Thursday, November 16, 2017

Writing Exercises

It's a book.  In February of 2016 I created a document on my computer labeled "Not By Bread Alone."  Forty-seven reflections and 12 months later I attached a document with the completed manuscript to an email to my editor.  It felt oddly unceremonious. Somehow a book manuscript ought to have real heft, to weigh something more than a few electrons.  But off it went, weightlessly and nearly instantly, to Liturgical Press to return with edits and queries, and as proofs and as final proofs.  No version weighing my computer down anymore than that first blank file had.

In many ways it was like making the Ignatian Exercises again, this time in the form of the 19th annotation — a retreat in daily life.  There was assigned scripture. There were familiar themes: contrition, the Gospel stories, gratitude and humility.  The Third Week came again, and the Fourth dawned with joy.

There was repetition, as each reflection was visited multiple times growing from a sketched sentence or two to full length.  (Not to mention the repetition that accompanied the proofs.) Colloquies were made as I crafted questions for readers to grapple with.  And there was a prayer to end each day's contemplations.

It was a privilege to walk those roads again, almost a decade after making the 30-days.  It was a privilege to write a path to walk with others. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.



You can buy the book at Liturgical Press, $5 for the large print version, less for the easier to carry around version or for larger quantities, or for the weightless ebook!


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Writes first time, every time

I've been going "back to school" in the fall for 53 years.  At some level the questions haven't changed since kindergarten:  What to wear? Will the kids in my class like me?  Will I be able to do the work? What supplies do I need?  I loved the sensation of writing on a stack of fresh paper, the scent of the ballpoint ink tickling my back brain.  The snick of the three ring binder as I snapped a completed assignment in.

As I tried to crack a case of writer's block a few weeks ago, I decided to get off the keyboard and onto a pad of paper.   I tend to start writing on paper, move to the keyboard, then back to paper at the end.  But was midway through a complete re-write of an essay I was writing in circles, unable to find a line through it that would make sense to a reader.  It was a bit like decided to take the next offramp from the highways when traffic has come to a crawl and try the side roads.  They might not be as fast, but there's hope that you'll get there eventually, and you're moving and filling the page.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones has a writing exercise that I sometimes use with my students:  "Pen or pencil.  Five minutes.  Go." What tools do I pick up to write with? Does it matter to me? Sometimes.  Why and when?
This task:  Yellow college-lined pad of paper. With a pen. Not a pencil.

I had to rummage in the drawer of office supplies to find a pen. The drawer contains principally leftovers from school supply lists gone by (why, oh, why do we have so many unused protractors in there?)  I pulled out a classic Bic pen, the one that I remember from my own school days. Clear plastic, medium point, viscous tacky blue ink.

I remember the ads on TV where they would strap the pen to the skate of an Olympic figure skater who would do some fancy turn, ice chips flying.  They'd take the pen off and write with a flourish.  "Writes first time, every time."  I thought that might be a good omen for the writing.  It was. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stuck

Door knocker in Albano Laziale, outside Rome.
It was late on the Friday afternoon of fall break and the science building nearly empty when I went to the ladies room.  Right.  TMI. Anyway, I got stuck in the stall, the mechanism that turns the latch was stripped and while it latched without incident, it wasn't unlatching for anything. Call for help?  Or crawl out?  Checking the floor and thinking about how long it might be until someone heard me, I opted for the latter, which brought back memories of elementary school, when several classmates and I had latched the doors to all the bathroom stalls shut, then slithered out underneath.  Needless to say, sister was not pleased with us.

I am grateful that the floor was reasonably clean, that in my sixtieth year I can still do that and that no one came in as I was doing so.  I put a sign on the door, and a call in to facilities to fix it.

Today, I was stuck again, this time locked out of what I wanted in to.  Before I went off to teach, I dumped the remains of my soda (don't judge) into my insulated bottle, screwed the top on and left it on my desk, all set to grab on my way out the door to the meeting I had across campus directly after class.

After class I dumped my teaching bag, grabbed the papers I needed and my cold beverage.  I hiked up the hill, took the last seat at the meeting and...couldn't open my bottle.  Ugh.  I tried again. And then realized I was not going to be able to open it.  The soda had released its CO2, increasing the pressure inside and effectively sealing it shut. We have this issue every time I do bomb calorimetry, students can't get the top off with 25 atm of pressure inside.  The bombs, I must point out, have relief valves.  I wished for one on my bottle.  Since it wasn't 25 atm inside (was it even 2?) all it took once I got home was Math Man (larger hands) and a bit of leverage.

I'm hoping I'm all unstuck for the rest of the week.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Yearning for the living God

My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.  — Psalm 63:2b, Morning Prayer, Sunday, Week 1

Two weekends ago my parish anointed the sick at the 5 pm evening Mass.  We normally reserve the front pew for those who find it too demanding to get to communion. We keep space so those in scooters or wheelchairs can sit with their families close to the front as well, seating to the north and south of the altar is moveable chairs instead of pews.  The ministers of the Eucharist know to come to people sitting, bringing both the Body and the Blood.

At this Mass, though, we needed more space yet, so an entire wing was set aside for those who were to be anointed, chairs spaced widely so the priests could move through for the sacrament.  When it came time for communion, there was a bit of a scramble, but a minister quickly came through and distributed the Body. But the cup did not follow.

One of the ministers of the cup noticed and when her line vanished, walked to the other side and gave the cup to the first row.  Sitting across the altar from the scene, I realize that almost everyone was leaning toward the  minister as she gave the cup to the first person in the row, hoping she would come to them. Yearning with their whole selves for the living God.  Do they believe in the real presence?  I don't need a CARA survey to tell me, their posture gave it away.  Their souls are thirsting for God, the living God.


A perceived nonchalant attitude toward receiving the sacrament attributed to Catholics' failure to grasp and assent the doctrine of the real presence is a common trope in some corners of the Catholic web.  I wonder how much of this is seeing what they think the data show.  According to CARA, more than 90% of those who attend Mass weekly believe what the receive is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.  Numbers drop to 2/3 of those who attend at least once a month, but not weekly.  But... if you look closely at the demographics, about 80% of the congregation at a given Mass are there every week, and that roughly 85% of the adults in the congregation believe as the Church does. Not that "about half" or "two-thirds" that gets cited in these screeds.  The people in the pews know, don't school them. The real question isn't about the Real Presence, it's about why people aren't coming through the door in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

On the immensity of space


The Total Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 - fly along with the shadow! from Eclipse2017.org on Vimeo.

(A version of this post appeared on the Vatican Observatory Foundation's Catholic Astronomer blog.)

Not quite two months ago I spent a late morning and early afternoon watching the moon slide across the sun, turning midday Philadelphia into twilight and back again.  I stashed the eclipse filters for the occasional look at the sun, and dove into the semester.  But each time I head out for a late evening walk and see the full moon hovering over the neighborhood school's field, I think about it coming between the earth and the sun.

I tend to think of the moon and sun as large objects ponderously processing through space, from my perspective taking ten or a dozen hours to creak 'round the sky. Their movements marking out days, months and years, not so much minutes and seconds.  So I was struck on the animations of the eclipse by how fast the moon's shadow moved across the ground, even when you account for the speeded up motion  (in this video slightly more than a factor of about 13).  With family in California, I've flown coast to coast more time than I can count.  It takes me 5 to 6 hours to fly from here to there, soaring through the sky at three-quarters the speed of sound.  The umbra — the shadow —  took only 90 minutes to make the same trip, traveling at more than 1200 mph.

As I walked yesterday afternoon, watching the sun vanish behind the horizon as my spot on the earth rotated to face away from the sun, it occurred to me that the moon's shadow isn't the only thing moving fast.  When standing "still" on earth I am, of course,  in motion relative to other points in the universe. Points on the surface of the earth (at my latitude 40oN) are moving at 750 mph. Fast indeed, but not so fast I cannot imagine it.

In this moment in history, where I can climb on a plane and be on the other side of the world in half a day, or video chat with my kids who are thousands of miles away or I can go to a lab downstairs and with a quantum mechanical trick, nudge atoms around, arranging them to suit me, I might be tempted to think of myself as commanding great powers. At least until I think about how fast the earth is moving around the sun.  67,000 mph hour.  The solar system?  Orbiting the galactic center at a half million miles per hour.  I am moving through space at speed I cannot truly fathom: a thousand feet flash by in a millisecond, a hundred thousand in a second.  Eighty thousand miles in a minute.

Lines from Psalm 29 from Lauds, Week I, came to mind:
The Lord's voice resounding on the waters,
The Lord on the immensity of waters;
The voice of the Lord, full of power,
The voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
The Lord on the immensity of waters, the Lord on the immensity of space.  Adore the Lord in his holy court.

The psalm ends with an assurance that God, whose strength we cannot fathom, who with a word can strip the forests bare, and spin a universe into being, will grant us peace.  I can think of nothing else we need more now than this. Peace and God's unimaginable strength to sustain and protect us on this tiny world hurtling through space.