Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mental spring cleaning

From time to time, I find it useful to go offline for a while. Like a house that has been cooped up all winter, my mind gets a bit dusty and stale. I need to open some nondigital windows and let fresh air blow through the domicile. I need to decide what to keep, which blogs and websites to set aside, which projects are ready to be packed away and left to germinate or to die, what needs to be taken out and shaken and put back in circulation.

While this process is underway, it is not the time to invite guests in to view the mess, to trip over brooms and mops or get covered with a stray cloud of dust. Once things are settled and renewed, doors open once again and guests are welcomed  back. To visitors things may not look much different. But I know the house feels and smells and somehow is different. I can take a deep breath without breaking into a coughing fit.

As you may know, spring cleaning can take more time than you expect. Or you may find yourself so energized when you begin that you finish it up quickly. We will see. Feel free to check back now and again to see if the season of cleaning is past and the season of new growth has begun.

We often talk of seeds lying in wait all winter to burst into life when the warmth of spring returns. But many seeds don't get planted until spring and do not grow until summer. Nature does everything in time and on time. May I learn from this example. 

Although I will be on the computer writing, I plan to spend little time online during this process. I will check email a couple of times a week and respond as needed.

Later, 'gators!

Friday, March 20, 2015


Neo-pagans in the northern hemisphere celebrate Ostara today, the spring equinox. According to one of their stories, Ostara gave us the Easter/Spring  connection with the bunny and eggs. Here is a version of the tale adapted from Damien's blog from last Easter. 

One year Ostara, the Saxon Goddess of Dawn, who was responsible for bringing spring each year, was feeling guilty about arriving so late.To make matters worse, she arrived to find a pitiful little bird who lay dying, his wings frozen by the snow. Lovingly, Ostara cradled the shivering creature and saved his life. 
Legend has it that she then made him her pet. Filled with compassion for him since he could no longer fly because of his frost-damaged wings, the goddess Ostara turned him into a rabbit, a snow hare, and gave him the name Lepus. 

 To honor his earlier form as a bird, she also gave him the ability to lay eggs in all the colors of the rainbow, but he was only allowed to lay eggs on one day out of each year. 

Eventually Ostara flung him into the skies where he would remain as the constellation Lepus (The Hare).

Ostara allowed the hare to return to earth once each year, but only to give away his eggs to the children attending the Ostara festivals that were held each spring.

Michael's addendum: Although a pagan hare, apparently Lepus decided Christian children deserved the fun of colored eggs, too, and so he spread his bounty near and far.

Damien notes that there are other explanations of the bunny-egg-Easter connection, and they may be of more historical value. But I think this is a lovely story and one worth sharing.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The swallows and Capistrano

Today, March 19, is the Feast of St. Joseph, the day when the swallows return to Mission San Juan Capistrano in California, between San Diego and Los Angeles. Because of increasing urbanization in recent years, fewer birds had been sighted returning to the mud nests they have built in the old mission over the decades. For the last four years, under the direction of Dr. Charles Brown, an expert on the habits of the cliff swallows, the mission has used recordings of mating calls to lure more birds to the area. This will be the last year of the Swallows Vocalization Project, although Dr. Brown intends to continue with other projects to make sure that the birds make their legendary annual return.

On the subject of St. Joseph, I note that Jerome Gracián, who wrote a treatise on the glories of St. Joseph in the sixteenth century, asserted that the saint had all his teeth. The reason? It would have been unseemly for the man chosen as spouse and protector of the Virgin Mary and her child to have any defects. Gracián did not assert, however, that Joseph had all his hair, perhaps because Gracián himself was rather bald.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Just because

One day, a cat dies of natural causes and goes to heaven, where he meets the Lord.

The Lord says to the cat, "You lived a good life, and if there is any way I can make your stay in heaven more comfortable, please let me know."

The cat thinks for a moment and says, "Lord, all my life I have lived with a poor family and had to sleep on a hard wooden floor."

The Lord stops the cat and says, "Say no more," and a wonderful, fluffy pillow appears.

A few days later, six mice are killed in a tragic farming accident, and all of them go to heaven. Again, the Lord is there to greet them with the same offer.

The mice answer, "All our lives we have been chased. We have had to run from cats, dogs, and even women with brooms. Running, running, running; we're tired of running. Do you think we could have roller skates so that we don't have to run anymore?"

The Lord says, "Say no more" and fits each mouse with beautiful new roller skates.

About a week later, the Lord stops by to see the cat and finds him snoozing on the pillow.

The Lord gently wakes the cat and asks him, "How are things since you got here?"

The cat stretches and yawns, then replies, "It is wonderful here. Better than I could have ever expected. And those 'Meals On Wheels' you've been sending by are the best!"

Wednesday writers

This morning I had breakfast with a friend who has been passing along books written by some of his family members. The first one, written by his grandfather but mostly about the great-grandfather, was quite enjoyable. The most recent one by his brother was built around what some Christians call the Rapture. It did not appeal at all. On my third attempt to read it, I discovered that if I skipped all the Rapture stuff and read the autobiographical sections scattered throughout, I could manage.

When I was growing up, we believed in the Rapture, or at least that Jesus was coming back soon and that  that the living saved people would be taken up into heaven to meet him in the air. I used to worry it would happen while I was sitting on the toilet and would be most embarrassing. You will notice that I was sure I would be among the airborne. We did not believe by the way in the whole Millennium/Left Behind stuff.

I no longer worry about that sort of thing and have no interest in reading about other people's worries. Whatever your personal beliefs, I hope you don't worry either.

After that I went into the Dells to meet with a retired school teacher who had inquired at the library about someone who might be able to talk to him about getting a book published. He had already written and self-published a book about his family, but this is a novel. It is based on a true crime that involved two young men he had taught in high school. Drugs came into it at some point and one boy killed the other. He concealed the body in a gruesome manner, chopping it up, putting the remains in garbage bags and burying them near a suburb of Milwaukee. (I may have the details mixed up and don't know anything about the actual events and have not yet read the manuscript.)

This is not the sort of thing I normally read for leisure, but after talking with him I agreed to read it and give my opinion. So that will keep me busy for a bit. I used to evaluate book proposals and manuscripts for ICS Publications, but this is a totally different kind of book. He also wanted hints on improving his query letter, the one he sends out trying to find an agent. I agreed to offer some, but I pointed out that none of the query letters I sent had ever procured the services of an agent.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish soda bread

When I was in the monastery in Boston (first in Brookline and later in Brighton), St. Patrick's Day always meant corned beef and cabbage for dinner -- not my favorite meal -- and Irish soda bread -- not my favorite bread. The corned beef and cabbage were usually the responsibility of whoever was cooking that day, and the most Irish of the friars always complained loudly that, although he had grown up in  a Boston Irish household, they never ate such a meal in his home. The soda bread, on the other hand, tended to arrive as a gift from nuns or some elderly Irish friend of the community. Even when amply supplied with raisins, it always tasted dry and dense to me.

The other day, however, I noticed some Irish soda bread out at the bakery and was tempted to get a small round loaf. It was filled with raisins or currants and was passably okay when generously slathered with good Wisconsin butter. Not something I would want often, but it seemed a seasonal food, if not exactly a seasonal treat.

For those who want to make their own, herewith is a recipe. I cannot vouch for it because I barely like the stuff enough to purchase a loaf. I certainly don't have the enthusiasm to bake it. But, like most breads, it is probably quite lovely when warm.

Irish soda bread recipe from Taste of Home:


  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) sour cream
  • 3/4 cup raisins


  • 1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, caraway seeds, baking powder, salt and baking soda. In a small bowl, whisk eggs and sour cream. Stir into dry ingredients just until moistened. Fold in raisins.
  • 2. Spoon into a greased 9-in. springform pan. Bake at 350° for 40-45 or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing sides of pan. Cut into wedges; serve warm. Yield: 1 loaf (12 wedges).
I note that many recipes call for buttermilk whereas this one calls for sour cream. There are many recipes online, if you want to look.

And whatever else, may the luck of the Irish be yours today!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Going swimming

A dozen years back, I was seeing a counselor. I was still in the monastery at the time, but I was dealing with some difficult life issues and found her very helpful.

I remember once she asked me, after I had been rambling on about what my family wanted and what the Carmelites wanted and what my  friends wanted and so on, “And what does Michael want?”  

I was stumped. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had no idea what I wanted. What I wanted was to know what you wanted, and then I would want that. So you would like me. 

I guess I wanted you to like me. 

One day when I was with a group of very close friends, I  mentioned that I felt like Bruce Banner, the guy who turns into the Hulk when he get angry. 

“Don’t get me angry,” he/I said. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” 

My best friend asked, “And what would happen if we didn’t like you?” 

“The world would end,” I said quickly, half-joking and more than half-fearful.

 As I pondered the questions, what did I want and what would happen if people didn’t like me, I began to realize that it had been a long time since I let myself think about what I wanted, instead of what was right or what should be done or what was important or what other people wanted or needed. I could not answer a very simple question: What do I want? 

Ask me what I want to eat and I can be thrown into a quandary. My usual answer: “What do you want?"

Ask Tom and he will tell you that I am far from over this. He asks, “Where do you want to go to eat?” and even though I want to go for Indian, I will always say, “I don’t care.” 

When we were building the house, he would ask what color I wanted for walls or what furniture I wanted or what to do about the garden.

"I don’t care.”

At a certain level, this was true and is still true. It is his house, after all. And I don’t care about a lot of things. (I did pick the wall color for my bedroom.) Having spent most of my adult life in a monastery where the walls were already painted, where the furniture was already in the room, where the schedule had been in place for centuries, I had learned to go with the flow. But I was going with the flow to such an extent that I had forgotten how to swim. 

And sometimes, you know, you have to swim.

That's JFK diving into the water, by the way.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mexico and Spanish

Recently the woman I tutor told a friend of her that he speaks Spanish the way I do. He is a Mexican and grew up in Mexico City. What she means was that she grew up in a small village and her Spanish is not as refined (for lack of a better word) as his. I studied Spanish in the public schools in Texas and at Michigan State, but my Mexican accent I picked up because I spent three summers in Mexico City during my early days with the Carmelites. 

It was a great experience, and my Spanish improved greatly. After ordination, I was able to celebrate Mass, give homilies, hear confessions and even preach ten-day retreats in Spanish. I was often complimented by native speakers on my accent, because I had a good ear. The Mexican friars, many of whom had studied at the monastery in Washington, DC and spoke good English, were great. I got to know the City pretty well, travelled into the countryside on a few occasions, made myself make my Mental Prayer in Spanish, read novels and lots of comic books in Spanish and before the end of the summer, my dreams were in Spanish. Total immersion is clearly the way to go.

After I had been in Mexico about five weeks that first summer, I ran to catch a bus just as it pulled away from the curb. I jumped and hung onto the still-open door, finally pulling myself into the crowded interior. At that moment, I knew I had adjusted to a new culture. I no longer thought it odd that there were ladies carrying live chickens in string bags on the bus. I knew that a mordida might look like a bribe to someone from Texas but it was viewed as a tip in Mexico. I found myself giving directions to lost American tourists. It was a good thing.

Rene and I had taken the train down and back, and that was an adventure in itself. On the way down, I had felt crowded and a bit stunned. When the train arrived in Mexico City, four hours late, we stepped off into chaos. We had no idea who we were looking for, we had no telephone number, we had no sign. In Mexico, priests and religious cannot wear Roman collars or habits outside the monastery, so we did not even have that clue to help.

Then a middle-aged man with a huge smile walked up. “Carmelitas?” he asked.

“Si, si,” we almost shouted. 

It was Padre Agustin, the prior, come in person to pick us up. When we got back to the monastery and met the community, I heard one of the friars ask Augustin how he had found us.

“I just looked for two good boys,” he laughed.

The day after we arrived, Rene and I walked past the Bosque de Chaputlepec to find the school we were attending and to let them know we were there. After taking care of that, I was ready to head back to the monastery. Rene, on the other hand, wanted to do some exploring. He stopped a woman and asked her how to get to the Zocalo, the main square downtown. Although his Spanish was quite good, she looked a bit frightened of us and just shook her head. We walked along a ways and then saw a bus with ZOCALO on it. We went to get in line, and lo and  behold, the lady we had asked was right ahead of us. When she saw that we really had only wanted to know how to get somewhere, she thawed a little. She and Rene managed to get a seat in the bus and I hung onto the overhead railing.

It felt like I was hanging on that rail forever, and the aisle became more and more crowded. I got pushed further and further back, but I kept my eye on Rene. After a long time, he turned around and signaled to me. I thought he meant to get off at the next stop, but all he intended was that I start fighting my way towards the door. Our stop was several blocks ahead. 

Meanwhile, the summer afternoon rain storm had started. I got off the bus, looked back and saw Rene waving from the window. All I could do was keep walking through the rain, with no raincoat, no hat, no umbrella and hope that I could catch up to him.

At the next stop, Rene and the lady he had been sitting with got off the bus. They ran two blocks back to find me, and then she led us into a shelter in a nearby Metro station. She told us then how to take the Metro to where we wanted to go, blessed us and walked back into the rain to catch another bus.

I was amazed. A total stranger had gotten off a bus, run two blocks in the rain, found us shelter and helped direct us to where we wanted, then gone back out into the rain to wait for another bus to take her home. I tried to imagine a random New Yorker doing it for a lost Mexican and couldn’t manage. We may have just lucked out and found the one great ordinary person in Mexico City that day, but I immediately decided I was going to like it there. And I did.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Pi and the same-sex marriage equation

Love is like pi – natural, irrational and very important. -- Lisa Hoffman

Today, as mentioned in an earlier post, is Pi Day, because the way Americans abbreviate the date – 3/14/15 – coincides with the first few digits of the number/relationship represented by the Greek letter pi.

There are any number of bad jokes and stories about pi, mostly depending on the pun with pie. One story, purely apocryphal, is about the legislature in a Deep South state that passed a law making pi equal to 3 in order to simplify matters. "Ha, ha, ha!" we all laugh, because such a law would simplify matters by making them fail to correspond to the real world.

But when you look at many legislative efforts in the Deep South to avoid recognizing the reality of same-sex love and marriage, those efforts seem as foolish. You can pass all the laws you want, but nothing will change the fact that certain mathematical relationships that describe the real world can only be expressed using the irrational number, pi.

And you can pass all the laws you want denying that same sex couples deserve the right to marry, are in fact marrying in many countries and most states, and that will have no impact on the real world.

Yes, Deep South, there is pi. And there are legitimate same sex marriages and real same sex families and … well, there are more things in the real world than are refused to be dreamed of in your fantasies.

Go out, get a piece of pie and enjoy life instead of trying to mess with things beyond your control.