Monday, 3 December 2007

Blog of a nobody

No, my friends, I am not suffering from an attack of 'bad self-esteem.' I must use that disclaimer because, in these Internet days, lots of nut cases who are into pop psychology send me condescending email that makes me laugh... or, on a day when I am irritable (all too common in cold weather) send back somewhat sarcastic responses. How well I remember when a wry entry I wrote on a forum, in which I explored the humour of how different upper class Anglican coffee hours are from Italian Franciscan churches, prompted a response from a (clearly rather bent) woman, totally unknown to me, who had decided that I suffered from "imagined slights." She proceeded to write about two reams telling me all about her "journey with Prozac." For once, I had the good taste not to respond that such a self-absorbed, weird rambling - not to mention the inability to understand humour - showed me, all too well, that, wherever the "journey" took her, it clearly was not to anything resembling health.

"Blog of a nobody" was a game which lasted briefly on a forum on which I participated, where many entries were clever and funny. Recently, one bit of correspondence I received (from a sincere little soul who apparently reads only the titles on my Internet site essays... she asked me to send her a blessing for her Book of Shadows) enquired about why my blog is purely on spiritual matters and the like. She wanted to know why I don't share day to day happenings in my life.

Well, the fact is that self-absorption is not exactly my style, and that I do not have the sort of life of which details would be particularly exciting. However, I shall add this single entry, in the style of the short-lived "Blog of Nobody Game," which actually records some of what has happened in my life these past few weeks. I am sure those curious about my everyday life will be satisfied with this sampler and ask for no more. :) (Many bloggers who write details of their lives use no pronouns to begin sentences - so, in cases where I did not, please do not think I've snapped and become illiterate.)

  • It was a cold and stormy day, and I had just exited from the library. I ate my packed lunch (tuna and a few tiny tomatoes which I got on sale) in the frigid park. Was joined by a homeless man who mistook me for a Daisy O'Leary who taught him when he was a school boy. The cold make me shiver - I threw my scarf over my face - and, for a brief moment, thought my nose had fallen off.

  • The cat was talking very fluently one evening - and, when she says more than two 'words' at a time, she always is telling me something. Unfortunately, for all my extensive language studies, I never learnt Cattish. Walked into the kitchen to find that the people upstairs had a leak, from the back of their sink (thank heavens.. it could have been worse), and that water was pouring through a new hole in my ceiling. Exercised my wonderful mechanical abilities trying to plug the ceiling with mailing tape.

  • Awakened to find that ceilings cannot be fixed with mailing tape. Tried a towel.

  • Went to the gym. Decided to have some time in the 'spa', then a sauna, before the class I like. Settled in the sauna, feeling rather like a spoilt princess, and began massaging my Rubenesque self with what's left of my aromatherapy products. Suddenly was interrupted by a gym staff member - a pipe was leaking from their ceiling (lots of that going around, I suppose...), and all ladies had to exit the locker room area, because a repairman was on his way in to fix the hole. Wrapped towel about myself and dressed behind a small curtain which usually hides the scale. Dropped my glasses - lens fell out - searched for someone with good eyesight to find the lens - raced to optometrist to get the lens stuck back in - realised that the surest way to feel like a living icicle is to race out in the cold when one has just been in a jacuzzi and sauna.

  • Attended the gym class. One exercise, performed sitting, was "knees to the chest and upright row!" Discovered that one advantage to entering the High Middle Ages (of one's life...) is that placing the knees to the chest becomes quite easy, because one's chest is now hanging practically to one's knees...

  • Needed a few grocery items. I went to a grocery store in the car. Found that the windscreen wipers refused to shut off, no matter how I fiddled with the controls - which was puzzling since I'd not turned them on in the first place. Realised there must be a short in the electrical system. Burst into tears, because I'd specifically petitioned God last night that I have no unexpected expenses for a few months.

  • Intended to settle down with a warm blanket, a Dickens novel, and a cup of strong Earl Grey tea. Entered the flat to find that the cat was throwing up.

  • Began to make notes for an essay on John Duns Scotus for the Internet site. Realised I was already behind in my philosophy of religion studies. Stood in the sitting room and delivered an imaginary lecture in which I refuted Richard Dawkins to thunderous applause. (That's often how I teach myself a concept. My cat has an excellent theological education - I'm going to have her write the first textbook on the subject in Cattish.)

  • Went to a wonderful church service for the beginning of Advent. The first hymn was a great favourite of mine, "Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending." Hoped I could have the joy of singing out. Found that no sound was coming out of my throat, probably because I'd had a cough drop before the service began.

  • Nearly danced for joy when a dear friend sent me an early Christmas present - a wonderful Byzantine Canterbury cross, in silver. Decided I must wear it the next time I went out. Discovered that I did not have a chain.

  • I was delighted to find some large, delectable looking sausages on sale. Soon discovered the reason for the wonderful price. When I cooked one, I took it from the pan to find that it had shrunk to the size of a sewing needle.

  • Replaced the light bulbs with those which are supposed to save energy. Found that they were adequate, but made it hard to see well enough to thread a needle.

  • Scrubbed the kitchen floor to a fare-thee-well. Got a piece of steel wool in my finger. Soaked it in epsom salts. Phoned a handy acquaintance to ask him to do something about that ceiling. Towel had been ineffective. Reflected on my dad's 'book learning but not ways of the world' theory, since he, for example, would have made sure the ceiling was totally fixed before he scrubbed the floor.

  • Sewed three buttons on to my winter coat. Then took two hours to put up a hem by hand, because I found that using the sewing machine was a physical impossibility with a cat who thinks the needle to be a toy. Refrained from spending the evening taking stitches out of a paw.

  • Thought watching a Christmas film on television (of which I'd never heard... the film, that is, since I know the television for years) would be a pleasant diversion for a romantic like myself who still believes in Father Christmas. Found that the title was misleading - turned it off as soon as I saw it was a dismal script about a young woman who goes into a coma on Christmas Eve. Watched Albert Finney in the musical Scrooge (for which I have the tape) instead. Realised I knew the dialogue by heart.

  • Went to get postage stamps. A young woman holding a tiny poodle was standing before me in the queue. Said poodle was wearing what seemed to be a very elaborate tartan coat, which cried out "please admire my dog." Complimented said dog's taste in coats. Was informed, by the slightly insulted 'owner,' that it was not a coat - it was a dress! Held in laughter. (Note that, in the case of dogs, one can probably say 'owner.' It must be noted that no one owns a cat - the reverse is true.)

  • Happily got out my Christmas decorations from my storage closet. (Quite a feat - I had to move out my paper products and cleaning stuff to do so, and this without knocking over the electronic keyboard and sewing machine. Brief period of mourning for the piano I no longer had room for when I moved.) Had a happy nostalgia trip, remembering how the beloved ornaments (which I've collected for years) brought back wonderful memories. Decided that, since no one is usually here except myself, it would be all right to put up the decorations and enjoy them throughout Advent. Brief period of mourning when I found that one of the Father Christmas statues now had no head.

  • Decided that Pope Benedict's "Eschatology" would make for wonderful Advent reading, and dug out the volume. Became distracted (and it is ultimate humility for me to admit this in public.) Settled on re-reading "A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations." Developed a yearning for smoking bishop - then found I was out of both gin and wine. Pondered why it's so hard to find goose nowadays.

If those of the likes of the Prozac lady have read this far, they may be assured that this is only a sampler. There is much more to my life than this, of course, and much of it is quite wonderful... but it would seem quite banal to many. See my previous entries on the banality of orthopraxy for details.

Blessed Advent, all!

The great-a God! He became-a so small!

No question - Advent is a marvellous season, of anticipation of the parousia and memories of divine promises fulfilled in Christ. Yet I need to be a bit silly today (and, with how cold it is, my brain hasn't thawed out), so I'm sure I'll be forgiven if I 'rerun' a story I mentioned a few years ago. As with all my anecdotes, this one is perfectly true.

Winter blues and loneliness (all the worse knowing that winter has not even started as yet, and the cold is already getting to me) have put a damper on my quickness. I am not ready, at the moment, to write of Israel's expectation, the Incarnation, or the church waiting in joyful hope... though I'll get to it eventually. For the moment, I shall share a memory of my days with the friars.

Father Michael was unusually short and slight, but highly expansive, and his gestures tended to be fit for a man the size of Goliath of Gath. Michael was Italian, and had learnt his English from a woman who had a very high, light voice, whom he imitated a bit too well. Consequently, he spoke English (though not his native tongue) in an extremely squeaky voice. The combination of massive gestures and chirping tones gave a general effect of a jumping-jack in an uncharacteristic brown costume.

Michael's warmth and sincerity were enormous as he reminded his congregation, during an Advent sermon, that this was a time when "we have to thank God for the c-u-u-u-te little-a beby Jesus!" (No, for once that is not a typographical error - I'm trying to truly catch the flavour.) Raising his arms over his head like the risen Messiah, Michael expounded, "The great God!!!" (Hands now at breast height, illustrating the size of an ample newborn.) "He became-a so small!" Michael's sermon continued for a time, with repeated references to the 'great God who became-a so small,' and, though I was biting my lip not to laugh aloud, many of the congregation were moved nearly to tears. (Franciscan theology can be odd at times - but their sermons do stimulate a sense of the vivid.)

I was congratulating myself for not having lapsed into a laughing fit - which would have been most uncomfortable for a highly visible director of music. And all went well until Michael's little voice piped, "Behold-a the lamb of (pronounced 'lay-ma') God!"

I may have retained what little was left of my composure had the friar next to me not whispered, "He became-a so small!"

Saturday, 1 December 2007

What worries me is that I understood what he said...

I cannot remember where I first read this very apt item: "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant." How very true that is, and frequently. People often finish others' sentences (convinced that the person to whom they didn't listen said this or that); assume what another must be thinking or feeling, and mentally 'finish the sentence'; pick up on key words and respond as if they were some online FAQ.

Yet there are other times when I am quite amused because, for all that I think murdering the English language should be all but a capital offence, I know what someone did say... and worry only because I do know what they meant. (Please bear with me - I just took a shot at the language, albeit not death-dealing, by using the 'quasi singular,' but I'm so tired of having to write "he or she" all the time that it's more restful.)

I'm smiling in remembrance of such conversations as those I shall whimsically recall here (all of which are perfectly true.) For example, John, one of my old friends, sometimes had others comment that his parents were quite 'on the September side' to have sons who at the time were still under 30. John's mother had been married young, but was thought to be sterile, and it was ten years before she conceived a child - then, surprisingly enough, her second son was born only a year after the first. Once, when someone asked John if his parents had married late, he said they actually had been married for years when the firstborn (his brother Ray) arrived. As John put it, "They didn't think my mother could have children - and, after she had Ray, they were sure."

Now, this, taken literally, makes about as much sense as the much-quoted Yogi Berra's saying "it's not over till it's over," or "that restaurant is so crowded that nobody goes there any more." But, admit it, you know what John meant as well! (One Christmas Eve, when John was going to his parents' house for dinner, my sister accompanied him. His parents were feeling a loss, because their dog had died only a week earlier. John told me, with great sincerity, "I'm so glad your sister is coming - my mother and father miss the dog terribly." Whether a plate of dog biscuits was presented to her when she arrived I never did ask.)

Here's another gem - again from an actual conversation:
"Andy, is Tony J. dead?"
"You know why I'm asking - I saw him the other day."

That I perfectly understood that one probably means I'm even worse off than I thought.

Given the nature of the person, I naturally have to include a liturgical example. I know how to play a guitar, so I often had the penance (then, I'm sure, supposed to be a privilege) or performing at 'folk Masses' during the 1970s. Remember the favourite "Hear, O Lord"? The first verse was "Every night before I sleep I pray my soul to take. Or else I pray that loneliness is gone when I awake." Many people were quite moved by the lyrics, and indeed "Hear, O Lord" was a very popular request. Yet, were one to take a second (or even hard first) glance at the lyrics, it does seem strange that anyone would be praying to die tonight, and see this as preferable to being lonely tomorrow.

I rant about busybodies on the Internet often enough, so I'll just caution those in truly pastoral roles to be very careful about 'filling in the blanks' thinking they know what people mean or should mean - much less picking up on 'key words' and making up the rest. But I had a very true reflection which has its tragic-comic elements.

Certainly, many fields (for example, medicine, law, or other sciences) have very specific terminology which has a totally different meaning in the vernacular. The theological realm is no exception! (I read an Internet thread, on a theology forum, about 'nominalism,' and jumped in, thinking someone was just about to refute William of Ockham. I had to read half a thread before I realised that no participant up to that point had any idea of what nominalism is. The original post on the thread was about people who are churchgoers but not otherwise avid Christians, so they are purely 'nominalists.') It is hard to find a balance between necessary precision and misunderstanding.

I'm thinking of Walter Hilton for a moment. (Well, why not? He had some excellent ideas - and it's highly unlikely that anyone else is thinking about him at the moment - but you can find some information about him in the link in the title if you wish.) He not only had to deal with confusion in English terms which have a different meaning in the vernacular than academically, but was the first to write a book about theology in English. One might assume that it would be simpler to write in his own native tongue than in Latin (though a civil and canon lawyer would have used Latin constantly), but it actually presented significant difficulties. There are many theological terms in Latin (or Greek - in fact, the latter even more so... ask anyone who was dealing with Athanasius or the crises that can come from an iota) which have a very precise meaning. The English equivalent word may differ, in nuance if not in specific meaning, and there often is no precise equivalent at all.

I'm not suggesting no one realises this. The trouble is that too many of those who do, rather than explaining a term, 'dumb down' what they are saying as if the hearers were incapable of understanding. And those who have true gifts for explaining are often discouraged... because those who just like to hear themselves talk will interrupt, say, a talk on Pope Benedict's brilliant "Eschatology" with a question about how one will recognise the end times...