Sunday, June 26, 2022

Vital signs


I went to my first in-person conference since the pandemic began last week. It was small, we shared many meals together. It also appears that we might have shared COVID with each other. Two days after the conference concluded I got an email saying I’d been a close contact of someone who had tested positive for COVID. I had mild symptoms, so tested. Negative, whew. Just my usual talked too much in loud spaces croakiness.

A day later, feeling like an old late night commercial for Ginzu knives — “now, with more symptoms!” — I tested again.  Two bright pink lines appeared on my home test. Positively positive.

I felt pretty lousy for the rest of the week, with all the misery a high fever brings. I was grateful for the vaccines, which likely kept me from being much sicker. And for space to isolate at home. 

The NHS has a helpful diary for tracking the course of a COVID infection. Space is allotted to record your temperature and pulse oximeter reading three times a day. It was helpful to see when I’d been “fever-free” for more than 24 hours. Crash is always about creating the right paperwork for a project. As useful as the log was, it needed some tweaks.  I needed a column for tissues used (so many tissues, the first few days reminded me of when the kids had RSV) and for my Wordle score.

Fever is gone, pulse ox is (and always was) fine, tissue use down to zero, Wordle scores improved. I declare I am on the mend. And keeping to the theme of the NHS, I’m taking the sea air to convalesce. (This was a planned trip, and since I’m past the 5 days and symptom free, other than tired, we have gone. Regardless, I drove a separate care down, and I’m wearing a mask around Math Man and not contacting others.)

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Praying with a cardinal

 …and a squirrel, a chipmunk, and various bugs. The weather has been just perfect these last few days to sit outside to pray and work. I’ve written a talk for an upcoming conference on Complexity, Simplicity and Emergence (the Fourth Annual Thomistic Philosophy and Natural Science Symposium in DC). I’ve read papers and a book and enjoyed some peaceful time in prayer. It’s been amazingly restorative.

Sunday I was interrupted mid-psalm by a quiet chittering. From the cover of the flower bed under the cherry tree that canopies the back patio emerged a squirrel. It scampered up the trunk and then froze, it had seen me. We were eye to eye. And it was terrified. I could see its heart pounding in its chest. I froze, too. We were in a stand off. Finally it decided that retreat was called for and bounded up the tree, across the branches to the pear tree, then danced down the electric wire to vanish into my neighbor’s yard. 

I wonder how often I am startled by God as I dash about, or am I like the squirrel, too intent on my own projects to notice whose garden I’m in? And would I be as terrified as the squirrel if I recognized who I was eye to eye with in prayer?

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Soul Cycles

My first bike was blue. I was six. It was a bit like Eve and the apple. It was the gift of knowledge and of freedom. Eventually the freedom to ride to the library, which in those pre-internet days was a door to a vast storehouse of knowledge, or to see a friend who lived on a nearby farm. It was also the freedom to sin. Do not ride to your friend’s house for a sleepover, it’s going to rain. The bike will rust. But I was determined to fly up the street with my sleeping bag and PJs and toothbrush in the basket. And…it did rain. And there were ever-after little flecks of rust on my shiny fenders. Like the black spots on the milk bottles we were told represented our souls. Except confession didn’t remove them. My parents grounded me for a week, no bike. 

I thought about that rainy day on Thursday. I had a meeting at the parish at 3:30. The forecast called for rain, maybe. Should I ride? No, says my youngest, before he drove off. But I’ve been trying to bike whenever and wherever I can, in part as my response to climate change. I am lucky to live nearby work and the grocery store and the parish. And I have a shiny new bike (my 5th ever) that won’t rust in the rain. I checked the radar — clear — and the forecast said rain after 6 pm. So off I rode. The pastor joined us about 5, agreed with our plan and then said, “Boy, is it pouring!”  Deluging. Now the forecast said 15 minutes more rain, then a 17 minute break. No lightning. It was warm. Six minutes, mostly downhill. Could I do it?

I went for it. I rode home in the rain. Which indeed stopped and started on schedule. My bike bags kept computer and papers and phone dry. The rest of me? Soaked. But as Chesterton was wont to say “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered." This was indeed an adventure.

And baptismal, as in total immersion. Perhaps my sin is finally forgiven.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Op-ed: Praying to change


I was kneeling after communion on Ascension Thursday (yes, still Thursday in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) when my watch tapped me to let me know I had a text. I ignored it. I was praying and while I believe God from time to time answers my prayers, I was (fairly) certain God wasn’t texting me.

When Mass ended I checked my watch to see I had a photo of Ted Cruz sent from my youngest kid. Huh? Then I realized that it must be my op-ed, written for the Philadelphia paper. On what we might be praying for when we say “thoughts and prayers” in these horrific moments.

So what was I praying for as I knelt there, moments after holding the Body of Christ in my hands? For the parents and children whose lives and bodies had been torn apart shot from a gun that no one outside the military should have. That their parents might have the strength to watch their children’s bodies taken away from them for the last time. For the teachers who stood in front of their students, for the teachers who wonder if they will ever be in that position. For the courage to keep saying what we would prefer to cloak in euphemisms. For the persistence to keep calling my representatives, both state and federal and tell them what my thoughts and prayers are.

Various people have written to say that the piece has encouraged them to persist in the face of what seems like an intractable problem. Others have written to tell me who to blame. It’s the fault of the parents who failed to take their marriage vows seriously (seriously? Seriously!). Or of universities. Or mental illness. Or, or, or…

Please I pray, let us persist. Call your representatives — that matters. Write them and if you want a copy of my op-ed to send, you can find it here:

Or I send me an email and I’ll send you a PDF.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Passion, death and resurrection

I went to morning prayer at the parish today, followed by an all hands scramble to unload the flowers and get them out onto the altar for the decorating team coming later. As I headed out afterwards, my heart lifted at the sight of the trees in bloom, the fallen petals from the cherry tree stirring like confetti from a long past parade on the walk, the sounds of the birds. It was a beautiful morning in Bryn Mawr. The air held that spring warmth, just a hint of March’s cold damp still caught in the corners of the stone walls of the church. And just like that I was transported 35 years into the past.

I walked out of the hospital, perhaps around 8. It was a beautiful morning in Bryn Mawr. The air held that spring warmth, with just enough of March’s cold damp to remind you to be grateful that winter’s rigors were past. The birds sang, the trees were aflower, the daffodils across the way were brilliant. Who knew? I’d spent the night in an empty and dimly lit family lounge on the surgical floor and was blinded by all this light and beauty.

It was Holy Thursday, 35 years ago today. On Sunday I had thought I was prepared to wade into the Paschal mystery. Passion, death, and — without a doubt — resurrection. On Wednesday of Holy Week I would discover how woefully unprepared I was to face the Paschal mystery when it was pulled off the pages of scripture and poured out before me. Take this cup, and drink from it.

Tom was thirty. I had just turned 29. Not much older than my sons are now. We’d been married five years, finished our PhDs, moved, got jobs, bought a house, settled into a parish and a neighborhood. It was a very ordinary life, with grass to mow and walls to paint and futures to dream on. But we didn’t know about the bomb inside Tom’s chest. The ballooning artery that would eventually drive a channel into his heart, torn open as he swam laps in the college pool while I sat through the penultimate faculty meeting of the year. 

The Triduum for me would begin with a ride in a ambulance, everything left behind. I would stand by and watch as they resuscitated Tom in the ER. I would make phone calls. I would see that he was anointed with the holy oils. I would talk to him as they prepared him for surgery, though I do not think he could hear me. And I watched and prayed through the night. At 5 am, the surgeon would concede that the damage was beyond repair. At 7 am I would see him wrapped in white sheets, and make the sign of the cross on his forehead with my tears. And walk out of the hospital a few minutes later into that bruisingly beautiful spring day.

So on that Good Friday morning I picked out a casket, flanked by my shell-shocked in-laws and my distraught parents. On Holy Saturday morning I sat with the associate pastor to pick out readings and insist that Easter notwithstanding, there would be no music. No sung alleluia. No alleluia. It was too fast. Three days was not enough time for me to wrap my head around wrenching grief and recognize within it blazing resurrection. I grasp in some small way why the apostles couldn’t believe the women — it was too much of a shift in too little time. I am yet more floored by Mary Magdalene;s ability to see beyond the passion into the resurrection.

There would be a wake on Easter Sunday, a funeral on Easter Monday. Both achingly perfect spring days. Despite all the time that has passed, or perhaps because of it, I can never fail to see the passion and death swirling through the resurrection. It clouds our vision, tests our faith and stretches out our arms between heaven and earth. Like those perfect spring days, where there is still just enough winter lurking in the air to remind you of things unseen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022


We have been using a different processional cross in Lent. The plain wood cross we will venerate on Good Friday, wrapped in violet tulle. I feel off-balance carrying this cross, it's just a bit top heavy, a bit too weighty for me. Each time I lift it from the stand, I think for a moment that I’ve got this, that it’s not as heavy as I recall. Two steps later, I’m struggling to keep it aloft and steady. Will I make it down the aisle? Up the steps of the altar? It always feels like it’s not quite in my control. 

The regular cross is weighty enough to be a bit of work to carry, but not so much that I can’t smoothly get it under the choir loft and out into the vestibule. It’s always under my control. I’ll be glad of its return come Easter.

The violet has been replaced by a red chiffon drape. As I stand in the back ready to process at the vigil Mass on Palm Sunday, I realize I am veiled. I cannot see clearly, catching glimpses of altar and transept as I move. 

That unwieldy cross, that veil that hides the path from me, remind me of the underlying mystery we gather here to celebrate, that we must die to self to rise with Christ. We must, as the psalmist reminds us, let go our grasp and be still. To give over control and lay down all we have.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

What do you think of our news coverage?

The little box popped up in the lower left of my iPad screen, “What do you think of our news coverage?”

The article was headlined “Name, phone, address…” and described a Ukrainian mother writing her name and phone number on her very young child before they evacuated. Just in case. Just in case they were separated.  Just in case her parents were killed. She would have her identity, know a bit about her parents, just in case.

What do I think of this news coverage? I am mortified by it. I am unable to keep my voice from cracking as I try to talk to my own child, home on a brief visit, standing in the kitchen — an adult. I want to say that I remember the time he went to a protest where they told him to write his name and a contact on his arm in black Sharpie. Just in case. I want to say that if we were fleeing such destruction that I could see myself standing in the kitchen grabbing the Sharpie I keep in the pencil cup on the counter, writing names and phone numbers on my children. Just in case. But now I am weeping openly, and I cannot choke out the words out to explain why. So I flee the room. 

What do I think of this news coverage? I think that I am weeping again as I write this. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022


The reading spoke of a horn full of oil in the hands of a prophet prepared to anoint a king. As I listened I tried to visualize how much oil that might be, were we talking about a few drops or a cupful? What animal gave its horn, what was used for a stopper? There is a time and a place for Ignatian composition of place. This might not have been it. 

That evening I was making dinner, and measured out a quarter cup of oil, a bit more than 50 mL. I set it down on the counter for a moment, and then knocked it over with my hand. Oil was suddenly everywhere. It flowed over the counter top, onto the drawers below. Onto the floor. It was everywhere. I couldn’t believe how such a small amount could spread so far.

At one level, I do understand why oil makes such a mess when it spills. It has a low surface tension (about 30 dynes/cm — and yes, I looked it up, see Albert Halpern, J. Phys. Chem. 1949, 53, 6, 895–897), about half that of water. A teaspoon of oil can spread out to cover about 22 thousand square feet of water. I had spilled ten times that, no wonder it was everywhere in my 200 square foot kitchen.

The messiah, the anointed one. All these years as a chemist, all the psalms I’ve prayed and I’d never really thought, “Why oil?” Oil burns, giving light. It binds, turning flour into bread. It soothes, it’s a balm. It doesn’t evaporate, rather it protects what it covers. It eases friction. Oil is costly. So was the grace that flowed from Calvary. And oil spreads out and out, reminding me that the mercy of God knows no bounds.


Benjamin Franklin famously measured the spread of oil on water in a London pond. And in looking through the literature about surface tension of plant oils discovered that you can extract oil from carrots. And that what you get is comparable to olive oil in many of its physical properties.

Illustration is Raphael’s fresco of the anointing of David by Samuel, part of a series in the loggia of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. I walked through there in June of 2016, but will admit both have been agape at the frescos and not having noticed this one in particular. 

Monday, March 21, 2022


Autocorrect just “fixed” the title of this post to “rest” — which might be equally apt. I haven’t posted in a month, despite having a week away from teaching for spring break. It’s been busy. I gave seven talks in the space of just over three weeks, on six different topics. Then I helped four of my five research students get prepared for their presentations at the big national chemistry meeting currently going on in San Diego. (I’m not there, sad to say.) And I started teaching our intensive lab course for junior chem and bio chem majors. Oh — and I’m spearheading the synodal listening process for my parish. Reading this I understand why I am tired!

Last weekend, I picked up Becky Chamber’s beautiful A Psalm for the Wildbuilt to put it away and instead sat down and re-read the ending (spoiler alert!) where an exhausted monk is treated to tea by an oh-so-practical robot. I longed for a bit of not-self care, where someone might sit me down and insist I drink a cup of Evening in Missoula, take a hot bath and sit in the garden under a full moon. Instead I popped another load of laundry in and scrubbed the bathtub.

And then, in the mail a little bit of care arrived, sent by a friend. “For a reset…” said the label on the bottle. Spray some in the air and walk through the mist. I did and was transported back to Shojoshin-in on Mt. Koya in Japan. Dripping cypress, curls of mist, soft moss muffling my steps, and the incredible hot bath. Or alternatively to the hermitage Dex and Mosscap find in A Psalm. Reset indeed. It’s the next best thing to a transporter.

Evening in Missoula tea. Sabbatical Beauty’s mist.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

A Raw Grief

I have been watching Deep Space Nine, perhaps more accurately, listening to it as I cook and do housework. Today an episode came up where Jake Sisko was an old man, a writer who had given up his writing to do research. The plot revolved around Jake's father, Benjamin, being caught in a time anomaly. Every few years he would pop back into normal time and briefly reveal himself to Jake.

It reminded me of some of the vivid dreams I had after Tom died. I had one recurring dream where we would be walking around on a beautiful day, doing the things we normally did, seeing the people we normally saw. And only he and I knew that he would die at the end of the day. It was an excruciating metaphor for the tension between ordinary life and the extraordinary grief that had come crashing into mine. 

Someone in my twitter feed lost her teenage son in a tragic accident last week. When I saw her post about being unable to sleep, my body remembered those awful months after Tom's death. I also had trouble sleeping, and so, so many dreams. She wrote, too, of the need to get back to work, what else are you going to do? I remember people wanting to relieve me of the ordinary chores, but there were no extraordinary chores that I had to tend to, other than the grief. And this was something I couldn't face all day every day. So I went back to work.

I realize now that the ordinary was not so much a salve for my grief, but a way to titrate it. I was grateful for work that required as much of my attention as I could give it, that gave me a few minutes respite from the all too raw reality. 


Thursday, February 10, 2022

Preaching rebellion

"For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me." 1 Cor 15:3-8

Listening to the second reading on Sunday I was struck by how absent women were in it. Paul lists the witnesses to the resurrection, but fails to note that the first witnesses were the women, Mary Magdalene in particular. 

Later this week, I ran into this tweet from The Traditional Wife (in someone else's stream, I don't follow her.) It was a bit ironic as this week I was scheduled to preach. A group of us gather once a week to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, using the readings of the day. We take turns to offer a brief reflection and then open the floor for some faith sharing. It has been a powerful experience through this pandemic to listen to my brothers and sisters in faith turn over and shake out the word of God for each other. Each time we celebrate together, I am in awe of what the Holy Spirit does in the world. Of how we can all preach.

So this week I preached about churches, about sacred space and time. About how all places are sacred, all of us holy. And this characterization of women preaching as living in rebellion, like fallen angels utterly divorced from God, just makes me laugh. Also, I don't think there were churches for Deborah to preach in, to men or women...

For more women preaching try:

The latest volume of Homilists for the Homeless (all the proceeds from this series go to the poor)
There's a Woman in the Pulpit a collection from the RevGals

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

St. Hildegard’s cookies

"Take one whole nutmeg, add equal amounts of cinnamon and a pinch of cloves, grind it together until it forms a fine powder; add the flour and a little water. Make small cookies and eat these often. They will reduce the bad humors, enrich the blood, and fortify the nerves.” — Hildegard of Bingen, Physica, Book 1, XXI. Nutmeg

I gave a day of reflection on Hildegard of Bingen at a local retreat house. One of the conferences was on Hildegard’s Physica where she recommends mint for the digestion and spicy cookies to fortify the nerves. I sent retreatants home with tea and ginger snaps. 

It’s the start of the semester for me tomorrow, so I’m in need of something to fortify the nerves with. I’m on Zoom to start, while students await test results. Next week — back in person!

St. Hildegard’s cookies

1 3/4 c sugar
3/4 c butter
1/4 c molasses
1 egg
2 c flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
extra sugar for rolling

Beat sugar and butter until fluffy. Add molasses and beat until well blended. Add egg, beat on low to combine. Add flour, baking soda, salt and spices to batter and blend well. Chill dough, covered, for at least 1 hour.

Roll dough into 1 1/4 inch balls. Roll the balls in extra sugar. Place 2 inches apart on baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake at 375F for 8-10 minutes. Cookies should just be brown around the edges. Cool on a rack, cookies will firm up as they cool. Store in airtight container or freeze.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Transmissions from God

This evening I stumbled over an article in the New York Times about a woman who claims to channel the dead. She also claims to channel Yeshua — Jesus Christ. Who apparently comes across with a bit of of a British accent. Really. The article treats this all with dead seriousness, including a flat assertion that she channels the dead, though it does include a couple of remarks from a skeptic. I found the whole business (and business it seems to be, with consultations at $1111 an hour and a book published by Harper One) to be…ridiculous.

Thirteen years ago today I pointed my Mini Cooper north, headed for Gloucester to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola following the 20th annotation. Leaving behind family and friends and comforts to spend 30 days in silence, channeling God.

I wonder what a similar New York Times Style article on my experiences of the Exercises would read like? Would it seem equally ridiculous to an outsider?