Friday, July 31, 2009

On Angst and Truth

I recently confessed to Isaac* that I wrote some angsty fiction in high school.  While he laughed (with an appropriate degree of loving mockery), I came to realize that beneath most angst there is truth.

Certainly my angsty writing (this one example is humiliating enough) got at a deeper truth, something that I felt wasn't known in the world at large.  You know how, in high school, your closeness with your friends is such that their problems become your problems, too?  This was a case of learning something from my friends with initial shock, but then wanting to spread the knowledge once the shock faded away.

And realizing that my writing of angsty fiction was coupled with my desire to make people understand the truth makes me feel a little bit less sheepish for writing complain-y rants like that.  But just a tiny bit.  It is, after all, angsty fiction.

At least I never wrote fanfiction.

*I know I have a bad habit of name-dropping just so I can link to my friends' websites and blogs.  I still haven't yet gotten over the novelty of my friends having websites and blogs to link to, and it's fun, so cut me some slack, okay?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On Leaving

I move to the suburbs of Chicago in 35 days.

See, it's not going off to school that's scary.  It's not leaving my home with its familiar places and beloved people that's scary.  It's not jumping headlong into a completely new environment where I don't yet have any friends.  It's not even packing up my life and driving it with me over to the next time zone.

It's this gut feeling I have that I'm not coming back.

Not that I'll never be back to Jersey.  I will most definitely come back to visit for events and holidays for the rest of my life.  It's not even that I don't love Jersey, that I've been wanting to move away, or that my plan has been to go to grad school and not come back.  I love Jersey; this place will always be home.

And it's not that I'm afraid of losing people.  I've kept touch with long-distance friends since I was fourteen; I know that the most important people will stick around, and those that don't stick around will still bring me great joy via my memories of these wonderful times.

What's just beginning to sink in is that going away to grad school is different than going away for undergrad.  Sure, there are many similarities and parallels, but actually going out there means I'm getting on with the rest of my life already.  And I'm not staying local like so many of my family and friends have done (and there's such a beauty in that!); instead I'm moving up and out, moving someplace where my family will have to fly in order to come visit me (it's only 13 hours, but Mom can't do long drives), with open possibilities of moving to just about any metropolitan area in the country, and a gut feeling that it won't be the NY Metro Area I'll end up in.

It's like I realize that I'm drawing near to the end of this chapter of my life, only it doesn't end neatly, like the last chapter did.  College had a defined finishing point, and that's when I left.  Now I'm the only one who's leaving, and everyone else is continuing on in their regular lives.  And I am most likely never to return to those lives here - or if I do, it'll be radically different.

I guess what's happening is that I'm beginning to mourn the end of this period of my life, of this time in which I'm living with my family, not in school, working full-time, singing in the choir at my traddy parish, and receiving innumerable blessings through Spirit and Truth (and the friends I've made there).  It has been a joyful, extremely blessed period, and I have learned so much.  It's only good, natural, and healthy that I mourn the ending of this time.

But that doesn't mean I stop crying.  It just means that my sorrow is rooted in the joy of the Lord.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On Performing

My junior year of high school, I had to memorize (and recite) a poem for English class.  The only parameter was that it be longer than a haiku or limerick.  While most of my classmates, unbeknownst to me, were choosing works by poets like e e cummings, Robert Frost, or Shell Silverstein, I spent my time memorizing Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.  That's right: when everyone else was memorizing poems of twelve to twenty-five lines, I painstakingly committed to memory one hundred and eight lines of rhyming iambic octameter.  I realized along the way what a thorough process memorization for performance is, and while I'd thought I understood the poem when I first chose it, it wasn't until I was in the thick of rehearsing my delivery that I saw how much depth there was yet for me to plumb.

Some people I know through Spirit and Truth have organized a few coffee houses in recent months, and have asked me to sing in them.  Now, after my third performance, I have finally begun to process just what is so different about performance.

It's not ministry.  In ministry, you may be singing, but your objective is for the listeners to forget about your song and encounter God.  Not only do you not have to look at the congregation, you need to fade into the background and refrain from anything that would distract.  (I've been in various church music ministries without more than an occasional few months off since I was ten, so this is second nature to me.)

It's not public speaking.  When you're giving a speech, both your delivery and your content are important, but the one drives the other.  It's nigh impossible to speak clearly and eloquently without that carrying over into your mannerisms and gestures, which are secondary anyway.  Especially if this sort of thing comes naturally to you, all you need to concern yourself with as far as preparation is the text of your speech.  You can even interact with your audience while speaking (this usually enriches the experience for all involved).

It's not acting.  Good acting requires a lot of preparation (for most people), but more importantly it requires an invisible curtain between the actor and the audience.  You must take your character seriously and remain in character, no matter what the audience's response (save perhaps if they're yelling "FIRE!" and the building's burning down.  But even then, you get bonus points if you can improvise in character and leave with all your theatrical dignity).

It's performing.  In a performance, you put yourself on stage for others' enrichment and entertainment, but also for a unique kind of conversation with them.  You are expected to appear as comfortable as if you were in your own living room after a loosening-up drink, yet all eyes are on you (few of which give you any indication as to their response), and people are more docile to how you ask them to behave or feel, whether you explicitly ask them or lead them subtly through your performance.  Performance requires the polished preparation of an actor with the conversational ease of a public speaker.  If your performance is a musical one, it requires many of the same technical skills as ministry does, but with an intensity like that of one who carefully recites poetry.

And often, if your raw talents are good enough, you can get by without much preparation, and the audience is none the wiser.  But you know that you're capable of shining so much more brightly with just a little bit of elbow grease.  But a merely-good performance is better than none at all, right?

And besides, maybe you'll eventually develop a comfort zone for being on stage as yourself.  And then this whole performance thing will really become fun.

* * *

I feel obliged to note that this is my 100th post.  Woot!  My new goal: 200.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Love Songs

By the time I reached high school, I was familiar enough with the popular music scene to feel dissatisfied with it. Why is every single song about love? I frequently wondered (leaving aside for a moment the distinction between love and lust). I searched for songs about other things, since romance is not the only important part of life worth talking about. And I did find a few, but most of what was out there were humorous songs and parodies or showtunes (or else too serious and depressing to be enjoyable). Still, these were what I tended to prefer. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that everyone else seemed perfectly okay with listening to love songs all the time. :)

Then, in college, I stopped paying as much attention to the music I listened to. Rather, I paid more attention to what went in my ears, and purged from my collection some albums or songs whose content I found morally unsuitable. I listened to much more Christian Contemporary Music, most of which is just one artist putting to music a slightly different version of the same praise and worship song that's been put to music by eighteen other artists before (not to even try to count the number of amateurs who play the song with their own flair while leading worship). I listened to much less music on my own, and most of what I did was lyrically directed to God, so the Why is every song a love song? question mattered little.

I don't really know what has changed. But while I still appreciate a good nonsense song, I do value love songs more and more. I realized this suddenly as I was brainstorming a list of songs I might sing at the Appalachia Benefit Concert this weekend (anyone in my area who wants to hear excellent music and support our mission trip is more than welcome): every song I'd chosen to sing (with the exception of two hymns) was a love song! Whatever happened to me, that I who thought that it was silly to have so many love songs am now excited to be performing a bunch of love songs for fun?

I can only speculate, but I think it must be connected with my growing understanding of God as Love. Human love is a gift from God, a shadow of His own love. And human love is beautiful! In recent years I have experienced the beauty of self-sacrificing love, and it is positively intoxicating.

If I can subtly attract people to God by revealing the beauty of love through music... then how can I keep from singing?

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Separate Chapters in the Book of My Life

I spent this weekend in the throes of another college wedding.  That is, I was a bridesmaid, I knew the rest of the wedding party and the couple's family (and over half the wedding guests), I was involved in a bunch of the planning, and I knew I would thoroughly enjoy myself.

But this one was different.  See, the last two weddings I was in that fit the above description were while I was still in college mode.  But this time, things were different.  This time, it wasn't just an exciting wedding with my regular friends; it was an exciting wedding with old friends, while my regular friends waited back home for me to pick up my social life when I returned.

All this made me realize in new depth a regret that I've felt several times already.  The longer I go on without a husband, the more experiences of mine he'll miss out on, and the more communities I treasure that he'll never know.  I'm sure that I will conversely be welcomed into various communities of his via stories and friendships down the line, but right now, it's just a little bit sad.

It was sad when I realized that I am unlikely to marry a man from my cherished Ann Arbor crew.  Unlike some of my oldest and deepest college friends, I will have no reason to return to that central location for holidays, where I would conveniently see old friends as well as beloved family.

It was sad when I realized that I am unlikely to marry a man from the Apprentices of St Joseph household.  There will not be a moment at my wedding reception at which my husband and I will be surrounded by silly gentlemen doing something affectionately called "The Piston Dance."

It was sad when I realized that I am unlikely to marry a man from Conquer Through Love household.  I will never receive a CTL nickname or bowling pin, nor will my firstborn son.

It was sad when I realized that I am unlikely to marry a man from my local Spirit and Truth young adult community.  My husband will not be seranaded that he's "lost that lovin' feeling" by a large crowd of gentlemen as the ladies and I look on with joy.

Not that any of these are completely foregone conclusions, and not that the wedding reception itself matters so much.  But each of these wedding traditions represents a friendship, a comeraderie, an inclusion into a group whose friendships and spirituality have blessed my own life so much that I desire for my future spouse to receive their blessings.

This weekend's wedding reminded me just how separate the different groups of my friends can be, and while the gaps between the groups can be connected by the telling of stories and the occasional visits, I am finding that the people in my life are such an incredible blessing that I want to be able to share them all with my future spouse, even those he's likely to never meet.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the Name of the Lord.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Stalker Phobia, and Receiving Love

The other night, Isaac pointed out that so many of us in this day and age have a "stalker phobia", if you will - an overexaggerated fear that other people are paying too much attention to them. His example was that if he were to mention to a casual friend that he was browsing through their facebook pictures, their first reaction would probably be to pull away, almost as if they felt violated!
But as even this story illustrates, we are also fickle exhibitionists. A simple search by my name can easily direct you to my blog, facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and umpteen other pages that put my information and my personality directly on the web - not counting the various xangas, livejournals, and other accounts I've deleted since high school - and I'm not even trying to promote myself on the web!

My Christian Marriage professor taught us that love is based in knowledge. This was revolutionary to me at the time, but seems more fundamental the more I consider it: the more you know someone, the more you can love them, and the better you can love them. We all desire to love and to be loved; when we invite others in to the mystery that is each one of us, we are inviting them to deeper knowledge of ourselves, for better or worse.

If you draw people in and invite them to know and love you, you may be perceived as desperate or pathetic. But if you genuinely pay attention to others and love them by knowing them, you run the risk of being perceived as a stalker, someone who's unpleasant and even dangerous.

Why is it such a risk to reach out and love someone? Why is it scary for me to admit that I remember your birthday? I know that I feel special when people remember my birthday without the help of facebook. So what's the difference?

Perhaps it has to do with our view of love. I think one could make an argument that the dominant American culture's view of love is rather similar to its view of life: that is, if an unborn child is wanted, its mother is praised and protected and cared for with great affection; if the child is unwanted, however, it's an unfortunate circumstance that is best simply taken care of. Similarly, if love is felt by both parties, they should be able to marry and do whatever they want, but if the love is unrequited, it's a terrible shame and the lover is pathetic and needs to get over himself.

In past ages, much emphasis was put upon unrequited or unattainable love - arguably too much (though I suspect Joe may disagree). Perhaps one can blame Bacon and the empiricists for putting rationality into science's hands and, in the long run, orienting our whole society toward valuing the factual and the practical over the abstract and the emotional.

Having recently gotten over a situation in which I was head over heels in unrequited love for two years, I can appreciate thoroughly the pros and cons of such a thing. I used to think, as does the prevailing culture, that the best thing to do in such a case is to just get over yourself and move on with life. But I found myself unable to do this, so I embraced the feelings, and learned some very valuable lessons. Most pertinent now: love is a risk, and truly loving someone is always worth that risk. It is often painful, but true, selfless love is one of the most real experiences a person can have, and one of the best ways to understand God's love for us.

Yet love is based in knowledge. Every kind of love, that is (not just eros). Those of us who are detail-oriented with a good memory can easily flatter or scare casual friends with our recollection of minute details about their lives, and it is a relief to us when we realize that we've found another who will accept our quirks, including our minutiae, without feeling threatened and running away.

Yet here I find a point I missed earlier - why do we feel a need to run away? Is loving pursuit so terrible? Is receiving love so hard? (Admittedly, sometimes it is.) Or have we all been so hardened by sin (original or personal) that we expect people to use us before we expect them to love us? Love is a tender emotion, and vulnerability an important factor toward increasing love. True, we oughtn't be so vulnerable to everyone all the time, but we should let the Lord push us out of our familiar little box every now and again.

I challenge you to go out of your comfort zone sometime in the coming week and show someone (probably someone other than your beloved) that you love them in a way that's a little bit scary. Too, pay attention to how well you receive unexpectedly personal moments of affection, and try to be as open to them as you can. I pray the Lord to bless these endeavors, that they may be a vehicle of great grace to you as they have been to me.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On Vulnerability, Redemption, and a Continued Recovery from Feminism

I was a feminist in high school. Of the courteous, egalitarian school of feminism, but still. For instance, if I were walking into a building and the guy walking with me held the first door for me, I would thank him and hold the next door for him. If a female friend complimented my appearance, I would quickly scan hers for something upon which to compliment her. Accepting a compliment without returning one seemed almost ungracious.

I was alerted to the fact that I treat compliments this way over four years ago. In a long end-of-year conversation appreciating an amazing friendship, Joe kept giving me compliments, and I just didn't have as many to return as he had to give. And he called me on it, telling me that to simply accept a compliment was enough. This rocked my world, and I worked to become proficient at sometimes graciously accepting a compliment without returning one.

Back to the egalitarian side of things. Even as a feminist, I didn't think that men and women should be the same, just equal. So the way I now work out visits to my chivalrous guy friends would have been perfectly acceptable to me then, too: they pay for things, because they want to, and I pay them back by accepting it graciously and then making them dinner. Perhaps not always an even exchange, but an exchange nonetheless (and one that allows me to sneakily spend money on him without breaking the taboo on the woman paying for things).

Too, the man paying for dates in a relationship rarely bothered me. Perhaps because I knew the woman would pinch hit on occasion, or because their finances would ideally be united in the end anyway, or because she contributed to the relationship in non-monetary ways.

But a man going out of his way, freely spending his time and money on a woman just for the joy of her company? That's a little humbling. That's a part of the equation I don't like to think much about.

But I was thinking about it at Mass yesterday morning, my eyes fixed on the crucifix as the priest offered prayers at the altar, and the Lord reminded me that He spent much more than money on me. My naive response (we silly humans always think we're right): But it wasn't just for the grace of my company!, thinking of all the great victories the Paschal Mystery won for us.

Ah, but it was. I spent all I had for the grace of your eternal company with me in heaven.

Oh. Don't I feel dumb. Check, please!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On Forgetting the Veil

We all knew this would happen sometime.  Last Saturday evening, as I scrambled around the church where my youth group meets, busy between teaching the kids the music, trying to figure out the microphone system, worrying whether the youth minister would arrive on time with the lyric handouts, and general craziness, the celebrant rang the bell and we began the entrance hymn.

About two verses in, I realized my head was bare.

As that sunk in, I knew my veil was only a room away, but it would be more trouble than it was worth (and more distracting, as a music minister); even if my temporary disappearance past the other musicians wasn't noticed, my reappearance with the veil I hadn't been wearing earlier would be.  So I made a decision of the will to let it go.

It wasn't as terrible as one might think.  Sure, I wanted to be wearing the veil, and was sorry I wasn't.  But the Mass itself was a bit chaotic, from my ministerial standpoint, so my focus couldn't be on prayer in the typical sense.  I'm sure it helped that the church, while not terribly Protestant-like, is not architecturally soaked in sacredness, and the parish spirituality, while not usually outright heretical, is not one that I find spiritually beneficial.  But all I felt was a feeling of general sadness.

This is in contrast to the day several months previous when the gorgeous St Mary's Church (the photos of which don't do it justice) hosted a performance of an opera in the church building (after removing the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle), and I had to stop myself from reflexively putting my hand up to my bare head, which felt so naked.

There was none of that here, which maybe wasn't such a bad thing, I suppose.  It's nice to know that I won't be crippled by distraction when the inevitable moment comes up when I have no way to cover my head.

But I still miss it.  The beauty that literally veils me when I am in God's presence.  The privilege to be a tangible sign to the congregation (and analogously, the world) of the marriage with Christ to which we are called.  The physical reminder to focus on the Lord and not on the people.

It's so good to be Catholic!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On Perfection and Loneliness

Appealing though the thought of perfect pitch has been at times to me as a musician, I've realized since childhood that it would be more of a curse than a blessing. My present ability to go a tiny bit flat with the rest of the choir and not realize it is quite a boon to the creative, relaxing element of singing. I can hardly imagine how bitter and angry a person I might be if I always heard the imperfections in others' pitch; the beauty of so much music would be so easily overwhelmed by the minuscule errors that would stand out like a sore thumb to me. If I had perfect pitch, I would be interiorly separated from all but the best of musicians, no matter what musical experiences we might have.

As I've come to terms with the fact that I am truly an intellectual, I've been repeatedly shocked by just how dumb people are. And I've seen a similar pattern: the more I understand about life, the less I am able to share of myself with those who are on a different philosophical plane (let alone those who hardly understand what a philosophical plane is).

So it makes sense that the same would be true of holiness. The closer Our Lord brings me to Him, the less I resemble the rest of humanity, and the less the people around me will be able to understand me. They'll understand parts of me, facets of me, but never the entirety of my being as I so thoroughly desire to be understood. This "holy loneliness" is a natural part of our longing for God, and has been experienced acutely by many saints throughout the centuries. I should consider it an honor, not a nuisance, when I am left without human understanding.

Bring on the loneliness, Lord, if it's a side effect of the holiness You desire to bring me to. My heart is restless, O God...
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