Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

“When you saw the word mask, was your first interpretation protection, covering up, persona, or performance?”

The NaBloPoMo theme for this month is Masks, presumably owing to Halloween at the end of the month.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the USA, Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve – has taken on a life of its own.  When I was young, it was an excuse to shake down your neighbors for all the candy your mother wouldn’t let you eat the rest of the year; when my mother was young, it was an excuse to commit minor mayhem in the neighborhood (if I recall correctly, letting the air out of car tires was a popular prank).

Nowadays, though, there are costume parties for adults, and people seem to go all out for the scariest persona they can dredge up.  Zombies are so ubiquitous that my son has actually declared that he’s sick of them – and there’s a road in South Carolina marked, “Zombie Crossing.”  (I suspect my daughter is responsible for that – zombies figure large in her fiction.)

I myself am one of those cranks who think the whole thing has gotten out of hand, and we don’t participate.  We don’t ever have our porch light on – the signal that a house is open for trick-or-treating – and should someone wander up to our doorstep by mistake, we hand out nickels.  I think the word’s gotten out about the nickels, since no one has come to our door for the past two years.

None of this is where I wanted to go with this post, but I couldn’t resist the detour through the Land of the Cranky Old Broad.  In reality, when I hear the word “mask,” my first thought is of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door – who is it for?”  What an image:  When you are home alone, you wear your real face, but when someone comes to your door, you reach into a figurative jar and pull out whatever face you think is appropriate to the situation, Welcoming or Polite Inquiry or Take-a-Hike-NOW-If-You-Know-What’s-Good-for-You.  But none of them is really you.

Do we all do this, I wonder?  I do.  Although it’s true that I do truly care about the people I know and love, it doesn’t always register that there are Expectations as to how one shows that one cares.  So, for example, I have to remind myself to send birthday cards, and I have to force myself to send Christmas cards – even though I’m genuinely glad that these people are celebrating another year of life, and I love getting Christmas cards – just not sending them out.  When I meet people in the street, I know how to greet them with the appropriate level of enthusiasm for whatever they have to share about their lives – but it’s all a reaction I’ve learned over many, many years of watching other people and how they handle encounters; it’s nothing I do naturally.  Once my acquaintances go their way, they’re off the radar screen.

So…what face do I wear when I’m by myself?  Darned if I know – it’s usually buried in a book, or a cross-stitch project.  But I can say – and this is all I will say about my true face – when I wear my true face, it’s when I’m at prayer.  No point wearing any other, since God is no respecter of masks!

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This one’s from Plinky:  “Which holiday would you rather skip?  Why?”

Frankly – all of them.  Holidays are like a disruption in the Force, a rift in the Time/Space Continuum – they rip you out of your ordinary life, force you to “celebrate” something that may or may not have deep meaning for you, then thrust you back into the workaday world, where you have to spend at least half a day trying to get back into the groove of whatever you were doing when you were so rudely interrupted.

Most of us humans are creatures of habit.  We get up at the same time every day, perform various personal-hygiene and beautification tasks, feed ourselves in whatever manner we have established that works, and then get into the swing of whatever it is we do.  This is one reason why retirement is so stressful:  Both the retiree and whoever s/he lives with have to restructure their whole lives around the reality that both of them now share a space that didn’t used to be shared.  Holidays are just one more stress in an already stressful world, and I would like to see them all go away.

That said, I’m not a Scrooge who thinks that people should keep their noses relentlessly to the grindstone, churning out profit for the Good of the Company (and by the way, yes, corporations are people.  The purpose of a corporation is to establish a business as a legal entity, a legal “person,” so that it can continue once its principals have passed on.  In addition, corporations are inevitably made up of flesh-and-blood human beings, so they are “people” in that sense, too.  But I digress).

“Holidays” were established by belief systems as a means of setting aside an important aspect of faith, something that should hit you where you live, and therefore something that you should be able to take time to reflect upon.  The very word is a blend of two words, “holy” and “day,” a holy day, a day set aside.  The Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, predate anything Christian by centuries, if not millennia, and while I am no anthropologist, I’m sure that other religions around the world, all of them older than Christianity, also have their holy days.

Time set aside to reflect on an important matter, therefore, is a good thing, and far be it from me to deprive anyone of that time.  That said, though:  Take a look at how we actually use holidays.  There are “traditional” Presidents’ Day auto sales, Memorial Day is the “traditional” start of the vacation season (and Labor Day its “traditional” end), some kind of football game has become “traditional” for Thanksgiving, and we won’t even get into the Christmas catastrophe (one of the funniest takes I’ve ever heard on this is available on YouTube.  It’s called “The Christmas CanCan.”  I’d post a link, but apparently you have to sit through ads on YouTube, now, and the one preceding this is particularly offensive to me).

Of all of these, only Labor Day was originally structured around a three-day weekend; Presidents’ Day used to be two days off, Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday.  Memorial Day was always May 30, and involved special ceremonies, which had nothing to do with the start of summer vacation, to remember those fallen in wars.  At one time, they all had an actual purpose; now, they are just an excuse to buy a car, or go skiing, or open or close the summer house.  Where’s the reflection?

And that’s just in my own country.  In Europe, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all two-day holidays; but they are the three most important Christian holidays.  What if you don’t think of yourself as a Christian any longer?  Where’s the need to reflect?

What I would like to see is for every country to add up the total number of official holidays on its calendar, both civic and religious, and create a Holiday Pool.  “Here’s a total of fifteen holidays,” for example.  “They are all paid, and you can choose from among them to celebrate your own traditions in your own way, or to squander if you want to.  The office will still be open, but you will not be penalized for the days you take off that are drawn from the Holiday Pool.”  Then, to ensure that the work-work-work culture doesn’t get their hands on the Holiday Pool the way they have on people’s vacations, don’t pay overtime to people who work on holidays.  Done.  That way, people who couldn’t care less about National Occupy Day would have an extra day, or three, to put towards the holidays they really care about.  And people who celebrate holy days at a different time of year – I’m thinking particularly of Russian Christmas, celebrated on January 7, or Orthodox Easter, usually celebrated anywhere from one to six weeks after everybody else’s – could take those days off without dipping into their vacation time.

And that way, maybe holidays will be celebrated as they were meant to be celebrated – as Time outside of Time, as days set apart for reflection, or at the very least, as days to be spent in the bosom of family and friends.

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Do you think there is a collective definition of beauty, or is it always in the eye of the beholder?”

With the release of the latest film version of Anna Karenina, I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s opening line:  “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I think the opposite is true of Beauty; Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but there is definitely a collective definition of ugliness.

I’ve been a lover of classical music for a long time now, since my teenage years, in fact, and over and over, one reaction has always puzzled me:  the people who ask me, “Do you really like that stuff?”  It took me a long time to figure out that there apparently really are people who actually don’t like “that stuff,” but who pretend they do in order to look Educated or Smarter Than Thou, or something along those lines.  As I grow older, and have consequently more exposure to a wider variety of classical music, I sometimes find myself wondering if these “anti-snobs” really understand just how much they themselves love classical music.  The theme from the unforgettable Somewhere in Time?  Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (eighteenth variation, which was also, many, many years ago, used in a coffee commercial).  People loved that wildly romantic movie, and also loved the theme music that brought two lovers together across time – but tell them it’s classical music, and they think you’re nuts.  How can something so beautiful be classical music?!

And I think I know where that attitude comes from.  At the beginning of the 20th century, classical music took a turn into the purely theoretical.  “Composers” began writing music based purely on mathematical formulas, with no regard for aesthetics, since, you know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that.  The result is stuff so bizarre that not even genuine lovers of classical music can stand it; the cognoscenti profess to love it because it’s so Interesting and Avant Garde and Forward-Looking, but they don’t seem to respond to it (as the rest of us do) on a visceral level.  If they did, they might end up calling it what my husband and I do, “searching for the Lost Chord music.”

Then there’s art, or, if you will, Art.  Most of the modern stuff looks like what my kids were doing in nursery school, a few dabs of primary colors on a sheet of paper…oh.  Maybe it’s canvas that makes it Art.  Or – wait – you stick a crucifix in a glass of urine, call it something offensive to every Christian on the planet, and that’s what makes it art?!  Meanwhile, I know people who can’t stand the sight of the ubiquitous Thomas Kinkade paintings, so beloved by so many people; but neither do they have any admiration for primary daubs on a canvas, or an exhibit whose only purpose is to shock and outrage.

In all these instances, Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder; after all, it was the musicologist George Grove (compiler of Grove’s Dictionary of Classical Music) who dismissed Rachmaninoff as “monotonous in texture…consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes,” whose popularity was “not likely to last” (source:  Wikipedia entry on Rachmaninoff).  Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff’s popularity only continues to grow, as a new generation comes to appreciate his lyricism and aesthetic unity (no fewer than three of his works have become popular songs!).

But is there a similar collective unity in the definition of Beauty?  I think that you can best judge Beauty by the universality of its appeal.  People may like or dislike Rachmaninoff or Thomas Kinkade, Arnold Schoenberg or Robert Mapplethorpe.  But I don’t know anyone who, faced with an exquisite sunrise or sunset, doesn’t catch his breath and stand and stare in awe.  The rest of it is mankind’s attempt to produce, or reproduce, the truly Beautiful,  those sunrises and sunsets, or majestic mountains, or luscious waterfalls.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, in his novel The Idiot, “the world will be saved by beauty.”  It’s quoted a lot.  But to understand the full depth of Dostoyevsky’s statement, it helps to understand his background as a Russian Orthodox Christian, and his understanding of the essence of Beauty as being nothing less than God Himself.  In that context, Dostoyevsky reaffirms that the world will be saved by God, the Source of all beauty.  And what responds in each of us to Beauty is as unique as God Himself – and as collective as a congregation’s worship of God.

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Given the state of the federal budget, many are the cries for reductions and taxations.  But where to slash?  Push Granny off the cliff?  Where to raise?  Those lucre-loving denizens of Wall Street?  On only one target can both sides comfortably settle:  those blood-sucking federal employees, those lard-butts who sit around Washington all day doing crossword puzzles and pulling in twice what the average American wage-earner earns.  Let’s face it, nobody likes paying taxes; why not dun the tax-takers?

So I thought I’d introduce you to your Friendly Neighborhood Fed so you could get an idea of where at least some of your tax dollars really go.

Well, yes, some of them do go to Washington to support Congressional Representatives and Senators, not to mention whoever currently inhabits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Yes, I know who currently inhabits it, but not even he can live there forever.  At least, not as things stand at the moment, though I wouldn’t put it past him to have himself declared President for Life or something.)  Some tax dollars do go for farm subsidies, transportation subsidies, medical research, defense, education, student loans, etc., etc., etc.  In fact, so much goes out on all of this that I’m wondering why people fixate on federal civil-service employees as the Source of All Our Ills.

Oh, wait, I forgot, they don’t do nuttin’.  Well…almost nuttin’.  They do the medical research.  They process Social-Security claims and income-tax returns, and those nightmarish FAFSA forms so well-known to college-loan applicants.  Not a few of them put their lives on the line for you and me (and earn peanuts doing it, incidentally) – we call them soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  But there are also the people who guard the president, ensure that smugglers are caught, try their level best (with sometimes outright hostility from Congress and the administration) to keep our borders safe and minimize the effects of illegal drugs.  And there are the people who, since 1971, have been making sure that you get home in one piece at night (OSHA, to be specific).

They don’t all work in Washington.  Most of them, in fact, work ten or twenty miles from where you live.  They pay taxes the same as you do, not only state and local and property taxes, but federal income taxes – which means they pay a portion of their own salaries.  When they drive to work, they buy their gas at the same gas station you do; when they take mass transit, they pay the same fare you do.  The health insurance they get isn’t the same razzle-dazzle cover-everything plan that the Congress gets; it’s the same Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan as yours, with, possibly, one exception:  They pay a portion of their insurance coverage, something I never had to do when working in private industry.  They make co-payments on their medical care, too.

When they go out to eat, they eat at local restaurants.  Their kids go to school with your kids, unless they attend a parochial school – and maybe yours do, too.  The houses on which they pay property taxes look like yours, to a greater or lesser extent; some have larger homes, but some have smaller homes, too.  If they live in one state and work in another, they pay state income taxes to both states, same as you do.  They shop at the same supermarkets you do, and get their hair cut by the same barber or hair stylist that you use.

Strikes me that an awful lot of your tax dollars are being plowed back into your community, via federal civil-service workers.  Naive idealism?  Not really – I’ve been married to one for over forty years.

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A blog that I’ve recently begun following makes an interesting point here:


to the effect that “…the last thing you want is certainty about the reality of the Cosmos. Please allow me to assure you that it will destroy your life. At least your life as you now know it.”  In another blog I follow, one written by an Orthodox priest, the point is made many times that “God didn’t come to earth to make bad men good.  He came to make dead men live.”  The blog address, not for the quote but for the priest, is http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com.

I write about this because, as I noted yesterday, I’ve picked up a couple of new readers, for the time being, at least, which involves my reciprocating and reading their blogs.  One of them writes with a painful anger about her upbringing as a Southern Baptist.  Actually, I can relate to this, as I’m still working through my own upbringing as a Roman Catholic.  As different as both forms of Christianity are, both of them emphasize Morality, a morality of Bad and Good.  Bad people go to hell.  Good people go to heaven.  And I keep thinking of a line from Billy Joel’s song, “Only the Good Die Young”:  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; sinners have more fun.”

I actually understand that, too.  Being Good is a rather grim prospect for today’s pleasure-oriented young people (as it was forty years ago, when the song was popular!):  no smokin’, no drinkin’, no dancin’, and no foolin’ around, and often entails looking down one’s nose at Bad people.  And anyway, what’s wrong with a good time?!

Well, nothing.  There’s that scene in the Bible (surely uncomfortable for teetotaling Christians) where Christ and His disciples are kicking back at a wedding, enjoying a glass or two, or several, of fermented grape (wine, to the rest of us non-teetotalers), without a care in the world – till the happy couple runs out of the sauce, and Christ’s mother, who has also been invited, tells Him, “They have no more wine.”  His response, roughly translated into today’s idiom, is, “And?  This is My problem, How?”  As a commentator once wrote, maybe she was only suggesting that He pass the word to His cronies disciples that they should turn down the next round of drinks.  Instead, He performs His first public miracle of turning water into a wine of such good quality that the party organizer makes note of it to the host:  “Why did you keep the good stuff back till now?!”

So having a good time isn’t the problem.  It’s what the good times can lead to; do they lead to death, or to an enhanced life?  Not just enhanced in the short-term, in the next fifteen minutes, nor even in the next fifteen days, but over the next fifteen years.  And then, twice and three times that.  Do your good times lead you to love that lasts a lifetime and beyond, or to dissipation, dissolution, and/or the conclusion that Life is meaningless, so why not end it anyway?

As painful as seriously examining life can be, it’s at least graspable; that is, you can get your head around it, to some extent.  But there is nothing, nothing on earth like the moment the first blog refers to, the moment when belief in God passes away in the certain knowledge, not just of His existence, but of His relevance in one’s own life, of His limitless, intimate love for each atom of His creation.  As that author assures us, “It will destroy your life.  At least your life as you now know it.”

I know my own first reaction to that statement was, “How can God destroy life?!”  And then I thought of the title of one of my son’s favorite songs, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  They sang that at his high-school graduation, and I realized, Yes, this is the end of the world that all these young people have known, as they step out into a wider world, on to college or blue-collar jobs or the military.  The end of one world, but the beginning of a whole new dimension of existence.  As birth is the end of the only world a baby has ever known, as it exits the womb into a world of bright light and color and unmodified sound:  Yikes!  But then it hears a voice it has always known, its mother’s voice, and Life becomes manageable again.

Once God whispers in your ear, “Follow Me” – however He does it, for it is as unique as each one of us – the life you have really is destroyed.  You lose all control over it.  The scariest part is that once you do surrender control, it becomes more wonderful, more adventurous, more challenging, and infinitely more joyous than you could possibly have imagined.  Never once did I plan to become a wife and mother – I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  Yet, having made the choice, having surrendered control, I have led a life more adventurous and satisfying than I would ever have thought possible.

So, if you seriously want “proof” of God’s existence, it’s there for the asking.  But be careful what you ask for:  You may get it.

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By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and we wept when we remembered Sion.

Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.

For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.

And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying:  Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

But how shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?

–Psalm 136, LXX/137, Masoretic

In liturgical churches, today is one of the preparatory Sundays of Lent.  For most of those with which readers will be familiar, Ash Wednesday is this coming Wednesday; some traditions, such as Catholic and some Lutherans, will have ashes rubbed on their foreheads while the priest or minister says, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  In my own tradition, Eastern Orthodox, it’s a little different.  We won’t begin “Great Lent,” as we call it to distinguish it from other fasting periods, for another two weeks.  But we do have three Sundays of preparation for Lent, and today is the second of those three.  Russian Orthodox churches will have sung the Psalm above during Matins.

It’s one of my favorites because it describes pretty much my whole life:  singing, in a strange land.  I’ve been singing for over sixty years now, first as a tot and then as a child who just loved music.  My first “formal” setting for singing was the Glee Club of the high school I attended, and after that, I sang in a variety of church choirs (and two secular choirs, when living in Germany).  And always…feeling like a stranger, literally or figuratively.

Singing in Greek, when I attended Greek Orthodox churches:  It doesn’t get much more foreign than that.  The words, the alphabet, the music itself, are so very foreign to the Western ear!  Greek music uses quarter tones – if yout ry to sing do, re, mi while “sliding” up the scale, you will hit a variety of pitches in between do and re, between re and mi, and so on.  Those are not only quarter tones, but also micro-tones.  I’m told there are about sixteen of them.  Greek music doesn’t use them all, but I’m sure it’s not for want of trying.

Singing in German, when living in Germany:  I didn’t speak German before I moved there.  Don’t have any German blood in my veins.  But, married to someone whose mother is German and who spoke German, it was a given that we were going to experience the full culture to the best of our ability, and in retrospect, it was a good decision.  The richness of German musical tradition does have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.  There is, of course, the classical-music aspect, but there are also folk songs that are simply charming in the way they touch on every aspect of daily life.  We know too little in the United States about the folk-music traditions of our European ancestors, and we are the poorer for it.

Singing in a Catholic choir should never have felt foreign.  I grew up in the Catholic tradition.  But it was the pre-Vatican-II tradition, with Masses by the classical composers, Palestrina, Mozart, Fauré, among many, many others.  By the time I was out of high school and singing in choirs, though, all of that was passé, and we were singing music best described as “liturgical folk songs.”  Not that they were real folk songs.  They were songs composed in what their composers fondly imagined to be folk style.  For a lover of classical music like me, this was sheer torture, and I think I never felt more like a stranger than when I was trying to make Catholic choirs work for me.

Even the Glee Club:  High school is either the best time of your life, or the worst.  For me it was the absolute worst.  The nuns were different from the Dominicans I had grown up with; the girls were from all over the Diocese, all from different parish cultures; the subject matter was of absolutely no interest whatsoever.  (It was an Academic curriculum.  In grade school, I had been encouraged to pursue an Academic curriculum.  In retrospect, I should have gone to a commercial school and taken a Business curriculum, but there’s no way to know that when you’re thirteen.)  The only thing high school had going for it was Glee Club – and I didn’t even pass the audition the first time I sang for it. (I’m sure the sprained ankle didn’t help.)  The second time was the charm, and for the last two years of high school, Glee Club was the highlight of the week.

I learned so much about proper singing in Glee Club:  How to open your mouth wide, how to make a sound chamber out of it, how to pronounce words so that they could be understood by an audience – singing diction feels ridiculous, but if you sing the way you speak, you swallow half the sound – correct posture to open up the lungs, breathing from the diaphragm to increase your breath capacity, things that were reiterated in every subsequent choir I sang with.  My overall high-school education was worth very little; Glee Club taught me everything I’ve ever really used in life.  But it was probably the strangest of all the strange lands I’ve sung in.

The Psalm “By the waters of Babylon” is, at its root, a song of exiles, a song written for people who are in a place utterly foreign to them, with strange customs and a strange language, and a way of life so strange that the people who have been taken captive can’t even sing when requested to do so by their captors.  I wonder how many of us feel that way at different times in our lives, looking around and saying, “I absolutely do not belong here, and I have no idea how to get where I do belong.”  I’ve felt that way for most of my life.

Except when I’m in a Russian Orthodox church.  Many Russian churches do use English in their Liturgies, but many others still use Church Slavonic (best described as “Church Russian”).  If you’re in a parish that uses Church Slavonic, the music will be written in the Russian language, an alphabet derived from Greek.  It will not in any way resemble Byzantine chant, but it’s also different from the music common to Western churches, even from the classical music that used to be such a common experience in the Catholic Church.  It’s…mystical.  It makes you think, “This must be what heaven sounds like.”

And when I sing it – I’m no longer in a strange land.  I’m home.

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For nearly twenty years now, I have kept track of my life with one of those time-management systems (Franklin-Covey, to be exact).  I like being able to track how I spent my days, and there are other components to this system, such as tracking money, auto servicing, and projects, that I haven’t found anywhere else.  I like, too, that it’s a two-page-per-day system; I can keep track of appointments and Things to Do on one page, and on the facing page, make notes about those appointments, or about the events of my life.  (I could wish that the Appointment section were less detailed – I can think of other things to put in that space – but that’s just me.)

One of the lesser benefits of this particular system is that each day has a quote at the top of the Notes page.  I say “lesser” because sometimes, those quotes are in direct opposition to my own philosophy of life, and I find myself composing tirades to someone who will never read them, clearly a waste of time.  Today’s quote, however, is the inspiration for today’s post:

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall use my time.” — Jack London

I’m not actually a fan of Jack London’s Survival-of-the-Fittest writings, but this really struck a chord with me.  People who have known me awhile will remember the horrors of my 2006 surgery, about which I will only say, I have not known a day without pain since that time.  (There are blog posts related to it, beginning in August 2006, if you’re curious.)  What sticks with me from that time, though, is the memory of one of the visiting nurses, who, having reviewed my treatment plan, snarkily added, “And were we considering some Lifestyle Changes?”

Now…I’m fat.  I know it.  I’ve been fighting it since before I should have been fighting it, thanks largely to a mother with body-image problems; in my early twenties, I weighed 95 lbs., and she still thought I was fat.  Now I weigh considerably more than that, and there’s no question:  Even by the most generous measurement standards, I’m fat.  I also know that, given the standards of Orthodox eating, it cannot possibly be related to overeating; even if you pig out on vegetables and fruits, how many calories can you possibly be consuming?!  And my own husband, who’s thin as a rail, has had to concede that he doesn’t understand why I am as fat as I am, now that he’s retired and has seen how I eat.

And I’ve gotten The Looks from doctors when I describe Orthodox fasting practices, the ones that say, “Yeah, right, Fatty.”  I’m at the point where I carry an Orthodox pocket calendar and a copy of the fasting guidelines to every medical appointment, and when I whip ’em out, the only possible reaction is the one I get these days:  “Wow, that’s a lotta fasting.”  (It works out to about half a year, give or take a few days.)

So when Nurse Snarky came out with her comment, I made one of the stupidest remarks of my life:  “Don’t even go there.”  Needless to say, the relationship deteriorated from that point on.  Now, though, I know what I should have said:

“Lifestyle changes?!  Oh, yeah, I am so there!  You’re not kidding!  It’s time for some major changes!  And for starters, I’m gonna go back to eating dessert!  Hey, all these years of never having ice cream or a lousy piece of birthday cake have obvioiusly not done me any good at all, so what the heck?!  You only live once, and I’m not gonna live without ice cream anymore!  And exercise?!  Hey, walking a couple miles a day hasn’t done me any good in that regard, either, so you know what?  I’m not gonna waste another second of my valuable time on exercise!  I’m gonna park my butt in my favorite chair and read all the books I’ve been neglecting for exercise, and then I’m gonna stitch my fingers off on all the needlework projects I haven’t been able to get to because of all that stupid walking!  Now, let’s Do It!  Go Lifestyle Changes!”

Not entirely.  I do actually enjoy walking, though not in the current subzero weather (although I understand that the Norwegians say, “There is no bad weather, there is only bad clothing,” in which case, my wardrobe needs a major overhaul).  And dessert was never a part of our diet, anyway.  Not to mention that for at least half the year, ice cream is off limits (no meat, no dairy during fasting periods).

But the point is this.  You can do everything the medical people tell you to do:  eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet, work out religiously, get all the standards checkups and tests, and generally spend your days on various medical appointments.  Or you can decide what’s important for your life, and go out and do it.  And frankly, what’s important for me is not preserving my life at all costs, but living it:  reading those books, working that cross stitch, putting warm woollies on my family’s bodies, and most important of all, maintaining my spiritual life.

This last can, and does, involve long periods of sitting in a car, driving to and from church services; the services are never as long as the total amount of time spent driving.  A doctor would be aghast.  A nurse would think it sheer folly.  But know this:  No matter how much maintenance you put in on your body, eventually it will wear out, and you will die.  The wisest use of your time, therefore, is to spend it on matters eternal, storing up experiences that “neither rust nor moth will consume” (Matthew 6:20), leaving behind a legacy that will follow you into eternity.  In other words:  LIVE.

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What follows is lifted entirely from the blog of an Orthodox Priest (Orthodox Church in America.  And that’s Capital O, as in “Russian Orthodox,” or “Greek Orthodox”).  Father Stephen Freeman has, by now, over a thousand followers of his blog, Glory to God for All Things.  He writes about God, about theology, and about God’s presence in daily life, in a manner completely comprehensible; yet he manages never to “talk down” to his audience.  What he wrote here struck me so particularly that I asked for permission to repost it here.

Beginning The Song of God, by Father Stephen Freeman:

Man is a musical composition, a wonderfully written hymn to powerful creative activity. – St. Gregory of Nyssa (PG 44, 441 B)

In St. Gregory’s thought,  man is not only a singer, but a song. We are not only song, but the song of God. Indeed within one theme of the fathers, all of creation is the song of God, spoken (or sung) into existence. “Let there be light,” is more than the voice of command: it is the uttering of a phrase that sets the universe as fugue. God sings. All of creation sings. The song of praise that arises from creation is offered to God, the Author of all things. It is also the sound of the creation itself, a revelation of the truth of its being. Music is not entertainment: rightly sung, it is the very heart of creation.

The angels within Isaiah’s vision (chapter 6) call to one another in the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O Lord God of Hosts….” The song of one calls forth the song of the other. Worship is the offering of our whole being, calling forth the song of all creation in union with the song which God Himself sings.

To understand oneself as the song of God, a phrase within His hymn of creation, affirms both our uniqueness as well as our union with the whole. Our prayer, our worship, our lives, are an offering of the song that God Himself has breathed.

Our habits of thought provide ways in which we conceive ourselves. It strikes me as worth noting that our modern concept of human existence has minimized the role of music. Music is something that we do, an industry by which we make money. It is an instrument for the glorification of egos. Music is distorted.

At the same time our culture has made music into a vast financial industry, people have themselves become less musical. The ability to play an instrument (other than air-guitar) has declined deeply. Music programs within schools are considered too expensive to fund. The number of young persons with no formal training or experience in music continues to rise. People rarely sing together (a once universal custom prior to modernity) except in the most structured environments. “Folk” music (the peoples’ music) is rapidly disappearing (these things are perhaps more true of America than Europe).

I would never predict a disappearance of music – for human beings are a song and the song will not disappear. But to live in a manner that is alienated from ourselves as the song of God is to live with an existential emptiness. If man is a singer, then he must sing – and he must sing to God.

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NaBloPoMo prompt from January 6:  “Do you wish the start of the year was in a different season?  Which one?”  Better late than never, I suppose.  (Note that the grammatical error “was” is a quote from NaBloPoMo.  In case anyone from that organization happens to see this blog, the act of wishing takes the subjunctive mood, which in this case would lead to one’s wishing that the start of the year were in a different season — as in, “I wish it were in September — but it’s not.”)

In liturgical Western churches, the First Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church Year; in the Orthodox Church, it’s the first of September.  (The Jewish calendar also begins the year in September, but on a different date.)  Many, many years ago, when the thought of becoming Orthodox was little more than the Impossible Dream, I picked up Knitter’s Almanac, by the incomparable Elizabeth Zimmermann.  This was a calendar of knitting projects, one or two per month, that covered the span of a year in a most chatty and engaging way.  I was relatively new to knitting then, and hers was the first book I had ever seen that encouraged “thinking knitting,” i.e., not knitting from a pattern but according to one’s own designs and whims.  Wow.  It certainly changed my life.

But I digress.  The first words for September were, “September is the logical beginning of the year.  Summer heat is nearly past, the weather begins to brisken up [sic], schools open their doors to siphon our beloved young out of the house for longer or shorter periods…”  At the time I thought, “She has a point.”  Nowadays, I think she was prescient.  September is the logical beginning of the year.  If summer heat isn’t quite past – in New York, it isn’t past until the middle of October – there is certainly a busier quality to the days of September.  It isn’t only the weather that “briskens up”; the indolence of the summer disappears as if on a wisp of wind, and the human brain stirs itself, as EZ put it, “… adult activity starts to stir, and Mother forms good resolutions and makes lists.”  And not only Mother; those first few days of school are so wonderfully New.  New notebooks, new pencils, new teacher, new subjects to master (or not), sometimes new classmates – it really does feel like a rebirth of daily life.  Even as a mother of school-age children, I could feel the newness of the year.

So why does the New Year fall in January?  It makes no sense.  I could see if people needed a little pick-me-up to get them through the dreariest time of the year, though even then, most younger folk I know welcome winter as its own sporting season (“Think Ski!”), and geezers like me are relieved to have an excuse to sit in a sunny window with books and crosswords and Sudoku, to which I have recently become addicted.  But even without these charms of winter, isn’t Christmas enough of a blood-stirrer to provide you with a sense of jollity and celebration?  Even atheists celebrate something at Christmastime; they must, or we wouldn’t be afflicted with the annual silliness of whether or not to put up public Nativity displays.  Like it or not, that Nativity scene is what Christmas is all about; if you don’t like it, don’t celebrate it.

But since such a large part of the world does celebrate it, in one form or another, I think we should abolish January 1 as the beginning of the year, and go with “the logical beginning” – September.  Perhaps that way, we could return to the custom of celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, from 25 December through to 6 January.  Or, in the case of Orthodox Old Calendarists, from 7 January through to 19 January.  Or, in one particular case (my own), with both an Orthodox Old Calendarist and a Western Christian in the house, from 25 December to 19 January.  Twenty-four days of Christmas!  Talk about Party Hearty!

Post Scriptum:  I would consider myself a disgrace to the world of knitting if I did not direct readers to Elizabeth Zimmermann’s most lasting legacy:  Schoolhouse Press, purveyor of wonderful wools, esoteric knitting tools, enough knitting books to begin a small library, and the incomparable wit and wisdom of the doyenne of the knitting world.  It’s usual, among Orthodox, to greet news of someone’s passing with the words, “May their memory be eternal!” but in EZ’s case, I think her name will last as long as there are knitters in the world; not just her memory, but her work, lives on.

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Oh, yeah, I just realized — the NaBloPoMo theme for this month is Beginnings.  NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month.  I blew it off for most of last year, mostly because it was so difficult to get online, with one computer and a retired husband; and given that the same conditions still exist, I’m not sure how much more blogging I will be able to do this year, either.  But I try, I do try.

“Beginnings” is a natural theme for January.  The start of a whole new year, the whole feeling of newness and Endless Possibilities (something of a joke in our family:  this was one of my mother-in-law’s favorite phrases, when my husband was young and had his whole future before him)…  December is so Last Year.

The problem is that at my time of life, Beginnings are harder and harder to come by.  They begin to look more like Retreads.  I was just watching one of the interminable political ads last night, this one for Mitt Romney, in which he referred to the current occupant of the White House as “this pessimistic President,” and my first thought was, “Jimmy Carter?”  Nothing new under the sun.

The other thing you become increasingly aware of, is that the only true fresh Beginning is the moment of conception.  One second there’s nothing, and the next — the future of the world has begun, two cells multiplying into four, into eight, into sixteen, and so on, truly the future of the world, for who among us can know what impact this new life will have on its family, its neighborhood, its community, and maybe even the world?  Could George Washington’s parents have predicted their son’s impact?  (Not to mention the more notorious, not to say heinous, members of the human race…)

Other than that, though, all Beginnings are preceded by Endings.  The accepted beginning of new life is the end of a pregnancy.  The beginning of school is the end of total dependency on the parents.  The beginning of a career is an end to school, though hopefully not to education.  The beginning of a marriage is the end of the Self; no matter how long you are married, the person you married has an indelible impact on you, as you do on that person, and the Self cannot be the same person it would have been if it had remained single.

Every Beginning is preceded by an End.  And every ending heralds a new beginning, including the end of Life As We Know It, to crib a phrase from Star Trek.  I feel so sorry for people who don’t believe in eternity.  What, just because you don’t know anybody who’s been there and back, it doesn’t exist?!  Where would we all be if Columbus had felt the same way?!  Still thinking the earth was flat, among other things.  Not to mention the notion of Cosmic Justice:  People who get away with murdering millions of innocent souls shouldn’t be able just to die in their beds in peace, to put the thing at its crassest level.

Like most people, I’m a little nervous about the Ending, and not all that sure about what the Beginning will look like.  But I am confident in its advent, and full of hope for the future.

There, now I’ve done my NaBloPoMo duty.  We now return you to your irregularly scheduled program.

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