Monday, December 10, 2012

Rules for Parakeets

At the end, I'm going to quote Yann Martel in Life of Pi, which is an excellent book and an easy read if you haven't read it.

These are my parakeets.
L-R: Buttercup, Peepers, and Clair

They are all females, and they get along quite splendidly most of the time. Occasional squabbles over food or a favorite perch cannot dim their affection for each other.

Each has her own personality, and they are slowly learning not to fear me.

I love to watch birds; I always have.  I used to watch birds in parking lots and follow them around my backyard.  They have so much energy that they're endlessly entertaining, and for some reason, their antics are a continual delight for me.

The effect is only intensified with my birds.  I could sit for hours and watch them hop about, play with their toys, preen their feathers, and fly about my room. They're pretty much the perfect pet for me; they like and need lots of attention, and I'm the girl who used to narrate everything she did (and still does when alone). They don't care what I'm saying as long as I'm talking to them, and I don't care that they can't understand as long as they'll listen.

So I got to thinking one day what my laws would be for them if I somehow became the parakeet god. I wouldn't want to give them too many onerous laws to follow, but maybe one or two commandments would be reasonable.  So I thought that my first commandment to them would be:

"Be excellent to each other (or just stop picking at each other)."

Parakeets don't really have a pecking order, but they occasionally squabble and nip at each other with their beaks.  It's mildly heartbreaking to see creatures that I love so much fighting with each other.  I will give them more food if they run out or buy them more perches if there aren't enough, and grumbling at each other is really unnecessary. I wish that I could just talk to them for five minutes in parakeet-language and make them understand how precious and wonderful they each are, and that I will take care of them and provide what they need (and most of what they want) and that I love each of them specially, uniquely, and differently. It would be impossible to choose which I love more, because love doesn't work like that. Buttercup-love is not diminished by Peepers-love.  Peepers-love is not diminished by Clair-love.  Clair-love is not diminished by Buttercup-love.

But then I realized that would have to be my second commandment.  The first would have to be:

"Have no fear."

Parakeets are native to Australia, where they fly around in enormous flocks looking for water. They have many predators and no defenses. They do not have claws or camouflage or sharp teeth or tough scales or any sort of fighting ability at all. Their primary instinct when faced with even trivially novel experiences is to fly away, and their panic threshold is almost amusingly low.

As a result, any new toy must be subjected to at least 24-hours' scrutiny before being approached. A different kind of fruit will be untouched the first dozen times I offer it. Standing too close to the cage will prompt swift scurrying to the other side.  The ceiling fan is regarded as a large windy harbinger of death.

It's quite touching, given all that, that they've come to trust me as much as they do. Buttercup and Clair will generally let me hold them to feed them their beloved millet treats. Even the timid Peepers isn't usually afraid of my hand anymore when I'm changing their water or refilling their food.

But they're still afraid of so many things, because it's in their instincts. Their species grew up in a world full of danger, and their psyches reflect that.  I just wish I could somehow explain to them that they no longer need to be afraid, that I will always protect them and care for them, and that by bringing them into my apartment to live with me, I have eliminated their reason to fear. It served a purpose once, but I have removed the reason their psyche even knows timidity. I know they can't see that; they still believe they're in danger. But I so much wish they could, because I love them.

So in this odd hypothetical where I was the parakeet god, those would be my commandments:

1) Have no fear, because that world is gone, and
2) Be excellent to each other, because I love you more than you can ever grasp.

"... and so it is with God."

Monday, October 8, 2012

What I think about during Mass - the Our Father

So I'm going to write some things on here about what I think about during Mass (or I'm going to write one or two things and then forget about it).

Today I'm writing about the Our Father.  I think about a lot of things during the Our Father.  For one thing, it does not get old praying the same prayer over and over.  In fact, you see new layers in it, and sometimes it feels like the prayer gets stronger, deeper, and more heartfelt each time I say it.  It's like saying, "I love you."  It doesn't lose its meaning; if anything, it becomes more meaningful every time you say it.

I've always loved the simple beauty in the act of saying the Our Father together on Sundays, because that prayer is echoing around the world as parishes all over the globe say it together in dozens of different languages.  In this prayer, we are united. 

Perhaps because of the Our Father, I've fallen into the habit of praying in first-person plural.  I'm worried about my tests, so I pray that we may all succeed in our attempts to glorify our God.  I'm worried about my family's health, so I pray that we as a Church may receive healing for those we love.  I'm concerned about my friends, so I pray that we as a species can have inner peace and know how best to pass along that peace to each other.  It's an odd thing, but I've grown to love it, and it gets me out of my own head.

A couple of phrases in the Our Father often strike me: "give us this day our daily bread" and "lead us not into temptation, BUT deliver us from evil".

But what's struck me lately is where the Our Father falls in the Liturgy.  It's after the consecration, right after the Great Amen, when Christ is there in our midst on the altar.  It's a precious, beautiful thing to stand with the Church around the world and pray with Christ among us the prayer that Christ himself spoke, with the Son and to the Father:

Our Father
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Like the Amen, I often think that the Our Father from our lips represents a submission from us, just like it represented the constant submission of the Son to the Father.  By praying that prayer, the one the Lamb on the altar prayed first, we join ourselves to his obedience and offer ourselves to God.

In response, the Father accepts our prayer as he accepted the Son's obedience.  Because of what Christ did, we "dare to say" the same prayer Jesus did and dare to call God our Father.  Greeting each other as brothers and sisters comes after that. The wedding supper of the Lamb comes after that.  And so the Our Father is not just "filler", and it's just as powerful whether it's sung or spoken.  For me, it's become one of the most beautiful moments of the Mass.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Where, When You Have To Go There, They Have To Take You In.

Raining, raining, raining.  It's been raining on-and-off for about four days, and it's glorious.  I love the rain for reasons I really won't pretend to understand but that involve it being pretty and soothing and cathartic in some odd way.

But I didn't intend to write about rain.  I intended to write about home.

Home has always been a tricky subject for me.  My family moved from the town where I was born to the small town where I grew up when I was five years old.  I went to school there for three or four years before I became homeschooled.  But I don't remember ever, ever feeling at home there.  For whatever reason, my young psyche just rejected the place.  It's a nice enough town, but I never considered it more than a resting place between birth and college. 

When I was about fourteen, I started thinking about college full-time.  I don't mean that I started thinking about the idea of becoming a full-time student.  I mean that I started spending the vast majority of my waking hours thinking about college.  This isn't so surprising, as I was brought up to look forward to college the way a lot of girls look forward to their weddings.

But I did transfer every smidgen of my teenage angst and misfit issues onto the idea of college, latching on to the idea that I would be happy in college and finally feel at home.  This was when I rejected the little town I lived in as being home in any sense.  At the time, I even refused to think of it as my "hometown", despite the fact that I lived there for most of my life before I left for college.  I attached a number of grievances to the place, hoping subconsciously that if I convinced myself the problem was my little town, then my problems would be solved when I jettisoned forth from that little town into my own adult life.

When I finally, finally, FINALLY picked a college and moved there to study math, I finally found home in many ways.  I lived in an honors housing community that was superb in all the ways that don't show up on paper.  My little dorm room in that concrete building became the home I felt I hadn't had since I was five.

After I moved out of the dorms and into a little house off-campus with some friends, that house became home.  But I also had always had another sense that the place didn't matter when it came to home, and I remember thinking sentimentally that "home" was really where the man I loved was.  I really loved at least two men in college, and another probably goes on that list as well. By that definition, home was wherever he was.  Sometimes home was on highway 6 in my big red truck, if he was sitting in the other seat.  Sometimes it was the grocery store that was always so crowded, if he was there with me.  And sometimes it was Kyle Field, as long as he was there to be kissed when the Aggies scored.

But then, I also remembered when home shattered.  The room where we sat while we finally broke things off went from being the bubble of home in a frightening world to being just another place in a world that was homeless.

So where do you go in a world where you're homeless?  I was becoming Catholic by that point, and so I felt distanced from my family more than I had ever been.  My generation of Aggies graduated a few months later, and so my roommates and I all left that beautiful little house on the edge of town.  I wandered around Europe alone for part of the summer, which fits quite well into this narrative and acts as a poignant metaphor for my rootless existence at the time.

Home has always been a tricky subject for me, which is why I was caught so off-guard when I realized out-of-the-blue that I would never be "homeless" again, because there would always be the Mass.

Why had I never seen it before?  Mass was home.  It always would be.  It was the place where I would always be welcome, no matter what I'd done or how long I'd been gone. 
One key to understanding Mass is realizing that Mass is where heaven meets earth and earth meets heaven.  Like a metaphysical tesseract, the two altars (one here, one there) meet and merge, as do the priests who act in persona Christi. It's not a coincidence that the "Lamb of God" features so prominently in Mass, because it features prominently (and primarily) in the writings of John, who saw heaven and wrote about it in Revelation, nor is it a coincidence that the presence of the Lamb of God is so important in both the liturgy given in Revelation and the liturgy used on earth. We put relics of the saints under the altars because the martyrs in heaven cry out from under the altar.  There is silence and incense, white vestments (white is the color of the priesthood, though other colors are used for different seasons), the Sanctus, the sign of the Cross on people's foreheads, and a good deal more.  Revelation is poetical and deeply symbolic, but then so is Mass.

Like a good home, Mass doesn't always make me comfortable.  But it's always home, whether they're speaking English, Spanish, Latin, Vietnamese, Swahili, or whatever else, and whether it's in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican or in an old house that used to be a dentist's office just off the campus of Rice University.  And like a good home, it doesn't cease to exist or be my home when I'm not there.  Maybe that's why we call it "Mass" (from the Latin ite missa est, which means "it has been sent"): Mass is home, and home goes with you wherever you are. Deo gratias.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Works

Wow, I haven't written a blog post since last year.  Not acceptable.

But I'm afraid that while second semester has been less demanding academically, it's been more demanding personally to such a degree as to more than make up for it.  Most days, it's just too exhausting to contemplate writing anything here more substantial than,
"Grrrrr mean circulatory acid fast WHY IS IT RAINING AGAIN groan my birds are out of food and have no T cytotoxic cells and my serotonin hurts why?"
Then I'm supposed to keep doing things?  It's like the things never end.  (Hat-tip to Hyperbole and a Half.)

One way I try to cope with this is by finding great blogs online and devoting myself to them religiously.  I've gone through Zen Habits, Nerd Fitness, Conversion Diary, Psychology Today, and a number of others.  I think there was even a short Cracked stint in there, but I don't talk about that anymore.  (Just kidding.)

These are all great blogs, but in each case, I go there looking for life guidance.  I'm trying to find someone I can emulate and try to be just like in every detail.

The problem is, no one else has my life.

How do you take the advice of Zen Habits and simplify your life...

...when your life is subject to the whims of people trying to teach you every detail of the most complicated system in existence?

How does an unmarried, childless student emulate Jen Fulwiler or Simcha Fisher in their grace and devotion?

I'm a vegetarian, prone to injury, and a tad busier than most, so Nerd Fitness isn't always a great fit.

Psychology Today occasionally has some gems, but most of it isn't terribly applicable to a Catholic.  Also, my depression and attention problems were mostly under control last year.  Only now that everything has dialed up to 11 have my coping mechanisms stopped being able to keep up.

Older medical students are a great resource.  But even the female Catholic medical students usually don't understand what it's like to carry Churchill's black dog, to wake up and hope the weather will be nice today and that the inner hurricane will be far away today. (If you'd like a taste, not that I can imagine why you would, a group associated with MIT wrote Elude, which provides a pretty decent metaphor of depression and what it feels like.)

Even trying to be a carbon copy of Jesus Christ isn't quite it, for the simple reason that Jesus does not have my exact life.  Imitating Christ is always worthwhile.  But I don't just want a role model.  I want someone to have taken all the questions and uncertainty before me and made every decision ahead of me, effectively removing all doubt and risk.

Of course, the answer is to just do my best and make my own path. But making one's own path is risky, so I find myself longing for someone to mindlessly follow through all this. But I'm slowly learning to do what works and not beat myself up that I'm not just like someone else.  

Or I could just opt to try to be Kara Thrace, which is what I eventually settled on.

So I've spent most of this post complaining.  But I've discovered that the answer to almost anything is gratitude.  When I think about how lucky I am just to walk this earth and breathe this air, I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.