my face is turned toward sabbatical. At the next, tipped back to the classrooom. It is, for now, a place of caught breath, simultaneously midnight and high noon. Everything bright and in sharp focus, everything yet dim and enshrouded.

The door is ajar, I wonder what will come in.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Ordinary jewels

Larve acquatiche di tricotteri con guscio
I recently ran across the work of Hubert Duprat, a French sculptor who collaborates with caddisfly larvae (yes, you read that correctly, caddsifly larvae) to create jeweled carapaces. I'm inspired by the caddisflies, who build their houses out of whatever is to hand, whether it's gold and pearls, or sticks and bits from the shells of dead snails. 

I'm working on a couple of pieces on prayer, one very short, one long. The writing has me thinking about how I sometimes complicate prayer, wanting to dress it up and take it out to some beautiful chapel, and waltz with it in down the cool and dark nave. But perhaps I need to take a few lessons from the caddisfly larvae and be willing to gather into my prayer whatever is at hand, precious or not. The weeds growing through the stones on the back patio, the scream of the lawn mower next door, my own inattention. And just perhaps, in that gathering I might realize just how precious those bits are.

More pictures here

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

All the books

Books pulled for the prayer book project.
In some sense a sabbatical is a period of rest, like a field left fallow for one year, or one semester, in every seven. And after this last semester, I am truly longing for some time off the keyboard and away from Zoom. But in another sense, it's a time for planting, for tending new shoots, for testing new varieties. It's a time of growth.

A colleague asked me what I was most excited about reading, now that my sabbatical is here. Reading fuels my writing, it brings me into conversations I might otherwise never have, it's a launching pad.  A reader also wondered what I was reading these days, so herewith is a sampling of what's currently open, and some random thoughts. I'll try to post a weekly list.

The Psalms, a new translation from the Hebrew: arranged for singing to the psalmody of Joseph Gelineau. I'm working on a short book on prayer, meant to be used by individuals or in a parish or similar setting. Sort of a retreat in a box. Add time and perhaps someone to reflect with or a journal and voilà, a retreat.  The book kicks off with the Psalms, praying with them, plumbing their depths for advice on prayer. So I've been reading The Psalms, straight through, in the Grail translation that's currently used in the Liturgy of the Hours. One line, almost any line, drives me straight into the Hours. These are words that are etched deeply in mind, heart, soul and body. I can hear the voices of those I've prayed with over the last thirty years layered over the bare words.  I can hear the melodies and chant tones I've sung them to, the words nearly dancing on the page. I recall when the monk next to me used to breathe in a long verse. I can see the places where I've prayed them. My back stoop, my parents' garden, the Eastern cloister at Wernersville, the small chapel at the parish, airports and emergency rooms. Like Lewis' wardrobe, I open the book and am transported. I open any page and, to quote Buechner, am "riven by unbearable light."

The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age by Robert Wicks. I thought this might inspire me to organize my office. It's a challenging text, with whiffs of Johannes Baptiste Metz' Poverty of Spirit. To be humble, you cannot even hang on to the notion of humility as something to be attained. It tastes of St. Romuald — "Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother gives him." — but also like Catherine of Siena. “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” The text is rather heavy on male authorities.

The Collapsing Empire series by John Scalzi. Oh, this was a wild and fabulous read. I tore through all three books. I didn't (quite) see the end coming, or perhaps it wasn't the end I wanted to come, but in the end it was the ending that was right and true. Math Man, Crash and my youngest devoured the series as well. It features strong women characters, one of whom falls in love with a mathematician. So, you can see why it might appeal around here.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi A beautifully written book that is as challenging as the Metz' Poverty of Spirit and in many of the same ways. You are not the center. This is my second go round with this book, and it's very much worth the revisit.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Sit in your cell

Friday was the feast of St. Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese Benedictines. Romuald's rule was simple:

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.

If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.

I'm starting a sabbatical leave this week, six months of sitting in my cell — my study at home. I had many plans to physically travel over this period, but now am going to listen to Romuald's advice, and sit here, as though it were paradise, singing the Psalms in my heart, as I still can't in community. No guilt if my mind wanders off to the cardinal flirting with me from the pear tree, or the surprisingly cool caress of a morning breeze.

First up - a short book on prayer.

What happens when your plans burn to the ground? Read Pico Iyer's' piece in Granta: Out of the Cell 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Prayers for wearing a face mask

At PrayTell, Rita Ferrone has written a beautiful prayer for the blessing of face masks. 

As I sat in the back of church on Saturday, I wondered about prayers for the wearing of a face mask. They can be hot and uncomfortable, and I wear one not directly for my own well-being, but for the well-being of others. It's a cross we carry for others, should we not embrace the chance? 

Herewith, my prayer for the donning of a face mask.

Holy Spirit, whose very breath brought creation into existence,

Grant me the grace to wear this mask, with all its discomforts and inconveniences, in wisdom and charity. Help me to bear this cross which I carry for the most vulnerable among us. Hold us all close in your care and bring this pandemic to a swift end. 


Saturday, June 13, 2020

Corpus Christi

Pomona College's Glee at St. Peter's in Rome.
It is the vigil of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ — Corpus Christi — and I went to Mass. In almost any other year, this would be unremarkable.

Four years ago, I celebrated Corpus Christi twice. Once in a diocese that hadn't transferred it to the Sunday, and then again, on Sunday in St. Peter's in Rome, weeping as I listened to my son (and his college choir) sing Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus and stretched out my hands between earth and heaven to receive the Body, if not the Blood, of Christ. This year, I wondered if I would receive communion at all.

My parish returned to the public celebration of the Eucharist. So instead of curling up in a chair with my iPad and headphones, I rode my bike, donned a mask, purified my hands with Purell and went to the vigil Mass. No singing, but with every window and door open, the music was beautiful nonetheless. The birds were in fine voice, the percussion section well served by the cars driving over the bridge, with a whoosh and a clang. No entrance gong or hymn, but someone's phone went off as the cross ducked under the lintel of the sacristy door. The altar, our altar, firmly planted in the world.

No Byrd this year as I went up, hands open to receive what I have been longing for all these weeks, just a quick whisper of my name to let me know it was my turn. I still wept.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Space race

Black and white photograph of Mary Sherman Morgan from the 1950s. A woman with short hair and glasses.
Mary Sherman Morgan, circa 1950s
I've been doing a lot of Netflix binging in the last few months, in part because I've been so exhausted at the end of a day that I just collapse into a chair and let the images go past. #pandemic 

Having Crash with us has expanded our repertoire. This week, we've been watching the comedy Space Force. (I'm a space nerd, so have also lately dipped into The Expanse and Avenue Five. If it's set in space, I'll give it a spin.) Space Force cuts awfully close to the bone, what I might five years ago have considered satire now just replays the real news of the day.

The last episode we watched featured character Edison Jaymes, a Goop-ish woman entrepreneur whose fuel is supposed to burn more completely and energetically, solving a problems she says, that the male scientists have been unable to.

 Spoiler. The fuel is a fake and they launch to the moon with the standard fuel.

What struck me about this is that this story line is also ripped from the news, but in real life, the fuel that the male scientists designed was the failure. In 1958, after a number of notable and embarrassing launch failures, chemist Mary Sherman Morgan designed the fuel (Hydyne) that would successfully carry the first US satellite to orbit. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

The ratio

"The ratio" on Twitter is the ratio of replies to likes: when replies far outpace likes, the tweet is radioactive. The ratio here is the time it takes to prepare dinner to the time it takes to eat it. It's been running between 4 and 5. In large part this is because we've been making more things from scratch than I usually do. Loaves of bread, tortillas, pizza sauce, pasta. Things I often buy without a second thought.

I've been doing more from scratch for a lot of reasons. It's given me family time, cooking alongside Crash has been a delight. I've learned new recipes and new techniques from him, including a great chickpea stew. It's been some alone time as well, a time off Zoom and my email and all the management I've been doing for classes and colleagues. It's been contemplative time, kneading a ball of pasta for 8 minutes is deeply prayerful, at least for me. It's a way to leave loaves of bread and boxes of pasta on the grocery store shelf for those who need them.

It's a reminder, too, of what it takes to put food on the table, not just the cost in dollars, but the cost in time. A homemade loaf of bread costs me just 80 cents, far less than what a similar loaf would cost in the store, and not quite half the cost of a loaf of sliced white bread costs at the Acme here. But thrifty cooking takes time and energy, both of which I am privileged to have.

My awareness is all well and good, but as Pope Francis notes in Laudato Si', the goal is "to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."[19] I'm not suffering when I bake my own bread, but if the experience doesn't lead me to discover what I can do about the reality of hunger in my own community, in my own nation, then the awareness, painful or not, is for naught.

The ten most needed items at Philadelphia food banks. More than 200,000 children in Philadelphia go hungry. Roughly 80% of adults who are food insecure are working, 25% are senior citizens. Hunger is linked to our society's unwillingness to pay a living wage to those who work.