Small and Practical Guide to Prayer

(This was a review I recently did for Behind the Scenes, one of the many blogs featured at Ancient Faith Radio.)

When You Pray coverSometimes, the most powerful and effective books are the ones that are short, simple, and full of practical ideas. Examples such as Tito Colliander’s The Way of the Ascetics and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray are compact, portable, and filled with encouraging suggestions for ways to make small but meaningful life changes.

When You Pray: A Practical Guide to an Orthodox Life of Prayer – a new book by author L. Joseph Entendre – is no exception. Originally a series of talks on prayer given to members of the St. Moses the Ethiopian Community (a group of incarcerated Orthodox Christians at Indiana State Prison), the book serves as a practical guide to prayer that can be applied by anyone in the Church, from the neophyte inquirer to long-time Orthodox believers. At 65 pages, the book does not focus on extensive personal stories, but instead breaks down its thought on prayer into a set of short but attention-grabbing chapters. The brevity of the chapters is an asset, not only for the reader, but also for anyone who is looking to help others learn how to pray.

In keeping with the brief nature of the book itself, the lessons throughout When You Pray focus on simplicity, particularly in prayer. One of the core principles throughout the book can be best summed up in a sentence from Chapter 5: “Pray as you can, not as you want; do fewer things better.” Readers are encouraged to go slowly, rather than diving into hundreds of Jesus Prayers or kathismas, and the text is clear in its focus: pray frequently and consistently, but do not overdo it. This message is well-stated, and is one of the book’s best takeaways.

In another section, “Pray Frequently,” Letendre asks readers to focus on thinking of “a short, simple prayer we can use at any time, at any place, and in any circumstance.” By thinking of multiple types of prayer, including short Gospel and Psalm verses, moments of saying grace, and the Jesus Prayer, the book seeks to expand the reader’s view of prayer, creating a stronger toolkit to be used in everyday practice. The book is such that it – like the prayers that it promotes readers to engage in – can be used at any time, any place, and in any circumstance. Perfect for a backpack, desk, or travel bag, When You Pray is easily transported, accessed, and utilized in any Orthodox home or setting.

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The Process, The Vocation and the Craft Documentary

Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.
-Yoshikazu Ono, son of famed sushi chef Jiro Ono

An admission: I don’t watch a lot of current-day television. My wife and I have been long-standing Netflix subscribers, but most of the time, our girls are using it to watch a couple of episodes of their favorite shows. I usually spend more time scrolling through Netflix trying to find something to watch, only to end up diving into a book or talking to friends on Facebook.

However, one of my guilty pleasures involves watching cultural documentaries- after all, I am a folklorist who also did an anthropology major- and I’ve been watching one of the seasons of the PBS show The Mind of a Chef, which is a more personal look into the lives of chefs, and how their background and surroundings make an impact on how they cook, as well as how they create unique culinary experiences. Initially drawn to the show by the chef and author David Chang (best known for his restaurant Momofuku), I’ve especially loved watching the episodes featuring Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, who owns and operates the well-known Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Fäviken takes traditional Swedish cuisine seriously, not only creating Michelin star-winning dishes, but also gaining attention for his dedication to preservation and conservation of his ingredients. In these shows, the product is very important to highlight, but what draws my attention to them is the processes, and the thoughts, that go into doing very intentional, deep work.

These “process-oriented” shows and films have always attracted my attention; I used them during my years as a university lecturer as a way to get students to understand that the finished product is not the only place for aesthetics, beauty and community to exist. I have seen the movie Happy People: A Year in the Taiga at least ten times because I find the processes involved in the practice of fur trapping to be absolutely intriguing: making skis and canoes for the hunting season, building and re-building hunting shelters, stocking up on provisions, and living a life based around the seasons. Similarly, I have grown to love the food documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which centers around the life of Japan’s most famous contemporary sushi chef, and which highlights the small details of making what is widely considered to be the world’s best sushi: fish-buying, making rice, heating nori, and cutting the seafood in ways to obtain the perfect cut of tuna. My kids have even joined in on the fun; both of them have watched Jiro and Happy People with the same amount of gusto that they would use to tune into Sarah & Duck or My Little Pony.

…having some limitations is good for creativity, it should make you want to figure new ways out of doing things. If we have access to everything we want there is no reason to think about new ways of getting something we want.
Magnus Nilsson, head chef, Fäviken

According to folklorist Henry Glassie, we are trained “…to learn to understand tradition as a process, an integrated style of creation.” A folklorist’s job is to bring out the cultural significance of the process, rather than just highlight the finished product. This has made a profound impact on how I understand the traditional craftsmanship of liturgical arts in our church, and because of that background, I’ve found myself drawn to the writing and podcasting work of Khouria Krista West, an ecclesiastical tailor based out of Oregon.

From Kh. Krista’s podcast, The Opinionated Tailor, I have not only learned about the great efforts that go into making cassocks, epitrachelions and zones, but also a lot about doing good work really, really well, and with prayerfulness. In her podcast episode, The Honorable Workman, Kh. Krista speaks of how duty and responsibility are misinterpreted as an obstacle in contemporary society:

it’s time to embrace duty and responsibility, despite our culture trying to convince us that they are millstones round our neck. The duties and responsibilities of our lives are like the repetition of the craftsman—we get better and better at things the more opportunity we have to practice. This includes things like marriage, raising children, caring for aging parents, showing hospitality, serving our parish community. A carpenter can’t call himself a master until he’s made hundreds of pieces of furniture; likewise, a father must work daily at providing for his family, a mother for her children, a priest for his parish. Hey, it’s certainly not glamorous, but glamour’s a little over-rated. I recently spent two days acid-etching the concrete floors of my new workshop. The way you start the process is by mopping on a diluted solution of hydrochloric acid and letting it fizz and bubble, after which a brown sludge appears. Glamour is a lot like this—about 15-30 seconds of fizz and bubble and then a bunch of brown sludge. It just doesn’t have any life-long staying power.

In previous blogs, I’ve discussed how there is a lot of sociocultural pressure for people to constantly change their work, whether through switching their jobs or changing vocations entirely. This is why documentaries such as Happy People and Jiro are of such interest; with their focus on solitary practice of doing one thing very, very well over the course of life, they stand in such sharp contrast to modern-day tenets of who we are, and what we should do with our lives. DIY and Pinterest culture have made it possible to be inspired by the work of other makers, but such maker culture is often more a hobby, or a side enterprise, rather than a full-scale vocation. (Sometimes, it becomes the latter, albeit not always at a young age.)

In her book, The Garments of Salvation, Kh. Krista references how, in the Orthodox Church, properly adorning the church, whether with vestments, icons or hymns, is not just a DIY endeavor, but is actually rooted in our church’s theology:

The true craftsman of the Church understands that his goal is not to create something from his own limited human imagination but rather to serve and perpetuate an ultimately God-created, not man-made, tradition. […] Once we understand that the beauty of the material church temple is integral to the theology of the Church, the adorning of the earthly temple is no longer seen as a “fussy” or “luxurious” pursuit, but becomes a holy and worthy endeavor.

Kh. Krista’s book repeatedly focused on the effort that parishes must take to ensure that their space- and that which fills it- is properly outfitted with the people’s best efforts. In an age of fast culture, limited free time, and readily available, readymade culture, the focus on traditional artisanal work as a side enterprise stands in sharp contrast to our calling as Orthodox Christians. Although people write icons, chant and create beautiful things to serve the Church, such things are not “side gigs” that people do during the hours they are not making their living. Rather, our full-time jobs are things that support us as we strive to do the work of the Church. In a previous post, I wrote about how Archbishop Irenée, in his pre-hierarchical years, worked in the emergency room of a Montreal hospital as a way to make his living. The consternation that might arise from saying “He works in a hospital, and in his spare time, he is a monk,” would be understandable.

With that in mind, we have to ask: how does our way to make a living supplant what we do in the Church? How would our daily lives change if we focused our thoughts in that direction, and doing our best work as a way to support our involvement in the Church? The final thought that I learned from Kh. Krista’s look at the honorable workman says it better than I can:

In the barest terms, the honorable workman is just that, a workman. He’s got great skill, learned over years, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself anyone special, like an artist or a genius. He’s simply done the same actions over and over and over until he has freed himself from even paying attention to the actions. But along the way, he’s figured things out—a technique to make this go together better, a certain method to achieve a particular result. It’s the repetition and the limited focus of his work that has ultimately brought him freedom.

Part of the strategy of finding that freedom is like prayer- it involves repetitive practice and a willingness to stay in one place, as it is, in the given moment.

That, perhaps, is why folks like Jiro and Magnus Nilsson appeal to me: they are reminders of how, in the world, joy and satisfaction can come through doing something, sticking with it, and doing it very well.

When you add the beauty of the Church- whether in its liturgies, iconography, or hymns- the combination is a powerful, moving force that serves our true vocation: a life in prayer.

Chancing to Drink Tea

At work, we take our tea fairly seriously.

Our former intern desk, for quite a while, was our tea nook, as my former officemate and friend Megan was a former tea seller, and we have expanded that tea nook to be available to all staff. As I started to feel the physical effects of two morning cups of coffee, I started to replace one of them with a strong Irish breakfast tea or a mint green tea. It has grown into a way of starting the work day with something that clears the mind. On the corkboard above my desk, I have a small cutout photo that says “Drink tea, say the Jesus prayer, and handle it.” It seems simple, but on difficult days where I either have much to handle or feel disorganized, it’s a reminder to recenter.

drink some tea

Of all of my memories of college, it recently occurred to me that a lot of them involve the simple act of drinking tea with a friend. In my pre-Orthodox life, I belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church, and also spent quite a few hours at our local Buddhist monastery,  helping my close friend with chores, and sometimes having conversations with the monks who lived there. We drank chai quite often, and it was always a treat to have it. While living in Estonia, I lived in a student residence with a large number of international students, and it wasn’t unusual for us to sit until 2 o’clock in the morning, drinking varieties of tea and pondering life in the way young adults tend to do. Mostly this happened with my Russian friends; it seemed to always be “coffee with the Italians, tea with the Russians. When my Russian friends have visited me in the US, many cups of hot tea were drank in between adventures.

Many of my place-based memories involve tea drinking. After Mari was born, we spent part of the summer in Nova Scotia, and while there, discovered DAVIDsTEA, a Canadian tea chain that offered lots of blends, including Ayurvedic blends that countered the stress of colic-induced fatigue. Each day, when we came back to St. John’s, we would go to the shop to have the tea of the day. We were fortunate to have lived in a place where tea drinking has remained a large part of the life there. You might have a cup of coffee for breakfast, but it’s tea the rest of the time. (In most cases, it was always Tetley with milk.) Being in a mostly Russian mission, there were many cups of tea after typika (this was before Fr. John and Mat. Constantina Palmer arrived), and there were often many cups of tea drank on Sundays during a post-service drive along the various shores of the Avalon. Coffee was energizing; tea was re-centering and sustaining. It’s almost like tea is what you drink to get through the day, rather than to start it.

In Everyday Saints and Other Stories, Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov) told stories about a priest named Father Raphael, who was frequently having tea with people around him. For Father Raphael, tea with parishioners and friends was a healing process for both they and him, as Bishop Tikhon recalled:

…if you chanced to drink tea with him on his little table in his country parish house, he became completely transformed, especially when people exhausted with suffering and heartache from their lost lives in this world came and sought him out. To be able to deal with such an endless flow of visitors, often capricious, often offended at everything and everyone, often rude and insistent, invariably with heaps of insoluble problems and ceaseless questions, would have been impossible for a normal person. But Father Raphael endured everything and everyone. Actually, he didn’t even endure them—that’s not really the right word, because he never even felt slightly burdened by it. In fact, he enjoyed this time that he spent drinking tea with absolutely anyone, always telling stories, always remembering something interesting from his life in the Pskov Caves Monastery, or talking about his old spiritual mentors, the elders of Pechory. Anyone sitting down to drink tea with Father Raphael found that once he had gotten going, it was impossible to tear oneself away. 

Tea, in Father Raphael’s case, was part of a discernment process for those who visited him, and it is certainly a beverage that often pulls people together, or, if you are drinking it alone- pulls one’s self together. Megan, when we were traveling to Des Moines for a work trip, introduced me to an East Village tea shop called Gong Fu, which offers traditional tea ceremonies, as well as a large variety of loose-leaf teas that you can choose to sit and drink.

That day, I chose a tea called Tour de France, a black tea with a blend of vanilla and black currant. I sat at my table, silently, awaiting its arrival, and when it came, the table ritual began. I poured the tea into my cup, watched the steam rise as it gradually made contact with my face, and took the initial sips. I felt my body suddenly clear itself of the day’s stresses. We were late to a meeting. Parking was a pain. Suddenly, none of that mattered, and my body tilted slightly to the right as Jesus prayers flowed through my mind. I learned in that moment that sometimes, you have to just sit, drink tea, and re-center yourself.

There is something simple about the act of preparing, steeping and drinking tea, that serves as a catalyst for silent, prayerful thought. I asked several friends about their processes of making tea, and received a variety of responses. Leah, my former supervisor and mentor, gave a simple response: “turmeric ginger tea in the a.m. while looking out my window.” My friend and fellow Orthodox April, who lives in San Francisco, share how she and her husband Taylor make it a couples’ ritual: “I make Lady Grey tea with multiple bags in a teapot and let it steep. Then we pull out two teacups and saucers (all a set from Taylor’s grandmother’s house.) I put milk in the creamer, and we place everything on a tray. Then we take the tray into the living room with our sitting chairs.” It can be simple, or complex, but the end result sometimes is the same: intentional, ritualistic time for conversation, contemplation or reflection.

And from that process, one can go forward. Elder Sophrony of Essex is known for saying “Stand at the brink of the abyss of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little and have a cup of tea.”

Mari tea time

Sometimes the hardest thing is admitting that we really need that cup of tea.

But once we do, it is often a joyful, peaceful thing to have.

To Wander, Or Not to Wander?

 

“My wandering foot gets to itching.”
-Charles “Pa” Ingalls, These Happy Golden Years

A couple of weeks ago, we renewed our rental for another year.

For the first time in our married life (and actually, for the first time in my adult life), we have lived at one address for two years. In nearly nine years of being together, the two of us have lived at a combined eight addresses- six as a married couple. Transiency and wandering have defined our early years as a family; every fall seemed to bring a feeling of uncertainty, and another round of job applications. The cycle was such that, when I celebrated my second work anniversary last month, it was not simply exciting, but also a very strange and surreal feeling that we were not used to as a family.

Practically speaking, it is a very difficult thing to fight. In thinking of the quote from Charles Ingalls, his wanderlust was countered by his wife Caroline’s desire to lay down roots in one place. In reading the Little House series, the family is constantly moving, and Caroline wishes for their children to have a quality education. They eventually settle in De Smet, South Dakota, where Charles and Caroline eventually live out their remaining years. At that point, the family has lived in Wisconsin, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

Although I am totally incapable of Charles Ingalls’ pioneering skills, I can identify with his struggle to remain in one space, both spiritually and physically. I spent my childhood thinking about living in other places (some nearby, some further away), studying other people, and having a lot of different interests. My language studies in college took me from Spanish to Estonian, not because of any particular reason, but simply because, at the time, I could. I took a semester of Quechua for anthropology credit, but also got tutored in Norwegian out of sheer personal interest. In Estonia, I found myself exploring other cultures and places, whether through taking a Canadian studies course, learning basic Italian and Polish from my neighbors, or listening to American roots music. There was always somewhere else to think about, and some other place to visit or think about relocating to.

NL west coast

North of Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, 2009.

A Canadian province and three states later, I’m in Iowa, where things are all mashing up together unexpectedly. My global experiences are playing an important role in my professional life, as we live in a city with a large newcomer population, and also in our church, where I am able to share my experiences of faith life in other places with youth.

NL TCH straight shot

Trans-Canada Highway/Route 1, Newfoundland, 2009.

That being said, the wanderlust, and the urge to journey and look elsewhere, is a tough one to fight. It involves constantly denying oneself the opportunity to say “What if I took this experience and brought it somewhere else?” or “What if we left here for a place with more fun spaces, more cultural opportunities, and- as we first thought when arriving in Tucson- more restaurants?” It’s often hard to visit another city on a work trip, and not think about what it would be like to live or work there.

SF downhill

San Francisco, California, 2017.

Tito Colliander, who wrote The Way of the Ascetics, talks about the fight as being one of ego-fighting; in the chapter titled “On the Denial of the Self and the Cleansing of the Heart,” Colliander uses wandering as an example of a practice rooted in self-satisfaction:

It is the life of our will that is destroyed. Since the Fall the will has been running errands exclusively for its own ego. For this reason our warfare is directed against the life of self-will as such. And it should be undertaken without delay or wearying. If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!

Much like Charles Ingalls had his wife Caroline, I have my own spouse to remind me of what there is to lose from being elsewhere. We live in a city that, after living in several places, is a very good balance of where we lived before. We had the urge to live in a college town for many years, when what we needed as a family was to live in a place that wasn’t one. We had the urge to live in a larger city with lots of Orthodox people; by moving to a mid-size city, we actually have more Orthodox churches nearby than any place before that. We had the urge to live in a place with certain amenities; instead, we’ve let our Costco membership expire, used the library more, and realized that the things we thought we needed in a place, aren’t always fundamental to our family’s emotional, spiritual and financial well-being.

Balancing well-being with mobility is not just something for the current generation, or even for the era of pioneer settlers; it is a part of human society that is ever-present, and even extends to the years of the early Church. In her book Time and Despondency, Dr. Nicole Roccas points out that this sense of wandering and escaping is actually a form of despondency that “is marked by a tendency to withdraw spiritually from the present. In theological discourses, despondency is often described as the temptation to abandon what the Fathers call askesis–spiritual effort or discipline.” Staying put, therefore, is a form of ascetic practice, whereas the constant sense of wandering can be the opposite. Roccas brings up St. John Cassian’s discussion of the struggle of eremitic monks who feel the desire to visit and be somewhere beside their cell:

“When [despondency] has taken possession of some unhappy soul,” [St. John Cassian] wrote, “it produces dislike of the place, disgust with the cell, and disdain and contempt of the brethren who dwell with him or at a little distance.” Likewise, despondency “does not  suffer [the monk] to stay in his cell, but instead causes him to believe “he will never be well while he stays in that place, unless he leaves his cell. […] And even when the monk remains in his cell, despondency produces in him a kind of restlessness reminiscent of a caged tiger…

Something important that Roccas points out, in the struggle with staying put, is that the current time, rather than the current place, affects people more:

When I think back on the places and spaces I have ever been tempted to flee–traffic jams come to mind–they all boil down to temporality, not geography. In other, it isn’t the space itself I want to run away from but the time that traps me in that space: the present moment.

For those of us who have lived from contract to contract, fellowship to fellowship, residency to residency, there is a major challenge in making the decision to stay put, and figuring out how to not run away from the present.  This challenge goes against the grain of our current era and its focus on the “gig economy,” where people not only work piecemeal and shift jobs frequently, but are actively encouraged by media and social pressure to do so. Articles such as “You Should Plan On Switching Jobs Every Three Years For The Rest Of Your Life” and “10 Good Reasons to Change Jobs Every 3 to 5 Years” are all over Google, LinkedIn, and other professional development pages. This is nothing new for some professions, such as athletic coaching, university teaching and even the priesthood. But rather than the exception, it’s becoming the norm, and the process of uprooting and re-settling is as routine as filing taxes or buying Christmas presents.

Having felt the stress of uprooting and resettling 3 times in the last 5 years, we have discovered that, while beneficial in some areas (e.g., a wider circle of friends, an increased amount of experience surrounding other people and places), there is a major price to pay in other areas. Family members often bear the brunt of the struggle, especially loved ones who not only have to find their path, but are often left with the logistical and mental load of the move. Whether arranging travel plans, packing boxes or buying cleaning supplies, it all adds up, and takes up time. Furthermore, the distance affects relationships with family and friends who might live elsewhere. In our current state of Iowa, there are many young people who return after being away for a couple of years, having seen the world beyond their home, yet desiring to maintain a deep connection to family, community and place. (Our former home of Newfoundland was also this way; while it’s not exclusive to one place, it’s more intense than in other places.)

The urge to flee remains for many. It never fully goes away. Yet, thoughts of leaving are simply that, and have the capacity to be nothing more. And, with practice and prayer, the urge to stay put takes over. In his book Everyday Saints and Other Stories, Bishop Tikhon’s account of Father Seraphim of the Pskov Caves Monastery recalls how Father Seraphim’s askesis involved staying within the monastery for six decades:

Once there was one novice whose name was Sasha Shvetsov who was seriously thinking about leaving the monastery but hadn’t said anything. Father Seraphim suddenly walked up to him and, stamping his feet, shouted to everyone’s amazement, “The road out of this monastery is closed to you!” He himself had lived in the monastery for sixty years and had never once left its precincts. And he used to say “I never once left this community, not even in my thoughts!” 

Puhtitsa nun gate

Pühtitsa Convent, Kuremäe, Estonia, 2007.

 

In an era of encouraged transition and temporality, I wonder: how can we learn to be more like Father Seraphim? How can we go against the grain of the push for movement, yet still go forward as a community? This is a question that I must ask, as I plan for year three, and also beyond. The fight against wandering is unceasing. But ultimately, remaining present, and in the present, has to win. Monks can do it. Wandering pioneers can do it. Should we, whether we are mid-careerists, fresh out of school, or- like my wife and I- “old millennials,” do it in an era of rapid flux and flow?

snow house wash ave

Cedar Rapids, Iowa, April 2018. (Yes, April.)

The answer is yes. With a lot of prayers, patience, and awareness of the benefits.

Reflections on a Lenten “Writer’s Block”

A blessed Pascha to all- Christ is Risen!

This Lenten season was very special for many reasons. First of all, I became a godfather/sponsor for the first time, to a local university student. This is a role that I am not only honored to fill, but one that I dreamed of filling, and my 10th Lent seemed like an appropriate time to do so. I thought a lot about the fact that it was my 10th Lent in the Orthodox Church; at this point, I have been Orthodox almost as long as I was in the Methodist church of my upbringing.

Thinking about that milestone encouraged me to try something I hadn’t done yet since converting: try to go without dairy products for most of the fast. I expected it to be excruciating. I really enjoy my morning coffee with cream, and one of my favorite snacks is Siggi’s skyr yogurt. However, once I got into the fast, I found the process not excruciating, but exhilirating. This fast- like the first I experienced while living in Kentucky- was an opportunity to look at prayer, fasting and almsgiving with a stronger sense of joy. It was not always easy, especially as I was travelling quite often for my job, but it taught me to see everything as a challenge. That challenge expanded to attending services, and trying to be at more of Holy Week. For some reason, I was able to see small things, like schedule conflicts and busy weeks, as challenges and windows of opportunity for prayer and growth. Seeing the frenzy in that way allowed me to be more at peace with Lent as a season of growth through struggle.

While I was more at ease with fasting, one of the areas in which I greatly struggled was writing. I felt like St. Mary of Egypt as she tried to enter the church; no matter what, I was not able to enter that space. Literally, in three months, I wrote half a blog post about Time and Despondency, and I struggled to think of how to write about a book series that I have been reading from the Norwegian author Karl Øve Knausgård. Reading did not come with difficulty, but writing about it was a battle.

In the last year, I was fortunate enough to connect to Orthodox author, podcaster, and educator Elissa Bjeletich, who has been kind enough to coach me through the early stages of writing, and served as a sort of blog mentor over the last several months. In a conversation we were having, I mentioned that, now that my daughter’s health has improved somewhat, I have not been writing as frequently. Elissa simply said “Sometimes writing is a coping mechanism. The good news is that it reminded you that you love to write. Now you have to find a way to build it into your routine. Like prayer. So much easier when everything is dark and unknown.”

At the same time, while I have not been able to complete a blog entry in several months, my conversation with Elissa also reminded me that my other work, although not always publicly posted, is writing, and that writing practice often comes from branching out into other spaces, or seeing the opportunity for writing in those spaces. Once she said that, I started to see how my professional projects- which include things such as K-12 curriculum, magazine articles, and public talks- are things that help my writing, albeit in a different way. Through creating lesson plans, I learn to communicate my objectives to an educator. Through magazine articles, I learn to reach a particular audience in a short format. Through public talks, I learn how to take written communication and put it into a new form of performance: the verbal arts. I’ve found inspiration from my former years as part of an OCA mission in Canada; my former bishop, now Archbishop Irenée, was bivocational for much of his pre-ordination life, working as an assistant in the emergency ward in a Montreal hospital. Vladyka believed that one could learn quite a lot about obedience and humility from nursing other people, thus providing me an important lesson on how seemingly unrelated things prove themselves relevant.

Elissa’s third- and I think best- bit of wisdom to me was that “it’s good to slow down and take things in, before you switch back to output!” We are given so many opportunities to express ourselves. We have journals, blogs, Instagram and Snapchat accounts, art, dance, YouTube, and many other ways to put our thoughts onto some form of tangible, sharable media. But how often do we soak it in, rather than just spill it out?

That’s the question I want to keep asking myself.

It Takes Work

“Put your faith in God, but don’t stop working.”
Russian proverb

Several weeks have passed since we returned from the Bay Area, and I am happy to be able to say that my daughter has been able to- at last- start taking the medicine she needs for her narcolepsy. She is taking Xyrem, which as a medicine is complicated; it is heavily controlled due to its history of being abused and misused, and it is only available through one central pharmacy in the U.S. Thankfully, our interactions with the pharmacy have been overwhelmingly positive, and we have been gifted with good support as Mari began her treatment a week ago. Originally, we had to wake up in the middle of the night to give her doses, but have since been able to shift to a schedule that is allowing us to sleep decently for the first time in quite a while. (We’ve been woken up most nights for several months because Mari, out of having terrible dreams, would come into our bed, sometimes several times in a night.)

Mari is feeling better. She is getting restful sleep, and we have noticed that some things have improved, such as her moods, the normalcy of her appetite, and even things like her impulse control. Our evenings at home have had significantly less struggle, which this has proven to be a huge relief for us.

Yet, at the same time, we know that this is not the end of our struggle, or hers. We are still working on finding the right dosage for her, which requires being in touch with the crew at Stanford, and a great deal of patience. She still has times where she needs to sleep, and moments in which she is frustrated. However, those struggles are more like those of any six-year old, and it’s not easy to raise a six-year old, let alone one with a chronic disorder.

In the gradual settling of things, I’ve found myself sitting and wondering, “Did this all really just happen?” The answer is, of course, yes, it did, and to be able to step back from it and look more. Even with a diagnosis, proper treatment, and a bit of resilience, there’s a feeling of starting anew. It’s hard to look back at what happened, and not feel a sense of sadness for what did not go well. For what you regret saying, doing, and thinking as a parent, spouse, family member, coworker or friend. For the first time in years, I had a feeling of hitting the absolute bottom.

But in community, and in communion with the people around me, I realized that because of that bottoming, and sharing that sentiment with people closest to me, it is possible to go beyond it, and to do better. And it’s possible to keep moving, as the waves do.

Every low point of a wave gives way to a higher wave. But it takes time, energy, force, and gravity.

And, as the above proverb suggested, it takes work.