Monday, November 30, 2009

Taizé and Talks at Boston College

In college the woman who was to become my mother-in-law introduced me and some of my classmates to the chants and meditative silence of Taizé prayer, from the ecumenical Taizé community in France.

The parish we belong to holds a Taizé prayer service every Monday evening during Advent. I had the privilege of being able to take time out of my day to attend and let music and silence wash away all the things that tend to wrinkle my brow.

Even before the service, though, the day was already a gifted one. I attended a presentation at Boston College during which talks were given by the chancellor of the college, Fr. Donald Monan; by Fr. Jon Sobrino, writer and theologian; and by Professor Noam Chomsky. My mind is still processing these rich experiences, but I'll set down the words from Jon Sobrino that are still echoing in my memory:

On the suffering poor in Latin America and Africa: "Who defends these people? Who risks anything important to take them down from the cross?...In them, Jesus and his God passed through this world carrying his cross."

On the Salvadoran people: "Salvadorans don't use the phrase 'quality of life.' " And, "Salvadorans don't take life for granted."

On freedom and equality: "Very few people in this world are free to make their own decisions."

I never thought of the world that way. I've always known that very few people in the world are living comfortably, that most of the world is in a state of unending suffering. But it didn't occur to me in the way he phrased it, that this chronic suffering and slow death by poverty are intimately connected with the most basic personal freedoms. He's right. Most of the people in the world don't have much of a choice about anything.

These are perfect words and thoughts to reflect on during Advent. There is a quiet and darkness in Advent that restores the true meaning of the light of Christmas. Advent puts us out in the fields, in the darkness, under the night sky with the shepherds, the untouchables of society, and makes us look up and see glory. The darkness out there can help us realize why it's so vital to renew the light in the human heart.

Christ has left. For many, he was never really here, or his having been here doesn't matter. Those who do find meaning in his life are left with the reality of his physical departure and what remains. We are, in fact, those remains. The fact that there are dark truths in the world is no more God's fault or Christ's fault than it is the fault of the crucified peoples Sobrino talked about tonight. Advent reminds us to shine a light wherever these dark truths would take hold, both outward and inward.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Didn't Win But Still a Winner

I decided to quit NaNoWriMo early. Congratulations to all the admirable writers who wrote 50,000 words or more this month!

I was only able to set down a little over 35,000 - some of it "cheat" material, like over-lengthy descriptions and quoted passages - but I decided to stop pushing several days ago.

When I told my children this last night over dinner, at first they were dismayed. "No! You have to keep going! Why did you stop?"

"Well," I said, looking at their adorable faces, "if I hadn't, I'd be doing THAT instead of sitting here having soup with you after a great movie."


They smiled then, so I smiled too. "You're more important than NaNoWriMo. I have so much I want to do with you and Papa, especially with Advent here. I just can't write that fast AND do all the things I want to do with you and your dad, and do a good job at work, and cook dinner every day, and work on the music project I told you about, and practice oboe, et cetera, et cetera."

They chewed on that for a moment. Then my daughter asked, "Are you still gonna keep writing the book, though?"

"Sure. Why not?"

With that, both kids were content and went back happily to their soup. It's such a warm feeling, the love and concern of one's own children.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Give Mass-Market Scrooge a Chance

Like blogger and literature professor Michael Leddy, author of the wonderful blog Orange Crate Art, I was disgruntled - nay, downright offended - when Disney brazenly presented its latest holiday project as "Disney's A Christmas Carol," with no mention of Charles Dickens. The gall. The arrogance. The presumption of entitlement, of some kind of right to creative ownership and license all because they've spent decades appropriating and making enormous amounts of money off classic tales. I was annoyed. (Eventually I did find a poster that acknowledged Dickens in tiny print.)

When my kids mentioned wanting to see it today, though, I was surprised to find myself curious and quite willing to go. I was over my initial irritation. When all is said and done, I am incapable of resisting a chance to see a presentation of Dickens' story, one of my all-time favorites. So off we went.

I was impressed. Believe me, I'm as possessive about A Christmas Carol as the next person who holds it near and dear. I was prepared to be dismayed at the over-use of bells-and-whistles, the catering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator type of flashiness, the uncouth departures from the original. But while there is, indeed, plenty of flashiness and reveling in high-speed special effects - I actually got quite motion-sick during all the flying around with the spirits, despite the incredibly beautiful scenery - I don't believe, as many negative reviews have described, that this film has abandoned the soul of Dickens' classic.

I disagree with most of this very critical review, in which reviewer Duane Dudek writes, "In technologically expanding this film, Disney and Remeckis shrank its meaning and spirit." I also disagree with Kirk Honeycutt who writes that Zemeckis "shuns the beating heart of Dickens' story" and that "On any emotional level, it's as cold as Marley's Ghost." My children and I found ourselves emotionally engaged and invested in these characters as interpreted by the astounding Jim Carrey and his colleagues, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, and Lesley Manville, who was a terrific Mrs. Cratchit.

My litmus test for any version of A Christmas Carol is this: is there an ache in my throat and the threat of a small tear or two in my eyes when, having rediscovered the power of being open to joy, Scrooge calls the young boy he sends to the poulterer's at the end "delightful," and when he humbly knocks on his nephew's door for Christmas dinner? The answer tonight was yes. I was still moved at these very moments during the Disney version.

In fact, Zemeckis, to my great relief, stayed quite true to Dickens' text. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the book. He does take some liberties, though, with which I don't agree - the insertion of a high-speed chase involving a hearse drawn by black horses and a mysteriously shrunken Ebenezer being the most jarring and indulgent example. But I was willing to accept those liberties out of appreciation for the work as a whole. Producers and directors do have some license to re-imagine and re-interpret classic works, and I won't hold against them the elements I'm not super-wild about if they show an overall reverence for their source, which I do feel Zemeckis did.

The most impressive aspect of this production for me was the eye-opening use of performance-capture technology in the animation. The Disney folks have always been pretty attentive to the use of true-to-life facial expressions in their animated characters, but now, with motion-capture, they can really go to town - and they did, and it was completely riveting, I thought. Cartoon characters who can actually look as if they're feeling what the story says they're feeling? Now, THAT is amazing.

I have a whole new respect for Jim Carrey as an actor, too, as well as for the creative possibilities of blending human abilities and performances with art and technology. I needed his Scrooge to be at least as good as the Scrooges I've known and loved - Alastair Sim's, George C. Scott's, and the one in my head when I read the book - and I thought Carrey's performance, in combination with the animators' thoughtfully applied talents, was easily up there with the best of them.

I can see why this film is drawing criticism, but I think it should be given a chance to work its own brand of magic. It's visually beautiful, from its views of snowy Victorian London right down to the very realistic knots and whorls in the wood floors and beams. It's creative - I was quite taken by the way the Spirit of Christmas Present showed London to Scrooge through a kind of scrying portal in his own floorboards, and the scene in which this same spirit passes away in the shadow of a great timepiece. It was also dynamic and showy, very much a 21st-century version. But it does respect its literary and cinematic ancestors. The film makes abundantly clear, somewhat ironically, the fact that it's still in Dickens - his language, his characters, his themes, his story - not in Disney, that the glory of this work ultimately lies. As I left the theater with my children, big smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts, I found that very satisfying.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I Don't Like Thanksgiving

There. I've admitted it. I am not that "into" Thanksgiving. I am a veritable Thanksgiving Grinch.

I grew up without it.
I don't particularly care for turkey.
The settlers brought smallpox, not good will, to the natives.

And frankly, with tongue somewhat in cheek I ponder the idea that it has become the one occasion wherein blatant misogyny is still condoned, institutionalized, perhaps even celebrated (mental soundtrack: Topol as Tevye singing, "Traditio-o-o-o-o-on, Tradition!"): guys with drinks in front of the football game, women in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove. Hmph. (I know, I know - lots of guys do a lot, perhaps even most, of the work to pull off Thanksgiving. I really am half-joking.)

I am on call for Thanksgiving. I offer to take Thanksgiving call every year. I am having a small pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my children tonight - baked ham with a sweet, autumn-spice glaze and a side of stuffing (no poultry). Tomorrow I'll be at the hospital till evening, then with any luck I can take call from home for the rest of the night and spend some time with family.

I am, in the end, a Christmas person through and through. Thanksgiving is just a non-entity for me. Once dreaded Halloween is over, my Christmas preparations begin.

I absolutely love Advent, liturgically and otherwise. Advent is already here for me even though it doesn't officially start till Sunday.

Inspired by my friend's sister's blog Slow Christmas and this post about constructing your own personal advent calendar, I have already begun my slowed-down, drawn-out celebration of my favorite season of the year and the only holiday, really, that I enjoy. It's amazing how doing one beloved, celebratory thing each day can bring such happiness.

I have
-listened to Christmas music
-lit a Christmas-scented candle ("Christmas Tree" by Village Candle Co.)
-sent a Christmas card
-sung a Christmas song
-bought cute holiday socks for my daughter
-drunk a mug of peppermint-flavored hot cocoa
-lit a cozy fire and snuggled with my Hunny in front of it
-seen a friend from college whom I don't get to see very often

And before the season passes I hope to
-watch a Christmas movie (or two, or three...)
-attend a Christmas concert, play, or dance performance
-read a Christmas story
-maybe even write a Christmas story
-trim a tree
-take a walk under a light snow
-cook a meal that brings people together
-wrap gifts
-see more friends from long ago and/or far away

I love Christmas because it re-teaches me every year how to live each moment fully and let my heart be filled with gratitude for ordinary moments made extraordinary by wonder, mindfulness, reverence, warmth, generosity, and love.

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and much happiness in the celebrations that truly move your hearts and give you joy.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Angry Jesus

Last weekend I went to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America and one of the ten largest churches in the world.

People either love the Shrine or they're repelled by it. I'm one of the former. I used to go there a lot during high school. The vastness of the interior and the beauty, to my mind, of the art work had the power to lift my spirit and give me a sense of calm and focus.

I was in D.C. for a wake last Sunday. A beloved matriarch in my family passed away. The week prior, my mother-in-law suffered a leg fracture and underwent surgery. The opportunity to visit the Shrine again after all these years away from my home town was a real gift, a chance to find some much-needed renewal in sacred space and time.

The friends with whom I stayed affectionately call the 3,600 square-foot mosaic of Christ - the largest mosaic in the world depicting Christ seated alone, with nearly 3 million tiles - "Angry Jesus."

"I love Angry Jesus," one of my friends said to me.

Now that I've seen the image again, I have to agree: I love Angry Jesus too.

Like the Shrine itself, this colossal icon by Polish artist John de Rosen (or Jan Henryk de Rosen) inspires mixed reactions. Just scouring the internet for people's responses I found a lot of discomfort - along the lines of "He looks so intimidating," or "It's so scary the way he's frowning down on everybody" or "Such a stern expression, with those flames coming out of his head and that bright red robe..."

Angry Jesus is a powerful image. The minute I see his face, I start hearing the "Kyrie" from Mozart's Requiem in my head. He's not the kind and gentle Jesus of the Gospel that everyone wants as a best friend. He's been to hell and back and he's way past all that. He has been wounded and tortured but now even the deep jab to his heart from a Roman lance is no more than a scratch. This Christ isn't here to pray fervently in the desert or smile at us. This Christ is done. With his open arms he seem to ask either, "What the hell are you people doing?" or, "Well? Are you ready to open your arms, or aren't you? Have you stepped up and lived up to the goodness within you, are do I have to smack you upside the head?" I love Angry Jesus.

I never felt put off or afraid of Angry Jesus, even in high school. Perhaps it was because I never took his wrath personally, and I felt there was some solidarity between it and the idealistic anger I felt at the time at various world issues. Back then it was, oh, I don't know, the Cold War and the Ethiopian famine. Now, as my son observes, "He's angry in a special way. I think he's angry about pollution." Out of the mouths of babes! Because, of course, there's pollution everywhere - in the world, in human minds driven by prejudice, in human hearts fueled by hate.

When I pray in the presence of this striking icon, in that enormous space filled with light and hope and the faith of many nations, I feel stronger, ready to face the world again. It may just be that the act of meditation, as I've heard some studies have shown, causes electric and neurotransmitter changes in the brain that promote a sense of well-being. It doesn't matter. We are creatures of imagery and sound, of smell and touch. For me the smell of the rising incense in that basilica, along with my prayers - thoughts of hope and desire and love for my family - floating together toward de Rosen's Christ in Majesty had the power to heal and give me rest. I think it was Franz Werfel who expressed it best: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, none will suffice."

Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16, 1989

Are there any causes for which you would give your life?

Peace? Justice?

I wonder - somewhere in the world, are U.S.-trained death squads still murdering people who try to serve the poorest of the poor, or give voice to the voiceless, or use centers of learning and intellectual debate - schools, universities - as ways of working toward social justice?

We should never forget sacrifices like these. It's so easy for us to sit here in our colleges and news rooms and talk and talk and criticize and talk some more. How many of us are courageous enough to act on and live by our convictions?


It was a small remembrance, but tonight in memory of the UCA martyrs (and to celebrate a belated National Pupusa Day, which was on November 13), we had pupusas for dinner. I've had El Salvador on the brain lately. It's always a blessing, this power food has - the way food can express, can connect us.

My filling:
1 small minced onion + 3 large garlic cloves + 1 lb. bison meat + half a bottle of Sofrito cooked together, plus some grated 6-Italian-cheese blend (mozzarella, asiago, fontina, provolone, parmesan & romano) to go on top of the meat when it goes in the pupusa

My (experiment with) dough:
3 c masa instantanea de maíz or masa harina (corn flour from the Spanish food aisle) + 1 c all-purpose flour + 2 1/2 c hot water

Mix together, then separate into 8 balls, flatten each into a disc, put filling in center, take edges over the top so it forms a little purse, seal, then smoosh down so the whole thing's flattened again; sauté in oiled pan 2 min. per side.

Served with tomato and chive salad and some peach salsa (I didn't have curtido, unfortunately). Husband and kids loved 'em.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Writing Process

Nanotoon created by Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl:  Daily Diversions for Writers

During a terrific writing workshop I attended in 1994, author Larry Woiwode said two things that have remained with me to this day:

"Writing is a confession of sin."


"Write every day."

Well, I have been bad about that second item.  I have not written every day, even though writing is important to me.  This is the reason I signed up for NaNoWriMo this month.  I wanted to jump-start a daily writing habit, come hell or high water. 

The good news is I have, in fact, been writing every day. 

 The bad news is I'm over a thousand words behind.  I'm supposed to be at 16,667 words by the end of the day.  I'm at 14,855 for a piece whose subject matter (and please don't ask me what it is) would be of no interest to anyone other than myself (and, maybe, my loving husband and children).

Here's what I've learned so far:

1. I love writing.  Even when it's going badly (and it almost always is, for me, with this project). Writing is wonderful and awful and incredible and worthwhile.

2. Unlike the girl in the delightful cartoon above by Debbie Ohi, I can't write around other people.  This is a considerable handycap when one is a wife and mother.  I have to be alone, uninterrupted, without music or noise or coffee or any other sensory distractions.

3.  Even if I try to sneak away and hide, my family knows how to find me, and find me they will.

4.  My commitment to never saying to my kids, "Not now, I'm writing" is still more important to me than my commitment to the writing itself.  I have won many supportive "Good luck, Mommy" kisses just by including them in the loop.

5. The author pep talks on the NaNoWriMo website can be really helpful.  My favorite so far has been this one by Neil Gaiman

6.  Word counts can indeed be stretched.  Character descriptions, interviews, and conversations are great for that, as are setting descriptions, dream sequences, poetry written by characters, famous passages quoted by characters, radio announcements, newspaper articles, thought soliloquies, childhood memories, and my personal favorite, descriptions of the foods being eaten by the characters.  

7.  Sometimes the act of writing itself reveals things about the characters or story that days of planning would never uncover.  Another reason just sitting down and pumping out words, even mediocre ones, is worthwhile.

8.  Writing down each scene as it enters my head, no matter how "random" or how out of order, makes the writing flow better than trying to write billiard style (trying to call "ball in corner pocket" for a ball that just won't go there).  

9.  Epistolary sections seem to flow more easily than straight prose...which is perhaps a cop-out...

10.  I can't decided if the pain and challenge of a tighter structure like the short story are better or worse than the prolonged, spread-out, mentally preoccupying chronic illness of a novel (I am definitely brooding a lot more, about a world that doesn't even exist!). But it's a good kind of pain, either way.

I may not make it all the way to the 50,000 word finish line.  But it has already, after only a week, been a tremendously worthwhile exercise.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Glimpse Into a Marriage

This past week I took care of a woman in her nineties. She did fine during surgery and slept peacefully in the recovery room after I dropped her off.

At the end of the day I was tired.  It had been a long day.  I had one more patient to drop off in the recovery room, and when I arrived there with him, this other elderly woman was still there from earlier in the afternoon, the only other patient.  She had an oxygen mask on her face and was still resting with her eyes closed.

On the small rectangular table at the foot of her bed was a vase containing pink roses and gladioli.  Beside her in a wheelchair sat her husband of over 65 years, holding her hand and gazing at her while she slept.

"He wheeled himself in here with that bouquet of flowers for her on his lap," one of the recovery room nurses told me.  

I reported on my last patient's condition to the nurses who were receiving him, then lingered in the recovery room for about fifteen minutes making sure my i's were dotted and t's crossed on the requisite paperwork. I couldn't help glancing from time to time at the elderly man nearby who had lived almost a century and whose humble, quiet way of expressing his love hinted at a lifetime of untold stories, of sorrows endured and joys shared, and a closeness deeper than any of us could imagine.

When I walked out at the end of the day to go home, the man in the wheelchair was still holding his wife's hand, watching over her while she slept.  I'll always remember the steadfastness of his gaze, and the soft, pink hue of his hopeful gift of flowers in that place where hope and blossoms could be so hard to find.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Haiku Inspired by Ramona Bates

I just read a couple of haikus by Dr. Ramona Bates, who writes at Suture for a Living, and got inspired to try my own.  It's about my day job.  Here it is:

Hard metal, soft flesh,
cylinder poised, larynx found:
the pillars of life.

Now it's time to make some lunch before reporting for night duty. Have a great day!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

And We're Off!

NaNoWriMo has begun! This blog might be quite neglected for the next thirty days. Or I might use it to procrastinate...

Notes of encouragement will be quite welcome this month. I'm going to need them!

I have a question for you writers / composers / painters / creative types out there: are there certain work conditions, instruments, or times of day that seem conducive to your creative activity? Do you write on yellow legal pad, computer, or blank journal? Pen, pencil, or keyboard? Morning, or night?

I find I get ideas I like right before falling asleep or right after waking up; in the shower; or while driving. I brainstorm with a black Sanford Uniball Rollergrip pen with microfine tip, but I write on the computer (because I can get my thoughts out faster).

I hope I'm in the call room scribbling away as you read this!