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On Faith

20 Nov

A few years ago, when we still lived on the east coast, Matt and I drove to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. We booked a room in what was maybe the coziest bed and breakfast of all time, and in spite of the raw, grey November weather we were ridiculously excited by the chance to explore and get lost in a city that wasn’t our own.

Matt was still a student back then, and I was making minimum wage working retail, so little getaways like this were few and far between. This meant that I’d planned for our three day mini-break with the same focus and attention to detail that others might apply to a two weeks tour of Europe. I bought a guide book and filled it with highlighter marks and post-it notes. I spent hours poring over travel websites, trying to plan our every little detail of our trip. I talked to (at?) Matt endlessly about the things I wanted to see, trying to convince him to use the highlighter and post-it notes with as much enthusiasm as I did. My excitement grew to such a level that I was basically banned from mentioning the words “Anne of Green Gables” or “Gilbert Blythe” in his presence.

One place that I knew I definitely wanted to visit was the All Souls’ Chapel, which is attached to Charlottetown’s St. Peter’s Cathedral. All Souls’ Chapel is designated National Historic Site and, I learned from my guidebook, a good example of the High Victorian Gothic style of architecture. I especially wanted to see the interior of the chapel, whose walls feature sixteen paintings by local artist Robert Harris. The only problem was that the chapel was only open during services, and the only service held in the chapel was evensong. We decided to sneak into the back and ogle the artwork during Saturday’s evening service before heading downtown for a romantic dinner.

Late Saturday afternoon, Matt and I fell asleep on our room’s giant, king-sized bed. We woke up to find that it was dark outside, and realized with a start that it was nearly time for evensong. We thought that if we hurried we might still be able to make it. We were wrong, a fact that we realized as soon as we stepped into the chapel’s entryway and heard someone chanting inside.

We peeked in through the door, and before us lay one of the loveliest, heart-in-your-throat sights I’ve ever seen. The room was lit by just a few candles, leaving most of the chapel still in darkness. The flames flickered and occasionally grew strangely, eerily tall in the close chapel air, throwing grotesque, menacing shadows on the painted walls. In the middle of this little cave of light stood an old priest, his long robes faded to a greenish-black and his collar slightly wilted. He was all alone, this priest; no one else had come to evensong. Still, though, he stood in front of the lectern and recited from the huge crumbling book that sat there, repeating the same words he must have said on a near-daily basis for years and years and years. They were nice words, too – the text of the Anglican evensong is strikingly, intricately beautiful, a sort of poetry, in a way.

I thought about this man who, in spite of his lack of parishioners, went on with his service and turned it into a private communion between himself and his god. I wondered what he thought of the words that he was sending out into the darkness, and what personal meaning they might hold for him. I watched this man, who, unaware that he was being watched, slowly wended his way through the service, speaking at length to a god who never seemed to answer him. I thought to myself, this is what faith looks like.

I grew up in a pretty secular household. My mother usually dragged us to the local United Church on Sundays, but that was more boring than it was religious. I spent my time there sprawling out on the shiny wooden pews, making up stories about pictures in the stained glass windows and harassing my mother with whispered demands to know when Sunday School would start. Sunday School meant a craft, a game, a snack, and little else. Oh sure, we would read Bible stories, but they didn’t seem to me to be much different from Grimm’s fairytales, or the stories found in my giant Hans Christian Andersen book. Meanwhile, my father, an avowed atheist, would stay home to sit in the basement and burn incense while listening to classical music on vinyl.

I went to a Catholic school, so I did receive some religious instruction there, but because I was Protestant, no one really thought that it was necessary to indoctrinate me. I was often left out of things, either because my teachers didn’t think it was appropriate that I be included, or because they thought I didn’t care. I was curious, though –  and to be fair, who wouldn’t be when your classmates’ religion means that the girls get to dress up in lacy white dresses and partake in a secret ceremony to which you are not invited? After my class did their first communion, they got to eat the strange, flat, holy bread and drink real wine – meanwhile, in the United Church, there was no special initiation ceremony, and our communion was nothing but regular bread and boring old grape juice. School made the Catholic religion seem mysterious, fascinating and a little dangerous, whereas my time at the United Church had taught me that that institution was the opposite of all those things.

Super secret confession time: I have a thing about churches – a dark, guilty, secular thing. I love churches, especially old ones, especially Catholic ones. The right kind of church makes me feel quiet and awed and sort of holy. Maybe it’s because I love history, or maybe it’s the antiquated architecture. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for symbolism and ritual, or maybe it’s my love of Latin. Maybe I’m a closet Catholic. Whatever it is, it made me drag Matt into church after church when we went to Paris; it made me stand in the middle of Sacré Coeur Basilica, eyes closed and totally blissed out, listening to a choir of nuns chanting, well, I’m not quite sure what, but whatever it was, it was beautiful.

If I were Catholic (which I’m not), I would basically be the worst Catholic ever. I’m pro-choice, I use birth control, I had sex before marriage, and I think men and women are equal. I hate the Catholic church’s backward stance on pretty much everything, and I can’t stand the Pope (although, much like Kate Beaton, I have a great deal of fondness for JPII):

You know what’s terrible, though? Even though I know that the Catholic church is awful, even though unspeakable things have been done in its name and its leaders have been complicit in terrible crimes, I still love a lot of things about it. I love the singing, and the smell of the incense. I love the big old stone churches with their colourful windows and dark, mildewy corners. I love the priest’s fancy outfits, and the slow procession down the aisle at the beginning and end of every mass. I love going into an empty church and lighting a candle for the sick, or sad, or deceased. I love the tacky religious statuary. I love communion, even though one of my grade school teachers told me that if a Protestant eats a host that’s been blessed by a priest, it will burn a hole in their tongue. I love the idea of midnight mass, of staying up with a group of strangers until way past my bedtime; there’s something so ancient and lovely about staying awake with a group of people, waiting together amidst wreaths and bows and candles and music to make sure that Christmas Day is, in fact, going to come.

The thing is, if I’m a bad Catholic, then I’m an even worse atheist. Even though I know, logically, that there’s nothing out there, that science and evolution explain life on this planet, not some faraway magical spirit with a beard and a white robe, I still sort of believe. Even though I know that religion is awful and whatever good there is in the world comes from people, not from some godly presence, I still sort of believe. I’ve tried really hard not to believe. I’ve dabbled in other religions; like most people, I had a pagan phase in high school which involved chanting nonsense in the woods and spelling magic with a k. My childhood best friend was Jewish, and I tried my hand at that, too. But I still, embarrassingly, kept coming back to the Catholic church.

Why is this? I mean, the fact is that I disagree with their stance on, well, just about everything. Public religious displays make me deeply uncomfortable, and people who try to preach at me annoy the crap out of me. Once, a few years ago, Matt and I went with his mother to a Good Friday service at the Catholic church in Keswick, and they did this bizarre thing where they brought out a giant crucifix and made everyone line up and take turns kissing it. People were looking at Jesus and sobbing, I kid you not. I wanted to yell out, SPOILER ALERT BUT GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS HE GETS RESURRECTED THREE DAYS LATER. It was ridiculous. But still, I sort of believe.

We had Theo baptized in the Catholic church, and my reasons for this were pretty lame. I wanted an excuse to dress him in a frilly white dress and throw a big party for our family; I guess we could have had a special Baby Transvestite celebration, but a baptism seemed like something my grandmother was more likely to understand. I also know that he will likely go to Catholic school, and I don’t want him to feel left out like I was. Another thing is that in a weird way I think that it’s important to raise a kid with religion, so that they have something big to question later on, when they go through their philosophical existentialist phase in high school. Also, I sort of believe, so there’s that, too.

Sometimes I think about Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and how Sarah, the unfaithful wife, becomes strangely, almost unwillingly religious. There’s this really beautiful passage near the end of the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it really resonates with me:

I believe there’s a God— I believe the whole bag of tricks, there’s nothing I don’t believe, they could subdivide the Trinity into a dozen parts and I’d believe. They could dig up reasons that proved Christ had been invented by Pilate to get himself promoted and I’d believe just the same. I’ve caught belief like a disease. I’ve fallen into belief like I fell in love.

Mostly I just wish that I believed in something, anything as much as that Anglican priest on Prince Edward Island did.

Plus, you know, Theo looks really, really good in a dress.

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Spem In Alium

2 Oct

Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down, I listen to Tallis’ Spem In Alium, and it improves my life 100%. Like, my house could be on fire, and I’d be all, these harmonies are transcendent.

You may remember Thomas Tallis as the wispy queer composer dude from The Tudors.

He never brushed his hair, could barely form a coherent sentence, and spent most of his time staring dreamily off into the middle distance. Why, you might ask? Because music, that’s why.

Although there is no historical evidence that the real Tallis slept with men, I am happy to tell you that portraits of him (the earliest of which, to be fair, was painted 150 years after his death) make it appear as if he’d actually met a comb once or twice in his life. Which is good, because really – I know The Tudors is pretty much the least historically accurate show of all time, but do you really think Anne Boleyn would have let a dude like the one above hang around her court? NO. NO SHE WOULD NOT.

Probably not really what Tallis looked like, either. Just saying.

Tallis was at court during some pretty violent religious upheavals, and somehow managed to continue to be Catholic and keep his head. This is actually a pretty stunning achievement, considering the times.

The first monarch Tallis composed and performed for was Henry VIII, the king who created his own church so that he could have as many divorces as he wanted. Then there was Edward VI, who only lived until the age of 15 but was still really, really into the Anglican church. Next came Jane, who was queen for about five minutes, which means she probably didn’t have much time to stir up religious shit and/or commission songs. Then came Mary I, called Bloody Mary because she loved killing Protestants so much. Of course, I’m sure Mary was totally cool with Tallis and probably gave him a ton of fist-bumps, on account of how they were both Catholic.

Finally, there was Elizabeth I,  while Protestant, was pretty damn tolerant when it came to religion, at least when compared to her predecessors. I mean, sure, she passed an act saying that everyone in England had to go to an Anglican church once a week or else face a fine, but she wasn’t really killing Catholics, so that was a plus for Tallis.

Spem In Alium was composed during the reign of Elizabeth I, probably in 1570. It’s a forty-part motet performed by eight choirs of five members each (which means that you need 40 frigging people singing 40 totally different lines of music). But even though we know the approximate when of Spem In Alium, we’re still unsure as to the why.

One theory suggests that it was written in response to a challenge issued by the Duke of Norfolk. See, at the time, the Italian composers were doing some crazy shit using a million singers singing a million different melodies at the same time. In particular, people were pretty obsessed with Alessandro Striggio‘s Ecce Beatam Lucem, which was apparently written for either 40 or 60 separate voices. Of course, the English couldn’t tolerate an Italian besting them at anything, so Norfolk challenged English composers to write something similar but even better.

The main reference we have for this story is a letter by law student Thomas Wateridge, which says,

In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.

Write an awesome song, get some sweet bling. Well played, Tallis, well played.

If this version of events is true, then it’s likely that Spem In Alium was first performed at Nonsuch Palace, which is maybe the best castle name ever?

Another popular theory suggests that Tallis wrote this forty-part motet in honour of Elizabeth’s fortieth birthday. Get it? Forty voices for forty years. So clever!

A third theory suggests that the Catholic Tallis wrote it to honour the SUPER CATHOLIC Mary I. After all, he did work for her at one point, so maybe he still had some fond feelings for her. Maybe he spent the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign (or the part of it he lived through, anyway) pining for good old Bloody Mary. Seems unlikely, though.

Whoever it was written for, Spem In Alium is one of the most beautiful, other-worldly pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of music that makes my heart beat a little faster because, I don’t know, it’s just so wonderful to live in a world where things like this are created. It’s the kind of music that makes me wonder how the hell man who lived in Tudor England could write something that would make a woman cry 450 years in the future? It’s the kind of music that, for the short time it’s playing, actually makes me wonder if we might live in the best of all possible worlds.

Latin text:

Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te

Deus Israel
qui irasceris
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terra
respice humilitatem nostram

English text:

I have never put my hope in any other but in you
God of Israel
who will be angry
and yet become again gracious
and who forgives all the sins of suffering man
Lord God
Creator of Heaven and Earth
look upon our lowliness

I should also mention that while researching this post I discovered the 97% of men in Tudor England were named Thomas.

NaBloPoMo (or, um, what?)

4 Sep

Hey! So I decided to do this. I dunno, I am kind of worried that I won’t be able to keep up and/or will get bored, but I am going to give it a shot.

Here’s today’s prompt:

Monday, September 3, 2012
Write about one object you see at this exact moment.

There are two ceramic pomegranates on a shelf in my dining room. I saw them in a store window a few months ago and impulsively ran in to buy them. They’re sort of a deep orangey-red, and just big enough to hold cradled in both hands, which I like to do.

I’m a little embarrassed by how much I love them.

When my grandfather found out he was dying, he didn’t want anyone to know. My father found out by overhearing a conversation between my grandmother and grandfather, and he told my aunt. Nobody told me until four days before my grandfather’s death. It was Hallowe’en, and my parents told us at dinner. My mother started crying into her Betty Crocker instant mashed potatoes. My sisters quickly followed suit. I was 17 and felt like if I had to stay in that house one more minute, I was going to suffocate. Well. That’s 17 for you.

My father and I flew to Nova Scotia for the funeral. The next few days were and endless parade of family-family-family, but I didn’t mind. Every night was a sort of wake for my Grampy, full of funny and endearing stories. There was plenty of wine and no one cared if I drank, even if I was underage. Away from my mother and sisters, I felt like I was being treated like an adult, for once.

A particular story that stood out to me that weekend was one that my Aunt Carolyn told. It wasn’t much, maybe not even a story – an anecdote, perhaps, or just a quick mention. She talked about coming to see my Grampy one day, shortly before he died, and how she brought him a pomegranate. She sat with him and they ate it together. It was the last fruit my Grampy ever had, she said.

If there was anyone who would understand the symbolic significance of a pomegranate, it’s my aunt. She has her PhD in Egyptology and is, of course, well-versed in all classical mythology. I even remember her telling me the story of Persephone and Hades; we were on a long family car trip and I kept begging her to tell me stories (I also kept begging her to lend me her walkman so that I could listen to Queen sing Fat Bottomed Girls). I remember being shocked that such a small act as eating a few pomegranate seeds could condemn you to spending half the year in Hell.

When I was young, I thought Carolyn was the most fascinating person in the history of ever. Her apartment was thick with the smell of incense, and she had so many books. She was beautiful, all big dark eyes and deep red hair, and funny in a way that my parents never were. She talked to me like I was a grown up, which I adored. Sometimes, when we went out in public, people thought that I was her daughter. The thought that people might think she was my mother made me blush with delight.

She taught me Egyptian hieroglyphics, and gave me a book of Egyptian myths. My father would read them to me as bedtime stories and later, after he’d left my bedroom, I would hide under the covers and pray to their dusty old gods. Isis, I would whisper, Horus, Bastet, Sekhmet, Hathor, Osiris, Ra. I figured that no one had talked to them for so long that they would be willing to give me anything I asked for. I figured they would just be happy to have someone praying to them again.

Carolyn gave me Gardner’s Egyptian Grammar, a giant tome whose main use to me has been pressing flowers. Still, I’ve carried it around with me like a talisman, hauling it from Kitchener to Halifax, then finally to Toronto. I doubt I’ll ever read it, but it’s still on my bookshelf, and it probably always will be.

I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that whenever I look at these ceramic pomegranates, that whole world unfolds for me again: my grandfather, my aunt, old books and even older gods, the smell of incense and the dim lighting in my aunt’s many apartments. Her whole exotic world that I was, occasionally, able to step into.

Everyone should have an Aunt Carolyn.

An Open Letter to Elizabeth Wurtzel (or, feminism, you sure do depress the hell out of me sometimes)

17 Aug

Dear Elizabeth Wurtzel,

I should maybe start off by saying that we have this weird one-sided history, you and I. I guess it’s not that uncommon to feel that way about a writer? Especially someone who’s famous for publishing this messy, vulnerable, heartbreakingly honest autobiography? Anyway, I feel like we go way back.

2003 was a terrible year for me. I like to refer to it as my annus horribilis, partly because I have never before and never since reached such a nadir of depression and despair, and partly because I’m super pretentious and really like Latin. I won’t go into everything that led up to my sort-of breakdown, but I will say this: it was shitty, and I was really sad.

I read Prozac Nation again and again – I must have read it ten times over the course of that year. When I read things like this:

That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”

and this:

I don’t want any more of this try, try again stuff. I just want out. I’ve had it. I am so tired. I am twenty and I am already exhausted.

and this:

I was so scared to give up depression, fearing that somehow the worst part of me was actually all of me.

I thought, yes. Yes yes yes. That’s me that she’s talking about. I’m not the only one living like this. I’m not alone.

And though that thought didn’t stop me from spending entire weekends crying in bed, surrounded by balled-up kleenexes and dog-eared books, it did, on some level, make me feel better. So thank you for that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about you, but that’s probably a good thing because it means that it’s also been a long time since I lay on the floor, listening to angsty music, feeling paralyzed by sadness. I’ve semi-followed your career trajectory since then, in that I’ve read excerpts from a few of your more recent books and I know that you went to law school, but I haven’t really given you any serious thought. Until today, that is, when I read your piece in the Atlantic on feminism and stay-at-home mothers.

I am a stay-at-home mother, and there are a few things here that I would like to address.

First of all, when I say that I’m a stay-at-home mother, I don’t mean that I go to Jivamukti classes and pedicure appointments. I mean that I am there for the joy and drudgery of parenting from the time my son wakes up in the morning until the time he goes to bed (excepting a few hours in the evening, when I work at a yoga studio – although we don’t currently offer any Jivamukti classes, and my husband takes over child care in the evenings, so there goes that scenario). This is also true for all the other stay-at-home mothers that I know, although I obviously can’t speak for your friends.

You say that the whole point of feminism to begin with was, “that women were losing their minds pushing mops and strollers all day without a room or a salary of their own.” I respectfully disagree. The whole point of feminism is and was that women, historically, had little or no agency over their own lives, and were oppressed by a society that treated them as men’s possessions and offered them very few choices in life.

I don’t understand why your solution to the problems with modern feminism is to offer women less choices. Or rather, to tell them that they have the choice to stay home, but should they choose that avenue in life, they will be regarded as failed feminists.

You say that real feminists “earn a living, have money and means of their own“. No. Real feminists understand that sometimes leaving the workforce to stay at home with your children is an economic necessity. Real feminists know that the cost of daycare is prohibitively expensive (in my city, it’s between $1,800 and $2,000 a month for a 12-month-old child), and that sometimes having a parent stay home makes the most financial sense for a family. And real feminists know that male parents are starting to make the choice to stay home more and more frequently (in fact, I personally know three stay-at-home dads). Are women still more likely to stay home to raise their children than men are? For sure. Is the way to correct this imbalance to say that no one should stay home ever? Probably not.

You then go on to say that there is only one kind of equality, and it’s economic. Hey, listen, I’m all for economic equality – that sounds great! But that doesn’t mean there are other kinds of equality that aren’t just as important. How about equal rights? How about equal in terms of the law? Like you, I also want equality in terms of absolutes. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I sure as hell don’t feel equal. Probably because I understand that in many ways, women have yet to achieve equality.

Finally, do you know what’s really making the war on women possible? The divisiveness of the feminist community. The fact that you, and others, think that feminism should be some kind of exclusive club that won’t admit members who don’t toe the company line in exactly the right way. The fact that we’re too busy fighting each other to fight for equality.

Your piece doesn’t make me angry, but it does make me sad, and so tired. I can’t believe that it’s 2012 and we’re still arguing over whether or not feminists are allowed to stay home with their children. I can’t believe that our solution to women’s oppression is to continue to dictate how they should live their lives. It’s been decades and decades of the same arguments being repeated over and over and over. It’s exhausting, and it’s starting to make me feel hopeless.

So here we are again, Elizabeth, you with your critically acclaimed writing, and me feeling tired and sad and hopeless. It’s almost like the last ten years never happened. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a floor to go lie on and some depressing music to listen to.

Sincerely,

Annabelle