Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Having time

For the past couple of days, I have been relishing a little tome from 1573 in the Rare Books division of my beloved library. It is about the size of a PDA, but infinitely more charming and fascinating. My technology-enamoured friends will probably challenge me on that point, probably listing in the merits of the lastest Blackberry that they are able to "communicate" easily with others. So say I of the book. Does it not present an occasion for conversation between author and reader? This is not a particularly novel idea, I know, but one that has recently been reinforced for me recently in a decidely comical way.

For have you ever had the distinct experience of a book catching you in the act of doing or thinking something very specific? It can be disconcerting to have your mind read
by a book, while all the while you thought the reverse was happening. Especially when that book is over four hundred years old. Several days ago, I leafed through the delicate pages of The 21 Epistles of Ovid, "newly" translated into French and scribbled in my notebook nearby - all of the poem titles, illustrations, and page numbers. So as to go back later and investigate in more detail. I was feeling oh-so productive but also time-conscious, since the library was soon to be closing. Suddenly, my eyes fell upon the following verses from the editor Charles Fontaine, addressed to his "dear readers":

Maint bon esprit en ce voyant se fache
De perdre temps, & souvent se contente

Du titltre seul qui a l'oeil presente.

Many a good mind, in seeing this [book] is exasperated

With passing time, and often contents himself

With only the title that presents itself to the eye.

It's hard enough to translate the verses, much less the feeling of being caught bloody-handed by a complete stranger s
everal centuries old. The fact of the matter is, human nature hasn't changed much since the 16th. Impatient skimmers will always be. Now, some situations call for riffling rather than depth, of course. But Fontaine's admonition is timeless nonetheless, and brought me up short. Laughing ruefully at myself for falling into such a typical trap, I continued on, making an effort to savor rather than rush.

There is a fairy tale that is flitting through my mind in bits and pieces...something about a damsel wanting to s
kip through the boring parts of her life. In reponse to her plea, she is given a spool of golden thread by her fairy godmother, who warns her not to pull the thread unless absolutely necessary. You can see where this is going. Of course she gets impatient, and pulls it almost immediately. Just a little bit, and her life advances to when she is a happy young married woman. What joy! But the novelty soon wears off, and she pulls it again, but harder. She has many beautiful children. When they start to squawk and irritate her, she grabs for her golden thread yet again. Soon, she is old, gray, and regretful that she ever laid hands on the spool, for her life will soon be over and she has little or no meaning attached to those years.

I've been thinking about my own life, and wondering what my spool of golden thread is. We are only given a finite number of hours in our life, and yet I am often tempted to lay hold of an activity just to kill time. The Internet provides me with the majority of tugs on the thread. Youtube, facebook, google image search, you name it. I a
lso fall back on crosswords, snacking purely out of boredom, and TV. It is true that we all need down time, but meaningful activity can be found in the realms of both leisure and labor. My (very human) problem is that even when I am engaged in these, I find my attentions wandering, "exasperated with passing time." Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote:

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Uh, can anyone say "myspace"? Oh, that I could find that "still point in the turning world", that place of contentment more often! But this world is not friendly to those who wish to stand still. While waiting for a friend yesterday, for example, I was obliged to try to remain stationary on a busy Parisian sidewalk for about five minutes. Impossible. The result was a barrage of dirty looks and jostlings. No one will be still, nor let another be still. The excuse?

We don't "have time".

Friday, June 22, 2007

O, (Long) Happy Day

June 21. The longest day of the year. Someone in the course of your yesterday must have noticed this interesting little factoid, I'm sure, and briefly remarked on the marvelous length of a summer day. Perhaps, if you are from the upper Midwest, you even exchanged a little "yep" or two, just to seal the deal. Karl (from Minnesota) and Todd (from Ohio) are perfectly positioned - at a ninety-degree angle - for this sort of conversation.

"Yep. Sure stays light out for longer."
"Yep, sure does."

Well, Parisians do commemorate June 21st, but not in understated conversation about the obvious. Instead, they fill every one of those elongated hours with the most obvious pastime: music. The Fete de la Musique has been celebrated in France for the past 25 years, giving anyone with an iota of musical aspiration a chance to set up sound gear in the open air and play for Paris at large. And I do mean anyone. As we rode our bikes into the center of town to meet up with friends, we passed through layer after varied layer of sound. As soon as the metal band (rather stubbornly) faded away, we would be within earshot of a New Orleans-style brass band, which overlapped with the accordionist, who mingled rather comically with the drum jam further down the street. And so on. All night long...right down to the colorful Caribbean band fronted by the reincarnation of Carmen Miranda, who finally put down her maracas at 2:30 am, I think.

We spent a large share of the evening hanging around Genesis, which is the cultural center that belongs to our church. To everyone's surprise (including his wife's), Karl chose to sit back and enjoyed the show for the night, rather than jump in and participate. The woman playing the keys in the photo is Lorelei, who rocked the night away with her husband Ron on bass and a bunch of our other pals. It was most excellent, especially the strong dose of gospel that finished the set. Yep. We had people dancin' in the street, all amongst the roar of mopeds and police sirens that are inevitable on wilder nights in Paris. (Oh wait...that's every night.)

Well, as we took the party further afield, it became clear that the carnevalesque spirit was a bit more potent than usual. The guy at right who was practicing his parlor tricks for a delighted crowd, and (eventually) a group of disgruntled firefighters that made him put his toys away. This was at the youthful Place St.-Michel, which was littered with concert fliers and broken bottles, much to my chagrin when I had to bike home.

Yes, eventually even the best of parties lose their momentum, and there is a turning point when the majority of the crowd realizes how late it is, how much they have to go to the bathroom, how ill they feel, how hungry they are, etc. By about 2 pm, Paris was showing signs of feeling rather upset and betrayed by her pleasures, which we took as an indication to head home.

All of which makes me yearn for that happy day that will be the longest of all. That party will not end in police searches, swollen-eyed damsels, shifting shadows, and streets of broken glass. It will begin with the return of our King, who will come and make all things new. Even the bedraggled streets of Paris. Even those disheveled partygoers who have put their trust in Him. Even me.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Abbey von Gohren, your days are numbered

Please do not be alarmed at the title of this blog.

This is a well-known fact, one that I happen to be okay with. What I just happened to find out this week is that last year, I hit one heck of a milestone: 10,000 days. Yup. On October 20, 2006, I turned over the ol' ticker from 9,999 days to 10,000. Meaningless trivia? Perhaps. Or not...

So teach us to number our days,
that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

Hmm. How is mortality tied to wisdom? It took me a while to think it through. At first glance, it seems a bit morbid to be wrapped up in such thoughts. Our time on this earth is limited. Also, it is also unknown to us when it ends. Another cheery scriptural meditation of mortality tolls through my head: "man knoweth not his time." If we are cognizant of these things, what could possibly emerge besides gloom and doom?

How about joy, thankfulness, and hope?

Oddly enough, these are a remarkably short step from the previous paragraph. Let's try it out. As I sit here, I am bathed in the light of my 10,238th day and so thankful to be here. What an astoundingly beautiful life we lead. God's love, good friends, dear family, delicious food. A veritable bowl of cherries. Le temps des cerises.

But what about a day with less sunshine? Flip back a few years, for example, when my uncle passed away from cancer. Actually, quite a number from both our families and circle of friends passed or fell ill within a few years for heart-wrenching, devastating reasons. Did I still number my days? You better believe it. When my soul hit bottom, it landed on one hard but solid truth. This life is temporary, so I had better put my hope in the eternal.

There is an old saying: "she's so heavenly-minded, she's no earthly good." I've always felt instinctively that there is a logical misstep here, but have never been able to pinpoint exactly what it is. I think, however, it has something to do with numbering our days. If the poor, long-criticized girl in the proverb truly had heaven in mind, she would count each day on earth as a gift. She shouldn't get such a bad rap. Future joy is inextricably linked to our benefiting from the joys in the present.

Speaking of joys in the present, I'd like to thank the Lord for piles of delicious mushrooms fried and tossed with steak, gnocchi, and bleu cheese by a very loving husband on my birthday (i.e. my 883,612,800th second, by the way**). I'd also like to thank Him for pushing away the exhausting humidity by a day full of exciting rainstorms, complete with wind gusts, and sunbursts. And I should probably mention how grateful I am for family and friends that pray and a God who answers...with astounding alacrity as of late, it seems. All this, and He still tacks on another day. Amazing.

**Don't forget to count the leap years, for all of you out there who are already doing the math.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Life in the Libraries

One of my teachers, whom I greatly respect, told me once that she dreampt of heaven as a library. The shelves reached so high that they disappeared into the infinite. Rather than dark, shadowy stacks, everywhere was light. Being eternity, there was ample time to read whatever her heart desired.

Oh, my. Dreams really do come true, sometimes.

Lately, I have been logging long hours at any one of the 700 worn wooden desks in the reading hall of the Bibliotheque Ste.-Genevieve. As far as I'm concerned, it's perfect. It's cosy and warm in the winter (especially if you're lucky enough to get a spot by a radiator), and airy and cool in the summer. The books do not stretch to infinity, per se....but high enough to whet my appetite for eternal shelving arrangements. On any given afternoon, the place is virtually overrun by a mass of leggy, Converse-clad Parisian high-school students, all giggling and nervously studying by turns. The long-suffering librarians wheeze, sigh, or scold as the spirit moves, but Ste.-Genevieve herself is a benevolent matron who has been watching over her young brood with a more generous eye for centuries. Still, if you want a spot to read, you had better come before the lycee across the square lets out; waiting till later usually means an hour-long wait or more.

An hour, just to get in? Yup. Once you're in, then you order the books you want to read, which takes another half-hour for the librarians to fetch from the stacks. You think this is bureaucratic? Wait till I start belly-aching about the Bibliotheque-Nationale next year. I know of doctoral students who have been refused a library card there during the required, inital interview. Stiff is the competition for the right to information.

This attitude seems to relax somewhat when it comes to the public libraries. Karl has found a wealth of resources at the Mediatheque Musicale...minus the guard dogs. There are scores of notated jazz and classical tunes, recordings of every possible album an aspiring musician could hope to hear, and lots and lots of books. I can always tell when he's been to the musical library...he's usually beaming.

And the study he's been doing has been paying off. Talk about dreams coming true....his quintet just recently played at a venue in the heart of Paris, and he's got two more gigs in June. We recently launched a website to get the word out about his musical pursuits. If you have a moment to check it out, let us know what you think on the guestbook page!