I went to bed last night at 11, being very droopy; but found myself awake at midnight after all, as the city finally let good and loose all the artillery they’d been saving up for the moment. But soon after midnight the storm came in, and I woke much later to the sound of freezing rain against the windows. I may have written ice storms as a meteorological hero for convenience’s sake, but am not a lover of broken tree limbs and downed power lines in real life. However, it soon changed to snow, and it has been snowing steadily all day since.
Some years ago I encountered a passage of Evelyn Underhill meditating on the story of the disciples in the boat in the storm, in which she made the arresting assertion: “The universe is safe for souls.” This was more or less the opposite of what I believed, on a practical level. What I believed, pretty much, was that reality had it in for me. But if I believed this assertion, I thought, what would I do differently? It became a long-term experiment.
The universe is clearly not safe for our bodies, as we have daily proof on multiple levels. But our souls — our selves as a whole, expressed coterminously with the body, mediated through the mind — are affirmative things, as rightful as the universe of which they are part. It’s one of the truest things I can think of, and also one of the hardest to believe.
Last year started hard, and got harder. And the harder it got, the harder I got: in February I woke up one morning so angry I burst into tears; by the time the long course of the pandemic set in — another day, another loss, another day, another injustice — I clung to stoicism like a vine to granite.
2021 is not going to be easy. If there were any illusions to be had about that, they’re like curling sticky-notes, all but fallen already. But I think I need to be soft again. No, I think I need to be like a sword — hard enough to keep an edge, tender enough to spring like steel.
After all, I’m a soul, and I’m here: and that’s an affirmative thing.
A very happy Lightfall to all! Otherwise known as Yule, Solstice, the feast of St. Thomas, and O Oriens in the antiphons leading up to Christmas Day.
This is, in fact, one of my favorite days of the year. I consider it the starting gun for my season of best creative productivity. It’s the end of that long ache of days growing shorter, of things husking and falling away, of incremental losses and seemingly undirected wandering into dimness of heart and mind. It’s the firm clasp of night, sparkling with stars.
This year, it’s also sparkling with the Grand Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Yesterday evening I managed to get a couple shots of it with my zoom lens. And perhaps the sky will be clear enough this evening to get them at their nearest.
Nearer to home, I took some shots of some excellent Christmas lights:
And finally, I have an enthusiastic rec. For my birthday, Erica gave me the book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. It is the poppest of pop-sci: a linguist’s examination of how the informal written language of the internet has evolved as the internet becomes more ubiquitous. This may be a specialized interest, but honestly I can’t tell, because I’m one of the generation of adopters McCulloch calls Full Internet People, and in addition to that, I would have been a linguist if I’d realized what it meant that my favorite classes in college were all linguistics and mind science courses.
(Not to mention, of course, that my energies in college were entirely devoted to averting the terror of Being a Bad Person, such that I hardly had headspace to recognize what I wanted and develop the nerve to pursue it. As Lord Peter said, there are reasons to want twenty years of one’s life back — but not the same twenty years.)
In any event, this book was so engaging that I wore my aging eyes out trying to read it all in one go — and in fact got to the end of the text sooner than expected, because the bibliographical information at the back is — necessarily — extensive. You can’t write a book about the internet without lots of URLs, and McCulloch thoughtfully keyed them to the Internet Archive so that it would take longer for the links to break. But in fact you don’t have to refer to the back material at all in order to enjoy this book, which covers the generations of adopters (rather than the generations by age cohort), rhetorical shadings in pixel text, emojis, memes, irony, passive-aggression, the development of spelling conventions, and lots of other things that you can recognize yourself in no matter what kind of relationship you have with the internet. If you want to geek out about language, this is an excellent book to do it with.
Today is the feast day designated in our church for Florence Nightingale: today my dear friend passed away after suffering a massive stroke yesterday.
I don’t…even know where I would start to bear proper witness to Virginia Dabney Brown’s life and ministry, let alone how I’d finish up. Over a 43-year ministry as a priest, she gave light and healing to so many people that probably the National Cathedral wouldn’t hold them all — and that’s just the people she blessed directly. This is by way of saying that although I’m writing this blog post about me, a thousand thousand equally unique and momentous tributes could be — should be, will be — written by other people.
Other than my family of origin, Virginia is the person I’ve lived the longest with under one roof. I’ve joked before that the fact she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together is possible testimony for her sainthood — but saints are, themselves, not always easy to live with. As Frederick Buechner said, “A saint is a life-giver… A saint is a human being with the same sorts of hang-ups and abysses as the rest of us, but if a saint touches your life, you become alive in a new way.”
She was, by all reports, the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church at whose ordination no formal protest was lodged. That was in 1977. By the time I met her in late 2002, she had ministered in both church plants and large parishes, founded a religious community, and given spiritual counsel and direction to an untold number of people. The earth moved under my feet the first time I heard her preach. Never before had anyone delivered me a sermon that reached all parts of my soul — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — and with such unruffled, simple clarity. I think it was only the second time I’d set foot in that or any Episcopal church, and — already half in love with church in this mode — I saw a woman in the pulpit preaching in a thin, idiosyncratic voice the best good news I’d ever heard. And that is how I came to haunt the Rivendell Community, to be wherever that round of prayer and praise and laughter was happening at its fullest, and take vows as a member six months later.
The Rivendell Community is so named because the Lord of the Rings was Virginia’s favorite mythopoeic story. She told the story often of how Tolkien gave her unexpected spiritual sustenance when as a young woman studying physics she was horrified to find herself contributing to nuclear weapons research. Rivendell was a waypoint refuge, “the last homely house,” but in the Community “last” has come to mean “latest.” Any house Virginia was in became a Rivendell; every house a community member was in became Rivendell too.
Virginia was notorious for the best-worst puns ever made. She could make a witty joke out of a mere banana lying on a table. She could deliver a profound meditation on the spot at an instant’s notice, and make you laugh doing it. She and I played themed Scrabble in the rectory in Branson where we lived for a few years — “Lenten Scrabble” where all words played had to have something to do with Lent, or “Thomas Cranmer Scrabble” or “Mary Magdalene Scrabble” or “Inklings Scrabble” — or anything. It made Scrabble more fun, and more fun to me because Virginia always beat me by upwards of a hundred points; I think I beat her twice, and the first time I did I crowed for hours.
Virginia liked singing the Daily Office liturgy a lot more than anyone else in the Community did. Still enamored of everything to do with the church, I minded it less, so V and I found excuses to use the cantilated version of Compline — Saturday nights which were the eves of every weekly Resurrection feast, all through Eastertide, and any other excuse we wanted. About the only time I didn’t like singing in chapel with V was the year she set the Pascha Nostrum to “Sine Nomine,” a tune I abominate with a hatred I can’t account for in words. She wrote songs on her guitar, and sang others, with a voice not beautiful but pure.
One evening when we lived at the Motherhouse, which was the second Rivendell house and our retreat center at the time, V came in to the chapel for Evening Prayer from an afternoon reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It reminded her so forcibly of people she knew in the years she served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, when Idi Amin came to power, that we had to delay the start of prayers so she could wail in rage for the lost. I could only watch in concern, not knowing such a grief or a rage — then.
I got Virginia into reading Connie Willis and Dorothy Dunnett (V had wry remarks about the treatment of the d’Aubigny family in the Lymond Chronicles, as those were her ancestors); she got me into reading Charles Williams (and Walter Wink, and Evelyn Underhill, and Julian of Norwich, and…). So when I dedicated Ryswyck to her as a Companion of the Coinherence, I meant it as tribute not only for her encouragement as I wrote the book, but for my being the kind of person who could write it. I would not be even half that person without Virginia. But it’s the whole of me that grieves.
Emaciated for years by chronic illness, Virginia was a perpetual fall risk. I found myself often walking alongside V not just as a companion but as a walking stick. I couldn’t be her walking stick when she got up to celebrate the Eucharist, but I didn’t need to. Her thin frame generated a palpable presence behind the altar, her arms, no matter how weak, held in a wide, graceful orans curve, her eyes lifted up, seeing what I could not except by proxy. She spoke often of that moment in the fraction, when the bread is torn like the veil of the Holy of Holies, and how in that moment the witnesses of all the saints in death are joined to the witness of those present among the living. To her this was not metaphor but quantum fact.
She herself now is quantum fact; and I am a paltry scientist.
“When I am lifted up,” Virginia quoted John’s Gospel in sermons more than once, “I will draw all to myself,” and she would go on to explain that the passage arguably meant that Jesus would draw not just all people, or all nations, but all: every crumb, every atom, every speck of the dust of stars, everything, into the embrace of God, “so that nothing is left over,” or lost. In these days when my faith has half foundered, I think of her insight here, of her trust and assurance, of how safe it truly is to lose things into the hands of God, and I am glad I have such an advocate on the other side of the Eucharistic altar.
But still I am going to weep a little while longer.
Despite the fact that, if such a thing were possible, I am even less capable of sustained coherence than I was a month ago, I figured I had better post some proof of life. I mean, Facebook people are already getting cat pictures from the home office and reposted memes and the like, so I’m not terribly concerned that no one knows I’m alive if I don’t post here; but still.
Today in my Lenten meditation booklet (“Lent: It’s Not Rocket Science,” courtesy of Forward Movement a couple years back), Bishop McKnisely reflects on the hidden reality that atoms are largely composed of empty space, and concludes that he is very thankful for our sense of being jumbled up and close together, so that we can feel connected despite being so insignificant in the universe. Ha ha. Today makes three weeks since I have gone into pandemic seclusion, and never have I felt more atomic. I’m one of the lucky ones: I can work from home, I have plenty of toilet paper, and I have little need to go outdoors. Most of my relationships were already conducted in pixels, the only human touch I was likely to share week to week was passing the peace at church, and I already had a home office routine for days when I didn’t commute in. Nothing’s changed, right?
Wrong. It’s fuckin’ weird, is what it is. The space between me, the atom’s nucleus, and the electrons by which I contact the world is uncannily apparent: like when you have an inflamed organ in the gut — it doesn’t hurt exactly, but you’re not supposed to know it’s there. The whole is dispelled; everything is reduced to the sum of its parts.
More than once over a Zoom meetup, someone has remarked that it’s a balm to at least see everybody even if it’s just over a screen. But although I’m very glad of the chance to talk to people, I don’t know that it makes me feel more connected — or less, for that matter. For one thing, it’s even easier for my voice to get lost in the shuffle than it is in person; a couple of times I’ve just given up trying to say something and just let the interruptions roll on like a tide. Worse, I’ve had the dreadful experience of actually getting the virtual floor and then feeling my brain lock up in a full-on fit of aphasia. All in all…I’m not really a fan.
Nevertheless, I’m toying with the idea of conducting a Tenebrae service over Zoom (or whatever) next week; if there were any liturgy designed for this #MOOD, Tenebrae is it. The only real question in my mind is how public I should try to make it.
Meanwhile, on the writing front, I have achieved some edits on Household Lights, commissioned cover art, and hope to have it up for preorder soon. Household Lights, I find on my reread, is full of the kind of things we can’t have right now: cross-country train trips, in-person meetings, co-sleeping with friends, bonfire dances, maternal care in moments of pain and need, and Ryswyck’s daily morning silence with three hundred people all breathing together in the arena. I wasn’t expecting to market this book as an immediate and expedient salve of vicarious comforts, but here we are.
At the moment, though, it’s not vicarious comforts that are getting me through this time of awareness that every person I love in the whole world is someone I have to worry about. It’s more the little, funny things that address this absurd situation head-on that comfort me. So I leave you with one of them: Here is John Finnemore with a series of short videos as Arthur Shappey, his character from Cabin Pressure — “Cabin Fever.” This one is “Episode 1: Fitton”; closely followed by “Episode 2: Fitton,” “Episode 3: Fitton,” and so on. I think it’s probably still hilarious even if you don’t get all the Cabin Pressure references, but if you haven’t listened to the Cabin Pressure radio plays, well, you’re not going to get a better opportunity, are you?
More than a decade ago (ugh), the city I lived in was hit by what they called “a 100-year ice event,” the kind of thing we seem to be seeing all the time now. The ice came down like a fury, and all over the city you could see the flashes of transformers blowing as tree limbs came down. The next day the whole landscape looked like WWI, and in the wake of the ice came a frigid cold that lasted for days. Stuck without electricity, half the city holed up in Barnes & Noble to charge their phones, and fled to the homes of friends who either were lucky enough to have power or who had gas stoves in their kitchens. I can’t bear the smell of cheap candle wax to this day.
But it was about that time that I became able to articulate a state of mind that is almost too elusive to describe. I call it “the sense of fait accompli.” It’s when you understand clear through that the time for panic is in the rearview, when you suddenly find it acceptable to calmly term the situation a disaster, a horror, or a fustercluck of massive proportions. It’s not just an event in the amygdala, when the terror of reality has burned out your circuits for feeling it: it’s a decision to embrace reality that steals upon you until you grasp it.
It’s possible to embrace the sense of fait accompli in one’s own personal disasters. But the One Hundred Year Ice Event of 2007 revealed to me what it’s like when a whole town does it. Sure, some folks were hoarding toilet paper (yes, it seems to be a thing whenever disaster strikes); but most folks were joking with one another and forbearing with the jostling proximity of fellow sufferers camping out in Panera.
And now, I’m fascinated with the sense of fait accompli unfolding on a global scale.
It’s particularly strange because we can’t all congregate in Panera and make jokes. We do it in group texts and cell phone videos posted to Facebook and email chains passing along links and stories and PSAs. Someone on my building’s group text offered to leave toilet paper at the door for anyone who was out and couldn’t find it at the store. Another volunteered to give the common railings and doorknobs a thorough scrubbing. The sewing adepts in my book club are making masks for local hospitals and quarantined loved ones. Art is being made; paywalls have tumbled down; the lowliest workers in our society are being recognized as the heroes they are — or they damn well better be.
And meanwhile the eye of the hurricane is passing over every hospital and clinic in the land.
I haven’t been able to write much during this time. For one thing, advocacy work is, you may imagine, pretty intense right now, and a lot of things are up in the air. I went to bed a few nights ago with a free-floating tearfulness, despite the fact that I normally love an excuse to hole up in my sanctuary. I’m deeply anxious about the vulnerable people I love. I’m angry at my back neighbors who decided a patio party was the thing to have early last week. I feel put to shame by people who have more generous instincts than I do.
Yet all those feelings, disturbing as they are, don’t disturb the foundations of our global fait accompli. So much can be brought to cohere within it: yep, the federal response is a fustercluck. Yep, some people are spectacularly showing their ass. Yep, I buy black beans regularly to make for dinner, and suddenly everybody’s a fan. (Y’all go back to your Hot Pockets, for heaven’s sake.)
I’ve taken to lighting a fresh candle in the morning for those I love and care about, for those are burdened with the tasks of triage and risk and who suffer those traumas so I don’t have to. This light is for you. It’s already lit. It’s done.
O most mighty God, and merciful God, the God of all true sorrow, and true joy too, of all fear, and of all hope too, as thou hast given me a repentance, not to be repented of, so give me, O Lord, a fear, of which I may not be afraid. Give me tender and supple and conformable affections, that as I joy with them that joy, and mourn with them that mourn, so I may fear with them that fear.
From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
I’m planning to try to post more from seclusion; but I can’t promise to encompass it.
This is going to make sense to about five people on my Twitter feed; the rest of you will just have to indulge me. Or better yet, indulge in a listen of the BBC radio play series “Cabin Pressure.” Trust me, it’s one of the better things you can do with a large public holiday.
Well, it looks like I fell at the final hurdles when it comes to posting every day for Advent. The weekend saw me holed up at home, writing — a scene sequence for The Lantern Tower chapter six, and then the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday. After that, there wasn’t much that felt urgent enough to put into a blog post, so I let it lie.
Sunday evening I went out for tacos and margaritas with one of my book club friends, who had been doing a great deal to help our mutual friend with household tasks and errands before she moved to hospice. We talked of mortality, of giving care, of the ways love and faith manifest at times like this.
Then I wrote some more, because that’s what there was to do.
This wasn’t one of the weeks where it’s immediately apparent what I’m going to write about for my sermon. Sometimes that happens: sometimes there’s something going on in the world or the country or the life of our community that connects with the readings with a neat little snap, and I ruminate the content and the structure and then finally compose the thing at least 24 hours before I deliver it.
And then sometimes there are occasions when, despite knowing weeks in advance when I’m preaching and what the texts are, I fumble until the very last minute before it’s time to shower and dress and leave for the church. Yet it’s not usually the exegesis or the relevant insights that’s the problem; I get plenty of help in that department, if not from on high then at least from teachers and commentators.
No, the problem is usually the cold open.
Every sermon needs a cold open: an image, a quotation, an anecdote, a narrative, or a concept that sets the tone and theme for what people are about to hear. Without it, frankly, the likelihood of your hearers giving a shit goes down exponentially. Many preachers content themselves with telling a joke and then taking advantage of the indulgent goodwill that follows in its wake; this is a strategy that usually annoys me to listen to, not least because a good many of these jokes are of the kind of gendered humor that only the het couples in the room are likely to enjoy. Not being a member of a het couple, my expectations of any relevance to come drop sharply.
A really good cold open is something you can call back to throughout the sermon; it doesn’t have to be Serious but it ought to be memorable, and be able to make the serious things memorable too. And from the writer’s point of view, it makes articulating those serious things possible. It filters out what isn’t coherent and gives you a thread to pull when you’re working through the rest of the structure.
Until I have a cold open, I can’t start.
The cold open is essential to sermon-writing because a sermon is a short composition that won’t benefit from a complicated structure, and a simple structure falls apart without a driving image. But something like a cold open works for long forms too. A novel’s prologue often functions that way: or the first scene if there isn’t a prologue. Sometimes the author leads off with an epigraph to set the tone. None of these strategies guarantees being good or effective, but the instinct for using them is the same: what one thing is this piece of writing going to be about? Here’s the essential clue.
But at times like this, coming up with a cold open for a sermon, or a first line for a chapter, is easy. It’s mediating the relationship between that writing and the context of daily life that’s hard. It’s trying to say something definite while being caught up in a liminal space.
Which is probably why there’s not a cold open for this post.
So, my best wishes to all for your holiday. Lights shine upon you.
Right, so usually my editorial style guide for Genuwyne Quality Content on this blog tends to the dignified and pensive, because being flippant and off-the-cuff very often blows up in my face.
But it’s just before solstice, I’m a little exhausted from grievous things, my dignified and pensive reserves have been diverted to composition for my sermon this Sunday, and then I ran across this little gem, so it’s going in today’s Advent window. Enjoy!
I still can’t bring myself to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because, well. I can observe plenty of nightmares going on round here without seeking the same out in my fiction. However: I know that Atwood is snarky and brilliant, so for today’s Advent window I give you a short essay of hers that I read 25 years ago and appreciate better now than I did when I was an undergraduate.
The Female Body, it’s called. (Honestly, “my topic feels like hell” should be a regular tag.)
Meanwhile, it’s the day’s deep midnight, and I’m looking forward to the crescendo again.
I know, we’re still a week out from Christmas itself. But this is what I’m in the mood to post: a clip from the film Joyeux Noel, which if you haven’t seen it, never mind this and go watch.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 is an event that has always fascinated me. And no doubt the power of this story fed into my imagination when I was conceiving the funeral sequence in Ryswyck. It’s obvious that the powers who prosecute wars don’t trust to the discipline of soldiers to recognize the humanity of their enemy — and kill them anyway. And possibly they are correct: it’s a very short hop from “I don’t like to kill you but I’m going to do it for my country’s sake” to “Why were we doing this, again?” Much easier to convince people that they are fighting to exterminate subhuman vermin who can’t encompass the complex conscience (in French that word has a happy dual meaning of both “conscience” and “consciousness”) that they themselves enjoy.
On the other hand, I can’t think of anything more soul-corroding than to take on board a view of other humans (in groups or individually) as either degraded figures compared to yourself, or else non-player characters to whom you can do anything you like and the meaning it has for you is the sole meaning it has altogether. And I think part of what makes the spectacle of sexism or racism or what-have-you so maddening is just that sight of people trying to rescue their own vision of themselves by doing exactly that harm which will thwart their own hopes. (Not that I care about the fate of sexists and racists more than that of the people they harm, but you’d think some net good would come of it, and it’s exactly the opposite.) As C.S. Lewis pointed out, hurting someone increases your resentment against them, rather than discharging it.
But to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and to lift up the lowly is good news for the mighty too. We need more Christmas Truces to make that clear.