Home

Syntax, Serenity, and Spiritual Ratiocination — Say *That* Out Loud Three Times

Leave a comment

If you tuned in last month, you read my ignominious blog, which happily was not as ignominious as I had feared. Stuck in my winter doldrums and with no creative burst in sight, I simply dashed off a stream-of-consciousness blog based on a word that was floating around in my head (ignominious) and hoped for the best.

Based on reader feedback, I need not feel humiliated by what felt like my lazy surrender to the doldrums. Since you guys liked it, and it’s still winter, and there have been no ensuing creative bursts, I’m doing it again.

Forthwith, a series of digressions about the word ratiocination:

Ratiocination isn’t a particularly fun word, not entertaining like ignominious or salubrious or sanguineous or serendipitous. It’s more like calibrated: a serious word. One who is engaged in ratiocination has no time for frivolity.

As you might know or guess, the word ratiocination means the process of forming judgments by a power of logic; reason. The process of exact, methodical thinking. How no-fun is that?

The word stuck out of May Sarton’s memoir like a logic puzzle lodged amongst lyrical poems. In Sarton’s book Recovering, one finds titmice and garden phlox and dogs and cats and poetry and people coming for tea or lobster salad. Not ratiocination.

In fact, May Sarton was actually talking about the opposite of ratiocination when she used the word: “That is the miracle, that my [ex]lover and I have come through together to a place of benign peace and light. Miracles cannot be explained, that is their miraculous nature. They are beyond ratiocination, so I cannot tell what has really happened.”

May Sarton Courtesy NY Public Libraries

May Sarton
Courtesy NY Public Libraries

Although I’m partial to miracles and tend towards the intuitive, I can indeed think methodically when absolutely necessary. As it happens, I’m currently engaging in a nightly process of painful ratiocination, which I am bound and determined to survive. Working with a master wordsmith, I am studying what amounts to syntax on steroids, breaking down lovely lyrical prose into nominative predicates and adjectival infinitive phrases so that I can put them back together into suspended sentences and braided metaphors. This goes well beyond what I studied at Hopkins, and that was difficult enough for me. Syntactical ratiocination — now that’s kind of a fun phrase.

047

Ratiocinating Serenity

Since the enlightenment, human beings have put most of their energy into ratiocination. Everything must be sorted out and put into its proper, logical box. “It just doesn’t make sense,” is the ultimate dis.

For someone like me who grew up in a dysfunctional home, the need to “figure things out” is even stronger. In order to stay safe and keep things from blowing apart, kids in such homes feel they must know at all times what everyone is thinking and feeling so that they can control what’s going to happen. All children have a sense of over-responsibility; they think the world revolves around them and everything is a response to them. This is complicated in a volatile home because figuring out how to control circumstances feels like a matter of survival and it sometimes is.

Of course you can’t *know* what other people are thinking and feeling, and you can’t control their emotions or actions. Which is why people from dysfunctional homes find so much solace and recovery in Al-Anon, the twelve-step program for friends and families of alcoholics. There they learn to keep the focus on their own feelings and actions through the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What a relief to let go of the illusion of control and the need to figure things out!

The Serenity Prayer, which is used in all twelve-step programs, describes ratiocination from a God perspective. This might sound like an oxymoron. But if you believe in God, it makes perfect sense to rely on this Higher Power to help you sort out what you can and cannot change. Other people, places, and things are on the “cannot” list. But our baggage (history) may keep us from ratiocinating this out on our own.

Mind, Body, Spirit, Not Necessarily in that Order

I found the Oxford Dictionary’s two model sentences for ratiocination to be odd:

“One of his premises is that ratiocination is dependent on emotion, as mind is on body.”

And this: “One fondly imagines that one reaches opinions by personal ratiocination, but of course many of them one inherits.”

So underneath all of our pondering and “figuring out” are serotonin levels and cortisol rushes and veiled memories. We may think our minds rule supreme, that ratiocination is the highest function, but in fact we’re often ruled by heart and soul. Our gut, if you will.

And — dang if I didn’t end up back here again — it seems to me that there’s a God factor in this mix of heart and soul and mind. I just think there’s a higher power than the human mind. There is some higher Ratiocination going on in this ordered universe, and it includes the nudges and prompts and intuitions that guide our spirit life.

Stream-of-consciousness writing runs like a river; it really has no end. It spills into eddies and spins a while and then keeps going, sometimes riffled by the wind, sometimes calm and clear. I seriously did not mean to end up talking about God again, but most of my streams are going to eddy into God, unless they end up in climate change or maybe social justice.

Go figure.

The Giant Fake Pearl Chandelier

Leave a comment

On a recent visit to Philadelphia, we stayed at a plush hotel to celebrate New Year’s Day and my friend’s sixtieth birthday. A waiter with a linen towel over his arm offered us flutes of champagne as we stood with our suitcases waiting for the elevator. It was that kind of place — the kind I had only seen in old black and white movies.

The dining room was massive, with busy black-suited waiters bustling between tables like concerned penguins. Was this alright? Did we need more of that? Here was a complimentary cocktail made of tomato juice and vodka and oyster juice (or something dreadful like that, I forget. It wasn’t good).

I’ve got a lot of photos from the weekend, particularly of the Mummer’s Parade, a seriously strange celebration that completely takes over Philly every New Year’s Day. I’m sure I’ll share some of them with you. But for now, this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge of “Symmetry,” gives me the opportunity to share this photo of the outlandish giant fake pearl chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the XIX restaurant in the Hyatt at The Bellevue.

 

 

DSCN4714

Looking for Clues

2 Comments

“The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. The good dream. The odd coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Maybe even the smallest events hold the greatest clues. If it is God we are looking for, as I suspect we all of us are, even if we don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet, maybe the reason we haven’t ‘found God’ is that we are not looking in the right places.”

I read this little excerpt from Frederick Buechner this morning on one of the spiritual email lists I subscribe to but don’t usually read. The little blurbs have nice inspirational titles like A Pause for Beauty and Inward/Outward and Contemplative Living, but they mostly just look like clutter in my inbox. When I bother to click, though, they often contain gems like Buechner’s.

I suspect Buechner’s quote resonated with me because I’ve been having a lot of these moments lately, these “clues” that make me feel as if I’m in the flow of life, rather than fighting against the current as I often seem to be. Sometimes I recognize them as clues, sometimes I don’t.

If you’re one of those people who “don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet,” perhaps you wouldn’t see these as clues. I get that. The world is an effed up place in many ways, and I can see why some people don’t believe in a loving God.

10710767_822306654486538_2495828300254846523_n (1)

Here’s why I think Buechner’s “clues” point to God:

  • “The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips.” I experienced this the other night at a gathering of old environmental lobbyist friends, many of whom I worked with for twenty-plus years. Since I retired six years ago, I rarely connect with any of them except for an occasional Facebook comment. I find this odd, since I had felt so integrally connected with them all. I know how it is, though — I remember the busyness and how Capitol Hill eats your life so that nothing else seems to matter. And part of the separation is my own choice — I haven’t had much time to connect, being so busy with school and taking care of my sick brother. At any rate, as I passed through the crowd the other night, I heard my name over and over. “Melanie’s here . . . did you see Melanie? Remember how Mel used to say . . . ?” Every time I heard my name, I could feel my spirit-self relaxing into a warm, comforting bubblebath, a bubblebath of belonging. They know me, they remember me, I belong here. I think the magic word belonging is one clue to God: we were created as one spiritual whole; we just get disconnected. God puts the longing in our hearts for the unity, the oneness, the belonging. Sadly, it is often organized and compartmentalized religion that causes the disconnect.
  • “The good dream . . .” Oh yes, please. We often remember scary dreams and dreams of loss and fear, and although these can be great teachers if we take the time to work with them, it’s such a gift and a blessing when a “good dream” comes along. These dreams, I think, are a sign that there’s a spirit of goodness floating around in the ether and it communicates with our subconscious. I remember when my older sister, who is vehemently anti-God, told me that she had discovered that the Universe is Good. This filled me with joy because she’s a serious introvert with few connections, so the fact that she ran across this lovely truth through her private meditations meant to me that the good spirit in the ether had taken the initiative to connect with her.
  • “The odd coincidence.” These are the strangest, because the exact same thing could happen to a God-believer and a non-God-believer and their conclusions would be completely different. I love coincidences because they remind me that there’s a plan. That when I’m in the flow, weird little things happen that I could never have dreamed up on my own, like lovely sun-warmed boulders in the river of life on which I can rest for a short time and get a better view of the journey.
  • “The moment that brings tears to your eyes,” reminding us that we are all human and we all share emotional bonds that buoy us up and carry us through the hard times. I tear up a lot, whether it’s sharing someone else’s pain, watching a little girl bang a tambourine and dance at church, or laughing with my friends till we cry and then our eyes connect and we know that we are blessed to be in each other’s lives. Through our tears, God reminds us that we are not alone, that joy and grief are universal. Plus, I think it’s awesome that our creator made tears to lower stress, elevate mood, and carry away toxins from our bodies. How cool is that?
  • “The person who brings life to your life.” Hmmm. I suppose this line could make me sad, since I don’t have one particular person that “brings life to my life” at the moment. No lover, no kids. And it makes me miss my brother, who was also my best buddy. But somehow it doesn’t make me feel sad — I feel like I have a huge community of people who bring life into my life. Different ages, different races, different backgrounds, different interests. I love my life. I’m crazy-blessed. I suppose Buechner’s point here is larger — it’s about love. Unconditional, absurdly generous love. And that, my friends, is the biggest clue to God. We’re swimming in it, if we “look in the right places.”

 

How Not to Sell a House

10 Comments

I don’t know how to sell a house. I don’t know the first thing about selling houses, except that the process involves lawyers and inspectors and banks, and scary questions about mold and termites and squirrels in the attic. That’s why I just keep repeating “as is, strictly as is” and hope that someone will hand me a giant check and we’ll be done with it.

Since this hasn’t happened yet, I broke down and hired a realtor this week. I have a few friends who are realtors, but I value our friendships too much to ask them to sell the house I grew up in.

I am not going to be an easy client.

I’m already familiar with the squinchy little thing my new realtor does with her mouth when she’s wondering exactly how to humor me and get me out of the way so she can do her job.

Realtors have to tell you hard truths. They have to answer questions like, “What happens if they cut down Mom’s magnolia tree?” Answer: not your business. “But I want to make sure they keep the red oak flooring.” Not your business. Realtors have to tell you that it’s your memories that are worth a million bucks, not your house.

Photo from Public Domain

Photo from Public Domain

Today I showed the house to a young couple who might want to buy it. I told them that I have a picture of me and my two best friends standing right there on that step, all dressed up for our first day of kindergarten; and here’s where my Dad always hung stockings on the mantle; and my mother planted that magnolia tree fifty-five years ago and you should see it in full bloom, it’s stunning. And also did you know it’s good luck to have a lilac bush by the front door, even if it is an aging, scraggly one?

I couldn’t stop blathering. I was starting to sound like a pathetic crazy old lady, I thought, but at least I didn’t scream at them, “Please, please don’t change anything! Please don’t even touch a thing! Just go away!”

I keep telling myself that once my Mom’s house is sold, I’ll have money for travel and for fixing up my own house and garden. But of course what I really want is for my Mom and my brother to still be alive and living happily by the magnolia tree.

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of things I didn’t know how to do. Things I never thought I could do. Things I wish I didn’t have to do. There’s an ancient Middle Eastern proverb that has kept me afloat, and I’m clinging to it once again:

This too shall pass.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

4 Comments

Stupid, stupid week. Stupid. I’ve been doing so well with my grief and have felt quite happy for more than a month. Phew! Out of the woods after a year of crashing through the underbrush of my brother’s death. I’ve been de-cluttering my house a bit, setting up filing systems, taking care of some boring financial and estate matters — you know, being all normal and stuff. Woo hoo!

Then I got this stupid sinus infection and then a stupid itchy rash in reaction to the antibiotics I took, and I’ve had a stupid headache for weeks, and all of a sudden I’m sitting at the IHOP in front of a plate of blueberry pancakes and I’m weeping again. Again. Still.

It was a song that did it, one that has caught me off-guard several times in the past year, and always in a restaurant where I can’t escape. From the first chords of “Let Her Go” by Passenger, my throat closes up and my eyes fill, and I think “Oh shit.” The song was played incessantly as my brother reached the end of his life. It’s the type of song that he always loved, poignant and full of longing.

“Well, you only need the light when it’s burning low,

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow,

Only know you love her when you let her go.

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go…

And you let her go.”

Gets me every time. Somehow I feel connected to him when I hear it. And right now when I’m sick and sad and itchy, I just want the person who loved me the most. And he’s not here.

I drafted a blog last week about how well I was doing with my grief, how happy I was. I also drafted three other blogs that I thought were brilliant – or at least passable – when I wrote them at 1 a.m., but by 10 the next morning, they had lost their sheen and needed work and I just didn’t have the energy to fix them. One is about my dead neighbor, one is about alcoholism, and one is about the word ratiocination. So they’ll be along at some point.

But for now, you’re just getting this stupid blog about a stupid week and I’m not even going to edit it because that would be stupid since it’s stupid anyway.

Please stay tuned — the regular me will return shortly.

IHOP

That’s a Strange Post for Martin Luther King Day

Leave a comment

Ignominious. Isn’t that a marvelous word? I thought it might be fun to pull a favorite word out of my gray matter once in a while and write about it. Kind of stream of consciousness, but not entirely because that’s hard to do without sounding ignominiously affected. Virginia Woolf, I am not.

Anyway, ignominious is an adjective that means “deserving or causing public disgrace or shame.” Some synonyms include humiliating, undignified, embarrassing, and mortifying. I’m not sure why the word popped into my head this morning. Perhaps it’s because some friends and I were talking about family alcoholism and drug addiction, and stories of shame and disgrace naturally came up.

I’ve been thinking about alcoholism a lot lately, I guess because of the drunken fiasco in the streets of Philadelphia that I witnessed on New Year’s Eve, and because a friend of mine’s husband just died from the disease. I drafted a blog about alcoholism, but it’s on hold, along with yet another one about differing views on God, this one brought on when my atheist neighbor passed away last week.

I’m not writing about those things, though, I’m writing about ignominiousness. Ooo – it’s even better in the form of a noun, isn’t it? It somehow brings to mind the sound a spider might make skittering along it’s web to bind up fresh prey. Ignominiousness, ignominiousness . . .

I read in the Oxford dictionary that there are few words that rhyme fully with ignominious. The name Phineas, as in, “The dirty dancing of Phineas was ignominious.” And another word — new to me — consanguineous, which denotes people descended from the same ancestor: “My attempt to prove that Virginia Woolf and I are consanguineous was ignominious.”

And my favorite ignominious-rhyming word, which probably deserves a whole blog post of its own: sanguineous. I’ve always loved the word sanguine, meaning optimistic or positive, especially in the face of a bad situation. I love what it means, and I love how it sounds.

And what about the noun, sanguineousness? That sounds nothing at all like skittering spiders — more like a sea otter gliding across the ocean on its back with a pup on its tummy.

Well, even a stream of consciousness post must have some sort of point. Since it’s Martin Luther King Day, let’s make it about racial justice. And here it is: despite many being in positions of power, despite some being armed to the teeth, despite having a legal system skewed their direction, opponents of racial justice in America will eventually go down in ignominious defeat.

Like the police who turned firehoses full-force on peaceful African-American marchers so many years ago and created for themselves an eternal, ignominious reputation, the systems of white privilege, which many white people are unable to see simply because they know nothing else, will — eventually — be nothing but an ignominious chapter in the history books.

And that’s not just sanguineousness. That’s the arc of history bending towards justice.

DSCN4423

The Issue is God — And Six Reasons it Doesn’t Matter

16 Comments

The big question — that’s what we disagree on. Is there a God or not? Several of my very close friends whom I love and respect believe that there is no God: no conscious, purposeful Spirit at work in the universe. I could no sooner believe what they believe — or don’t believe — than I could decide to live in a different era.

God is a reality to me. In God I live and move and have my being, as the Bible says. This isn’t a faith passed down from my parents, it is the fruit of my own hard-fought battles with life. It is what I have learned from life and death: we are accompanied.

detail-of-creation-of-adam-michelangelo-1475-1564-flicker-jonund-commons-wikimedia-org

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’m responding to the WordPress Daily Prompt:

“Do you have a good friend or close relative with whom you disagree on a major issue (political, personal, cultural)?

What’s the issue, and how do you make the relationship work?”

How to Make it Work

The issue is God, as I say. So, how do my atheist friends and I make our relationships work? Without having asked them, here’s what I think:

  1. Respect. Recognizing that none of us has all the answers, which requires at least a modicum of humility.
  2. Being non-judgmental. Not placing ourselves above each other, even if we can’t help thinking that our belief system is somehow better or superior or wiser or more logical or whatever. Does that make any sense? It’s separating the belief system from the person and honoring our common state of “doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
  3. Refusing to play the victim. This entails trusting that “the other” is not judging. Christians can feel judged by a secular, modernistic world where the metaphysical realm is undervalued if not outright mocked. Atheists (obviously) feel judged by certain Christians who tell them they are going to burn in eternal fire if they dare to entertain non-Christian beliefs. My atheist friends avoid mocking me, and I avoid relegating them to hellfire.
  4. Dare I say unconditional love, or will that sound religious? They love me despite my belief in fairy tales, and I love them despite their inability to recognize a power higher and more loving than the human mind.
  5. I’d like to say open-mindedness, but that doesn’t fly because atheists are not open-minded about God, and I can’t very well be open to atheism. I understand atheism given our societal paradigms, but I can’t begin to open my mind to it. Some things are opinions, some things are beliefs, and some things are just unequivocally true for an individual. If life’s beating the crap out of me hasn’t made me lose my faith yet, nothing will.
  6. We laugh a lot. I have a sign over my desk that reads: “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”

So there ya go, WordPress, that’s how we make our relationships work.

As it happens, I’ve spent this week wrestling with a blog post that’s got me all tangled up in metaphors related to God, atheism, and climate change. I took a break from that blog post, and I ended up writing about the same dang thing!

I can’t help it. Sorry, atheist pals. Thanks for reading anyway.

And on earth, peace . . .

And on earth, peace . . .

Older Entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,554 other followers

%d bloggers like this: