Let Us Attend

“Attend!” barked my 10th grade French teacher.

“Wisdom! Let us attend!” cries the deacon.

And I got F’s in attendance throughout all my schooling. Including grad school.

The whole world is red flagging my lack of attendance.

I feel like there’s a theme here. The new year is approaching and everyone seems to be choosing a “word of the year,” and while I usually rebel against such trends, sometimes they actually do represent a good idea. A word to focus my attention on for the year, one to center my efforts around. A theme to…attend to.

In English I hear “be attentive.” In French it means “wait.” In Latin it actually means “to stretch toward.” Sort of like you do when you’re waiting and being super attentive, listening so hard you’re about to fall out of your chair? Ah. That’s the word I’m looking for then. Because I’ve noticed a glaring lack of this in my life.

I am a doer, an early riser, a marker of benches, a measurer of accomplishments, a writer and checker-offer of “to do” lists. When I feel bad about myself I remember a handful of my proudest accomplishments and they genuinely make me feel better. For a minute. But then I remember that in reality those accomplishments represented me only for approximately the moment in which they were happening. I want to think that as a person who finished several marathons with reasonable times that this means “I am a person who completes marathons!” And I did probably take away something valuable from the experience. But is that the most important quality in me now? Do I really have to throw myself back 13 years to find my most redeeming quality? Isn’t there anything more to me, now?

Only if I stop and look at now. Only if I…attend. But I’m usually way too busy for that. I’m changing diapers, feeding children, cleaning a house, milking goats, worrying about the budget, cooking the food, pursuing a side gig for some extra money, writing a blog. Right now I do not have time.

And yet it’s a truism that right now is the only time I have. Right now is when I can watch my little people unfold, like little presents daily unwrapping themselves, into the people they are. Right now is when I can be thankful for the food, the home, the sufficient income, the useful work.

I thought about choosing the word “present,” like be present, but the fact that “attend” is an imperative verb is helpful to me. When I hear it, usually it’s somewhat shouted. Deacons don’t whisper and neither do high school French teachers. And I probably need it shouted at me. I am not good at hearing it.

Step 1. We are losing our TV. If you’ve known us for any length of time, we’ve been TV free three separate times. Each time, after a year or two, someone has kindly corrected our lack of electronics. We are about to uncorrect.

Step 2. Limit phone time. I love my phone to death, no joke. I love sharing pictures of my kids with family we left in Oregon two years ago. I love texting with friends, since as a rural stay at home mom in a one car family I don’t socialize a lot. I run an Etsy business that I publicize through social media. But I shudder at my habit of turning to my phone in times of stress or boredom. Once upon a time stress and boredom were a source of creativity. Time to return them to their rightful throne.

Step 3. Attend! Be present. Anchor to reality through five senses, radically accept this current moment, be here, now.

Those are the goals and that is the word for 2020. Attend. I imagine it will greatly improve everything it touches.

Relevant Worship (a review of “Orthodox Worship,” By Benjamin Williams and Harold Anstall

What did worship in the early church look like? Which modern church reflects that worship the most closely? If Judaism is the mother of Christianity, why does so much modern Christian worship bear no resemblance to Jewish worship? At what point did things change so drastically? For that matter…what’s the purpose of worship at all?

Modern Christians are either falling away from the church in droves or they are fighting tooth and nail to find their way back to a faith that looks more like what the Apostles experienced. Their struggle is often fuelled by the questions above.

If you have questions like these, the book “Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity With the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church” is the text you are looking for. In this book, Benjamin Williams and Harold Anstall explain how closely early Christian worship was intertwined with temple and synagogue worship, and they paint a picture of the early church. They flesh out the Gospel account of Jesus’ worship as an observant Jew and describe how the Apostles and early disciples would have continued to practice their Jewish faith with the illumination or faith in Christ.

Because early Christian worship was so intertwined with Jewish worship, they observe, it was liturgical in the same way, and Jewish liturgical worship was revealed by God in the Old Testament as a reflection of heavenly worship. That leads us to the purpose of worship, its critical importance, and the root of a modern problem: the majority of modern Christian worship no longer follows a liturgical format, and it has thus lost its root as a reflection of heavenly worship.

If liturgy is so important, where do we turn? To the only church that has remained stubbornly faithful, throughout history, to its liturgical tradition: the Eastern Orthodox church. This church looks strange to many Western Christians, having grown out of a culture foreign to us. But it shares its culture and history with Christ and the Apostles themselves. In part one, the book explains how the Orthodox Divine Liturgy we see today developed from the original Old Testament liturgical worship, through the worship of the early Christians. In the book’s second part, Williams and Anstall write a useful guide to the origins, format, elements and meaning of the oldest liturgy in Christendom, and show it to be unalterably relevant, as the inheritance of that heavenly liturgy first revealed by God to the Jews. Listen to this book and you will learn, in fact, how it is that liturgy includes not just the purpose of worship, but the meaning of life itself.

Top 10 Dysphoric Christmas Songs

Not everyone feels totally ready to Rock Around the Christmas Tree. For some of us, even if we aren’t feeling downright Grinchy, our bells sound a little more…bass, than jingly. “Merry” does not describe us.

In the words of the immortal 80s band “The Waitresses,”

Bah humbug! – that’s too strong

cause it is my favorite holiday

Indeed, Waitresses. But between “bah humbug” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is there some room for us, who are a little ambivalent and maybe even a little on the dark side?

Here are ten links to songs that make up my Dysphoric Christmas Playlist.

1. The Nutcracker “Coffee (Arabian Dance)” (Tchaikovsky). https://youtu.be/B5ciIug1kbM

Like your Christmas in a minor key? Tchaikovsky is your man. If you know the story, this part of the Nutcracker isn’t actually sad, but pulled out of context it could be downright morose.

2. “River” (Joni Mitchell)

Yep, sometimes I wish I had a river I could skate away on. Adulting at The Most Wonderful Time of the Year can be a bit much.

3. “I Believe in Father Christmas” (Greg Lake)

“Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell, the Christmas we get we deserve.” This gem is a little on the cynical side, but I’m almost 40, and yeah, many years have passed since I could experience Christmas as an unadulterated joy. I’m thankful to be re-experiencing it that way, somewhat, through my own children, but I do sometimes feel a little sold.

4. “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” (Nat King Cole)

This one might perversely turn your dysphoria around, since it’s so maudlin it’s hard to suppress a little laugh. “I’m so sorry for that laddie / he hasn’t got a daddy / the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.” At the very least you’ll laugh so you don’t cry.

5. “If We Make it Through December” (Merle Haggard)

(Thanks to a fellow blogger for this one – you know who you are.) Hard times persist even at Christmastime, as all grownups know, despite assertions from songs like “We Need a Little Christmas.” Christmas does not actually make everything better.

6. “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (Band Aid)

Despite some naiveté and an excess of wokeness, they’ve got a point. (Also there are lots of places in the world that don’t get snow at Christmas, and they do still, somehow, know it’s Christmas, but it would be pedantic to point that out I guess.) Tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you.

Wait…what?

7. “Hard Candy Christmas” (Dolly Parton)

Thanks, Dolly. I, too, am barely getting through tomorrow (there might be some grammatical tense agreement issues there), but together we won’t let sorrow bring us way down.

8. “The Same Old Lang Syne” (Dan Fogelberg)

Ah, the lament for lost innocence and the wondering about what might have been. Sums up my holiday angst nicely, though mine has nothing to do with old lovers.

9. “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch” (original version, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft)

a) You’re welcome – whenever this particular Jeopardy question comes up you’ll know the answer is “who was Thurl Ravenscroft?”

b) I do feel an odd sense of affirmation when I listen to this, the full, lyrical indictment of the original Grinch. Because I don’t think I can yet claim to be “a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce,” so – vindicated – and yet I do feel a certain sympathy for and resonance with the Grinch himself, whose “heart is full of unwashed socks.” It’s complicated.

10. Turns out that my Dysphoric Christmas Playlist actually has only 9 songs. Life is like that: a little disappointing sometimes. Even at Christmas.

A Day in the Life of Nicholas

Note: Suitable for use as an instructional text. – ND.

5 am: Begin the day with a round of recreational screaming. Not crying – let me be clear – this is just warming up my pipes. I can’t yet break glass with my shrieking but I can feel I’m getting close. More practice.

5:05 am: Glad I warmed up my pipes, because it’s time to express my strenuous disapproval that dad insists on a diaper change before food. When my shrieking breaks a window they’ll rearrange their priorities.

5:10 am: I think behaviorists call this “shaping via negative feedback.” The food is definitely not arriving fast enough. I will make conditions intolerable until it gets here. Via shrieking.

6 am: The food is gone and it was definitely not enough. More screaming will convey my dissatisfaction.

6:30 am: Prayers. If I spit up a tenth of my breakfast by the time we finish the trisagion prayers, I have time to scream along with the troparia. I don’t have a lot else to offer during this season of my life, so I hope Jesus accepts my sacrifices of spitups and screaming.

7 am: Having surrendered a tenth of my own breakfast it’s time to scream till dad surrenders some of his. I’ll take some eggs and some toast, please, and don’t be stingy with the apple butter.

7:30 am: Clean up any dropped food under breakfast table.

8 am: Play time, and since it’s December I can choose between climbing the Christmas tree or just eating the fir needles I find on the floor underneath. Feeling both lazy and peckish so I munch needles – I hear they’re rich in vitamin C.

9 am: Munch some orange chalk my sister accidentally dropped. It doesn’t taste like oranges at all but has a decent crunch.

9:30 am: Mom left the bathroom door open so I snack on some cat food. Why do they insist on acting like it will poison me? Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Mo doesn’t mind sharing – why are you so stingy?

10 am: Nap time or so I’m told. If it fits my agenda I might snooze. Or I might fit in a little more recreational screaming.

12 pm: Lunch. The service here is awful but the food is decent. Venison and sweet potatoes. Bonus: sweet potatoes have a really eye catching color on neutral carpet.

1 pm: Physical fitness is extremely important. I like to get a little core workout doing what I call “gator rolls with resistance.” I do these during most diaper changes. Mom and dad provide resistance.

2 pm: Squirm til put down.

2:02 pm: Scream till picked up.

2:03:30: Repeat sequence for about two hours.

4 pm: Catnap or more vocal exercises.

5 pm: Dinner. First my own, then anyone else’s who is susceptible to my irresistible ways (screaming).

5:30 pm: Bedtime. I’m pretty done by now. I might shriek a little if they’re too slow putting me down. See what I did there? All day long I scream to be picked up and then I flip the script last thing. Can’t let things get predictable.

8 pm: Growl periodically just to make them wonder what they heard. Keep them looking at the baby monitor. That way if you really need something you’ve honed their attentiveness. Note: under no circumstances actually cry, or they may come and try to drag you out of your warm, cozy bed for some misdirected insanity like a late night diaper change.

1 am: more growling. Because sleep deprived parents are suggestible parents who submit to my irresistible wiles (screaming).

For Seasonable Weather and For an Abundance of the Fruits of the Earth

I suspect this was forseeable: I feel an immense increase in gratitude as a result of growing our own food. Now, I think I was brought up to be a thankful person (thankfully: as Archbishop Fulton J Sheen once observed, thanksgiving is a habit that really has to be taught to children). But now we live in ag land, where heaven truly meets earth. If heaven doesn’t send rain, the earth does not grow the food.

We can no longer live at any remove from the source of our food, and that glaringly reveals to us our dependence and the degree to which we are not in control of our lives. Because food is our life. Without it we die. But the growing of it depends greatly on factors we don’t own: the weather, the health of our animals, our own physical strength. If one of those things fails, we have no food.

Modern society has distributed the risk by diversifying agriculture and enlarging it, to a point (for better or worse). But at the bottom, even of that system, remains some disturbingly simple equations: us + food = life, and uncontrollable variables + us = food. Scale mitigates the risk but it doesn’t eliminate it.

Scale mitigates the risk and unfortunately it also mitigates our appreciation of risk. It’s coming to our attention now via climate change and colony collapses in honey bees, forces too big for us to out-scale. But most of us seem to continue on happily buying whatever food we desire, not thinking about those fickle and fragile equations.

Here’s my thought exercise for the day: look at that turkey on my plate and recognize that it survived long enough to be harvested as food. It outlived illness, predators, competition with its own flock mates, variations in weather (young turkeys, particularly, are vulnerable to large temperature fluctuations as are typical in the spring, when turkeys ARE young). The farmer who grew it had solid enough means to feed it out to its 12 lb size (poultry are surprisingly expensive to feed for the few months they live), and there were sufficient conditions to grow the feed grain he or she purchased. It was processed with skill and physical effort. I can even claim a certain amount of skill in roasting it (thanks there goes to my mom, who considered cooking an important part of my education). There’s a lot here to be grateful for, now that it sits here on my plate ready to literally save my life, since without eating, I die.

Orthodox Christian that I am, of course I can’t miss the connection here with communion. I suspect that if the ancients understood communion better than we do today, this is why. They didn’t consider communion symbolic because they were accustomed to recognize, probably without ceasing, that God saves our lives through food. The institution of the Eucharist was just Him extending that model to saving our souls, eternally. It’s elegant in both its simplicity and profundity, and I wonder if it even seemed quite matter of fact to them. We are so removed from our food today, the concept of Christ becoming bread and wine for our consumption clangs in our ears. We are unable to see easily that he feeds us in every way.

“For seasonable weather, and for an abundance of the fruits of the earth,let us pray to the Lord.”

Confessions of a Former Vegan

“But will you be ok with killing all those chickens?” my friend asked.

“What do you mean? Why?” I asked her. We were scheduled to harvest our 40 broilers in a week.

“Well, you worked for vets for all those years. You were even a vegan! Isn’t it going to bother you?”

“Well…as a tech I participated in the deaths of animals for worse reasons…”

Is that a shocking reply? I had this conversation with three unrelated individuals last summer, or a variation thereof. I hope they will forgive me now if I say they helped me realize how different life has become for us. We still buy some of our food at the store but we raise what we can, and try to buy what we can’t raise ourselves from neighbors.

We are intimately connected to the provenance of our food. Those broilers are food we tended for 10 straight weeks and then personally harvested. Last week our landlord hunted a deer, from which he only wanted a trophy, and offered the rest to us. We butchered it on our kitchen table. It was shot down in the woods surrounding our home. This time next year we hope to harvest our dairy goats’ kids as meat.

It’s a true story. For 10 years, beginning at age 21, I was a vegan. I learned about factory farming, which is every bit the evil that animal rights activists call it. It’s a source of terrible environmental damage, antibiotic resistant bacteria, nutrient-impoverished food, disconnection between eater and food, and animal and human cruelty. It hurts people, animals, economies, and ecosystems. With the experience and resources I had at that time, abstaining from factory farmed animal products was what I knew how to do.

Despite working for veterinary offices from age 17 (as a kennel attendant, assistant, x ray and surgery tech, administrative staff and manager) until I had my first child at 33, I never had a problem philosophically or ethically with consuming animal products. Working in the veterinary field created some dissonance for me, not because some animals were ostensibly for food while others were pets, but because people appeared to accept this, unquestioning, while going nuts over their own pets to the point of insanity.

I’m definitely making an unapologetic value judgment on that one. I had a front row seat, often with participation, for more than one drama surrounding a pet that should’ve been helped to die before illness brought its quality of life into negative digits. “I participated in the deaths of animals for worse reasons.” A word about animals and euthanasia: all their lives humans keep pets alive artificially (pugs are absent in the wild for good reason, and no domestic dog or cat is capable of surviving long without human assistance). If we have to help them die artificially, that’s a responsibility we sign on for when we bring them home, and doing it at the right time is on us.

Our keeping of pet animals is not altruistic, and we are disingenuous if we pretend we aren’t emotionally consuming them just as we consume food animals physically. Do we benefit our pets somewhat? Only because we have created problems for domestic animals that only we can solve. At least the farmer makes no pretense, feels economic pressure to keep his animals healthy, and will harvest them in a timely fashion (hopefully in a humane way, since there’s a vested interest in that too – badly harvested meat, points out Temple Grandin, is of poor quality). There are very good pet owners out there, who care for their pets well, but I know few who realize that the relationship is for the human and not the animal.

Acknowledging this – that our relationship with animals, whatever its nature otherwise, is always one of stewardship – I come to my current response to my former veganism, veterinary field career, and factory farming. Animal products have been a part of healthy human diets from time immemorial (no hunter gatherer society is vegan, and until modern times no agrarian one was, either). Responsible care of domestic animals almost always entails human interference at every stage, from birth, through life, and in death, whether “pet” or food producing animals. Veterinary personnel know this and try gently to remind clients the truth of it, for the good of the pet (there is nothing more excruciating than watching a client allow emotions to blind him to the deterioration of a beloved pet). As it turns out, I would rather participate in making a good quality of life for my food animals and then putting that life to a useful end, rather than build a long and perhaps unnaturally anthropomorphic relationship with a pet that I must then end through euthanasia, God willing at the proper time and not after. Good quality of life for the animal does, of course, put all factory farming out of the running.

I am no longer vegan. I avoid factory farmed animal products wherever possible. I name even my food animals, because a certain amount of anthropomorphizing is helpful to both of us (that goat isn’t just some animal, he’s Bruce, and I do think he sees and is comforted by the light of recognition in our eyes). And no, it is neither easy nor hard for me to bring their lives to an end. It is humane, purposeful, and sobering, but I feel it is honest and right.

Got Peg Dolls?

A few years ago when my firstborn was just a tot and not the big strapping five year old she is now, I started to get interested in imaginative, open-ended toys. I was also interested in giving her opportunities to explore her Orthodox faith. There were some toys out there that fit both categories but not many. Then I discovered a Roman Catholic mom who was making wooden peg doll saints for her children to play with.

If you haven’t seen them, peg dolls are just little turned wooden pieces (shaped like pegs) that are usually painted in some fashion as toys. The great thing about them is that kids can really do what they like with them: enact stories, carry them about as little friends, etc, and because they are simple, they are unconstraining in the way character toys or action figures can be. The less determined a toy is, the less it determines the nature of play.

When I was a Roman Catholic child I loved to play pretend Mass, and with that thought I began by making these guys:

These are our priest and deacon at the time, Fr Matthew and Fr Dcn John. Why search for inspiration when it’s right in front of you? Our peg family of church friends grew to meet demand. Reader Seraphim, Peter the acolyte. Some candle girls, a little family of parishioners. When my second child was born, of course, we needed more. Our bag of peg people now includes St Herman and St Nicholas, Jesus, an “Entry into the Temple” festal set (Sts Joachim and Anna, St Zecharias, various young ladies carrying candles, and a tiny three-year-old Theotokos), an angel, and others.

Parents have visited us on play dates and seen our kids playing with these (and they are played with every single day) and asked about them, and several have suggested that I make some to sell. So, I’m taking the plunge and offering a few on my Etsy shop, which you can find at: St Alexis Creations.

This qualifies as a “soft opening,” I think? There’ll be much more to come, including, I hope, feast day play sets, saints, and custom figures by request. In fact, you name it, and I’ll do my best to make it happen. Come visit us!