The Animals That Serve Me

I would rather read a hundred pages than go for a walk, but I would rather go for a hundred walks before preparing for confession. Health of any kind depends on regular, beneficial habits that are difficult to form, because those habits involve tasks that are not, on the surface, enjoyable or easy. Go to yoga or watch a movie? Movie wins. Wash and chop vegetables or stop for French fries? Fries. Spend time in prayer or reorganize the linen closet? You can see where this is going.

So I put off making my list, again and again, until I had to be at church in an hour. I sat down on the couch with paper and a pencil, recited the customary prayers, and settled into thoughtful silence. In less than five minutes I was in tears.

She appeared at the edge of the room when she heard the first sob. Ears pricked, gait cautious, she approached. Strange noises normally meant anger, and anger meant a scolding and maybe a swat, but curiosity and apprehension were too potent a combination to overcome. She took a few steps forward, eyes fixed on me, and paused to sniff the literal and metaphoric air.

I looked up at her eyes, which seemed to hold so much understanding. I knew -- knew she was only taking cues from me, the dominant animal in the room. But those warm amber pools seemed to bore right through me, and, coupled with the furrowed brow above them, they simulated such sympathy that I cried even harder. There was something deeply satisfying about the empty house, the lack of inquisitive glances and pitying pats on the back, the freedom to let my mascara melt onto my cheeks with no one to see it.

She continued her journey toward the stairs, but paused about three steps up, still watching me, ears flattened slightly now. I realized she would not leave the room without some form of reassurance.

"It's all right." I spoke to myself as much as to her. Neither of us responded. I repeated my words: "It's all right. I'm okay." This time, in answer, the slightest of swishes in her lowered tail. My words had not convinced either of us. I kept crying, and she stayed put. Finally, I patted the couch next to me; she skittered down the stairs, sprang up, curled herself up against me with such force I knew my feet would be asleep soon.

But I didn't move her, and it occurred to me as my breathing began to even out: this is why people love dogs.

What Abraham Meant

And besides all this –

Besides wars and floods,

Besides illness and death,

Besides storms and earthquakes,

Besides random and orchestrated violence,

Besides the sinister, rippling presence of evil,


Between us and you –

Between east and west,

Between young and old,

Between shunned and shunning,

Between fruitful and barren,

Between colored and colorless,


A great chasm has been fixed.

In the passive voice:

We don't know who fixed it,

or why,

or how.

Just that it’s been fixed.


In order that those who would pass –

Would transcend difference,

Would accept a new perspective,

Would warm stone and soften iron,

Would build ladders and weave bridges,

Would step outside of their other-ness,


From here to you –

From then to now,

From imprisoned to free,

From stuck to inspired,

From rocky to smooth,

From one to two to ten,


May not be able –

Able to embrace,

Able to understand,

Able to smile bravely,

Able to foster renewal,

Able to see through the fog,


And none may cross –

None of the lonely,

None of the trapped,

None of the repentant,

None of the ordinary,

None of the suffering,


From there to us.

Soggy Sunday

It's raining and I am wearing all the wrong things. My sandals snap at my heels and kick up more water onto my sodden jeans. A scarf covers the top and back of my hair but the front drips into my eyes as I plod on with resolution. I am carrying a blue cloth bag that's mostly wet and a white plastic bag that drips water. I could have taken the train, but I already decided to walk and I don't like to change my mind.

I am carrying dinner, grilled zucchini in olive oil and thin spicy pepperoni and juicy marinated mushrooms. They were all out of bread by the time I got to the market but I am sure I can find some at home. There is lobster salad, too, sitting on ice inside an insulated bag that's about as wet as everything else in sight on the street. I think about being dry at home with dinner and a glass of wine and two warm furry bodies winding around my feet..

It's cold in the airport terminal as my clothing starts to dry on my body. I think about asking the girl next to me if she will watch my things while I go to get a coffee. I am on the verge of asking when I suddenly think, are you kidding me? You lost your driver's license at a concert a few weeks ago and still haven't replaced it, and now you're going to leave your passport and your phone in the hands of a stranger? I consider taking them with me and leaving just the bags, but in the end I pack up everything and leave my seat and the two outlets beneath it, and the loud group from Texas is moving toward them with greedy white phone chargers before I am fully standing.

I come back with my coffee and find a new seat and not five minutes later a man asks me to watch his things while he goes to check on his flight.  I say sure and smile at the small irony. A few minutes after that a worried face crouches in front of me.

"Excuse me," he says. "I know I don't know you."  I wait for the ", but."

"But did you just say you would watch that man's things?" 

"Yes," I say. I see where this is going but I won't give him the satisfaction of sympathy. 

He grimaces apologetically. "Do you know him?" 

"No," I say. "I don't know him." 

"I'm probably paranoid," he says, grimacing again. "But we're in an airport . . . " 

I tell him I am only doing what I hope someone else would do for me. He says he understands and gets up with his things to sit somewhere out of range of the bomb he is sure will explode at any moment.

The first man comes back and I can't resist telling him he is on the unofficial Logan Airport Watchlist. He laughs at that and I offer him a pretzel. He says no thanks, he is going to meet some friends for happy hour in Phoenix and he can't wait to be out of this terrible weather. He is wearing sandals too but they look less soggy than mine. We talk about our travel plans. He asks what I do and I tell him I am a musician. This is only partly true but I almost never tell strangers the whole story. They don't care that I studied architecture and philosophy and Classics in school and now teach English and French to teenagers and Byzantine chant to adults. Instead I choose one of those variables, the most fitting, and leave the rest for another day. Today I am a music teacher and I just sang in a concert. He says his mother is a music teacher too and I wonder what other five things she does.

He leaves and I wait a few more hours and dry out and warm up and am really ready to go home.  Takeoff is postponed twice and when we finally take our seats I am grateful. I order a gin and tonic and when the flight attendant doesn't charge me I feel smug and secure in my insider knowledge that free drinks follow delays. Then he returns with a machine and says that will be eight dollars and I fish my credit card out of my bag and think, maybe next time.

A woman two rows back behind me on the plane is talking to the girl next to her. The woman's voice is piercing, not loud but piercing and I can't ignore it. I shoot her a couple of dirty looks but she doesn't see them or doesn't care.  I put in earplugs and that helps a little bit. I can still hear her. The tall flight attendant from Trinidad kneels to talk to the soccer coach in front of me. He is inches from my face and has a deep voice and long braids and he doesn't bother me at all. I like hearing his bass voice and I can also block it out but that woman behind me is awful.

I think, what a fun weekend and what a lousy trip home. Traveling is for people like Hemingway who can experience these things and turn them right around into poignant anecdotes and be none the worse for wear. I have fun trying those shoes on every so often but really, I'd rather be safe and warm somewhere than building character in this uncomfortable seat.

The Experience of Holy Week

Every so often, my habit of scrupulously proofreading my e-mails gets me into trouble. Last winter, when we were in the thick of planning this year's Sacred Music Institute, our director Paul asked for Holy Week pieces we use at our parishes. I ignored the first request, because I consider myself the low man on the totem pole in a field full of professional musicians and lifelong Orthodox. But when he started to shake the bushes again, I sent him a few of my favorites, along with a paragraph about each hymn explaining why it was significant to me.

He never responded, so I figured he had enough pieces and didn't need mine. But when the schedule came out months later, I was shocked to see my name next to the first General Session, called "The Experience of Holy Week." I asked him what in the world he wanted me to say. "Oh," he said, "Remember that great e-mail you wrote me a while back? I want to hear more of that." 

The journey from e-mail to lecture was a strange one. With every paragraph, I wondered whether what I had to say would be useful or even interesting to the highly-qualified audience of the SMI. Eventually I just had to say a prayer that God would use my words, and then re-read and re-edit it again. (the final edit took place on the drive there. Thanks, Mom!) 

Since I was hoping only not to embarrass myself and / or put my audience to sleep, I was surprised and humbled by the reaction to my story. It's not an amazing story, but I think that people were able to relate it to their own experiences of Holy Week -- family and friends, priests and choirs, struggles and joys -- and thus my story became theirs. Ours. Several of my friends asked for a copy, so I'm posting it below. Glory to God.

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!

In Other News

As an ironic follow-up to my last post, you might find it amusing to hear that I join Twitter about three months ago — and have discovered I actually like it.  I’m sure there’s just as much timewasting potential here as on other social media sites, but the brief format means you have to get right to the point, making it easier to sift through the chaff and ponder the kernels.

Besides using it to promote my freelance work (the real reason I joined: employer pressure) I’ve enjoyed reading links and thoughts from some of my favorite food writers, restaurants and friends.  I have no trouble leaving the site after 5 or 10 minutes, every few days, which I wish I could say about Front Porch Republic or The New York Times, where I enjoy teleological meditations and niche pieces: I get my bread-and-butter news weekly from, well, The Week, reading a little every evening from the old-fashioned paper copy that lives on my nightstand.

So, if 140-character blips are your thing, you can read mine at BaltimoreBites.  (It’s a joke.)  

(Sort of.)

What I Taught Myself Thirteen Years Later

Of all the amazing moments in the fascinating and weighty American Beauty, it’s Lester Burnham’s last words that I recall most often: “Man, oh man.  Man, oh man, oh man, oh man.”  He’s looking at a photo of his family that seems untouched by the psychosis and pain that’s haunted them throughout the film.  They are young, happy, united.  His words are at once a meditation on the depraved and surprising nature of humanity, and a simple inability to express one’s feelings about said nature.  In this state of transcendent meditation, his life is cut short, and the movie effectively ends.  This is its thesis statement.

I feel something similar when I look at my own life, or at least at the period about which I wrote so much in those letters I republished last month.  It’s hard to read them, in part, because I see so many failings in them. Failure to see things as they really were: I was foolishly optimistic about the situation there for far too long. Failure to see almost anything beyond myself: I wanted to leave the letters untouched, but couldn’t bring myself not to edit out the most navel-gazingly offensive passages.  Failure, above all, to see that what mattered most was very far from what I spent most of my time trying to do.

Above all, I was surprised to learn that although I had always believed these letters were the start of my writing career, the writing itself wasn’t that great.  At times there was a glimmer of something real, but in the main it was simply what it sounded like: me telling stories about my life, which although amusing at times, was pretty ordinary.  That fact was both shocking and freeing.  God knows I need to be reminded more often about how ordinary I am.

Two things inspired me about this experience.  The first was the similarity of my seventeen-year-old self with my only-very-slightly-younger students of today.  As the age gap between us grows (I am now roughly twice their age) I find it harder and harder to relate to them, and I can be especially unforgiving of shallow self-centeredness. But reading my own entries from that time has reminded me that this is how teenagers are, and I was like that too. So if I don’t rush too quickly to judgment, my own students may follow a similar path to a greater understanding of the world.

The other was the space between my letters.  A weekly missive may seem extreme for a college student, but in fact it was barely enough; I remember keeping lists in my head and on paper in preparation for Sunday, when I’d include the thoughts and anecdotes in my pre-blog entry.  Having time to think before I wrote — imagine! — is probably what I miss most about that style of writing, and there’s no reason I can’t institute that here.

So my posts will probably be less frequent, at least for awhile.  Thanks to everyone who has checked up on me, but honestly, I’m fine.  I just want to wait until I have something to write that’s worth the space.

Cooper Chronicles: III.1

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

Between yesterday’s post and today’s lies a whole year of time and countless experiences, most of which are lost to the cold indifference of Microsoft (who knew I’d be looking for those e-mails over a decade later?!) Below is something I did think to save: the very last letter to this list, the one sent after I had returned home.

When I began to tell people I was leaving Cooper Union, possibly never to return, the most common reaction was “What happened?  I thought your story about the [insert reference to quirky personal anecdote of choice] was so funny.  I thought you loved it there.”

Well, I did love it there.  But in answer to the “What happened?”  I can offer some brief (ha!) insights.

Here’s what happened: John Hejduk got cancer.  Five years ago, before I was even admitted to the school or had heard of it, the disease was crippling him.  His huge, brontosaurus-like figure grew wasted and thin, and he spoke haltingly; each word was an effort.  He simply couldn’t carry the weight of the school on his shoulders any longer.  He retired in June and passed away a month later.  Hejduk was a beautiful person, a talented architect and a dedicated Catholic, and he made Cooper Union what it was: a highly respected institution of architecture.  In one of his last public acts, he inspired me to stay there last year when I was just about fed up. 

Here’s what happened: the underlings were given too much authority.  When the cat gets cancer, the mice will play – and there’s been a lot of that in the last few years.  In this case, there was a catalyst: Peter Eisenman took a semester’s sabbatical to work on a series of lectures, and he left his class in the authority of three junior professors.  They simply could not control the class.  In later months, Guido lapsed into desk crits where he discussed the X-files instead of architecture, and he said things like, “Do whatever you want; it doesn’t matter.”  Then he failed a whole bunch of us, including me, and left the country.

On a sunny June morning, the day before I was scheduled to leave for a two-week full-scholarship art seminar at the University of Notre Dame, I opened my report card to find it marked with an F in Design and an invitation to defend myself before the Academic Standards Committee, pending possible expulsion from the School of Architecture.  It’s funny, how God never gives us more than we can handle; I remember my first C (first year, first semester) when I grudgingly accepted it, and my first D (first year, second semester) when I cried for months.  This time I calmly picked up the phone and called the architecture office.  “This is Emily Oren,” I said.  “Has there been a mistake, or have I really failed Design class?”  The secretary got out the grade sheet and checked.  “That was the grade that Professor Zuliani wrote down for you,” she said.  “All right,” I said.  “Give me his home and work phone numbers.” 

I called both and left messages.  When he called me back the next morning, as I was about to leave for the airport, I spared no words in communicating my disgust and frustration for his actions.  If I deserved to fail – accepting that ridiculous premise, when my hours and effort were at least on par with the rest of the class – why had I not been warned?  Why had he let me go on thinking I was doing fine, given such positive reviews, been completely encouraging (almost complimentary) about my work over the semester?  His response was, “I didn’t want you to get depressed.”  I’ll spare you further details about that conversation; if you want to duplicate it in terms of coherency, try to get Raymond to fly to LA on United.  

The Academic Standards Committee had to pick up the pieces of this disaster, and they were none too thrilled about it.  I was in frequent contact with the Dean of Students over the summer, who was largely sympathetic to my problems.  This is perhaps the only reason I didn’t quit and move to a sanitarium in the South of France.  But the bottom line was, they couldn’t second-guess his decision as a professor.  They could only advise me to take the bone he had thrown my way and work all summer on my project in hopes of a grade change in the fall. 

I did.  I didn’t get a job; I didn’t have a vacation.  I spent some time with my family.  But mostly I holed up in my apartment on Forsyth Street and worked.  Though I worked hard, it was by the prayers of my family and friends that I got a grade change; I’d given up all hope of being graded fairly with Guido.  On the fateful day, he was pleased and said that – congratulations! – I had passed the “test.”  He had wanted to see whether I was really dedicated to architecture; that was why he had failed me and made me work all summer.

Here’s what happened: I grew tired of thinking I was crazy.  While this story sounds preposterous, it is but one of many.  My final project last year was never returned to me; my professors lost it, and then gave me a D because they thought I hadn’t turned anything in.  In the crazy flip-flopping of professorships in the last few years, one class managed to miss all the big-name luminaries and got stuck, year after year, with second- and third-rate teachers.  Last spring, a third of them were not allowed to graduate because their work was found to be “sub-par.”  Well, duh.  There is the famous story about Raimund Abraham asking a student to leave the room after a particularly decimating crit and get him a glass of water; when she returned, she had to use it to put out the flames that were tearing through her model.  There are so many stories like this.  Everyone has one of his own – not just rumors, personal experiences of being treated badly.  Maybe this is common to art-related programs everywhere; maybe it’s mainly because of the de facto absence of an academic dean in the last five years.  That doesn’t make it right.

Here’s what happened: my health was slowly deteriorating. When you stay up all night frequently, when you have a lack of sunshine and exercise and home cooking, and your emotions and the weather are highly volatile, your body doesn’t have a chance.  In the month and a half since I’ve been home, I feel a thousand times better.  The effects of stress on the body are real, severe and debilitating. 

Here’s what happened: I was reminded that there was life elsewhere.  The most devastating thing about a program like this is that it sucks you in – it makes you believe that you are the one that needs fixing.  You are the one who can’t “get” it; you are the one whose priorities aren’t in order.  If you don’t want to spend all of your time in the studio, then get out of the class, get out of the school, get out of architecture.  We don’t want you here.  It’s scary how real everything feels.  In the movie “the Cell” (which I don’t recommend seeing, although it’s lush and intriguing visually) the main character is endangered by the possibility that she will believe what she is experiencing [through some kind of mind-portal telepathy] is real, and therefore become trapped within the fantasy.  It’s a very real possibility, and chilling, and sad.  And, had I not had the family that I do, I might have tried to stick it out for another year.  

The possibility of a leave of absence first surfaced during one of my conversations with the Dean of Students.  She agreed with me that the school was in a very precarious position – its future depended on what kind of a person would replace Hejduk.  The associate dean, who was instantly promoted, was also very sick and on the verge of retiring.  The Board was going to have to think fairly fast and hire someone that could turn the school around, back into the kind of place it was when Hejduk was in his prime – a sanctuary for ideas, a place of learning and [good] hard work.  She all but ordered me to take some time off, if for no other reason than to wait them out and see if I should put in another year.  I could apply to other schools and have other options ready if Cooper was still limping along in a year, and if not, I could return well-rested and ready to serve my time.  As I talked to my parents, it began to look very appealing; I could get a job in an architecture firm and further investigate the profession ( I still maintain that the possibility of my *being* an architect is dim; I love learning about it, but can’t see myself in the field – maybe just for lack of experience there.)

Penley practically packed my bags for me, he was so concerned.  My mom and brother actually did: as I sat through that most final of final crits, they loaded up a rented SUV with my worldly possessions.  That one giant favor was exactly what I needed. I sat in the car, balancing models on my lap, and stared numbly out the window as I tried to comprehend the great gift I had been given – the gift of one year of time that would be all my own.             

One reason I waited so long to write this was that I wanted to make sure I was in a stable and optimistic frame of mind.  With God’s grace, I have survived all that has happened to me, and can even give it a positive spin: every experience that we go through shapes us into who we are, and I have certainly learned a great deal in my two years at Cooper.  I’m not bitter or resentful; with a program like that, the only option is to go in and glean everything possible from the knowledge there, while remaining grounded elsewhere.  There’s a philosophy about being “In Cooper Union but not of Cooper Union.”  That’s what I’ve tried to do, and that’s what I’ll continue doing if I go back.

I’m very sad about having left the city, but content in the knowledge that I will return – if not next year, sometime – and in the weekend visits I’ve been taking.  It’s much more enjoyable to visit than to live there as an architecture student; I can plan my trip full of things I want to do, and really soak in each minute of the experience.

I plan to write more frequently and share everything that happens to me there – and here. Life in the Oren home is never lacking in entertainment value, and Baltimore has a charm and color all its own.