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.

Advent calendar #12: Saucepan fudge cookies

Good morning!

I’m sure everybody has their own object of nostalgia when it comes to homemade Christmas treats. We used to make a number of holiday-specific treats, but the one I miss the most is the saucepan fudge crackle cookies. So I went looking for a recipe.

1 c. all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 c. butter
3 (1 oz.) squares unsweetened chocolate
1 c. + 3 tbsp. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla

These cookies are moist on the inside, crisp on the outside.

Mix flour, baking powder and salt. In heavy 3 quart saucepan, stir butter and chocolate over low heat until melted and smooth; cool. Stir in sugar, eggs, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in flour mixture until blended. Cover and chill 1 1/2 to 2 hours until dough is firm enough to shape. Roll in 1 1/2″ balls; roll balls in the 3 tablespoons sugar, coating each one. Place 2″ apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in 300 degree oven for 20 minutes until crackled on top and slightly firm to touch. Remove to a rack to coat.

I edited the nuts out of the recipe I found, because I can’t fathom why you’d go and ruin a perfectly-textured chocolate fudge cookie. That’s just nuts.

One of the versions I found claimed that the recipe was improved by switching to margarine because butter “contaminates” the flavor of the chocolate. I should bloody well hope so! If you really want to update the recipe I suspect coconut oil in some appropriate proportion would suffice. Vegans probably have their go-to egg substitute, though I don’t know what it is.

Anyway, however you go about it, the result should be a cookie that crunches on the outside and is marvelously chewy on the inside, and is amazing with a glass of milk.

Advent calendar #11: Caravaggio

Trundling on toward the longest night: a chill, barren time. For today’s Advent window I give you a piece of art I make sure to greet every time I’m at the Nelson: Caravaggio’s John the Baptist.

Notes on this painting remark on its introspective quality: the Baptist not as prophet but as hermit of the wilderness, cast in a stark dynamic of light and dark, almost strobed; denuded of symbols except for a reed cross. This is not the accessible icon of John as a narrative figure. This is the John who sends people to ask, “Are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we look for another?”

He’s a compelling image for our skeptical age, but I would think he’d be compelling to people of any time who ponder hard questions when the light is scant. “A voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?'”

This is that moment.