I have largely strayed from writing during the pandemic, primarily because I am doing a lot of writing for my job that leaves me- for lack of a better word- done at the end of the day.
However, I have dove deeper into illustration, and recently took the plunge and bought a digital tablet pen to allow me to try new things.
One of those things is to turn some of my panel illustrations into a zine. I was able to take the sacraments for the first time in almost three months today, and decided to turn the experience into my first digital zine.
Download below, enjoy, and continue to pray for me, as well as my family, friends, coworkers and parish community.
Allison Backous Troy, a fellow writer and sister-in-Christ, shared a piece yesterday that spoke of ways to hold onto that which is beautiful during times of darkness and fear. She spoke of the seeds that she intended to plant, and how she planted them for everyone- especially our Lord, who on this day gave up his spirit and was buried for the sake of us all.
But most of all, Allison’s call for us to “find new ways to save what is beautiful” is a call that we need to take seriously. As I pondered that quote, I had to ask myself that question: how can I, with the gifts I have been given, and the resources I have on hand, work to save what is beautiful in a time of sickness, pestilence and even death?
I’m a doctor, but not the medical type. I’m not on the front line with those who are ill, working to exhaustion for the health and life of those affected by this horrible virus. I’m no engineer or technological genius who can stop what I’m doing to make masks, face shields, or ventilators. I’m not even an essential grocery worker, keeping the shelves filled with basic needs, only for them to be empty minutes later.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to go to an American Folklore Society meeting in New Orleans, and the meeting largely focused on recovery from disaster and crisis. This was seven years after Hurricane Katrina, and the scars of the storm were visible. I went to a panel called “How Do Folklorists Respond to Disaster?” that featured talks on disaster coping around American hurricane and Japanese earthquake survivors. One of the panelists spoke of how an earthquake jeopardized much of the bullfighting traditions in one rural community, whereas another spoke of how displaced earthquake survivors worked to reconstruct ritual and tradition while living in a temporary resettlement area. Their local practices could not ultimately be stopped by the chaos of natural disaster and death. If anything, they grew.
It was folklorist Carl Lindahl’s talk on starting an ethnographic training project for hurricane refugees that struck me profoundly; it wasn’t the process, per se, but rather what he was told by the president of his university: to use whatever skills you had as a professor to do your part to help. In this moment, an English professor and folklorist was called to teach people how to tell and collect their own stories. That collection is now part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
In that time, saving stories and experiences was like preparing seeds for planting. In my professional life, this virus has caused me to lose a lot of the things that make each day beautiful. As a museum educator, I currently have no groups to lead, no schools with which to collaborate, and no idea when we will next see them come into the front door, look up at our chandelier, and stare in awe. Two intensive in-school programs that I was preparing for are off the agenda, and thus my summer conference presentations are also not happening.
So I had to ask the same question that Carl Lindahl’s boss asked him: what can I do with what I have?
As a folklorist, we aren’t necessarily focused on saving that which is beautiful so much as sustaining that which is beautiful. Saving, in our field, can imply preservation and not active conservation and stewardship. We understand that some things stay, while others go. We focus on that which endures and continues to speak to people, or that which rises from cultural ashes like a folkloric phoenix.
I have turned that into impactful and meaningful things in my job, but that framework has larger repercussions for my life on the whole. Because I am at work, working and being with my family the entire day, I am able to better see what is enduring with my wife and I, with my children, and with our daily rhythms. It is really important for my wife and I to have time to sit and make things together while watching or listening to something we enjoy. It is vital for my kids to be close to us (sometimes literally at our feet) as we go about our day. It is essential for my wife and I to guide our children through Holy Week, whether in giving them our service books to follow along, or to hold them as they sleepily seek comfort in our laps after the seventh Gospel.
These are things that are beautiful and meaningful to us, and we want to save them like flowers or seeds to be present in future days. They aren’t emphatic or outstanding. Nor do they need to be.
But they are meaningful. And in a week where we commemorate the destruction and celebrate resurrection of our Lord, remembering that cycle of death and resilience is key to sustaining ourselves during this time of crisis.
There will be another crisis, and another, and each one of them will transform us. If we are willing to be open to that transformation, and to embrace the beauty amidst its pain and suffering, we will be better off than before, and beauty will be better saved.
I read an article this morning about Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens telling everyone to turn their homes into “little churches.”
When we made the decision to buy this house last fall, that was a question we asked ourselves- “Is this our little church?”
Since we moved in, we have strived to be a space for our family and friends, offering company, meals, and a safe place to be.
We’ve always called our houses Brendan House after our family saint- a saint who didn’t know where exactly he was going, but he nonetheless trusted God and obeyed his commandments.
That’s the attitude we are hoping to take with the current situation.
What will happen to us?
How will we work, and what work will come out of this solitude?
How will our children thrive and connect with their friends?
How will our faith community grow?
And the answer starts here, in our little corner with the sponge painted walls.
Before going forward, go here and take the struggles there too.
We are lucky to have live-streaming for our services, and be connected that way to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
All of our homes can be little churches.
Even if the paint is a bit purple-y.
Recently, I was offered a copy of A Journal of Thanksgiving: Record Three Years of Gratitude in a Sentence a Day by Nicole M. Roccas (@nicoleroccas). My spouse and I kept one of these journals for several years; it was a Happiness Journal from Gretchen Rubin, and it was a solid part of our lives for several years.
What makes Nicole’s new book special is that it has wonderful quotes to “remind us of both the beauty and significance and the difficult nature of giving thanks.” The journal is not focused on what was the happiest thing each day, but more towards what we are thankful for, even if it was troubling.
Encouraging newbies to use phrases like “Glory to Thee, O God, for…” encourages the writer to connect their prayers to the liturgical prayers of our faith. Doing so in one sentence also motivates us to think about that which is the most important part of our lives.
Overall, A Journal of Thanksgiving is well worth acquiring. It has a simple format, a unique approach, and a very authentic feel to it.
My office has a large window, so it is a good place to keep plants.
In our upstairs offices, the reception desk doubles as a botanical garden of sorts, producing plants for many other staff members, including me.
My coworker, who works the reception desk, was telling me about how her amaryllis plant was struggling to grow in its current place. I offered to trade her plants: her amaryllis for my spider plant, which needed less light.
It ended up being a win-win situation for both plants; not only has my spider plant gained some green and some height, but now the amaryllis is starting to improve.
In this case, it took two of us to switch the situation and make it better. We are now going and checking on each of our plants; my coworker has taught me proper watering and moisture checks, and it has worked well for everyone.
Growth was possible through working together, and helping each other fulfill their needs.
“God fights our battles, and he tells us, ‘You, be still.’” was, for me, the most powerful phrase from today’s homily on Matthew 25.
Fr. Fred (@fred_shaheen) preached about how we really have to deal with one thing in life: our neighbor. That’s what Matthew 25, and the Sunday of the Last Judgment, are about: how the way we treat our neighbor is the way in which our lives are examined at the end.
It’s about relationships, and how to build them, not just with people we like and feel comfortable with, but also those with whom we might not feel that way.
It is a noble but nonetheless difficult pursuit. And I’m definitely guilty of spending a lot of time trying to “figure it out.”
But, as Fr. Fred pointed out to us, that’s not our job. He asked the question “How can we love without figuring it out?”
Then, he said it simply and to the point:
“God didn’t ask us to figure it out.”
It’s so easy to try to attempt to figure everything out, and to have a tangible explanation for everything.
But God isn’t tangible.
If anything, his infinite love for us is, in fact, beyond any sense of tangibility. And on that scale of things, perhaps being still is the best thing that could happen to us.
Again I leave, the poorer, for some more distant part. The world, try as one might, will not fit in one heart.
This poem from St. Maria of Paris is flooring me this morning, a Friday morning in a week where I have had a lot of feelings of being completely overwhelmed with the world, and inside I’m trying to scratch away the walls of what feels like a sense of confinement and limitation. I could keep scratching like a dog at the door.
I could continue to cry out in anger and bitter frustration about the situation.
But what if those walls are boundaries, designed to teach people about their lives, their ways, and finding other ways to thrive within new limits?
Boundaries exist for a reason: to give us a sense of order in a world that often lacks it, or never had it to begin with.
St. Maria could only do so much with what she had, and she felt immense anguish for not being able to do more.
But without those boundaries, and those limits, I wonder whether or not she would have been the saint she was.
Would she have the influence she does now?
Would I be sitting this morning reading her life, and seeing how struggle and anguish are windows to something bigger?
It’s hard to say.
As I watched my Old Calendar friends celebrate the feast of Theophany, a lot of my thoughts went to ten years ago, when I celebrated my first of several outdoor water blessings with a group of mostly Russians and Romanians. We were at the Anglican seminary on Memorial’s campus at that time, and Vladyka (then the newly-appointed Bishop- now Archbishop- Irenee) was visiting our parish to celebrate the feast with us, as well as perform baptisms.
At that point, I had been a full member of the Church for about six months, and part of the mission for about four. Shifting from a mostly young, ex-evangelical Southern Antiochian parish, to a largely Russian and Romanian OCA mission that had a priest 6-8 times a year, was not an easy transition for me. It was entirely different being in an isolated mission on an island in the North Atlantic. Most people spoke their native tongues at church, and there were not many native English speakers. I had gone from weekly liturgies and largely filled Saturday Vespers to only a few people being at readers’ services (though liturgies were often more full, they didn’t come very often). I was feeling extremely isolated from the community I had built up; I had very few people to talk about the faith around the coffee table, and the rigorous discussions about faith, life and culture that we had as a mission church in Kentucky were not a major part of life at the new parish. I felt alone as a new Orthodox Christian, even to the point where I remember telling at least two clergy that I felt like I was living in a desert. I was struggling to a point where I was starting to question my decision to join the church. It was an extremely tough askesis to endure at such an early point in my Orthodox faith journey.
Enter my now-wife, a recently returned Catholic who sang in the choir of the Basilica in St. John’s. A couple of weeks before that, we mutually decided to get married over dinner at the Stavanger Road Swiss Chalet in St. John’s. (We’d been dating for six weeks at that point.) I was telling Jen about how I was having a really hard time adjusting to things, and that I was thinking about joining her at the Basilica, so that we could be part of the same church.
Something in her, however, felt drawn to join me. She saw how much it meant to me, and she wanted to see it for herself. There was no question about it; she just jumped in.
It just happened that the first weekend she was able to come to services, was Theophany weekend with Bishop Irenee. She endured the services’ mix of English and Slavonic, and then the biggest spectacle of the weekend: the outdoor blessing of the waters. I had previously read about the Russian tradition of going into the pond, and I had been mentally preparing myself for having to do so. Ultimately, however, the lake was frozen over to a point where the best that anyone could do was to throw a large rock into the ice and create a hole large enough to scoop lake water out of.
And scoop lake water they truly did. One by one, the men in our church began pouring blessed lake water in 5-gallon Home Depot buckets over them, saying “In the name of the Father…(wince) Aaaammiiiin!….” They were challenging themselves in a way I had never seen before. It was a test of faith, courage and tolerance to vulnerability. One person, who was from Arctic Russia, undressed to his swim shorts, and poured three large buckets over himself. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
When it was my turn, I removed my coat and sweater, going bare from the waist up, and had our subdeacon pour the water over me. I remember it being almost shocking to feel the water- which was warmer than outside!- against my back, once, then twice, then three times. Jen, not knowing what to do at the time but being a curious onlooker, applauded. Which was fair, considering it was around 9F outside. Smartly, Jen also brought a blanket for me, and I was able to warm up quickly before going inside. I did not regret challenging myself to the whole process at all.
When we got inside to the chapel, where several people remained during the outdoor blessing,
I sat down to have a warm cup of tea. (I could always guarantee a good, warm cup of tea in the Queen’s College dining area.) Next to me sat Vladyka. I had only met a bishop once before, but had never sat down with one before. Vladyka smiled, his eyes being very gentle and his presence calm. I was very fond of his visits during my time in Newfoundland, and how he always seemed to take everything in and listen.
Out of nowhere, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka appeared on the table and landed with a confident-sounding plop. Our subdeacon then said “Nic, fill your glass….your girlfriend will drive!” Over the next hour or so, I have absolutely no idea how much vodka went into my system, but it was warming, the community was good, and the feast was joyous. Jen definitely drove home; that was going to be a given. (How often can you say that you’ve shared a bottle of vodka with a future archbishop?)
For Divine Liturgy, we were fortunate to have a baptism of a new baby boy whose parents were Russian, and Jen and I were there for the baptism when all of a sudden, Vladyka asked the couple, “Where are the godparents?” They replied, “They are not here,” because they lived away from the area. All of a sudden, I saw myself pointed at, and being summoned to come forward. I was going to be the proxy godfather for this baby, whose name I do not even remember, but who will always have a place in my memory. I just stood there, holding him, doing what I could. According to Jen, that moment was the first spark that she had about us someday having children.
There were a lot of sparks that Theophany weekend. What was really beautiful about all of it was not only the community that arose from it, but also the fact that it was the night in which I started to feel like part of the community in St. John’s. All of the women fell in love with Jen almost immediately, taking her in like a group of mother hens. They begged her to sing in the choir, and they always expressed great joy in seeing her when we came to services. When she became pregnant with Mari following our wedding, they were constantly helping us, and especially her, with making sure she had what she needed.
It was ultimately what kept me going in my first wave of post-chrismation faith struggle.
Sharing that feast day with my future spouse was a taste of things to come; the frozen lake has been replaced by a three-parish blessing of our city’s river, a pan-Orthodox Vespers service, and a group gathering of the faithful each January.
We’re cold, and struggling to stay warm while chanting, but the warmth nonetheless remains.
One of my favorite musical groups has been the Welsh rock art Manic Street Preachers, who have always grabbed my attention with their highly literate and political vocals, musical breadth and connection to their community and region. In high school, they, along with Sigur Ros, Blur and other groups, became my solace, bringing me beautiful music in a frustrating time of my life: the final years of adolescence.
One of the best things about the fans of the band is that they have always posted a lot of references and explanations about the group’s songwriting, which helped me learn quite a bit about Wales, as well as British politics on the whole. Because of this, I grew to fall in love with their 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, which referenced everything from Guernica to the Hillsborough disaster of 1989.
One particular song, “Ready for Drowning,” was the song that continued to stick with me over the years, but especially in the time that I was preparing to return to the United States after living abroad. The song is about the intentional flooding of the Welsh village of Capel Celyn, in order to create the Treweryn reservoir. The reservoir’s purpose was to provide water to the city of Liverpool. The flooding was done without consent from the community, and without any sense of connection to Welsh officials; quite sadly- it was one of the last villages to have a population of Welsh-only speakers. On days where the water levels are low, tree stumps and other artifacts of the village are exposed.
One of the lines from the song really struck me- “I could go to Patagonia/but it’s harder there.” It comes from the fact that a group of Welsh immigrants chose to move to Argentina, where they encountered many difficulties in settling, and never had a large community of settlers as a result. The metaphor of Patagonia as a place of struggle and difficulty, and the idea of a faraway landscape being tempting (yet ultimately harder), stuck with me, especially as I began to think about moving home. Moving back was hard for me. I did not want to. Many tears and moments of sorrow were spent thinking about being back home, and for the first couple of years, I thought about how to go somewhere else, rather than return home and continue my life. Ultimately, I found a halfway point in moving to Canada, which was more like my home country, but still away.
I listened to the song at work this morning, and thought again about the metaphor of Patagonia. Escape seems like it would work, and that problems might not exist if they’re fled from. But ultimately, such struggles follow in an invisible and intangible manner, and combined with a lack of home, and a sense of rootedness, it is easy to see why things might be harder elsewhere, even if elsewhere seems lucrative.
I also thought of the metaphor of flooding. Being in a city that’s famous for its floods, and having grown up in a major river valley, the idea of a flood means to be submerged. Trapped. Covered. I used to see the idea of going home as being drowned, rather than staying above water.
However, in looking back, I could see the romantic idea of being somewhere else- other than where one needs to be- as a force that could submerge and drown someone.
It can happen quickly.
And without warning, it can surround you.
The song is still a beautiful piece, especially the live version with musician John Cale. It’s a beautiful piano and vocal piece with a lot of emotion, and a lot of soul.
20-plus years later, the album is equally beautiful, and well worth hearing. Songs like “Tsunami” and “You Stole the Heart From My Heart,” both of which were major hits in the United Kingdom, hold up in their composition, their anthemic nature and their vocal depth.