Friday, October 28, 2005

Let there be light.

Finally… we have electricity in our little chapel. It's been a long time coming since the chapel was cleaned out last August before Long Retreat. We had been singing Compline by candlelight and hurricane lamps, and while it was romantically monastic, it took a lot of mirrors scrounged from everywhere to reflect enough light to actually see the pages. Some of us bought battery operated book lights to supplement the candles, but our eyes just aren't what they used to be.

Then came more refurbishing. While new tiles were being laid (to replace the predilla we ripped out in August), we came back to the great room for Offices and Mass. As the weather turned cool there was often a fire in the fireplace. Back in the chapel the workmen finished cleaning the grout, but only a couple of us were anxious to return. It turned even colder, then rainy, and the unheated disheveled chapel just didn't have any appeal over someplace warm, dry and cozy. As sacristan, I took on the cleaning detail… working against the time when it might stop raining and warm up. For several satisfying days I scrubbed tile, dusted cobwebs, washed windows, oiled wood. I was rewarded with sunshine and the other morning we held our first Eucharist there with music. You could see everyone's breath as we sang. It was pretty frosty, yet somehow invigorating to be back in sacred space.

We'd been asking various electricians for quotes for months. And, just in the nick of time one company came through and wired us up yesterday. Setting up for Mass early this morning was luxurious; I was blessed with heat and light. So much of our American culture creates numbing expectations. We expect heat and light and running water as a matter of course. But it is not that way everywhere. In some countries water is more precious than gold, a matter of life and death. Here, being without it for a time, for whatever reason, shakes me out of that numbness and reinstills gratitude.

Today is the Feast Day of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles who gave their lives, persecuted for being Christians. Yet I have freedom to worship without persecution, and warmth and light to do it in comfort. For these and all our many blessings, thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Be careful…

"All you need is love, love, love…." The Beatles were amazing. Being a teen-going-on-adult in the 60's was amazing. Even more amazing when I read about that decade, than it was in actual experience. I lived on the fringes of the upheaval and attempts to change the world by so many of my generation. I had friends who were mainstream sub-culture, (Is that an oxymoron?) but I was not a real part of it. I never did drugs til I was over thirty, never marched or protested anything outside of singing popular folk songs in a coffee house in Newport. I was there but I wasn't. One friend was a freedom rider. He returned from the south one summer with dark knowledge in his eyes that he couldn't explain to me in words. He told me I was better off not knowing.

I could have been a Republican then. All I wanted was to get married, have kids and a washer-dryer combination. I'd wanted that for as long as I could remember. Changing the world wasn't on my agenda. Changing my world was. I approached it haphazardly: a college education here, an enlistment in the Navy there, finally catching a husband here, having a baby there. Frankly, I was out of it; moving blindly through my life, hoping for someone to come along and make everything all okay, and if not that, at least better.

Somewhere along the way I learned I had to be responsible for my own actions, decisions, happiness. Bummer. You mean Prince Charming isn't coming? Oh well, time to get a life. I worked hard and got one. It was pretty good. Then I moved out of my comfort zone and started offering service to those who had less than I did. Hello. Suddenly I was no longer living on the fringes. This was reality and it was better than anything I'd ever experienced. One thing led to another. I did more, I wanted more. Not more stuff, not more knowledge, not more tangible anything. More of the awe, I think. More of the sense of seeing Christ, of being Christ. That led here… to the convent. "Be careful what you ask for, little girl."

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Music to soothe the savage breast

I used to love Bonnie Raitt's music (when I actually listened to music while I worked). One album: Luck of the Draw was my favorite for a while. There was the song "I can't make you love me if you don't". I played it over and over and cried myself to sleep, when a love affair went south. There was "All at once I see your face and time just disappears". It got me to a place of forgiveness and neutrality about that same affair. Music used to help me understand how I really felt about things. The lyrics could articulate in words what emotions the music moved inside me. Before CDs I'd rewind, play… rewind, play, then it got easier… set the CD player to continuous loop and play the same song over and over and over until I was the song. Usually this was an activity I only did when I was depressed. (No need to be a song when things are going well.)

After an incredible trip to Ireland in 1998, I listened to Loreena McKennitt's Book of Secrets. "Dante's prayer" was my favorite. I played it over and over in the background while I worked on my computer with photographs from that magic land. Eight rolls of film produced six final composites from that month of grieving. And at the time they were my best work.

Which begs the question: why does my best work always come out of despair? When I am adrift on the sea of confusion and regret I retreat into a morbid but creative space. I fantasize about my own death and imagine people being sorry I'm gone. Why is that? Beats me, but it usually works. I need to find some new music.

Friday, October 14, 2005

"Rain, rain go away… come again another day."

It's been raining for over a week. And if it hasn't, it certainly seems like it. I love the rain, usually. it washes away the dust and grit, smells clean, and sounds pleasant on the rooftops. Rainy days lend themselves to staying inside, reading a book, building a fire in the fireplace, napping. But much of what we have to do is not inside. I've ventured as far as our little chapel to scrub grout from the newly laid tiles, and to ring the warning bells for the Daily Offices, but otherwise I'm not a very good duck. I hate the damp, especially when it's cold. Other Sisters have braved the wet to harvest in the soggy garden while I stayed inside and cooked dinner. I feel guilty. (Not guilty enough to help them, obviously.) I rationalize that cooking is important too. Of course it is; that's not the point. So what's the point here?

The real point is I'm feeling guilty about other things and trying to blame it on the weather. I'm craving the independence I used to have, even if it was slavery to a job. It felt like independence and at the moment this life feels like slavery. I'm in a funk spiritually, which is the worst funk to be in… mad at God for calling me to this life but not mad enough to say "no siree, not me, big buddy." So instead I whine about the rain.

Intellectually I know that I am not my feelings. Just because I feel like the martyred one today doesn't mean I will tomorrow. Or tonight even. Something will happen to lift my spirits and keep them soaring. For the past few weeks they've lifted briefly only to crash and burn after a moment or two of flight. But this too will pass. And if it doesn't I'll find something else to whine about.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The American Dream

Last Thursday night I joined a few thousand other people at the South Street Seaport in a walk for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Raising money for people with cancer is big business. There were all kinds of chotskies: walkers received balloons with little battery-operated lights inside, wrist bands and banners, race tags for your back, the whole shooting match. And there were the standard fund-raising incentives: tee-shirts and sweatshirts for those who met their donation quotas. Registration was smooth and efficient. It was obvious this event had not been thrown together.

The national sponsor for these walks is Brystol-Myers Squibb… no big surprise there. Squibb stands to profit if they find a cure for cancer, but will still make lots of money on their chemo drugs if they don't. This may sound like a rant against Corporate America. It's not. I too worked my share of long, hard hours to support the American Dream, and in turn was rewarded with paychecks, health insurance, vacation pay, and in a few cases, a 401K. I believed in the Dream and was successful in achieving it. I worked in advertising, so I learned that our economic system is structured so that anything that makes money to fuel the economy is a good thing. Making money off fund-raisers for research to cure life threatening diseases is certainly more noble than a lot of other enterprises.

But for the participants walking, this night was not about economics. It was about caring and support. The people I met were walking for personal reasons: either they were survivors, or they knew someone with Lymphoma or Leukemia. I was walking for a friend who's on his second round of chemo treatments. His lymphoma reoccurred less than a year from his first diagnosis and treatment. He walked too, slowly, surrounded by people who love him dearly and pray he will beat the odds.

Before we walked, there were the usual speeches and accolades for Bristol-Myers Squibb and all the corporate sponsors (whose logos were also plastered on team tee-shirts). Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the speech making though. We were ready to light up our balloons and get the show on the road. As we made our way from the seaport to the Brooklyn Bridge the atmosphere was festive but subdued. Because the crowd was so large it was a slow procession. No shoving, no cutting ahead, lots of stopping and waiting for parties to catch up with each other. Cheerleaders shook their pompoms for us at the halfway mark and we took group pictures with our banner and balloons. It was a great night and I'm glad I was able to go.

But here's the thing: I want the researchers to find a cure for cancer. But when do we recognize that prevention of cancer would be a whole lot more practical? (Here comes the rant against Corporate America:) Nothing ever gets said about the toxins in our air, water or food. No mention ever of pesticides or genetic altering of crops, nothing about preservatives. We will not acknowledge that the cumulative effect of years of consuming poison does in fact cause disease. The very fact that cancer now strikes one in four Americans doesn't make us wonder why? No, because a huge part of our economy is fueled by corporate agriculture. In order to eat healthy, Americans must pay three to four times as much. Most of us either can't afford it or don't see the difference. We'd rather save that money and use it for something else. And prevention could be bad business for drug companies, not to mention healthcare agencies. It's like planned obsolescence with our products. We build things so they won't last so we'll have to spend money to buy new ones when they break. When does common sense get the better of an economic pattern that works only at the expense of the people it serves?

It wasn't until I was required to eat all-organic (that's what we eat here in Brewster) that I was able to chart the difference in my own body. No allergies, no asthma, weight's down, and I have more energy. Since mid August my system has been purging itself slowly of years of ignorant abuse. I feel better and the food tastes wonderful. Duh!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Harvest Hands

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray for harvest hands."

The Bible study this morning sparked thoughtful dialog from Matthew's gospel. It's the passage that includes a reference to Jesus' compassion for the crowds—all of them confused and aimless, like sheep with no shepherd. His directive: to pray for harvest hands. This prayer yields the twelve apostles, and he sends them out to preach and heal and become the desperately needed shepherds.

We talked about compassion… and how easy it is to get busy with the doing and forget the part about doing it with LOVE. We talked about commitment… and how easy it is to get immersed in ourselves and what we want and forget the part about doing what God wants. We talked about the imperfections of those twelve apostles and our own imperfections… that God doesn't expect us to be holy before we do the work, that wounded people can heal their neighbors with as much success as doctors with degrees. Ordinary normal broken people are enlisted to do God's work. But the choice to respond is always ours. I forget that. I forget I chose this life for a reason.

Maybe some people can make a choice without second thought, without looking back. I'm apparently not one of them. It takes a Bible study conversation to lasso me back to the choicepoint. Oh yeah, I remember now.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Discernment Woes

Discernment can be a terrible thing. A wonderful, terrible, not-to-be-missed-in-this-lifetime kind of thing. As I enter my third year of what's called "testing your vocation" I sometimes have to laugh. Out loud. The alternative would be crying, and although I no longer wear make-up that would run like Tammy Fay Bakker's (anyone remember her?) I still get a red nose when I cry. I actually get one when I even think about crying, which is embarrassing enough. So I laugh.

One time my best friend and I watched the movie "Howard's End" and when it was over, we sat in the lobby and laughed ourselves silly for more than half an hour. Taking turns, we'd get ourselves under control just long enough for the other to start the sequence again, and then we'd roar. I've no doubt blocked it out, but I probably wet my pants from so much laughing. Whatever unconscious nerves that movie touched, they were way too dangerous to face head on. But they couldn't be ignored either. So we laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more.

This week has been a bit like that: roller coastering all over the place emotionally, and watching myself do it… and laughing.
Here's a recap of my ping-ponging for the past week: Several days ago in a fit of desperation I went online to look for a job in my old field. And found one. Oops! Two nights ago I was railing over my loss of independence… the ability to decide things for myself without having to take a whole community into account. The next day the decision I would have made on my own was handed to me on a golden platter, and I was embarrassed. (Lack of faith?) Last night on the subway I was approached by a young woman with demanding questions about my faith. In answer, I told her I had no doubts about God, but many about my capacity to commit to that God. (I guess I feel if some stranger wants to ask an honest question, I should give them an honest answer.) But my glib tongue came back to haunt me later when I couldn't sleep. Just why is it I'm not able to commit? Sure I'm in a restless phase. Been there before. Why do I keep fantasizing about life possibilities I deliberately turned my back on… several I deliberately retreated from for all the best reasons. And why did I retreat? They weren't enough. Yet at times this life is too much. Go figure. Testing a vocation is not like any testing I've ever done, and I'm closing in on sixty. When I think of who I was ten years ago, five years ago, and who I am now, I realize God was pretty astute to wait so long with me.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Price of Customer Service

So what is it? Day 6? And as you can see… the project is completed. That's eight chairs. Count them. (At least the eight chairs I set out to recover are done.) There are actually more of these chairs lurking around… some in a closet in the chapel, maybe a stray one or two over at the "west wing" (formerly the old convent now converted to guest quarters. Guest-wing, west-wing, get it?)

It wasn't my doing at all. I did it, yes, but one of my Sisters took pity on me and my pathetic yammering about the hammering, and found me a HEAVY DUTY staple gun. Of course we had no staples, but getting staples was one of my more enjoyable activities. I took the empty gun to Palmer's Ace Hardware, the local Brewster hardware store. This was not the orange logo'd multicorporate conglomerate that we sometimes frequent for our garden stakes and lawn care products. No, this was the kind of store I grew up with… you take in your tool (in my case a staple gun) hand it to the person behind the counter and say: "Do you have staples to fit this thing?"

Since the young woman behind the counter didn't instantly know the correct answer, she referred me to a more experienced person. But she did know where the staples were kept and we immediately went to the racks where she showed me the various sizes and types while we waited for the other salesperson to finish with his customer. He actually apologized for keeping me waiting. I handed over the gun, he checked a number on the handle; I explained it was for reupholstering seat cushions and he handed me the correct box of staples. He even showed me how to hold the gun at an angle to get the best blast for my money. No wandering the aisles asking "Do you know where I might find staples?"… being directed and redirected seven times by employees who either don't know or don't care… finally finding the aisle with staples, looking at the gun, looking at the rack, looking for someone to ask again, only to be told "If they aren't on the shelf we don't have them." without them ever bothering to check. Can you tell I speak from experience here?

So… Cost of staples: $3.79. Cost of Customer Service: priceless. (Cost of a compassionate Sister: priceless.) Cost of a completed project: priceless. I'm thinking this is as good as it needs to get.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Start what you finish

There are people who start projects and people who start them and finish them. Then there's the rest of us who fall somewhere on the scale of 1 to 10 about the finishing part. (I'm leaving out those who never start because, well, I just can't relate.) Procrastination is the bane of those of us who start projects and for one reason or another, find we are unable to finish. It is a dirty word, an ugly slur. It gives us and our projects a bad reputation. I, for one, do not procrastinate.

I like to consider myself one of the finishers. I usually finish, I like to finish, and it bothers me when I don't finish. The fact that my projects are often messy and take up a lot of room adds to my discomfort when the mess sits around for months on end. Case in point: the seat cushions for the kitchen chairs. I started with a bang… several bangs in fact. The first step was unscrewing all the screws that held each seat onto its chair body… no problem, only five per chair. Next was the cleaning and oiling of the wood. Not too hard… no sense putting new cushions on dirty chairs, right? Measuring and cutting material for the cushions, washing and drying it followed. And then there was the prying out of the tacks. Now the project water started to get murky. Losing interest big time by about chair number four. But at this point I'd already removed the screws from eight chairs. Time for a diversion. (A diversion is different from a procrastination in that it diverts you from the negative vibes of a project going south and you can return to same project with renewed interest and determination to finish.) In this case the diversion was making scones. Food is always a valid diversion.

Back to the project—and another snag. The staple gun we have is a light-duty variety and refused to insert the staples into the wood. In fact they bounced right off. Good thing I saved all those tacks. However, hammering nails is not one of my strong suits. I glue things rather than sew or hammer because I have a talent for glue. But this project definitely required hammering. I started hammering. An hour and a half later one seat was finished.

It was obviously time for Alternate Plan B. (Alternate Plan Bs may resemble procrastination in that they rethink the scope of a project and arrive at the conclusion that it will take longer than originally anticipated. The prototype (in this case chair number 1) has given valuable information for a more realistic timeline. One a day. Given my other responsibilities, I can conceivably hammer and reattach one seat cushion per day to finish the project.

So today is day 2. This afternoon I spent forty-five minutes hammering tacks, got bummed and came up here to write this blog. (Not procrastination, another diversion.) I'm heading back down to the cellar as soon as I press "post" and finish the *#!!% seat. Maybe I'll take a picture of the one that's finished… after I hammer. Because I do not procrastinate.