Forward, Onward, Upward

I didn't want to look back on this year. I'm not sure why. It was very difficult in a number of ways, most of which I can't talk about here (and even if I could, I wouldn't really want to.) But there have been more difficult years, and I have always been able to highlight the bright spots and gloss over the rough patches and sculpt the whole thing into a chatty, upbeat Christmas letter. This year, I just didn't want to, and I guess I'm at the point in my life at which I've realized I don't have to keep doing things I no longer enjoy.

It has been a year of growth; I thank God for that. I have learned a lot, sometimes at great cost. After my first wretched few days in a grad-level French language pedagogy course, I told a friend how strange it felt that none of these people really knew me as I am, or rather, as I like to think I am: Intelligent. Driven. In control. 

(My classic anxiety dream is not my teeth falling out or forgetting to wear pants or being chased through the woods: it's traveling with my cat. Sometimes I'm at school, or in church, or shopping. Once I was walking through Paris. The common thread is that I have my cat with me, and she's trying to get away, and I'm trying to contain her, and I almost always lose before I wake up in a cold sweat. That is literally my worst nightmare: losing control.)

But, at the same time, I told my friend, it was strangely freeing to be someone else for a change. The me who always knew the answer got to stay home with her feet up, while the other side of her -- the side who tried not to get called on, who enjoyed listening for listening's sake, who flushed with pride when she understood enough of the joke to laugh at it -- that me got to climb out of the cellar, squinting at the sudden brightness, and explore the world for herself.

So here I am looking back, after saying I didn't want to. What I really want to do is look forward. The Church Fathers reduce the spiritual life to three very simple maxims that sound suspiciously Zen, and I believe this is because Buddhism was, like Judaism and paganism, awaiting the fullness of spirituality that would only come with Christ. Still, there is much wisdom in the simplicity of their advice: don't resent; don't react; keep inner stillness. It is only when we are able to "lay aside all earthly cares," as we sing each week in the Liturgy, that we can hear Christ speaking to us. I'm chipping away at the crippling mountain of resentment I've allowed to rule my life, but at the same time, I'm trying not to focus on it, but instead to look over it -- to see the beauty and goodness all around me and to be inspired by it. 

For instance: last weekend I got to chant Matins with a friend who is talented, charismatic, thoughtful -- one of those people I just can't be around enough. Joy pours out of him. He invited me to sing with a smile and an open heart, even though I lack much of the experience and skills needed to keep up with the others; he drew me in toward the music even though I couldn't understand most of it; he cracked jokes that only I could hear to make me more comfortable; in short, he helped me feel like I belonged. That is something at which I am terrible. My extraordinarily high expectations keep me from making those kinds of adjustments and concessions, the kind that are necessary in order to show love truly and freely. But instead of looking inside, when I look outside -- at him, at the light of Christ shining through him -- I don't feel fear and disappointment, but hope and inspiration. I want to change, to grow, to become more than I have been thus far. 

I think that's a good way to end this year.

Good, Existential Spookiness

There is so much I want to say. So why don't I just say it? 

Time, thank God, is plentiful. There are plenty of days when I can sit, as now, listening to the rain fall, resting one elbow on a pillow and the other on a sleepy dog, and just reflect. But when I have those opportunities, more often than not, I consume the minutes one by one -- an article, a video, a recipe, or two of each in quick pell-mell succession -- constantly absorbing information without allowing it to sink in, let alone formulating a response. There is so much I would like to respond to. Things that provoke and incense me, that paint my hours and days with sunshine, that grip my heart with sadness and won't let go.

Right now, reflecting on all that the last few months have encompassed, I keep coming back to a truly life-changing moment, when I sat at the feet of this holy man as he "told me everything I ever did:" 

If you live only for the now, and temporary life that the world preaches today, how are you going to resolve the inner conflict in the very depth of your being? Because it’s wrong to run away from the mystery you can’t find. . . Sometimes you stay up at night and you wonder what that mystery means. Sometimes you look at your husband and say, “I love him, but I really don’t know him,” after 22 years of marriage. (And now I’m spooking you – in a good, existential, way.) And that’s because there’s something in you that wants to remain true to the mystery you haven’t found, about who you are. You have to remain true to that mysterious center of primary value, which, even though anyone else can’t see it, you know it. And without the Resurrection, you won’t find it. 

Take the time to listen to the whole talk, and you may have your own woman at the well moment. Maybe, like me, you'll even struggle with putting more words into the world, when there are so many to think about already.

On Taking Your Own Advice

I had a wonderful conversation today with a new friend who recently began teaching. She had a bad week, almost quit and called me to talk. Her words were so familiar that hearing them was like hearing myself a decade ago.

After listening with complete empathy, I replied, in essence:

  • The devil sows confusion. Whenever there is hearsay or gossip or implication, there is room for misinterpretation and divisiveness, the enemies of progress. Do your best to cling to the truth and to let everything else fall away.
  • Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young. They will, St. Paul notwithstanding, but you must dismiss their criticisms. Age does not guarantee maturity.
  • When people say cruel things, they often speak out of envy. A young, talented, wise leader is a target for all kinds of hateful comments. Pray for those people, remembering the worst things you have said with a jealous heart.
  • If your supervisors really wanted you to leave, they would have asked you to leave. Instead, they have said that they're proud of the work you're doing and that they believe God has called you to minister here. Write down as much as you can remember of those positive, encouraging thoughts they gave you. Re-read them anytime you are feeling persecuted. They are the reality of your situation. The rest just doesn't matter.
  • Remembering David Foster Wallace's words about worship, choose to worship God and to view yourself as He sees you -- flawed and struggling, but always with your eyes fixed on Him.

After talking with her for several hours, we hung up both feeling deeply nourished: helping is at least as gratifying as being helped. It occurred to me later that what I said was very good advice, but that none of it was my own; reading back over it, I can hear my mother, my priest, several dear friends and my extraordinarily wise husband. 

It also occurred to me that, if I took my own advice, I would be a much more joyful, loving and Christ-centered person. Not a bad thing to learn this week, halfway through Great Lent.

Lent, Anew

This is my seventeenth Lent as an Orthodox Christian -- which means I have now been Orthodox for longer than I was not Orthodox. But this is the first year I have really looked forward to Lent. I know I need it. My life feels out of balance, drifting, directionless, turned inward. I crave the peace that comes from humility, that only the most focused, demanding spirituality can provide. I think of Saydeh's words: "Lent is a joy." Yes.

Last week I rediscovered the Audio Bible I bought for Rob years ago. I decided to start it from the beginning. At first I found Jon Sherberg's voice uncannily dramatic, distracting. But after the first handful of chapters, I didn't hear his voice at all -- just the stories. Wow. It's been decades since I heard some of them, and it's as if I'm hearing them for the first time. They floated back to me in clumps as we sang the Canon of St. Andrew last week:

  • I have rivaled in transgression Adam the first-formed man, and I have found myself stripped naked of God, of the eternal Kingdom and its joy, because of my sins.
  • The Lord once rained down fire from heaven and consumed the land of Sodom. O my soul, flee like Lot to the mountain, and take refuge in Zoar before it is too late.
  • Leah is action, for she had many children; and Rachel is knowledge, for she endured great toil.  For without toil, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed.
  • Once Joseph was cast into a pit, O Lord and Master, as a figure of Thy Burial and Resurrection.  But what offering such as this shall I ever make to Thee?
  • David, the forefather of God, once sinned doubly, pierced with the arrow of adultery and the spear of murder. But thou, my soul, art more gravely sick than he, for worse than any acts are the impulses of thy will.
  • I have put before thee, my soul, Moses' account of the creation of the world, and after that all the recognized Scriptures that tell thee the story of the righteous and the wicked.  But thou, my soul, hast followed the second of these, not the first, and hast sinned against God.

About halfway through the 90-minute service on Tuesday, I finally started to pray, really pray. And just then, I caught the eye of a tiny baby who was nestled in a blanket on the floor, on the other side of the wooden lectern where my music rested. As I bowed and reached for the floor with my fingertips, she gave me the full-body smile only a baby can deliver, and I had to smile back. There is joy, too, even in the midst of repentance. Maybe the repentance is what brings the joy in the first place.

 

Ma Merveille

Years ago, I saw The New World on the recommendation of a friend. Here's a taste:

It was my first Malick film, and as much as I was awed by its external transcendence, its deeper substance really burrowed into me. I rented it, watched it, went to bed, and when I arose the next morning after a mostly-sleepless night, sat down to watch the whole thing again. I have tried to write about it, but could hardly even think about it except in waves of images and isolated thoughts, never coherent enough to string together. Though this is grossly over-simplistic, I will say that it is a story about hurt and healing. Healing triumphs, but in a devastatingly pyrrhic victory -- old wounds remain latent, sabotaging the future with poison from the past. Watching it uncovered deep layers of unsettled feelings, pain I had either forgotten or chosen to ignore.

I always come late to the most interesting conversations, especially where my friend Rod is concerned -- he who can create a niche market, document a paradigm shift and defend a worldview in the time it takes me to have one slightly original thought. But, in light of the above experience, I am finding the need to add to the dialogue of his recent musings (starting here, and continuing here and here) about Malick's latest film. To the Wonder.

I watched this one alone on a whim, and I liked it; especially the priest, who is the central character regardless of screentime. It didn't have the same effect right away. Some days later, I discovered my whole family was miffed at me because they had wanted to see it too. So we watched it together, and after the second viewing, we all started to think and talk about it -- a conversation that continued for several weeks. 

There is literally no way I can spoil the plot, because there is no plot, other than the general arc of a couple who falls in love in Paris and then tries to make their relationship last back in the United States. The ending is ambiguous and has already provoked several arguments. But this movie is not about the plot; it's about the details. There are three I keep coming back to.

Kinesis: as The Times reviewer mentioned, the female lead is constantly in motion. She spins, chases, flings her arms wide to embrace the heavens, all to an introspective French voiceover that sounds as italic as its subtitles look. She is lovely, and Malick's camerawork is masterful; every shot is frameable, every scene a living poem. It's surprising, then, that it rings so hollow. My mother pointed out that all the leaping and tumbling left the characters with nothing solid to hold on to -- searching for ground, they came up with only air. (Their house, which remains huge and unfurnished, is another indicator of their empty lives.)

Nature: like every other Malick film, this one shows a profound respect for, and unabashed adoration of, the natural world. Trees, beaches, gardens and fields all get the same breathless reverence. But this time, there is more: through the story of a priest who struggles with eternal questions, Malick shows us that even his own masterpieces are worthless to the extent that they don't acknowledge their ultimate creator. The tongues of men and angels, which few would argue he has mastered on film, are merely noise next to a heart of faith and a hand of mercy.

Place: A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are thousands of pictures in a film, so it stands to reason that there should be very little explanation necessary. Mercifully, Malick lets his shots speak for themselves. America is sun-kissed grass, Paris rain-dampened cobblestone. The Sonic drive-in glows just as the shimmering beaches of Mont-Saint-Michel do -- one wholesome, one exotic, both glorious. I was actually a little disappointed when I realized that La Merveille, The Wonder, is a physical place; I had first read that line as a metaphysical statement, about the power of love to transform a quotidian hour into an ethereal one.

It's this last idea that has stuck with me most since I saw the film. Without even meaning to, I often imagine my own life as Terrence Malick might see it. Entering my hushed classroom in the early morning, slowly raising the shades and looking out to the glorious fog-drenched expanse of trees below. Scattering grain to a feathery patchwork of black and gold. Standing in a darkened church, sweet harmony mingling with the dissonant cries of children. Entering the pantry to the pillowy-sweet scent of fresh apples, letting them cook in butter until the sugar runs a sticky amber. Climbing between clean, soft flannel sheets and yielding to the stillness of sleep.

Each day is full of moments like this. Sometimes I see them, and just as often I let them slip by unnoticed. But thanks to the magic of my own personal merveille, awakened by this lovely film, they are always there.

Back Into the World

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

She stood perfectly still, her pale skin smooth except around her eyes, where she squinted up at the ceiling for a moment. "What motivates you?"

"Whoo!" I blew through pursed lips, laughed nervously, buying some time. "Like . . . in general?"

"Yeah."

"When I'm dealing with my anxiety disorder? Or just all the time?"

Her hands found each other, fiddled for a moment. "It's just that you seem so . . . enthusiastic. All the time. How do you get out of bed every morning? What makes you do it?"

I looked at her and saw myself, the day she was born. The same curiosity tempered by a desire to fit in. The same searching look that scared away most of the boys I liked. The same deep-seated, unfounded fears. It wasn't so long ago.

"I love literature," I said. "I didn't study it much in college, but I've always loved to read, and I genuinely enjoy that part of my job -- talking about stories, getting into the hows and whys. And I think enthusiasm is contagious, so I try to be enthusiastic for my students because it makes learning more fun for them. Beyond that --"

I paused. Suddenly there was nothing to say, and way too much, all at once.

"I know I'm not the best teacher. But I think God has given me some gifts, and I want to use them as best I can. My vocation is to be a teacher and wife, just like yours is to be a student and daughter. Have you ever read Tolstoy?"

She shook her head.

"He has this great story called 'Three Questions.' This king spends his whole life looking for the answers to three questions: What is the most important thing? What is the most important person? What is the most important time?"

She nodded. She was listening.

"In the end, he finds out that it's all based on the present. The most important person is whomever God has placed in front of you, and the most important  thing is to do good for that person. And the most important time -- really, the only time -- is now. Do the best you can with now. If now is your brother sitting next to you in the back seat and he's driving you crazy --" 

Here she smiled. "I know," I said. "Your brother is only a baby."

"No, I have another one," she said. "In middle school."

"Okay, then. That brother in the car -- at that moment, God is calling you to be kind to him, to love him. That's your job. It's actually very simple. But we don't think about it that way often enough."

She nodded again. I realized how still she was, her hands at her sides, her face a little puffy with fatigue. I hoped I wasn't boring her. 

"You know," I said, extending my arms to encompass the desks, posters, walls, building, "All this is nothing. In the end, you won't remember any of it. Even your grades -- I know they are SO IMPORTANT to you right now -- you won't even remember what they were. But you will remember whether people treated you with kindness. And they will remember that about you. We just have to trust God that the hard stuff is there for a reason. Who knows: maybe the reason I struggled with anxiety for so many years was just so I could be here now, with you, to let you know it will get better and you will be a stronger person for it. Don't worry about the future: just trust God that whatever you have to do today is the exact right thing for you to do today. And that today is the only time to do it."

She was quiet, thinking. "How's that for a long answer?" I laughed. "Serves you right for asking an English teacher."

"Thank you," she said. "That helps."

"I'm glad." I gave her a hug -- and sent her back into the world.

Glory to God for All Things

What do you do when you lose your family, possessions and livelihood in one terrible day? If you're Job, you resist the impulse to write country music and instead give glory to God, who blesses you with even more than you lost.

Roughly two thousand years later, another dedicated servant of the Lord was dying in exile from the empire he had struggled to evangelize all his life. St. John Chrysostom, with his final breath, praised his creator: "Glory to God for All Things!"

Another millenium and a half after that, a Russian priest composed a beautiful Akathist, a sort of prayer poem, based upon those words:

When the lightning flash has lit up the camp dining hall, how feeble seems the light from the lamp. Thus dost Thou, like the lightning, unexpectedly light up my heart with flashes of intense joy. After Thy blinding light, how drab, how colourless, how illusory all else seems. My souls clings to Thee.

He knew whereof he spoke: the "camp dining hall" was at a Communist prison camp where Fr. Gregory Petrov, after numerous tortures, died in 1940. From hearing the hymn, you would never guess at the circumstances under which it was written. We sing it every year on the eve of Thanksgiving, and every year I find some new nugget of wisdom to treasure in my heart:

Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness, when all the world is hidden from our eyes.
Glory to Thee, sending us failure and misfortune that we may understand the sorrows of others.
Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy; Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom.
Glory to Thee, building Thy Church, a haven of peace in a tortured world.

Glory to Thee for the humbleness of the animals that serve me. (This one always makes me smile. Clearly, Fr. Gregory Petrov never owned a cat.)

This morning I am mindful of the "endless variety of colors, tastes and scents" as I assemble a salad, stuff a squash, cook down a whole bag of onions into a tiny caramelized pile (for transcendence, just add bacon, bourbon and brown sugar -- oh, Bittman!) and try not to eat ALL of the cookies I baked yesterday. It may seem small compared to what else is going [wrong] in the world, but our God gives beauty in abundance, even to the tiniest moments.

Most of all, I am mindful of the "love of parents, the faithfulness of friends." What friends you all are, especially for calling and writing and grabbing my arm to ask where I've been and why I haven't written. There is no reason besides the busy-ness of life. I thank God for this blog, one of the few relationships I have that doesn't inspire guilt when I let it go temporarily. When I pick it up again it feels just like an old friend. Just like you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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.