All over the world, Orthodox Christians are gathering in dark churches to sing and read the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The hymns are especially moving, focusing on repentance and using the people of the Bible for examples, both good and bad. But when your husband is an Orthodox priest, the hymns have another layer of meaning. The eirmosi of this canon are what the clergy sing as they carry a priest around the church, in his open coffin, at the conclusion of the funeral service.
I appreciate that in the Orthodox Church, the services are already laid out for you. You don’t have to write your own wedding vows. You don’t have to dream up an appropriate celebration of life when someone dies. At the wedding, everyone prays for the establishment of the marriage and the Church lists good examples from the Bible. At a funeral, everyone prays for the departed, and we remember that we, too, will die, so we should be prepared, by growing closer to God and being kind to each other.
An Orthodox funeral is not short, but a priest’s funeral is like a layman’s funeral on steroids. There are five Gospel readings instead of one. The entire Kontakion for the departed is read, with all twenty-four verses, instead of the shorter form used at every lay funeral and memorial service. And at the end of the service the priest, vested and in his coffin, is hoisted by his fellow clergy and carried around the church that he served, not unlike the athlete in Housman’s poem:
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
“To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry Third Edition (1983)
All of which brings me to the question: what will they sing at your funeral?
Or, rather, since this is a writing prompt, “What will they sing at your character’s funeral?”
Is there a song that epitomizes your life, or the life of your hero, or the life of your villain?
The conflict behind the scenes and even overtly at funerals that can be such heartache in the life of people can be gold in the life of a book. What is there that the deceased wants that someone else does not want?
When the Diocese of Providence told Roman Catholics that they could not play “Danny Boy” on bagpipes at funerals, one wag said, “I want ‘Danny Boy’ sung at my funeral Mass, and if I don’t hear it, I’m going to get up and walk out!”
Hearing Songs Again
Because I am not Roman Catholic, I do not attend Mass on a regular basis. But there are hymns that are sung at many funerals, like “Be Not Afraid,” that I hear only at christenings, baptisms, and funerals. Hearing the hymn at the wedding of a friend’s grandchildren whom I last saw at her funeral, where this was sung, has two different effects. It makes me miss my friend more. And it sort of makes it feel like she has been included.
Funerals are great for writers.
The possibilities for fiction are endless. We see them in movies and television — the funeral designed by one set of friends or relatives and attended and critiqued, by others, in ‘The Kominsky Method;” the modern children at a traditional funeral who don’t know what to do in “Grand Torino;” Data’s choice of a New Orleans Jazz funeral for Geordi and Ro’s funeral on “Star Trek, The Next Generation” are all examples of how a funeral can force characters together to underscore their differences and further the plot.
For non-fiction, you can write about a funeral you were at, or a funeral you missed. You can write speculatively about the service you envisioned or in an expository manner about the one you actually did attend.
But music is something special. Just as the sports teams, television shows, and movies have theme songs, your funeral music, like your wedding music, is a reflection on your life, and when people hear it again, in another context, it can bring you to mind the way the eirmosi of the Great Canon remind me of standing with a tear-stained face with friends and family at the funerals of priests and bishops whom we love.
In “Hamilton,” the big music question is, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”
All of us die. Most funerals have music (and if they don’t, that’s worth writing about also.)
Where did you hear a song that you also heard (before or after) at a loved ones funeral?
What did you sing at your father’s funeral?
What song or hymn would you want people to sing for you?
Writing prompt: Remember a funeral you attended. Make a connection between the deceased and the music. Or write about the disconnect between the deceased and the service.
We had a parishioner who was a pioneer in nuclear physics. She and her husband were childless, and toward the end of her life, she lived with her nephews, who loved her very much. The nephews’ wives also loved her, but were constantly after her to try something different with her hair, with her make-up, and with her clothes. When this lady died, the nephews’ girlfriends made the arrangements, including choosing a new stylist and make-up artist for the funeral. This somber, scholarly woman who always wore her hair in a discreet gray bun lay in her coffin with bold make-up, blond hair, and a jewel toned blouse.
I could have sworn I saw her wink at me.
The Great Canon
Coming back to the Great Canon, I think I know some of the reasons why we sing what we do at the funeral of a priest. We pray for the dead always, but especially in the first forty days after their repose, when the soul is judged. And so we use the hymns with which we launch Great Lent, a journey of forty days, for launching the clergy we love on this journey. We hope that, like Great Lent, the priest’s forty days’ journey will end also with a glorious resurrection.
But also, the words of the canon profess deep faith, and hope, and love. As we stand behind the priest in church when these words are sung, so we stand behind him in procession, when they are sung again. It is goodbye. It is an honor guard. It is our battle hymn.
I will leave you with the first ode eiromos:
He is my Helper and Protector, and has become my salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him. My father’s God and I will exalt Him. For gloriously has He been glorified.
At one point my life as a substitute teacher and my life as a grad student in an MFA program intertwined. I had taken amazing classes with Kim Dana Kupperman, who showed us a variety of structures for essays, and with Bill Patrick, whose writing prompts took us so far away from the usual that I found myself writing about things that I hadn’t known had bothered me. In imitation, I tried to use daily teaching events and objects as a prompt. Some of them worked. Others gave me great stories to use to console young authors some day. The periodic table of elements exercise was the latter.
I had double majored in English and Russian at Wellesley, and got my teaching certification in high school English, but Massachusetts changed the rules after I was certified for life and required teachers to get a Master’s in Education. Even if I hadn’t had four school aged children, I could not have managed taking classes, being a clergyman’s wife, and keeping up with my own writing. But I became a substitute teacher when our youngest started middle school, searching for a grade level that would make me want to take education classes once more. Special needs pre-school? First grade? Third? Wonderful children, but no. Middle school? High school? My husband took Alternative Certification courses and I read his materials. No. I couldn’t do it.
I thought I would substitute for English, but the dirty secret is that very few English teachers leave good sub plans. Some teachers are so good at what they do that they don’t have to think about it. Having to explain it to someone else was just too much on top of the illness or event that took them out of school for the day. Others didn’t mind if their students had a day off, without considering the consequences of a room full of teenagers whose work and behavior will not be graded. If you throw in an outdated seating chart and attendance list, you have anonymous bad behavior with a ripple effect. What is a good sub plan? On the occasion when I have subbed for a former Teacher of the Year, I have had good instructions, a seating chart with names and, in later years, photos; a copy of the assignment with answers; a list of students who are helpful and students who cannot be together; phone extensions for the guidance counselor and favorite people of students with anxiety or special needs who may want a familiar face. There is also a list of who can disobey certain rules (“X may leave without a pass. Y may go to the nurse at any time.”)
There were some people for whom I substituted cheerfully. Good English teachers left me a copy of the book and the assignment, an answer key, and a place to leave the collected papers. The teachers who made my private “never again” list had instructions that said, “The students will continue to work on t heir Hamlet papers that are due Monday,” because that statement never turned out to be true, and the ones who made the list I shared with the secretary at the front desk (who changed assignments at the last minute as needed and to whom I tried not to say no) were those who have the students an assignment on Google Classroom that a) did not need to be completed that day and b) that I couldn’t even see.
I found myself gravitating to the Science Department at one high school because both the department head and the teachers were so dedicated to making sure their students didn’t miss a day of learning just because the teacher was out. The department head always came in, made sure there were enough books, that there was paper, there were pencils, the assignment was appropriate, that I had an answer key, and he collected the completed work and asked to be debriefed at the end of the day. God bless him. He was also someone who took notes for the teacher and the appropriate administrators if I told him a student had a bad day (one had seen bodies removed from a burnt building on his way to school) or were having or causing problems. I learned so much science that I joke about going on Jeopardy as a retirement plan.
The day of the Periodic Table experiment, I had been thinking about time and contrast. I had read Natalia Ginzburg‘s essay, “He and I,” and I thought about my husband and me. I decided I would contrast us by comparing what element of the periodic table represented our age at key events in our life together — when we first met, our first date, our marriages and moves and the birth of our children, etc. I decided I would be mysterious, and not give our actual age, but make the reader look up the element to find the answer. I started out with when we met.
When we met, I was chlorine
and you were iron.
I was pure but anemic,
were all I needed.
Reader, there were more verses. And they were worse.
But I filled a notebook later with stray notes and images that were better than these, that sprung from my dissatisfaction with these. And I learned the value of bad writing. It’s like the water you run through the faucet in an older home to clear the pipes before you get to the water that you can actually drink.
I have since had many more opportunities to write badly. Covid has inspired me.
I sip my coffee
but taste only bitterness.
is how people die.
I have been taking classes in things that are enormously difficult for me, lately, both professionally and to become a better choir singer and conductor. I am learning about liturgics and musical intervals, design and marketing, Library of Congress data and online newsletters. My fingers know how to type what I am thinking, and my brain automatically punctuates words and phrases as they flow, but all this else is new and hard. In college I almost never took a class that wasn’t in something in which I had some talent. A friend accused me of taking classes only from people whom I loved. Well, of course! Life is short, college is shorter, and even with getting permission to take five classes some semesters and auditing a sixth others, four years of college means no more than twenty classes at your disposal. Filter out the requirements and the prerequisites, and you only get a fistful of opportunities to learn about the things that give you strength and joy. But now I need to learn the things I can’t pick up intuitively. I cried to my husband about how bad I was at this. “Annie,” he said, “you will never get better unless you can accept being bad first. When you were born, could you walk? No, and you fell a lot while learning! Did you learn how to read without making mistakes? This is like that.”
My class dean, Pamela Daniels, herself an author, taught her writing students the concept of “the box” where you store the parts of a story or book that don’t fit this situation. Those words are not lost; they just are not right for this project. That made editing easier for some. Author Diana Giovinazzo wrote a powerful essay on how writing about her grief at the death of her friend changed the writing she planned to do, but the bad prose had good consequences. She found some solace, and the ideas she visited showed up in her unrelated prose.
“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You may be ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”
So, be bad first. Write bad poetry. Create esoteric essays that go on for too many pages. Forge underdeveloped characters in anachronistic situations. Write too much. Write with too much detail. Write without giving the reader enough to follow. Write with pathos, with malice, with hunger, and with love. And then, set it aside for a little. You might want to edit it. You might want to set it on fire and dance around it howling. Or you might use erasure to find the heart of the matter.
And find someone who loves you or your writing (Venn diagram that has a beautiful middle) to give you some feedback.
Once, in college, I wrote seventeen stanzas of poetry because there were three lines that I really loved, but I didn’t think they were strong enough to stand alone. I showed them to Arthur Gold, the department chair at the time, who would read my work closely and with respect when I still felt inchoate. He chomped on his pipe and said, through half his teeth, “These three lines are good. Put them in the middle of a page and give it a title.” And I won an honorable mention in a contest with them.
But if I hadn’t, I would still remember that he taught me to trust that the three lines were good, and didn’t need sixteen stanzas of insulation.
Writing Prompt: Go write something badly. Start with a topic that doesn’t mean anything to you, and from there, and from that, learn what it is you need to write.
I feel like I was out in a field some place warm, picking flowers, and a friendly but distracted bovine knocked me over.
I am lying on the grass, not in a cow plop but near enough to smell it, and grateful to be able to smell, staring up at the sky and thinking of all the things the clouds look like.
Yeah, I may just have a fever.
I don’t think I have the disease that is going around, I think I got ground down. My list of newly departed to pray for is unusually long, and includes two priests and two strong women of prayer whom I really love. I think when I get too sad my body makes me go rest. My brain doesn’t know how to do that, and I have weird dreams.
When my brother died, I got swine flu. My husband and all the sons who were home brought me liquids and pain relief and folded damp face cloths to put on my forehead, and a Cuba Libre, at my request, when I couldn’t get warm any other way, and things to read, which I let sit near me as once did my dolls and teddy bear.
My husband is also sick, this time, and we are taking turns being the one who is up. I was able to make pot roast and beef and barley soup. He was able to get the dishes into the dishwasher. We are a team.
But for something to write about, you really can’t beat fever dreams. We are not supposed to put too much stock in dreams. but I find they can show me what’s on my mind. When we lived in Texas, where there were cows near all the oil pumps for tax reasons, we didn’t have a dining room, my sister-in-law\s family moved from Houston to Palestine, and our parents were in Boston and Michigan. Then my dad died. Some time thereafter, when I was sick, I had a dream that all my relatives were coming in the door carrying chairs, for Sunday dinner in my dining room. I could not be happy. My aunt Rita was among the last to arrive and said, “Aren’t you going in?” I told her that if I went in there, I would have to remember all over that my dad had died. She shrugged and went into the dining room and I woke up and sobbed.
I needed to sob. I hadn’t done that.
Nobody handles dreams like “The Sopranos.” The show is brutal and their language is terrible. It is a series about how being in the mob ruins everyone in it and around it, and so some of the dreams are about hell. I used to watch the show to learn about good writing, and then I took to writing about it when I was angry at someone, to remind me where anger and vengeance lead. When I am sick and can’t talk to friends about books or movies, I watch YouTube videos that discuss aspects of plot and character development from the series. Also, it reminds me that I might be sick but at least I don’t work for the mob in New Jersey, so there’s that.
As I mentioned, I may have a fever.
Writing prompt: What weird dreams have you had, and what have them led you to realize?
Dreams can lead to change.
When I was pregnant with my first child, we bought one dozen cloth diapers, and my husband thought that would do. I didn’t. I had a dream that I had sextuplets and they were crying and I realized that I could change each child once and then we’d be in trouble. So we bought more diapers.
Dreams can be nightmares, but they can be refuge.
If your dreams take you to a good place, and bring back good memories, write about it so you will have something to think about in bad times. The martyred Tsarina Alexandra kept a scrap book of poems and thoughts to read over during difficult times. I have a “comforting images” section of photos on my personal Facebook page, icons and photos that remind me of what is good.
If your dreams are scary, what are you afraid of? With whom can you examine it? Never go swimming or spelunking alone. Have a friend, a counselor, a priest, or someone else whom you trust go in with you.
If you write fiction, what do your characters dream of?
In “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the ship goes through a fog where everyone’s dreams seem real. It sounds like a beautiful thought, until you remember what you have actually dreamed.
On the Julian Calendar, 2022 has not yet began. There is still time to think about what you want to change in the new year. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed and write about the dreams that come of their own accord. And then, do some editing. You don’t have to believe everything you think, or accept every thought that knocks on your door. Keep what is good and laugh off the rest. Write about the dreams you really want to pursue. God endowed us with free will. Think about what you want to work toward, and what you wish would go away. God gave us all gifts. Sometimes we have to hunt for the best place to use them.
“Please Lord, don’t let this kill me,” I prayed, silently, as I stepped in.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t just spontaneously jump into the water, in January, in Ohio, just after it had stopped snowing.
I planned this, and prepared, and prayed.
I got a blessing first from one priest, then from another.
And I went to work figuring out how to make it work.
Let me go back a little….
I knew this year, 2021, was going to be difficult. And yet I was also grateful. We had survived 2020.
The pandemic did not hit our parish as hard as it hit others, for which mercy I am grateful. But like the rest of the world, we went through a huge upheaval. Church changed, not the structure of the services but the attire and the gatherings. We had masks, sanitizing, spacing, and even set up a livestream candle counter for those who needed to be home to be able to put up candles for their loved ones. It was Different and even off-putting but it was much better than no church at all. We, as a jurisdiction have a history of setting up storefront parishes and small missions wherever we have enough people gathered to pray; these have grown into cathedrals, schools and monasteries. And so from our history we know that we can survive, grow, and thrive if we are faithful in the small things for the duration. It just was a setback, which led to more changes.
My husband and I had settled into our “semi-retired” life somewhat before the pandemic hit. We had a townhouse apartment that held our books, half the windows looked out onto trees, with good internet access to streaming services when it wasn’t our turn to be at church. It felt a little like we were sitting out WWII in Switzerland, in that we didn’t have children home and we had already established the home offices from which we do our work. And while we weren’t praying together as a parish in one place, there were more services rather than fewer. Our parish took a maximalist approach to having services — if we had x people and were allowed y people per service, we had x/y services each week. It was a lot of church, sometimes four liturgies per week, which is a blessing, but hard work.
I had been pressed back into service. When we moved here, I joked that I was the Princess Eugenie of our choir — so many capable people were ahead of me in line to conduct the choir should the need arise that I could go put my tuning fork away and just sing alto, contentedly. I had been sight reading the new-to-me settings and translations of church music for a year, and had begun to learn our parish’s ways. But most of those people ahead of me to conduct were related and had forged what one person calls a “germ pod,” singing together with one priest while the deacon or I sang when my husband served, to cut down on the change of cross contamination should anyone be sick. God was merciful and nobody from among our singers or servers came down with COVID. But my husband and our rector did what I called the “Bruce Wayne and Batman” thing, not coming to the same services and having different altar servers, which was lonely because we like each other. We saw only so many people from church at a time, whether on the screen from the livestream or in person in church. The absence was disquieting.
And my mother-in-law, who reposed a month and a half ago, was suffering once more from the sarcoidosis that had plagued her for over thirty years and from two bad falls. She lived alone and only needed sporadic help, but it was clear that her condition was worsening and things could turn sour quickly. She had spent her previous birthday alone because of Michigan’s restrictions, although we came to celebrate as soon as visiting was allowed. (I will always be grateful to the people from Village Kitchen, in Ann Arbor, who brought lunch to her porch from another restaurant because they were not yet reopened. Beautiful people, wonderful food — worth a trip if you are out that way!) My mother-in-law was a trooper and an inspiration, keeping in touch by phone and through cards. But we lived under the shadow of the threat of unpleasant change.
I was grateful that things had not been worse and wanted strength for when things were no longer better. I wanted to do something inconvenient and beautiful for God. I wanted to be strengthened for whatever was to come. And I wanted to revel in the goodness of God and the mercy He had shown, so far. And an opportunity arose.
After Leaving the Water
I had often seen the videos that others shared of people in Russia dunking themselves three times in the freshly blessed outdoor water on Theophany, and my response was always, “Yeah, that’s something I never will do.” Then we moved to Ohio, and our parish had the Great Blessing of the Waters at the Little Miami River and three men from the parish plunged in. In January.
“Can girls do that, too?” one of the parish children asked, and the answer was, “Of course!” I started to think.
Our parish would be together again for the blessing of the water. Only one of the three men who had taken the plunge in 2020 were planning to do it this year. My aunts have a very strict rule: “Never go into the water alone. And don’t let your friends swim alone, either.” I couldn’t let our friend V. go into the water alone. After all, he could be swept away, and who would be able to get to him on time? But if the current took him, I could slow him down till help arrived.
And so a few months before January, I approached our rector and said, as casually as I could, “If one were to want to go into the water at the river on Theophany, theoretically, hypothetically, what would one wear?”
Fr. Daniel is hard to shock, and after a second to process the question he said, promptly, “Clothes. Clothes as opposed to a bathing suit, because it’s still church, and also because it’s cold. The water is cold and after you go in you will be wet and it will still be cold outside the water. So you will want a thick robe to put on immediately after, and towels.”
When I talked to his wife, later, she added, “We did this in Russia at one of St. Seraphim’s pools there. When you first go in, it’s so cold that it takes your breath away. So you will have to remember to wait and catch your breath before you go under again.”
I did online research about how to prepare. I read about cold water swimming, and learned the belly fat that I keep fighting may, in this case, be my friend. It would protect my organs. The Canadian Red Cross had some advice, as well. They said not to plunge in, but to wade. Well, our river is shallow on the edge, so that wouldn’t be a problem. They report, “Wear socks, aqua boots, neoprene surf boots or running shoes to stop your feet from sticking to the snowy or icy shore and prevent cuts and scrapes from the frozen ground.” I had water shoes, and decided to pair them with fuzzy socks.
I read about how a scuba suit works, and decided to wear nylon, and lots of it. I chose a dress that I could wear both to church and into the water. Then I took a cold shower while wearing it, and looked in the mirror, alone, to check for wardrobe malfunction.
I was going to need more undergarments.
I chose underwear: a synthetic girdle that would dry fast and hold things in when I was wet; something thicker than a sports bra, for the same reason; a half slip to keep the skirt from clinging; leggings (but I accidentally wore yoga pants instead) to keep my legs warm; my fuzzy socks; and water shoes to keep the rocks from tearing up my feet.
My husband and I discussed the matter more than once. He reluctantly blessed me to do this, if I really wanted to, but also blessed me to change my mind at the last minute. He said that I shouldn’t tell a lot of people that I planned to do this, so I could back out graciously if need be. But he agreed I would need allies, or, as I called them, co-conspirators. So I told my goddaughter and her mother. They agreed to hold my robe and coat and towels. And they would take pictures.
We also brought a hot water bottle, which I filled at church at coffee hour, and my leg cramp medicine, in case I needed them.
The great day came. Our parish chose the Sunday after Theophany for the blessing of the river, because the feast itself was midweek. It was snowing when we left church, raining as we drove in caravan to the river, and by the time we parked the sun was out, though the shore was lined with ice and snow. We approached the river.
I kept my headscarf and coat on but left my eyeglasses and purse in the car. The hot water bottle was in a thermal bag. My husband opened my door and said, “Still doing this?” I nodded. He smiled resolutely. We’ve been married a long time. My co-conspirators caught up with me and took all my accoutrements, God bless them.
The place where we bless the water is off the main drag by a little and we had to walk down-hill over not yet dry rocks. We formed clumps of people, walking down, and some friends made note of my footgear. “Oh! Matushka is prepared! Look at her shoes!”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m going in.”
“Wait. Really? In the water? All the way?”
V. the other person who planned to go in, and his wife and daughters gasped and then beamed. “Really?”
“Yes!” I said, and showed them how my goddaughter’s mom was carrying most of my gear. My goddaughter beamed and said, “I’m going to hold her coat!” Word spread as the service began.
It was a glorious day. The air was fresh from the rain and snow, the ground clean, the sky blue and open. The children scattered down the shore, the girls gathering pretty stones and the toddler boys digging in the stony sand with sticks. There was still ice on the surface around the edge of the river, but in the middle, the water flowed.
The men of the parish held banner and icons, backs to the water, and our rector and my husband blessed the water using long poles with a cross on them.
“Okay,” said Fr. Daniel, “now it’s time, if anyone wants to go in.”
V. bravely drew near the water and I stood next to him. His wife explained the situation to him quickly. “Matushka! You are going in, too?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay! We will go in together!” And he held my hand and we started to wade. I made my cross, prayed silently, and we took one cautious step after another over the slippery stones.
I grew up in New England, and that water was cold, yes, but it wasn’t that much worse than Powder Point Beach, where I had spent most summers. My brother and I watched each other, in those years, and knew it was time to get out of the water when the other one’s lips turned blue.
We walked. My feet were wet, my ankles were wet, my calves, and then there was a sudden drop off, and I found myself gasping while standing in thigh-high water. V. made sure I was okay and took a few more steps, further out, so we would each have space.
“Okay!” he said, and he in Slavonic and I in English said, “In the name of the Father!”
And we dunked.
I tried to stand up and I couldn’t. I was floating, and hanging on, with my toes, to the nearest underwater rocks before the drop off. “And of the Son!” I dunked my head and tried to lower my backside, as well, but I was swimming rather than standing. “And of the Holy Spirit! Amen!” And we were done and V. walked over to me. I tried to stand but my feet could find no purchase, and a current started to carry me, slowly but steadfastly, away. I was in the very situation that I had hoped to keep V. from facing.
V. took it all in quickly, took two big steps, and grabbed my arm and tugged. I floated back toward him. He helped me stand and we walked out together, where we were greeted with hugs and shouts and towels and robes.
I was baptized when I was eleven. The monastery used an oil drum, cleaned up and painted blue. On days when my courage fails me and melancholy threatens, I remember the sensation of the cold water on my skin that day, and I am refreshed.
And this? This was a booster shot.
I smiled all the way home. There was going to be a wedding at three, to which we were invited. Fr. Daniel needed to set up the church and greet people, so we drove his son home. He had held a banner on a metal pole for the whole service while not wearing gloves; I let him defrost his hands against the hot water bottle. I didn’t need it. I didn’t need the leg cramp medicine. I only shivered a little. My endorphin level must have been off the charts.
My husband dropped me at home so I could change clothes for the wedding while he drove Fr. Daniel’s son home. “You’ll probably want to take a hot shower!” he said.
“No, I don’t think so! The water has been blessed. I think I will just let it dry.”
My bravodo did not last. When I entered the house, the cold set in. Once more I showered fully clothed, this time in the hottest water I could stand, and I let the sodden clothes fall one layer at a time to the bottom of the tub. I changed into wedding clothes, the warmest I could find of my nicer dresses, and bundled back up again. We were only a little late for the wedding, which was beautiful even if I shivered through the whole thing. It was a day of grace and blessings.If you start the year by jumping into near-freezing water, it changes your perspective. You come to see that everything else, also, won’t be as hard to bear as it looks from the distance.
God gives us what we need — a dress from Mom, water shoes, friends to keep us from floating away to Indiana, bathrobes and coats and a beaming goddaughter to hand them to you. Mercy flows, more strongly than the current of the Little Miami River.
Also, sometimes you’re the one who needs to be dragged back because she’s been swept away. It is a blessing to save and it is a blessing to be saved. On days when fatigue speaks more loudly than reason, when my heart is overcast and everything looks bleak, I remember the sensation of the river water on my skin despite all those layers.
And I smile.
And I might even try it again next year.
Writing prompt: What is something you swore you’d never do, and then did do, and it changed everything?
I am grateful to everyone who still reads my blog after this difficult year of learning and love. I went back to Music School, I visited all three of my former home towns, I got to see and hug all of my siblings and children in a variety of places. I lost important, powerful, relatives and friends and am still reeling. I have been inconsistent in posting things, and one of my pocket full of New Year’s Resolutions is to try to set up more posts in advance, so if something happens, there will still be content. May God bless us all with a good, healthy, fruitful 2022.
Misheard and mis-sung lyrics are a staple in art and literature. These errors can be serious — when Desdemona is preparing for bed in Act IV, scene iii of “Othello,” she tragically sings the wrong words to the song of her mother’s forlorn maid. They can be comic — in “Dharma and Greg,” Greg sings “I want to rock and roll all night/ and part of every day.” In one of the “Ramona” books, Ramona suggests that her parents use a dawnzer, which gives off a lee light, and Ramona’s sister laughs and mocks her because she misheard “The Star Spangled Banner ” — the “dawn’s early light.” But these mistakes reveal much. Desdemona is worried about her husband, Greg is the sort of person who can limit his partying, and when Beezus mocks Ramona, it makes the parents aware of how Ramona feels about being youngest. You, too, can use mis-heard, and mis-sung lyrics to further the plot of a story or add color to an essay.
In my case, most of my misunderstood phrases have been in Russian. My family converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy when I was young, and when I was twelve, we started attending a Russian parish. My father was a high school English teacher and the teachers in my elementary school in Boston required us to over-articulate and forbade us to speak with a Boston accent. My brothers who went to this school and I developed a dichotomy of speech as a result — we would say “haht” but “Harvard.” Lunch at home was a “see-and-wich” but at school the same thing was a “sandwich.” Some words missed us. I was a senior at Wellesley College when David Ferry had to convince me that the word “poem” had two syllables. I actually argued with him, in part because I didn’t want to re-write the poem. But in general we learned to pronounce words the way they were written, when we had to, although crossing the Massachusetts border causes me to revert to the migratory r’s of my childhood. English, I had mastered. But in Russian, I listened for the words that I knew, and I heard them, even when those were not the words that were spoken.
The most egregious example was at our priest’s son’s wedding. Clergy are either married before they are ordained, in the Orthodox Church, or they become monks first, with a few exceptions. It was very kind of Eugene and his wife to invite the whole family. I had been to my father’s wedding to my stepmother, a year earlier, but that was an American affair, and a second wedding, small and humble. This was a fancy wedding, with both American and Russian guests. At the reception, at one point people started clanging their glasses with their spoons and yelling in Russian. It sounded to me like they were shouting for vodka. The waitresses were hustling as fast as they could to serve everyone, and I didn’t see the need to yell. I looked to our priest, thinking he would stop them, but he was clanking his glass and shouting, as well. I was truly scandalized. Then a friend translated.
It seems that the guest were yelling “Gorko!” The tradition was for everyone to yell that it is bitter — gorko — and the Slavic way of sweetening the bitter is for the bride and groom to kiss. This makes for entertainment for the guests, entertainment which the bride and groom do not really mind providing.
Later, we learned some Russian songs. Prior to this I had sung Church Slavonic sound by sound. It is a phonetic language, and once you learn the alphabet, you can sing. In fact, Russian church singers who have to sing in English are often perplexed by the notion that some letters are not pronounced when singing for clarity. How can “Lohd have muh-cy” be easier to understand than “Lorrrd have merrrcy?” And yet it is thus. I had learned a tiny amount of Russian through church school, and when I heard people sing a World War II song, “Katiusha,” I thought I knew what it meant.
The internet translation of this song is almost as bad as mine was, but only almost. In my defense, when I first heard the song in the late 1970’s apple dolls were a thing. If you haven’t actually seen one of these, it is hard to convey how creepy they are. But in the years that enveloped the Bicentennial, there was a focus on Early American and Revolutionary War era fashions and crafts. Some things, like quilting and canning and cooking outdoors, were amazing. And others were just weird.
Upscale gift shops and country stores started selling dolls whose heads were made of a peeled apple which was then cut into the shape of a face, dried on a stick, and dressed up to look like an old woman, preferably from two hundred years before. Some classes made them as a project, often with disastrous results. What could go wrong? Well, you have students, fruit, knives, sticks, and the apples are supposed to dry without rotting. Then you have to use scissors and needle and thread to make the clothing. This is not tracing your hand to make a turkey, folks.
So, when I first heard the words to the song, I thought I understood them.
Transliterated, they look like this:
Rascvetáli jábloni i grúsi Popylí tumány nad rekój Vyxodíla ná bereg Katjúsa Na vysókij béreg na krugój
The apple and pear trees have bloomed Fog banks have floated over the river Katiusha came out onto the river bank Onto the high and steep bank
Yes, I thought it was about a possessed apple head doll.
And I was kind of impressed to learn that they also had those in Russia.
But this is writing prompt Wednesday, when we ask ourselves how we can use what others have done. Accordingly:
Think about a time that you, a sibling, or a child misheard something.
One of my siblings heard a line from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” not as “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” but rather, “Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark pastors taught us.” He wondered why white pastors had not taught them faith.
There is a lot to unpack in an error like that.
If you write fiction, a misheard phrase can be a turning point.
The confusion of two words — embarazada” in Spanish for “embarrassed” in English rather than “pregnant” — can make all the difference.
Words that sound terrible in one language can mean something benign in another.
Or, sometimes people just don’t hear things right.
Reflect on your own misadventures.
Is there a misunderstanding that you had that reflects who you were at the time? If I hadn’t heard “Katiusha” the same year that I saw those creepy dolls, I might have made a different mistake but I wouldn’t think that the Russian war song was about a doll carved from fruit whose eyes glowed. And perhaps I might have slept better.
Be sure to share your results with friends, if you write something, and think about submitting what you write for publication. The world needs for us all to share our stories.