The vicarious synapse

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?

Fait accompli

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.

And here’s a fragment of a prayer by John Donne, who has paced this path before us:

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.

I can burn lights, though.

Christmas Window: Cabin Pressure!

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.

Get dressed you merry gentlemen!

Advent calendar wrap-up: The Cold Open

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.

Advent calendar #20: #MOOD

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!

Advent calendar #19: Margaret Atwood

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.

Advent calendar #18: Christmas Truce

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.

Advent calendar #(16), 17: O Sapientia

Yesterday it snowed more, and I worked from the home office in the wintry hush. Solstice is approaching: and the Great O Antiphons are here.

The last seven days before Christmas Eve are celebrated with these antiphons — refrains preceding the Magnificat at Evensong — that invoke Our Lord with names and honorifics, gathering up the goodness of the world in one sweep before the Nativity. (The antiphons are probably best known as the verses of “O Come, O Come Immanuel”.) They form a sort of crescendo to the celebration of Christmas.

But I have to admit that my favorite one is the first one: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. I love how Wisdom is framed in metaphors of discursive intellect, and yet is not really any such thing. It’s an articulate silence that seems to characterize this force that “mightily and sweetly” orders all things. And many times, when I have encountered a profound moral lesson, I have had to resort to poetry even to make myself capable of remembering what happened. Wisdom is neither immanent nor transcendent; it is intimate with the world and yet never mastered by it.

It’s this antiphon, I think, that inspired me more than esotericism when framing the religious worship in my ‘verse. And it was this name of God that I thought made a fitting refuge for a scarred world sickened by worshiping gods made in their own image. Silence and letting go: this is a worship so dangerous to the ego that every time we brush close, we pretend that we’ve already done it.

So this morning I made another noise generator: one that evokes a meditation hall with a storm pouring rain outside the low lintel. A challenge, to sketch out the noises of quiet prayer! But here’s the result: One Light Burning.

May your day be mightily and sweetly ordered from end to end.

Advent calendar #15: Snow day

A rolling stone may gather no moss, but a walking author does pick up a few snowflakes.

The snow came as promised, and justified our book club’s decision to cancel this evening’s potluck feast. It also put paid to my plans to go to church this morning, but a couple of phone calls confirmed it was no scene I should be driving in, and whoever made it to church would fill in for my duties. So, it’s a snow day.

I went out for a walk, as one does, enjoying the hush — though the bars are still open, with the Chiefs game turned up loud as I passed them. Otherwise it’s quiet. I saw only one person walking their dog, and two kids progressing down the street toward the park with a sled in tow.

If we get enough accumulation, I’ll make some snow ice cream, because Past Me thought ahead and stocked up on Eagle Brand. But for now, I think I’m just going to make some hot chocolate and watch a cozy murder mystery. I leave you with some meditative organ music for your Sunday.

Advent calendar #13, 14: Donne and Art Conservation

Yesterday, all plans I had were completely scuppered within ten minutes of getting up, as what appeared to be ordinary vertigo revealed itself as a full-on norovirus of some kind. I spent the entire day sleeping off nausea and a mild fever. I’m still not 100% today, but I did manage to get out and do things I needed to do. The cat food is not going to buy itself!

December 13th is St. Lucy’s Day, which is still celebrated in Sweden, I believe. It used to be the shortest day of the year — i.e., the solstice — until we changed calendars; now the shortest day of the year falls on St. Thomas’s feast day. Make of that what you will. Before the change, John Donne used the occasion to make a poem of his grief in the darkness, so I include that here.

A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
         Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

For December 14, I give you the sort of calming entertainment that is pleasant to watch while stressed or to doze with while sick: art conservator extraordinaire Julian Baumgartner.

Check out his YT channel for more mesmerizing restoration videos, including ones without the narration in case you’re into ASMR. (Explanations of ASMR always give me a you-had-to-be-there vibe, like I don’t know if the significance of it is something I can really get. Sort of like the Transfiguration, really.)

And that’s…about all I’m up for, today. I’m seriously considering going back to bed.