A Poem of Pain in Loss

This week’s post is a poem I wrote about the pain of broken community. Whether communion be broken by close friend, family member, or society person, we all can relate to one who feels hurt by (what she feels is) betrayal, who yet refuses to let go.

Lamentation

With jagged spoon, you gouged my aorta

quartered an important organ, slopped it on the sidewalk,

mortal, palpitating, hanging by shreds

leaving

part of me

dead

 

We are each other; I am you; you are me

Communal veins and arteries

 

Until

my silent pleas, my unheard cries

died on lips

skinned

with

brimstone

when I saw you

shunned.

 

The Ban                is             done.

 

Quivering at time’s grave,

my sulfur tears

pour for the light terror

that thrills you in its grand resolution

of dissociation

of the mystery of community,

where we sip each other’s blood.

 


So how could you break faith?

 

I am a woman because

your relieving amputation,

your cauterization,

your risky prevention,

is my suffering anguish.

 

I will forever agonize over the murdered Now

and hope for you

through quiet love you didn’t ask for.

 

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Springtime in Quebec, Part 2

Last time I ended by discussing language politics in French-speaking Québec, so I thought it would be appropriate to start with a few visual representations of those politics, in Quèbec’s Old City.

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Here is the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the first Anglican church in Québec. In 1804, the Brits were sure to build its spire just a few feet higher than the neighboring Catholic Notre-Dame de Québec. French Quebecers: “We can take a hint.”

Holy Trinity held Easter services in both English and French, but Notre-Dame de Québec’s services were entirely in French. Deciding between the two, we decided “when in Rome”… and found ourselves at a French-speaking Holy Saturday evening service. (I took my English Bible along for some hard-core liturgical sword drills.) The service was exactly what I hoped it would be—lowly lit, contemplative, bathed in music and a few bells, and filled with joy.

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Il n’est pas ici, car il est ressuscité, comme il l’avait dit!

Obviously, the French component made it quite the adventure as I’m already non-Catholic and therefore unfamiliar with service traditions, but my friends as I managed to participate somewhat, following along in the readings. The only really awkward moment was when we got to what was called the échange de la paix (exchanging of the peace). Immediately, I remembered that in some conservative Anglican traditions, this is equivalent to the holy kiss (is it for the Catholics??!!), so when the French-speaking young woman in front of me turned around and leaned toward me, I visibly started, unsure if this complete stranger would be kissing or hugging me!

(She shook my hand.)

Another French/English side-by-side pair in Old City are two prominent libraries, the Maison de la Littérature, and the Morrin Centre. (Can ya guess which one is for books printed in English?) Our tour guide explained, though, that the beauty of these two side-by-side libraries is that it represents how the two languages can coexist alongside each other.

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An old sofa in the Morrin Center featured this adorable sign: Ce divan est probablement plus vieux que votre grand-mère. S.V.P. vous asseoir aussi dèlicatement que vous le feriez sur ses genoux.

“This sofa is probably older than your grandmother. Please sit down gently, as you would on her knees.”

The afternoon we visited, I spent time reading devotional poetry by John Donne and found this gem in his Holy Sonnets.

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Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

Welcome, by the way, to Old City, the part of Québec City that’s voted one of the “Most Romantic Cities” world-wide.

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First, you have the Chateau Frontenac, which is described as the most photographed hotel in the world. We were told that you have to take at LEAST thirty-five pictures of this hotel. I did my best.

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This romantic city also delights in its food. I enjoyed Cochon Dingue’s (The Crazy Pig’s) French onion soup, and another time I had a duck terrine starter, salmon tartare (for the first time!), and a lovely little complimentary dessert.

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One morning, I tried a delicious crepe made of asparagus, prosciutto, and brie, topped with a side of local maple syrup. (Quèbec is the world’s largest producer of maple syrup!) Don’t get me started talking about poutine, eggs benedict, macaroons, and croissants. (I obviously ended Lent in gastro-heaven.)

Also home to the talented Cirque du Soleil, we found this sculpture + poem welcoming us to the city.

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“To you,
Coming from here or elsewhere,
Day or night
Summer or winter
Welcome.”

Hee hee, our tour guide told us, “We have only two seasons, summer and winter. And summer is the nicest week of the year.” While we were blessed with gorgeous sunny days during our short visit, we certainly felt winter’s chill in the shade of stone in the afternoons and in the St. Lawrence River’s mist during our ferry ride.

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If I had to summarize my trip in one sentence, I would write, “You should go.”

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But if you want something a little more poetical, I’d probably whisper something about

“Europe’s old city,
cigarette smoke and cologne on cold cobblestones,
boots and mittens on marble stone,
bright sun on blue skies and dirty snow,
marathoners running,
church bells and waterfalls laughing,
St. Lawrence River mist,
and French accents on chocolate croissants, spicy peppers, and cooked fish.”

Springtime in Quebec, Part 1

Ever wanted to visit Europe but didn’t have the cash for a plane ticket? Quebec is the spot for you! Shasta’s Fog visited this charming French-speaking province for spring break this year, so I wanted to share some trip highlights for anyone needing a beautiful getaway on THIS side of the pond.

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How is Quebec still so French, you may ask? To be honest, it’s kind of the Americans fault.

Quebec City was founded in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, and while France’s presence continued in Quebec for 150 years, in 1759, France ceded its control of North American possessions to Great Britain after a few battles and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Quebecois were not exactly ecstatic about their new rulers, and Great Britain became a little nervous about this due to the unrest in its southern colonies (hello, rebellious American colonies!). Great Britain was afraid that unhappy French Quebecers would start up a rebellion and join the Americans, so they supplied the “Quebec Act” to pacify all French-speaking Canadian subjects—recognizing and promoting French language and French culture, allowing them to keep French civil law, and offering freedom of religion (allowing them to remain Catholic). Shockingly, England was saying, “Yes, BE CATHOLIC, ye Quebecers. Be French. Be ANYthing except American!” And Quebec was happy, and stayed ish-French. And a good thing too because now we Americans can go on vacation and eat croissants and macaroons, and enjoy rich French heritage without crossing that annoyingly large ocean.

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Our first stop was Montréal, and we visited the Notre-Dame Basilica, decorated in the Gothic Revival style in the 1880s. Fun fact: Celine Dion (native to Quebec) got married here.

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My friends and I had terribly much fun dashing into as many bakeries as possible. This one called the Crew Collective is a co-working space housed in the 1920s headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. (Little bit of gold Art Deco for the win.) Eggcellent Americano and croissant. Or as the French say, “Ameri-ken-oh.”

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We were also sure to visit the Maison Christian Faure Patisserie, where the “Best Pastry Chef in the World” hosts curious travelers. I ate an éclair for breakfast. I do not even apologize.

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PC: @lorida.burk

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Besides the city’s amazing architecture, I also enjoyed fun street style, though most of the time, I was too slow on the draw with my camera.

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Girl, work it.
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’90s was big.
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“Today in microfashion…”
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And a Satan suit, for good measure. (??)

When I got home, my mother asked me, “But what did you eat BESIDES pastries?”

…I admit I had to think for a bit.
Obviously, poutine, since Quebec is famous for it. At Montreal’s famous La Banquise, I had the original—fries, covered in cheese curds and gravy!

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You know you’re in Canada when there are outdoor heaters for patio seating.

Another Quebecian delight we discovered was dipped ice cream cones. I’ve never had a dipped cone where the chocolate is so thick and so flavorful!

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We lodged well in two Airbnbs, one night in Montreal and three nights in Quebec City. Recommend!

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NW view from our 9th floor apartment in Montreal.
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NE view: old + new

One thing that worried me was the language barrier, especially since we had heard about how strong the French language politics are in Quebec.

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Marc-André J Fortier’s “The English Pug and the French Poodle,” featuring a woman dressed in the French-designer Coco Chanel, lifting her nose in disdain toward a Canadian bank, representing the influence of the English.

But a very nice waitress at Creperie Bretonne Ty-Breiz allayed our fears. Unbothered by our Nutella crepe instagramming and delighted giggles, she acknowledged that food is art, and in her French accent, said it is “the art of making friends.” She told us that Quebecers know English, and they’ll use it with you. She said, “Maybe a few won’t speak English, but they are 5%, and they are stubborn.” Three hours away in Quebec City, our tour guide Sam from afreetourofquebec.com told us the same thing. “In Old City, they’ll speak English to you! They know English. Outside of the city, they’ll speak the English that they know,” he smiled. His wry statement indicated that while many Quebecers are willing to use English, their English skills are not all the same.

But we found it to be true that Quebecois used English. Most restaurant servers and shop owners easily switched to French-accented English, and the only awkwardness that occurred was our own fault, when we failed to produce a polite French “Bonjour” greeting, or awkwardly stared at rattled French, rather than announcing, “Désolé, je ne parle pas François.”

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This is my taste of Montreal! Stop by later this week for “Springtime in Québec, Part 2” to hear about our time in Québec City!

How to (Properly) Celebrate Easter

Since I posted about Lent two weeks ago, some of you have been asking how else we can commemorate Easter, the Christian celebration of the Resurrection. I mentioned that it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in Christian circles, even though it happens to be our most important holiday! Here are a few ideas for thoughtful celebration.

1. Do a 40-day fast. (Lent, obviously.)
Tradition states that Lent is normally a time for prayer, repentance of sins, mortifying the flesh, and self-denial. Putting oneself in this state better prepares the believer to receive the Easter message with joy. (Note that Lent is actually 46 days long from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Therefore, if you choose to practice the Episcopalian way, you do not fast on the six Sundays because each Sunday is recognized as a celebration of the Resurrection.) I cannot recommend this practice enough. One learns so much about oneself. Regular, regimented discipline is simply life-giving. Denying yourself a simple pleasure or a selfish pursuit for 40 days is the basic idea.

2. If you can, read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church during the 40-day Lenten period.
It is quite possible that your life will change, but that is just a risk you’ll have to take. In the book, Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. Wright’s explanation of the meaning of the Resurrection (both to the early church and the pagan society at the time) is thorough and fascinating. He also explains its import for us today living on earth life. In some ways, it’s as if Wright notices that Christians seem to miss the LIVING ON EARTH part. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work. Certainly, it’s a book best read around Easter time.

3. Listen to Handel’s Messiah in its entirety.
(If you are lucky, see if you can perform it with a local choir!) I will never forget my freshman year of college in which I practiced the choral selections of Handel’s work all winter long before performing alongside classmates, a community choir, and Wichita soloists in a spring-time performance. Handel set music to entirely Scriptural texts, and his grasp of the Christian message is profound, demonstrated through his text-painting. My connection to this work means that every time I read John 1:29, Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 27:43, I Corinthians 15:21, 55, and Revelations 5:12, my Bible comes alive with orchestral strains.

4. Commemorate Palm Sunday.
If you’re like me, you’ll notice that not all churches make a big to-do of this one, but I think we can do better. As a child, our church had a children’s choir, and the director somehow managed to coax all of us to brightly sing, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to the son of David! Hosanna in the highest! Hosanna! This is Jesus!” Part of the performance which I especially enjoyed was that each child was given a real live palm branch to wave. (Growing up in Ohio, this was probably the closest I ever got to the Middle East.) I remembering handling my branch with great care as I waved it triumphantly in our little march down the center church aisle.

5. This may seem superficial, but decorate your house with touches of spring.
Put away that fuzzy winter-colored blanket and those dark red placements. Set out fresh flowers. Buy tulips, harvest forsythia, and note the new buds on the trees out front. Color hard-boiled eggs with the kids. Eat Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and those peanut butter eggs (unless you gave up sweets for Lent, that is!). These are obviously silly little seasonal things, but they remind us (especially the younger ones of us) that something special is happening, that time is passing, and that this time, as it were, has something to do with new life.

6. Attend a Good Friday service.
Better yet, organize and perform a Good Friday service for your church. In the moving around that I’ve done, I’ve been hard-pressed to find Anabaptist churches that hold these special Friday evening services. Yet as a child, the Good Friday service was an important part of my Easter experience. Many times our church included drama in the service, a simple acting out of narrated Scripture. No, it wasn’t Sight & Sound quality. We understood that Mr. Hoover wasn’t actually Jesus, and they actually weren’t nailing his hand into the cross (but those real-life carpenters dressed as soldiers sure made it look like it!) But as 10-year-olds, we were struck by the “beatings” Jesus received. We asked, “Did they really do that to Jesus?” We sang the hymns “Lead Me to Calvary,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” (but never the last verse on Good Friday!). I heard of one church that ends their Good Friday service with dimmed lights and a solemn tone, and church-goers leave quietly in order that they can contemplate the solemnity of the crucifixion.

7. If you’re the brave, curious type, attend a liturgical service.
Have you ever visited a Greek Orthodox church? Twice I’ve attended a Greek Orthodox church for Easter services, and let me tell you, it is a party! When I lived in Kansas, my friend’s brother dragged us along to this Greek Orthodox Easter service that began at 11:00 p.m. the eve of Easter. When we entered the St. George Cathedral, the lights were low, and the service began, with all the a cappella music in a minor key. Around midnight, we began an outdoor candlelit procession around the perimeter of the church, led by a priest. As we arrived back to the front of the church, the priest knocked on the large wooden doors, quoting from Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” A voice from within quoted back, “Who is this King of glory?” The priest replied, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in!” The voice responded, “Who is he, this King of glory?” The priest: “The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory!” We were now inside the church, early on Easter morning. The lights shone brightly, and ancient texts were now being sung in a major key. The service lasted for several more hours, after which we were ushered into a lively fellowship hall where Greek food, wine, and conviviality flowed freely. I fondly remember this experience, and I’ve attended other Orthodox services since then. (Or rather, I’ve tried to. There was that one year that my friends and I showed up the eve of Easter at 11:00 p.m. at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox in South Bend, IN, only to discover that the Orthodox church is on an entirely different calendar, and their Easter service wasn’t for another week!) This year, I will be attending Catholic services at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec!

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8. Attend a sunrise service.
(Though, perhaps, not recommended the same year that you choose to stay up all night going to church and making Greek Orthodox friends. But it’s totally possible!) As a young girl, and even today, nothing is more exciting than waking up at the crack of dawn, carefully donning a new Easter dress, and creeping out at dark to silently watch the sun rise above the trees and quietly consider the meaning of the Resurrection. If your church does not offer a sunrise service, CREATE YOUR OWN. It is not that hard to find some friends, read some Scripture, and sing a few hymns. I remember one Kansas Easter tip-toeing in tiny dressy flats over frozen mud-clods in a barren field to a spread of blankets where sleepy Mennonite youth girls welcomed me with a steaming mug of chai as the sun wavered through low clouds. Scripture, songs, and cold sun.

9. Eat an Easter breakfast with friends.
Preferably at church, right after your sunrise service. It’s wonderful. In fact, Jesus and the disciples ate together on the beach after the Resurrection (see John 21).

10. Last but not least, wear new clothes.
I distinctly remember my grandma sending us new dresses every Easter. (Three of us sisters got the exact same one, mind you.) Nothing was more exciting than wearing that fresh new dress and donning white sandals for the first time of the season (even though it was always entirely too cold!) I don’t intend to recommend a materialistic embodiment of an inner celebration, but it does make sense that if we are ever to look our best, it should probably be on the most important Christian holiday, when we celebrate a physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord. And since it is the Resurrection that allows us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as it were, I think that there would be nothing wrong in polishing up those leather shoes, ironing a crisp cotton shirt, busting out those pastel florals, and receiving this holiday (that is, holy day) with pure joy.

Now let’s go celebrate!

Who Loves Ya, Spring

What is that SMELL?

(I made stir fry, she smiles modestly.) And salmon! And chicken! And pansies!
That is to say, I potted pansies.

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My succulents were next to dead. So I thought, why not pansies? (I know, they ARE colored, as it were. Don’t quite fit in here in Lancasterland, where the up-and-coming style is Artic Bland.) (Bah hah. BAHAHA! I’ve been WAITING to make that joke!)*

I do rather hate spring. And winter. And fall. In fact, I hate any season in which there are not luscious green leaves on the trees.

(No matter that spring tries to flirt with its warm afternoon smiles. I chillingly turn away.)**

Besides, Robert Frost tells us in Nothing Gold Can Stay:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay
.

And I think that that temporality is what I really despise about the more fragile seasons.

“I LOVE FALL,” the Ugg-bedecked, red-haired white girl oozes, sipping foam off her PSL. “But,” Frost smiles, “that gold soon sours. The yellow leaves will be gone in next week’s evening hours.” He smirks as the girl accidentally drops her PSL on the concrete, sploshing luke-cold coffee on her pristine jeans, paper cup bouncing off a rotting jack-o-lantern.

I feel the same way about spring. Like fall, it, too, announces its arrival in gold—peeping through in crocuses and forsythia—but these little messengers quickly, too, die away, and their announcement—that spring is here—is soon forgotten. It’s as if their welcoming announcement is that they’re leaving.

Imagine someone arriving at your door, only to tell you, “I’ve come to say goodbye. Well, goodbye then.” What a lame party guest!

I’d rather have the loud, obnoxious cousin summer, SMOTHERING in closeness, warm in familiarity, and seemingly endless in diversions.

I love the heat.

“Perhaps,” you say, “you’re just a bit of a grouch about the seasons because you’re an outdoor long-distance runner.”

Perhaps.

But I ask you. How can anyone be perfectly happy with gray forests? With gray skies? How do they even do it in Scotland? Do they last? Or do they just kill themselves?

Perhaps I shall move somewhere where it’s warm year-round. Like Nicaragua! Now THAT’S a place with luscious greens.

So, then, spring, hurry up, and get your little announcements over with! You’re dazzling no one here.

I tell you—Give me summer, or give me death!

*There, there, Lancaster, I’m just kidding. I know you’re really good at Instagram, and my terrible photo took my twenty minutes to compose. I still like you. (You are just sooooo easy to pick on!)

**This post was written, however, before today’s lovely 77 degree run. Delightful!

Just Say No to Netflix

Soooooo. How many times have YOU thought about the Resurrection this week?

Lent this year for me has been a personal oasis. Let me tell you why.

I’m not sure how to say this without you judging me, but: I haven’t done super well living by myself this year. I’ve sort of developed some bad habits…. including, but not limited to: silencing all cries of boredom and pain with media and food.

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My bad habits also include generally ignoring a specific request that God has asked of me—to intently seek Him for the next year-ish (that’s a long story, but it’s a very specific thing I know He wants me to be doing right now).

Back in January, I attempted to address a few of my bad habits through my New Year’s resolutions:

1. No social media until after school.
2. Run a marathon. (Already nixed because of my up-coming surgery this summer.

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But I decided that Lent would be a time where I could push even harder. For Lent, I decided to give up Netflix/Youtube/movies, plus snacking!

The reasons for this were two-fold. I knew that the amount of time of I was spending watching shows was not allowing me the time I needed for personal meditation and sorting out life. Second, watching shows plus snacking basically ALL THE TIME sent me on a suspicious trip to the scales. My heart sank, but I finally admitted what I had known all along: you just can’t say “Yes!” to whatever you want!

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So I decided a little discipline and fasting were in order. Plus, I really, really LOVE celebrating Lent! For one, it is my personal agenda to increase all hype around the Easter holiday because it is excruciatingly under-celebrated in most Christian circles, which in no way relates to the God-created fasting and feasting tradition of Old Testament Judaism, nor to what I imagine God intends for healthy faith communities today.

Anyway, Lenten fast = easier said than done! The first week was PAINFUL. I didn’t grow up watching TV, but in the past couple of years, Netflix has made it really easy to get addicted to shows, and a quiet house plus a solo dinner makes it easy to watch a show (or two, or five). (There you go again, judging me.)

For the first week, I whined a LOT. To my family, out-of-state. If you find yourself having the same withdrawal symptoms (irritability, grouchiness, general laziness, mild anger), call a loved one. They will be more than happy to deliver a swift verbal kick in the pants, tell you to quit your griping, that you DO have bad habits, and good riddance to them! (My sweet family.)

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Despite how hungry I was the first week (me: “You mean I actually have to cook decent MEALS?”), I admitted (only silently to myself, of course), that I suddenly had so much time for cleaning! Dishes, dishes! Scrubbing the sink! And, since I was banned from social media, I had time to listen to a couple of apologetics debates during those dishes!

I learned I needed to eat better meals, and then just gulp water if I was feeling hungry. Not related to Lent, but more related to that scales trip, I also decided to hit the workouts hardcore. Again, these were SO SAD. The first week I was literally crying while lifting weights because of how much I did not want to lift! (Oh, Esther. It’s just one small little death.) However, it’s great to already feel results after just two weeks of weights, cross training, and core. Not to mention a few runs here and there because: spring!

I also found that even though I chose to do Episcopalian style Lent (you can cheat on Sundays), I found I didn’t want to! I had carved a new groove in my behavior, and my body and mind initially didn’t WANT to snack or watch shows on Sundays, when the time came around. This was invigorating for me!

(But I mean, I still had ice cream.)

I’m still working on that intentionally seeking God bit. But the beauty of it is, I still have 17 days to figure it out.

Through discipline, and learning to say no, I, for one, am feeling my heart and mind slowly thaw from its winter slush, and I feel a small green shoot pushing through the thick, dark mud of mindless yes.

 

What Makes Bad Men Good? A Tour of Eastern State Penitentiary

When my students voted to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary as the historic part of their tour of Philadelphia (for their week-long Urban Explorations class), I wasn’t expecting the tour to be that significant to me.

I was wrong.

The Eastern State Penitentiary is America’s most historic prison. The architectural wonder is known as the world’s first true “penitentiary,” that is, the building was designed to inspire penitence—or true regret—in the hearts of prisoners.

The massive stone structure is surrounded by a thirty foot stone walls, complete with neo-Gothic battlements, to impose fear in prisoners.

The novelty of Eastern State’s construction at the time was that the architecture represented a new philosophy. Instead of punishment, the designers of the prison sought reform. In Europe at the time (late 1700s), most prisons were simply holding pens for criminals. No attempt was made at reforming a man’s character. Prominent Philadelphians (including Benjamin Franklin other Enlightenment thinkers), however, sought reform, for the lack of reform!

It caused them to ask an age-old question: what makes bad men good?

Their answer was three-fold: (1) silence and meditation (isolation), (2) the word of God (the Bible), and (3) work (shoemaking, weaving, etc).

The website for the Eastern State Penitentiary gives this history: “Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment. This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict. To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.

 

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Eastern’s seven earliest cellblocks may represent the first modern building in the United States. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations included each prisoner having his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence. In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, that ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls.

We booked our tour only a day in advance, which meant we got the audio tour version, and this slow amble allowed us to connect the narrator’s words with the stone walkways.

In a stern, solid hallway, next to rows of two-foot doors, I asked my students if they agree that silence and isolation would make someone sorry and bring personal reform. (I got mixed reviews.) Which means that it is a very good question to ask—what makes bad men good? (And how do you answer this question at a state level?)

My students were not the only ones with mixed reviews of isolationism. Charles Dickens spoke out about the penitentiary; in fact, on his tour to the United States, he cited only two things he wanted to see—Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He wrote: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

Besides the fascinating history of the historic prison, the prison itself is well-presented as a museum (a bit cold on the last day of winter! But realistic in that sense.) I found myself contemplating issues of humanity, of human character, and of prisons today (the Penitentiary has a striking visual exhibit related to the current American prison crisis, including but not limited to the issues of race).

And then imagine my surprise when I heard soft strains from Cellblock 4, and I ducked around the corner to find the Gettysburg College Choir singing the last lines from Stephan Hatfield’s “Hard Shoulder”:

Have you no coat on a winter’s day
Have you no one to see you through, Lord?
Am I just like you, Lord?
Blessed are they that mourn; they shall be comforted
Blessed are they who mourn…

The director turned around to announce they were performing as a part of their “Peace and Justice” tour, performing pieces relating to social justice. Hatfield’s piece was written to honor street people, and the choir followed up with an ensemble performance of Ysaye M. Barnwell’s “Spiritual,” a very effective piece of performance art sung in the space, hauntingly heard in the former prison.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

In this world of trouble and woe,
a member had better be ready to go.
We look for things to stay the same,
but in the twinkling of an eye, everything can be changed.

The troubles of this world fill our hearts with rage
from Soweto, to Stonewall, Birmingham, and LA
We are searching for hope that lies within ourselves
as we fight against misogyny, race, hatred, and AIDS.

Cain’t no one know at sunrise
how this day is gonna end.
Cain’t no one know at sunset
if the next day will begin.

They ended with Eric Whitacre’s “Hope, Faith, Life, and Love.”

This choral surprise was a personal delight, but I later reflected that I think that the college students probably got the most out of their performance. (There were very few listening in on the concert, only a couple of Eastern State staffers, me, and like 3 other people. Besides, how many tourists are prepared for Whitacre?)

When we return to the question—what makes bad men good?—I think we ought to look further than Barnwell’s “hope that lies within ourselves.” I think of something loftier, and since I’m in a poetic mood, in a poem’s how I’ll answer–I’d choose something like a star.

Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.