Sunday, April 20, 2014

1 Corinthians 15:55

Where there's life, there's hope.  But is there hope in death?

A friend and colleague of mine died this past week of a cancer that was diagnosed less than six months ago, just after Thanksgiving.  Last autumn, she and a colleague took a group of students on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  This spring, she is dead, leaving behind her father, her brother, her husband, and their two sons.  She was 53.

There is no logic in her death.  She was, in so many ways, the best of us, the most generous, the most giving, the most supportive, the calmest, always ready with a thoughtful word.  Thinking of her, what I remember best is her warmth, the gentleness of her voice, and her smile.  Although I saw her only infrequently after graduate school, she always gave the impression of having been thinking about me.     She had an almost magical ability to make one feel loved and respected and treasured.

And now she is dead.  I can only imagine what her family must be feeling if even those of us who only knew her professionally are grieving so.  It is unfair.  There is nothing that she did to deserve dying so young.  She was active and fit, a rider of horses.  She was calm as a scholar, no drama or crises as far as I could tell, her work steady and polished.  She was balanced as a person, giving proper time to her work and her family.  I never once heard her complain.

And, no, this is not simply speaking well of the dead.  She really was this person, at least as I knew her, but I doubt very much that I am alone.  She was, in so many ways, the person that I wish I could be, from her knowledge of languages (she studied Arabic long before it was fashionable), to the clarity of her prose (limpid in its precision and lack of pretension), to the way in which she talked about the challenges of riding her horses (two wills, not just one, that you have to control).  If only, I have so often thought, I could be a better person, the person I would be would be most like Remie.

Is there a lesson for us in her death?  Or is there only sadness for the loss of someone so precious to us?  Death "concentrates the mind", "gives meaning to life", "puts things in perspective".  We should remember the dead, "for they were like us and we will be like them".  "Seize the day, for you never know when the end will come."  The phrases rattle around like well-worn pebbles in the mind, as senseless as the death of our friend.  At least, that is, as senseless as her death seems to all of us still struggling here in this life, the only life we have ever known, thinking, hoping, dreaming that there is something, anything we can do to make death not come.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Achilles' Heel

Which is the true measure of my strength: that I cry when I choke (and did I choke on Sunday!), or that I get back on the strip even after humiliating myself in front of all of my friends and try again?

Growing up, it was regularly borne upon me that crying was the worst of failings, the greatest of sins, the true marker of my character.  "Why do you get so upset?  It's only [fill in the blank]."  "Don't upset Rachel, she can't take it." My siblings knew that I could always be counted upon to burst into tears of rage and frustration if they pushed me hard enough, at which the adults would sit round shaking their heads and saying, "Why can't she learn to control her temper?" and trying desperately to distance themselves from the storm.

It was humiliating.  Every time it happened, after the storm passed, I simply wanted to die, run away, get as far away from the things that had made me so panicky.  In my humiliation, all I could see was failure: failure to "control my temper," failure to grow up, failure not to cry.  Because Big Girls Don't Cry--right?  I would vow never to do so again, never to let my feelings get the better of me, to be strong and not give into the floods.  But I never could keep myself from crying, not indefinitely.

I hadn't broken down at a tournament like I did this past week in years.  I thought I was fixed.  I thought that I had finally put enough habits and thoughts in place that I would be able to lose gracefully if it came to that and that even if I felt like crying, I could hold it until I got out of the venue and back to my hotel room.  I didn't even make it to the side of the pod before it hit.  I ran--oh, did I run!--to get out of there on Sunday, but I couldn't run fast enough.  I couldn't run away from the feelings that were crashing in upon me, and I couldn't keep from showing them to the world.

But, then, of course, I shouldn't have had all those feelings in the first place, right?  That's what the voices from my childhood are telling me, have been telling me all these years.  It is wrong to cry because it is wrong to be upset in the first place.  It's just a game, after all.  No big deal.  Nothing to get so upset about.  The voices do have a point: it is just a game--and I know that.  Nothing in my life hangs on whether I can get the last touch.  Nothing will change if I don't get up on the podium, for good or ill.  It's just a sport.  It isn't really important at all.

So why does it hurt so much when I fail?  If it isn't important, why can't I just shake it off?  Well, clearly because it doesn't feel like it's not important.  What it feels like is I want to be able to do something that I can't and I can't figure out what it is that I am doing wrong.  I hate being wrong.  I hate not being able to do things.  I hate feeling clumsy and unskilled.  But I also hate not feeling like I can trust myself not to get upset.  And I hate the fact that I cry.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On Quitting

Right, so, that was painful.  And, yes, it still hurts, although it seems to be passing. But am I actually going to quit?

Yes and no. Yes, I need to quit, but, no, I probably won't. I'm not sure that this is entirely a good thing.

Where am I going with this thought?

I am still very, very tired from this past weekend.  I feel like a storm has blown through and there are still branches down in the street.  I am happy to have had the desire to blog again, at least briefly.  Will that last?  I don't know, but I realize that I actually hope so.

I don't like quitting.  And yet, it is an odd form of weakness not to be able to quit doing something that hurts so very much.  Why don't I just run away?

I meant this post to be a little more philosophical, not just ramblings, but not having blogged in so long, maybe this is what I need to do.  Just sit down at the page and....  And what?

What is the difference between quitting and failure?  When I say I don't like quitting, that is not actually true.  I have quit many things in my life, some of which I did for even longer than I have been fencing.

Or, rather, I have quit some things; other things I have simply stopped doing without purposefully quitting.

Quitting, I think, is actually better.

It is definite, an actual decision.  Something that takes strength and will power.  Like quitting smoking.  Or your job.

Simply stopping without purposefully quitting is different.  It just means you drift away.

I could let myself just drift away from fencing.  Not go to practice as much.  Not go to tournaments.  Find that I haven't been in a month and didn't really miss it.  Notice that I haven't even thought about picking up a foil.  And not care.

This is how I stopped knitting.  Sort of.  I still have projects gathering dust on the needles, but it's laughable.  One has been stalled since I was in graduate school.  Another, which I bought so as to try to get back into it, has been gathering dust (literally) for three or four years.  I finished the first scarf, but the second is sitting somewhere in a bag.

But knitting was never actually painful.  I just lost interest, as they say.

Piano and swimming, on the other hand.  Well.  There were tears.  There was the frustration of not knowing how to practice.  There was the envy of those who seemed to sail through the awkwardness and actually be accomplished, not just perpetually intermediate.

I never actually quit piano, I kept meaning to get back to it.  I even bought a piano after I got tenure, thinking that then I would get myself to practice again.

I've been using the piano occasionally of late to try to figure out the fiddle tunes we're learning.  But I realize I am probably never going to actually get myself to play again.

And I hate swimming.  Viscerally.  My skin shrinks even at the thought of diving into a pool again.  I feel reproached whenever someone mentions swimming to keep fit.  There is no way I would put myself through that tedium again.

But fencing.  Fencing I am actually moderately good at.  I did not, in fact, fence badly this past weekend.  In certain respects, I fenced better than I ever have in my life.

Which is probably why it hurt so very, very much when I choked.

There is no way to make this feeling go away.

Because I still care?  Oddly, I'm not sure.  Do I care?  Or is what broke inside me on Sunday that--caring?  It hurt so very, very much to want a particular result (yes, yes, I know), know what I needed to do, and then not do it.

But if I don't care, what will be my motivation?

It takes enormous willpower to get to practice even as infrequently as I have been.  The weather, the distance, the traffic, my health, my work.  All are against my practicing at all, never mind more than once or twice a week.

You have to want it, so they say.  But wanting is what makes it hurt.

It is easy to quit something you don't want anymore.  You just step away.

Quitting something that you don't care about is the easiest thing in the world.

I don't know which thought makes me sadder.

That I might actually quit.

Or that I already have.

Monday, April 14, 2014

So Long, and Thanks for All the Bouts

Something died in me this weekend.  It was the spring Veterans' NAC.  All the usual suspects, plus a few new faces.  I fenced brilliantly in both my pools: 4-1 on Friday in Veteran Women 40-49 foil, 5-1 yesterday in Veteran Women Combined foil.  On Friday I placed 4th out of the pools overall; on Sunday I tied for 6th.  And then I blew it.  TWICE.  I lost my first DE on Friday 8-10, thus losing my place in the medal round (top 8).  And I lost my second DE yesterday, again 8-10, again losing my place in the medal round--the first time ever in Vet Combined that I even had a place to lose after the pools.  And that basically broke my heart.

One of my friends was watching the Veteran Women Foil Team finals with me on Saturday, and he said something about fencing being a fickle sport.  Fickle is exactly the word--and its god is Loki.  No matter what kind of offerings you bring to the god, he will cheat and trick and lie to you.  Nothing that you do can appease him if he is in the mood to destroy you.  Not practice for a decade.  Not spend years in therapy trying to work through all your childhood issues about being good enough.  Not surrender yourself to the knowledge that you are going to have to fence your hardest because she is too.  Not jam your big toe again in proof of the fact that you were fencing your hardest.

Nothing.  Because there will be something that he tells you about her that destroys any possible victory you could have even in losing.  For example, that she hasn't fenced in decades and is just getting back in shape.  Or that she only started fencing four years ago and made it into the medal round through you, when you have never cracked that round in this event even after eleven years.  And then he does even worse and pulls everything out from under you: your sportsmanship, your discipline of staying to see how the event plays out because you know that that is the way to learn.  And you are left raging and weeping in the flood of adrenaline that now you can do nothing about except suffer through.

What is possibly worth this much anguish--for a sport?  My husband has been wondering this as long as I have been fencing.  "Why do you put yourself through all of this when it isn't even any fun?"  Well, probably because I'm an idiot and love pounding my head against walls.   Some people simply never learn.  There is nothing fun in this feeling.  Nothing.  Only the gleefully mocking laughter of the Fencing God, delighted at his trick of making you think just for a moment that you might have a chance at being something other than a poor loser.  Again.

Well, stuff this.  I quit.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Who Is That Masked Bear?

Five years and four or so months ago, I started this blog with a prayer.  "O God, hasten to my aid!"  I had never written a blog, and I had no idea what I was going to say.  I only knew that I wanted to write and to say something about the process of writing.  I knew also that I wanted to think about prayer and hoped that I might find others who also wanted to think about prayer.  I had an inkling at the time that I would be writing about fencing, thus the title of the blog, but I needed a persona other than my professional or private self through which to explore whatever it was that I was going to be exploring, thus my Fencing Bear mask.

For the first few months, I kept my proper name out of my posts, although almost immediately I realized that I wanted other people to know that I was keeping a blog, even when things started to get, shall we say, a little embarrassing, especially those posts that I wrote that summer at Nationals.  By the middle of the summer, when my family and I took our trip to England and Belgium, I was ready to come out of the salle, as it were, and let on to who I was in human terms, but it was still something of a secret to those in other networks of my life.  That winter, however, I found Facebook, and soon the game was up.  I was the Fencing Bear, and she was I, and when she laughed, I laughed, and when she cried, I cried--and cried and cried and cried.

It has been quite a journey, more transformative than anything I could have ever consciously prayed for.  And yet, everything that has happened in the past five years I recognize now as an answer to my prayer.  "O God, hasten to my aid!  O Lord, make haste to help me!"  Even in my darkest moments, God has been with me, just as I asked Him to be.  "You grasp my soul," I prayed with Augustine on the banner to my blog for the first several years, "and topple my enemies with it. And what is our soul? A splendid weapon it may be, long, sharp, oiled, and coruscating with the light of wisdom as it is brandished. But what is this soul of ours worth, what is it capable of, unless God holds it and fights with it? Any sword, however beautifully made, lies idle if there is no warrior to take it up.... So God does whatever he wishes with our soul. Since it is in his hand, it is his to use as he will."  Little did I know what I was praying for!

God has made me confront my deepest fears, sent me back out onto the strip time and time again, just as I was convinced that there was nothing to hope for, nothing that could possibly change.  It is a little scary, actually, to think how many of my prayers have been answered over these past several years.  My fencing, my writing, my thoughts about my weight, every anxiety that I have ever had (almost--I really haven't told you everything, although it may have seemed that way sometimes) I have had to confront and battle, until I could sit with the falcon on her perch and not bate at the thought of having to work on my book or compete against fencers whom I thought I should be able to beat (always the worst for me--what if I lost?).  I have even, at long last, started to learn to play the instrument that I always wanted to play.  I have posts that I should have written about that, but I haven't.

And why not?  For the most part, because the anxieties simply aren't there.  I know that what I need to do is practice in brief, regular sessions, and I have experience now that things that my fingers couldn't play yesterday, they can play, maybe not today, but in a day or two.  It is a lifetime and worlds away from the way I used to feel when I was younger and trying to learn to play the piano.  If only someone had told me then that feeling frustrated was a good thing and just to sit with it!  But "God knows what He is doing with me and, when He has tested me, I will come forth as pure gold" (Job 23:10--there's a secret in there that I am not going to tell you!)  Sometimes I am afraid to look at all the things that God has done for me in the past several years, in case they somehow go away.  But even that thought is (almost) bearable.  God knows, God knows.

So who am I now, the bear in the mesh mask?  A ten-year-old fencing bear, no longer a little child, but still a child of God.  Oh, to stay a child, always willing to try new things, to set myself up against things that make me feel anxious and uncomfortable, knowing that if I sit with them long enough, the answers will come and the anxiety will go away!  Always living on the edge, my sword sharpened and oiled and flashing with the light of wisdom, no stranger to the combat in which I find myself with myself and my demons!  Yes, that is a good prayer.  "O God, hasten to my aid!  O Lord, make haste to help me!  You are my helper and my deliverer, O Lord, make no delay!"

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sister Mary, the Devil, and Me

Well, that didn't take long.  Here I have been biding my time, looking forward to the day when I could start blogging again, planning all sorts of re-entry posts about who I am now, how I have changed over the course of the year, what it feels like to have almost a complete draft of my book done, and BANG!  Here I am writing about being attacked by the devil again.  How apropos.

It happened to Sister Mary of Ágreda, and she is a much, much more gifted writer than I will ever be.  (Mainly because she understood the true nature of her gifts--they came from God, as she well knew; I still have the presumption to imagine that what I write somehow depends on me.)  As she tells it in the introduction to the second part of her masterpiece, The Mystical City of God (Mystica Ciudad de Dios, first published in 1670):
1.  When I was ready to present before the throne of God the insignificant results of my labors in writing the first part of the most holy life of Mary, the Mother of God [which runs to some 600 pages in its English translation, more even than I have written this year, no small feat], I wished to subject it to the scrutiny and correction of the divine light, by which I had been guided in my shortcomings.  I was very anxious to be consoled by the renewed assurance, and benign approval of the Most High, and to know, whether He wished me to continue or to abandon the work, which is so far above my lowliness.  The Lord responded saying: "Thou hast written well, and according to our pleasure [If only He would say something like this to me--has He, and I haven't been listening?]; but We desire thee to understand, that in order to manifest the mysteries and most high sacraments of the rest of the life of our only and chosen Spouse, Mother of our Onlybegotten, thou hast need of a new and more exalted preparation [And I thought that I had come so far, learning how to deal with my anxiety and procrastination; learning how to write in brief regular sessions so as not to give into mania and despair; learning how to take care of myself so as not to be tempted to overwork or to binge].  It is our wish that thou die to all that is imperfect and visible, and that thou live according to the spirit; that thou renounce all the occupations and habits of an earthly creature and assume instead those of an angel, striving to attain in them a still greater purity and an entire conformity with what thou art to understand and write [Well, nuts.  I'll never be able to do that.]
2.  In this answer of the Most High I understood, that such a high perfection of life and habits and such an unwonted exercise of virtues was proposed and required of me, that, full of diffidence, I became disturbed and fearful of undertaking a work so arduous and difficult for an earthly creature [See, my department chair was in touch with me today about whether I would be putting myself up for promotion this year; when I explained that I had a draft, but no contract or readers' reports yet, he and I agreed that it wasn't yet time, which has put me into a panic thinking about how much work I still have to do on the book, never mind having nearly a complete draft in hand].  I felt within myself great repugnance rising up in the flesh against the spirit.  The spirit called me with interior force, urging me to strive after the disposition, which was required of me, and advancing as argument the pleasure of the Lord and the benefits accruing to myself [It's silly, I know I want to finish the book, but now that my leave is up, I have had to spend the past several days getting ready for teaching and service again.  It really isn't as if I don't want to do the work to finish--I very much do!  But I am now also bound to my students and colleagues to be available to them.]  On the other hand the law of sin (Romans 7:23), which I felt in my members, opposed the divine promptings and discouraged me by the fear of my own inconstancy.  I felt a great distaste, which deterred me and a great pusillanimity which filled me with fear.  In this excitement I began to believe, that I was not capable of treating about such high things, especially as they were so foreign to the condition and estate of a woman [But here's the rub: I am now suddenly terrified of showing anybody what I have written.  Not because I don't believe that what I have written is right, but, well, because I am afraid that my colleagues won't think it is scholarly enough, that it doesn't abstract itself enough from the sources, that it is too devotional, not analytical enough.  But it is what I had to write in order to make the devotion clear.  And it was the voice that came to me as I was writing].
3.  Overcome by fears and difficulties, I resolved not to continue this work [No, I am not quite there yet--I want to finish!], and to use all possible means to adhere to this determination [Or do I?  Am I not being tempted to give up by the devil's whispering to me about what my colleagues will think?]  The common enemy knew my fear and cowardice [Oh, does he!], and, as his utmost cruelty is more aroused against the weak and disheartened, he made use of this very disposition to attack me with incredible fury [Okay, so it hasn't been that bad today, but it has been bad in comparison with what it has been for weeks and weeks and weeks--note how little I have been blogging this summer--when I was writing every day, wholly absorbed in the contemplation of what to say next.  Now, suddenly, it is as if I have lost my reason for being--dare I say, lost sight of the Lady whose praises I have been singing all this past year, as I sat day after day on my couch, keeping the Hours of the Virgin in my thoughts.  And now I have to stop and go back out into the world, I am bereft, rudderless, empty, panicked].  It seemed to him, that I was left without help in his hands.  In order to conceal his malice, he sought to transform himself into an angel of light, pretending to be very solicitous for my soul and for my welfare.  Under this false pretext he perfidiously deluged me with his suggestions and doubts ["Are you sure that you have written the book that you needed to? Your colleagues may not like it if you write it that way.  You have stayed much too close to your sources--but you have also made much of it up.  You are going against everything that everybody has ever said about this devotion; you are going to make them angry.  They won't understand.  They will laugh at you"]; he represented to me the danger of damnation and frightened me with punishments similar to those of the chief of the angels (Isaiah 14:12), since I had sought in my pride to comprehend, what was above my powers and in opposition to God himself [Either that, or I have rediscovered the truth about Christianity--it's that big.  Or have it made it all up?  Will anybody believe me?  As I have been writing, I have had the feeling of seeing the whole of history clearly, from the very origins of Christianity in the temple tradition that Margaret Barker has described, through the medieval transmission of that tradition from antiquity into the seventeenth century as evidenced by Mary of Ágreda's visions, through its loss in the ridicule of the Enlightenment philosophes.  My book has the potential to make everybody--and I do mean EVERYBODY--mad.  Or has studying the medieval devotion to Mary so intensely driven me mad, just as Casanova said reading Mary of Ágreda's book nearly drove him?].
4.  He pointed out to me many souls, who, professing virtue, were deceived by some secret presumption and by yielding to the insinuations of the devil; and he made me believe, that in so far as I sought to scrutinize the secrets of the divine Majesty (Proverbs 25:27), I could not but be guilty of pride and presumption, thus being already judged [Sister Mary had this advantage, that she lived in a context in which pride was recognized as a sin, whereas I am a creature of the world, not a nun, expected to put myself forward.  Which sometimes I am happy to do, but then I begin to have doubts.  Do I really know enough to make the claims that I have made?  Have I used the best sources to make my argument?  Is it as important as I feel it is when I am sitting on my couch, surrounded by my books, or is it just a figment of my imagination, not really significant at all?]  He urged very strongly, that the present times were ill suited for such matters and sought to confirm his assertion by what happened to some well known persons, who were found to labor under deceit and error [I don't even want to go there, the secret reading I have been doing all this past year.  What if my colleagues found out that I don't necessarily agree with them about, well, so much I don't even know where to start?  Is this a good time to try to make an argument about the truth of a religious tradition?  But what if I have been deceived?  What if I have fallen into error?  How would I know?]  He reminded me of the dread of the spiritual life in others [especially in the modern academy!]; how great would be the discredit, which would arise by any mistake of mine and what evil effect it would have on those of little piety; all this I would know by experience and to my regret [Is it right to be teaching these things to students?  What if they misunderstand?  Or lose faith?]  And as it is true evidently, that all the opposition to the spiritual life and the small esteem in which the mystic virtues are held [the Enlightenment began early], is caused by that mortal enemy, so, for the purpose of doing away with Christian devotion and piety in many souls [see how much success he has had!], he succeeds in deceiving some and in sowing the cockle among the good seed of the Lord (Matthew 13:25).  Thus he causes confusion and obscures the true sentiment concerning it, making it more difficult to distinguish the darkness from the light.  I am not surprised to see him succeed therein, as the true discernment is the special work of God and of those, who participate in his true wisdom, and do not govern themselves only by earthly insight [Is it even possible to believe in wisdom anymore?]
5.  It is not easy during this mortal life to discern true prudence from the false; for often also the good intention and zeal warp the human judgment, when counsel and light from on high are wanting.  I had occasion to learn this in the execution of that which I am about to undertake: for some persons, well known as devout, not only those who loved me on account of their piety and desired my welfare, but also those who were less loving and considerate: all alike at one time wished to deter me from this undertaking, and also from the path, which I was going, as if I was proceeding upon it by my own choice [I can just hear my colleagues now, trying to advise me how not to use the voice that I have in my book, as if I had a choice.  They will want me to hedge it round with caveats and pretend that I don't mean it, lest I offend readers who do not see Mary in the light that I do.  But what if she commanded me to write this book just as she commanded Sister Mary to write hers?  How could I refuse the Mother of the Lord?  How could I go against the divine command to tell her story as she wanted it to be told?]  Their fear of drawing discredit or confusion upon those who were striving after piety with me, or upon religion or my neighbors, and especially upon the convent in which I lived [or university where I teach or academic fellowship to which I belong], caused them anxiety and to me, affliction.  I was much enamoured by the security, which the ordinary paths of the other nuns seemed to offer [If only I could write like other academics!  If only I didn't make things so hard on myself by resisting writing like everyone else, about topics that everyone else agrees are the right ones!]; I acknowledge, that this suited more my own insight and my inclination and desires [I do so want to belong!], and was urged upon me still more by my timidity and my great fears.
 --Mystical City of God: The Incarnation, trans. Fiscar Marison (Chicago, 1912), pp. 3-6.
 It's gonna be a hard next few years until I finish revising and editing my book.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Table of Contents


THE VIRGIN MARY AND THE ART OF PRAYER
The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought

Invitatory: How to Read this Book, The Virgin Clothed with the Sun [5,000 words]

Chapter 1 The Hours of the Virgin [20,000 words]
A Little History of the Office
Symbolism and Structure of the Hours

Chapter 2  Ave Maria [22,000 words]
Saluting Mary
Naming Mary

Chapter 3  Antiphon and Psalm [60,000 words]
Mary in the Temple
The LORD and the Lady of the Temple
Miriam, the Mother of Jesus the Son of God Most High
Mary, the Theotokos, the Living Temple of God
Mary in the Psalms
The Night Office or Matins
First nocturn, on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday
Second nocturn, on Tuesday and Friday
Third nocturn, on Wednesday and Saturday
The Seven Hours of the Day
Lauds, sung at sunrise
Prime, sung at the first hour of the day
Terce, Sext, and None, sung at the third, sixth, and ninth hours
Vespers, sung at sunset
Compline, sung at bedtime

Chapter 4  Lesson and Response [48,500 words]
Richard of St. Laurent and the things in heaven and on earth mentioned in Scripture which signify Mary, particularly the sun, the moon, the ark, the throne, the temple, the city, the garden, flowers and trees
Conrad of Saxony and Mary as the mirror of God
Pseudo-Albert and what Mary knew

Chapter 5 Prayer [58,000 words]
How to serve Mary
Reasons to serve Mary
Mary as intercessor
            The miracle of Theophilus
                          Mary as bride
                                    Beautiful from head to toe
Mary as the one who makes God visible to the world
            The LORD enters into his creation

Compline: Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda (d. 1665) and the Mystical City of God [11,000 words]

Total words to date [October 24, 2013]: 224,500 (approximately)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In case you're wondering...

I'm still here, just lying low for the moment.  Work on the book is proceeding apace, but I am finding it harder and harder to write about anything else.  This is a good thing, I think.  As the Preacher says, "for everything there is a season,"* and this is the season for me to finish the draft of my book.  I don't want to say much more just now, lest I scare away the Muse.  Let's just say it's going well...better than I ever dreamed possible.**

*Ecclesiastes 3:1. 
**Meanwhile, the Dragon Baby is snoring, probably dreaming about that squirrel she caught yesterday.***
***Yes, that makes twice she has counted coup on the rodentia of the trees.  We're both having quite a year!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

After

 Heh.  Not bad for a couch potato, eh?

Before

Seeding is based on results from the past three national events: Summer Nationals 2012, December NAC 2012 and March NAC 2013. It's been a good year! But I've also spent the past seven months sitting on my couch, writing. And I've had the flu for the past month. Last night I woke up coughing again, and my energy is really low. It is going to be a tough day today.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Practice Tip for the Week

"Adults can hamper progress with their own perfectionism: whereas children throw themselves into tasks, adults often agonise over the mechanics of the movements, trying to conceptualise exactly what is required.  This could be one of our biggest downfalls.  'Adults think much more about what they are doing,' says Gabriele Wulf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 'Children just copy what they see.'

"Wulf's work over the past decade shows that you should focus on the outcome of your actions rather than the intricacies of the movements.  She applies this finding in her own life: as a keen golfer, she has found it is better to think about the swing of the club, for instance, rather than the position of her hands.  'I'm always trying to find where best to focus my attention,' she says.  Similarly, if you are learning to sing, then you should concentrate on the tone of the voice, rather than on the larynx or the placement of the tongue.  Study after study shows that simply shifting your mindset in this way accelerates your learning--perhaps by encouraging the subconscious, automatic movements that mark proficiency.

"Misplaced conscientiousness may also lead adults to rely on overly rigid practice regimes that stifle long-term learning.  The adult talent for perseverance, it seems, is not always a virtue.  Left to their own devices, most people segment their sessions into separate blocks--when learning basketball, for instance, they may work on each shot in turn, perhaps because they feel a desire to master it.  The approach may bring rapid improvements at first, but a host of studies have found that the refined technique is soon forgotten.

"Instead, you do better to take a carousel approach, quickly rotating through the different skills to be practised without lingering too long on each one.  Although the reason is still unclear, it seems that jumping between skills makes your mind work a little harder when applying what you've learned, helping you to retain the knowledge in the long term....  According to work by Arnaud Boutin at the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund, Germany, venturing out of your comfort zone in this way helps to ensure that you improve your overall performance rather than confining your progress to the single task at hand."

"If none of this helps you learn like a child, simply adopting the arrogance of youth may do no harm.  'As we get older, we lose our confidence, and I'm convinced that has a big impact on performance,' says Wulf.  To test the assumption, she recently trained a small group of people to pitch a ball.  While half were given no encouragement, she offered the others a sham test, rigged to demonstrate that their abilities were above average.  They learned to pitch on target with much greater accuracy than those who didn't get an ego boost."

--David Robson, "Old Dog, New Tricks: You never lose the ability to learn like a child," New Scientist, 218:2918 (May 25-31, 2003): 35.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sitzfleisch

Everything hurts.  My back hurts, particularly a point over my right shoulder blade.  My hands hurt, particularly my right hand if I try to clench it.  My feet hurt, particularly the top of my left foot, where the tendons are.  All of my joints are stiff, particularly my right wrist and ankle.  All this after getting a massage on Tuesday and spending the week doing something other than sitting on my couch with my laptop on my lap, writing.

Talk about Sitzfleisch.  I looked it up on Wiktionary: "The ability to endure or carry on with an activity," from the German for "the ability to sit still."  I have another definition: "The way your body feels after you have been sitting still for five months working on your book manuscript."

It creeps up on you.  Back in the winter, when it was so cold that it took a full five minutes to get the layers on before taking the dog out for her midday romp, I just thought I felt stiff because I had so many clothes on.  Then the layers came off, the days warmed up, and for some reason, I didn't.  I thought to myself, "You've been sitting still for too long, you need to start walking more."  So I stopped hanging out with the dog in the park--which, in any case, was filling up with human rompers--and started taking her round the neighborhood again.  Some days it would take me a whole block or more before my foot loosened up and I could actually walk.*

And then, as a treat for finishing my discussion of Richard this week, I decided I needed a massage.  You know, to get the kinks out and help me relax.  Well, I've felt bad after massages before, but never this bad.  Days later, I can still feel the toxins pooled up in my joints, and I've never had a problem with the right side of my back clenching up--it's always been my left, after I overstretched it once ten or twelve years ago while in shoulder stand.  Clearly, I've been holding a lot of tension in my back, not to mention my arms, hands, legs, feet, and pretty much everywhere else.

Who knew?  Who knew what a toll simply sitting still would take?  I realize now what I've been doing to myself, sitting with my laptop on my lap, apparently so comfortable, but in fact forcing my legs to hold still for hours and hours and hours on end.  My arms and wrists are better off than they have been in years when I've worked sitting at my desk, but I had no idea how hard my legs were working when "all" I was doing was sitting still. 

Lesson to self: take the timer seriously and when it goes off, get up!  Move around a little bit, don't just check your email or start surfing the web.  I still have four more months to go before I have to go back to the classroom, and I'm a little worried.  I know what I need to write--but can I afford to sit still long enough to write it?

Good thing I have another massage scheduled next week.  I rather suspect I'm going to need it.

*I'm pretty sure my foot is hurting thanks to the bursitis in my knee.  At first I thought it was from fencing, but I had also been noticing that my thighs were unusually tight, which now I realize is a consequence of sitting so still with my laptop on my lap.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Mighty Huntress


After three-and-a-half years' constant practice, the Dragon Baby caught her first squirrel this week.  There we were, almost home from our lunchtime walk, and one minute she was next to me on the sidewalk, while the next she was emerging from the other side of a tree with a young squirrel in her mouth.  It all happened so fast, I wasn't quite sure what to think, never mind do, so I stood there, entranced, as the squirrel squeaked and the Dragon Baby tried to shake it just as she has her toys so many times.  But squirrels, unlike stuffed hedgehogs, have teeth and claws and muscles with which they can fight and move.  Just as quickly as she had caught the squirrel, suddenly it was away back up the tree, barking and looking down at us as the Dragon Baby, undaunted, settled back down on the sidewalk so as to keep an eye on her prey.

And I thought it was bad when she ate the baby mouse!  When she caught the squirrel, my first thought was that she was surely going to kill it--the shaking was so vigorous and the squirrel looked so fragile--but apparently squirrels are tougher than baby dragons, at least inexperienced ones.  But was it a bad thing that she had caught it?  I worried that the squirrel would hurt her, but once she had it in her mouth, it didn't seem like there was anything I could do, nor was I sure I really wanted to--it was her prize, after all.  I was also somewhat in shock: she chases squirrels all the time and had never once come anywhere close to catching one.  Just the other day, in fact, I had been musing over doing a post about how dogs are more or less the embodiment of hope: the Dragon Baby has been trying and trying and trying to catch a squirrel pretty much since she first went outside, and yet never once did anyone tell her she was going to be able to.*  She simply kept trying because it was fun and the squirrels were there to chase.  If only (I had been thinking to myself) I could get myself to practice writing or fencing or fiddling with that abandon, with no thought that I might ever succeed, but simply for the joy of the chase.  And then she caught one!  No wonder I was in shock.

When I posted a status update on Facebook about our adventure, my sister commented that her dog Paka caught a squirrel a few years ago and now "fancies herself a big huntress," to which I replied: "Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of.  [The Dragon Baby] was pretty impossible when all she could do was chase them."  But it's funny: the past several days, I thought sure that she would be even more squirrel-mad (if that were possible) than she had been previously, but she's actually pretty much the same.  As if having caught one, while a great adventure, wasn't that great a surprise, so confident has she always been in the chase.  

You and I both know that there is an important lesson in this. 

*More to the point, when we're walking, I actively try to discourage her by telling her that the squirrels are evil and up to no good--plus I don't want her running off after one and going into the street.**
**If you're wondering, I let her chase them when we are in the backyard or at the park in the fenced area.  She spends most of her time in the backyard banging up against the wooden fence as the squirrels run along the top and at the park trying to bounce her way up the trees while the squirrels leap from branch to branch out of the playground.  The squirrels know very well what they're doing, as does she.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Medieval Morality for Modern Sinners

As promised, my new blog.  Comments welcome!  Check out "About" as well as the first post on "Getting Medieval."  "Sources" will be added as they make themselves useful.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

In the Pines

I had a(nother) breakthrough this week thinking about what it means to practice playing my fiddle.  Let me see if I can describe it for you.  You see, I suddenly figured out how to get inside the music. 

Does that make any sense?  There I was, trying to get the last turn of phrase in Old Joe Clark down, playing it over and over again, and still tripping up the same place every time, and it occurred to me that I needed to break it down even further.  Not C#-B-A-G-A-A, but just the transition from A-G, that is what I needed to practice.  I could do it fairly cleanly if I was doing a downstroke on the A, followed by an upstroke on the G, but if I hit the A on the upstroke, I invariably fumbled the G on the downstroke.  I'm just doing saw strokes in this piece, which means I am not able to keep the same bowing pattern from repetition to repetition (unlike for In the Pines, in which we learned a bowing pattern that maintains the same strokes from repetition to repetition), so I needed to be able to play the phrase smoothly from whichever direction I came at it.  Think jump rope and trying to enter in the "front door" with the rope moving towards you from the top as opposed to "back door" with it coming at you from the bottom.  One way is always easier, so you need to learn to be comfortable with the other way, too.  Or think fencing a left-handed fencer if you've only practiced with right-handed fencers.  Or taking the man's part in a dance if you've been learning the woman's part (like in square dancing).  Somehow, I needed to get inside of the movement, really pay attention to why I was tripping up when the strokes went one way rather than another.

Which is when it hit me.  When I would practice piano as a child, I always thought the point was to play the piece from beginning to end without making any mistakes.  Which was, you guessed it, pretty much impossible when you first started learning a piece (and, therefore, ever).  So I would start, play until I made a mistake, then stop [insert appropriate expressions of frustration]...and start at the beginning again.  I have no idea why, but it never occurred to me simply to stop and practice the part that had tripped me up.  I had the sense that the important thing was to play the piece through, that it existed only on a continuum, and that if I messed up at any point, I had somehow broken it and had to start again.  Not only was this probably the single most frustrating way to learn to play a difficult instrument, it was also (I now realize) completely wrong, like learning to write without ever learning to spell.  It meant that I thought of what I played only in terms of how many notes there were and how fast I could play them without having to stop.  I never had any sense of how the music worked, as it were, from inside, why this note followed on that one, why it was hard to make my fingers hit these keys in that order.  It also meant that I never quite learned how to play the tricky bits, especially the turns, because I never paused long enough to isolate them and play just those bits over and over again until they seemed easy. 

Until yesterday, when I suddenly became conscious of what it meant to try to play these notes with this instrument, and, therefore, of what I needed to pay attention to.  The point was not to play the full turn, it was to take it apart even further, down to the smallest movement, and then build it back up again, little by little, paying attention to exactly how my bow was moving when I tripped up, and then practicing that bit until it felt natural.  I needed to feel it out, really attend to each note individually, not just as a sequence that I had someone learned as a muscle memory, but be able to stop and understand the pattern, just like learning to spell.  I might know how the whole song was supposed to sound from listening to it on a recording, but until I had a feel for each individual note, I wouldn't really know the piece, even if I could play it from beginning to end without making a mistake.  I needed, if you will, to pay attention to the trees, not just the wood.

Does this make any sense at all?