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The struggle in a pandemic

Last night I had a big meltdown cry at the overwhelmingness of it all.

“It’s so painful to reside in the middle.” —Dr. Zubin Damania (ZDoggMD)

I think that’s really my problem, along with an overly analytical mind and a hypersensitivity/aversion to conflict.

In Orthodoxy we believe in pressing into the struggle. So I am reminded that the only way this huge burden can be tackled is bit by bit.

“Only struggle a little more. Carry your cross without complaining. Don’t think you are anything special. Don’t justify your sins and weaknesses, but see yourself as you really are. And, especially, love one another.” —Fr. Seraphim Rose

“Don’t wage your Christian struggle with sermons and arguments, but with true love.” —St. Porphyrios

But what is the loving thing to do here? Even that seems to be in question. How do we love our neighbor as ourselves when everyone seems to have a differing opinion on what that looks like?

I read a news story about temporary unemployment/furlough converting to permanent as this thing drags on. I empathize deeply. I worry about my own workplace and whether we’ll be able to continue on much longer in this manner. I cry over what the loss of an organization that has provided 52 years of teaching tradition in this community, multiple generations of dancers, and 42 years of an all local Nutcracker production would mean to me that has watched their performances as a little girl; danced with them as a pre-teen/teen; covered them as a reporter; introduced their performances to my own children which instilled a love of dance in them; that currently trains in and continues to stoke a love of dance in my children; and which I also support with my talents, education/training, and hard work. I know there will be a way forward. I know some of our teachers would carry on in spite of it all and create something new, but it would definitely not be the same and would be the end of something special, an era. Does this empathy mean I care about “profits over people” as is so pithily thrown about? No. Do I worry there are people that would perceive me that way if I admitted my empathy and worry? Yes.

I make homemade cloth masks on the weekends when I have time to myself without the pressure of Stephen working from home and trying to fit in homeschooling the kids around our extensive Zoom dance schedule. And honestly sometimes this spills over into the regular week when I just don’t feel like doing anything else, even homeschooling. Having something creative, meaningful, and charitable to do helps me feel like I’m contributing in a positive way in spite of the situation and it keeps me going in some ways. But even that act feels controversial. Hospitals/organizations are asking for masks. No they are not, they have adequate PPE. No they don’t. Cloth masks are useless. New research says they aren’t. I personally hate wearing masks because of all my sensory issues. You have to wear a mask to come in X, Y, Z stores and places of business. Then you see people wear them half off their face, or only cover their mouths and not their noses, they hang them from one ear, they take them off to talk to a friend they run into in public all of which render them essentially useless. We have enough masks now. We don’t have enough, keep making them. The cancer center that treated my dad asks for them to hand out to patients, but wants to make sure the public knows they are taking care of all their HCWs with N95 masks. So I want to give back in his memory and I feel inspired to make another batch. Days later though the dismay of HCWs over the latest conspiracy theory videos and protests, some going so far as to say those people should sign a waiver agreeing to die/no treatment if they do get the virus, wonders what those same HCWs would have thought of my MAGA hat wearing dad were he still alive today. The bag of 110 masks continues to sit next to my sewing desk.

I read another news story about the virus hitting rural America hard in some places. How in one small town the attendance at a couple funerals in the closest big city led to the virus running rampant and devastating them all. Their underlying health conditions are noted as being a major factor spurred on by poverty and lack of proximity to healthcare. They had to establish an additional temporary morgue for all the bodies. Their one pastor died from it and now the deacon is performing the multiple funerals that are happening daily. There’s been a density argument here all along, that the virus hits hardest in big cities where people are living on top of each other. That rural places are fairing better. For this reason (among many), our own city/county wants to fast track reopening because we have not been as hard hit. We’re more spread out. I’m married to someone that analyzes data for a healthcare organization that serves our most impoverished population which also makes up a huge percentage of our general population. Those underlying conditions plague us too. Will we wind up in the same boat as that small town from my news article if we do rush to reopen?

Then there’s the remote learning. It’s the best we can do, but it is also not completely working well. Spotty internet issues. Videos freezing. Delays. Trouble shooting tech issues and missed e-mails and regular school meeting time conflicts and frustrated parents and students. Problems with sharing recordings with those that have to miss from cloud storage shortages to files randomly disappearing to music copyrights. Classes at weird times. On a personal level, what used to occupy a couple afternoon/evening hours a few days a week now takes up most of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday for us because everything has to be spread out. Fitting in regular homeschooling has been hard. The love of dance in my kids is now facing burnout and staleness especially at the prospect of working on the same choreography over and over while our recital plans stay up in the air. Teachers that make corrections on timing and musicality and technique that feel hard to process with the video delays and freezing and not having someone right there to show you how or make that physical adjustment. And being the extroverts they are, the loss of the social aspect is especially hard on them.

But then how amazingly and quickly the arts community has responded. My kids can take classes from professional dancers and broadway stars any day of the week if they so choose. We can watch performances of things we will likely never be able to afford to or be able to travel to streamed digitally in our living room. So many artists are giving back and having talks and encouraging kids to keep doing their art.

The confusion over the phased reopening and the logic behind the decisions of what categories of places fall in each phase. The inability to plan anything and figure out how we will move forward. Where does the business I serve fall and why do we not have a clear answer on that? Schools, daycares, and preschools can reopen in phase 2. We serve the same population. Some people use our services as a form of daycare for the hours they continue to work after the school day ends. I try to keep abreast of things. I see that some of our peers in the “industry” are given permission on reopening. One of our both direct and indirect competitors that also has a preschool/daycare is allowed to partially reopen now because essential workers need childcare. Another while not a direct competitor, but still in the same general kids sports and activities industry is allowed to because their sport/activity involves a chlorinated pool and sunlight which is expected to “kill everything” and therefore be low risk. Local people and politicians sent a letter to our governor asking for churches to be included in phase 2 as well for a whole host of both reasonable and unreasonable arguments. But for some churches what really makes that much different from what performing artists do? Yes, we can overspiritualize the concept here, but at the bare bones of it all the same arguments in that letter can apply here as well: the larger gathering of people being OK in school versus not in this situation (again with the idea that it is much the same population as those schools), the uplifting of our mental health through performance and beauty, allowing for freedom of expression, and maintaining our connection with our community.

Speaking of performing arts and shows/concerts, then there was the shocking revelation (at least for me) this week that Woodstock happened in the midst of another pandemic. Then in that same week a panel discussion that says performing artists and singing artists in particular will have to refrain until there is a vaccine because their projection and athletic breathing means they are “super spreaders.”

The signposts being moved further and further out (remember when it was just if you stay home for 14 days?) and the feeling of hopelessness and no end in sight. When the governor says our election in November will be by mail is that the signal for at least how long we should expect this to last? How well will the people and places I know fare if this does last that long? What will our summer look like? Should I even hope for our summer intensive and is the hope for a late summer recital even realistic?

The lack of civility. How every post and news article turns into an argument, name calling, self-righteousness, being quick to correct one another with the “facts” and “science”, intellectual superiority, appeals to authority, appeals to emotion, ad hominem attacks, anecdotal evidence, and public shaming. I find myself deleting things I want to say minutes later for this reason. I don’t want to see my friends and family attack my other friends and family behind the anonymity of a screen. But then they say if you stay silent you are part of the problem too, a la Martin Niemöller’s “First they came…”

It’s the worst possible time to have a death in the family and someone requiring additional elder care and we have had both. I don’t even know how to talk about either when usually I am so verbose. In one case where Alzheimer’s is stealing away what precious little time we have left of recognition, we can’t even have that time right now because of social distancing.

It’s just all so exhausting and depressing. And I know, I know this wreaks of privilege and first world problems… boo hoo my poor kids and our technology supported life with access to dance classes while my husband works from home and I make decisions like whether I sew this week with minimal consequences to our middle class white life. I know.

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On the things no one tells you about death and dying…

The heart shaped wreath my baby sister got died yesterday. The kids needed to practice piano. So I rearranged.


I’ve felt like this whole few months has been “all the things they don’t tell you about…” like when you are pregnant/giving birth/a new parent except for death and dying. Which gets me thinking. Why do we not talk about these things? Why are we all just fumbling around in the dark on so many aspects of life (and death)? I read the little blue book at the hospice center and suddenly the whole world of my last few months finally made sense just a couple days before he was gone. It would have been nice to know some of that information before that. Why did I have to get that information from a book? I can see now why there is a trend for “death midwives” after this experience.

Things they don’t tell you: someone in your family will get a ginormous picture of your loved one leftover from the memorial service. And huge flower arrangements.

So for now this one is in my living room on the easel that used to hold the flower wreath for his memorial service that now occupies the bottom of my green barrel. Stephen straightened the picture a little more precisely when he got home from work and said, “This is right where he’d be if he were here. He was always in the living room.”

A couple years ago, some friend shared this post and it showed up in my newsfeed. I know Mayim Bialik is not everyone’s favorite, kind of controversial, etc. and I’m usually not one to give a rip about what some celebrity says or thinks anyway, but the paragraph she included with post was intriguing and for some reason I clicked over and read through.

“Saying Kaddish is one of the most significant and meaningful ways I have experienced to move through my first year of grief. Jewish practice designates 11 months after burial for the daily recitation of this prayer – a prayer which reaffirms the reciter’s belief in G-d, and which has for centuries functioned as sort of a rabbinical pause in the daily prayer service. Judaism gets a lot of things seemingly wrong, but across all denominations, rabbis and scholars agree that we got this one right. Encouraging a presence with a community in the time of acute grief is profoundly meaningful…”

At the time it was a “gotcha” kind of moment for me. Further evidence that Eastern Orthodox Christianity was doing it “right” because if Jewish people did this kind of thing, then with their roots in Judaism, how could my previously held Protestant Christian beliefs decry the Christian version of this practice?

I was at war with myself, really.

Words can be one thing and people’s actions can be another. In my previous experiences with death while believing something almost entirely different about it, I saw that despite those words, there is a natural inclination to honor the person and do something meaningful at various anniversaries/dates of significance: gathering together for favorite food on a birthday, donating to a cause the person was passionate about, a scholarship fund in their name for kids that liked the same things, a huge event near the anniversary of their death, lighting a candle at a particular hour, a blue light on the porch for a LEO killed in the line, planting a tree or favorite flower, sending up floating lanterns or a balloon, a candlelight vigil gathering at the site of the death or a significant place in town, flowers at the graveside on significant days, a march, a 5K/marathon, etc.

At the exact hour one week from my father’s death, my sisters FaceTimed, lit a candle and listened to the last song that played in his hospice room while he breathed his last. We were at an event and I was unable to participate. None of my sisters are particularly religious anymore and yet the inclination to honor him at a significant date and time was there. When we were planning his memorial, there was a strong desire, despite the day of the week it fell on (Monday) to do it exactly one month from his death rather than the more convenient weekend. For the scattering of his ashes, there has also been a strong desire communicated to do it on his birthday despite it falling on a weekday.

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there is a memorial service called the Panikhida. It is done immmediately after death, the third day, ninth day, fortieth day, three months, six months, one year and subsequent years. There are also memorial Saturdays throughout the church calendar where the service is done for whole groups of people. “In the Eastern Church, the various prayers for the departed have as their purpose praying for the repose of the departed, comforting the living, and reminding the living of their own mortality and the brevity of this earthly life. For this reason, memorial services have an air of penitence about them… The service is composed of Psalms, litanies, hymns, and prayers. In its outline it follows the general order of Matins and is, in effect, a truncated funeral service. Some of the most notable portions of the service are the Kontakion of the Departed and the final singing of ‘Memory Eternal’ (Source).”

Similarly, from Mayim’s post: “Kaddish is meditative if you let it be, and being in the midst of quiet prayer and stillness during grief – even for minutes a day – is helpful and profoundly comforting… I did not recite it every single day, but I recited it many, many days… But you could not keep me away from It, nor It away from me. Grief followed me and hung over me like a veil of darkness everywhere I went. A cloud of sadness, a weight of death on my chest. And now the 11 months have ended. My responsibility is over. My father’s soul is as it was before, although the people in the synagogue where I have gone so many early mornings and so many afternoons and evenings tell me his soul can be lifted up because of the honor I have given it through my dedication to Kaddish. It’s higher, closer, nearer to G-d’s resting place in the heavens I don’t really think much about… Is this what you wanted from me, G-d? And did I do it for G-d, for myself, for my mother, for my brother, for my dead father? Sometimes you put one foot in front of the other just because it’s the only thing you know how to do. And for 11 months that’s exactly what I did. One foot in front of the other. I think about the times I slept in. The times I didn’t make it to shul. Did I not miss my father enough to go to synagogue one more time? Shame on me. And when I went instead to the movies, or to see friends, or to seek comfort other ways, was I running from this responsibility? …Eleven months reciting a prayer. Eleven months devoting my time to the loss of my father’s. Eleven months counting down until the next milestone, and the next, and the next: the English date of his death. The Hebrew date of his death. The unveiling of his matzeyvah (tombstone). And then the rest of my life. I had my father for 39 years. I gave him 11 months of kaddish. I gave myself 11 months of discipline and presence. I gave my religious tradition the opportunity to hold me up in ways I didn’t know how. I gave strangers the ability to become my comrades. I gave myself permission to learn something new, so many things new. I gave my community the chance to learn about what one daughter can achieve for the sake of her father.”

And so I find myself turning to my own tradition’s prayers, adding them in each night at the end of the regular evening prayers we do with the kids before bed most nights (when we too are not tired, lazy, or otherwise occupied):

“Prayer for the Departed: With the souls of the righteous dead, give rest, O Savior, to the soul of Thy servant N., preserving him/her unto the life of blessedness which is with Thee, O Thou who lovest mankind. In the place of Thy rest, O Lord, where all Thy Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of Thy servant N. for Thou alone lovest mankind. Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thou art the God who descended into hell and loose the bonds of the captives. Do give rest also to the soul of Thy servant N. Both now and ever and unto ages of ages. O Virgin, alone pure and undefiled, who without seed didst bring forth God, pray that his/her soul may be saved. With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant N. where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting. Amen.

“Prayer at the Death of a Parent: O Lord, You heard Joseph grieving over the death of his father, Jacob, as he wept and kissed him. Your own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, also knew the love of a mother, for as He suffered upon the cross, He beheld his Mother and the disciple whom He loved standing near her, and He said: Woman, behold your son. And to the disciple, He said: Behold your mother. Good Master, look down from heaven and see the pain and grief which have laid hold of my heart and soul today. Be merciful to me, Your servant, and receive the prayer which is offered to You by a child who has lost his (her) beloved father (mother). Forgive whatever sins he (she) has willingly or unwillingly committed, whether of word, deed or thought. Merciful Master, hear the grieving voice of one who has been taught by his (her) father (mother) to turn to You with true faith in times of need, and to raise my eyes and voice to You. Show Your mercy, O Lord, and grant rest to my father (mother), making him (her) a partaker of Your eternal blessings and granting him (her) a place at Your right hand, for blessed and glorified are You unto all ages. Amen (Source).”

I guess I find comfort in the mystery of we don’t know what exactly this does versus the very definitive, “this does nothing” of my previous tradition: “When we pray for those who have died and the forgiveness of their sins, we are asking the same thing, for their communion with God, whether broken or impaired, to be made whole. Of course, we enter mysterious ground in all of this. The Orthodox Church has very little to say in a definitive manner about prayers for the departed… What is essential in this is something that runs very counter to our contemporary minds, formed as they are by the false assumptions of modernity. Salvation, the full and complete restoration of communion with God and our complete healing, is not a private matter. We are not saved alone, for ‘alone’ is the very antithesis of salvation. Communion is how we exist. Neither can we have communion with God without communion with our neighbor (1 John 4:20-21), Our contemporary culture imagines that we are self-existing, that life is merely a matter of biology. However, true existence, both in this life and the next, is marked by communion, both with God and with others. This is the very heart of our salvation. That the Church prays for those who have died is the abiding confession that death does not destroy our communion with one another. That our prayers are of ‘benefit’ for those who have died is the abiding confession that our communion is real and effective. That we ask the prayers of the saints is the abiding confession that those who have finished the course are of benefit to us (Source).”

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DIY Liquid Acne Soap

Thanks to my Sicilian heritage I’ve had acne since puberty that has never let up. When I looked through a favorite recipe book in my 20s with lots of pictures of average real Sicilians, all my skin woes finally made sense! 

A couple years ago I started using a sulfur based acne soap and saw some marked improvements in my skin. My acne did not go away, but it definitely helped. The problem? For a little over 4oz, it costs about $60 after shipping. It lasted me awhile and my skin improved so it felt justified, but I have another problem: kids. Specifically kids that like to play with soap. Maybe I should just be the fun mom that doesn’t get all worked up about her kids playing in the shower/bath, but when your child has turned $60+ worth of a tiny amount of soap into “potions,” it kind of makes me lose my mind. Also I have acne on my torso and back so I could never bring myself to use this expensive soap on those much larger portions of my body.

Friends of mine had used an activated charcoal based soap and saw similar improvements to mine so I started trying that too. The one I use is available pretty much everywhere and retails for about $10 for 5oz. I found that it works OK, but not as good as the sulfur soap. 

So a few weeks ago I was in the health food store and tried to find a soap that combined both of these ideas. I found separate bar soaps of each, but nothing with both. So I bought two bars of soap and thought I’d alternate between them.

I hate bar soap though! Getting a good lather is hard, the bar falling off the shelf onto the floor of the shower, it getting all soft and mushy in the shower, etc. it just grossed me out. I even tried some of those terry cloth bar soap pouches and still was not liking it. 

Every once in awhile I decide to do something really crunchy granola. It’s been about 8 years since I tried making my own laundry soap (it made way too much, was way too much work at the time, and didn’t feel like it got our clothes clean so after the first batch I quit). Well, I remembered laundry soap making and decided to apply the same concept to my bars.

It’s super easy to do, makes a successful liquid soap with a great lather, and makes a ton (I was scrounging all over the house for more containers!). Whether it keeps my face as clear remains to be seen, but here’s what I did…

Most of the recipes I refreshed myself on wanted you to use a huge pot and lots of water to make gallons of soap. I did not want gallons of soap! I did find one that used only 4 cups of water and one bar of soap though. It said that it may come out a little thin though and to add more bar soap if necessary. Since I had two bars of soap, I decided to use 6 cups of water instead. 

I can’t remember the exact brand of sulfur soap I bought, but a quick look online says they run from $3-$12 a bar. There is even a bar that has sulfur and salicylic acid (another common acne treatment) in it from DermaHarmony. 

I do know the activated charcoal brand soap I bought was from The Seaweed Bath Co. because I recognized the packaging. Activated charcoal bar soaps also range from about $3-$12 a bar depending on the brand and store. 

Step 1: In a medium saucepan, bring 6 cups of water to a boil. 

Step 2: While you are waiting for the water to heat up, grate your bars of soap. You can also use a food processor, but I feel like food processors are harder to clean so I just used my regular cheese grater.

Step 3: Once the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat and add soap gratings. 

Step 4: Stir until gratings are all melted. This will take awhile. I started to wonder if they would ever all melt and whether this was worth it and then they did and I realized I was being a bit dramatic. 

Step 5: I knew tea tree oil is supposed to be good for acne too so I added about a half teaspoon to the pot at this point. The added benefit of a better smell in my kitchen than sulfur. 

Step 5: Let cool completely, stirring ocassionally. 

Ok so here’s the deal, most of the recipes said to let it cool overnight on your stove to get optimal thickness, but I didn’t have time for that. Once mine was about luke warm, I started putting it into a random assortment of containers I scrounged and cleaned (Next time, I’ll probably be a little more prepared and buy containers). Then I put those in the fridge and left them there for about an hour before deciding I need a shower ASAP and can’t wait anymore. 

The soap did seem a little thin and is kind of a weird dark not so pretty olive green color, but it lathered up just fine on both my hands for my face and loofah for my body. My skin felt clean and soft afterwards and I have no complaints. 

I’m not sure how much volume the grated soap added to the total, but if we just use the original  6 cups of water, that means I got 48oz of soap for about $10 (I think I paid about $5/bar) vs. 5oz for $10 or 4oz for $60. 

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A tale of two books

This last fall I joined a book club and I have been endeavoring to read more in general. This month the book was my pick and I chose it because it had been referenced in a couple articles I read. The book is Leisure: The Basis of Culture by 20th century German Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper.


In Leisure, Pieper makes an argument for man’s need for leisure, but not as we would probably think of synonyms of that word such as idleness or laziness. Leisure is not that:

“The ‘worker,’ it has been seen, in our brief analysis of that significant figure, is characterized by three principal traits: an extreme tension of the powers of action, a readiness to suffer in vacuo unrelated to anything, and complete absorption in the social organism, itself rationally planned to utilitarian ends. Leisure, from this point of view, appears as something wholly fortuitous and strange, without rhyme or reason, and morally speaking, unseemly: another word for laziness, idleness and sloth. At the zenith of the Middle Ages, on the contrary, it was held that sloth and restlessness,  ‘leisurelessness,’ the incapacity to enjoy leisure, were all closely connected; sloth was held to be the source of restlessness, and the ultimate cause of ‘work for work’s sake’ … Idleness, in the medieval view, means that a man prefers to forgo the rights, or if you prefer the claims, that belong to his nature. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, isAcedia is the ‘despair from weakness’ which Kierkegaard analysed as the ‘despairing refusal to be oneself.’ Metaphysically and theologically, the notion of acedia means that a man does not, in the last resort, give the consent of his will to his own being; that behind or beneath the dynamic activity of his existence he is still not at one with himself, or as the medieval writers would have said, face to face with the divine good within him; he is a prey to sadness (and that sadness is the tristitia saeculi of Holy Scripture. And then we are told that the opposite of this metaphysical and theological notion is the notion ‘hardworking,’ industrious, in the context of economic life! For acedia has, in fact, been interpreted as though it had something to do with the economic ethos of the Middle Ages… Idleness, in the old sense of the word, so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible: it might be described as the utter absence of leisure, or the very opposite of leisure. Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being, whereas the essence of acedia is the refusal to acquiesce in one’s own being. Idleness and the incapacity for leisure correspond with one another. Leisure is the contrary of both. Leisure, it must be clearly understood is a mental and spiritual attitude — it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such, utterly contrary to the ideal of ‘worker’ in each and every one of the three aspects under which it was analysed: work as activity, as toil, as a social function. Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies (in the first place) an attitude of inward calm, of silence, it means not being ‘busy,’ but letting things happen. Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear. Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean ‘dumbness’ or ‘noiselessness,’ it means more nearly that the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but also the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation. Furthermore there is also a certain happiness in leisure, something of the happiness that comes from the recognition of the mysteriousness of the universe and the recognition of our incapacity to understand it, that comes with a deep confidence, so that we are content to let things take their course… Leisure is not the attitude of mind of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves…” (p.23-28)

The other book I am currently reading is also non-fiction and I picked it for the same reasons as Leisure, because it has been referenced in things I have read over the last year. It is How (Not) to be Secular by James K. A. Smith which is his guide to reading philosopher Charles Taylor’s 900 page A Secular Age  which has been called one of the most important books of our time.


I have been struck by Smith’s analysis which resonates so deeply with me and writing down quotes from it in my quote notebook like mad:

“Like those hucksters on Venice Beach offering maps to the homes of the stars, there is no shortage of voices hawking road atlases for a secular age. Confident ‘new atheists,’ for example, delineate where we are with a new bravado. Employing a kind of intellectual colonialism, new atheist cartographers rename entire regions of our experience and annex them to natural science and empirical explanation, flattening the world by disenchantment (Graveyards of the gods are always a highlight of this tour). At the same time — and sometimes as a reaction — various fundamentalisms seem intent on selling us maps to buried treasure, pulling out yellowed parchments and trying to convince us that these dated maps tell us the truth about ourselves, about our present. But their maps are just as flat, and we feel like they’re hiding something… Both of these sorts of maps are blunt instruments. They are road atlases that merely show us well-worn thoroughfares, the streets and interstates of our late modern commerce. They do nothing to map the existential wilderness of the present — those bewildering places in which we are beset by an existential vertigo. These neat and tidy color-coded road atlases are of no help when we find ourselves disoriented in a secular age, haunted by doubt or belief, by predawn fears of ghosts in the machine or a vague sense of the twilight of the idols. These road atlases of belief versus disbelief, religion versus secularism, belief versus reason provide maps that are much neater and tidier than the spaces in which we find ourselves. They give us a world of geometric precision that doesn’t map onto the world of our lived experience where these matters are much fuzzier, much more intertwined — where ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ haunt each other in a mutual dance of displacement and decentering.” (p. 13)

“…most of us live in this cross-pressured space, where both our agnosticism and our devotion are mutually haunted and haunting. If our only guides were new atheists or religious fundamentalists, we would never know that this vast, contested terrain even existed, even though most of us live in this space every day.” (p. 14)

“But the haunting is mutual, which is why religious literature in our secular age attests to the persistent specter of doubt. Outside of Amish fiction and Disney-fied versions of biblical narratives, believers in contemporary literature are ‘fragilized‘ …twentieth-century fiction was where we saw that ‘the churchgoer was giving way to the moviegoer.’ What Taylor describes as ‘secular’ — a situation of fundamental contestability when it comes to belief, a sense that rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world — is the engine that drove Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. As she attested in a letter about her first novel: ‘I don’t think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It’s hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.’ Even a faith that wants to testify and evangelize — as certainly O’Connor did — has to do so from this place. Indeed, consider the dramatis personae of religiously attuned literature over the past fifty years, from Graham Greene’s whisky priest to Walker Percy’s Dr. Thomas More to Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder, even Marilynne Robinson’s Protestant pastor in Gilead: not a one matches the caricature of either the new athiests’ straw men or fundamentalist confidence.” (p. 20-21)

“Indeed, on Taylor’s account, ardent secularism has not appreciated or embraced secularity. And he thinks that, in some fleeting moments of aesthetic enchantment or mundane haunting, even the secularist is pressed by a sense of something more — some ‘fullness‘ that wells up within (or presses down upon) the managed immanent frame we’ve constructed in modernity. In the same way postmodern believers can’t shield themselves from competing stories that call into question the fundamental story of faith. Evolutionary psychology and expressive individualism are in the water of our secular age, and only a heroic few can manage to quell their chatter to create an insulated panic room in which their faith remains solidly secure. Ours is a ‘secular age,’ according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded. Conversely the Nietzschean dream is alive and well, and the heirs of Bertrand Russel and Auguste Comte continue to beat their drums, and yet Oprah and Elizabeth Gilbert still make it to the best seller lists and the magic of Tolkien still captivates wide audiences… While stark fundamentalisms — either religious or secular — get all the press, what should interest us are these fugitive expressions of doubt and longing, faith and questioning. These lived expressions of cross-pressure are at the heart of the secular.” (p. 22-23)

I found myself nodding my head over and over at the apt descriptions and analogies that describe the world in which most of us find ourselves. I am an Orthodox Christian, but even when we are doing the shortened Reader’s services that the laity can perform without the clergy in my own living room or at a beautiful Orthodox Church for a full Divine Liturgy, I am haunted by whether or not God is really there, what the heck He is even doing with my life, whether I am on the right path, if God is really at work in the situation I find myself in: a two family tiny mission parish in a town that is a sea of over 200 Protestant churches full of people that believe very differently than me.

And for those of us who do have faith, maybe not the same faith, but faith nonetheless, I found myself wondering how we got here where it is so hard to have faith at all as I see countless friends claim their new labels of atheist or agnostic, rejecting faith and the practice of faith. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon to me, I grew up in a home that didn’t have belief, it’s just more shocking when life-long believers that grew up differently from me throw that off completely. Over the weekend we watched the documentary Becoming Truly Human which explores this rise of the “nones,” from 7% jumping to 25% of the population now claiming no religious affiliation in polling. Smith addresses this question of, ‘how did did we get here?’ too:

“Our goal in trying to understanding our ‘secular age’ is not a descriptive what, and even less a chronological when, but rather an analytic how. The question is not whether our age is less (or more) ‘religious;’ nor is it a question of trying to determine when some switch was tripped so that, in the world-historical language of Will Durant & Co., we went from an ‘age of belief’ to an ‘age of reason.’ Instead, Taylor is concerned with the ‘conditions of belief’ — a shift in the plausibility conditions that make something believable or unbelievable. So A Secular Age is persistently asking and re-asking various permutations of the following questions: ‘How did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naively within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances, in which everyone’s construal shows up as such; and in which, moreover, unbelief has become for many the major default option?’ ‘Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, in say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?’ As you’ll notice, these questions are not concerned with what people believe, as much as with what is believable. The difference between our modern, ‘secular’ age and past ages is not necessarily the catalogue of available beliefs but rather the default assumptions about what is believable.” (p. 26-27)

It was really interesting to read that passage and then pick Leisure back up and hear Pieper pretty much describe that same world of easy belief of the 1500s still shaping people’s lives in the early 1900s when he was writing:

“The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in ‘celebration.’ Celebration is the point at which the three elements of leisure emerge together: effortlessness, calm, and relaxation, and its superiority to all and every function. But if ‘celebration’ is the core of leisure, then leisure can only be made possible and indeed justifiable upon the same basis as the celebration of a feast: and that formation is divine worship. There is no such thing as a feast ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage. There is no such thing as a feast that does not ultimately derive its life from divine worship, and that does not draw its vitality as a feast from divine worship. That is not a demand or a requirement; it does not mean that that is how things ought to be. It claims to be a simple statement of fact: however dim the recollection of the association may have become in men’s minds, a feast ‘without Gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown. It is true that ever since the French Revolution attempts have repeatedly been made to manufacture feast-days and holidays that have no connection with divine worship, or are sometimes even opposed to it: ‘Brutus days,’ or even that hybrid ‘Labor Day.’ In point of fact the stress and strain of giving them some kind of festal appearance is one of the very best proofs of the significance of divine worship for a feast; and nothing illustrates so clearly as a comparison between a living and deeply traditional feast day, with its roots in divine worship, and one of those rootless celebrations, carefully and unspontaneously prepared beforehand, and as artificial as a maypole… There is in fact no room in the world of ‘total labour’ either for divine worship, or for a feast: because the ‘worker’s’ world, the world of ‘labour’ rests solely upon the principle of rational utilization. A ‘feast-day’ in that world is either a pause in the midst of work (and for the sake of work, of course), or in the case of ‘Labour Day,’ or whatever feast days of the world of ‘work’ may be called, it is the very principle of work that is being celebrated — once again, work stops for the sake of work, and the feast is subordinated to ‘work.’ There can of course be games, circuses — but who would think of describing that kind of mass entertainment as festal? It simply cannot be otherwise: the world of ‘work’ and of the ‘worker’ is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods, for on an exclusively utilitarian basis, on the basis, that is, of the world of ‘work,’ genuine wealth, wealth which implies overflowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible. Wherever the superfluous makes its appearance it is immediately subjected to the world of work. And, as the traditional Russian saying puts it: work does not make one rich, but round-shouldered.” (p. 44-47)

How indeed did we move from a construal where feast days are connected to divine worship and leisure to one where most of Christianity has only 1-2 feast days (Christmas and Easter), if that? Where Christmas falling on a Sunday in 2016 sparked huge debate about whether churches should have a service or whether the pastor and his family needed a break to celebrate because the church always steals PK’s dads? Where dressing up for Dr. Suess’s birthday and making green eggs and ham gets more participation in elementary schools across America than most church services, even on those two floundering feast days we still kind of observe on the Liturgical calendar?

And this is why I joined a book club this year: to reclaim my motherhood sapped brain and read more and ponder the deep thoughts.

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Idealism v. Reality

It’s January. So much of my ideal vision of motherhood and Orthodoxy is wrapped up in what was my normal for the last four years as well as goals I have for our family spiritual life. I mean, I’ve been researching and writing a book, non-fiction, that is sort of an encyclopedia of various feast day practices throughout the year for the last few years so I definitely have a lot of ideas, whole Pinterest boards of them, but the execution both in actually writing the book and in our personal lives is often lacking.

In my ideal January we’d start off the year sharing Vasilopita with friends and all the excitement and anticipation of who get’s the coin and the blessing of St. Basil for the year. I’d make the cake from scratch from someone’s centuries old family recipe. It would be perfectly dusted in powdered sugar and the year.


On January 6, which fell on a Saturday this year, we would be having Liturgy for Theophany (the feast of the Baptism of Jesus), heading out to bless the Kern River as we have in past years and then house blessing and food all afternoon.


On the weekend nearest January 15, our dear Ethan’s birthday, we would have that Pinterest perfect “How to Train Your Dragon” party that he has planned up in his mind. We’d have the amazing Night Fury cake with candles coming out of the dragon’s mouth, Popsicle stick catapults and “sheep” marshmallows, games, a picture perfect tablescape, a photo booth set up with viking and dragon themed props, a clever party hashtag, the works.

On January 17, we would spend some time talking about St. Anthony the Great, our schoolwork patron saint, and try learning that Troparion (hymn) for his feast day yet again.

Lent and thus Pre-Lent comes early this year, so on Sunday January 21, we’d sing the silly Zaccheus song and go to Hart Park to climb Sycamore trees on Zaccheus Sunday.


And at the very end of the month, we’d be gearing up for St. Brigid (Feb. 1) and Candlemas/Meeting of our Lord in the Temple (Feb. 2) getting supplies to make Brigid’s cross and candles.


In my ideal our home would function as a little monastery in some ways, in the mornings we’d do prayers before starting our day, we’d do the full fast on fasting days, and in the evenings we’d either do evening prayers or Compline as a family.

It’s nearly midway through January and what my month has looked like so far:

Dec. 31 was a Sunday this year. Ever since our mission closed public doors, we’ve done Typika (a shorter version of the typical Sunday services that laypeople can read through) at our home with another family and more recently an inquirer that has been coming for about a month. That morning I woke up early, bought a boxed spice cake mix from the closest grocery store and made it just before we started the service. I frosted the cake and put number candles on it because sifting powdered sugar to make the year is messy and not my thing. I was surprised the cake even turned out because my mantra has been “I can’t bake” for quite some time. I got the coin this year after we all stuffed ourselves on too much cake.


January 6 was filled with the lows of my husband’s grandmother’s memorial service where we were gutted by bagpipes (she was very proud of her Clan Sinclair Scottish heritage) and bittersweet memories.


That afternoon was followed by the highs of the birth of Christ late that evening on Old Calendar Nativity. Death and Birth all in the same day. An emotional rollercoaster, and yet fitting, since Christ’s coming allows us to “rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of the partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise…” (First Stichera, Vespers of Christmas Eve).


Christmas on January 6/7? Old Calendar? A brief history lesson: In the 1500s the Pope of Rome decided to change the calendar which is 13 days “behind” to correct some dating issues and slowly much of the world followed suit, except some Orthodox holdouts because the job of calendars and dating events had always belonged to the Church of Alexandria, an ancient center of learning. Eventually some Orthodox switched to the New Calendar, with the date of Pascha/Easter still ascribing to the Old Calendar date so that all of Orthodoxy celebrates on the same day.

On January 10 we were just getting around to reading the our favorite children’s book on the Life of St. Catherine (Nov. 25) and making our liturgical journal entries for her, because that is how far behind we are on those. Though I did manage to make from-the-can cinnamon rolls on her actual feast day.

This weekend will be spent sewing a couple paraments (fancy Liturgical cloths that cover stands, tables, etc.) for a special Liturgy we’re having on Monday to celebrate Theophany kind of halfway between the dates on the Old and New Calendars and all of our usual pomp and procession, river splashing, and house splashing that comes with it.


Monday also happens to be Ethan’s birthday. I got wind of his party plans only a week or less ago and struck up a compromise that I’d bring a cake with plastic dragons on it to our homeschool co-op at the end of this month. I always feel bad for the kid because we’re usually so wiped out after Christmas and his birthday just becomes an afterthought like this most of the time.

As for my other lofty spiritual family goals, ha. Our mornings are not started with prayer, like ever. And I hate putting kids to bed. We had a good two month stint where I was boring my kids to sleep by sitting on one of their beds and chanting Compline and an Akathist to the Saints of North America. But honestly, it started to make bedtime take even longer, which I already hate, and I wanted to do other things besides taking an hour or more to chant. The kids joked that they were giving me “a holiday break, just like for school,” but honestly I don’t really wanna anymore. Last night I kept popping in their darkened rooms to put away laundry and Henry would say, “Prayers?” every time I came in with a new pile and I said I was busy and he knows the “Our Father” so can’t he pray himself?

But I think real life and our faith and having an Orthodox home is lived somewhere in between this idealism and nothing at all, just like my real month has looked. We stand up, we trip, we fall, we get up, we brush ourselves off, and repeat.

“What we should bear in mind is that every type of work on earth and in all the universe is God’s work, and as such it should be performed from the heart, without reservation. When we do so, we can free ourselves from our interior resistance. Every action of ours will then help our neighbor, beginning with our family, wherever we may be… We must learn how to live a heavenly life. And that is not easy, because up until now we have led a life of resistance and opposition. Take, for example, a family man who has a home and a family and who knows how to do his job well but is doing this job against his will. That is how inner resistance builds up… For we have acquired the habit of always opposing one thing or another, as there is always something that is against our will. We have not learned to be obedient to the will of God but always want our will to be done… Therefore, let us be thankful to God for everything. He knows why He has put us in the position where we find ourselves, and we will get the most out of it when we learn to be humble. We should always remember that whatever task we perform here in this life is for Him.” –Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine our Lives

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Dr. Suess

I always find this amusing. It is Dr. Suess’ birthday Thursday. There will be celebrations in classrooms and libraries across the country with dress up, readings, songs, special food, etc. None of my friends that believe honoring and celebrating saints and feasts is sinful, or idol worship or whatever will bat an eye. They will send their kids along merrily to partake in all of these festivities. Green eggs and ham will be eaten. Some may even volunteer in classrooms donned with a certain iconic striped stove pipe hat. A LuLaRoe consultant I know has outfits picked out from her collection that are themed to certain beloved characters even. 😏 Pick X, Y, Z American icon or hero and it is the same story. Like humans just can’t help themselves when it comes to this sort of thing. I remember a priest we knew once making an argument in a sermon about how humans are prone to idol worship and that’s why the Church has icons and saints so our honor is rightly placed.

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The Liturgical Year in Orthodox Children’s Books – First Quarter

As a homeschooler, I tend to borrow from a variety of educational philosophies: we’re fairly structured like Classical, read a lot of books like Charlotte Mason, and I’m not afraid to derail things when a learning opportunity comes up or a particular subject is really interesting and we want to pursue it more in depth like an unschooler.

In more of the vein of Charlotte Mason, I’ve been developing this list of books about saints and feasts that follows the Liturgical  calendar and decided to share it here. We are beginning to use this as the spine of our children’s educational program at our little Orthodox mission. I know there are other programs out there that are more popular, but I love that through these “living books” our kids get to know practical lessons for how the saints lived and interacted with the world.

I’ve broken the list down by month with the moveable feasts separated out. As we know, the Orthodox Liturgical year starts in September, so with that in mind my list starts at the beginning. While I have the list in a Word document and built into my smart phone calendar, tracking down all the links to buy the books and their covers takes a bit of time, so I am planning to put this list out in quarters with a post for the moveable feasts (Pascha) alone.

I’ve also been collecting little “t” traditions and craft/recipe ideas on several Pinterest boards for these saints. Please, please, please share more if you know of them in the comments. I feel like so much of this stuff is hard to dig up and find for us American converts. I also know there are other books out there and new ones being written all the time, so this is by no means the ultimate Orthodox children’s book list, just a beginning.


1 – New Liturgical Year
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts


4 – The Prophet Moses
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts

St. Hermione
Women of Faith


8 – Nativity of the Theotokos
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts

11 – St. Euphrosynos
A Boy, A Kitchen, and His Cave
St. Euphrosynos Pinterest Board


14 – Elevation of the Cross
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
Feasts of the Cross Pinterest Board

15 – St. Niketas
My Warrior Saints


17 – St. Sophia
Christina’s Favorite Saints


20 – St. Eustathios
My Warrior Saints

22 – The Prophet Jonah
The Book of Jonah
Jonah’s Journey to the Deep
Jonah Pinterest Board


25 – The Great Earthquake at Constantinople
And Then Nicholas Sang


27 – St. Callistratus
My Warrior Saints


1 – Protection of the Theotokos
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
Feasts of our Lady Theotokos Pinterest Board

St. Romanos the Melodist
Sweet Song


6 – The Apostle Thomas
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts

St. Kendeas
Under the Grapevine


7 – Sts. Sergius & Bacchus
My Warrior Saints

14 – St. Kosmos the Melodist
Christina’s Favorite Saints

18 – The Apostle Luke
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts

20 – St. Artemius
My Warrior Saints

21 – St. Ursula
Women of Faith

26 – St. Demetrios
Saint Demetrios: The Myrrh-Flowing



8 – Archangel Michael
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
Feasts of the Angels Pinterest Board

11 – St. Martin of Tours
The Life of Saint Martin
Martinmas Pinterest Board


St. Menas
My Warrior Saints

15 – Beginning of the Nativity Fast
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
The Kindness Kids – An Alternative to Elf on the Shelf

21 – Entrance of the Theotokos
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
Feasts of our Lady Theotokos Pinterest Board

24 – St. Catherine
St. Catherine of Alexandria
Christina’s Favorite Saints
St. Catherine’s Day Pinterest Board


25 – St. Mercurius
My Warrior Saints

30 – St. Andrew
St. Andrew Pinterest Board


4 – St. Barbara
Women of Faith

6 – St. Nicholas
Children’s Garden of the Theotokos: Treasury of Feasts
Jolly Old St. Nicholas Pinterest Board
St. Nicholas Center
The Legend of St. Nicholas


13 – St. Herman of Alaska
North Star
Christina’s Favorite Saints
St. Herman of Alaska Pinterest Board


St. Lucia
St. Lucy’s Day Pinterest Board
Lucia: Saint of Light
Women of Faith


Sunday Before Nativity – Esther
Esther’s Story


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