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Archive for September, 2010

“Committed to Truth, Compelled to Justice,” is the Dominican phrase that is the impetus to the Dominican charism: preaching.  That is, if you ever see the signature of a Dominican avowed religious, you will see “OP” after his or her name.  “OP” stands for “Order of Preaching,” and all Dominicans commit to using their voice, writing, actions, lives to preach in the world.  I can preach using my teaching, or my writing, or my commitment to social action.  I have been taught that once you commit yourself to Truth, you are compelled to help bring about justice.

I am on the advisory board for Religious Freedom USA. Today, RFUSA is holding a Liberty Walk, to support religious freedom, and interfaith relationships, here in the city.

My colleague Josh e-mailed me last night, expressing some fear about the walk today– there’s been so much emotion, from people and in the press, around Park 51, and Muslim-Americans, and tensions around multi-religious dialogue (or lack of dialogue) in recent weeks.  I see it on Facebook, among my friends and colleagues, in the press.  Josh asked me to keep the walk in my thoughts today– I’ll be at work when it’s going on, unable to attend.  I wrote back to Josh (who is Jewish),

“Hey,

Don’t be scared.  As a Christian, I use the following language to describe how we are not alone, in any endeavor— the Holy Spirit, or Grace, moves around us, constantly. Our endeavors and pursuit of truth, and justice, are grace-fully wound into and woven together the work of others.. and the work of God.

God moves in ways we rarely perceive. God’s work is out of time, as it were. There’s a Greek word, kairos, that historians and theologians use, to describe moments in human time where…  where human movement, and changes in politics, or changes in the way things are done, and God’s movement… intersect. That’s a poor translation on my part. But– historians talk about the kairos around MLK, Jr, and around other times in history, where human work seemed particularly energized, galvanizing.

I believe– and I’m not the only one– that this is one of those times. That your work in RFUSA, and the Liberty Walk… these are signs of a larger movement, and spirit, and energy.  You are not alone.  You are leading, and modeling, and amplifying… but you are one part, and you are surrounded by the grace and strength and energy of thousands of others, near and far, and of God, in ways seen and unseen.

As you begin your participating work this afternoon, take a moment to “check in” emotionally or spiritually with all of those people, near and far.  Let your mind remember movements and times and places in history, where people such as yourself have _acted_ and meant something.

I personally believe that your own work and spirit will be gilded and linked to all of those around you– in this world and the next. I know you don’t believe that, but I wonder if there isn’t some way for you to pause and take in the _energy_ of those with you this afternoon, and to remember your own ancestors and heroes, and to imagine that they can sustain you.

My prayers and thoughts are with all of you, all day today.  Today, you all are the hands and eyes and hearts and mouths of those in our generation who cry out for Justice. Do not be afraid.

Thinking of you,
Stephanie”

It’s funny– I don’t always make such a strong connection inside myself my interfaith work, and my Dominican association.  This morning, for some reason, my Dominican charism really voiced itself, in response to Josh, and I really, really felt a connectivity between the work the activists will be doing downtown this afternoon, and the work I’ve perceived in my Dominican role models.

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After I wrote my first blog post for Eat the Damn Cake, on how I have a fundamental disagreement with lots of Kate’s writing (thumbnail: I don’t spend much time doubting my beauty, and sometimes have little patience for women my age who bemoan their self-perceived ugliness), many commenters wondered aloud, “What’s the difference between feeling good about how you look, and just being vain?”

I did consider that, and tried to fully answer it in another blog post entitled, “Why Thinking I Look Great is Not Vanity;” you can read it here.

I tried to really, truly articulate the following problem that frustrates me: a woman states aloud her doubts about the way she looks. Observers, impartial or even biased, give a compliment. The woman cannot or will not listen to or believe the compliment, and persist in their own internal, negative self-tape.  I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense.  Why are some people committed to refusing to hear a possible different opinion, even it is repeated, over time, by many?

There’s a wrinkle here, which neither I nor Kate have talked about.  There are actually many people in the world who live with disfigurement, missing limbs, scars… For the most part, everyone I know here in the US, particularly those in my age group, is attractive.  Like, within the realm of being conventionally attractive, or attractive in other ways: being sexy, having a kind of physical prowess that is interesting or admirable, having another trait–voice, artistic ability, wisdom–that is attractive.

I have seen one article on Jezebel.com, where the commenters are discussing the idea that not everyone will find someone (a romantic or sexual partner.)  Some commenters said, “Look, there are some of us that are actually, really and truly, physically ugly and we will not, no matter how positive you try to be, find lovers.”

I disagree with that, too, but that’s another post entirely.  I find it really interesting that although Kate (and I assume, many of the readers that share her pain) is very pretty, in both conventional and unconventional ways, _and_ the recipient of many compliments and assertions of her beauty, she doesn’t take up the issue of those with physical disfigurements that many would find unappealing.

This is difficult to write about, in no small part because we all have different ideas about attractiveness. In my own brief life as an adult, I’ve found myself greatly physically attracted to men that not everyone would find handsome.  For example.  I have found gorgeous women who don’t look like women I see in magazines. I get it: it’s objective. I’m sure not everyone who passes me on the street thinks I’m pretty, but I disagree.

I guess what I’m trying to say has two parts.

First, I think that women I know, and women my age especially, spend too much time worrying about their own beauty, and, even worse, spend too much time doubting that they are, in fact, attractive– and persist in these doubts even when evidence from others points to the contrary.

Second, there is the possibility that someone might _not_ fall into the realm of physically attractive at all— there are many people who have physical injuries or difficulties that very much make them feel “ugly,” and this “ugly” is different than the ugly Kate talks about.  At least, I think it is.

And I would like to know how these other people (unphotographed, unused in ads, under-represented in literary heroines) move through the world.  Finally, I wonder what women who say, “I’m so ugly in this dress!” have to say about things like illness, dismemberment, scarring, and physical tragedy.  Most of the time, though, I would be satisfied if women my age stopped using, “I’m so ugly in this dress!” as a shared shopping/compliment-resisting (possibly compliment fishing?)  tactic.

Anyway: vanity.  I do think a lot about humility, especially as a Christian virtue. I mean, for goodness’ sake, I spent three years of my life studying early Christian saints, and “humble” becomes practically a trope– a topos– in any hagiography.  I got a little obsessed. When the time came to apply for PhD programs, and I voiced this concern, “Hey, it’s hard to be humble, when I’m being asked to sell myself,” to my academic advisor (also a former monk and current Orthodox priest), he had to reassure me, albeit sternly, that I am not a monastic, I am an academic.

In fact, worry about being prideful kept me from mentioning one of my most-lauded academic achievements on my PhD applications.  Again: another post.  So it’s not that I don’t worry about being vain, or thinking too much of myself.  It is funny that this obsession with being humble doesn’t swim over into how I see my appearance.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I tried to do a good job of it on Eat the Damn Cake.

PS: Kate also put up a mini-reel of photos of me eating cake.  This, the commenters loved.

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Ironing, and thankful

I spent more than four hours on Saturday ironing. Even when I worked for April Cornell, even steaming and pressing endless linens for store openings, I never ironed so much in one setting.

It’s “back to school” this week, and with it comes magazine spreads of fall fashion, window displays of new outfits, and blog posts on desired shoes, sweaters, and stockings. I haven’t purchased new clothes for myself, apart from my wedding dress last year, in nearly two years. My last new dress my mother-in-law bought me for a family wedding, as a birthday gift, last October. Happily, too, because I then wore that dress for a bridal shower and then for my own rehearsal dinner. I just haven’t had the money for new clothes, and I also want to be in a place of re-using, and appreciating, and not consuming too much.

And yet… the “back to school” attitude made me a bit “want-y,” a bit restless, a bit desirous. I set out, last Saturday, to cull my closet, repair buttons, and iron all my clothes. So that this week, and next–the first two of school–I might have clothes and outfits I feel excited about, and eager to wear.

In all the ironing, I noticed a few skirts I haven’t worn in months, and am excited about. I found two skirts that need to be mended by our tailor, and one pair of slacks I haven’t worn in a year because of a broken button. I pulled out things that are too big, or that are so uncomfortable I dread wearing them. As I ironed, hour after hour, I noticed how much I like the clothes I have. I saw new outfits I could make. I remembered when I first got various items, remembered wearing them at Oxford, or in Vermont, or in Prague. I started feeling thankful for the sheer volume of clothes I have.

I replaced the button on those slacks, and pressed them like new. Voila: a pair of pants I haven’t worn in a more than a year, ready for fall.

I have a jacket I’ve had since before I came to the city. It’s olive green, with pink satin piping on the inner seams. It has been missing its front three buttons for at least a year. Each cuff originally had four buttons; they’ve been falling apart for as long as I’ve had the jacket.

Over Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me a big baggie of assorted buttons, all used, mostly old, often beautiful. I poured them out on the table, and searched for 11 buttons that would either match or look good together, for the jacket. Then, I gave the jacket a make-over. It took a few hours, of on and off work, but eventually, I had a new jacket. The faded silver buttons, with English horns and laurels, look fantastic on the jacket. I kept the jacket hanging outside of the closet all day, just so I can appreciate it.

I have a long-distance friend, Sr. Adele, who has been recently sending letters to a group of us. She’s been recovering from an injury, and has taken the time to write missives describing her life and her recovery, within her semi-cloistered community. It strikes me, when I hear from her, how few material possessions she and her sisters have. So anti-modern, nearly anti-American, to have nothing for one’s self. No earnings, no paycheck, no house full of goods, no shopping sprees or impulse buys. I know these sisters, though, and have seen the intensity, creativity, peace, and brilliance in their eyes and actions.

Sr. Adele’s glimpses into her life remind me not to be too grabby when it comes to things like new clothes. Her descriptions of joys and challenges are stark counterpoint to the recent issue of Marie Claire I read. I was genuinely thankful, if weary, by hour three of ironing. I have a lot of clothes!  They all fit, they are in good repair, and they are pretty.

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Red Bay: Indian blanket

I finally got to go to Red Bay this year– from the very first time I met Matt, I had heard stories, and seen photographs, and heard recountings of favorite things “in Canada.” This summer, we went together, for two weeks.

The bay, the water, hammocks, cottages, fresh veg, time with family, stacks of books, pottery, sunsets, swimming, the fen, sleeping in fresh cool air, shooting stars…  it was the best vacation I’ve ever had.

I brought along with me a little watercolour kit; it included eight blocks of colors and one small brush. It’s meant for traveling, and folds up compactly, to about the size of a bar of soap.

On my first morning at the cottage, I spied a group of flaming-red and yellow flowers outside of the breezeway. The red was so red, and I liked the spindly, pointed petals, and especially liked the tiny tendrils that populated the inner puffs.

It has been a while since I’ve painted a watercolour. Most of my painting lately has been for sets for plays; I’ve done a few small things for gifts as well. First, I tried sketching exactly what the flowers looked like. I wanted it to be very detailed and exact. Unfortunately, the sketch looked so, so busy. Too packed, too many lines and stuff.

Matt’s Grandmother is a talented artist, and has worked in many media, including watercolour. Many of her paintings include scenes from summers in Red Bay. I showed her my over-drawn sketch, and asked her how one gets a flower to “look like a flower.” I mean, does one try to draw each petal wherever there’s a petal, or just paint the general spirt of the flower? She said I was overthinking/overdoing it, and said, “Forget the petals.”

So, I put away my pencil, and started again.  This time, I just eased out the yellowy-red color for each petal, using the water as it runs into the contours of the good paper to ease in more red. My favorite part of each petal was where the it becomes more red against the yellow–like dye bleeding into wet fabric, in miniature.

I also love the tiny filaments that came out from the center– I had one strand of my paintbrush that stuck out longer than the rest, and would carefully use that tiny strand to run a darker bit of paint out, to make individual filaments.  I also became very fond of the dying and dead flowers, especially the way the petals looked when they shriveled.

Over the course of a few days, I became so familiar with these individual flowers, even noticing day by day how they were changing overnight.  Matt’s Aunt Marty found the flower in the Audubon guide they had in the cottage. It was strange to suddenly see, and recognize the photograph, with official names and classifications: Gaillardia pulchella, or Indian blanket.

We’re going to frame it for my birthday. A real souvenir from Canada, to go along with the rocks, dried leaves, and other artifacts we’ve collected. I still smile when I see the colors, and remember the way the sun warmed rocks felt under me, as I sat in the breeze and began to paint. Forgetting the petals, but losing myself in the color.

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