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Nov. 6th, 2013

candy

Like Falling Off A Log

I think I now know why it's biologically so easy to get pregnant. If any human was actually given the time to think about the grand undertaking of being a parent, if it was any harder or any more involved to become one and we could really consider it very long, only the very brave would jump in and do it. From here I face down 20+ years of being this little person's support, teacher, and source of unconditional love. By conceiving and carrying her I have signed a contract that I will always be there for her, no matter what. I'm told that my bond with her, when she's born, will supersede any love I've yet known. I'm a bit daunted by all this, to say the least.

I know a lot of great moms of whom I can ask questions and with whom I can share experiences. I'm so grateful to be surrounded by people who I think are really good parents. These days, though, I really miss my own mom. For one thing, she had a practical side that I think would have nailed my daunted, daydreaming keester down to reality. Yes, she'd probably say, it's a very big deal and full of wonder. It's also full of dirty diapers and the realization that your baby isn't born a perfect angel that you have to worry about ruining. I was not the perfect parent and you all turned out fine. We didn't know you shouldn't drink coffee or eat cold cuts while pregnant, and you all arrived perfectly healthy. “Organic” produce didn't even exist in 1980 – stop worrying about it.

I've been poring over baby and pregnancy books since we found out, over five months ago, that we were expecting. My husband says I am an information junkie, and it's true I was brought up to wonder and ask questions and – my mom's favorite admonition to us - “look it up.” It's also true that these days, in terms of pregnancy and baby health, there's serious information overload. Thebump.com, BabyCenter, The American Pregnancy Association – I made the mistake, on the day we found out we were pregnant, of signing up for all of these. I now know all about What to Expect When You're Expecting. What would be really useful now would be to see my mom shrug and say, “stop worrying so much about it. There isn't anything you can do, and worrying certainly isn't good for that baby.” If she were here, though, I doubt I'd be so tempted to be an info-glutton. I'd have her years of expertise to tell me what is and isn't normal.

We are so excited to have this baby. I can't wait for her to be here. She can't help knowing me pretty intimately – I can't wait for her to meet her dad and the rest of her family. There's so much to give her, and she'll bring so much with her. I can't wait to get to know her. I just hope I can always hear my own mom's voice somewhere in me, reminding me not to be so in awe of this baby and of parenthood that I forget to enjoy it.

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Oct. 23rd, 2013

candy

Spiritual Nostalgia

It's been so long since I last posted to this blog, I actually couldn't remember the name of it or the blog carrier! I questioned whether to resurrect this blog or begin a new one, but it's all me, no matter how much I may have changed over the years, so I thought the continuity might be interesting. Interesting and terrifying, in reality. Do I want my self of two years ago to be associated with my self of today? Would it be better just to pretend I'm a new creation and not acknowledge the less mature, weaker, more troubled self I was then? Of course it's only my own judgment that I am more mature, stronger and less troubled now...and maybe a completely inaccurate judgment... For better or worse, I resume.

I felt the need to get out in the beautiful weather today, but because my husband is recovering from surgery we needed a short jaunt. He's never been to The Grotto (Portland's National Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows), and if you don't take the elevator to the top level it's a pleasant, short stroll around the lower grounds. The little forested preserve is a wonderful surprise in the midst of the city – sylvan, cool, and amazingly quiet. There's a shrine to the Virgin Mary set back in – can you guess – a grotto in a large rock wall, sculptures and mosaics of Christ and the Saints, and a dignified, graceful old Catholic church among the trees. I just didn't anticipate how emotional I'd get when we visited today. As we walked through the church, I teared up.

I visited here a lot while I was growing up. My father is a cradle Catholic and my mother was a convert. They loved their faith, sent their children to parochial schools and made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Baptism as infants, first Communion at age seven, the sacrament of Reconciliation at 10, and Confirmation at 15: there was such order, unity, peace and familiarity to the churched upbringing we had.

Until today I hadn't been there in several years. My mother died in 2007, my siblings and I are no longer Roman Catholic, my father and his wife are the lone stalwarts still attending Mass reliably every Sunday. I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy eight months after my mother passed away, feeling like I needed a deeper well, but I bore the Catholic church no animosity. Far from it. As I grew closer to visiting an Eastern Orthodox church for the first time I looked for reasons why converting wasn't necessary, why it was perfectly possible for me to pursue my relationship with God in the Roman Catholic church and hold on to something dear to me.

I really did still hold that church close to my heart. It was where I grew up, where I knew people who'd known me since before I was born, people who knew my family, a place where I'd spent many hours with my now-departed mother. It was a home. All through the years of spiritual difficulty, when I bounced from Catholicism to Zen Buddhism to atheism back to Catholicism, it was not only Catholicism I returned to but to the particular parish that had raised me. The connection was spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical.

The break to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, then, was difficult. I tried to make it a clean one, never visiting that parish and not visiting the Grotto or anything Catholic, getting rid of all my statues, prayer books, rosaries, and anything that might evoke the feelings I associated with the church in which I grew up. I love the church I came to even more than the one I left, of course, or I would not have made the painful break or stayed here for six years. It's a closer family than the one I had before, where I experience customs more ancient and beautiful, bridges to God that are stronger, the offer of a relationship with Him that is deeper and further-reaching (these statements are not broad judgments of Catholicism, just observations of my own personal experience of Orthodoxy as opposed to the one I had in the Catholic church). I truly have no regrets.

My family in the Orthodox church is growing. I am guided by amazing priests and awe-inspiring older Christians. I am married to an Eastern Orthodox man and we had a beautiful, perfect wedding in the church. I am pregnant with our first child, who we can't wait to raise in the church. We can't wait to share with him or her the incredible love we've found here, or the beauty that we can feel with our every fiber – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical. But I must admit that I will miss sharing my own experiences of the church where I grew up. What I have come to is deeper, or I wouldn't be here, and our roots in it are developing further. There's still a part of me that wishes I could pass on to our child a faith that is as deeply a part of his or her lineage as Catholicism was of mine, a tradition that finds its way down generation after generation and an experience he or she will know is shared with those that came before.

As Orthodox Christians, however, we have a great appreciation of spiritual lineage. We are surround by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” generations of Christians with whom we do share a blood relationship as well as a spiritual one. The blood of Christ undeniably creates a stronger relation and bond than any genetic one. We do have just what I have wished for – a tradition and experience shared generation after generation, and not on an ethereal level but a very concrete one. We embrace and preserve what has been handed to us more ferociously than I have seen almost any people do, except perhaps the Jews (with whom we share this heritage). Pregnancy has me thinking in somewhat carnal terms, but if I lift my gaze only slightly, I find that my child does have just the heritage I was wishing for, and a more profound one than the one I left behind. I can have no doubt that this gift we will give him or her is truly the best one any parent could give, no matter what proud lineage might be had or abandoned.

Mar. 14th, 2011

depression, mourning, loss, bereavement, grief

Death be not proud

If you couldn’t be there, in a nutshell it looked like this. The little wooden church was so full that attendants were seeking standing room up on the ambo. To say it was “standing room only” is a little superfluous as it’s a Russian-style Orthodox Christian church and has no seating anyway, but true to its Russian roots people were crammed in elbow-to-elbow in severe violation of the typical American sense of personal space. This was made slightly less awkward by the lack of electric lighting - you couldn’t see whose feet you were stepping on - and the intimacy of beeswax candlelight.

In the center of the church stood a bearded man with a tall black hat, white-and-gold Russian-style vestments, and a commanding presence softened by large, prayerful eyes. The Bishop was flanked by nine similarly-vested priests and two subdeacons, lining the sides of the simple wooden casket. Candle stands filled with sweet-smelling beeswax tapers haloed the casket’s head and foot with soft light.

Being a priest also - and appearing like the fallen, missing tenth member of the priestly gauntlet - the face of the casket’s occupant was covered by a white brocaded cloth adorned with a cross. This cloth, the aer, would usually cover the gifts of bread and wine upon the altar - the offering of first fruits from the harvest. As he was the offering of first fruits from Christ’s people themselves, his face in death was similarly covered, a gift to God. Upon his chest rested the Gospel book. His right hand comfortably, familiarly, grasped a blessing cross.

It was his hands that struck me. They looked the same, they felt the same, only cold. There was no doubting whose hands they were, and for an Orthodox priest, hands are important. Those hands held the chalice that contains the most important sacrament of an Orthodox Christian’s life. Those hands blessed, they anointed, they comforted. When I confessed something particularly difficult, they rested gently on the top of my head and patted. On the last day I saw him alive, they held my hands firmly as he gave me a last word. That night, when I kissed the cross he held and then kissed his cold hand, it was the last enactment of a ritual I had repeated a thousand times.

If you have never before been to an Orthodox funeral service, you should know that it is like nothing you will see anywhere else. Every Orthodox funeral service is the same, and though the one for a priest is slightly different from the one for non-clergy, it has a set form and will also always be the same. We all walk the same road, we die, we face the same fears, the same judgment, and the same possibilities for eternity. In Christ there is perfect equality. As the readings in the service remind us, God is no respecter of persons. The music is the same, the casket is the same (wooden, modestly lined, simply constructed), the prayers are the same. No rich person will be exalted, and no poor one will be ashamed.

You will hear a great deal of choral music, without instrumental accompaniment, a great deal of chanting, and often a call-and-response (or antiphonal) exchange between the priest and the choir. All of the content can be found in these hymns, and in readings from the epistles and Gospels. Near the end, the presiding clergy - in this case, the Bishop - may give a brief eulogy.

Repeatedly, you will hear this prayer:

 

O God of spirits and of all flesh, who hast trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life to Thy world, do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant, the Archpriest David, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, whence all sickness, sorrow, and sighing have fled away. Pardon every sin which he hath committed, whether by word or deed or thought, for Thou art a good God , and lovest mankind; for there is no man that liveth and sinneth not; for Thou only art without sin, and Thy righteousness is to all eternity, and Thy word is truth.

For Thou art the Resurrection, and the Life, and the Repose of Thy servant, David, who hath fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thy Father, who is without beginning, and Thine all-holy, and good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

All of the prayers and hymns heard focus on these things: our fallen sinfulness, supplications for forgiveness and mercy, and reminders of God’s faithfulness, mercy and promise of the resurrection. For a priest, the canon of Holy Saturday - hymns lauding the death of Christ and reminding us of prophecies surrounding it - is sung. After all, the priest is Christ’s iconographic presence among the people. This verse is particularly comforting and to the point:

 Isaiah saw the never-setting light of Thy compassionate manifestation to us as God, O Christ.
Rising early from the night he cried out,
“The dead shall arise! Those in the tombs shall awake! All those on earth shall greatly rejoice!”

Friday night, you would have also heard the part of the Orthodox funeral service that I, personally, most appreciate. “It isn’t sanitized” - those are the words I’ve heard most after people attend their first Orthodox funeral. That’s accurate. The casket is open throughout, the body is not embalmed or made up, there’s no talk of a “memorial” or “tribute” service. At the funeral’s end, the family places the lid on the casket and nails it down. When the casket is placed in the ground, family and friends shovel in the dirt, themselves.

None of the hymns are sanitized, either. One states, in the voice of the dead, “with difficulty I proclaim these things, for your sakes I make lamentation; it may profit some. But when you shall sing these words, remember me who once was known. For often have we walked together, and in the house of God together we sang: Alleluia.” This one pierces me to the heart.

The verses continue:

Let us all be consumed with tears when we behold the remains lying before us, and having drawn near to kiss them, let us all proclaim alike: Behold, thou hast left them that love thee. Thou speakest no more with us. O friend, why speakest thou not as once thou spoke to us? But thou art silent, unable to say with us:
Alleluia.

Why these bitter words of the dying, O brethren, which they utter when they depart: I am parted from the brethren; I leave all my friends and depart? Whither I go, therefore, I know not, neither do I know what shall become of me there. Only God Who summons me knows. But commemorate me with the song: Alleluia.

Where, therefore, do the souls now go? How, then, do they now dwell there? I desire to learn the mystery, but none is able to teach me. Do they remember their own as we remember them? Or have they forgotten the rest of us who are weeping for them and making the song: Alleluia?

None of them who have gone there live again to tell us how they fare, who once were brethren and kinsmen, having gone before us to the Lord. Therefore, many times we say: Shall we see each other there? Shall we see our brethren there? Shall we say together there the psalm: Alleluia?

These words voice all the distress that comes from an honest, grieving human heart, and has issued from the lips of bereaved people everywhere since humans began to be human. There is no glossing over the loss, no promises that things will get better. Though we are reminded again and again of the promised resurrection, we are not chided for having the questions and uncertainties we have - they are acknowledged. On Friday night, when the Bishop encouraged the entire church together to sing, “Alleluia,” there was comfort in the shared voice of a hopeful, but accepted, grief.

Overnight, the body remained in the church, surrounded by candles, and always accompanied by at least one person, reading the Gospels over him. It was my privilege to do this for an hour at 2 am. The church was dark except for those candles, and I read by candlelight. A strange sense of his presence warmed me.  I was tremendously comforted by the chance to talk with him one last time, to touch his hand and simply be with him. The most painful thing, to me, is the moment at which the casket is closed, and someone goes physically out of my life forever. It’s not very spiritual of me, I’m sure, but physical presence - touch, warmth, the sight of a face - means so much.

After the Divine Liturgy, with the fallen priest present for one last time, the lid was finally nailed onto the casket by family members. Ten priests carried and accompanied it, with all the faithful, in a procession around the church. As it is placed in the car to be taken to the cemetery they sang this song to the Theotokos, which means God-bearer, the Virgin Mary:

The angel cried to the Lady full of grace,
“Rejoice! Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!
Again I say “Rejoice!” Your Son is risen
From His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead!
Rejoice, rejoice all ye people!
Shine! Shine! Shine!
Shine O New Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shone on you!
Exalt now, exalt! And be glad O Zion!
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos!
In the Resurrection
The Resurrection of your Son.

After this comes the Paschal troparion,

 Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Though he has died, and though we acknowledge the hurt and the uncertainty and the fear, though we plead with God for our dead loved one that He be merciful, the real focus - and the conclusion - returns us to the promise of the resurrection. We are reminded that we are not alone in finding death intolerable and bereavement an insufferable affront. God, too, found that separation intolerable, and came to trample down death by dying Himself, and then rising. Though we put our beloved in the ground, and do the abhorrent task of covering him with dirt, and we leave him there - all so painful - we are reminded that we do this in the way we would plant a seed, and he will rise and we will see him again. Death be not proud.

 

 

 

Mar. 4th, 2011

depression, mourning, loss, bereavement, grief

Memory Eternal, Fr. D


This blog’s readership has just diminished by one very significant pair of eyes.

I probably haven't mentioned Fr. D in a post in a very long time. Often the things that he and I spoke about were too personal to share publicly. If I were to print out every page of correspondence he and I exchanged over the past three years, however, it would at least rival the Webster's New World Dictionary in size. It wouldn't even include the many spoken words of kindness and wisdom he's given me in confession, over the phone, or at our almost-monthly lunches at a local Thai restaurant.

In addition to those things, he provided me the security of knowing that no matter how awkward my question (or how impertinent, at times), no matter how personal or blush-inducing and shame-ridden my issue, I could go to him with it and not worry how I was received. Not only has he received every problem and question without flinching, he has received them with total acceptance. Problems I thought were stupid and I should simply "man up" in regard to (my terror of God, for instance) were received with serious attention, and not a trace of dismissiveness (even when I approached him as if I expected him to dismiss me). Even during times when we did not speak or correspond frequently, simply knowing he was there comforted me.

I know some excellent priests. In fact, I have not had a close, personal encounter with any Orthodox priest (in my vast four years as an Orthodox Christian - FWIW), that was particularly negative. Miscommunications, yes. Deliberate unkindness, never. Fr. D, however, is something else. Fr. D hugged me, almost first thing, every time he saw me. Fr. D never seemed less than happy to see me. With Fr. D, I could be as open as I had ever been with anyone - more open, really - and even if I was shaking with knowledge of the risk I took, I felt confident that I would be received with love. This held true even when he told me things I did not want to hear. It made it almost easy to follow through on uncomfortable advice he gave, because I had little doubt that regardless of the immediate discomfort, the long-term payoff would be positive - he loved me.  Among the last things he said to me were the words, "I know it's difficult, but you've chosen the better part."


I could write a lot about Fr. D. I could write at length about how I feel that he literally saved my life, last year when I was nearly drowned in suicidal thoughts and I could not see a future for myself within the emotional pain of uncontrolled bipolar disorder. He listened, he was there, he responded to my deepest fears and the reality of my situation. He'd had his own difficulties in his life and knew whereof he spake.

I could write more about how gracefully and kindly he responded to my feelings of bewilderment in regard to family life, gender roles, and the church. I could write about his amazing sense of humor, his patience through grave health difficulties, his lived hope in Christ and the Christian perseverance, self-denial, selflessness, and love he modeled. I could write about how he personally reached out to a lonely catechumen who had walked into the church all by herself (on Christ’s arm, of course), and showed interest not just in her spiritual life but in her worldly concerns as well. He gave of himself endlessly.

I could write books, and I’d gladly include excerpts from the correspondence we shared. I wish so many other people could know him or a person like him, but there aren’t so many around, and there is now one fewer. We lost Fr. D to cancer yesterday morning at 9:30.

This one’s going to hurt.

Every death hurts. I have been to five funerals in the past two years, and even when I didn’t know the deceased well, it was too easy to identify with the loss. Maybe once you have felt it personally, you always feel it personally - it always summons up your knowledge of the experience.

With this one, however, it feels like a bright light is going out of the world. Description pales beside the person. What I write about someone like Fr. D is never going to give anyone the experience of knowing him. When I spoke to him last he said he was sorry he would not get to know my niece - a new catechumen - better (characteristic of his optimism he quickly amended, “then again, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe I’ll be able to see you all!”). I don’t know if he can be sorrier than I am. Having a friend - or as another priest recently suggested was Fr. D’s proper role in my life, a spiritual father - like Fr. D is the best thing I could wish for anyone. He caused me to deeply reconsider my perception of God. If God is infinitely greater than we are, and one of us can be as good as Fr. D, I have hope that God actually is not wrathful and out to get me.

Since he began to do poorly, and especially since it became clear his time was growing short, I have thought of a hundred questions that in the past I’d have sent his way in an email or in passing at church. Each time I think of one, I feel a little lost, a little alone, and very sad. Whenever anyone orders yellow curry at a Thai restaurant, I'll feel compelled to order drunken noodles, and probably wind up crying into them because he and I will not share that meal again.  Still, for the first time in my life, I can say almost totally without ambivalence that he is somewhere better. This is in part because of who he is (no, I‘m no judge, but with people like him somehow it‘s easier to have faith), and in part because of the faith he has helped me to develop.

Memory eternal, Fr. D, and please keep those prayers coming.  We need them now more than ever.  I love you.

Feb. 6th, 2011

candy

Day 3: Your first love.


Day 3 of the 30-Day Blog Challenge: Your first love.

This is tough, because I’m not sure I’ve ever really been in love with anyone. I’m not sure I’ve ever even had a serious crush on anyone. I’ve dated some very nice boys, but there was never much spark. I’m not sure what this says about me. I’m a very independent girl and always have been, and though I may get lonely at times, I have yet to meet the man who I feel would fill the space in my life.

But “first love” is kind of vague - I suppose I don’t have to assume it means “first opposite-sex love interest.” Honestly, the first thing I developed a “head-over-heels, drop everything, eat/sleep/breathe/dream it” love for was running. This didn’t even happen until I was 20.

I saw a runner on the road. I felt a little zap, a surge of admiration, of desire. Not for the runner himself - for the running. I wanted to do that, too.

At that point, I was 120 lbs overweight. No matter. I was going to do this. At first, I ran two or three minutes at a time. Then ten. Then half an hour. I vacillated between determination and discouragement, but I was in love. I would make the road mine and be a runner.

After three years running, after losing most of my excess weight, I trained for my first marathon. Running is a difficult love - it doesn’t always love you back. Before I completed my first 12-miler, I found myself sitting in the ditch beside the road weeping. I was sure I’d never complete 26.2, if only 12 miles could hurt this much. Somehow, I got up and kept running.

After that first marathon, I was hooked. I ran 5k’s, 10k’s, 15k’s and halves. I ran two more marathons. During those years I ran upwards of 50 miles per week, with several days at 10 miles or more. I did not love every minute of it, but I loved it enough to get up at 4:30 in the morning so that I could run my distances before going to work.

After my third marathon I sustained a series of injuries, mostly related to overuse and poor biomechanics. I spent over a year fighting to come back - not an uncommon story for runners. I probably cried more over my lost miles than over most griefs in my life. Losing my run meant losing the manner in which I dealt with stress, the solitary time during which I worked out problems, and the endorphins that stabilized my mood. I tried to fill it in with biking and swimming, but they were poor rebounds. I knew who my true love was. Mercifully, I returned to running within 18 months or so. I could have cried the first time I was able to run 2 miles without my injuries flaring up.

If you are not a runner, if this sounds like insanity to you, there are a few things to understand. For those of us who love it this way, running is drug-like. The pharmaceutical formula is something like this: cool air on your face + rhythmic pounding of pavement + hypnotic, smooth motion + endorphin production = ecstasy. Every day, you try to add up this formula just right. It can be thrown off by too much running, by the wrong kind of food, by too little sleep, by the fickleness of physiology, and if it is, you may have a run so bad that it will cause you to swear off all physical activity forever. But you will quickly recant that oath, because there is the strong possibility that tomorrow, the formula will again come together properly, and you will feel like a running god/goddess. Less romantically, it’s a matter of conditioning: running is unpredictably rewarded, so we come back for the possibility of more.

I know I’m not the only one. I’ve met others like me at races - people who run before they do anything else every morning, people who would rather run than eat or sleep, people who would rather run than do almost anything anyone else considers fun. People who would call in sick to work if it meant they could get their daily run in. Running is a demanding lover, but those of us bound to it understand. If you were born a runner, your body simply cannot live without the feel of putting pavement behind you, of wind against your face, sweat pouring, and muscles pounding piston-like to hurl you forward. I can’t fully explain why, but to me, this is the most unadulterated joy, and can truly be called my first love.


Feb. 5th, 2011

candy

Day 2: Meaning Behind the Blog Name


Day 2 in the 30-Day Blog Challenge: What is the meaning behind your blog's name?

My blog name is long and I'm not sure it really qualifies as a name. "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows."

I don't remember where I ran across this quote from John Betjemen - I think it was in the title sequence of a film I saw several years ago. I found it striking at the time, however, because it immediately reminded me of my struggles in my new faith. I was an Orthodox catechumen, and while one of the most alluring (not a strong enough word) features of Orthodoxy was its respect for the physical, sensory and experiential, this was also one of its most frustrating features.

I am a rationalist, an empiricist, and much to my shame, often a utilitarian. I like things that add up clearly, I like syllogisms and logic, and I want information neatly socked away by the time I'm done with it. I don't like unknowns, and am usually inclined to believe that if I just keep looking, they won't be unknown anymore. More research! More experiments! I want to know for sure! While I will be the first, ideologically, to reject utilitarianism outright (the 20th century has shown us exactly why utilitarianism is the key to hell), my thinking still inclines that way because sometimes I just can't figure out another ground for decision-making. Orthodoxy does not like to give you syllogisms - it likes to say things like "Taste and see." You get to know God by having a relationship with Him, not by learning about Him. I often find this extremely frustrating.

"I am, I like, I don't like, I just can't figure out." I am also very self-centered at times, and this is more than an unattractive habit - it often keeps me from looking up and out. I forget that decision-making is not entirely up to me, so figuring out a ground for it - without looking to God - is literally short-sighted. I forget that those answers I'm looking for may be far beyond the reaches of my human intellect, and that the individual who made all of this, and logically would have all the answers, is right here. My self-centeredness causes me to rely on tools and resources not adequate to the task of understanding and operating in this universe.

In some sense, reason is the gradual closing down of the ability to experience the world. It's my reliance on reason that causes me to look only inward and to rely on my ability to add up facts and draw conclusions, rather than to allow Someone Else to help me see the way things really are. A geology instructor who once taught me in college was fond of saying, "if I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it." If you aren't tuned in to the proper way of seeing your surroundings, you will miss important details, he explained. If you walk into a desert believing that it is barren of life, you will see nothing, but if you know that deserts are complex ecosystems teeming with life, you will know to look for lizards, birds, flowers and even fish.

In Christianity, it seems to me, our goal is to cooperate with God in such a way that our ability to experience the world is re-opened. We become less reliant on our own inadequate tools, and more reliant on Him, and slowly we begin to sense more. This can be seen in the saints, whose connection to the world becomes so intensely purified that wild animals will approach them, people surrounding them feel God's love, and - far beyond what rational deduction can give us - they have clairvoyant insight into those around them. God shows us how things are so that we can actually learn to see them properly.

I think this may be an aspect of what Christ meant when He said we had to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom. Before we are seized by a worldly reliance on our own reasoning, we are able to “see into the life of things” (to quote Wordsworth). Sights, smells, sounds, spiritual perceptions are all open to us - “until the dark hour of reason grows.” Since the 18th century reason has become its own god in a very overt way - Western values now align themselves to the rational above anything else. As John Betjeman and poets before him have noted, however, there is a great deal to the world beyond the rational. Christians know that there is a great deal within the world that is beyond the rational, and that there is even more beyond it. So I titled this blog as I did because I feel that as a new Christian, rewinding to a time before “the dark hour of reason grows” is one of my major goals.


Feb. 4th, 2011

candy

30-day blog challenge: day 1

Whuh oh. Potentially the most boring 30 blogs ever written to follow. My niece introduced me to this 30-day blog challenge, and it has a great deal of promise but just as much liability. Writing prompts like “Share 15 interesting facts about yourself” are accidents waiting to happen. Interesting? Interesting to whom? Well, if the facts that follow begin to put you to sleep, play the game of figuring out what person in your neighborhood might find them fascinating. I’m sure the postman will be agog over the fact that most of my mail consists of student loan bills. Or, if it’s that boring, you could just go check out PostSecret. Which you should do anyway, but preferably after I share my 15 facts. Without further ado…

Day 1. Introduce, post a recent picture of yourself, and 15 interesting facts concerning you.

Hi. My name is Annie. How do you like me so far?

A picture:

Oh wait. I might have mistaken myself for a sloth. Easy to do. Let’s try that again.

Ah, there I am. Admittedly, not that recent, but with my camera shyness I’m lucky to find any picture at all.

Facts:

1. I have run 3 marathons, several halves, and many shorter races. I ran obsessively until injuries cooled me off a little, but I still love to run almost more than I love doing anything else.

2. I ran my first marathon with raging gallstones (I knew marathons were supposed to hurt - I didn’t know they weren’t supposed to hurt quite that much). A month after, I had a cholecystectomy (yay!).

3. Best homo sapiens friend: C.G. Lt. Christina Neiss, since we were 13. Even though we live on opposite sides of the country, I don’t know what I would do if she were not out there somewhere. It takes two to annoy professors quite as much as we did when we were in college.

4. Best canine friend: Sigrid VonKatzpajammer of Forest Lane. This is her AKC papered name, for what it’s worth. Mostly, she eats papers. She is, after all, an 18-month-old German Shepherd Dog.

5. Best family member friend: Kirsten Linnea Awesomeness Guddat, aka Niece-lette, aka Gzoobersnipe. She keeps me on my toes, and actually likes hot-and-sour soup slightly more than I do - which is impressive.

6. I am going on year three of being a baptized Orthodox Christian. It has been quite a ride, and sometimes I actually get a little choked up thinking about it. It is the best thing I have, I have never felt so fortunate to have found anything, and it puts the shine on everything else in my life. I have never felt so secure in my life, despite how turbulent my life often feels on the outside, and it all comes back to this. I know where the source is. I know where to root myself. These are bold statements, I think, but they are true.

7. I was vegan for five years, and still incline in that direction. The idea of critters suffering kills my appetite, so it’s less an ethical choice than a fact of my life. I will eat meat now, especially if it is served to me, but I have to carefully not think of what it used to be. Also, in my janitorial job, I avoid destroying cobwebs not out of laziness, but because usually there’s an inhabitant that I’m afraid of harming. Sorry. If I had a quieter conscience I might do a better cleaning job.

8. I’m a janitor and I have a Master’s degree in English literature, specializing in rhetoric, composition studies and the English Romantics. Physical toil gels nicely with my Romantic ideology, as does my poverty. I also just started substitute teaching in a grade school.

9. My mom died three years ago (is that all?), and it was a defining moment in my life. I can thank that experience for a lot of good that followed, but needless to say, it has not been easy. There is so much I didn’t realize would follow, like the disintegration of my nuclear family - which is not uncommon, according to several therapists I’ve consulted. Moms are the hub of the family.

10. I have bipolar disorder, symptoms of which began to appear when I was 6. Lithium is among the best things that ever happened to me. It allows this illness to be character-building, rather than something that simply erodes me.

11. I kind of wish I had majored in art. I have always been good at both drawing and writing, and when it came down to it, English just seemed like a more practical degree. I don’t know who I thought I was kidding about that - and I think I would have enjoyed art more. But I learned a lot, especially how to discipline myself to study something that I had ceased to love a long time ago (happy ending: by the end of my MA studies, I had learned to love English again).

12. My favorite place in the world is Death Valley, CA. Within this one place, which most people think of as a barren desert, you will find more diverse ecosystems and wildlife than you can shake a rattlesnake at. This is also the first place I ever encountered God in a serious way as an adult.

13. On my iPod currently: Bob Dylan, St. Petersburg Chamber Choir, Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, Broken Bells, The Clash, Emmylou Harris, David Bowie, Roxy Music, The Cure, The Shins, Band of Horses, U2... I thrive on eclecticness.

14. I am a confessed peanut butter junkie. Straight out of the jar, in Thai peanut sauce on a salad roll, or in a peanut butter cup - I have not yet met the manifestation of peanut butter that I dislike.

15. I feel like I want to list all the people I love in my life, because they play such a significant role in who I am and what I do, but the list would be extraordinarily long and I could never figure out which of them ought to be number one. Fact number 15 is that I am blessed to have contact with a bazillion amazing souls, without whom I would never be the same.


Jan. 21st, 2011

pets, curious, monastery, determined

Your Science Lesson For Today

I was driving somewhere and listening to CD today when I had a strange experience - though not an unfamiliar one, and it's far from the first time I've had it.  The very first time I listened to Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil and heard his composition of "Blessed is the Man" I could have sworn I had heard it before.  It felt so familiar, in fact, that I might have listened to it a hundred times.  It was the first piece of music with which this had ever occurred, but not the last.  I now have the feeling, every time I hear it, of extreme comfort and relaxation, as if I am hearing something that I heard as a very young child.  My parents would sing to me in my crib - songs like "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" or "Into the Wild Blue Yonder" (dad had a curious taste in lullabies - he also liked to sing "Ballad of the Green Berets").  I have the same sense of familiarity with this music as with those songs.

The odds are slim that I'd ever heard this piece before, or anything else by Rachmaninov, for that matter (other than those two really famous ones everybody knows but which are numbered so I can't remember them to cite them here - but I promise, you know them).  My parents were not classical music listeners (not abhorrers of classical music either, just not afficionadoes).  My music lineage looks like this: (Mom) Hank Williams Sr. + (Dad) Ray Conniff = (Me) Radiohead.  I can't explain it either; it simply is.

I don't think this experience of Deja Vecu can be a result of my affinity for certain types of classical music, either.  For one thing, I'm mostly all about Bach - I hadn't listened to Rachmaninov much (mostly because I was so sick of hearing those two famous pieces, and that's what I associated him with).  Then there's this.  I'm sort of reluctant to admit this because I'm very afraid it will make me sound like some kind of fanatic, but no one who knows me has any illusions about my sanity anyway.  Here's the thing: there are probably twenty songs with which I experience this kind of Deja Vecu, and each of them is an Orthodox hymn.  No other music does this, so far. 

What they have in common: they are all Russian, they are all hymns, they were all written within the last three hundred years.  Compositionally, they are only similar in that they are acapella works in SATB.  Otherwise they are significantly diverse, so I rule out the possibility that they bear enough resemblance to each other to cause this feeling of familiarity.  I'm not looking for any supernatural explanation for this and I patently do not believe in reincarnation.  I just think it's curious.

So I looked up Deja Vu - because that's what I thought I was experiencing - and discovered that what we usually call "Deja Vu" is actually a few distinct phenomenon that we lump together, but for which neuroscientists have separately named and identified.  In true Deja Vu, we see something as if we have sen it before.  In Deja Vecu, we experience an event, with any or all five of the senses, as if we have experienced it before.  Deja Senti is the phenomenon of feeling that we have already felt something - for instance, that you have already spoken but haven't said anything.

Two potential explanations for the phenomena are convincing.  One possibility neuroscientists suggest is a temporary abnormal overlap between short-term and long-term memory.  Information is accidentally stored in the long-term memory before the short-term memory has a chance to register it.  When the short-term memory does register the information, it finds also that the long-term memory has already assimilated it - hence the sensation of experiencing something twice.  A second possibility is that the feeling is caused by a minor temporal-lobe seizure, of the same nature as that one most people experience just as they are falling asleep - the feeling of falling and suddenly waking with a start (a hypnogogic jerk).  People who regularly experience temporal lobe seizures often experience Deja Vecu concerning activity occuring nearby.

I don't know what may be causing the sense of familiarity in this music - it's simply a curiosity to me.  But there's your science lesson for today.  Deja Vecu:  both more and less than we'd cracked it up to be.

Jan. 1st, 2011

encounters with god

It will be a very good year.


2011 is off to a shiny, gleaming start.  I woke up with Sigrid furiously licking me and acting completely normal, bright-eyed and rarin' to go.  I made a positively nasty concoction of beef consomme and basmati rice which she consumed a few tablespoons at a time, with a tiny, tiny bowl of water, and after two hours it still seems to be staying down.  This is a vast improvement over yesterday, when we went outside something like 16 times in an hour and I cleaned up seven or eight vomit messes - with alarming pink tinge - before noon.  I am reining in her appetite for today, but she seems to be completely back to normal.

This morning's run was nothing to write home about, but these days, any run I come to the end of and remain injury-free is a good run.  I have learned to be satisfied and very thankful for plain normalcy.  I remember a time, when I was running a large volume of miles every week (50+), and I would actually feel anxiety that some day I might not be able to run those long distances.  What on earth would I do if someday - gasp - the most I could cover was 3 miles at a time?  Be damned grateful for it, that's what.

The worst part of my life is loneliness.  I sometimes think that I need to get it figured out and either join a monastery, so I'll at least have a monastic family, or get married.  Thanks to school I have a fantastic amount of debt to work off before the first choice is an option.  I have plenty of relationship issues to work through before I'll be fit for the second choice. 

So for now, it's me and the dog and God, which is not too bad when you think about it, as far as families go.  Sometimes the loneliness really aches, but it does afford a lot of time for soul-searching, and you could really ask no better companions for that - one just looks at you accepting whatever you say, The Other sees right through whatever you say and accepts you anyway.  Actually, I'm pretty sure Sigrid sees through whatever I say, too.

The same friend I paraphrased in my last entry has mentioned that this year she resolves to simply label everything "good" and if it doesn't look good, to assume she just hasn't yet figured out why it is good.  I think she has expressed a particular goal of Christian faith with wonderful clarity.  The Orthodox say, "glory to God for ALL things," and I think this is what they mean, unpacked.  I hope she recognizes my immitation of her not as flattery (or not only as flattery) but as real appreciation.  I'll be making this resolution this year, too.

Each snippet I recounted above is a case of not necessarily recognizing "good" right away, but it seems that if you poke around at things enough it isn't really difficult to discover - with some patience - "good" shows itself in all things eventually.  This is a very striking thing to me.  We know we live in a universe created by an All-Good God, but that it's all fallen thanks to what we've done to mess it up.  Still, even through the mess we've made of it, that good continues to fights its way through.  I have heard the metaphor before that we are like seeds planted upside-down: the shoot has to fight its way out, and then up toward the light.  It almost looks as if the entirety of existence is doing that.


P.S. - hopefully she won't mind - I wanted to post the URL to the blog I've been referencing so much.  Hope you enjoy it like I do.
www.katfunny.blogspot.com/

Dec. 31st, 2010

Sigrid, puppy, dogs

Pukey Puppy Rings in the New Year

This time last year I was at my sister's house eating too many spritz cookies with five of my nieces and nephews helping me to make more, enjoying cheese and crackers, everyone running around underfoot excited to ring in the new year.  I've never been a night owl, so I left while I was still awake enough to drive from Vancouver to Gladstone and not get in a wreck.  I was probably in bed by 10 o'clock - after all, I had to be up to go running in the morning.

Tonight I was planning to go to the zoo with my oldest niece and enjoy the lights, but Sigrid the German Shepherd decided to ring out 2010 by catching some kind of GI bug, so instead I'll be spending my New Year's Eve cleaning up puppy puke and doggy diarrhea.  Feels like old times.  When I was in high school, I was the lucky veterinary hospital assistant who spent every one of my holidays in the clinic taking care of the animals who were hospitalized or boarding.  I spent many a Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's picking up dog droppings.  I even spent a Christmas morning - at least an hour of it, anyway - fighting to make a farm duck take his antibiotics in pill form.  Ducks are ingenious creatures with terrifically agile throat muscles: every time I popped that pill down his gullet, I'd turn around to find him maneuvering it right back up again.  I think eventually it got so pasty and stick, he could no longer get the pill unstuck and simply gave in, but it was the fight of my veterinary-technological career.

I'm terrified Sigrid has Parvo, leptospirosis, or giardia. I suspect I know too much, but I also know those diseases are usually accompanied by lethargy and depression, and having seen the way she leaped on the cat the minute she went outside, so far I think her affect is ok.  She's even begging for food, but she gets to be NPO until this time tomorrow.

A friend recently wrote this extremely wise sentiment on her blog: if you are, in this moment, ok, you can be sure that God actually is taking care of you - and you ARE ok.  Anxiety comes of living in the future, depression comes from living in the past.  The difficulties that assailed me in the past year are not happening now, and I don't have to allow them to re-enter my present experience.  The difficulties I imagine for myself in the future may never materialize.  Right now, Sigrid is sprightly if nauseated, and she hasn't spilled bloody evacuations from either end in several hours.  I'm watching her closely, but we can enjoy our sickly little New Year's Eve, such as it is.

2010, as recorded in this blog, has been a diversely mixed bag.  I will kiss it goodbye with a friendly peck on the cheek.  It began in a suicidal bipolar depression that lasted for months and recurred in several shorter episodes throughout the year.  It ends on the tail end of a similarly despondent episode, blessedly shorter in duration.  2010 was the year the lithium began to do its job, and this episode is evidence of that.  Because the bipolar mood swings became shorter and less severe, I was finally able to spend four months studying for my Master's degree in English Lit.  Lithium enabled me to finally make a sustained effort, and thanks to it, some discipline, and a lot of prayer from excellent people, I passed my comprehensive exams and landed the degree.  I have bested several running injuries by the grace of God and am now able to run moderate amounts, enough to keep me healthy if not quite enough to satisfy my inner long-distance runner. 

But nothing in this moment hinges on those things.  God has shown me that He can do anything with the present moment that He wants, and I don't have the vision of the future or the understanding of the past to judge with any accuracy.  I have an ongoing struggle with anxiety, but if I look at the three most impactful features of 2010 - the treatment of my bipolar disorder, the completion of my Master's, and the very significant role to which I attribute the prayers of my friends - I see that the Gospel is right.  Worrying does not add a cubit to your height or a day to your life or make one hair of your head white or black.  I would kick the habit if I could but I think prayer will have to figure heavily in that struggle as well.

I won't be staying up late to ring in the New Year tonight, and my most momentous New Year's resolution is simply to get myself back to reading more, now that all that reading for my MA is finished.  I had a nice little dinner with my niece and felt terrifically guilty that my best furry friend isn't going to ingest anything for a while.  As nice as it is to have an excuse to celebrate, and to see people excited and happy and treating themselves to something special, the present moment will always be what I have, and I don't have to look back at the past year with anything but gratitude or look forward to the new year with anything but a spirit of adventure and faith.





 


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