Memento Mori, Maybe?


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This Lent I am going to spend time thinking about my death.

I don’t mean “dying to self” through daily sacrifices, though that’s also valuable. By all means, give up chocolate or coffee or hitting the snooze button on your alarm if you have the stamina for it.  I mean the practice of Memento Mori, remembering one’s actual, eventual, inevitable death.

The practice itself can involve placing a small skull memento on your desk, or carrying around a picture or trinket in your pocket. It’s intended to provoke more thoughtful choices by providing a constant reminder that our time spent living is short and unpredictable.

I plan to go through Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble’s Lenten Devotional, Remember Your Death: Memento Mori with a few close friends. (There is also a lovely but optional companion journal that includes relevant quotes on the topic.) Perhaps I’ll place a little skull on my desk, or wear a subtle bracelet to remind myself throughout the day. I say “subtle” because my intent is to remind myself, not to scare small children or draw undue attention as a middle-aged goth.

Is this morbid? Perhaps. I am drawn to morbid things, so I’m not a good judge. I spent a lot of time playing in a cemetery as a child, and I read a lot of horror. But neither a fascination with cemeteries and horror nor the practice of memento mori are intended to glorify death. They are, rather, a reminder of an easily forgotten truth: we are all going to die. Remembering this in a thoughtful, intentional way can only help us live more meaningfully.

Poetry for Every Mood

 

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Kristen challenged me to dig more into poetry this month. I remember well the poetry unit in high school English. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Peng, had us use a text called Sound and Sense, with a green cover. I hated the unit, and could not wait for it to be over. I could not get into “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, which it seemed we spent at least a month on (it was probably two class periods, but it felt like torture). When we were required to choose a poem to analyze line-by-line, I picked “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, in the hopes that the semi-scandalous subtext would excuse me from digging too deeply into anything other than strict meter and rhythm. (It did not; I believe I got a B.)

I did my best to forget about poetry until years later when I read Neil Gaiman’s collection Smoke and Mirrors, which contains several poems scattered among the short stories. This collection blew my mind for many reasons; first, because he includes a lengthy introduction that tells a bit of the story behind each selection in the book. Second, it was the first time I saw poems as being anything other than overblown melodrama. Gaiman’s poems made me squirm, and shudder, just like his short stories and novels do. It had never occurred to me before that, outside of limericks, poetry could take on a variety of tones and genre. And his explanation of a sestina (a particularly rigid form of poetry with six verses followed by an envoi, with certain words repeating in a certain order—it’s dizzying, truly) made me want to play with words again.

But I did not actively seek out poetry until after my mother died, and my dear friend Cassidy Hall sent me a copy of ’Mary Oliver‘s Thirst. Grief can do really odd things to a person, and different griefs can do different things to the same person. After my mother’s death I found it hard to read anything “pleasant,” opting instead for horror novels, with the exception of Mary Oliver. There was something about her poems—short, accessible, everyday—that made me feel like she was saying, “Yes, I see that tender spot. It’s real. I have felt that too. Come listen to geese with me; they know it too.” Her poetry kept me grounded in a way that the Bible itself could not through that grief. Without preaching, it allowed me to sit, to feel, to listen, to be whatever I needed to be in the moment, and that was pure gift.

Since I’d found it so useful, I went out on a limb and took a poetry class last April (which is National Poetry Writing Month, so heads up: get your quills and ink pots ready, friends). The class was offered through Convivium School, by instructor Rebecca Bratten Weiss. We studied a different type of poem daily for the entire month, and wrote our own examples of each. I was smitten, and have been seeking out poetry to read (and attempting more writing) since.

Below are some of my favorite collections by “feel.”

Are you in the mood for something comforting? Want to commune with nature? In addition to Thirst, I recommend Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings. There is nothing that Oliver cannot make lovely. (Incidentally, this was also a gift from Cassidy, who also makes everything lovely.)

Are you in the mood for something to break your heart and put it back together again like only an Irish poet can? Try anything by Padraig O’Tuama. I’m currently reading In the Shelter, which is a memoir with poetry interspersed. He is truly phenomenal.

Are you in the mood for something uncanny? Try Joanna Penn Cooper’s The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis. She will have you looking at ordinary things upside-down and through a veil.

Are you in the mood for some biting feminism? Try anything by R. Bratten Weiss. If you’d like to combine some uncanniness with some biting feminism, Penn Cooper and Bratten Weiss have a remarkable collaborative work, Mud Woman.

Are you in the mood for something uncanny, horrifying, and grief-driven? I know that sounds like an odd combination, but if you grieve like I do you may really enjoy The Mobius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone.

Are you in the mood for historical fiction that’s also horrific? This one is a tough read, but I highly recommend The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. McCully Brown writes fictional poetry based on actual records from the asylum. This one is disturbing.

Are you in the mood for feminist horror, with a bit of whimsy? Try Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann. You may chuckle and cringe at the same time.

Are you in the mood for whimsy, with just a touch of horror? Try Pinpricks: A Book of Tiny and Terrible Oddities by Jason Pell. This book is described as “micro fictions and illustrations.” It may be like flash-graphic novel? I find it downright poetic.

 

You’ll notice that many of my selections are horror-related; that’s just my genre of choice. I can guarantee that if you’re more into, say, westerns, or romance, or science fiction, there will be collections out there to suit your preferences. Feel free to share some of your favorites.

 

Doing the Time Warp at 2 a.m.

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It’s astounding.
Time is fleeting.
Madness takes its toll.

Oh, look. I’ve gone from a pleasant dream to mid-thought in a second. I’m suddenly wide awake, Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show running through my head.

I remember doing the Time Warp,
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me
And the void would be calling
Let’s do the Time Warp again…

It happened the night before, too. If the pattern holds, my mind will start racing through random thoughts mixed with snatches of songs until I land on some unfinished work and feel anxious, head spinning, heart pounding.

Head over heart, heart over pelvis.

Pay attention to the way you stand. Stack the bones for a firm foundation.

Why am I cycling through Yoga with Adriene now? I’d agreed to try daily yoga exercises for the month of January with a group of women more motivated than I. I didn’t get very far; I think I did two days, spread over a week. The dogs were distressed, and my daughter was afraid I’d fallen and couldn’t get up. I wasn’t terribly stable. I was scaring those around me.

 

Take your time. Pay attention to the way you breathe. When you inhale, feel your abdomen and your rib cage expand in all four directions. Take up space…

Time. Space. This all reminds me that I was supposed to spend the month making art, for fun. But I haven’t really, unless you count some photos I took of moss, or the marzipan flowers I made with my daughter for the cupcakes to help take her mind off looming events, or the conversations with various friends about music.

Those probably don’t count.

Hey, there’s that unfinished work.

God, I need to sleep.

Hey, God. Hey. I need to sleep.

I reach into my bedside drawer to fish around quietly for a rosary. My grandma taught me long ago, when she would visit and we’d have to share a bed and she smelled pleasantly of talcum powder and yarn, that the best way to bore yourself to sleep is by starting a rosary. My hand finds some cool, smooth beads, and I slide it out.

It’s broken.

I wonder how that works. The rosary leads you around in a predictable circle, reciting rote prayers while reflecting (or attempting to) on a portion of Christ’s life. Christ’s life, written in the stones of the Stations of the Cross, on cathedral walls, in museums. It’s the same. It’s a circle. Birth, death, birth. Repeat. But what if it’s broken? What if the end doesn’t come back to the beginning in a stable, but is able to spiral through time, Kairos time instead of Chronos? What if it reached…all the way here?

Let’s do the Time Warp again….

Hey there, random song snatches.

 

 It’s just a jump to the left

I remember the summer I learned to do the Time Warp. I was maybe 5 or 6, and tagged along on a marching band field trip. The high schoolers thought I was so cute,

And then a step to the riiiiiight

particularly since I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, but was so enthusiastic anyway.

With your hands on your hips,
You bring your knees in tight.
But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insa-a-aaaaane

I had no idea what I was doing.

Head over heart, heart over pelvis.

Thanks, Adriene.

I wonder if my grandmother felt like she knew what she was doing. She looked like she knew what she was doing—and she was most definitely an artist. I am actively trying to sleep under one of her most beautiful works, an afghan of blue, light blue, purple, and brown. She made it for me when I found the watch she thought she’d lost forever—the last gift my grandfather had given her before he died.

Let’s do the time warp again

I wonder if she cried while she crocheted it,

Stack the bones

I wonder if she stitched him back together in her memory, with the watch and the yarn and her shaking arthritic hands and her tears.

Breathe

Isn’t that what we do, much of the time, with art? What we seek? We hook into the time slip, latch onto a thread of truth, pull it into our here and now, and interpret it through our lens. And when others (or maybe just one other, maybe the One who created us to begin with) can look at it and see it and recognize both something of themselves and something of us in it—that’s a unique connection. That’s a rush. To release that back into time, to leave a marker of this place, this time, this truth, this meeting, and the juxtaposition of them, like dropping a pin on a map–that’s a legacy. That’s taking the ghost of a thought, stacking the bones inside it, and giving it flesh.

Feel yourself expand in all directions

It can happen with an afghan, or a song, or when your four-year-old draws a picture of Heaven complete with grandparents they’ve never met.

Head over heart

I might scare those around me.

Heart over pelvis

I won’t know what I’m doing.

Jump to the left

It will take time, and space, and breath, and truth.

Stack the bones

Tomorrow I will put some flesh on some bones.

Let’s do the Time Warp again.

 (Note: The quotes from Yoga with Adriene are the way my brain remembered them at 2 a.m. They may not be accurate.)

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Moss. It’s art. Photo: Mary Bishop

Furlough Reprieve: Catching Our Collective Breath

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After a record-setting 35-day furlough, the 800,000 federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown were able to officially return to work on Monday. The stopgap measure only lasts until February 15, when we could see the whole debacle begin again. (Here are some suggestions and resources for managing finances through and after a furlough.) The devastation to our environment while parks were shut down has also been tremendous.

But through the 5-week national breath-holding and hand-wringing and finger-pointing, we saw so many heroic measures. We saw neighbors looking out for each other. We saw people stepping up.

To the employees who went to work without pay to keep us safe, thank you.

To the employees who weren’t allowed to go to work and stayed home wanting nothing more than to do their jobs, thank you.

To the employees who had to take out loans, or take temporary work to make ends meet, thank you.

To the companies and individuals who stepped up to feed, to pay, to shelter, to encourage, thank you.

To the kids who pitched in to help their parents who were furloughed, thank you.

Rest, people. This reprieve may be temporary. Let’s keep taking care of each other.

 

Hope Doesn’t Go on Furlough: Breakfast

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The government shutdown has caused so many issues (here is a running list of some of the real-world consequences), that discouragement is natural. For the remainder of the shutdown we will be sharing the ways people are stepping up to help each other, proving that humans can show empathy and not behave like ninnies. Feel free to share any that you see on our Facebook page, and please join in to help when you can.

As our government remains shut down, we continue to have the opportunity to feed each other, and to be fed. Baltimore-Washington area IKEA stores are offering free breakfasts on weekday mornings with a valid government ID. Neighbors, reach out to each other.

 

 

Hope Doesn’t Go on Furlough: #ChefsForFeds

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The government shutdown has caused so many issues (here is a running list of some of the real-world consequences), that discouragement is natural. For the remainder of the shutdown we will be sharing the ways people are stepping up to help each other, proving that humans can show empathy and not behave like ninnies. Feel free to share any that you see on our Facebook page, and please join in to help when you can.

Today’s hope comes from #ChefsForFeds Café in DC, feeding furloughed federal employees. While putting food in the belly is certainly a priority, efforts to reach out go beyond hunger, as Department of Interior employee Anita Gonzales-Evans notes:

“Today’s the first day for me to pull out my federal ID. And today is my first day to put makeup on. And today is my first day to just feel like a damn person again. I had to get out of my house. My house is clean. There’s nothing left to clean.”

Read more about #ChefsForFeds, World Central Kitchen, and the meal effort here.

Thank you to our friend Jennifer Reek for sharing this sign of hope with us!

Hope Doesn’t Go on Furlough: Thanks for the Pies, Canada

 

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 The government shutdown has caused so many issues (here is a running list of some of the real-world consequences), that discouragement is natural. For the remainder of the shutdown we will be sharing the ways people are stepping up to help each other, proving that humans can show empathy and not behave like ninnies. Feel free to share any that you see on our Facebook page, and please join in to help when you can.

What’s more stressful than being an air traffic controller? Working as an air traffic controller without pay, while you’re hungry. Thankfully our cooler cousins to the north understand that. Thanks for feeding us, Canada.