Thursday, July 30, 2020

Reading Rahner

I was working on an essay about praying the everyday, and (misquoted) Karl Rahner, SJ. My editor caught it, but it drove me to pull Rahner's The Need and the Blessing of Prayer off the shelf to find the full context. The chapter entitled "Prayer in the Everyday" is beautiful. If I'd re-read it before writing my own piece, I'd have been tempted to write simply.

Go read Rahner's "Prayer in the Everyday". The End.

"What can be of more astonishing exaltedness than the voice of the Spirit which makes the eternities quake and fills the abysses of God" when it carries our small, timid prayers to the very throne of God. "So that the earth's weeping is heard in the innermost chambers" of that place God built for himself. There is much to weep about in the current moment, and much to appreciate about Rahner's exhortation to simply "pray in the everyday; pray the everyday." in these times where one day blurs into the next.

What else am I reading? I just finished The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman who embedded himself in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in the 1990s. The melding of theory and praxis made me think about chemistry training, where you need to be able to see the dance of the atoms in your head, but also have the knowledge in your hands. 

I'm reading Mexican Gothic, a novel set in the mountains of Mexico, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I spent a summer living with my grandfather and his wife in a small town in the mountains outside Oaxaca, and the novel reminds me of my sense of dislocation. It's dark and 50s-ish and it glows. There's also some chemistry sprinkled here and there:
“She was certain she’d heard about how these most civilized Victorians had been killing themselves in this way, the fungi chomping on the paste in the wall, causing unseen chemical reactions. She couldn’t remember the name of the fungus that had been the culprit—Latin names danced at the tip of her tongue, brevicaule—but she thought she had the facts right.”
Which has me reading William R. Cullen and Ronald Bentley's "The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth" (J. Environ. Monit., 2005, 7, 11-15).

But whatever you're reading, put it down for a minute and read John Lewis' last words to us
"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way." 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Building blocks

I'm stuck. I'm working on a short piece on a big topic and I'm stuck. Anything I say seems simultaneously too specific and not specific enough. 

I keep thinking I should give it up for the day. Work on a piece that is in better shape, and so less frustrating. Take another crack at one of the two book proposals I'm working on. Keep cleaning my office. Unsubscribe from more lists. Fold the laundry. Write a letter to a friend. Go for a walk.

Scratch that last. It's 92°F out there, and humid. 

What does it mean to be productive?

Electronic kenosis

Before the college grants a faculty member a sabbatical leave, we must submit a plan detailing the work we hope to accomplish. These leaves are meant to be a chance to dig deeply into our scholarship, to create space to think. One project that's on my list, but was not in my official plan? To clean out my office. Not just tidy it, but to clear out papers and books. To craft space to think literally and metaphorically. I've been slowly working my way through it all, recycling and shredding and putting aside books for the chem lounge library. I'm letting go of so many things I've hung on to "just in case." Zip disks. CDs for old versions of software. Notes from teaching dating to the last century.

Last week, while sifting through my email, I decided to clear out the corresponding electronic accretion. I get more than a hundred emails a day (that's a literal hundred, not a metaphorical hundred) most of them advertising, some lists, not including what gets screened out by the junk and spam filters. Even though I have the settings such that I see "Important" emails in a separate stream, still, things I really want to see sometimes didn't get recognized, which left me paging through the detritus in search of pearls. Which sometimes I missed.

I started clicking "unsubscribe."  Five minutes here, ten minutes there. I kept a list. Whew. I think I can survive without seeing "Congratulations on your 1580th Mention!" (about my academic papers) or hearing from one company three times a day about what's on sale. Click here to unsubscribe. There are more than 75 companies and lists I'm no longer hearing from - or will no longer hear from once they update their lists (seriously, only ever few weeks?). 

It's been like opening the windows and doors to get a draft moving, there is space for the spirit to blow through.

Irritations. Unsubscribes that ask you to check which email you used. Unsubscribes that take you through multiple screens to be "sure" you want off. Notes saying it might take a few weeks to update your preferences. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Gardens and saints

Yesterday, on the feast of St. Mary of Magdala, I went for a walk in a nearby public garden with a friend. Because of course a garden is where two women should go to talk about the Gospel.

It was lushly humid. The grounds are full of little delights. I loved the cross hatch pattern in the fountain, and was so enamoured of its symmetry, I didn't notice that the "rocks" in the pool are actually carved heads. And why had I never before noticed there were spikes on day lilies?

This is a garden to listen to, as well as see. The outlet from the pond burbles, the cicadas wail, and the cypress whisper in the breeze. 

We talked about Ignatius and the Exercises and praying with all your senses. It was a walk that tasted of salt, so full of flavor, and of bread, rising in the heat of the day.

I kept wondering if we'd turn a corner and find Monet painting water lilies,  or Jesus in his gardening hat harvesting the squash in the vegetable garden.

The photograph of the orchids in my blog header is from another botanical garden, in Singapore. I took a taxi after a day's work to walk that garden in the late evening, so much of my experience of that garden was of sound and scent, of footsteps on the path muffled by the humidity.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The font of all holiness

Water. A pleasant coolness in the heat. Relief from thirst. A sluicing mercy after a long hot walk. 

Every time I walked into my parish church, I dipped my hand into the font at the door and make the sign of the cross. The same font both my sons were baptized in. The same font friends were baptized in, six, seven, eight decades ago. I love the expansiveness of it all, a deep bowl of fresh water set into the century-old marble font — not some barely damp, crumbling, mildewed, amber sponge tucked into a tiny shell screwed to the wall. You could wash your hands in this font or give a baby a bath in it, reach in and splash cool water on your face. A reservoir of mercy. 

But now. The font is dry. We wave our hands under a spout and with a burr and a buzz, hand sanitizer spits forth. At least 60% ethanol — is that by mass, by volume? By volume, says WHO. This is our communion hymn now, burr, buzz, burr, buzz. Amen. I rub it on my hands, its sharp scent carrying memories of hospital visits. The church is a field hospital says Pope Francis. And so, this too, is a font of mercy.

Photo is from Japan. You wash your hands and rinse your mouth before entering a temple.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

120 days, 120 miles

Crash and The Boy are off. Crash is back to work, for a short stint at least, and The Boy is off to graduate school at Large University Math Department. Our nest is once again empty.

Crash arrived here in mid-March, his job having evaporated, his apartment sublet. We made up the guest room for him, and he organized us. The glass board in the hallway became the call board with the weekly dinner and baking schedule on it and everyone's "call times" on it. Classes, recording sessions, meetings. The signs of the times on our doors: "Meeting in progress." "Recording!" "Door closed to keep cat out."

He left us far more organized than when he arrived. My basement pantry is sorted. The basement and garage organized. My kitchen cabinets! Nothing like someone who is a  professional stage manager to organize your process and your props.

It was a mixed blessing, to have my adult son back with us. I treasured all those hours tackling cooking projects with him, the random conversations. The planters on the back porch he helped me plant are a riot of blooms. But this time meant his professional life was in stasis, certainly nothing I could have wished for him. So after 120 days, we got into my Mini and drove 120 miles to a job in Brooklyn. A suitcase, a bag of groceries and his backpack and he was off.  I'm grateful for both the coming and the going.

And then I drove 120 miles back. Through a nightmare tangle of traffic. And in a moment of madness, Google routed me from Brooklyn across Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, only to bring me to an intersection where you could see the entrance to the tunnel directly ahead, but not get into it. There was a (permanent) barrier. Forced to turn left with a pack of other presumably misled people, the re-routing said it would add 30 more minutes to my drive to circle around to the actual entrance. But at the next intersection, a kind NYPD traffic cop rolled his eyes, stopped two lanes of traffic and waved me right into the onramp to the tunnel. My gratitude was without bounds. 

Meanwhile The Boy was packing a UHaul with a vintage blackboard (math, you need a good board to think on), his trusty KitchenAid and a new queen bed. Between finishing a master's degree and a two year high school teaching stint and the start of grad school, he's been baking for social change. The local radio did a piece on his bake sale, part of series on Philly's grit and grace. 

Grit and grace and gratitude. Words to live by.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Dystopia or utopia? Mixed graces

I was the altar server at last night's vigil Mass, the first time I'd served since the parish had shut down due to the coronavirus. Waiting in the back chapel to process out onto the altar was like walking through an abandoned city. A breviary left on a chair, ribbons marking a Lenten Friday. A copy of my Lenten book, tucked on a shelf, awaiting the elderly man who left it there for the next morning's meditation.

Clad in an alb and a blue surgical mask, my glasses fogged over, alone in a chair set far back from the altar,  made it feel even more like I was in a bad SF movie. Would I look down at my hands and see some alien fungus suddenly sprouting there?

Despite this, the church felt safe and inviting. Every window and door open (yes, even in this heat and humidity) gave us a soundtrack. Trains passed twenty-feet away, birds chirped, rain briefly pounded down, leaves stirred in the breeze. It wasn't distracting so much as the contrast intensified the silence within. 

The church's architecture is such that with the doors and windows open it felts as if the church's vault is suspended a few feet off the ground. We were entirely contained in God.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Other worlds

I'm re-reading Joe Haldeman's Worlds trilogy, which is set inside a captured asteroid (and features carbonaceous chondrites — a type of meteorite). This brilliant GIF from Jacint Roger Perez transported me to the surface of Comet 67P. It feels like the opening to a SF/horror flick, where the next shot will be the inside of an isolated research station on the surface of the comet. Two scientists will be having coffee and shooting the breeze, and suddenly....

the room will shudder
one of them will say, "what's that anomaly on the screen?" and hit the top of the display
there will be a pounding on the wall
an alien with many teeth will come up through the floor
something will start oozing from a cabinet

Chose your own adventure.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

A feel for God

In a draft left abandoned last December, I mused about a Augustinian friend's homily on reading the lives of the saints, particularly their everyday lives. It gives you a feel for how God works in the world, he said. I thought about this off and on throughout the day. It's another riff on Ignatius' sense of "God in all things."

How do we sharpen our senses, get a feel for God? The Exercises are one way, but how do we keep stretching what we've developed. In that season of births and epiphanies, it made sense that I was thinking about how we practice spotting God-with-us. Now I'm thinking about it again in these extraordinary moments of Ordinary Time, where my world has shrunk to a circle with a diameter of how far I can walk in 30 minutes.

This morning, as I walked the same loop I've walked for the last 3 months, I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye, as if there were jewels scattered on the ground. I stopped, looked closed, to see only the patch of weeds growing at the side of the road. Two more steps back and suddenly, for just a second, there they were again. The sun, at just the right angle, turned the last drops of this morning's rain into a panoply of diamonds scattered over the crabgrass. 

I lay your pavements in carnelians, your foundations in sapphires — Isaiah 54:11

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Lost poem

I've lost a poem, not a poem of my own, 
not a poem whose lines have wound themselves 
into my soul — but a poem that could own me.

It was fleeting, in my stream for a moment. 
Keep it, the thought flickered, but I swept past. Now

           My hands are bloody from digging...

If I could pull it from the sky even 
one shattered fragment.

Her words, for I am certain it was her words, embedded in her stream. 

Still. I can remember only one word: Dakota
And that it made the ordinary sacred.

Saturday, July 04, 2020


What's on the side table this week?  

Prayer: A history by Carol and Philip Zaleski. I'm heartened that someone was willing to tackle a subject like the history of prayer in one volume. So maybe I can say something worthwhile in a single book. 

Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis. I'm still struck that it took me so many years (forty!) to discover C.S. Lewis' full name. Clive, it's Clive Staples Lewis. I'm also enjoying the layers of snark in these epistles on prayer to the fictional Malcolm. I also appreciate the genius of the little interjections that put flesh on Malcolm's bones. Seriously, I continue to worry that we take prayer both too seriously and not seriously enough.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang. A collection of SF shorts, the title story (which I've yet to read) dances around the 2nd Law of thermodynamics. I was riveted by "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" and intrigued by the story about the digients and the life cycle of a software object.