The Death of Arthur

I have my degree in Medieval Studies. That said, my husband probably knows more about the Middle Ages than I do. Why? He reads about it in his free time. I’ve lost the gift of reading in my free time. One of my new years resolutions is to regain that gift.

And not just re-reading Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, either. I need to read things that feed my mind and make me think. The work I’m doing creating a curriculum is really good for that, but if I’m going to be the person I want to be, I need more.

So I’ve started reading L’Morte D’Arthur (or however those apostraphes go). For those of you who don’t know, Sir Thomas Malory’s book is the quintessential Arthur. It’s not the first (Chretien de Troyes was earlier). But what you know about Arthur and Merlin and Morgan Le Fay all starts with Malory. The book is a prose chronical of Arthur and his court. It has a lot more in common, stylistically, with medieval history books than novels or even poems. Malory is acting as though he’s simply compiling a historical text about a historical Arthur.

In some ways the book seems unreadable. There is almost no description — Malory’s vocabulary seems highly limited. A knight is either worshipful or recreant. A lady is fair and gentle, but you have no idea if she’s blonde, brunette, has a great nose, or a figure that won’t quit. You get no motivation for the actions people take. There’s not really any meaningful dialogue. It’s almost entirely plot.

But yet it inspired and excited generations of writers. In fact, I was reading some C.S. Lewis last night, and Lewis uses Morte D’Arthur as an example of something that excited him. You can see the fingerprint of the historical chronicle of a mostly-fictitious character all through Western literature. Why? Because into that framework of actions, lacking so many critical components, the imagination runs wild. Why did Gawain sleep with Elaine when he’d made a vow (plighted his troth, amusingly enough) to Pellinore? Was it because he was weak? Was it part of his plan? Did he think Pellinore was in the wrong? What was he going to do in the first place? Mallory gives you none of it, so you have to make it up. You get the sense that before you is the outline for a fabulous story, and your mind rushes to fill in the detail. I cast back on the Arthurian stories I read, and think about how others have done so, and marvel that they got it from this sparse text. And it’s fun — to wonder, to imagine, to ponder what lies behind the chronicle.

It’s the perfect book for small children with wild imaginations. If you’re going to enjoy it as a grownup, you have to put yourself back into the mindset of a small child, delighted by the sparkling knight on the charger — anonymous without his shield. But you know, that’s a place I’m happy to be.

A busy person

My husband told me something yesterday that really brought me up short. I tend to be a busy person. I gravitate towards commitments. Towards doing stuff. Towards being really busy. That isn’t necessarily what makes me happy, but there you have it. I’m always doing stuff. Important stuff. That needs doing.

Well, it makes my husband unhappy.

I had five days off this last week. I spent Friday baking and doing last minute Christmasy things and updating the church website. Saturday was, well, Christmas and full of Christmas-type-stuff. Sunday we had church and then I came home and I managed to be busy again. I don’t even remember what I was busy doing. Monday I cleaned house and got sucked into work. Tuesday I spent the whole day reviewing our finances and rebalancing our portfolio.

I did not, in those five days, make cards with my stamps. I read one book, but that took only about two hours. I spent insufficient time on the couch snuggling my husband. I didn’t relax. And even given another three days off, I bet I still wouldn’t relax. I’ve forgotten how — if I ever knew.

My husband looked at me yesterday with some desperation in his eyes. In the hopes of clearing enough time for me to relax, he took Justice to the vet. He dropped off the kids at the T stop. He went grocery shopping. He did the dishes. And still, I was too busy to have time for him or for myself.

What am I doing, friends, that I have no time to savor? How is it that my time slips through my fingers, plowed into a neverending litany of things I should do? (And moreover, how can there be so much I still need to do?) If this is a pathology of mine, what can I do to stop it? What do I do now that I can stop doing, and not have the world cease to circle on its axis? Do I spend my time frivolously, or is there really that much I need to do?

I’ve taken one or two steps. I have quit deacons — which was the church commitment I find least fun. I’m hoping not to replace it with a new commitment. I doubt my work load will really diminish, but maybe I could be better about claiming back time — you know, leaving after 8 hours on days that aren’t so busy or something.

But it’s really important for me to remember. When I stress myself out, I don’t just stress *myself* out. I make my husband unhappy. And that’s not ok for me.

As we over our sorry state of affairs last night, he also reminded me that it’s winter. This is the tough time. Things always look worse this time of year.

What I spent my day doing

I was off from work today. But I had A Plan for today. If you get upset when people talk about money, you should stop reading now.

I spent the day managing our money. If you think about how much time we spend earning or money versus how much time we spend taking care of our money… well, on the former it’s usually at least 40 hours a week. On the latter, if you don’t count paying bills, it’s probably less than an hour a month.

When all was said and done, my husband owes me dinner because we had met my financial goals for the year — goals which I had set at about this time last year.

So why do you care? You probably don’t care about what I’m doing, honestly, but I want to put a call out to remind you to spent some time at the end of the year doing some financial housekeeping. Financial education sucks in our country. Do you know how much your parents make? Whether they owe any money? What their retirement account balances are? If your parents weren’t teaching you by example how to deal with finances, how did you learn? Or did you ever learn? Our society doesn’t really teach you the stuff you should know to stay out of debt and build up savings. And we have this huge tabboo about talking about it. Many people don’t get any real education at all. And so here are Oriana’s year end tips for a better fiscal 2005:

1) Know your status. Find out a way to answer the following questions:

*How much do you owe, in total?
*How much do you have saved, in total?
*How much do your basics cost every month? (Rent, food, gas, heat, insurance, car payments)
*How much do you earn every month?
*Assuming you earn more than you need to live, what do you do with that money? (If the answer is “I don’t know”, keep track for a month or two. Credit card statements can be a real help if you use plastic regularly.)
*Assuming you earn less than you need, that’s not sustainable, obviously. What are your plans to change that? Are you going to cut costs, increase your income, or both? (You get a bye on this one if you’re still in school.)

2) Never, ever let your credit suffer because of a cash-flow issue.
You know the story. Your bills are due the same day every month. You have an unexpected expense. Or one of your payments gets lost in the mail. A check gets misplaced by the bank. It takes longer to clear than you expect. There are a hundred gazillion ways this can happen — many of which you have no control over. If the bank messes up your deposit, it doesn’t affect them at all. If you miss a bill payment, though, it can negatively affect your credit score — your ability to buy a house, a car, get a credit card, get a job — for 7 years.

So here’s what you should do:

Everyone: Build a financial savings cushion. Put a little aside every month — you can have amounts auto-debited by most banks, so you never even notice it. If you do not have enough money to put $10, $20 or $50 aside every month, you need to evaluate either your costs or your income.

People with good credit: Assuming you haven’t quite saved enough to cover yourself in case of a shortfall, a credit card and/or line of credit on your checking account is a good temporary measure. I particularly like the line of credit offered on the “bottom” of a checking account. Basically, you have a credit line on your checking account — say $1000 at 12.9%. If you have a balance of $100 and you write a check that clears for $120, you borrow $20 at that credit amount. When your $200 check hits, you pay back that $20 first, so you have a balance of $180. It’s way, way cheaper than bounced check fees, and tremendously convenient. Most banks have this service, although few advertise it. If you’re doing the credit card route, save a few of the checks they constantly send you to cover any cash-flow gap that comes up. But be sure you pay it off when that check DOES clear.

People with bad credit: You’re like, “Yeah right. Works for people with great credit, but that’s not me.” Don’t be embarrassed. Lots and lots of people have pretty crappy credit right now. There are a few options you have to cover cash-flow issues.

1) Save enough of a cushion. “They” say you should have 6 months worth of cash on hand. I’d love to know what fantasy world “they” live in. I suggest, though, that even if it takes sacrifices, if you’re making enough, you should try to have at least one paycheck on hand, in case something bad happens.
2) Grit your teeth and sign up for one of those high credit cards. I hesitate to suggest this if credit cards were what got you into trouble in the first place, but assuming you can keep yourself from buying those snazzy shoes just because you have credit, these can really get you out of a tight spot. You do not have credit that is too bad. I swear, these guys would lend to Enron. The key here is that you HAVE TO PAY IT OFF every time it comes due. This isn’t a way to get extra money, it’s a way to make sure that the timing of the money you have doesn’t screw you. Here’s a link to some credit cards that are offered to people with bad credit. The best part of this is that if you use this only as I describe, you’ll actually start rebuilding your credit.

3) If you have a balance on your credit card, pay off more each month than you charge each month.
Um, that’s it.

4) If you are not in debt, or have only “good” debt (mortgages, low interest car loans, student loans), save money. You should first focus on having that cushion I spoke about. Once you’re comfortable you could weather a missed check or two, start saving in a retirement plan. 401Ks are best, but IRAs have lots of good options. That’s a bigger discussion than I feel like having right now.

5) So far I’ve failed to address the really big issue.
What happens if it simply costs you more to live than you earn? I think there are a lot of people in that situation. There are only two sustainable options.

a) Earn more. Get a better paying job. Or a second job. Or maybe your SO needs to earn more. This can suck, especially if you’re in a low-paying job you really like. But I think there are some of you out there who are in low-paying jobs you don’t need to be in — you’re more talented and capable than that. You’re just hooked on the security of your current job. Obviously, that’s not universally true. That’s just true of many of my friends.

b) Spend less. The diet method. Do you need cable or a cell phone? Can you get a roommate? Do you need a car? How much would cooking at home save you? Do you buy clothes you don’t actually need?

c) There are people who are just trapped in this. There are people who, through no fault of their own just can’t cover that gap. If that describes you, consider whether you’d rather be getting further into a hole just living, or whether you could go to college or learn a trade, so that while you’re getting into a hole now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get out. But it’s a sickness of our world that so many who work so hard do not earn enough to live a decent life.

On the next “Brenda Pontificates”… the importance of disability insurance to younger workers

Christmas Night

Fortune smiles on me.

Last night, after a leisurely day of doing stuff (including baking spritz cookies) Skarps and I headed to church. I was, once again, Mary in the Christmas tableaux. There is something about sitting up at the front of the church, with bright lights shining on you, knowing without looking that the pews are filled with parents, holding their children in velvet finery, eager and excited for what tonight and tomorrow will bring, and staring lovingly at a doll laid in a hay-filled manger, that brings the sacred close. My husband standing close by me, silently pretending to be the patient one who claimed a son who was not his. Sitting still in my blue gown and my chilly sandalled feet, I can only think of how much love there must have been that first night. Love of Mary, for this son she had brought into the world in such uncertain and difficult circumstance, love of Mary for the husband who guided her and protected her while honoring her purity, love of Mary for the God for whom she risked everything. There is Joseph, so kind where many other men would have turned their backs, loving his wife and the boy he will raise as his own son. The shepherds came to see the spectacle. The wise men came to see the king. And if God can be ascribed human emotions, how bitter sweet it must have been. To have a part of your own divinity be seperated from you, to have it live, breathe, eat and need tending. And to know that the worst of all things will happen. But yet, there is beauty in that moment of birth — whether it was ever there in fact, the moment has been beautiful in the imaginations of so many, it is beautiful by common consent.

Sitting up there, half-blinded by lights and blinking hard, I felt every piece of the history, pageantry, doctrine, faith, tradition, and hymns. I stole a forbidden glance at one of the shepherds. He was young, a first-grader named Noah, and oh-so sincere. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the wonder of the angel Gabriel’s message, next to his father where the podium usually stands. He knows the truth. He could tell it to you if you asked.

And then my husband, in the guise of Joseph, carefully escorted me down to the pews. And quickly I shed my blue robes and snuck around the church to play “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World” on my trumpet. And afterwards I stood with my newly-returned-from-Puerto-Rico Sunday School kid next to me, and talked and rejoiced in my friends.

In the car, my husband and I sang through the Christmas section of a borrowed hymnal.

At his parents house, in front of the fire, we sang for them of the six-winged Seraphim. The cherubim with sleepless eyes.

Today, I have recieved a wealth of gifts. But the best of them were the joy in my grand-parents-in-laws’ faces as we talked to them. The enthusiasm with which my nephew exhorted us as we attempted to put together his pirate ship gift. The care with which my brother-in-law cooked our Christmas dinner. The health and vigor with which my father-in-law ate too much of it. The delight of calling my familiy, and comparing gift notes.

I got things, too. Many things. But the best things of this season are not things at all, but the chance to be a spiritual being. The chance to tell people you love them, and to hear it back. And the opportunity to be, just for a moment, Mary gazing at the Jesus-child in his manger, wondering at all those who came to honor his birth, and treasuring the memories of it in your heart.

What Love Looks Like

I hear people say that there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship — that they don’t believe in the love stories. In general, I think they are wise. I think that the fairy-tale of love is far, far away from what life truly offers. And I don’t think people should wait until they meet the person who dribbles rose-petals on their path and makes their heart go ka-lump every time they’re around. (And I really, really, really don’t think that when you can talk to your beloved without feeling butterflies in your stomach, it means that you don’t love them anymore and should move on.)

One problem with that, my friends. I am in a relationship that is marvellous and wonderful in pretty much every way. And despite having waited for 8 years in the expectation that at some point the ka-lump of love might diminish, it hasn’t. I love my husband far more today than I did 8 years ago, when he was a dashing sophomore and I a sweet and innocent freshman.

My husband is concerned with my guilt and stress levels. He says that they are past healthy. (Which made me feel guilty about how much I was feeling guilty, quite possibly proving his point.) So yesterday he allowed me to do all the things I felt needed to be done — up to a point. At about five he gently but firmly steered me to the couch. He removed my shoes. He lit a fire in the fireplace, and lit up the candles. He put up with me while I considered which book I would like to read (“Acorna” by Anne McCaffrey). Then I made a comment on how I wished I’d gotten around to making Spritz cookies like I promised so that I could eat them. Then he went into the kitchen (which he had earlier swept and mopped) and made me spritz cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees and stars, with sprinkles on them just like I like. And he brought me water.

My friends, that is true love. You don’t know how much he does for me, or how kind he is to me, because it’s the fabric of my everyday life. If I told you every time he did something wonderful, I wouldn’t write about anything else. I hope I don’t take it for granted, but I am not surprised when my husband is thoughtful, kind and generous. He is also funny, charming, playful, patient and handsome. And a darn good GM.

I do not know if this kind of relationship is possible for everyone. I don’t know if we got really, really lucky in meeting each other and growing together. I don’t know if the desire for such a relationship is unrealistic… just because there are people who do win the lotto does not mean that everyone can win the lotto. But I do want those of you who think it is impossible to know… a loving, kind relationship full of joy is not a dream. It is not a Hollywood fabrication. It does exist — and it can be hoped for.

The Red Sock

Even the moon turned blood red in support.

My friends, the Red Sox have won the World Series. That bears repeating: THE RED SOX HAVE WON THE WORLD SERIES. They swept the World Series. They ended it with a shutout. The Red Sox have won the World Series.

And we rejoice! Boston wholly rejoices that the curse is lifted, that the grandfathers of the Red Sox nation who lived until this day will not go into the dark without knowing that sensation of victory! We do not yet truly believe it in our hearts, but with our minds we know that the thing which is both impossible and greatly desired is NOT impossible. That sometimes, your best hope instead of your worst fear comes to pass.
The Red Sox have won the 2004 World Series.

In the rejoicing, however, there is a sense of loss. I think it’s like watching your child get married. You are happy, so happy for them. But yet, you know your relationship to them will never be the same. And in the first and closest case, it means that you will not be with them while they are having a marvellous time on their honeymoon.

It is the best lonely period to be hoped for. I find it impossible to be glad that the baseball season is over. I find myself jealous for just another day or two of baseball, please. But it is over. Gone. I am left alone — gaily waving with tears in my eyes at the door of the church. Five months of happy memories, but no new ones.

Do you believe me that my life changes when there is no baseball on? The sound of it. The schedule. The way it slips easily into my ears and keeps me company as I work, rest, travel. Football is no replacement. NPR is too depressing. Music insufficiently engaging.

A sacrifice I am happier to make this year than ever. You bunch of Idiots, who have become my friends unbeknownst to you, enjoy your offseason. Many of you I will see again next year. Others will go to other teams, where I’ll secretly root for you as long as you pose no threat. And in spring, new faces will be on the field.

World Series winning Boston Red Sox, thank you. Thank you for 85 years of anxiety, and one of exultation. Thank you for 170 games of baseball, sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes heart-dropping, sometimes boring. Thank you for getting into fights with the Yankees, saying dumb things in post game interviews, and growing some of the world’s worst-concieved hair styles. Thank you for a year of fun baseball.

Vermillion

When I pass a stand of erstwhile unnoticeable maples, and am caught by the color of the leaves, that’s the the word that comes to mind. Vermillion. Brighter than red. Deeper, more passionate than burgundy. There are showers of gold along some roads — early to color, already gone. There are trees tinged with red, orange as flame in their hearts. And some rare trees, stark in brilliance against the blue October sky, are vermillion.

For all the pumpkins, it is red’s time of year to reign supreme. The trees are red. The sunsets, early, tinge the world with their crimson kisses. Noses, flesh-toned through the warm days of summer, reflect the season’s changes too. And the socks, even the socks are red as colored clothing faces winter birds in the World Series. And the blood of a sports hero tinges his sock with the team, the season color. A red darkening to brown with scoreless innings pitched.

Soon, we head into brown of pilgrim scenes. Then the dark pine green of Christmas. Finally, we settle into the long, bitter gray of ever-enduring winter, with only the faintest touches of purple at Lent, scarecly daring to believe that the light and misty greens of spring will ever arrive.

But for now, my friends, I am content to live in a world aflame with vermillion.