Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Piano, by Patrick Phillips

by Patrick Phillips

Touched by your goodness, I am like
that grand piano we found one night on Willoughby
that someone had smashed and somehow
heaved through an open window.

And you might think by this I mean I'm broken
or abandoned, or unloved. Truth is, I don't 
know exactly what I am, any more
than the wreckage in the alley knows
it's a piano, filling with trash and yellow leaves.

Maybe I'm all that's left of what I was.
But touching me, I know, you are the good
breeze blowing across its rusted strings.

What would you call that feeling when the wood,
even with its cracked harp, starts to sing? 

"Piano" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © The University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Lenten Failure

Again, I am failing at Lent 101.  Does the choir director attend all the services? No. Does the choir director attend most of the services? No. The choir director missed every service except Sunday liturgies, Saturday vespers (when they are held in my parish), and one Presanctified Liturgy. My excuse is that I work so many hours, which is true, and that the traffic is so awful that by the time I get out of work, there is no way I can get to the weeknight services, which is also true.  Have I fasted from meat, poultry and dairy? Not every day, not every category. Fail.  Have I given alms? Nope. I passed by two beggars yesterday alone. Fail.  How am I coming with my plan to read the Ladder this year?  Zero pages read. Fail. How about my plan to do some iconography. Zero iconography accomplished. Fail.  How about my plan to maintain my home in some sort of order so that I can devote more time to spiritual pursuits? Fail. Messy and dirty house, messy and dirty soul. How about my plan to pray more, obsess less, be kinder, maintain serenity, achieve balance? Fail FAIL FAIL FAIL.

As I look ahead to Pascha, I know that I will be absent from my parish from the last Sunday of Lent until Holy Wednesday, as I visit my daughter to assist her during her recuperation from major surgery. As the choir director, that means I must ensure that all the rehearsing must be completed before I leave.  Must make a definite plan on how to accomplish that.  I must also ensure that the Bridegroom, Holy Thursday Vesperal Liturgy and Holy Friday Matins books are set up properly before I leave.  I can deal with other books and music when I get home if I don't get it accomplished prior to my leave.

I must also complete the two processional icons for Neil so that his son has a couple of weeks to fashion the poles to carry them prior to Pascha. One is nearly finished, the other not so much.

I must figure out what I'm taking to SF, what will be in the carry on, what food I will take (hate airport food), etc. There is no tv at her house, so I will need handwork (knitting), fully loaded kindle, extra cords, etc.  Must ensure there is plenty of the bison food, eyedrops, benadryl, lotion, etc for Poochie while he stays with Cindy, and plenty of kibble for the cats while I'm gone. Must eat up all the perishables from the fridge.  Must prepare for Paschal food preparation before I leave, or there will not be any kulich or pascha cheese.

I want to find time to do an egg - last year I didn't do any pysanky, and it was the first time in a very long time that happened.

Not enough time for all this. Not enough strength. Too much back and knee pain. Too many hours spent writing decisions off the clock just to maintain. Too much housework created by four shedding and furball vomiting cats and one blind and incontinent dog. Too much. I'm overwhelmed.

It occurs to me that this is exactly what Lent is supposed to be. It is supposed to be a coming to myself, the real self, the self that God created me to be. I cannot do all of this. It is impossible, but what is possible, is for me to be humbled and to gain insight into my own sinful laziness and desire to operate exclusively under my own steam. The old sin of pride in my own competence has gotten me into this pickle, and it simply cannot get me out. Maybe this perfect storm of duties, responsibilities and desires is God's way of giving me a good shake and saying, "DUMBKOFF! WAKE UP! I AM RIGHT HERE AND WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU! LET ME HELP YOU!"

Ya, maybe I should do that.  But how?  It is excruciating when I consider not planning ahead to get necessary things done, and I don't think that is what is meant when they say, Let go and let God.  Maybe it means to do my best and not worry about the rest. Maybe it means to prioritize the most important things, let the rest fall by the wayside, and not beat myself up about what does not get done. Maybe it means to eliminate from the to do list all things which touch on my pride.

As I get older, I realize more and more that I just don't have a good handle on this thing called life, but I do know who does. He doesn't speak to me in ways that I can understand clearly. And maybe that is the highest priority item that I need to work on this Lent.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Life, Pro Life and Pro Lifers

I've been forced to think more closely about what it means to be pro life recently.  As an American, I hold dear the ideals on which my country was formed, taken from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these thruths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As an Orthodox Christian, I must also hold fast to the Word, the Logos, to Christ: what he taught, what he said.  I'm thinking particularly of  Luke 10:25-28:

...a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you live."

But the lawyer, being, well, a lawyer, just had to ask, "Who is my neighbor" to which Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the person who showed mercy to the "other", the one who is "not us" embodied love for neighbor.

I'm also reminded of  1 Corinthians 13 which says, "faith hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love."

Being an Orthodox Christian, I know quite a few people who strongly identify themselves as being pro-life, and they are good people with good intentions. I've been criticized, a lot, for steadfastly resisting identifying myself as pro-life.  I think the pro-life movement was hijacked years ago and should more properly be called pro-birth, or anti-abortion.

I will say it clearly: I think abortion is a terrible thing. I think abortion as a method of birth control is wrong on every level. Women have had abortions throughout history, and whether there are laws making abortion easy to get or hard to get or impossible to get, will make no difference in the fact that abortions will be performed.  I think that there are times when some persons could make a reasonable case to have an abortion, although I personally would not.  I don't think that late term abortions should be allowed, ever. If the baby could live outside the womb, then an abortion should not be performed on demand, ever.  Nowadays that dividing line seems to be somewhere around the 25th week, so there really should be no abortions after that point. Science has shown, though, that in the womb, babies react to stimuli, including pain, as early as 8 weeks after conception. So, when would it be ok to have an abortion? It's a tough call, especially since America is a pluralistic society with no state religion telling us what to think or when life begins. Certainly, the dividing line between abortion on demand and abortion only in limited cases and no abortion should be clearly defined by someone smarter and holier than me, but I guess those three lines should be moved much, much closer to conception than they are presently.

The idea that a woman should be able to do with her body what she wants, without interference, is something I believe in wholeheartedly.   However, when there is another person inside that woman, you are no longer alone in your body, and the choices you make about your body affect another person's body.  When someone is considering whether to have an abortion or to give birth, all persons affected by that choice should have an equal say in that decision, at least in my mind.  That would involve the woman, an advocate for the baby in utero, and the father of the child.  I had some fun with a telemarketer one time who asked me if I believe a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body.  You have to take your fun where you find it.

This all puts me on the conservative side of the pro life issue, but not according to pro-lifers. The reason for that is that I think there is a lot more to being pro-life than just abortion.  If you are pro-life, but you believe in the death penalty, that you are not pro life, you are a hypocrite. If you are pro-life, but have no interest in ensuring that the children you want born have adequate food, housing, clothing, education, and a stable, loving family life, you are not pro-life, you are a hypocrite.  If you think that cutting funding, and therefore services, to the hungry, the poor, the widows, the orphans, the veterans, and all people who comprise that vast group of people known as "them", then you are not pro-life, you are a hypocrite.

I have worked in workforce development for a very long. I'm not totally current on the latest statistics, but I can confidently state that the biggest group of people receiving SNAP benefits are the working poor, not lazy bums trying to milk the system.  These are people who are working, but cannot earn enough money to feed their family. If you support cutting SNAP benefits, then you are not pro-life, you are a hypocrite.

Yes, there are abuses in every program, but these programs help people who are desperate.

There is so much more than just the abortion issue that should represent what it means to be pro-life.

As an American, who really believes in the Declaration of Independence, what does it really mean, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"?  You can't be free, or happy, if one episode of illness puts you into bankruptcy, or if you are making 30% less than someone else for the same work simply because of your gender, or if your boss can fire you at will, or if your wages have been stagnant for the last ten years such that you can no longer pay for food or rent or medications, or if your life saving medications cost thousands of dollars every month...  I could go on and on.

These should be pro-life issues.  Why isn't the pro-life movement talking about these issues? Instead, we have one trick ponies, stridently declaring that abortion is murder and dead babies are a Very Bad Thing, which it is - don't get me wrong - but is that it?  Is that all you've got?

So, when I point this giant chasm between what it means to be anti-abortion and what it means to be pro-life, I am vilified.  Sigh.

It really doesn't matter to me.  My feelings are not hurt when otherwise intelligent and loving people just don't get it and lash out at me. I'm not outraged about it.

I am outraged, however, that babies that have been born die from malnutrition, that children are homeless and hungry, that veterans are homeless and unable to receive the medical care that they deserve and that they were promised, that old people are parked in subpar nursing homes until they die from what can only be called failure to thrive.

I am outraged that Pro Life Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, will march on DC in a couple of weeks carrying an icon of the Theotokos and of Rachel weeping for her children, and then go home and vote for politicians who have already gutted food for hungry people, veterans benefits and other programs that provide life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for poor people.  They vote for these people because they label themselves "conservative" but I posit that they are not conservative at all, but are extremely radical in their social views.

But when I call any of this to the attention of every single pro-lifer I have ever met, I get told that I'm the one who is not pro-life.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Choir Director Report

Choir Director’s Report
It has been at least 6 or 7 years since I gave my first Choir Director's report, maybe more, and each year they are strikingly similar. I usually tell you that we are still expanding our repertoire to accommodate the gifts of the ever changing roster of singers, that we still need singers, and that music is very important in the Orthodox Church. I always say that singing in the choir is a ministry very similar to the ministry of the Deacon, who is a servant dedicated to leading the people in prayer. That's what the choir does, too. I always thank the choir, the readers and our pastor for their hard work and support throughout the year.
I'm taking a different road this year. This year, I want to talk about worship. We Orthodox are a worshipping people. That is what we do. That is who we are. Other flavors of Christianity focus on bible studies and exegesis, on being personally saved, on social justice and equality. As Orthodox, we worship. We worship privately, alone in our prayer closet, and we worship communally at church. One is not better than the other and both are necessary. That is not to say that we don 't also study the bible, encourage a personal relationship with our Lord, or bless others with the gifts we have received. Of course we do! But what sets us apart is the tradition of our worship, the private worship of the individual and the public worship of the community.
Would it surprise you to learn that the Jews in the time of Jesus had a cyclical structure to their worship which had been in place for 1500 years, and that Orthodox Church echoes that structure? Did you know that St. Basil the Great, in the fourth century, considered the hymn, Gladsome Light, which is sung at vespers, to be very old, and the first “true” hymn of the Christian church. The Apostolic Constitutions, which date from the third century, were, in part, a collection of hymns to be sung at different times of the day as a form of worship – to be SUNG.
Our worship is very old, yet it is ever new. There is a pattern to our worship, a rhythm to the feasts and fasts, the cycles of the eight tones, the reading of the hours of the day, the dedication of each day of the week. As each year passes, and the various cycles are repeated, I find that our worship more deeply reveals our Maker and his actions on earth and in heaven. There is real beauty in the cyclical nature of our worship.
There is an old Orthodox saying which is, to sing once, is to pray twice. We all know that one easy way to learn facts, is to set them to music. Somehow, music enlivens the synapses in our brain and connections are made which allow us to remember things. Important things. The same thing with Orthodox music. The marriage of beautiful words of praise and beautiful music is somehow greater than the sum of the parts. This is the work of the people – not just the work of the choir or the readers or the canonarch. The work of the people, the laos. This is how we worship.
When I was young and newly Orthodox, I read every book and was full of hubris. Some things never change, eh? A very old and saintly man named Aristidi Chacho befriended me, and every Monday we would talk about Fr. John's sermon. I would usually talk my head off and Steve would listen. Finally, one day he said to me, “Denise, you're a nice girl, but you don't know nothing.” I was a little taken aback as you can imagine. He went on, “Don't you know that on.. such and such a day, at matins, we sing...” and then he sang something that was precisely on point in our theological discussion. The elderly, unschooled man, was the greatest theologian, and I believe he was a saint. He could hold his own in theological discussions, and often taught others a thing or two, but with such humility. How did he come to this level of knowledge, of understanding, of living out of the gospel? How did he do that?
It's really quite simple. He spent his life in church. He lived the cycles of worship. His life was attuned to various seasons of our worship. He made the time to attend all the various services – he didn't sing, but he listened. He was a great theologian, a great teacher, and a great man, and he is heaven right now completely mortified. Sorry Steve! But I learned something so precious from him, that I want to share with you:
A life spent in church, worshipping God together with your church family, is the greatest gift.
I'm the choir director, and Fr. James has given me the responsibility for all things musical and all the readers. I can't do this awesome job alone, and I can't even attend every service or rehearsal, and neither can anyone else. However, I am guilty of being tired at the end of work day, and I have work and other obligations that sometimes keep me from fulfilliing my ministry. Just like everyone else. However, this coming year, I am going to take Steve Chacho as my model, and try to do better, try to attend more services. At every service throughout the year, the choir is there, maybe not every member, but the choir is there to assist in the celebration of that service.
Did you know that the liturgical day begins at sunset on Saturday, with Vespers? Did you know that Vespers is full of information and teaching about the saint commemorated on Sunday? Come to vespers and learn.
Orthodox, when trying to define dogma, like to say what it is not. This is called apophatic theology and it's uniquely Eastern in mindset. Orthodoxy is not a religion. It's not a list of things that we believe. It's not social system. It's a life. It's life itself. Spent in church. Singing praises to our Our God.
Thank you for listening to me. Thank you to the choir members, the readers, the Deacon and to Fr. James. Thank you to Xenia, my right hand woman, and to Reader Mark, Kat Broberg and Abby Eller for stepping into the void when I was not there.

Come to church. Come and sing praises to our God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King! Sing praises!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Bucket Lists

I read often read a blog written by a young man that has pithy thoughts about what constitutes a good quality of life. Today, he was talking about his bucket list and that got me thinking.

What would my bucket list look like?  What are the criteria?

First, I think they should be achievable.  Let's face it, I will never be an astronaut, or an opera singer, or a ballerina, because the basic physical requirements have always been lacking in this old body. Since I'm nearly retirement age without any real financial cushion, the items should be achievable financially, too, That year-long trip around the world with my daughter and besties which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars will never happen, unless I hit the lottery, and I don't play the lottery, so that is simply not achievable, although more modest travel may be achievable.

Second, I think that the outcome should depend on me and me alone. Somehow, I think my old goal of finding Antonio Banderas naked in the back seat of my car would depend on him cooperating, if you get my drift, and his cooperation is pretty iffy, so that one is getting crossed off my list. Whatever is on my list should really depend on me alone.

I think they should stretch me in some way. To enhance the quality of my life, they should provide me the satisfaction that only comes with a job well done, with doing something that requires some effort, but they should still be achievable. My bucket list shouldn't devolve into a to do list, which is something completely different, at least in my mind. Yes, there are lots of icons I want to paint, sweaters I'm dying to knit, meals I want to cook, home improvements I'm dying to make, but those are part of my to do list, and I know that I can accomplish those.  To be life enhancing, my bucket list needs to provide me with the opportunity to do something new, or rise to a new level of competence, or require some effort.

I'll think some more about the criteria later, but now I'm moving forward to listing a few things that might make my bucket list. I'm nearly sixty. I hope and pray that I will live another 25 years or so.  How do I want to spend those 25 years?  Certainly, how I spent the last 25 years has not born fruit that met my criteria, and the 25 before that were, mostly, exploration.  What do I want to put on my bucket list now?

1. I want to feed my desire to experience new places, new people, new cultures, food and music. To me, this means travel, but my very limited finances will most likely prohibit me from being a world traveler. Maybe I will be able to make one trip that gets me to Europe or the Far East, perhaps to an Orthodox country where I could also study Orthodox music and iconography.  I love to plan, so my first travel goal is to plan this trip and how to make it happen.  The planning alone will be fun.

2. My second travel goal is a more modest one - I love road trips. I can't help it - I'm my father's daughter. I want to obtain a modest rv or trailer that will allow me to travel around the continent in my retirement with my pets, and even provide a full-time home if finances dictate.

3. I want to read the entire Bible at least twice, first, as a work of literature, so that I know all the stories and literary forms. My second pass would be to study it more fully, using the words of the Fathers and other sources so that I understand it with the mind of the Church. Receiving such understanding will surely change my heart in ways I cannot fathom at this point, but I know I'm hungry for such spiritual change.

Other than raising and supporting my daughter, I believe my life's work is as an Orthodox church musician and iconographer. I want to set the bar higher, so that my offerings to the church and the God I love is truly my very best. I think I can do better. I know I can do better.

4. Regarding church music, I need to learn to read enough Slavonic/Russian/Serbian/Greek/Arabic to be able to recognize hymns. This will also assist me in reading iconography texts and identifying saints in icons. I need to improve my musicianship - understanding and applying music theory better will allow me to give better pitches and to set music well. I want to improve my directing - maybe some courses, or better yet, watch and learn from the best choir directors.

5a. Regarding iconography, well, I have wonderful teachers and I want to maintain my very expensive connection with them, and increase it.  I want to maintain my week long iconography camp for the comaraderie and for the shot in the arm that it give me every year, but I also want to study with them one on one. Ksenia offered that to me and I didn't make it happen before she died. I regret that so deeply. Bucket lists are all about having no regrets, and it's important to me that not lose out again, so I want to regularly study with Marek as he has offered to me.  He is such a patient and clear teacher, and I just get a kick out of him, so spending time in his studio with him would be so enjoyable as well as blast me out of the status quo.

5b. I also want to study from time to time with other master iconographers whose work I admire. Dimitry Shkolnik immediately comes to mind, as does Fr. Anthony Salzman, Daniel Neculae and Theodoros Papadopoulos, in addition to studying with my main teachers Marek and Anna.  This year will be my fifth with Marek and Anna, and I realize that a personal style is emerging, and it is less russian than their style.  My style is not truly greek, either, but it is somewhere between the two, and the icons that truly touch me deeply have elements of both styles.  I want to develop and improve as an iconographer, to move beyond copying and tracing, to drawing on the board and letting the saint develop in a more lively  and immediate way.  That relationship of the saint, me and the board is what it's all about. It's time to move beyond tracing and copying.

Well, that's what I came up with this morning. I will revisit my bucket list from time to time to tweak and fine tune it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Love Letter

I'm watching a sweet romantic comedy called The Love Letter. The premise is that a lonely bookstore owner finds an anonymous love letter and how it affects her and others.  The text of the love letter is this:

Dearest, Do you know how much in love with you I am? Did I trip? Did I stumble - lose my balance, graze my knee, graze my heart? I know I'm in love when I see you. I know when I long to see you, I'm on fire. Not a muscle has moved. Leaves hang unruffled by any breeze. The air is still. I have fallen in love without taking a step. You are all wrong for me and I know it, but I can no longer care for my thoughts unless they are thoughts of you. When I am close to you, I feel your hair brush my cheek when it does not. I look away from you sometimes, then I look back. When I tie my shoes, when I peel an orange, when I drive my car, when I lie down each night without you, I remain,

This is not the greatest love letter I've ever read... think Shakespeare's Sonnets, or the drippily sentimental, but still moving, Sonnet 43 from Sonnets from the Portuguese, of "how shall I love thee, let me count the ways" fame.

This little love letter, though, really touches something within me, and awakens some memories that I usually try to keep suppressed. I've truly loved three men in my life. Any one of them could have been forever, but each had a fatal flaw that basically kept them from committing to living in community with anyone.  With me. One, my husband is dead. The other has been lost to time and space, though he did contact me about ten years ago - not truly sure why; maybe he was working a program and needed to make amends, or maybe he was trying to line up the next woman to take care of him.  The third is someone that I see often in my every day life - a beautiful man, who is growing older and is rather needy, but still, has made it clear that he cannot, will not, chooses not to get involved with anyone ever again.

All three were not truly available.  That speaks to something within me, something that I take out of it's box and inspect from time to time, but not tonight.

However, the sweetness of this note from this second rate movie moves me. I am that person. Still. And I am not open to meeting or loving someone else, even though I am lonely, because my heart is caught in a familiar net of longing that will never come true.

Everyone has a need to be known and loved despite their flaws and dark places, to be loved for their true selves. Humans are pack animals - we need and thrive on some degree of companionship. Me too. I'd like to be loved like that, to inspire a letter full of passion and longing.

I will have to be content to say that I've loved like that. Yes, I have.

That's something. Right?

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Endings, Beginnings, and Everything In-Between

I was let a few thousand when my Mom died, and I was determined to not fritter it away, but instead to invest it in some way. I used it as a downpayment on a house which DD and lived in for about four years, and rented the other house out. Long story short - the renter from hell trashed the other house, using up all my dollars to get it fixed, and I had to move back. My lovely new home became a rental. I figured that when I was ready to retire, I could sell one house to pay off the other house, and I could live mortgage free in my old age. Not so. Housing prices crashed, I had run of decent, but semi flaky renters, and ended up putting my lovely little house on the market. Eventually I accepted an offer, and the tragic saga of getting from contract to closing is a tale for a fantasy novel set in a post apocalyptic world.

We closed last night. The proceeds will fund on Monday. I will receive about 10K less than I put down on the house. I'm sad.  I'm sad for a lot of reasons, but one thing keeps nagging at me - my parents were hard working people, children of the Depression, and they scrimped and saved to save a little bit so they would not be a burden on me in their old age, at least financially.  I thought I was doing the same thing, but it didn't turn out the same way.

The sale of this house is, in some ways, the end of an era - the end of my childhood, I think. The worth of that house was, really, my last safety net from my parents, so now I'm walking the tightrope of life without that net.

I am tempted to splurge on a couple of small things with these dollars, but I've decided to fund my safety fund in my savings account, pay for iconography camp in the fall, and take 2K for some desperately needed repairs to my current abode. The rest needs to go elsewhere, to some place where I can't easily transfer a couple of hundred if I run short some month. I'll have to research that.

In figuring what to do with this money, if anything, I've thought about what my priorities are.  I need to feel semi secure that I can pay for surprises that crop up, like new tires, or vet bills.  So, I need to fatten up my savings account, and, decrease spending (OMG WHAT ELSE CAN I POSSIBLY CUT?????) so that I can save a bit every month.  That should allow me to replace whatever gets spent from the savings.  Second, I need to set up a system to fund two expenses every year: iconography camp and plane tickets to SFO to visit DD. Iconography camp, including some spending $$ while there and gas etc., is probably $1500 a year, and the cheapest round trip tickets I've found are around $600.  I need to save around $2100 per year for these two, top priority things each year. I cannot delve into the main stash for these things every year or I will, once again, have nothing. The third priority is still the fact that I am turning 60 on my next birthday and I can reach out and touch retirement. I am hoping to work part time for my current employer when I retire, which should allow me to have a few days a week to spend on my real life.  However, that won't last forever - eventually I will need, or be forced, to stop working.

So many choices to make. I've made so many bad choices in the past - I need to make good financial choices this time around. I need to maintain and grow this little nest egg, while funding the most important priorities in my life.

So, signing my little house away last night - the house that dear daughter and I chose because we loved it - the house that was a new start for us - the house that we ran away to when the old house had too many sad and painful memories - signing that house away was bittersweet, and symbolic. The new family will have a happy life in that happy house.  I am back in my old house, and have been for five years, but the memories don't sting the way they used to. It's fine, living here - I just haven't had the dollars to perform repairs or maintenance the way I need to.  Perhaps I can do some of that now.

It's an ending, but also a beginning.  It's the beginning of my final act, I think. My eyes are on the prize, and I'm starting the last leg of this race.  I really do need to get it right this time. Maybe being very clear about my priorities will help.

Goodbye, 107 Blue Wing Drive! Welcome your new owners! Hello, renewed purpose in life! May I have wisdom and strength to finish the race set before me.