Saturday, 22 August 2009

How I do hate contests!

There must be interesting, enjoyable people left in this world - no self absorption, health obsessions and the like - the sort of whom I knew a few in my younger days, and still keep hoping to meet now. Yet, the more I observe, the more I realise that my relative solitude probably has more advantages than enhancing my prayer life. I walk anywhere that I can, but otherwise use public transit, and one overhears much (however unintentionally) on buses and trains, or on platforms. This, coupled with my extensive experience with volunteering, churches, and the like, leads me to believe that I'm actually not missing much - except aggravation. (Yes, the wryness tag is on in this post - but I doubt I'm far from the truth.)

Many women seem to never have evolved past, I assume, the days of Neanderthal man, when survival must have depended on being the one to attract the male and being dragged off by the hair. (Please note that I said 'many,' by no means 'all.' As well, though most of my truly close friends throughout my life have been men, I am not suggesting men are incapable of indulging in unhealthy, artificial competitions. I cannot comment on those because I cannot know what men discuss when only other men are present.) The competition extends to all areas. Any good word heard about another requires a 'put down' of some sort.

This past week, I was in the 'couldn't help but overhear' position, and heard the chattering of three teen-aged girls. (I'm sorry to say they weren't giggling, sharing pleasant anecdotes, or talking about boys.) Apparently they were discussing results of some sort of standardised test. One of the girls, who seemed quieter than the others, mentioned that she'd feared the outcome, but ended up getting a 97 percentile. Immediately, a second, who had a somewhat haughty tone, replied, "That's very nice... I was a 99." The third (who surely deserves applause for accomplishing what is impossible - there is no such thing as a '100 percentile' on such tests) had to throw in, "In my case, they had to give me a hundred because it was the first time ever that anyone had a completely perfect score." How charming. Perhaps she can spend the next week creating another cosmos, since this one is surely defective...

I assuredly am not disapproving of tests, exams, awards and the like - unless, of course, they are in the hands of teachers such as a few I had, who love to tear down the best students by giving them poor grades because the students who accomplished less 'must have worked harder.' (Talent, intelligence, and so forth indeed may be things to which one is naturally inclined, but since when is knowledge infused? Yet I myself have memories of poor grades, not because of lack of ability or effort, but because, for example, rehearsing an oral presentation until one knows it backwards and forwards will make some teachers assume that speaking without note cards means one made up the talk on the spot...) The contest I loathe is that, once one student mentioned a score, the others had to top her.

Such approaches have endless variations. I knew a (very) few wealthy people in my day - if Anne's house is more beautiful than Jane's, Jane has to apply for an award for being more frugal. If an artist has a painting chosen for the national gallery, those hearing of this will comment disparagingly about how 'it must be nice to have time to paint.' I'm sure you all get the picture. Lest anyone think me sexist, Cain and Abel did a good job of illustrating the point in Genesis.

For those with the traits I have described, any good in others has to be dismissed in a disparaging fashion - as if it were an insult to one's self.

I think I know what I'll do for lectio divina this weekend. I can re-read James Alison's brilliant treatment of original sin - as envy and scapegoating - and how envy is a form of idolatry.

Monday, 17 August 2009

The seven deadly virtues - and pitfalls of the vernacular

My readers must be cautioned that I am rather irritable lately. In another of my characteristic, loose associations, I am recalling how my father, Sam (who died in 1997 - his statistics would undoubtedly be worse yet now), said for years that "seven out of ten people walking around are nuts." In the later years of his life, he modified this statement to "twelve out of ten are nuts - it went up." If I may be forgiven by those more adept at mathematics, I have found that Sam was quite correct - both times.

I once had a reader of the blog comment that my posts are not 'personal' enough. As I stated in my last post, I am one much to enjoy the things of the world, and highly sensual in my way, so I may not meet any common definition of 'ascetic.' Yet I indeed embraced ascetic theology - which is based on keeping things in perspective and avoiding distractions to prayer or love of God and neighbour, not on hair shirts or the cilice immortalised in Dan Brown's novels. Since true asceticism has an element of self forgetfulness - which I am far from attaining, but admire from afar nonetheless - the topic of my blog is not the very ordinary 'me.' I use anecdotes from my own experience to illustrate points, but hardly think anyone wants to know every last detail of my days.

However, if some of you 'want personal,' I'll share a series of irritating coincidences from the past few weeks. They underline traits I've seen bud, then flower, then smell like a florist shop full of dead roses, within the past thirty years or so - and they got worse the more the Internet 'self help groups' and traffic on 'self help aisles' increased. Self absorption - and that to an extent which seems to underline a total lack of the transcendental or the awareness that others are on the planet - is rampant. For reasons I've never discovered, even if I observe the manifestations regularly, many people have become both nagging busybodies and totally defensive.

I'll not go into details about the few people I met by chance in recent weeks - but it makes me wonder if being a virtual solitary might not be a blessing in more ways than those I already recognised. To give only one example, when one lady asked me about a local restaurant, and I replied that I'd never been there (meaning I therefore had no idea of their quality and the like), she lapsed into a defence as if I'd condemned dining out, and assured me that she never eats out and always brought a packed lunch all the years she was employed. I've studied logic in many varieties, but still am trying to grasp why my never having been to a particular eating spot is a general condemnation of dining out (which I love, by the way.) With my having, as Sam would say, 'book learning but not the ways of the world,' I honestly but idiotically said that I dine out rarely only because I am of limited income. Wrong move! The next question was "then what did you pay for that perm?" (Huh?... Oh, yes. I keep forgetting, having had it from birth, that no one has naturally curly hair...)

That's only one of numerous examples - and I chose it because, being silly, it is harmless. But those with whom I had this pattern of defensive talk were getting me wound into a knot! I was not criticising them or anyone, but it seemed every word I said led to a defence.

Of course, much as I pine for a pulpit or lectern from which to lecture, this jarred memories of how the 'defence mode,' often one with elements of rage that puzzle me, can thwart the best efforts to speak of ascetic theology, church history, even liturgy. That's a huge area to treat, so I'll just use the virtues as an example today. (...groaning at how moral and ascetic theology offend some on principle, because it proves elitism in assuming that mankind is somehow superior to non-human animals... )

There's nothing new, of course, in that theological terms can be confusing for two major reasons. First, as is true in many fields, frequently a term which has a specific meaning in theological or philosophical use can have a drastically different sense in vernacular usage. Second, even those who should have known what the term really meant twisted the meaning! I well remember when a prominent (and verbose) parishioner complained when a brilliant preacher whom I know mentioned Jesus' humility. I would not have expected a protest - I had expected that Jesus might be assumed to be perfect in all virtues... But the outraged loud-mouth seemed to be confusing the true meaning of humility (truth... and, I must add, seeing ourselves as we are in the sight of God - which, considering the deification we have through Jesus' Incarnation, is rather glorified indeed) with self abasement or being worthy of horrid humiliation (...He indeed did have that in the crucifixion, but I'll save that for another time. It isn't the meaning of humility.)

I was telling a friend recently (in a conversation that had a larger context - it is not that I use social occasions to preach!) that I myself have always struggled with envy. (My 'regulars' will know how brilliant I thought James Alison's treatment of that topic to be.) I meant it in a different sense than my friend saw - she was in a professional group where women are encouraged to 'envy' of another sort, because wanting to achieve what others have can motivate them to accomplishment.

It seems to me that any virtue one mentions today could lead to someone's being enraged. I sadly remember the 'workshops,' articles, rallies, whatever, that spurred women to consider rage to be a virtue back in the 1970s - when belligerent 'assertiveness training' meant biting off someone's head to prove one could not be belittled. One who had dedicated her life to loving service was suddenly informed she had been an indentured servant. Missionaries in what now would be called the third world were horrid sorts who imposed an alien culture by bringing the message of Christ.

I know the meaning of anger, believe me! And I've bit my lip at sexism on many occasions (not because I fear talking, which I'm sure is obvious, but because I don't want to say things I'll later regret.) Yet injustice can poison us - as can hearing something which has an element of truth, perhaps, but is highly exaggerated. We can start to believe it is true if the presenter is persuasive enough.

Think of all of the names of the virtues... and I'll not even need to explain why these glorious gifts all would be considered offensive by someone or other today.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Silly blog entry - referencing a silly film

The link in the title of this post is to a previous blog entry about the film Doubt, in case anyone else here is a fan of Meryl Streep's. My comments on "Julie and Julia," where Meryl's portrayal of Julia Child is hilarious, are from a viewpoint that this is her true 'camp role.' Unlike some others, I saw "Doubt" as being very far from camp.

Be forewarned, my friends, that I have a genetic pre-disposition to odd reactions to the arts at times. I well remember when my nephew, Christopher, was a child, and had quite an extensive video library, parts of which he brought when visiting my mother (Chip.) Chip is surely the only person in history to see "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" as tragedy to make one shudder. She told me for months afterwards that the image of the little boy (the size of, perhaps, a pencil point) in cereal, calling out, "Dad! Don't eat me!" upset her terribly. (Christopher must have inherited a bit of that. As an infant, he burst into tears at the ridiculous parody, "On Top of Spaghetti, all covered with cheese, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed...," picturing that the little boy had nothing to eat.)

You therefore will understand that I am the only creature on the planet who cried a bit during "Julie and Julia," as I shall explain in a moment. Normally, loving cinema as I do, my preference is for high quality dramas - and J & J is very far from that category. Now and then, I do enjoy seeing exceptional dramatic actors in the uncharacteristic, silly comedy role. Meryl Streep must be one of the greatest film actresses alive, and I had the impression she was having the time of her life with her over the top, bumbling, dotty depiction of Julia Child. Julie (the Amy Adams character - portrayed in the film in a more appealing manner than one would expect from what I read of the 'real blog') is someone I felt I'd like to shake by the shoulders (the ultimate whinge bag - self centred as many people, excepting myself and Fr Gregory of course, who compose blogs tend to be). It actually is a very funny film - light fare, for pure entertainment - nice for unwinding.

I actually know next to nothing of Julia Child, but, at least as she is portrayed here, I could identify with some of her traits even though our life circumstances are drastically different. Julia seemed one who totally enjoyed every pleasure which would come her way, relishing the wonderful food and wine, maintaining a wonderful flat with the delightful French d├ęcor which happens to be my favourite decorating scheme, and showing a refreshing joy (rarely shown on screen among those in middle age or beyond) in her late marriage - this couple obviously delight in each other's company, in the bed and anywhere else. I think it is a great blessing to enjoy whatever pleasures the earth has to offer, and I myself am utterly sensual. Modest though my own means are (and always were), I'm surrounded by music, incense and candles (no, not just those - I meant aromatherapy products), memorabilia from every era.

I love to cook, and French cuisine is a great favourite of mine. Whether this is the case I cannot be sure, but I've always wondered if part of the ingenuity that makes French cooking wonderful is that, since France was often racked by famine and war, they had a unique gift for maintaining quality, in whatever way possible, despite deprivation. Good French cooking may mean very little on the plate at times, but the seasoning and sauces cannot be topped. (Yes, I've spent my share of time in France, and am not suggesting this is always the case... I adore French cheeses, but know what can crawl out of some of them in more remote areas... ) I have many happy memories of my time in France.

My mother was a dreadful cook - she didn't know the meaning of 'seasoning,' preferred soggy pasta, and had the most unvarying of unvarying diets short of that of the Trappists. (She was tiny but had a huge appetite, and could finish an entire loaf of bread in a sitting, but had no flair for flavour. It's interesting that both my grandmothers, though they were illiterate, were inventive and very fine cooks.) When my parents were alive, it was no sense my preparing dishes for them - Chip just wanted her soggy pasta and bread, and Sam, probably used to everything being horribly bland, thought that adding anything to food, including herbs, was 'wasting.' Yet, as I demonstrated best when I cooked for the homeless (when what is on the table often depends on donations, and cannot be planned), but also work on daily in my own kitchen, things being scarce doesn't mean they cannot be delightful. I can turn anything on hand into a decent meal.

Now, you must wonder why I was crying during a humorous film with an engaging main character. It is because of the lack of the simple pleasures I love and long to share. It matters little that, when I am alone, I still can make a semi-gourmet meal from a minute steak and some tired looking fresh vegetables - and that I relish cheap wine and espresso. I want the other element - the fun, social aspect - the delectable, varied conversations - and that I do lack.

Some of the humour in "J & J" is built around references to butter. (I'd applaud anyone who, as Julia does here, could flip an omelette on national television, have it break apart, and be not at all flustered as she scoops the broken part from the stove top and tosses it back into the pan.) I have found that it is amazing how much a spoonful of butter can add to the flavour of any dish... but so much for that today. Even a spoonful in the entire recipe would mean that dinner guests, if one could find them, would not take a mouthful in their terror of cholesterol. It seems the only 'safe' things to offer people today is water and plain greens, with perhaps a forkful of pasta - and even that might lead to protests that the harvesting of the greens was unfair to migrant workers or something.

I wept because I take such joy in beauty - of every pleasure of sight, sound, taste and so forth - and savouring these things often (I'm not exaggerating) is an act of worship and gratitude for me. (That loud noise you just heard was the Calvinists leaving the room... I hope the Jansenists are following. And thrift is not a virtue - so there! I'm frugal because I must be. Rich kid Francesco found freedom in holy poverty, but still danced for joy.) I wish I could share such pleasures. My generation are so terrified of illness and death (even if they are in the best of health, and might live for another thirty years) that every sensual pleasure is gone. Not only because one fears becoming ill, but because one wants to avoid the comments of others around them!

Pass me the butter, the wine, and a nice piece of Brie, please... The best part of holy poverty is that, though one has little, one relishes everything one has.