Monochrome

We had a winter storm over the weekend, and I didn’t go out in it. I cleaned the kitchen and changed the cat box and swept the carpet and drank hot chocolate and made macaroni and cheese from scratch. I watched the snow turn the view out my window to a fully-integrated image made up of white and grey and faded brown.

L.S. Lowry, Landscape in Cumberland

Last weekend, when my friend’s funeral was held, there was no snow and nothing dynamic in the temperatures, and sunshine that gave little comfort, and no birds. I saw: one robin, one hawk, one sparrow in the space of five days. The sky was bald and deserted and I was deeply unnerved. So when I saw a junco hopping through the snow on the balcony railing, a perfect little puff of charcoal and taupe and white underbelly, it was a small monochrome miracle.

There are still distressingly few birds around, but the tracks in the snow under the birdfeeder are signs for rejoicing.

Not as much writing got done this past week as I would have liked, but the black marks on the white digital page have increased by a number greater than zero, so I’ll take it. And I’ll take the lovely thick fog that enveloped the city in the early hours this morning, and the calls of crows in the distance, and the faint limns of buildings buffered away from sight, and the world just a bit muted, the barrage of details hushed, just for a moment, just for a little.

I’ll take those simple things while they’re coming.

Free as the road

A few days ago I discovered that making a new year’s resolution to “see friends more often” is a thing. Like, I dismissed it when I found it in the NYT crossword, but then I saw it cropping up on actual lists of people’s goals for the new year. And that inspired me to rant on Twitter.

And yeah, I know, nobody wants even friends randomly showing up at their house for undefined socializing, but that’s wrapped up in the whole cycle of overscheduled burnout that seems to have ramped up in the last ten years in particular. My friend calls me: “Is this a fencing night? Can we go have dinner?” And half the time, yes, it is a fencing night, and I miss fencing practice too often as it is, and I have friends there too, and so I say “How about Tuesday?”

This past summer I experimented with doing a bullet journal. I admit, playing with colored pens is fun, and it was nice to have my sticky-note to-do lists in one little Moleskine notebook. But then I got sick and had that whole ER rodeo thing, and lost interest. And the sheer executive functioning nightmare of earning a living plus managing a household plus connecting with my people — because none of that happens without significant effort — makes me think that something needs dismantling somewhere.

So no, I don’t think there’s a job I’ve fallen down on when six months goes by since the last time I go to my friend’s house. I think that six months of my chronos has stolen my kairos, and we need to mount the barricades.

Last Friday one of my book club friends died after only a week in hospice. She had been battling protean cancers for years, and they had finally grown beyond treatment. On the book club group text this week we hashed out whether to attend the visitation or the funeral, and if and when to move our winter feast. All these practical acts of scheduling, all the planning of my writing projects for the year — there’s a gap between all of that and my friend who now makes no plans and manages no schedule. I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I’m sad about her death and angry about the vicissitudes of planning…or angry about her death and sad about the vicissitudes of planning. I don’t know.

But I’ll have to let it lie for now, because it’s nine-thirty and my apartment isn’t going to clean itself before the year turns.

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 #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 #7: La Folia

Ah, good morning. It’s a lovely Saturday and I’m taking my sweet time about getting up and about. For today’s Advent window I bring something that has been the foundation for any number of songs for a couple of centuries now, and I do enjoy it in nearly every form. It’s variously known as “La Folia,” “Folias de Espana,” “The Folly,” and so on.

And there you have it. Happy Saturday!

Advent calendar #5: Kittens

I mean, like one really needs an excuse to post about cats. Maugre Avenue Q, that’s what the internet is for, right?

I have no idea who these folks are or how they acquired these opinionated kittens, but if I want a dose of cute and/or to make my cat sniff urgently at my computer, this is what I’ve been going to.

Happy Thursday, everyone!

Advent calendar #4

Inevitably, any Advent calendar of mine is going to contain a number of my favorite choir pieces. Here is my favorite Palestrina introit, “I Look From Afar.”

It’s part of the nature of Advent, too, that looking from afar is both looking at the past as from the far future, and looking at the future from an always-incipient present. Like gestalt arrows, it’s both at once: that on-the-cusp feeling belongs so completely to no other time.

A friend once observed of me that I want to “save the world,” and they weren’t wrong. Something in me is a perpetual paladin, and whenever I do something that matters to me, it matters because of that. Advent taps into and intensifies a feeling I have year-round, that there are lots of reasons not to act, not to do a thing — but if you’re going to do it, then do it.

I don’t mean do it perfectly, though. Long ago, a (different) friend was lamenting their depression and how it was causing them to “half-ass” their last semester of school. I said: “Sometimes half an ass is all you have,” and the other person in the chatroom suggested putting that on a cross-stitch sampler. But that’s exactly what I mean. If half an ass is what you have to give to a thing you want to do, then give half an ass.

I try to remind myself of this antidote periodically, because I too fall prey to the feeling that Advent (and Lent, too, often) got started before I was ready and I’m in a futile scramble to catch up. It’s not Fear Of Missing Out, it’s Fear Of Missing In, fear that I will have “had the experience but missed the meaning.”

But Advent is its own antidote. The answer to FOMI is to plant your feet, and your ass — whole or half — and look from afar.

The gestalt has got you.

Advent calendar #3

Good morning!

On today’s little Advent window, I give you a noise generator that I built on the MyNoise site. One of the perks of donating to Dr. Stephane’s site is that you can harvest stems from any of the sound profiles (and there are many!) in the lists, and collate them in a generator of your own. I’ve played with creating themed generators, or particular sounds, or effective white noise for the office, with varying degrees of success. My latest effort was created to evoke the feeling of stirring hands and feet in the bathing warmth of a hot spring: certainly a welcome feeling at this time of year!

So here you go: enjoy Chaleur.

Advent calendar #1, 2

To celebrate this website’s second year, I’m going to do a little Advent calendar of things that give me pleasure and gratitude.

A year ago I started building this website in preparation for launching my first novel in what I hoped and planned to be a series; a year later, I have launched the book, finished an interstitial novella and put it into edits, and started on the second full-length novel which I hope to finish over the course of the next year.

It’s been an intense and busy year on all fronts: but this, I hope, will be a relaxing exercise for me, as sometimes I get hung up on trying to remember what Significant Thing I had planned to blog about some time but didn’t write down. These little Advent windows are not going to be significant of anything in particular. I suppose that’s a measure of what the theme of this year has turned out to be: that even launching a book, significant as that is in my own life, is a granulation of little acts, little pleasures and struggles. And one might as well take note of them and do them justice.

Today is a two-fer, since I didn’t have this idea until last night and did not post anything on December 1. First, for those of you who like this sort of thing: Check out The Advent Project, an annual compendium put together by the staff at Biola University. Every morning there’s a Bible reading, a poem, a piece of art, a piece of music, a collect, and a meditation. Because these things are gathered from all over, many perspectives are represented, which frankly relaxes me because I know I don’t have to like it all. I signed up for this last year, and enjoyed it and the group’s Lent Project enough that I stayed subscribed this year. It adds dimension to my morning ritual of tea on the couch — especially when the mornings are so dark.

For the second — how about something completely different! I’ve already inflicted this vid on my Facebook friends and anybody else I can get to stand still, but it just makes me happy, so on the slate it goes: Pomplamoose doing a mashup cover of the Eurhythmics and the White Stripes.

(If I were going to make an out-verse playlist for my characters, this would totally be one of the songs I picked for Speir.)

You should totally check out the weekly cover vids that Pomplamoose is doing, because this one is not the only awesome one, it’s just my favorite.

And there you have it. Happy new year*!

*Liturgically speaking.