Friday, December 26, 2008

The Shack

A few weeks ago, four people asked me in the space of five days if I’d read The Shack. One was a nun I work with, and another a monk I saw at a retirement party the next day. The third was the deacon at the church where I teach religious education a few times a year. I was working on my unit for January on the Holy Spirit, completing a three-month lesson on the Trinity that has explored images of God with 7-10 graders and their parents. Deacon Larry, who teaches in alternate months, said he thought The Shack did a great job on the Trinity. Then that Saturday night a friend was over for dinner and talking about some graduate work she’s been doing on images of God. She also asked if I’d read The Shack. I had been sold at three, but this recommendation kind of tipped the scales, and I went out and bought a copy.

I looked up the book online first, knowing that I would find the kind of evangelical literature that I’ve always avoided because I find it too didactic and not well-written. I was surprised to see it was causing controversy in the evangelical world. These Catholics were loving it, or if not loving it, certainly finding theology and a “message” they liked. And the basis of their praise of the book was mostly its treatment of the Trinity. It is unusual—a Christian novel not just about one's relationship with Jesus but expanding God images and our encounter to the Triune God.

For those who haven’t come across this phenomenon yet, the book follows a man, Mackenzie, out to a shack, the site where his daughter was brutally murdered a few years before. God, writing him a note signed “Papa,” has invited him there. Once there the shack transforms into a lovely cabin and he spends the weekend with Papa, a large black woman who bakes; Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, an ethereal Asian woman who gardens, and Jesus, who has a big nose, does some carpentry work, but mostly is Mack’s buddy. While there, Mack learns to forgive—mostly God but also himself and others, and to see life more clearly and in better perspective. He gets to ask God some questions and gets good, contemporary theological answers. I recognized most of the discourse from my graduate Introduction to Theology class at St. John’s University.

It’s easy to see what would offend a fundamentalist sensibility. God is larger than religion, and way, way more loving and forgiving. Everyone will be saved—I mean everyone. That’s what the crucifixion was for. And people find their way to God through many incarnations, along many paths—meaning other religions. God doesn’t make bad things happen, ever, not even to work good out of it eventually. However, freedom means that God can’t interfere to change events set in motion by mankind’s choices.

According to the book, independence is the major sin of mankind. This was familiar to me, and makes me squirm. I hit a wall after the first weekend reading the book, when it got down to the core message, which was that all we can do is recognize God wants relationship with us, and give over our independence as we enter more and more deeply into relationship with God. This sounds great, but I find it absolutely terrifying. For me this has always been the message: that I am not happy, don’t experience joy, and basically struggle, because I am unable to turn myself over unconditionally to God. No matter how wonderful the book’s message was, it depressed me to be confronted again by my inability to bring about my own happiness by having “right relationship” with God. I know this is exactly NOT the point—oh how I know it. As you see, even my terminology contradicts the simplicity of the core message. But I can’t go there. I just can’t. Hopefully God is as loving as portrayed in this book and will understand.

I also found the book annoying. Any book that personifies God and starts having God explain things is annoying. Also, it’s just horribly written. That much I expected. When I read the first paragraph, I nearly despaired:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon. Although spring was surely just around the corner, the god of winter was not about to relinquish its hard-won dominion without a tussle.” (Kill me now.)

The good news is that once the author gets to the theology (i.e., to the shack), he seems to have consulted a number of “experts,” and their review and suggestions made the writing, as well as probably the theology, much better.

Unfortunately, he wants to do creative things, to describe a scene that I’m sure pushed his imagination to its outer limit. I’m sad to say, that limit wasn’t far. In the scene late in the book, he describes vision he has after having his eyes rubbed by the Holy Spirit. We can liken it to him seeing not “through a mirror darkly” but with the eyes we’ll have to see after resurrection. Here’s an unfortunate paragraph:

“In a rush of peach and plum and currant flames, an osprey dove toward the surface of the lake, but pulled up at the last instant to skim across its surface, sparks from its wings falling like snow into the waters as it passed. Behind it, a large rainbow-clothed lake trout burst through the surface as if to taunt a passing hunter and then dropped back in a midst of a splash of colors.”

“In a midst of a splash of colors”? When he’s supposedly trying to be precise, he dissolves in a jumble of awkward flourishes. But ultimately, the book is not overburdened with this writing. A good editor? One can hope. It’s a straight story, clean and fast-moving.

I will pass it along to someone I know who would like it, and I recommend it to those interested in Trinitarian theology. It only took two weekends to read, in my spare time. I’m sure many could breeze through it in an afternoon, but for me, there are emotional and psychological blocks to be worked through, always, in this kind of book. I’m sure many, like the monk and nun I work with, and the deacon, would find it really uplifting and encouraging. I found it confrontational—that’s just my personality, perhaps—confronting me with all the ways I am still and never will be “a Good Christian.” This probably means I need the message of “the shack,” which in the end is a simple and unconditional: “God loves you.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and Obama

This morning I woke up with something still stuck in my head from two weeks ago. On the December 13 show of A Prairie Home Companion, Renee Fleming and Yo Yo Ma performed an adapted version of "In the Bleak Midwinter." It's one of my favorite Christmas carols, though (and maybe because) it's so moody. The experience was enhanced by being in my car, in the bitter cold, on my way to Saint John's University for the mundane task of checking out a video from the library. But it meant I was driving onto that lovely campus and past the dramatic bell banner as the song was playing. It was yet another instance of the great myth-making going on around Barack Obama and his family, but it was also very moving. Here's a transcript of the two adapted verses:

In the bleak midwinter
at the Christmas feast,
a family leaves Chicago
and travels to the East,
for a public mansion
in Washington, D.C.
in a time of trouble
and festivity.

All across the nation
sea to shining sea,
people watch the passage
of this family.
And the loving wishes
go out to them there,
all the nation beathes
a silent, hopeful prayer.

I have mixed feelings about all this mythmaking. I think it puts too much pressure on this one man and his decisions. I fear we're hoping he'll save us-- by which I think people mean, make things go back to how they used to be, restore prosperity. Last night the prioress, Nancy Bauer, gave a homily on all the messianic language in the headlines lately surrounding the economic crisis, and it does raise false hopes. As she pointed out, the messiah that showed up was not "the stimulus package" the Jews expected to free them from the Romans. If we want saving, we should look elsewhere.

At the same time, I am proud of my country and this choice, and I am hopeful that we can make it through this transition and hopefully see some real change, and some real character shown by our people, all of us together.

I read this morning that Elizabeth Alexander is writing a poem for the inauguration. I knew Elizabeth when she taught at the University of Chicago, and struggled because the hardcore academics in that English department didn't respect creative writers. I also heard that from the editors of the Chicago Review at the time. Elizabeth is a wonderful poet, and deeply humble and wickedly smart. The New York Times story kind of oddly fished around as to why she would be chosen. They suggested it might be her friendship with the Obamas, or something else. It bugged me that she still has to defend her talent. I guess the feeling is she's too "osbscure" to join the ranks of Robert Frost (for Kennedy), and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams ([for Clinton]. Williams is also obscure, but was a "senior statesman" of poetry.) It is interesting to note that our poet laureates aren't ever asked to do this task. In England, that's what poet laureates are for.

I think it's a perfect choice. Elizabeth comes from where the Obamas come from. She will understand her task completely, and be sensitive to it poetically and in terms of it being a public address. She's an accomplished, wonderful poet. And she's promised to be brief (which is more than you can say for Maya Angelou!).

Thursday, December 18, 2008


(photo: All Souls Day at the Sisters' cemetery, Saint Benedict's Monastery)

Another of the more well-known Sisters at the monastery died this week. Sister Nancy Hynes celebrated her Golden Jubilee, 50 years in community, this past summer. She was a strong personality, outspoken and even, at times, radical. She taught in the English Department at the college for 32 years, and published a critical edition of the work of Mariella Gable, OSB, and J. F. Powers, another well-known Catholic writer who taught at the college. The college named the Sister Nancy Hynes Women Center in her honor last year, when they opened their newly renovated student center.

We received several compliments on the obituary, and it's true that S. Olivia and I put considerable effort into it. I went through three proofs with the St. Cloud Times to get the line breaks, spelling, and italics right. Several Sisters stopped by my office to share other stories of S. Nancy, something that has not happened with other deaths at the monastery. One told me how deeply disappointed Nancy was that Hillary Clinton wasn't elected president. She also shared her favorite homily by S. Nancy, about "cleaning up your signs." She said it twice before she explained: "It was about the signs of the cross." She didn't like all the messy, rushed signing she was seeing, and advised people to more clearly trace out the cross, remembering the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. At the funeral's opening prayer before the procession into the church, the prioress invited everyone, if they were comfortable, to say the Lord's Prayer as Nancy always said it, "Our Father and Mother, who art in heaven..."

We waited a long time on Tuesday for the funeral arrangements to be announced, which was odd, because S. Nancy had cancer and had been in hospice care since early fall. Her death was not a surprise. However, I learned when the announcement came out that she was being cremated. This is a first for the monastery. It is a first, but it is not sudden. The presence of cremated remains at a funeral has been allowed in the Catholic Church since 1997, and there is a prayer for use at the burial and liturgical instructions. In 2001 the monastery took up the issue at a chapter meeting, and had extensive presentations and discussion of the option. The Sisters who request it go through a process and fill out an application. One person described it as a "trial period" to see how it works and what the community response is. Another described it as an "interim period." So far a small but significant number of Sisters, about a dozen, have signed up for this option from a community of more than 250.

Several Sisters are not for it. Two winced when I mentioned it. One said she had "not come around to it yet," and "was having a hard time with it." I asked the other Sister why she wasn't for it, and she said: "It's so harsh. It's so unnatural. There isn't even fire-- it's intense heat. The whole thing is very harsh." The presence of that box of remains would remind her of the process that her Sister's body had undergone, reducing it to ash. I don't think embalming is a very "natural" process either, but I can see her point. When I asked the reasons why Sisters would choose cremation I heard the same list: "The cost, and to save space in the cemetery, and environmental reasons." The Sister who wasn't happy about it said there was also new evidence that it is not environmentally sound, because the process uses so much energy.

S. Gen's sister died close to Christmas a few years ago and was cremated. She had been a member of the monastery but left in the mid-1970s. She had a viewing and funeral with the body, but was cremated for burial in the monastery cemetery. It meant the family could reconvene on her birthday in May for the burial ceremony, which S. Gen said was a good thing. She also said what had mattered most was that they spent time with the body in the hours after her sister died, while making the arrangements. She said that "in the old days" they were told that the soul didn't immediately leave the body, and she was glad that now they don't take the body from the family right away. S. Nancy died at about midnight, and early the following morning there had been a small prayer service with the body at Saint Scholastica with her family and the Sisters who live there. S. Gen also said that, because of her sister's experience, some Sisters were asking her about the burial. One wanted to know if she would be able to toss in a flower. Gen told her, "Yes, the hole is just smaller. You can't throw in a whole bouquet, but a flower is fine."

The funeral was one of the best I've ever attended. The readings were wonderful, starting with Isaiah's "Comfort, O Comfort my people," and then Paul's letter asking "Death where is thy victory? O Death where is thy sting?" and for the gospel, the opening of the story of Lazarus. The homily, by S. Theresa Schumacher, focused on Mary and Martha in the gospel reading. After Communion one of S. Nancy's nieces played a Bach intermezzo on the upright piano.

I was there to take photos for the archives of this "first" in the community. I took photos of the procession of Sisters into the church. I tried to capture the moments when Sisters reached out and touched the box of remains. S. Nancy's friend and colleague in the English Department, S. Mara Faulkner, carried the remains, the sole "pall bearer." What struck me was when one Sister barely brushed the box and then gave S. Mara's arm a good squeeze. That would not have happened with a coffin. The focus shifted to the community of mourners, S. Mara as a representative.

The substitution of a box of remains for a coffin with a body is not what I'll remember about this funeral. I'll remember how much Nancy's brother looked like her, and how beautifully he read the "Comfort, O Comfort my people" reading. I'll remember that Brahms intermezzo, how it broke for a moment when the page-turner, another niece, wasn't quite on the ball, and how it rose and fell and gave us time to sit in silence and pray for the family and remember S. Nancy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sacred Heart Chapel

Sometimes-- quite often, in fact-- I am astonished by the beauty of Sacred Heart Chapel at Saint Benedict's Monastery where I work. I work on the first floor of the "Main Building" of the monastery, also known as "the Motherhouse." The best way to get to my office is through the chapel. There is a side door, and a "back door" that is actually the front door of the monastery. But to get to the front door you have to go through a very private courtyard. To come through the chapel, however, usually means stopping at the information desk in the Gathering Place, a large atrium added in the mid-1980s when the whole place was renovated and the back of the church became the front of the church, and much more welcoming to the public. Before that, you had to come through that very private courtyard or an obsured side entrance.

I go back and forth through the chapel, then, to pick up any guests or visitors or vendors who come to see me. I really appreciate having a gigantic chapel as a block between me and vendors. No one just wanders back to see me or drops in. One vendor who tried to break that rule was soundly corrected and told to check in at the information desk in the future.

Today was a very hectic day-- for about two weeks we've had very hectic days. There is a funeral for one of the Sisters on Friday, so yesterday was full of preparations of the obituary and the prayer card, and we waited a long time for the funeral information, which meant pressure on the newspaper proofing process. Today two newspapers sent me notices saying we need to get advertisements in for special issues by Tuesday if we want to run in them. And we have a weekly newsletter, a major 8-page brochure, and very complicated new events calendar brochure underway. And there were a lot of the usual interruptions. Everyone is planning for the new year, and maybe their own work has slowed down, so they are checking in with plans and questions.

In the middle of it all a Sister called from one of the ministries at the far end of the campus and asked if I could come take a few photos of their volunteers who were there for a holiday party. They need them for the web site. So I stopped what I was doing and walked down there. Which was actually quite good because otherwise I would have had no break for a third day in a row. It was also nicer than I thought outside. It's gone up just above zero today, though it's been well below the last two. I took the pictures but didn't stay for the party.

Then, walking back through the chapel, I stopped in my tracks. The organ, which is maybe my favorite part of the whole place, looked stunning. There wasn't any direct light catching it or anything, but it seemed to really stand out and be well defined.

Luckily, I had my camera. So I took a few shots, of the organ and of the rheamy glass windows that were specially crafted in Germany during the 1983 renovation and are responsible for the light. The beautiful unpolished pillars in front of them, and of the inside of the dome, that dramatic feature of the chapel, over the altar.

S. Dolores Super, who is one of our organists, was passing through. She started and for a long time ran the Studium program for visiting artists and scholars. She was originally in education, and is celebrating her 60th year in religious life this year. I learned from her biography that as a board member for the local hospital she once testified in D.C. before a senate panel on health care on behalf of the poor and indigent.

She asked what I was up to and I told her how often the organ just really takes my breath away. She agreed and told me that one time when the religion writer Roberta Bondi was here, a scholar staying in Studium, she said that she'd just come from another monastery in the Eastern U.S. and, though she loved those Sisters and always looked forward to visiting them, "When I want beauty, I have to come here."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas Cookie Recipes

Spending Christmas with my new family has definitely been a challenge to the psyche-- and it's only the 14th of December. It throws attention on the "traditions" one has developed for oneself, and how they may or may not match with others' traditions. I've spent many Christmas seasons by myself, and developed a low-key approach to the holiday season that is nonetheless about comfort, restoring the self, celebrating in a very "inside" way. I think I most like to retreat during this holiday season. I definitely don't like to go out into Christmasland and celebrate with lots of festivities. I've been hankering for a good sing-along Messiah lately, but that's unusual. I like to lie on the couch with only the Christmas lights on and watch my absolute favorite Christmas movie, Remember the Night, a screwball comedy from 1940 with that all-star pairing of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. It was this movie that made me really want to learn how to make pop-overs.

I have two great cookie recipes to offer. The first is a very great cookie from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. Unless you really don't like walnuts, you'll love these cookies. The nut taste is very subtle, and as with all cookies, it's mostly about the butter and sugar.

110th Street Walnut Crescents
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed finely ground walnuts
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup powdered sugar
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour

Cream together the butter and walnuts. Beat in vanilla. On low speed add the confectioners' sugar, salt, and flour and beat until well blended. Form dough into a ball, flatten, wrap in plastic, and chill until firm (3 hours).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Roll the dough and use a butter knife to cut the dough into a rectangle and then triangles. Shape each triangle into a crescent and put it on a pan (I don't grease it, but the recipe says lightly buttered). Bake 12 minutes until edges are golden brown. Cool and then dust them liberally (or I roll them) in confectioners' sugar.

The second cookie has long been my personal favorite. These cookies are not for the faint-hearted. They are unbelievably sweet, and light as air. In this way, they are the perfect once-a-year cookie. For me, they are the counterpart to Baskin Robbins' mint chocolate chip ice cream as a summer treat. After softball games we'd go to Baskin Robbins and 31-flavors-or-not, we'd always get mint chip on a sugar cone. These are my favorite Christmas cookies, though my tastes have matured some! If you like mint and chocolate, you'll love these cookies. I don't know where this recipe came from. I think these cookies showed up in the 1970s or 1980s on a cookie exchange tray my mother got, and she got the recipe from there. I got it from her...

Forgotten Kisses
Preheat oven to 375 degrees (turn off when you put the tray in the oven)
Grease cookie sheet
Beat 2 egg whites until stiff (use glass or metal bowl)
Add 2/3 cup of sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, and a few drops of green food coloring and a little peppermint extract slowly, while beating egg whites. Continue beating until peaks form. You want to beat in as much air as possible.
Stir in an 8 oz package of chocolate chips.
Drop by teaspoon onto greased cookie sheet and put in the oven. Turn off oven and let kisses sit undisturbed overnight.
These used to be even better when Nestle's made semi-sweet mint chocolate chips. But the "Andes" versions are not a good substitute, so the peppermint extract is necessary.

Christmas Trees

I'm not a big fan of Christmas, but I do like the cookies, the music, and the lights. I've managed to make three kinds of cookies so far: butter cookies, gingerbread, and the walnut crescents which are the popular favorites. I have plans for more... The tree is up, and it's a dandy. Steve's tree is circa 1965 and silver. There is a sturdy wood pole at the center, which makes me laugh because it reminds me of Seinfeld and Festivus. With just the pole in its stand, before the branches have been inserted, it's easy to see how one could move to the "airing of grievances" and "feats of strength," the dark side of the holiday.

Steve still has the branches, which are steel poles wrapped in heavy-duty tinsel, in their individual paper sleeves. I think this act of preservation is extrarodinary. And it is hard to believe that the tree will look as good as it does once all the poles are inserted and fan up and out, obscuring that center pole.

Of course, metal conducts, so there are no lights on this tree. just very light glass balls. The tree came from Steve's grandfather's hardware store. He remembers the year they got it, and thinks he was probably 7 or 8 years old. That puts it right in the mid-1960s, when A Charlie Brown Christmas came out with its critique of trees exactly like this one. Now, of course, it's aged well, and taken on that retro hipness that makes it a fine accessory to any house.

Tim and Annie have a similar silver tree, but theirs is on a rotating platform with lights that shine up through the center. Still, yesterday I was heartened to see Tim pulling a sled with a small tree on it out of the prairie woods and up to their house. It is a really nice tree-- despite its four trunks and obvious struggle to grow out of the brush and come back from deer gnawings, it has a good shape. He put it in an empty spot on the patio.

I awoke to a blizzard this morning, the snow completely obscuring visibility. It has lessened now, but I-94 is closed just west of us, and Fargo and Duluth have extreme blizzard conditions. The snow could last all day and night. It could be fun to ski to work tomorrow, though I don't think it will come to that. In another post I'll put up two cookie recipes...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Rabbit Hunt, 3: the Pheasant!

Well, literally as I was finishing off that last entry, there was a shot-- a little close to home for my liking.

From the balcony of the bedroom, I heard them yelling for the dog to fetch-- which he did!

I called out, "Who got it?"

Joe Meyer yelled back, "Your husband!"

I couldn't be more proud.

I did manage this time to get a few shots, including of the pheasant where it was left inside so as not to freeze...

Rabbit Hunt, 2

Well, the accomplishment of shooting that one rabbit seems to have brought on hunting fever around here. Last weekend Steve was joined for his one-hour "walk with guns" of the property by Tim Ebel and two of his boys. Steve missed a pheasant, and Tim shot "from the hip" at a rabbit at close range-- the consensus was that it was a good thing he didn't get the rabbit, as it would have been obliterated. After the unsuccessful hunt, they took the boys back out with a smaller gun to shoot at things.

Today, the count is up to three grown men, three boys, and a dog. The new participants, Joe Meyer and his son, actually have proper vests and dayglo wear. Though I don't think it's other hunters we have to worry about, but these guys themselves.

I managed to get out to the mall early. I forgot my coupon, but since I didn't see another person successfully use a coupon (the merchandise they wanted was all excluded), I was happy to just go with the sales. What's more important, my shopping is done. Anything now is just extra. It was certainly not a "joyous" experience. But it was relatively contained. The mall was just starting to hum as I was leaving, and I got a good parking spot which I was able to pass on to another happy shopper.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Back to the Economy

This morning I had to turn off my radio and drive to work in seething silence. It's gotten so I can't stand to turn on even NPR or read the news, because all I hear are people trying desperately to perpetuate the system we have that isn't working. This Christmas season has been full of the same stories about unique luxury gifts, and I'm tired of hearing experts say we should wait out the bad times because the good old days of yore will be back again in, oh, 9-18 months. I don't hear people changing their thinking, or assessing how they live and committing to living simpler. It feels like everyone is looking for the policy or the bailout or the plan that will get us back to the good old days. Here's what I heard on Morning Edition, talking about a stimulous or bailout package that might include refinancing packages to get interest rates on mortgages down to 4.5%:

[Christopher Mayer, a Columbia Business School economist and dean] says 25 million to 30 million Americans could save hundreds of dollars a month by refinancing at those low rates, and they might decide to spend that extra money on big-ticket items.
"If you're a household thinking, 'I've got my 5-year-old car; when am I going to replace it?' And suddenly your mortgage payments drop by $450 a month — that's the payments on a new car," Mayer says. "The effect of that on improving consumer spending would be enormous."

Oh yes, if only we could refinance at an even lower rate, so we could replace our 5-year-old cars with new cars. That would get everything humm[er]ing again. I'll get a new car out of it, the auto makers can keep doing what they're doing, and everything will be fine. This makes me think Americans aren't going to change. They're going to suffer through the crisis, wait it out, and look to the time when they can start buying again. They're going to wait for the government to make them an offer they can't refuse, make the banks offer them even lower mortgage rates, so they can go out and spend it on things they don't need, not their house.

I am all for real assistance to people who are and will be struggling to make ends meet. But I want to hear widespread focusing on how things are different, we are in a transition as an economy. I think it's kind of like having a depressed patient (it is a depression, right? GD2?). You can give the patient drugs (money) or you can give the patient therapy (counseling to change behaviors and break destructive patterns), or a combination of both. I hear a lot about the drugs, but not much therapy. The drugs should be for the most dire of situations, and for the rest, let's break the behaviors and have a little talk.

I've been having a really hard time thinking about Christmas. I got something for Steve, and we have a plan for his daughters. But I don't want to buy anything. I just don't want to participate at all. I want to make cookies and listen to Christmas music, but I'll probably end up getting gift cards for my family members because I just can't bear to go wade through the merchandise and pick out something I hope they'll like. I'll hopefully snap out of it long enough for one good shopping trip... we'll see.

It's the thinking that's been bothering me most, not the fear that everyone's going to lose their jobs, retirement, etc. Loss we can work with. False promises, continuing down this path of unending consumerism-- I have nothing to say to that.

On the repeat of Jon Stewart's show with Arianna Huffington tonight she was saying blogs are "first drafts," your thoughts-- so go ahead and vent. Follow your passions! So here it is, a good old fashioned rant.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I have been trying to keep death out of the blog, more or less. Sister Jeremy's death slipped in, but hers was the sixth death at the monastery since August. That's been on my mind because I write the obituaries for the Sisters' magazine, Benedictine Sisters and Friends, that I'm preparing now. Also because two of the deaths happened on Saturdays, which meant I got called in to work to post the obituary and photo to the St. Cloud Times. The first time was Sister Glenore, who was 105 years old. Then it was Sister Jeremy, which felt like actual news, and I carried it around the whole weekend looking for someone to tell.

Also, Brother Dietrich Reinhardt, an incredibly gentle and kind monk who has been president of Saint John's University for 17 years, was diagnosed this fall with metastatic melanoma, stage 4, in his lungs and brain. His decline has been very rapid, and although people speak with vague hope sometimes, it is clear he won't live much longer. I found myself crying at Mass at the Abbey one morning over this. I also went to an anointing service held for him at hte Abbey church a few weeks ago. I saw it on the campus bulletin board, and had no idea what a large event it was. I thought it would be the monastic community humbly doing their little prayer service after noon prayer. But when I arrived there were choruses and many instruments, a packed house, several news reporters and cameramen. In other words, it was a university event. It was highly choreographed, with lots of actual fanfare. Select constituencies were represented up in the choir stalls-- not the brothers who sat down in the main area with the rest of us. They wore red ribbons and when the time came they paraded past Dietrich and held a hand up over him. You couldn't actually touch him because his white blood cell count was too low at that point and he risked infection. I stayed to pray, to sing, and visited with a couple monks I hadn't seen in awhile, but I didn't stay for the whole parade. I went back to work.

Then yesterday I got news that an old friend, Rocco DiSipio, died. He committed suicide, and this was not a surprise. I don't know the details, just that he died at home, and somehow that was comforting to me. He could have easily died in an institution or on the street. He'd threatened in manic times to stage a battle with Satan at the mouth of a mountain in New York State. I was glad to hear he was in Eastern Pennsylvania, in a place he loved. His physical health had become bad, I hear, and I would imagine that was also a factor. Maybe he didn't want to lose his independence. Or maybe he was just finished fighting his demons.

I knew Rocco when we both lived in Chicago in the mid-90s. He was the brother of a friend of a friend. At a party, he zeroed in on me quite intensely. We spent the next few months talking about writing mostly. Rocco had written seven unpublished novels, stuff along the lines of Confederacy of Dunces. He had elaborate correspondences with Margaret Atwood, who advocated for his writing to her publisher and agent, and with Anne Tyler. Eventually he wrote a novel that was published in serial form online, a satire. It was a good format for him--keep it moving, keep it archly comic. I heard him on WBEZ one day in the late '90s talking about the death of the conventional novel and predicting that soon all publishing would be online. My first husband heard the interview and said, "Wow, Rocco is real." I had a lot of Rocco stories by then, but not many of my friends ever met him.

Rocco had been a police officer and then a parole officer, and married, before he had his first manic depressive episode in his late twenties. In the intervening years he'd been homeless, attempted suicide twice, and been in and out of hospitals. He was brilliant, and knew how to work over psychiatrists to get the medication he decided he needed. When I met him he was living in a spare room in someone's apartment, and instead of rent he was painting furniture for the guy. He'd coat it in black paint and then use paint pens to cover the piece in images from his wild imagination. One of this favorites was a straight-backed chair with three nuns on the back looking longingly down at a hotdog on the seat. That was Rocco's sense of humor, completely. He talked me through the writing of a novel, multiple drafts, which he believed in utterly-- much more than I did. I sent it out to agents, got interest from two, but was relieved when they decided in the end they couldn't sell it. I never would have finished it, however, if it weren't for Rocco. Because of him I wrote something that was completely invented, real fiction, and felt as real as the world I inhabited every day. I even got a chance one summer to take him to a place in Michigan where some of the novel was set, and he took the place in exactly as I'd hoped, saying, "What a site. This place. What a world." Like he could see my made-up people and their lives playing out there just like I'd written them. I can't really express how valuable that is still.

One Superbowl Sunday he took me out shooting. He thought it would be a kind of therapy for me--empowering. He didn't want me to be a victim. He picked me up and we drove out to the western suburbs of Chicago where there was a shooting range. On the way out he gave me the gun safety lecture. "The gun is always loaded. Repeat what I just said."
"Always act like the gun is loaded."
"NO! That's not what I said! The Gun IS ALWAYS Loaded. Repeat it."

When we were nearly there we left the highway and stopped at a K-Mart to buy bullets. The gun was a .22 shotgun made mostly of plastic. At the sporting goods counter a meek suburban man who seemed more comfortable selling basketballs than bullets came and asked us what we wanted. "What do you have in the way of .22 shells?" Rocco asked. The man showed him the selection, two kinds. Rocco picked up the boxes and his hand shook from the Lithium, rattling the shells. The meek man looked at Rocco, looked at me, looked back at Rocco.

"These will work," said Rocco, sliding out his permit. I didn't really understand how he managed to keep a weapons permit with his diagnosis. Also, he really did look like a serial killer in the picture-- large dark eyes, sullen face, ragged beard. Rocco chain smoked and never looked healthy. Ravaged is a word you could use.

That's when the clerk opened up. "Where are you going?"
"Just to the range up the street," Rocco said.
"Well, you know, if you want some real action, you should get a .44 and go shoot skeet out at the Drive."
"Oh, uh huh."
"A .22 isn't going to be any fun. A .44 is what you need to have some real fun." I'm not sure if he actually said "real fun" or if I got that from the Misfit in Flannery O'Connor's "A Real Man is Hard to Find." But the clerk was quickly becoming that kind of character. Sylvio took his change, and we turned to walk down the aisle.
"That guy was crazy," Rocco said, laughing. I couldn't help but agree and join him.

At the shooting range, we lined up to buy our target sheets. Rocco pointed and told the guy to give us "one wife," "one husband," and "one of those married couples." The guys behind us in line laughed. The targets were of a man assailant with a gun, a woman assailant with a gun, and a man holding a woman hostage. "You can shoot the husbands and I'll shoot the wives," he said on the way back to our booth.

In the end I couldn't shoot any of the people. I found a bullseye target on the floor and used that. It had a few big holes in it already, probably from a .44. Or one of the much larger guns the men in the adjacent booths were firing. They had fire coming out of the end of their guns. We had a plastic .22 that seemed more like a shooting gallery toy. But I learned how to site the thing and managed to completely punch out the center of the bullseye. For years I used it to "decorate" the peep holes on apartment doors, kind of like a wreath.

When I got married the first time in 1998, I told Sylvio over the phone. He said, "Congratulations! It's really good you're getting one under your belt." I said, "Rocco, I think this is going to work out." He laughed, quite genuinely, and said, "Oh, Sink, it never works out."

Rocco was not all darkness, but he was very dark. It was exciting, and felt very real. I took the late night calls and we talked. He could talk for hours, and so could I. He could draw worlds with his words, and he had lived several lives, all of them fascinating. I had permission to be and say whatever I wanted to with him. I think that was the real attraction. But I met my first husband, and then we moved, then he moved, and I stopped hearing from him. At some point he asked me to be his literary executor. I said sure, and carefully put the manuscripts he sent me in files in a drawer of my file cabinet. Then I started to receive daily pages and instructions in the mail. "Please replace page 143 in book 3 with this new page 143. Confirm." Or more briefly, to change the wording of a particular sentence on a page in one of the short stories. I was supposed to write him a postcard back saying I'd done what he asked. This went on awhile. I always made the changes he asked, but I didn't always write and confirm. And this was not acceptable. After a few threatening cards about how I was torturing him, he asked for all the materials back. He'd found a new executor. That was ok with me.

I didn't hear from him after that. I knew he'd moved to New York state for awhile, and then back to Western Pennsylvania. Among the papers I'd been entrusted with when I was his literary executor was a copy of his will. In it he had instructions about women he'd been involved with and who he felt had disappointed him. They were each supposed to get a particular page, or a few pages, from one of his novels in the event of his death. I wondered if I was on that list. I still do, actually, wonder if someday I'll get a page in the mail. I've thought of that on and off over the years and hoped that the fact I didn't get one meant he was still alive.

I got an e-mail from the friend of a friend of his brother about his death. It was a notice of a death in a line of deaths this fall. It was both expected and unexpected. I thought briefly that I should add his name to the Book of Remembrance the Sisters keep for the month of November and pray from-- but it was December 1. That seemed like an irony Rocco would appreciate. I prayed for him anyway.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Controlled Burn

For months, no make that over a year, I've been hearing about famous burns on the farm. It's part of the prairie restoration Tim and Steve are trying to accomplish on many acres of the land. Last year I was promised a burn, but conditions never got exactly right. And this year, Steve sprayed a lot of Roundup to kill weeds and grass-- the DNR spotted the large dead area on aerial photos while out looking to see if people were disturbing wetlands. They sent us a threatening letter and folloewd up with a visit by an agent who saw what we were up to and all was fine. The Roundup was sprayed shortly before the wedding in July. Since then I've waited for the burn.

Finally Saturday the conditions seemed to be right. Everything was dead and dry, and there was no wind. Tim went and got a burn permit from Andy Loso, the local fire warden. One problem was that the burn permit wasn't until 5 p.m., when whatever wind there was (and there wasn't any) would definitely be down. But Tim and Steve were still worried that the fire might burn too hot and so they filled the water wagon with 600 gallons and even sprayed water on the perimeter burn lines, which were mowed that afternoon, to make sure the fire wouldn't go beyond the area marked out.

At 5 p.m. it was almost dark. And it was very cold. Our friends the Ebels came and brought their six children. They come over at any suggestion of fire, and who wouldn't. I thought I'd watch from inside until it got going because it was so cold outside, and I was looking forward to it passing in front of the big living room windows. I was also looking forward to so much black, scorched earth the next day and skating on the pond in the middle of it. I'm surprised to hear myself say that, after spending three years in Southern California and two years before that in Reno and seeing what damage fire can do. For those five years I feared fires. I remember going to a bonfire at my parents' neighbor's house when I was home on vacation and being the only one who was nervous. It was the middle of summer and they were burning the boards from an old shed they'd torn down. There was no hose at the ready or any precautions whatsoever to control the fire. Still, no one was worried. And nothing happened. Out here on the farm fire is our friend, still restorative, and still pretty easily controlled.

The fire Saturday night was a complete bust. It started well, as the picture above shows, along the perimeter of the pond. Steve and Tim used rakes to try to spread it. But either the cold air was too full of moisture or the frozen ground was, because it just wouldn't catch and spread. The dry grass went up and out. I did go down and take some photos of the Ebel children playing in the fire. They stood and bent the grass, trying to get it to catch. The picures turned out pretty interesting. In the end Steve and Tim poured the 600 gallons of water from the wagon out on the pond, adding another nice layer to the ice. We skated on Sunday, but it would have been even better to skate with black earth all around.

There will be other seasons. And someday I'll get to see a real burn out here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

President Elect

Today on The News Hour I saw something that kind of shocked me. It was President Elect Barack Obama standing in front of a presidential-looking podium, in front of blue curtains, flanked by American flags, and the podium had a sign that said "Office of the President Elect." Now I know he's been doing this all along-- the Oval Office/White House stage at the convention, and the presidential look of the stage in Grant Park. I know he's been giving press conferences. But I guess I've been getting most of my news lately by radio (or hearsay on the listserv) and this was the first I saw of the press conference set.

I vaguely remember from past elections the footage taken from afar of president elects going in and out of office buildings in Washington, having meetings, but I don't ever remember seeing a current, sitting president LESS and looking more foolish and irrelevant when I did see him, and a president elect standing before a podium with blue curtains in the background and American flags making what seem to be hourly press conferences. It's kind of amazing. It's the closest thing to my actually experiencing and feeling there is indeed an economic crisis going on. And where is, uh, what's her name-- Dana Perino? To tell you the truth, I don't really know what she looks like. I haven't been watching White House press conferences since Tony Snow left.

And has anyone seen Cheney since November 4???

Obama is a really consummate politician, if anyone had any doubt. Is he going to continue to make right steps all the way along? If so, I will be amazed. The News Hour is even having a hard time trying to find people to do point/counterpoint. All the experts seem to agree on all his economic picks, his plans, his choices, etc. There was some lukewarm partisan whining tonight from a general over the Gates pick-- "I thought he said change! This isn't change! He''s making it look like Democrats don't have strong leaders in defense, but we do we do we do! And when are we getting out of this war anyway?! He promised." Hey, guy, simmer down. He hasn't taken office yet. What's wrong with a little show of stability. With admitting Gates has been doing a great job.

And then.... the next story with some more people who love Obama and all the smart and sensible things he's doing.

Sister Jeremy Hall

There are Sisters here who it would be unthinkable to have changed their names back. Sister Thomas Carey is one. In some ways I think of it as I do my choice not to change my name either time I married. I had already published under my name. I had an identity in the world under that name I didn't want to confuse. I wanted people to know me as I'd come into my adult life. Most of these women changed their names when they entered the monastery at 20 or 21. By the 1960s they had lived whole lives-- everything they had done that made them who they were was done under that second name, their monastic name.

Another sister I can't imagine could have changed her name is Sister Jeremy Hall, who died on November 15. Sister Jeremy was a very well known Sister. In the early days she was "ahead of her time," or as other sisters have said, "radical" and "way out there." She traveled to India and met Mother Teresa, and afterward corresponded with her. She amassed several graduate degrees. But something happened after Vatican II. As waves of nuns and priests left their orders, many of them to marry priests, others just to reenter the world, she thought maybe the reforms had gone too far. She went to a modified habit, the light veil, but never to full secular dress.

In the late '70s and early '80s she took a sabbatical and a few long retreats to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, which made a deep impression on her. In her search for more prayer time and solitude, she became vowed hermit. She moved to a trailer on the edge of the property, where she lived from 1983 to 2005 with her dog. From there she wrote, and became well known as a retreat leader for religious communities and a spiritual director for individuals. Like all the Sisters, even as a hermit, she worked. Like that famous hermit Thomas Merton, she wrote innumerable letters. She deeply affected people's lives.

I met Sister Jeremy only once, in September. When I went to visit Saint Scholastica, the retirement community, at the end of my visit I encountered a group of Sisters in the hall, several in wheel chairs. One was Sister Jeremy, who asked who I was and introduced herself. I told her I knew about her book, Silence, Solitude, and Simplicity, because I'd worked at Liturgical Press who published it. I asked her how she was doing. She said she didn't like living at Saint Scholastica, that it was too hard, too much of a change. I said it must be hard after so much solitude to have so much community. She wasn't the kind of person to enjoy being dependent. She wasn't sick at all, and didn't even seem particularly old or frail, despite the wheelchair, so I was shocked when she died. It is our sixth death since August. Sister Jeremy was 90 years old. She had an obstruction in her esophagus that was "like cement," the doctor said. She refused a feeding tube, and died very quickly after that.

At her funeral the prioress said that as a young woman in the community she'd always been afraid of Sister Jeremy. When she told her this, Sister Jeremy laughed. When people talk about her they use tough phrases: "She took her God straight up," and "Sister Jeremy didn't tolerate any bullshit when it came to God." She passed from this place without my really knowing her. It felt like a big loss. People talk about hearing her dog barking out at the trailer when they went running along the trail through the monastery woods. Others talk about how wise she was, and how genuine. People light up when they talk about her, and they also can't seem to quite get a hold on what they want to tell me about her.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Names of Nuns

In a comment on the essay about S. Thomas Carey, a friend asked why she would choose "Thomas" as her name. Actually, Thomas was probably one of the better names to get when you entered Saint Benedict's Monastery in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the good names were already taken.

Following Vatican II, many Sisters resumed using their baptismal names. However, some kept the names they took on with their vows. The way the process has been explained to me is this: when a Sister entered the monastery, the prioress gave her a slip of paper with three names on it. Usually they were close to the Sister's given name, most often using the same first letter. If your name was Josephine, you might get "Joseph, Joshua, Jerome." The name had to be a saint's name, and often was a saint associated with Benedictines. Also, at Saint Benedict's Monastery and Saint John's Abbey anyway, there was never more than one person with a name. The monks were lucky in that there could be a brother and a priest with the same name (thus Father Dunstan and Brother Dunstan). Keep in mind that in the 1940s, there were 1200 nuns at St. Benedict's Monastery. Some Sisters have spoken of going to the cemetery looking for a name that wasn't taken and that would work. It's why S. Josue took the Hebrew name for Joshua as her name. There was already a Sister Joshua.

Many of the names were male: Sister Bernard, Sister Anthony, Sister Gregory, Sister Thomas. Preferred names were often those of Benedictine saints: Sister Placid, Sister Maurus, Sister Walburga. Well, Walburga may not have been exactly a preferred name.

I can't imagine getting those three names on a piece of paper and trying to choose one. I can't imagine going through life with a man's name, either. We have a Sister Gregor, and a Sister Andre, and Sister Jonathan. But what a thrill it must have been to see Sister Victorine as one of the choices! (Sister Victorine is one of our Jubilarians, having spent 75 years in the community as of 2009.)

When I became an oblate, I had the option to take a name or not. Unfortuantely, Dorothy Day is not yet a saint. I decided during the process I wanted to choose a Benedictine saint name. And I didn't want to choose it based on the quality of the name, but the quality of the saint. I wanted to associate with someone who wrote beautifully, a thinker. In the end I chose Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote beautiful commentaries on the Song of Songs. He was, unfortunately, also associated with some (minor) Crusades. He was behind the reforms that founded the Cistercians, a more austere order of Benedictines. When I saw my name on the papers, Susan Bernard Sink, and heard Father Kwatera say it aloud, it was hard to take it in. I cringed and felt my cheeks redden. But I don't actually use the name. I don't really think of it as mine. I'm glad to live in the time I live in-- no one even asks me if I took a name. I don't have to blush and say "Bernard."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ice Skating

Today was as close to a perfect day as they come. I realize that I do indeed love winter, and I promise not to whine about it come February. This winter descended pretty abruptly, putting an end to rabbit hunts and all other such late-fall activities. It was below freezing every day this week, and Thursday night got below zero. A few days were in the teens.

We hold our breath this time of year hoping that conditions will remain good-- meaning once the lakes and ponds start to freeze, it needs to stay below freezing until an inch or two of ice has formed. If it goes above freezing in that time, the ice gets mushy and pock-marked. If it snows, the ice gets pebbled and mushy too. But this week, all week, I looked out the bedroom each morning at the pond in the back to see the solid spanse of black ice getting thicker, and absolutely flat and clean as glass. There was the threat of snow, and it's been overcast, but it didn't snow until last night. By then all was set, the ice smooth and two inches thick on both ponds. Today, we got to skate.

Last year I bought skates, with my eye on the pond, but it was warm, temperatures fluctuated, then it snowed and the ice was wrecked. We did not skate at all last year. But this year is different. Steve remembers last year the Monday before Thanksgiving he was out planting trees for the Deans in Cold Spring. Tuesday he hauled a truckload of metal to the recycling place. But this year the ground, the pumpkins, everything is frozen. The grass is still green, but it's frozen too. So about 11 a.m. we put on our skates and our layers of long johns and thermals, and went out to skate. Steve, of course, brought his camera and his tripod. We did some poses for a possible Christmas card. We hiked up the bank and took some photos of the remaining bales of corn sileage in the field. We skated until we were dehydrated and hungry, and came inside for leek soup he made yesterday, homemade bread, and cheese and wild rice salami from the meat market.

Late in the afternoon Nancy Ebel and five of the six Ebel children came over for skating. They'd figured out which skates fit whom, and there they were. Steve pulled the bench from the patio down near the big pond, and we laced up and were out on the ice again. Nancy and her daughter Carmen skated together and spun each other around. Nancy said, "That's as fancy as we get." But we were all good, all having fun. Eli, seven and very shy, skated for speed, until he wiped out, picking up a fine coating of snow. His hat covered his eyes. Henry, at four, gingerly made his way back and forth, and only fell when we helped him. Carmen was graceful and also fast, cutting a fine figure, holding the edge. Blaise and Joel in the middle just blundered their way around the ice, without style and with a fair amount of speed. When folks got tired they threw themselves into the banks of Reed Canary grass, though there was a perfectly good bench.

Ice skating is a grand, romantic activity. It is what childhood is all about. My first date was in the second grade when Joey Borter asked me to the ice skating rink at Illinois School in Park Forest. I said yes, of course. Then I had to figure out how to keep the secret from my mother-- she wouldn't have approved of a date when I was seven, this much I knew. The skating rink was only three blocks away, so near the time of the date I took off, walking in the direction I hoped Joey and his father's car would come. And sure enough, they pulled up at the curb beside me.

I got in the back seat with Joey, and I could see his father looking at us in the rear view mirror. His eyes smiled and sparkled. He was wearing a tam-o-shanter type cap. I was embarrassed. He dropped us off at the skating rink, which was just a depression in a field filled with water from the fire hydrant in winter. It was probably February, the apex of my relationship with Joey. The ice rink was divided into two parts. One side was for hockey, and the other for figure skating. In other words, boys and girls. Joey joined the other boys, and wanted me to sit on the snow bank and watch him play. I skated for awhile, and when I was done I did sit on the snow bank, where Brad Muncaster, who also liked me, sat beside me and talked to me. We both watched Joey skate, which wasn't very exciting. Then I walked home.

I know it was February 1972, because Joey's birthday was on leap year, and that year, his eighth, was the first time his birthday would be on the actual date that he could remember. I was supposed to go to his party, and I bought him a box kite, but I got sick and couldn't go.

That's what ice skating is about. That's why I always want to live in a place that has winter.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rabbit Hunt

This afternoon we went out for "a walk with attitude," also known as hunting, just around the farm. Back by the raised garden beds we immediately scared up three pheasant roosters, and Steve got off a good shot, but missed. I can't even imagine someone hitting a pheasant on the fly, though he assures me he's shot geese before. Steve had a shotgun and I had a 22 rifle, completely for effect, as I'd have no idea what to do with it, let alone be able to raise it and shoot at anything. That shotgun packs a lot of punch-- has a really loud shot that echoes into the distance. I figured that one shot early was enough to scare anything away. We walked through a lot of areas where deer had clearly been lying down, and saw their paths through the dry reed canary grass. No more pheasant, however.

We stopped and talked to Paul about the log cabin, and saw where he's cut out the plates for the electric. It will be disassembled this week and transported up to the lake. Before he reassembles it he'll drill through the logs and run the wires. Paul is a certified electrician, and I think he really enjoys that part. It's a beautiful place. The logs have all been bleached and have a sort of giraffe-like mottling to them.

For the last leg of the walk we went through the pine grove, and Steve said to keep alert for rabbits. I always think this is a bit of a joke, but no. I heard the rustle and the next thing I knew there was another loud shot, and he actually hit a rabbit on the run. He pulled it by its leg and dropped it on the lawn, and it seemed to be breathing still to me, though he said it was very dead. I didn't like that part at all-- the dying of the rabbit, the warm, dead thing. Though I don't have any problem with shooting rabbits or pheasants, or even deer really, if you eat them.
I had seen a woman skin a rabbit in the movie Roger and Me by Michael Moore about Flint, Michigan, and told Steve it should be easy-- that the skin just peels off. We brought the thing back, and after our photo ops, Steve chopped off the feet and head, then skinned it. I cleaned it up and consulted two cookbooks: How to Cook Everything by Mark Bitman and Dean and Deluca Cookbook by David Rosengarten. D&D recommends marinating it for 2 days, which isn't really going to happen, and then grilling it. Mark Bittman recommended a marinade for one day, which gives me time to pick up some bacon and celery for the rest of the stew recipe tomorrow. There isn't much meat, hardly worth all this effort, but it is a bit of an adventure. After setting aside the marinading rabbit, I made some good chili.

All in all, a good day.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Police Blotter

The local St. Joseph paper sometimes runs a police blotter, I suppose when they have space. I don't know who writes the police blotter, but it often has quite hilarious and well-written items on it. Such as the following from this week's paper:

October 25
6:05 p.m. Report of a pig running loosein the park near Schneider Drive. Officer arrived and found it to be a black pot-bellied pig.Pig appeared to be pretty well domesticated and did not appear to be a farm animal, rather a pet. Officer tried to get hte pig to comply with commands like "come, sit and stay," but had no luck. The officer even tried some names like "Spot, Rex and Frankie." Mr. Pig seemed rather bored with the park and moved on.


Iron Man

Last night we watched Iron Man, possibly the best superhero movie ever. I'm only sad I didn't see it on the big screen. What I liked most about it was the way it hit one of my favorite American themes. When Iron Man rockets into Afghanistan to save the refugees and starts taking out the bad guys, I said, "Hey, this movie is the same as Three Kings." And Three Kings is one of my favorite movies.

The message is basically the same. It begins with a critique of American wealth and power. At the center is the brash young hero Tony Stark, who has a lot of money and a lot of weapons. In this case the hero has made his money making weapons-- his father made his money contributing technology to the Manhattan Project, and the son followed in the business. However, when he becomes a victim of war and sees war firsthand, he is in a position to make a moral choice for good, thus redeeming himself. In Three Kings the soldiers head into Iraq to steal Saddam's gold from the remnants of Saddam's army who are out terrorizing the townspeople. When they see what's happening to the people, however, they use some of their might to try to save them. In the end, they have to trade the gold to get the refugees across the border. They make the right moral choice and show themselves to be true Americans-- not interested in gold but in freedom. Of course, they don't trade ALL the gold-- they have a little nest egg for when they get back, a reward for their making the right moral choice.

What strikes me is that in both movies the critique is not of the wealth, the power, or the technology, but only of how it's used. In Iron Man, Tony Stark doesn't in any way reject the technology or his wealth. He simply refocuses his intellect, wealth and power to build a super-machine, which is actually a super-weapon, Iron Man, that he can use for rescue instead of for destruction. In the end he triumphs, and he gets to keep all his ill-gotten wealth and power. He is the ultimate American hero-- possessing all the goods of our society and also possessing the moral compass that allows him to make choices for the good of humankind.

In fact, the evil character, Obadiah Stane, another man in the company-- the one who has been running the company while our hero lived the role of spoiled playboy-- steals the technology and makes a BIGGER Iron Man machine, so that we have for a brief moment the David and Goliath battle we also love. Tony Stark, a man who has everything, for that moment has less than his opponent and yet is able to triumph through intellect and wit. When it comes to the warlords in Afghanistan, he can outeweapon them (despite the fact they're using his own company's weapons), as we believe we can outweapon any third world country's army and thus any foreign enemy. But against an American enemy, there is still a greater excess to be battled. It's again not a critique of power itself, but of how much power, and how it is used. (And we should remember that the "power" here is Tony Stark's heart, his very life force.)

This movie could not have come at a better time. It embodies the current situation Americans find themselves in. We are against the war in Iraq, where we clearly are not the force for good and liberation we wanted to believe ourselves to be. In Afghanistan, we hope to be able to triumph over the warlords, but we fear our own weaponry has gotten loose in a way that threatens our own troops.

Back at home we're in a deep financial crisis caused, we believe, by the greed of giant companies. The people at the top of these companies, like Obadiah Stane with his government contracts, have mismanaged them, lining their own pockets and building themselves giant armors of wealth that we, the ordinary people, can't penetrate. We need an Iron Man, someone who has the brains and ingenuity-- and also the insider position-- to rescue us. We're looking via the government for an advisor (and we know Paulson isn't it) to come in and straighten things out. It might be an economic czar, maybe Warren Buffet, maybe Larry Summers-- someone whose own intelligence has put him in a position of wealth (success) but who has also served the country and shown altruistic behavior that makes him trustworthy.

It's mighty appealing, and awfully comforting, isn't it? This vision that lets us keep our power, our military might, our wealth, as long as we use it to save the refugees and ourselves.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Other Artist Friends, pt. 2

Oliver Smith is another artist friend of mine. He lives in Atlanta and his birthday is also June 27, like Susan Mastrangelo's. In my opinion, people born between June 23 and June 30 are often particularly creative. I met Oliver at my second real job, back in 1987 when I lived in Atlanta. Oliver was my first and only real drinking buddy, though he later went cold turkey and stopped, which is very impressive and marked the end of a long bad patch for him. He took me to some great bars in Atlanta, with good juke boxes and cheap whiskey, and one time an honest bar fight broke out.

Oliver was the advertising artist at the Decatur News/Sun, a group of five suburban Atlanta newspapers where I was the promotions director. He taught me what I know about layout and helped me learn to use type and make in-house ads with clip art and put together flyers for sales events. Mostly, though, we spent hours talking about Woody Allen and music and art and just anything that came into our heads. Oliver was born and raised in Savannah, and dipped below the Georgia state line to attend art college at Ringling College (of circus fame) in Florida, then moved to Atlanta. He sometimes used to drive up to the little towns and farms around Athens, Georgia, to see the work of Outsider artists like Howard Finster. Unlike the gallery people who went to rip them off, however, Oliver just wanted to sit and talk to them about making art, and to walk around and see what they made.

When I lived in New York he came to visit me. He'd been to New York once before, with his friend Saul who was from there, but they hadn't really gone anywhere or seen anything. I took Oliver to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it's an experience I'll never forget. Before that, Oliver hadn't really been in a great art museum. He hadn't seen the originals of the paintings he'd studied in college. This was something that had stunned me when we first went to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I'd expected, well, the Art Institute of Chicago. I'd grown up with a world class art museum in my backyard. The idea that they wouldn't have room after room of Monets shocked me. Atlanta was a big city, after all. This museum was written up all over the place. Art, and the presence of an inland ocean like Lake Michigan, were things I'd taken for granted up to that point. Oliver and I went to the High Museum many times, and I was always disappointed. Particularly by the exhibit of framed wood with the knots painted different colors, and the exhibit of altered photocopies of Elvis and the Mona Lisa.

I was really happy when Oliver came to New York and we could go to the Met. Once there, he could barely focus, and kept pointing and saying, "That's a really famous painting. . . That's a really famous paint-- oh look, that's a really famous painting." He stood for awhile before a painting by Van Gogh and said, "Van Gogh stood before this same canvas." He had a game for us to play. In every room we picked out the piece we would most like to have. It sounds simple, but it had never occurred to me to do that in an art museum, and it is really fun.

Although I've lived in New York, Chicago, and Long Beach, California, I hardly ever saw celebrities. They were probably around, but I just didn't notice. But I'll say this, a great place to see celebrities is in art museums. (One highlight like this was seeing Elvis Costello get thrown out of the Art Institute for touching a painting. He was in the Medieval Art with us, while everyone else was looking at the Monets.) And every time I've gone to an art museum with Oliver, we've seen a celebrity. In the Museum of Modern Art at a Francis Bacon show, Richard Gere walked right in front of me. Oliver, who thinks celebrities are everywhere in New York, was not impressed. In Los Angeles, at a Modigliani show at LACMA, we saw Peter Falk. That was cool.

We used to joke that the newspaper office where we worked would someday return to its original calling as a bowling alley. Someday, we knew, it would close for good. When it did, Oliver went back to school for an M.F.A. in printmaking. He makes prints now, and teaches part-time at Georgia State, and also does a lot of experimental work with video and film. When I visited last Spring he took me to the gallery that shows his work, and the owner was very solicitous of him. Oliver, as always, was exceedingly modest about the whole thing. We walked around and picked out our favorite in each room. We also drove by the old Decatur News/Sun, which is a South Asian jewelry store. In the old parking lot they've built an Indian grocery that was hopping the day we were there.

Last year Oliver also bought a house, in an almost rural neighborhood in Decatur. And that's saying a lot because Atlanta is one of the least rural places in the country, it seems to me. They can't develop it fast enough. It's like ring upon ring upon ring of exurbia with a flashy splash at the center.

Bob Sauro, who I stayed with during my visit, lives in Alpharetta, and is a lawyer in downtown Atlanta. He lives in a large new house in a subdivision in one of the farthest circles. Oliver lives close in, in a working class African American neighborhood. His driveway is at about a 75 degree angle, and his house is well below street level, with a creek in back. He said his neighbor across the street asked him, "How do you like living down in the Hole?" The house is adorable, and he's fixing it up, and being true to its character. The walk-0ut basement is a great studio, filled with layers of equipment and experiments. Both Bob's and Oliver's neighborhoods had the same number of vacant or foreclosed houses. But in Oliver's neighborhood, the abandoned house next door had a tree lying on the roof that no one seemed anxious to remove. In Bob's neighborhood, the vacant new townhomes had security lights on them at night.

I was working in Midtown Manhattan when Oliver visited, and he picked me up early one day from work. My boss, Alan Smith, who had been a vice president for Hill and Knowlton and now ran his own international public relations firm, was telling me something at the front desk when Oliver came in. I hadn't noticed before how strong his Southern accent was. Alan looked at Oliver, looked at me, and his eyes got large. It was not unlike my father's reaction when J.T. Berkley came to our door. But he didn't realize that Oliver is like magic, really. We left the office and went to the Plaza Hotel, where Woody Allen's movie Alice was playing in a little theater on the side that didn't allow refreshments. When the movie was over we walked across the street to the Central Park Zoo to see the seals, where one of the scenes in the film took place. Although I grew up near Chicago, with all that art and all that water, I was really a suburban girl who didn't expect to make it very far from where I started out. I knew there was more out there, but I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to experience it. That's what made and makes hanging out with Oliver special. We both knew right then and there in Central Park we'd made it somewhere we hadn't ever expected we could go.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deer Season

This weekend was the opening of deer season. Last year I spent the first weekend in November, the deer season opener, down in Madison, Minn., in a yurt. I'd been looking for a place to get away and write, thinking of something along the lines of a fishing cabin. Something cheap, simple, but with a view. I asked around and a woman I worked with recommended her aunts' yurt. Her aunts, Kay and Annette Fernholz, are both School Sisters of Notre Dame, but they had moved back to the family farm, taking care of their aged parents, who were both close to 100, and running a CSA (community sustained agriculture) and environmental education center.

When I arrived at Earthrise Farm for my stay, the doorbell on the farmhouse didn't seem to work, so I walked in, announcing myself. It was clear that they had forgotten I was coming. And it's a good thing I came early, because they were about to head out for an overnight trip to Mankato. They'd be back late Saturday night. One of the Sisters, Annette, sent a friend who was with her out to make sure the sheets were changed and the yurt was in good shape. The aged parents were both in the hospital, so no one would be around except a man who was living in a luxury motor home on the property and helping them out with chores. He was your basic drifter, and I wasn't sure how I felt being there alone with the drifter on the farm, but what was I going to do? It turned out this man was lovely, retired and widowed, and drove in this luxury vehicle from place to place as people asked, helping out in exchange for occasional meals. He was getting ready to move on at the end of the week to his winter stop, in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan.

Both sisters, Annette and Kay, showed me the yurt, which was ample, and warm, and also crowded to the gills with the goods of a certain type of new-age "womyn spirituality," books and prints, yoga tapes, and other stuff. It had a comfortable futon, a good table and chair, a reading chair, a port-o-potty so I wouldn't have to go to the main house to use the facilities in the night, and a large braided rug. It also had a hot plate, microwave, and small fridge. They gave me some tomato soup they'd made, bread, and eggs for breakfast, and they were gone.

Knowing what I now know about nuns, I'd have to say these two were somewhat typical of my recent experience. For one, they were ambitious, and in over their heads. In addition to the care of their parents, they were farming several acres and had lots of chickens. The drifter spent a lot of time working out where the chickens lived, bringing the barn up to a level that would allow them to survive the winter. The organic farming was finished for the season, of course. But the most prominent feature on the property was a giant old one room schoolhouse that they'd bought for $1 and had moved to the property. It was a truly stunning building, and it sat out front on a foundation they'd somehow managed to raise the funds to build. They were hoping to turn it into an environmental education center, although they also had a few classrooms currently running in a long low building back by the yurt.

I went into the schoolhouse that Saturday. It was stunning, and in what seemed like nearly original condition. The windows let in a lot of light. Two walls were made out of slate, chalk boards, and some words of encouragement and hope for the building were written on them in chalk. The floors were made of wide oak boards. The sisters said they couldn't use the building as it was, because it was full of lead paint that would have to be removed. It would also clearly be difficult to heat. And the plumbing was shot. There was a reason the town of Garfield, Minn., which had used the building as a town hall, had sold it for $1. And there was good reason for the two sisters to buy it and move it to their farm. They had fallen in love with it. They had seen possibility there.

That night I played around with a tarot deck in the yurt based on finding one's totem animals.

Kay and Annette are in their 60s, and spent 40 years with the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn. before returning to their parents' 240-acre farm for this endeavor. They made sure I came over for Sunday dinner after church, and they cooked up an incredible ham dinner. We talked about bishops and the local priest, who was such a blessing to them, a kind and intelligent man. We trashed George W. Bush and his policies, and hoped for better times. We wondered at an America that would elect him twice. I'm sure this last election has made them happy. Their conservative bishop has also moved on, and the man who is replacing him seems gentler, more reform-minded and "Vatican II" in his orientation. Like the beloved Bishop Lucker two bishops before him.

I'd gone to the Mass in Madison on Saturday night. The Catholic church was small, and crowded, though I suspect the town, proudly claiming to be the "Lutefisk Capital of the World" is mostly Lutheran. The priest served three parishes, so that was the only Mass for this small town (pop. 1700). The priest was indeed a nice man, comfortable with the community, and gave a good homily. After Mass I'd decided to drive into South Dakota, which was only 10 miles farther west, to see what I could see. South Dakota is notoriously empty. I passed one more small town in Minnesota before I hit the border, and then nothing. I drove for another five miles or so, and thought I saw the lights of a town, but when I got up close it was only the lights of two giant combines out harvesting in the fields. So I kept driving, and I did hit the town of Revillo, South Dakota. It has a grain elevator, and a school, a small grocery store, and not much else. The population, if I remember correctly, was 206. The place was completely dark, and it was eerie to see my headlights go out over the buildings as I turned around and drove back out of town. You really can't imagine spaces like that until you see them, just flat prairie and dark going on to the horizon. When I got back to Madison I stopped at the Casey's to buy gas, and went inside to pay. The place was being run by a very chatty, bright-eyed teenager, who tried to make small talk with two young men in camouflage coming in from the first day of deer season. The young men weren't very responsive. Then I went through the drive-thru of the Dairy Queen. There is always a Dairy Queen, no matter the size of the town. This was also being run by articulate, happy teenagers.

In fact, I'd stopped at a rural grocery store on my way down to Madison when I missed a turn, and what struck me the most was that all these little businesses seemed to be run by bright, articulate, seemingly happy teenagers. There were three of them in this small country store, where one of them offered me a free sample of some pastry. Ican't say I've ever seen so many happy teenagers as I've seen in rural Minnesota. I asked the girl at the check-out if she'd be working the next day, Saturday, too. She said yes, but not at the store. She'd be out with her dad working, and she looked at me and said, "Where are you from?" When I told her she nodded, and didn't elaborate, knowing I wouldn't know her father or his business. I'm sure they wanted to get out of that little town as fast as they could, but it was astonishing that they didn't seem bored, or dull, or flattened out in any way. They seemed full of personality and engaged with the world around them. As, I must say, is my friend who is from there, whose aunts run Earthrise Farm and manage the yurt.

Sisters Kay and Annette, who sent me on my way with a bag of canned produce-- more tomato soup, some gourds, and jelly. I took a pass on what looked like fetal chickens in jars.

This year, it was equally cold and desolate looking outside on this, the first weekend of deer season. And I remembered the yurt where I hunkered down last year and wrote quite a bit of poetry, though nothing that gelled or got finished, and had a little adventure.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Other Artist Friends, pt. 1

I want to post links to the work of two other artist friends who are very dear to me. One, Susan Mastrangelo, lives in Brooklyn and teaches art at The Buckley School on the Upper East Side. She has made art her whole life. When I lived in Brooklyn and would go to her studio, I always loved to see her new work and was amazed at how rapidly her work developed and changed. And I also saw the heartbreak of being an artist in New York through her. When I met her she primarily made sculpture. And there came a time when her studio, cut down smaller and smaller as rents continuously rose, was too full of work. In order to make room for the new work, she was dissembling and getting rid of old work, some of which had never been shown outside of her studio. When you live in New York City, it takes a lot of faith to make sculpture. It's not even something you can really give to your friends, whose apartments are as small as your own.

Susan's work can be seen at Her work has always struck me as quite autobiographical, and whimsical. It is beautiful and melancholy. I don't think she likes it when people say her work is sad. That has never bothered me. I have one of her prints, a portrait, which seems both sad and autobiographical, hanging beside my desk. What has kept me from hanging it in other rooms is that I messed up the framing. I had it professionally framed, but too tightly around the print. It needs room to breathe. I always feel bad about trapping the woman in the frame and I need to have it redone.

Susan was born on June 27, and I was born on June 25. We were both at Yaddo in the summer of 1990 and there was a party to celebrate the birthdays. It was more an excuse to get the serious drinking of summer started, I think, and just to have a party, than it was about us. A lot of people were in transition. Susan Mastrangelo had only been there a few days-- she was mostly there in July, and I was leaving in a few days, having been there three weeks in June. The party was held at a composer's studio that was out in the woods, in a sort of stone tower, with a bridge over a small moat. The party was as magical as everything else about that place. I remember strawberries and champagne, and dancing. But mostly what I remember was the walk back. A few of us women, tipsy and happy, walked home together and it was absolutely pitch black dark. But there were fireflies too.

In my new manuscript, I have a series of sonnets that answer questions. They are sort of opposites: "When were you loved best?" "When were you loved worst?" "What was the brightest day?" What was the darkest night?" I am playing in them on the figurative and the literal. That night at Yaddo is the setting for

What was the darkest night?

It was in the woods in Saratoga Springs,
after a party with champagne and strawberries we took
a bridge to reach, so dark we could not see
the path, our own white tennis shoes, our hands before our faces.
We could see fireflies, many fireflies, that gave
the dark a depth and height. No moon, no stars,
no light except those pulsing, love-lit tails
and the slow, languorous way they wove through the air.

Their flight was in our blood. And though
it was a month of nightmares,
the month I learned I would never take my life
and just how close I could come, I almost cried for joy
in that darkness. My laughter went up through the invisible trees
like birdsong, a flock of doves released.

I am not bothered by dark art, by melancholy art. That was a dark time for me, the spring and summer of 1990, when I was facing memories of sexual abuse from my childhood. It was also a great party, and a beautiful night, which I treasure. And once she got back in New York in August, Susan Mastrangelo made good on a promise to call me when she returned to the city, and we've been friends ever since. We're very different people, but somehow it works, and each time I see her or talk to her, I feel like no time has passed.

Lost Things, an Update

Steve found the print by Mary Lum. He didn't so much find it as take it down from where I'd hung it on one wall in Catherine's room, which was going to be my office but when that didn't work he moved his office in there, and put it on another wall. Where my hanging pottery vase by Lisa Carlson had been hanging. I walked in and saw it and said, "Hey, where did you find my Mary Lum print?!"

I guess we can say that chaos still reigns, more or less. But also, most things I lose, I do eventually find.

Jan Richardson, artist and writer

I'm adding a blog called The Painted Prayerbook to my blog list. It's written and illustrated by Jan Richardson. This is one of her collages at left, called "All Souls." She lives in Florida and is an ordained Methodist minister, but mostly she's an amazing artist and a wonderful writer. She's a member of a Methodist Benedictine monastery called St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery that has its home here in St. Joseph at the residence of Mary Stamps. Mary also works at Saint John's School of Theology, and is kind enough to always forward me the Savage Chickens cartoons when they're about poetry. Last winter Mary forwarded me a few of Jan's books to see, and I immediately bought two-- one on Lent and one called The Intimate Apocalypse about the book of Revelation. The images are amazing, and the text is rich and well-written. This is a woman who does not need an editor-- every word counts. She also must be living right because I know she has a busy schedule, and keeps herself fed and clothed and traveling as a freelancer, and yet she also lives a life that allows for regular, meaningful meditation on spiritual things, and time and inspiration to make consistently gorgeous and complex art. Last year she had a blog during Advent, and it looks like she will do it again this year. I plan on reading every entry.

I met Jan this past summer. She was in town and we met at Bo Diddley's sandwich shop-- halfway between our two monasteries (which are about 6 blocks apart). I'd been an advocate of a book she'd written that was out of print and that I thought Liturgical Press should publish. But I was no longer in a position to help (I probably never was, actually) and so we were meeting as two artists. Well, it was either a week before my wedding or a week after it. I had started my new job less than a month before. "Overwhelm" does not begin to describe my state of mind. And I was not able to talk at all about plans for my own writing in the future-- I had none.

Jan was quite generous about listening to what was going on in my life. And I was of course very interested to hear about her projects. At the same time, that meeting was a sign to me of how quickly things had turned on their head. I was not in the same place I'd been when we'd exchanged e-mails less than six months before. She also had experienced major life changes in that time. Yet I couldn't help feel that whereas mine had thrown me into chaos and unsettled me, she was calm and steady.

It might be why I am looking forward to reading Jan's blog this Advent. There is a calm, a centeredness, and a thoughtfulness. And the art is always astonishing and beautiful. If for nothing else, visit her web page, and look around at the collages and charcoal.