Six Ways of Looking at "Hiatus"

Extra-credit question on a recent cumulative vocabulary test: use "hiatus" in a sentence. Here are my favorites (you have to give them credit for trying, right?)

  1. They built a strong hiatus around the criminal to protect him.
  2. The new student had a certain hiatus about her.
  3. The murderer's hiatus crime stunned all of the citizens because it was so brutal.
  4. She said that, but I know she hiatus me.
  5. The student gave a hiatus excuse for why she was late for class.
  6. Her awful hiatus was affecting the whole town!

Wrong answers are always so much more fun than right ones.

My Darkened Soul

Last Sunday marked the first of several steps into the Great Fast that is the center of the church year: the weeks when we will focus with intensity on the kind of life we should always be leading (but don't.) Popularly it's called Meatfare Sunday, because we stop eating meat. But to me Meatfare sounds like a buffet of questionable origin, so I prefer the more liturgical term "Judgment Sunday" -- so called because we read the Gospel in which Christ sends the sheep to heaven and the goats to hell.

You know the passage, so I won't repeat it here. There is much to say about seeing the face of Christ in everyone, not just the people who are easy to love. An eyeroll at a co-worker (whether inward or outward) is directed to the Lord. So is a note that makes your sister smile, or a comforting squeeze of the hand to an anxious child.

What really amazed me last Sunday, on the cusp of my seventeenth Lent, was the fact that, right at the outset, the Church tackles the most complex, and frightening, question of human history: What happens when we die?

The answer is, honestly, we don't know. Very few people have tasted death and returned to speak of it. In one of my favorite teachings of all time, the Fathers write that Lazarus, after being raised from four days in the tomb, never laughed until his death. Once, however, when he saw a man stealing a clay pot, he smiled and quipped, "Clay stealing clay." You might think that, like most people who have had near-death experiences, Lazarus would have re-entered life with zest and joy, but what he saw beyond the grave seems to have sobered him a great deal. 

What we do know is that God will require us to answer for every single one of our earthly actions, and that He will decide whether to send us to eternal reward or eternal punishment. We know that God is just, and yet we trust in His mercy. We hope and pray for salvation, but ultimately the decision is His to make. Hell may be our final destination, or it may be empty altogether.

This was the hardest thing I struggled with before joining the Orthodox Church. As a Protestant, I had been taught that salvation takes place instantly at the first conscious confession of faith and can never be revoked. Naturally, it frightened me to confront the possibility that one moment of surrender was not an airtight guarantee. Over the years, though, I began to see it differently. Consider two hypothetical "come to Jesus" moments: one is followed by a life of indulgence and sin, and the other by a steady, though slow, progress toward holiness. The logical conclusion is that only one confession was sincere, because it was followed by the fruits of faith. After that, you might dare to ask the question: does the confession itself, the first "I believe, save me," really matter? Or is each kind act, each prayer, itself a confession of faith and a step in the right direction? We know that our works will not save us, but are they not evidence of the faith that will? Ultimately, I believe both points of view are saying the same thing in different words.

Rob likes to say that children should always be a little afraid of their earthly fathers; if they do not fear punishment, their behavior will reflect that familiarity. This applies even more strongly to our relationship with our Heavenly Father: not because He is evil, but because He is good -- Goodness itself -- and we are, emphatically, not. A little fear is a healthy thing. God is not our drinking buddy; He is GOD. If we aren't overwhelmed at times with the depths of our sinfulness, we aren't being honest with ourselves; and if we aren't a little fearful of the day when we will be called to account, we haven't really considered what that means.

It was in the midst of some of these thoughts that, last Saturday night, I began chanting the Aposticha Hymn:

Woe to thee, O darkened soul! How long wilt thou continue in evil? How long wilt thou lie in idleness? Why dost thou not tremble at the dread judgment seat of the Savior? What defense wilt thou make, or what wilt thou answer? Thy works will be there to accuse thee: thine actions will reproach thee and condemn thee. O my soul, the time is near at hand; make haste, before it is too late, and cry aloud in faith: I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned against Thee; but I know Thy love for man and Thy compassion. O Good Shepherd, deprive me not of a place at Thy right hand in Thy great mercy.

If ever there were a call to repentance, this is it. God have mercy on me, a sinner.

Habits and Holiness

Eight posts in the last six months. My, how the wordy have fallen!

Sometime during these months of silence, I started thinking about my life, which is incredibly blessed in many ways and kind of a mess in others. Since it's much more depressing to think about the messy parts, that's what I've been doing -- and coming to some odd conclusions.

For instance: I don't have any habits.

Really. None. I don't get up at the same time every morning. I don't always brush my teeth before I go to bed. I don't eat regular meals, walk the dog, play with the cat or clean the house or read books on any kind of a regular basis. I do each of these things as the moment strikes me, or when they absolutely need to be done to avoid disease or debt or embarrassment or all three.

Now you know the sad truth. I laid it bare, along with many other sad and true facts about myself, in confession just before Christmas. I told my spiritual father that I wanted to have a more ordered life, and that I knew the first step in ordering my life was ordering my soul. I asked him to help me to really, actually start living like a Christian.

"Well," he said. "Do you want to get a pen and paper?"

These words thrilled my organizational heart of hearts, and eagerly I took notes as he reviewed the three main supports of a holy life. Prayer: morning, evening, intercessions, reading Scripture. Fasting: more time with God, which means less indulgence in food and television and, hopefully, sinful behavior. Almsgiving: donating money, but also time, energy and resources, to those in need. We talked about visiting monasteries, praying before and after Communion, taking time for silence. 

Of course I know I need to do these things. Christ speaks clearly about each one in the Gospels, and from my youth I have, not obeyed them, but fumbled in their direction. So what is stopping me from going deeper, from attaining what God Himself commands -- that I be perfect, as He is?

And so the last directive, though the simplest of all, was the most revelatory. My spiritual father encouraged me to return to confession soon, but also to confess often on a much smaller scale: examine each day's failings, ask forgiveness where necessary, and try again tomorrow. Examine each week as a whole before going, with a penitent heart, to Communion. Confronting my sins on a relentlessly regular basis, he explained, ensures they will return with less frequency.

In thinking about it later, I realized that to get better at anything (French, singing, throwing a Frisbee, making curry sauce) I need both practice and coaching. And so, to accomplish theosis -- to become like God -- I need to practice shedding my baser instincts and embracing the cross. So that, instead of two steps forward and one step back (or, as is more common, the other way around,) I can start to see real change in my soul, and in my life.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess so that you know I haven't really been silent all these months. I just haven't been ready to say this until now. So thank you, for waiting for me.

I Speak American

"Why are there two words for 'friend,' ami and copain?"

It's Friday, and I'm feeling ornery. "I don't know. Why do the Alaskans have eight different words for snow?"

"They have eight different words for snow? What are they?"

"I don't know. I don't speak Aleut."

"People in Alaska DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH?!" A general outcry, which quickly disintegrates into multiple animated dialogues. "So Eskimos aren't American?" "I thought that was illegal!" "What about Sarah Palin?"

This is beyond the scope of my job description, I think as I draw a crude map of North America on the board and prepare to explain the relative size of Alaska, our reasons for acquiring it and a history of the people who lived there long before our ancestors made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic. 

But here I go anyway.

High-Performance Parenting

Clearly, a book with this title deserves my attention.

Here's the thing about four-year colleges, and architecture schools in particular, and my own alma mater most particularly of all. They promote an altogether false and harmful belief that their world, in which students are firmly and financially ensconced, is the ONLY world. Success or failure in their classes denotes success or failure in life. A lack of inspiration or a fit of malaise marks you as dull or lazy. 

So, okay, prepare your children for this, or go the safer, cheaper route with two years at a community college first. But what if this prevailing attitude of cutthroat competition, of days upon days in which where everything is always at stake, were present before college? In high school, or even before?

How to Write (Or Not)

I read Colson Whitehead's How To Write several weeks ago, and I still can't come up with a witty introduction or smooth segueway into his gem of a piece:

Rule No. 7: Writer’s block is a tool — use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, “I’m blocked.” Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters “talk to you” and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don’t feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, they forsake you, it’s out of your hands and whatnot. Writer’s block is like “We couldn’t get a baby sitter” or “I ate some bad shrimp,” an excuse that always gets you a pass. 

The guy knows writing. Knows it. Half magic, half frustration, half you and half everything else.

Rule No. 4: Never use three words when one will do. Be concise. Don’t fall in love with the gentle trilling of your mellifluous sentences. Learn how to “kill your darlings,” as they say. 

Oh, if only. I spend most of my time wishing for a good editor: it's probably harder than ever to find one now that reality TV, fake memoirs and self-publishing are so rampant. Well, a girl can dream.

Rule No. 6: What isn’t said is as important as what is said. In many classic short stories, the real action occurs in the silences. Try to keep all the good stuff off the page. 

I've never been the least bit successful in this department. I know it when I see it, but I can't control myself enough to create it. At least I can enjoy it elsewhere.

Rule No. 8: Is secret.

See what I mean? Just read the rest and thank me later, after you've chosen a more rewarding career!

Poor Pianos

Right around the time I decided to end (at least temporarily) my piano-teaching career, I read one of the saddest stories ever written:

The Knabe baby grand did a cartwheel and landed on its back, legs poking into the air. A Lester upright thudded onto its side with a final groan of strings, a death-rattling chord. After 10 pianos were dumped, a small yellow loader with a claw in front scuttled in like a vicious beetle, crushing keyboards, soundboards and cases into a pile.

The site, a trash-transfer station in this town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is just one place where pianos go to die. This kind of scene has become increasingly common.

The value of used pianos, especially uprights, has plummeted in recent years. So instead of selling them to a neighbor, donating them to a church or just passing them along to a relative, owners are far more likely to discard them, technicians, movers and dealers say. Piano movers are making regular runs to the dump, becoming adept at dismantling instruments, selling parts to artists, even burning them for firewood.

“We bust them up with a sledgehammer,” said Jeffrey Harrington, the owner of Harrington Moving & Storage in Maplewood, N.J.

It really does say something about our society that we're unable to find a use for these instruments. In the age of digital music, aspiring singers can play accompaniment tracks they've downloaded online and record themselves on vocals; fewer people need to know how to read the notes. In churches, they've moved to rock bands and recordings. 

Saddest of all? The late-night singalong jams that were such an important part of my childhood are less and less common. We used to pride ourselves on remembering all the words to American Pie; now when we get together to make music, everyone pulls out a phone and Googles the lyrics. 

I'd love to see someone step up to organize donations to low-income families, schools, churches and anyone else who wants one. It seems like we should be able to work that out.  Right?!

Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Those French. Always eloquent, always pessimistic, and almost always right. Listen to this:

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

When was this written? Last week? No, fifty years ago, by Ray Bradbury.

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentifrice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

No? How about these:

  • "Today is August 4, 2026," said a second voice from the kitchen ceiling, "in the city of Allendale, California." It repeated the date three times for memory's sake. "Today is Mr. Featherstone's birthday. Today is the anniversary of Tilita's marriage. Insurance is payable, as are the water, gas, and light bills." Somewhere in the walls, relays clicked, memory tapes glided under electric eyes. (There Will Come Soft Rains, 1950)
  • "I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them." (Fahrenheit 451, 1953)
  • "The more I see of the mess we've put ourselves in, the more it sickens me. We've been contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for too long. My God, how we need a breath of honest air!" (The Veldt, 1950)
  • "There sat all the tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying 'Now I'm at Forty-third, now I'm at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first." (The Murderer, 1953)

Bradbury was known for his aversion to technology, refusing to use computers or fly in planes. But, in this excellent homage to his life's work, Tim Kreider explains that Bradbury was more than just a troglodyte.

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. 

I've been a Bradbury fan since reading The Illustrated Man in high school, but I only read his masterpiece a few years ago. He was such an inspiration, for his strong work ethic and idyllic family life as much as for his uncannily prophetic writing. I only hope that, as a society, we can start to take some of his lessons to heart.

A New Spin

Euh … bonjour … (Um … hello …)

Yes, I’m well aware of what happens when I make blogging promises: I fail spectacularly.  As proof of that, I submit my vow to blog every day during my recent Paris trip, when in fact I didn’t blog once.  Part of the reason was logistical; using the phone for data was hugely expensive, so even the super-easy SquareSpace app was impossible to run unless I was in a wifi hot spot (and believe me, it feels like I spent half the trip looking for those!)  Our hotel had free wifi, but we really only returned there to sleep for a few hours at the end of each long, exhausting day.  And I had brought the iPad, but felt nervous toting it around the city in search of an inspiring AND plugged-in spot to write.

So: no blogging.  But: plenty to say.  So much, in fact, that I’ve organized my thoughts into ten basic categories. I’m hoping to write briefly about each one, somewhere in between a meditation and a guidebook.  If you’re going to Paris, I hope you’ll read these first.  And if you’ve already been, I hope you’ll join me in remembering what makes this such an amazing city.

My plan was to write about one thing each day for 10 days (to make up for the 10 days I didn’t write a blessed thing.)  But we all know what happens when I tell you about my plans.  Instead, I’ll just promise to make my way through the list as soon as I can find the time, energy and brain power.  Look for the first installment soon.

Reach Out and Tweet Someone

Rarely have I read such an articulate, insightful and disturbing status report about the human race:

We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.

I see this behavior all the time, especially in adults. I hate it. Often I want to ask the person, “Why are you here? To interact with me, or to check your e-mail?”

And yet, I am certain I am guilty of the same behaviors. Being blessed with a husband who loves to drive, I often use my time in the car to communicate with clients and friends, sending messages and playing my single iPhone vice. In the guise of taking notes, I can read the news on my phone during boring meetings; I have noticed that I no longer sketch chair backs and light fixtures in the margins of my agendas, and honestly, I kind of miss that last connection to years spent with a pencil glued to my hand.

Later, the author continues:

We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone. Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved.

The great irony of this: I love being alone. In fact, most days I find myself working at the computer and thinking, “If I can just get this finished, I’ll go work in the garden / start dinner / read a book on the front porch.” And suddenly, after work with distractions all day it’s time for bed.  Or, more likely, way past time for bed. So, for me at least, it’s a matter of control. How can I keep these (innovative, useful, efficient) devices at a life-enhancing, and not a life-encompassing, level? I’d love to know how other people are handling it.