O Fan!

The new ceiling fan ran in blessed silence for a day. But mid-night it began to make a gentle groan. I grieved the loss of silence. I lay awake listening, and remembered the worst ceiling fan ever.

I had gone on another Carnival retreat. Religious groups in Brazil take advantage of the annual national street party to offer prayerful alternatives for those disinclined to stick around for the mayhem. This group had rented a portion of a convent in a residential neighborhood. It was a chunky modern four story building with a walled garden. My cell was narrow and dark, big enough to hold two dormitory beds, one against each wall, giving the hall door just enough room to open and let us in. A shuttered window and a wooden door led to a small balcony, though mosquitos and thieves provided an excuse for shutting those at dusk and not opening them again til the sun was up.

February is one of the hottest months in Brazil. Temperatures hit 100 or more with frequency, and evening downpours may provide some temporary relief, but also keep the humidity up. I was overjoyed to see that the room had a ceiling fan. I turned it on.

Kerchunkadunkadunkadunk kerchunkadunkadunkathunk kerchunkadunkamunkablunk.

It was a rather loathsome retreat for other reasons, but the fan was the icing on the cake. The first bird to sing each morning received a whole heaping heartful of gratitude and joy.

Figs for bananas

Our flock of tropical fruit-eating birds is very fond of bananas and papayas, but usually spurn any experimental fruits we put out (grapes, apples, oranges). Today, however, a cold and windy storm drove them to eat voraciously, and by 10am they had finished two bananas and were eating even the skins. All we had left in the house were some figs, so we put one out. The banana skin remained more popular than the fig for another half hour, at which point they gave up and dug into the figs, which are now quickly being decimated by the sopping wet tanagers and thrushes.

The warriors and the gecko

Since the quarantine I’d begun exercising outdoors, in a shared space around the apartment building. It hosts a steady stream of adults exercising, but at tide-like intervals all the young children stream out of the apartments to play together. In particular there is a herd of five boys, the oldest on a bicycle, the next three on scooters, and the youngest running along on foot. Several carry plastic swords. The runner carries some sort of elaborate space weapon that is nearly as tall as he is. Their game is unclear, but involves running back and forth the full length of the space (a good 100 meters end to end, I’d think). They pause at each end, sometimes dropping their scooters and bike and plunking down cross-legged on the pavement to discuss some Very Important Subject. Most delightful are their encounters with wildlife.

One day the oldest came running up to me with his hands cupped. “Do you want a gecko?” he asked. I didn’t understand, but enthusiastically asked to see what he had. He opened his hands to reveal a very tiny and unmoving gecko, minus half of its tail. “Is it still alive?” I asked. “Well, yes, but it’s rather suffering,” he replied with a certain delicacy. “You see, we tried to pick it up by the tail, but it broke off. And then we picked it up regular-like, but I think it’s afraid and tired.” “It probably would like to rest in the woods,” I suggested. “Just let me show my mom, then you can put him in the woods,” he agreed. He dashed off, followed by the rest of the herd, shouting for his mother.

After a bit he and his friends came stampeding back and graciously handed over the traumatized gecko. I was about to set him on top of the wall along the woods, but the boy suggested that in the woods a snake might eat him. I agreed this was possible, and instead laid the creature under some branches in a large flower box where he would be shaded from the sun and out of sight of birds.

There is a certain awe these boys hold for the natural world that cuts through their shouting battles and sword-waving charges. In an instant they stop and stand fascinated, watching a lizard, a monkey, or a caterpillar.

That fascination and engagement reminded me of the wondrous quality my childhood play spaces had when I was that age. An overgrown lot at the end of a suburban street seemed as vast and engaging as a wild prairie. A small mound of dirt, abandoned after some unfinished construction project, offered a challenging ascent and high view. The branches regularly trimmed from the neighbor’s very tall hedge made a cozy lean-to that lasted until the next lawn-mowing day.

The memories of these places are vivid still, more than 45 years later, more so than many other memories. It’s a delight to watch these kids experiencing something similar.

Reading in bed

Why is reading in bed a thing? I recall it being not only a thing, but a wonderful thing when I was a kid. I would read voraciously, even reading under the covers with a flashlight after lights out time. Lights out meant exactly “no more reading.”

At some point I stopped reading in bed. I think this was in part because books became larger and heavier. One can’t easily hold and read a large hardcover book in bed, at least not without a lap desk, cushions to support a semi-seated position, prism glasses and so on.

I’ve also rarely had a bedside table. I still don’t. Usually because the bedroom is too small to fit bedside tables next to the bed. Without a bedside table, there’s no handy reading light nor place to put your book when done reading.

And the fact is that even now that I have a kindle and a cell phone, both of which are designed to facilitate reading in bed, I really prefer to read books on paper, so I generally read in a chair in the day, not at night in bed. I especially love reading while holding a pencil and making little annotations as I read.

So there ya go. Life without reading in bed. It’s sort of like life without breakfast in bed: it looks rather intriguing and picturesque, but it’s not part of my life and doesn’t seem worth a big effort.

The glorious Virgin Mary was reading when interrupted by an angel…

Come spend the day!

Detail of a tapestry showing the visit of the Most Holy Virgin to her cousin Elizabeth. She stayed a while!

One of the many strange things I’ve adapted to in Brazil is really long visits. I was so used to the all-business, in-a-hurry, let’s-not-overstay-our-welcome kind of visits I knew in the US that it’s taken me years to acclimate to the pace of visits here. This week’s spate of post-quarantine visits included:

  • Six hours with a dear friend: 3 hours of cheese, salami, olives and wine; followed by a one hour walk to digest and pray a rosary, then two more hours eating beef stew and talking.
  • Five hours with another dear friend a few days later: lots of conversation; coffee and cake; more chatting, taking photos, and hanging out; turning down the invitation to stay for dinner (tripe stew…I couldn’t do it).
  • Eight hours with another dear friend the day after that: several hours of conversation, several hours of eating, more talking, more eating, and a good long time spent looking at beautiful art books.

I was telling another friend about it later and she said the customs that she’s known are a) the ‘come for lunch, stay til dark’ visit and b) the ‘come spend the day while the husbands are at work’ visit.

I was marveling at the quality of time one gets with a friend when one spends all day, and not all day running around going places and being seen and so on, but just sitting at home talking. With that kind of uninterrupted attention to each other you really can delve into long stories and wandering musings. The friendship gets treasured and pampered and polished and cared for. It seems to me to put priorities straight. God gave me these friends to love and be loved by. Generosity and gratitude seem much better responses than fussing about whether I’ve checked off three more to-dos on my to-do list.

Then again, I’m a gringo, so today there were no more visits and I fretted over my to-do list. But I do think most everything on it, barring a few bills to pay, can be done tomorrow with no harm to anyone.

God scolds Moses

Moses is standing at the shore of the Red Sea. The Egyptians are closing in. A dispute arises as to what to do next, which Moses takes some time to resolve. He leads them in prayer, and then continues to pray, saying:

“O Lord of the world! I am like the shepherd who, having undertaken to pasture a flock, has been heedless enough to drive his sheep to the edge of a precipice, and then is in a despair how to get them down again…”

He goes on at some length. “But God cut short his prayer, saying: “Moses, My children are in distress-the sea blocks the way before them, the enemy is in hot pursuit after them, and thou standest here and prayest. Sometimes long prayer is good, but sometimes it is better to be brief.”

I had such a laugh at that. And it happens several more times, as Moses attempts to part the Red Sea and the sea argues with him, and he then talks to God again, who explains again what to do, and so on, repeating several more times “Don’t just stand there praying, Moses!!”

This is from Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginsberg. I love exactly this aspect of the tales, for they show such an intimacy with God.

A gift from the Hermits

I received such a lovely email today from some Carmelite hermits in the USA. I post a few excerpts here, lovely for meditation. You can find out more about them or donate to support them at their website.

How I’d love to show you the lovely infinite horizon beyond creation that I experience and contemplate… He reveals and makes Himself known to souls that really seek to know and love Him. Everything on earth… seems to shrink, to lose value before the Divinity which, like an infinite Sun, continues to shine upon my miserable soul with its rays. Yes. I have a heaven in my soul, because God is there, and God is heaven.”
-St. Teresa of Jesus of the Andes

“Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary specifically under her glorious title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel entails a certain realization and acknowledgment of the primacy of the spiritual life, of the interior life of human beings who are endowed with a spiritual soul created in the image of God and made for eternal union with Him.”

“As we gradually grow in a knowledge of the mysteries of the Catholic faith revealed by the Son of God incarnate through His Church, we will find the depths of our souls enkindled in love and zeal for God and His eternal, immutable Truth. This divine love will sanctify and purify our souls and dispose them for more intimate interior communication and union with God, in anticipation of the fullness of union with Him in Heaven, for which we have been made, and which alone can make us truly happy, no matter how much the world, the flesh, and the devil lie and deny that fundamental truth of human existence.”

Yesterday’s feast of Our Lady of Carmel was touching, and reminded me how very dependent we are on God’s mercy not only for our mere existence, but for every sustenance. That He gave us His own Blessed Mother to keep us, console us and guide us is a treasure. Here is another image of Our Blessed Mother, from Avila, Spain.

Flos Carmeli

Tomorrow is the feast day of Our Lady of Carmel. This is very widely celebrated in Brazil, but not necessarily in other places. Our Lady of Carmel is one of those devotions I seem to have by accident, along with Saint Benedict. They just keep accumulating in my life without much planning on my part, so I take that as God’s work and go along with it.

I did go to Avila once. It was really neat to see the places and things associated with Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, though I always find it a bit painful when sacred objects are displayed as museum items. Spain is one of several countries I’ve been to where a lot of sacred places and objects have been confiscated by the state and turned into stuff for tourists. There’s plenty of prayer to be done in such places.

I had a large antique rosary that had belonged to a Belgian Carmelite. It was a connection to someone with a deeper life of prayer than mine, and I treasured it for a while, even though I was sure such a thing should properly have been buried with its original pray-er. The medals were worn from being touched. I must have given it away, as today I went looking for it to pray for the feast, but it was no where to be found. I’m guessing I gave it to a Carmelite friend.

The story of the origin of the Carmelites is fascinating. It’s worth a long read from the Catholic Encyclopedia for the full immersion version of the story!

I am most grateful for the repeated blessings, tenderness and guidance of Our Lady of Carmel and various holy Carmelites in my life.