The importance of symbols – in a writer’s life

Humans have always placed emphasis on portents and signs. We are faced with unimaginable chaos every day – and somehow make sense of it. Our brains are wired to look for patterns.

All this past week I participated in – not just watched – the greatest collection of symbols of the Church year: from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the ‘Holy Week’ is rife with symbols: water, wine, light, silence, music. It was even symbolic that I participated. I have written about making the huge effort that it has been for a PWC (person with CFS) to find a way to cheat, and for a time appear ‘normal,’ so that I can sing for regular Sunday Mass.

The reason I made the effort to do more than any year in the past twenty: DH is thinking about retirement. This MAY mean that we won’t be living in the Princeton area next year, next Easter season. I have been just about able to tackle singing at the 4:30 Sunday Mass. To start, prepare whatever new music we’ve been warned about on Sunday morning (after writing, First Nap and Second Nap). Keep an eye on – better still, set an alarm for (this is CFS brain we’re working with) – the clock to time the extra nap (after lunch, long enough before 3pm so that I will have time to settle in, rest for 30-35 minutes and still have time to get ready without going frantic – adrenaline wastes energy – but not so far in advance that I’m going to get tired again before leaving). Up from the nap, now get ready: comfortable clothes, but not so comfortable that I look like a bag lady; make sure I have my music bag with the necessary folders, and bring along the Nook with the music app if it will be necessary to have a note to start if we are doing something a capella; water, Atkins bar for the ride home. Check the air in the front tires, if necessary. Drive to Princeton.

Park in the Handicapped spot by the library (unless it isn’t available – in which case scramble to find alternate parking). Decide if I need the walker today (lately, I haven’t been using it – it helps, but it’s always a pain to deal with). Appreciate the glorious chapel (OK, not strictly part of the cheat, but it takes several minutes to walk down the nave, every time there is a different play of light and shadow, and it leads to solemn thoughts). Get me and my stuff down to the crypt practice room.

Practice for 45 minutes, sing, chat a couple minutes afterward, deal with the consequences of balancing hydration, walk to the car (careful now – running close to the edge on energy). Eat power bar if necessary, pull out carefully while not running over students, visitors with and without strollers, ease out onto Nassau street where cars are not expecting a vehicle, and people in the crosswalk think they are immortal. Drive carefully home, familiar obstacles and traffic all the way. And then begin the process of reversing from being ‘on’ to being relaxed enough to take another nap. Good – another one managed.

So: for all of Lent we have been practicing an extra 15 minutes, pushing things right to the edge. And occasionally adding a few minutes after Mass to prepare Locus Iste, a beautiful piece in Latin, in 4-part harmony, for the Easter Vigil – which we need to get right because we will sing it a capella, and the high notes are just achievable for us sopranos IF we start on the right note.

Going back to ‘this might be my last year,’ I volunteer, not just for the Easter Vigil, but for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Sunday 4:30 Mass.

I’m crazy. But I also know my limits. So I plan the cheats: extra rests. I bring my yoga mat and a blanket. Fifteen minutes before Mass, when they are still practicing, I roll the mat out in a corner of the practice room, set an alarm on my cellphone, cover myself up and put the earplugs in, the black sleeping mask over my eyes, and LIE DOWN. In public. On the floor. I can hear them singing, but I am horizontal, and have blocked out as much stimuli as possible. I do yoga breathing exercises. I feel both silly and smart.

During Mass I stand only for singing the parts the choir sings without the congregation – and not all of those. It is better to sing standing – if you are able to – but I’m balancing the physical energy it takes to sing with the energy it takes to stand. The Holy Week services are long, and involve a lot more standing than usual. I sit. During the rest of the time I close my eyes whenever I can – cutting out the constant flow of energy needed to process visual input.

For the Vigil, we have too much to practice. I need to pay attention. The whole choir is exhausted, and they are not using rehearsal time as efficiently as usual. I get a bare five minutes of rest. Not a good start, as the service tonight is particularly long, and will have extra pieces (we have converts – ALL categories – and each category takes different music). Father gets everyone seated – and announces everyone will leave, get a candle, and process, after prayers outside the chapel, down the very long nave, in the dark. I won’t do the procession, of course.

But what I didn’t expect – the symbol, the saving grace – was that I could lie down on the hard pew, and get almost ten minutes of rest all alone in that magnificent church with its great vaulted ceilings, lying flat in the almost-dark. Not just sitting quietly with my eyes closed – which would have been good, but not great. FLAT. In silence. It was as if God had reached down, and in the middle of the crowded, busy, symbol-laden service, had given me the gift of the rest I would need to make it through.

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