Friday, June 5, 2015

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

1. When white women (see Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine) invented chivalry and courtly love, white men agreed that it was better for knights to spend their time protecting women rather than raping them, and even agreed to write songs for them rather than expecting them to want to have sex with them without being forced.

2. When white men who were celibate (see the canon lawyers and theologians of the twelfth century and thereafter) argued that marriage was a sacrament valid only if both the man and the woman consented, white men exerted themselves to become good husbands rather than expecting women to live as their slaves.

3. When white women (see Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the suffragettes) invented feminism, white men supported them (see John Stuart Mill) and even went so far as to vote (because only men could vote at the time) to let them vote, not to mention hiring them as workers and supporting their education.

And before you start telling me about all the terrible things that white men have done, take a moment to reflect that it was white men who voted in favor of the First Amendment to protect your right to disagree with me in the public sphere, including on matters of heated political discourse.

So, three cheers for white men! Hug a white man today!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Christians in Iraq

I am embarrassed to say that, until recently, I didn't even know there were Christians living in Iraq.  Okay, that is not quite true.  I knew that there were Christians in Erbil because my husband spent a month or so there several years ago training museum conservators, and I remember his talking about the Christmas displays in some of the shops.  But I never thought much about the fact that there were Christians in what we in America tend to think of as a Muslim country.

Did you?  Do you now?  Have you seen the reports of the massacres?  The crucifixions?  The rapes?  Do you know that Christian houses are being marked with the sign of the Nazarene (ن) as a mark of shame?

What do we do about this, we in the West?  Where are the protests against the genocide?  Where is the outrage?  Some of my friends on Facebook changed their profile pictures to the sign, but that's about it.  Only occasionally have we mentioned the Christians being persecuted throughout the world in the prayers at my church (well, okay, I have mentioned them in the prayers that I have written for us), but no one has preached about them.  Do we not care?  Do we not care that thousands have been murdered in just the past several months?  Do we not care that women have been raped with their husbands watching?  Husbands beheaded as their wives watched?  Do we not care that those who confess that Christ is LORD are now being called upon to convert or die?

I blame Walter Scott, specifically The Talisman.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

O LORD, make haste to help me

Six years ago, when I started this blog, my first post was a prayer.  Now, after falling more or less silent for over a year, I find I would like to start blogging again, but I am afraid. Perhaps I should start yet another new blog, but that hasn't gone too well. I had such high hopes in starting this one, it has probably been a good thing that I haven't had much to say this past year. I am still waiting on the peer review reports on my book manuscript--it has been almost a year since I sent it in. I don't know whether this is usual in academic publishing for books, but it is still par for the course on articles. I have tried to keep writing this past year, and in fact have finished several other shorter pieces, but I am losing heart.  There is nothing worse for a writer than feeling like nobody is listening, nobody understands. My husband once told me that the Virgin Mary told him that she was my only proper audience. I need to keep writing for her. So, here is my prayer for today.

Help me, Mary.  I am losing heart.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Contraceptives or Abortion--Which Shall It Be?"

Apropos yesterday's Supreme Court opinion:

"When society holds up its hands in horror at the 'crime' of abortion, it forgets at whose door the first and principal responsibility for this practice rests.  Does anyone imagine that a woman would submit to abortion if not denied the knowledge of scientific, effective contraceptives?  Does anyone believe that physicians and midwives who perform abortions go from door to door soliciting patronage?  The abortionist could not continue his practice for twenty-four hours if it were not for the fact that women come desperately begging for such operations.  He could not stay out of jail a day if women did not so generally approve of his services as to hold his identity an open but seldom-betrayed secret.

"The question, then, is not whether family limitation should be practiced.  It is being practiced; it has been practiced for ages and it will always be practiced.  The question that society must answer is this: Shall family limitation be achieved through birth control or abortion?  Shall normal, safe, effective contraceptives be employed, or shall we continue to force women to the abnormal, often dangerous surgical operation?

"This question, too, the church, the state and the moralist must answer.  The knowledge of contraceptive methods may yet for a time be denied to the woman of the working class, but those who are responsible for denying it to her, and she herself, should understand clearly the dangers to which she is exposed because of the laws which force her into the hands of the abortionist.

"To understand the more clearly the difference between birth control by contraceptives and family limitation through abortion it is necessary to know something of the processes of conception.  Knowledge of these processes will also enable us to comprehend more thoroughly the dangers to which woman is exposed by our antiquated laws, and how much better it would be for her to employ such preventive measures as would keep her out of the hands of the abortionist, into which the laws now drive her.

"In every woman's ovaries are imbedded millions of ovules or eggs.  They are in every female at birth, and as the girl develops into womanhood, these ovules develop also.  At a certain age, varying slightly with the individual, the ripest ovule leaves the nest or ovary and comes down one of the tubes connecting with the womb and passes out of the body.  When this takes place, it is said that the girl is at the age of puberty.  When it reaches the womb the ovule is ready for the process of conception--that is, fertilization by the male sperm.

"At the time the ovule is ripening, the womb is preparing to receive it.  This preparation consists of a reinforced blood supply brought to its lining.  If fertilization takes place, the fertilized ovule or ovum will cling to the lining of the womb and there gather its nourishment.  If fertilization does not take place, the ovum passes out of the body and the uterus throws off its surplus blood supply.  This is called the menstrual period.  It occurs about once a month or every twenty-eight days.

"In the male organs there are glands called testes.  They secrete a fluid called the semen.  In the semen is the life-giving principle called the sperm.

"When intercourse takes place, if no preventative is employed, the semen is deposited in the woman's vagina.  The ovule is not in the vagina, but is in the womb, farther up, or perhaps in the tube on its way to the womb.  As steel is attracted to the magnet, the sperm of the male starts on its way to seek the ovum.  Several of these sperm cells start, but only one enters the ovum and is absorbed into it.  This process is called fertilization, conception or impregnation.

"If no children are desired, the meeting of the male sperm and the ovum must be prevented.  When scientific means are employed to prevent this meeting, one is said to practice birth control.  The means used is known as a contraceptive.

"If, however, a contraceptive is not used and the sperm meets the ovule and development begins, any attempt at removing it or stopping its further growth is called abortion.

"There is no doubt that women are apt to look upon abortion as of little consequence and to treat it accordingly.  An abortion is as important a matter as a confinement and requires as much attention as the birth of a child at its full term.

"'The immediate dangers of abortion,' says Dr. J. Clifton Edgar, in his book, 'The Practice of Obstetrics,' 'are hemorrhage, retention of an adherent placenta, sepsis, tetanus, perforation of the uterus.  They also cause sterility, anemia, malignant diseases, displacements, neurosis, and endometritis.'

"In plain, everyday language, in an abortion there is always a very serious risk to the health and often to the life of the patient.

"It is only the women of wealth who can afford the best medical skill, care and treatment both at the time of the operation and afterwards.  In this way they escape the usual serious consequences.

"The women whose incomes are limited and who must continue at work before they have recovered from the effects of an abortion are the greatest army of sufferers.  It is among such that the deaths due to abortion usually ensue.  It is theses, too, who are most often forced to resort to such operations.

"If death does not result, the woman who has undergone an abortion is not altogether safe from harm.  The womb may not return to its natural size, but remain large and heavy, tending to fall away from its natural position.  Abortion often leaves the uterus in a condition to conceive easily again and unless prevention is strictly followed another pregnancy will surely occur.  Frequent abortions tend to cause barrenness and serious, painful pelvic ailments.  These and other conditions arising from such operations are very likely to ruin a woman's general health.

"While there are cases where even the law recognizes an abortion as justifiable if recommended by a physician, I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization.

"The effects of such operations upon a woman, serious as they may be, are nothing as compared to the injury done her general health by drugs taken to produce the same result.  Even such drugs as are prescribed by physicians have harmful effects, and nostrums recommended by druggists are often worse still.

"Even more drastic may be the effect upon the unborn child, for many women fill their systems with poisonous drugs during the first weeks of their pregnancy, only to decide at last, when drugs have failed, as they usually do, to bring the child to birth.

"There are no statistics, of course, by which we may compute the amount of suffering to mother and child from the use of such drugs, but we know that the total of physical weakness and disease must be astounding.  We know that the woman's own system feels the strain of these drugs and that the embryo is usually poisoned by them.  The child is likely to be rickety, have heart trouble, kidney disorder, or to be generally weak in its powers of resistance.  If it does not die before it reaches its first year, it is probable that it will have to struggle against some of these weaknesses until its adolescent period.

"It needs no assertion of mine to call attention to the grim fact that the laws prohibiting the imparting of information concerning the preventing of conception are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year in this country and an untold amount of sickness and sorrow.  The suffering and the death of these women is squarely upon the heads of the lawmakers and the puritanical, masculine-minded person who insist upon retaining the abominable legal restriction.

"Try as they will they cannot escape the truth, nor hide it under the cloak of stupid hypocrisy.  If the laws against imparting knowledge of scientific birth control were repealed, nearly all of the 1,000,000 or 2,000,000 women who undergo abortions in the United States each year would escape the agony of the surgeon's instruments and the long trail of disease, suffering and death which so often follows.

"'He who would combat abortion,' says Dr. [Max] Hirsch, 'and at the same time combat contraceptive measures may be likened to the person who would fight contagious diseases and forbid disinfection.  For contraceptive measures are important weapons in the fight against abortion.

"'America has a law since 1873 which prohibits by criminal statute the distribution and regulation of contraceptive measures.  It follows, therefore, that America stands at the head of all nations in the huge number of abortions.'

"There is the case in a nutshell.  Family limitation will always be practiced as it is now being practiced--either by birth control or by abortion.  We know that.  The one means health and happiness--a stronger, better race.  The other means disease, suffering, death.

"The woman who goes to the abortionist's table is not a criminal but a martyr--a martyr to the bitter, unthinkable conditions brought about by the blindness of society at large.  These conditions give her the choice between the surgeon's instruments and the sacrificing of what is highest and holiest in her--her aspiration to freedom, her desire to protect the children already hers.  These conditions--not the woman--outface society with this question:

"'Contraception or Abortion--which shall it be?'"

--Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano's, 1920), pp. 121-29.

According to the receipt tucked into my copy of this book, I bought it for $5 back in March 1986, from a used book store in my hometown of Amarillo, Texas.  I was doing a research paper on Sanger for an undergraduate course in American history, and I was excited to find such an immediate primary source (first edition, third printing).  At that time, I was (and still am) wholly won over by Sanger's appeal to make birth control information available to the working women of our country: her accounts of their suffering in the tenements of New York were (and are) impossible to read without feeling how difficult (to put it mildly) it must have been for women when the Comstock Law (1873) was in force and disseminating (pun accidental, but apt) information about birth control was illegal.  By 1986, contraceptives had been legal and available even to unmarried persons since (I had to look this up in the Wikipedia article) 1972.  The Supreme Court gave its opinion on Roe v. Wade in 1973.  Sanger is now best-known as the founder of Planned Parenthood, according to its Wikipedia entry, "the largest single provider of abortions in the U.S."  Sanger defined birth control (see above) as preventing fertilization, whereas some now would define it as preventing implantation.  WWMSS (What would Margaret Sanger say) about drugs and devices that prevent implantation but not fertilization?  On such distinctions does our debate now hang.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lessons from the Dressing Room

I went shopping on Thursday to buy some new summer tops.  I went to the store that I usually go to for such clothing, confident that I would be able to find clothes that fit and looked good on me.  I knew what colors to look for and knew that I would have to spend some time trying things on, as nothing ever looks quite the same on the hanger as it does on.  And yet, even prepared for a long afternoon in the dressing room, it was still painful.

Painful, because I had to take my own clothes off in order to try on the new ones, every moment naked a chance to catch a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirrors under fluorescent lights.

Painful, because clothes that I had taken from the racks hopeful would look good on me didn't--quite the reverse.

Painful, because I had to do this over and over and over again.

Until I found a line of tops in colors that looked so good on me, I didn't notice the clothes any more.

When I got home, I posted this status on Facebook: "On the up side, went shopping today for summer clothes and found shorts that fit and several nice tops. On the down side, to find said tops, had to spend several hours trying on tops that made me look old, washed out, and fat."

To which one of my friends replied: "This is exactly why I hate shopping for clothes."

"Funny," I thought, "she is quite beautiful.  Why should she hate shopping for clothes?"  But that is the first, most important lesson to learn from the dressing room: Nothing looks good on everyone.  If it doesn't look good on you, it is the fault of the clothes, not you.  Take it off and try on something else.

The second lesson is more important.  I answered my friend: "Exactly. The irony: to find something you feel and look good in, you have to subject yourself to looking dreadful over and over again!"

And realized I had inadvertently taught myself something.  It wasn't that what I had gone through that afternoon was all that unusual.  Indeed, everyone who looks good in her clothes must have had to go through trying on things that didn't look good, including my beautiful, always well-dressed friend.  I had always simply assumed that she had beautiful clothes because she was, well, beautiful.  But then I realized that if she found it painful, too, it wasn't that everything she tried on looked good.  It was that she had kept going in trying things on.  The lesson here?  If you want to look good--or play the fiddle well, or write well, or fill-in-the-blank well--you have to be willing to look/sound/feel dreadful over and over again.  Until you don't.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why I Choked

I have been meaning to write this post for over two weeks now.  It would have been better if I had been able to write it back on the day, but of course if I had been able to think clearly then, by definition I wouldn't have choked, so there you go.  Has it been long enough now for me to think rather than simply be overwhelmed by my emotions?  I can still see my opponent's face so clearly when we took off our masks and were signing the bout sheet after she had won.  She knew what she had done to me, and I knew what she knew she had done.  I still don't know how I am going to live that feeling down.

So let's start by making a list.  Why?!!!  Why, why, why, why, why???--when I knew what kind of fencer she was, when I had in fact warmed up with her on that very day and so had some more recent information about how she was fencing, when I had just seen her beat someone whom I knew to be a stronger fencer than she (or, at least, than she had been until that day).  Well, there is some of it: I thought I knew her.  Rule number one in fencing: never underestimate your opponent.  But but but--I DIDN'T!  I knew these sorts of things can happen.  I'd done it myself several times that morning already--beat fencers whom I had never beaten before, albeit in pool bouts, so with significantly less pressure than in a D-E (Direct Elimination--you lose, you're out), but nevertheless in actual competition, not just warming up.  And yet, of course, I did underestimate her, otherwise I wouldn't have been nearly so upset at losing to her.

So what happened in the bout?  My head was in the wrong place going in, for starters.  I fence much better when I am the underdog (I'm more used to it, I suppose--yes, that needs thinking about...), and I very much was not the underdog in our bout.  I had placed tied for 6th out of the pools (tied, that is, with my roommate for the tournament, who had taken Gold in the age-group Veterans event that same weekend and whom I had beaten, for the first time ever, in a pool bout that morning--oh, yes, we all know each other!), and my opponent had come out not even in the top 16.  In her previous bout she had taken out the woman who had placed there after the pools, and she was battling me to get into the top 8.  I HAVE NEVER BEEN IN THE TOP 8 IN COMBINED WOMEN'S FOIL and I wanted to be there, very very badly.  Too badly.  Not only was I not the underdog, but I was using the bout to prove something to myself about my fencing, which is always a HUGE mistake.

Which is where things got ugly.  The bout was close the whole way to my loss--at 8-10, in the last two touches.  So how did I let it get tied to 8?  And why didn't I get those last two touches instead of her?  Excuses, excuses.  She rushed me.  I hate fencing opponents who just fling themselves at you.  There's no game in it, just bullying.  At least, I feel bullied, rushed, given no time to think--which was precisely her game and I fell for it.  I got worried early on that she was just going to attack--HARD--and that I wouldn't be able to parry her (I missed at least one parry early on, and I think I got confused by one or two of the referee's calls, which rattled me).  So I started trying to play her game, rushing her, pushing hard--which I very much do not like.  The demons really go after me when I try to fence that way.  My friend Ed says it's because I'm too nice, I don't like attacking people, and I don't really.  I like setting an action up, moving in at just the right pace, feinting, drawing her attack, parrying, and hitting her--all very elegant, all perfectly timed, no bullying, just wits.  

She, on the other hand, was out for blood.  And I let her get to me.  I choked because I stopped fencing my game and started fencing hers: forcing myself to go after her down the strip, hoping that I could pound my way through her defense, anxious about letting her take the offensive but unwilling to seize it properly myself.  I hate her for making me fence that way, ugly and ungainly, all muscle, no wits.  I hate her for not playing the game the way I wanted us to play.  I hate her because I was not able to dominate her (that is what she knew I knew had happened when we took off our masks), as much because I hate the feeling of having to dominate someone in order to win as I hate the feeling of being dominated.  And I hate her because she knew nothing of what she cost me in beating me that way.  But mostly, of course, I hate her because...well, because she was able to win when it counted and I wasn't.  

The demons had a field day with me that morning, mocking me all the way back to the hotel room for being such a poor loser, overcome with glee at the way in which I had reduced myself to tears.  The loudest of the lot is the one I can remember now: "There you go, trying to put yourself forward again.  You know you aren't supposed to put yourself forward like that.  Nice girls don't put themselves forward.  This happened because you put yourself forward."  Its message: It's okay if other people win, but not if you do.  You aren't supposed to win because that would mean putting yourself forward.  I wish I could track that demon down and smash its face in.

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 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!