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A Prayer for October

There are these landmarks.

One such landmark is the bite of soybean pods. I was a child who went to a school that rented classroom space inside a convent. The nuns who lived in and ran the convent grew the soybeans. It was part of how they supported themselves, the land they were on, the retreat they ran, the building that housed our school.

This memory is so far back, I can’t tell if I contained the day, or if the day cradled me in its October-lighted care.

The day was gray, so gray you could almost feel metal in the air. The clouds were so heavy, birthing fall, low, swollen and swinging close the ground, close enough almost for this child’s arms to reach. That day was cold enough that we knew recess wouldn’t be outside much longer, and it made us a little wild and reckless. I was playing with one of the only other boys who wasn’t afraid to go this far from the playground, past the hills, beyond the copse, to the soybean fields. His name was Jason and usually we weren’t friends, but today we were compatriots in dangerous adventure, and that added to the unpredictability of the day.

The wind was unkind, but we were young so we ran and ran and ran, and the heat of the veins beat back the wind. I ran headlong into the yellow field of soybeans. I didn’t know anything about them until I was dozens of yards deep, and I ran out of breath, and realized. The bean pods had sharp, dried out little points at the ends of their pods. The hard points were poking and scratching me through my clothes.

Each soybean plant held dozens of seed pods. I examined one single pod, still attached to its plant. It was covered in brown prickly fur, and its seeds were small, almost too small to call beans. I tested the point and found it too sharp, and the sharpness made everything real, made everything I could think of, know, or see harden to a single, point, grown by the world for me to touch. I was in a field of soybeans, that was somehow connected to the work of God the sisters did, a thousand, no thousands, no tens of thousands of sharp real points of beans all around me, each one grown by the sisters, waiting, perhaps for harvest. I was in a crop. I was part of the field. I was part of the work of the nuns, whom we never saw, but knew were somewhere, mysterious forces, who lived a life incomprehensible to us, but here I was touching it, the effect of invisible nuns. This was no moment of unity with all things, but a moment of understanding connections, and also a moment of understanding the impossibility of fathoming all connections. I intuited that there was something deeply spiritual, something Godly, about a community of women supporting themselves by bringing forth the fruits of the Earth by their labor. It was a kind of prayer I understood, maybe my first real understanding of prayer. I was touching faith, I was touching work, and it was touching me back in return. I knew — or chose — that moment of nine years old in October, freighted with potential, lowering out of the future, and up from the ground, I knew that moment would poke at me forever, like a bean, through all the clothes I would ever wear in my life.

I could not communicate this. I could not articulate it. I just felt it. I felt touched and changed, humbled, and lifted up. And of course, with this secret knowledge that all children are prone to, I felt that loneliness that only a child can feel. And then, when Jason found or caught up with me, I shook all of it off, the way only a child can, and started playing again.

What Snow! What’s New!

I just noticed that the last time I had a “life update” here was January 23, a few days before life in Boston changed for the much, much snowier.  It’s funny now to go back and read that, and see that there isn’t even a single mention of the word “snow,” when snow has been the defining factor of our lives for lo these many days.  In case you missed what’s become national news at this point, we got four snow storms in three weeks, so much snow we’ve run out of places to put it, and so much snow that the MBTA has asked its riders to not expect things to be back to normal til mid-to-late March.  It’s the 3rd snowiest winter on record, a foot shy of #1, and 9 inches more than the next snowiest on the record that I remember, the winter of 2004-2005.   But, now, if I recall correctly, that winter of 2004-2005, the snow was actually spread out over a few months, which is a whole different ballgame from what we’re seeing now.

Before this winter, the snowiest I’d ever seen a city was when I visited Minneapolis in 1992, and even that was 10 inches under what we’ve seen in Boston over the past few weeks.  But it’s also much the same: every sidewalk is like a high-walled tunnel through the snow, only some of the streets are plowed, and about half the car owners have given up and just decided to wait til spring thaw to drive again.

Today though, it’s sunny, and I can almost imagine that my dream of growing a garden in our new backyard might actually be possible some day.  I’ve spent the past few weeks, powered by faith alone, drawing up plans, shopping for seeds, estimating the equipment and soil amendments I’ll need, consulting with my friend A., who, along with his wife, has been a backyard vegetable gardener for many years.  As I type this, I can hear the snow running to melt in all the gutters that surround me, a small happy song that promises that some day, we’ll be able to see the ground again, and maybe even see green again. And that maybe the hundreds of dollars I’m about to sink into this project won’t be in vain.

E. and I have both been seeing big work-life changes too, with her starting a new job completely, and mine seeing a radical overthrow of the comfortable old order and the installment of an experimental new order.  Both changes feel pretty huge, and we are both adjusting to the stresses that any big change brings on, while trying to focus on the positives that, again, any big change can come with: the possibilities, the opportunities.

But it’s not all snow and freeze, and life changes.  We also still have each other, and the happiness of our shared life together. We enjoy the winter because it makes our home-cooked meals that much cozier, and it makes snuggling up and watching TV shows together, that much snugglier.  We’ve also been fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of time with our mutual friends, including the illustrious, the inimitable, and indescribably insouciant Miss Fox, who was a wonderful and gracious houseguest of ours, oh, about 2 snowstorms ago. Which is the only way to count time here now, of course.

…annnnd I got a Playstation 4, so if you notice me blogging less, well, I won’t say it’s because of that, but yeah, maybe it’s because of that.

Now, Snow

For the past few weeks, much of our lives has been defined, and in some cases, narrowly circumscribed by the fact of snow. Prodigious amounts of it. Drifts upon drifts upon drifts of it. It’s not just that we’ve gotten a lot of snow, it’s that we’ve gotten a lot of snow in a short period of time(three major dumps in 2 weeks), and it’s that the temperature hasn’t gone above freezing more than once since all the snow started. None of this snow has gone anywhere, and, looking at the forecast ahead, it looks like it’s not going anywhere soon either. On our little dead-end private way, I can’t really see anywhere left to put any snow if we did choose to dig out E’s car again. Last time we dug it out, just before the most recent snowfall, we had to carry the snow to a pile across the street, but now even that pile won’t take anymore.

The whole metro Boston area is like this. The T has shut down a couple times for one-day recoveries, and the public works departments are running out of places to move the plowed snow. There’s talk about transporting snow now to Boston Harbor and dumping it there, and there’s talk about how the snowfall just before the last one actually maxed out Boston’s snow-removal budget. Because the snowfall is shutting businesses, roadways, and public transit down, and because it’s getting so hard to access even one’s vehicle, thousands of hourly workers aren’t able to work. I wouldn’t say we’re crippled yet, but it wouldn’t take much more, just one more big snowfall before any of this has a chance to melt, for something to break.

I don’t actually mind the snow that much. It’s inconvenient, and it keeps things colder than I’d like, but, me, I’m not too adversely affected. What amazes me though is how something so simple, frozen water, can become such an inexorable, inescapable constant of attention. It’s all anyone tweets about around here, it dominates the headlines, it’s all you can think about or see whenever you go anywhere. Snow snow snow snow snow. All snow all the time. Snow for a snow in snow on the snow with snowing snow to the snow of snow on snow snow snow now snow snow’s now’s snow.

I’ve been coping by planning, and imagining in vivid detail, the garden I’m going to plant in May. The lush profusion of tomatoes, eggplants, chard, cilantro, basil, marigolds, borage, catnip, peas and beans I’m going to call out of the soil. I draw in my mind a picture of a sunlit rectangle, erumpent and alive with leaves and fruits and bees and buzz. How hot it’s going to be, and wonderfully itchy and sweaty and dirty I’m going to be, soon soon soon, after all this snow snow snow.

Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel like I must have missed something here. I mean, while there’s a ton to like here, there’s also so much bad distracting from the good, that I feel like what I see as bad, I must just be misunderstanding it somehow. Take, for example, what I see as the biggest fault: very little happens to anyone in this book and very few of the characters care much when anything does happen. Little happens that makes anyone jump, and no one ever really jumps anyway. Or look at how the main character always hints that he’s woefully unobservant, but then the check is never cashed – whatever he’s missing, if anything, we the readers are made to miss it too.

I came into this book with modest expectations, but, very early on, it drew me in and surpassed my expectations. This started off as a great book about, among many other things, a separated husband and wife, how they support each other through separation, what real and meaningful support looks like, what challenges to that support look like and are experienced as… and how ugly little apathetic aliens take to proselytization. I really enjoyed seeing inside the main character’s mind as he tries to pastor to a congregation of the first alien species we make contact with, the process he goes through to translate a strong, well-thought-out view of Christian spirituality to a species that can’t understand any of the metaphors or parables because they don’t have the context.

The book just flew along … but then cracks started to appear. The science in the science fiction is just… ridiculous. I’m sorry, but none of the anthropology, none of the geology, none of the climatology, just none of it makes any kind of sense. I’d be fine with that if the author didn’t seem so inclined to lean on it so heavily. The impossible weather and impossible atmosphere and impossible geology are huge drivers of the plot at times. Another crack was the lack of clear time mapping – I never knew how long things were taking. I felt very unanchored in the book’s chronology. I don’t know whether the events of the book took place over 2 weeks or 2 years or what. There are some other cracks, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers.

Because there’s actually a fair amount to recommend this book. It’s beautifully written at times, and I underlined a lot of passages. There’s a lot of modest, beautiful ideas, and some very clear and engaging theology. I found tenderness, pathos, and love in this story, even if I didn’t find much passion or logic. I found myself thinking about the book a lot in my free time, and, up until, say, the last 15%, I was often hurrying to get back to the story.

But that last 15% though, complete slog, I’m sorry to say. Once the author showed his hand and I could see where this was definitely all going, and that it was going where I feared all along it was headed, I just wanted to give up and call it quits. So if I were you, I would definitely read this book, just quit when the Jesus Lover Five shows up at the place, is all I’m saying. Trust me on this one.




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