Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kennedy School

This year a new elementary school opened in St. Joseph. It is the one thing that breaks our otherwise unobstructed prairie views. The lights at night are like a little shopping center in the distance. It bothers Steve more than it has me. I figure development out there is inevitable. If anything, the school has a lot of land (75 acres) and so the development might be limited. I don't mind people building schools so much.

We rode out to see it on our bikes in September. There's a nice bike path, making a long loop past the few remaining farms south of downtown. Steve's chief complaint is that it more or less is a death knell for the Catholic school, the St. Joseph Church Lab School (K-6) (Steve did the illustration on their home page). The truth is, the lab school isn't exactly thriving. Old Kennedy Elementary, which was across the street from the Catholic School, monastery and college, had overflowed into several temporary buildings to handle overcrowding. The town itself is growing, and fewer parents are sending their children to Catholic school.

I was at the new school again last week for the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce meeting. I went to represent the Sisters, meet the people who run the local newspaper, and I thought maybe meet some other businesspeople as well. The other people at Chamber, however, weren't that friendly. I asked people their names and where they worked, and they stuck to the basics, and didn't inquire of me in return. It also cost me $7.00 for a school lunch that consisted of "beef dippers," a dixie cup of shredded lettuce, a scoop of au gratin potatoes, and a slice of pumpkin bread.

Still, when we took our places at the shiny library table with our brand new navy blue trays in the sunny library, two men started talking to each other. One, the insurance guy, asked the other, a construction guy, if there had been an elementary school in St. Joseph before the old Kennedy was built in the 1960s.

"Nope," he answered.

"Just the Catholic school?"

"Just the lab school. All the kids in town went there."

"Huh?" I said. "Where did the public school kids go?"

"There weren't any public school kids."

"Do you mean they were bussed to St. Cloud or another school?"

"No, they were all Catholic. There weren't any busses. All the children who lived in St. Joseph went to the Catholic school."

"So did the federal government subsidize the Catholic school then?"

"No. Everyone was Catholic."

"That's not possible," I said. "I mean, the federal government had to provide some option for public school."

"No, there were no public school children in St. Joseph."

"That's not really possible," I said. I mean, that school wasn't built in the 1920s, when it might have been the case, but the 1960s.

"I lived here then. It is."

"So if you weren't Catholic, you should live somewhere else, huh?"

"People just knew it. It wasn't an issue."

I thought about following up with a statement about the federal government deciding not to educate the children of St. Joseph, MN, but decided not to bother. It did strike me as odd that I was there representing the largest provider of Catholic school teachers in this area for the last 150 years.

Anyway, at that point it was time for the principal to show us all the fancy new technology in the room. She talked about what a good deal they'd gotten on everything, since prices went down after the bonds passed. Since it was a matter of "use the money or lose it," they were able to get all sorts of smart technology for the classrooms. And implement all kinds of additional "green" initiatives in the school. In fact, you can read about it on their website, or watch the clip she showed us that appeared this fall on CNN Money. I think the frugal, unassuming, mostly German Catholic Minnesotans in the room were a little taken aback. It's all nice, they agreed, but a little embarrassing. It was also hard to take the talk she gave using the PowerPoint projector on why we need to vote on a levy for more money for schools. I got it, and it also began to answer my othe question. The school district is huge, and includes St. Cloud (so yes, students in St. Joseph could attend St. Cloud schools). We would be voting to improve education mostly for St. Cloud students-- which I'm all for. (In the principal's PowerPoint, the argument she made was that if the levy didn't pass, the district's boundaries would be redrawn and students from other areas would be bussed into our shiny new school. She said this would make class sizes larger, but I didn't see any classes that day that weren't swimming in the new spaces.)

Next we got up and embarked on a tour of the school, which included a lot of information about the excellent architecture and design, another demo in a science classroom of the microscope/Elmo and deluxe sound system with wireless microphone in front of about a dozen quiet seventh graders. There was also a Hazmat emergency shower in the back of the room-- which looked way more tempting for mischief than any fire extinguisher.

But back to that public/Catholic school question. Because St. Joseph has no middle or high school to this day, Catholic or otherwise. The students have several options, including large Catholic schools in St. Cloud and three different high schools in the district, one suburban (St. Cloud) and two rural (Albany or Holdingford).

However, there was indeed a time when this town had a public (district) school, and all the teachers were nuns. So anyone would think it was a Catholic school, but it was a public school. Steve has an elaborate spiel on it, that he got from research for an article he wrote in a parish booklet a few years ago. I'm tracking down the sources, but meanwhile wanted to post this near my piece about Jon Hassler. I'll return to it, though, when I have a better picture of the situation.

It is true, to this day, that public school students are "released" during the school day to attend religious instruction at the Catholic schools in the area. I first heard about this from a coworker at the press who lives in a very small town called Eden Valley (pop. 954). She talked about teaching religious education and how the public school children who are Catholic walk down to the Catholic church during the school day for religion classes. This arrangement also still exists in the town I used to live in, Cold Spring (pop. 3000), where the Catholic elementary school children take a bus to the Catholic school for religious instruction during the school year. The middle school children can walk over, because their building is next door to the church, the former Catholic high school.

Phillies Win!

I was happy to see the Phillies win in front of that tough crowd last night. (I mean, when Tampa Bay hit that homerun to tie it up in the 7th, the silence was eerie. I didn't see the homerun ball get thrown back on the field, but I presume it was rejected by the fans. But seriously, not a single Tampa Bay fan in that stadium? More likely-- smart enough not to cheer.)

It made me think of my grandmother, who was a huge Phillies fan, and tough as nails. I can still hear her yelling at Mike Schmidt to get his act together in her living room on August afternoons. I don't have any poems about the Phillies, but I did write one in 2005 after the White Sox won the World Series and my father was out East in New Jersey burying his mother. So here it is...

I Imagine My Father after the Funeral:
a poem in 14 innings

My father buried his mother’s ashes
and that night stayed up late to watch
the White Sox battle fourteen innings
until after 2 a.m. to get a runner home.

It was the World Series, Game 3,
and he’d waited as long as anyone,
but now it seemed, like so much else,
he couldn’t remember why he’d wanted it.

Seventeen pitchers and runners left stranded
on both sides, the bases so far apart
and no spaces at all in that infield
even if you could make contact.

He was glad it was not the Phillies
his mother used to curse on the screen,
no praise at all when they won,
another beer, the power off.

Baseball will break your heart, the long haul.
He watched the wide face and white hair
of the former First Lady in the stands
beside her son, rooting for Houston.

Everyone at the funeral was proud of him
for having done what was right
when she had never done a single thing
but wrong by him, but still he was her son.

What dogged loyalty even she inspired,
when there was no money to be willed,
not even a Cadillac or the cubic zirconium
she won for S&H from Publisher’s Clearing House.

From the bench and bullpen are called
relievers and pinch-hitters one by one,
looking wild-eyed and young and stupid,
on the edge of moments great and small.

The ball flies so fast and strikes the mitt
so hard—how can anyone make contact?
How can anyone hope to send it straight
or curved or fast or any way and hit the mark?

It was the last duty, and though his name
had been the one she had remembered
longest, his face had made her smile at the end,
was that love, or even what he’d wanted?

When the unlikeliest of pinch hitters approached,
the replay showed the great surprise of that contact.
What part is luck when you’ve prepared
your whole life—is this what is meant by grace?

The funeral dinner was pre-paid and pre-planned,
so they ate well and his half-sister said what a waste
but still she signed every paper
willingly that didn’t cost her anything to sign.

It was my mostly quiet father who had yelled
until I learned the one cardinal rule of baseball:
never take a third strike. With two strikes,
good pitch or bad, go out and meet it, or miss, but swing.

Actually my father went to bed after the tenth,
no one to watch the game with him.
The game, he said, it started so late, and lasted
so long, it felt like it might never end.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Jon Hassler, Last Catholic Novelist?

Jon Hassler was a novelist who lived and worked in this area for his whole career, and whose novels are more or less set in this area (fictionalized) and the other places he lived-- Brainerd and Bemidji. He died in March of this year after a long illness. I never met him, but my father-in-law was his classmate at St. John's University (MN), and he taught for a long time at the college. One of the things I've been doing these past two years as I've contemplated what it means to be a writer in Central Minnesota, to cast my lot with this place and this people, has been reading his major novels, considering what they have to say about this place, about Catholicism, and about the Catholic imagination and Catholic writers.

A wonderful appreciation considering this question by Andrew Greeley appears in the current issue of America. In it is the following paragraph:

"It may occur to the reader how many of the authors I have mentioned are products of the (German) Catholicism of Minnesota centered in St. John’s Abbey (which includes such Celts as Coleman Barry and Eugene McCarthy). The Jesuit sociologist Joseph Fichter once remarked that the centers of creativity in American Catholicism seemed to be concentrated in a triangle that reached from St. John’s to Chicago to Notre Dame. St. John’s pervasive and unique influence on the church in this country, in particular, demands more intense study. The environs and culture of Staggerford, Rookery College, the Abbey Press, Bad Battle River, Pluto, Ostrogothinburg (St. Cloud?) the Clementine Fathers, Godfrey Diekmann and Lake Wobegon seem to demand more coordinated and more intense investigation. Perhaps they are also a challenge to Minnesota Catholicism to understand itself while there is still time. I have suggested on occasion to the monks of St. John’s that they are far more important and indeed far better than they think they are."

Many of the names referenced will mean nothing to people outside this culture and place, but like my crash course in S. Thomas Carey, I've had crash courses in Godfrey Diekmann (by his biographer, Kathleen Hughes, RSJ, who was a scholar at the Collegeville Institute with me) and many of the other topics. I live more or less in Staggerford, work at Rookery College, and for the past two years worked at the Abbey Press. This is the heart of Garrison Keillor country, and Keillor often references nearby high schools like Avon and Albany in his monologues. My favorite restaurant is Fisher's Club, an old set-up club of which he is part-owner. You can get very good Beebop a Reebop Rhubarb Pie there, and Powdermilk Biscuits with ice cream. Not to mention the best ribs and walleye in the county.

Eugene McCarthy was a novice at St. John's Abbey for 9 months, and graduated from the prep school and the University. His legacy here is large. I heard Mondale eulogize him at St. John's abbey at a memorial service after his death last year. He was remembered at that service not just as a statesman but as a poet. I believe it was his son who read several of his poems.

In this place, it is sometimes difficult to think about what is yet to be. Especially in the context of the monastery. Three Sisters died this past week, including S. Glenore Riedner who was 106 years old. We are expecting two more deaths by Christmas. Also, Brother Dietrich Reinhardt, until recently the president of Saint John's University, was in the past few weeks diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma-- in his lungs but also in his brain. On Sunday I went to Mass at the Abbey, after a discussion about being an oblate the night before with friends. I found myself in tears, seeing Brother Dietrich up in the choir stalls, gray and fading, but also for the other amazing people I know, Brothers and Sisters, and who I will face losing in the coming years. I don't have much experience with old people-- all my grandparents lived far away. To have bonded with this many people over 70 this quickly and significantly-- adds a certain complexity.

It is hard to think about what is yet to be, but it is also hard even to think about what IS NOW. I know that there are artists in the area, and I know that I myself am reaching toward something. I know that this place feeds artists and writers, still. I am a writer who for the past few years has been transitioning to a place that is much larger than myself. In some ways it is larger than the other places I've lived-- including Chicago, Southern California, New York. In those places, one could get caught up with a "scene," or strive to belong to a group that was "making it" in the arts. There was a lot in the way of social interaction and development based on shared ideas. It was certainly easier to build a community of artist and intellectual friends. But this place shapes people. This place rushes up to meet you, and then takes a very long time to absorb and get to know. There is something more going on here. I'm afraid sometimes that I've come too late to live deeply into it, to find the stories I want to tell in my writing and become the person who can tell them.

I can't tell you the number of astonishing things that happen to me around here. One I have yet to write about is an encounter I had last week at the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the new school. That is what I had planned for my next essay, but then this essay in America appeared. Jon Hassler.

My own impression of Hassler's novels is that they are really enjoyable, very readable, but ultimately they don't rise to the level of greatness. They're episodic, character-driven, solid regional literature. They don't have the depth or brilliance of a Flannery O'Connor or James Joyce, or even the significance of Graham Greene's work. It surprises me that people who are not Catholics, or not Minnesotans, would take much interest in them. I admire greatly his ability to find and develop characters like Agatha McGee and Father Frank Healey. There are things about the books that have stayed with me. I think I most admire that he was able to write novels rooted in place and his Catholic identity, assemble a body of work that is consistent. I think it was that he was able to accomplish his life-- get published, have confidence in these characters and his own writing, keep doing it-- that I'm interested in most. The fact that Loyola University Press has brought out two of his large novels in their Loyola Classics series, claiming they rise to the level of "masterpieces of Catholic fiction from some of the greatest authors of the twentieth century" strikes me as hyperbolic, especially in the case of Hassler (yes, I know it's marketing text, but still). I'm even surprised that Greeley would put him in the company he does or make such great claims for him.

I spent a large part of my year at the Collegeville Institute trying to get people to explain the "Catholic imagination" to me. Reading Catholic authors, poets, essays, criticism, the famous work by David Tracey that Greeley mentions on "the analogical imagination." Catholicism, he claims, is special because it is embodied, and it is image-based. It shapes the imagination by action of ritual, by association with all the religious imagery. Well yes, ok.

Hassler is dead. And McCarthy. And B. Godfrey Diekmann. S. Thomas Carey. And Sister Mariella Gable, a poet I never heard about until Greeley's article but now have to go find. And in a way an entire way of life is coming to an end before my eyes. I have a strong symbol of it in the new public elementary school behind our house. (About which, more later.) The challenge, though, is to be part of what is now, even if it is an autumn of sorts. And to be a part of what is to come. Because there are still a lot of us artists left out here. Some of us Catholics. I'm paying attention.

You can read the whole article about Jon Hassler by Andrew Greeley in America online here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Hi everyone. I just redid my settings so that anyone can comment on anything they read here. I guess the default setting was only "blogger" members could leave a comment. You can comment anonymously too, if you want. However, I also set up the "moderate comments" feature, so I will be able to approve or delete the comment before it is posted. I'm not really interested in politics more than other topics on this blog, but I'm sure those postings will draw more comments. I'm happy to hear them, and even to publish them for a brief period, even/especially if they don't agree with me. If you want to make a comment just to me, just tell me not to publish it, and I won't. Just want to give people an easy way to respond.

Aint technology great?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Michelle Bachmann

OK. I was going to stay away from straight politics, but I can't help it. Because Michelle Bachmann, who imploded on Hardball with Chris Matthews a week ago, is my congresswoman.

Last Saturday, before her television appearance, I saw a house with two signs out front: one for McCain and one for Tinklenberg. "Thank goodness!" I said. Nothing puts me over the edge like Michelle Bachmann, who I have felt is an embarrassment to my district for her two years in office. When she was elected she seemed a little off-base, because she was heavily promoted by evangelical James Dobson and said some things that were at the far end of what I dislike about the religious right. Things about intelligent design in the schools and God calling her to run for congress, to name two biggies.

Once elected, she embarrassed us almost immediately by her performance at the State of the Union address. She grabbed George W. Bush's lapel and wouldn't let go until she got a picture, two autographs, and a kiss. The late-night comedians had a field day. Last year she did something more annoying to me, sponsoring the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. It wasn't so much against fluorescent bulbs on account of the mercury or anything like that. It was railing against environmentalists and liberals who want to take away our FREEDOM to choose whatever lightbulbs we want by forcing us to buy fluorescent bulbs. The rhetoric was so bad. It seemed such a stupid waste of time and energy-- hers and mine. So I followed this race from the beginning, and for the first time in my life I gave money to a local candidate.

I thought surely after people saw Bachmann's performance at the Republican National Convention, where she used a teleprompter for the first time, awkwardly turning from side to side at scheduled moments and going on and on in her annoyingly shrill voice, there would be a dip in her popularity. The speech was sort of a primer of Republican principles. Free market, liberty, small government, etc. Nothing wacky, but nothing very interesting either. But I seemed the only one annoyed by her. (Or maybe the only one watching...)

She was winning this race something like 80% to 14%. Now, to be sure, her opponent has none of her charisma. El Tinklenberg strikes me as a good, middle-of-the-road progressive DFL-er. He's very interested in environmental issues. He can speak to farmers and unions. But he is stiff. He doesn't have much fire in him. There was great enthusiasm for him at the DFL caucus in my county, but I could see it wasn't translating. That's why I was so happy to see those lawn signs.

Bachmann did have a dip in popularity when the economic bailout/rescue vote passed. She herself voted against the bailout package, as is expected given her free market principles, and I don't fault her for it. I don't know if the dip in popularity was part of a general move against the incumbants, or if it was because my district actually thought the bailout was a good idea. I gave another small donation to help the momentum.

Also, I suspect the dip prompted her to have more public appearances. The RNC put more money into her campaign. Until last week.

Last week she went on Matthews's show and, well, did what Michelle Bachmann does. Followed with hard rhetoric and not much thought the line of questioning. She did the Bill Ayers pit bull thing and talked about being concerned about Obama's anti-American friends and ergo his anti-American views. And said congresspersons and sentators should all be scrutinized by the media to see how many are anti-American. It sounded very McCarthyesque to a lot of people. Colin Powell, in his endorsement of Obama, referred to her specifically and said this kind of talk had to stop. Congresspeople and senators as anti-American? It's totally absurd. Of course it is.

She didn't act fast to dig herself out. She stood by her sentiments, if not her words, then she tried calling it "gotcha" politics, straight from the Sarah Palin lexicon and playbook. And now, well, the RNC has pulled all its funding from her campaign, and she has expressed regrets.

El Tinklenberg managed to raise $400,000 nationally in 24 hours after her interview. And in the past week he has received over $1.4 million dollars for his campaign from donations across the nation.

What's that about?? One thing is certain, it's about the extraordinary ability to raise funds nationally over the internet this election. showed how it could be done in 2004, and the Democrats have done it phenomenally this campaign.

But I think there's something else going on. I think it has to do with Sarah Palin. Democrats are upset with her candidacy, and with her pit bull speeches. She seems to be hate-mongering, spreading lies and smearing our candidate. But I think many people are reluctant to say anything. They don't want to be elitest, to criticize this charismatic woman. They don't want to alienate people. They don't want to be too harsh either.

And here comes Michelle Bachmann, a brunette with a large family and commitment to service (23 foster chlidren), a hockey mom of sorts. And she is principled in her Republican stance on things. A Christian. A Rove protege. She appeals to the base, right? But she is also fair game. What does it hurt for people across the country to attack her, to be downright ugly about it, to call her names, to point out how absurd her statements were? Heck, let's give some money and turn this thing around. They can expel Michelle Bachmann and feel good about it. And feel insulated, too-- because really, what she said was really over the top.

So I think it's misdirected venom, in large part. But I'm heartened to see the letters to the editor in the St. Cloud Times show many people in the district seem to have gotten the message. Many, many Bachmann signs have come down, and I don't think it's been vandalism.

Elwin Tinklenberg is a steady, centrist guy, funny name or no. He'll do ok by us.

My Black and White America: Michael Parks and Barack Obama

For about a year I’ve been wanting to write about Michael Parks. I've written about him before, but it hasn't been very cohesive. This time I was prompted when my mother said she was thinking about voting for Barack Obama, because he reminded her so much of Michael Parks. My mother has never voted for a democrat in her life.

Moreover, my mother was raised in the 1940s and 1950s in a fairly racist environment. It was her mother, my grandmother, who took me aside while visiting us in the south suburbs of Chicago to talk to me about her views on the mixing of the races. She didn’t approve. Blacks should marry blacks and whites should stick to their own kind, too. She didn’t even fully approve that my aunt was raising her children as “Italians.” My mother was at that point raising us as Protestants, having left the Catholic Church when I was twelve, and so we were in trouble already as far as my grandmother was concerned. During that visit I also heard her say, “I’ve never been anywhere that Catholics weren’t in the majority.” My mother’s evangelical environment struck her as quite strange. Later I would see what my parents had done in a new light—in their early twenties they’d left their families in South Jersey and moved when my father’s job transferred him to Chicago. They’d moved to Park Forest because of the availability of cheap housing, and I think also for the promise it always offered of a solid community and the ability to move up, neighborhood by neighborhood.

My parents moved into the middle class, and despite their conservative politics, they were living in a place that was known for radicals. Park Forest, Illinois, built in the 1940s as a planned postwar community, was unusual from its founding for its commitment to integration, first of Jews and then of Blacks. It’s history with race was complicated, but in 1976 Park Forest won its second of two “All-America City” awards “for its efforts in housing rehabilitation, fair housing, and racial integration” (America’s Original GI Town, 134). Our block of Farragut Street, our home in Park Forest after we moved up from the townhouses, was a perfect example. Across the street were Cathy and Michael Zilverberg, whose mother was black and father was white (and Jewish). They lived next door to Keith Smith, whose mother was British. In the house behind ours lived my brother’s best friends for a time, Freddy and Frankie Wang, before they moved back to Taiwan. Two doors down from us was Michael Parks, who was black. Cathy Zilverberg, Keith Smith, Michael Parks and I were inseparable for years. Cathy taught me to double-dutch, and we spent hours beneath Keith’s window waiting for him to finish practicing his horn. We played Kick the Can, 500, every imaginable kind of tag, and even chicken fights, with the girls on the boys’ shoulders. We had a science lab, a clubhouse, and we all learned the electric slide in Cathy’s living room.

No doubt my grandmother had noticed that my best friend, Michael Parks, was a black boy. In fact, with only two exceptions I can think of, all the boys who came to my house to visit me were black. From Phillip in the fourth grade up through J.T. Berkley who worked with me at Ponderosa Steakhouse during high school, unsolicited they came. When J.T. showed up at the door, in a steel WWI helmet, army jacket, and carrying a cane, dark-skinned, with a voice several octaves below any other high schoolers I knew and a full beard, my father sounded downright exasperated when he called me: “Susan, someone’s at the door for you,” before turning and retiring back to his spot watching sports on t.v. from the living room couch.

I was lucky growing up to have many best friends, but none of them held a candle to Michael Parks. He moved in when we were in third grade. Before him, my friend Kelly had lived in that house, and it was my first experience of a friend moving away. I hoped with all my heart that another child my age would move in, and I could not have gotten luckier that it was Michael who did. Michael and his brother Anderson (Andy) were being raised by their single mother, Lois Parks, who was a school teacher in Chicago. She is a heroic woman in my eyes, having somehow bought that house and brought her sons up in a good school district, with the opportunity to go to college. I have no idea what her commute was, but it was surely long.

Michael was a huge fan of after-school television, an interest it was important to him that we shared. And I was game—very happy to discuss which of the superheroes was the best in the Super Friends (?) half hour, and lament the fact that there were so few Captain America episodes in the rotation. It was because of Michael I had the terrifying experience of so many After School Specials, none scarier than the two-part edition of Sybil with Sally Field, the flying nun, and that I learned my Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Jeanie references.

And given all the television we watched, it’s amazing how much activity we accomplished. Michael decided my house was the best for Kick the Can, and he was right. Michael was almost assuredly behind the scheme to build the clubhouse in my backyard when we got our hands on two boards from a broken ping pong table. We used the fence for the other two walls, and for weeks we trolled the neighborhood on Thursday afternoons, “garbage picking” for our clubhouse.

Michael always wanted us to enter contests—especially if there were cash prizes. He talked me into a Halloween contest in 1976, when we were 12. My costume, as always, was highly conceptual. I was the “Spirit of ’76,” a plain white ghost with a sign saying Spirit of ’76. (I did not win in the Most Creative category, as I’d hoped.) Michael was a robot, a costume he’d made out of an astonishing number of boxes cut to fit every part of his body. It was hard to move around in it, and even harder to see out of it. At the end of the contest we sat and watched as a perky woman announced: “First Place goes to—Michael Parks!” The robot moved his head around until he got her in his sight and then headed off. But she was already moving to the other side of the stage. “Michael Parks?” He stopped, adjusted his box until he found her, and began walking again. Still she didn’t notice him, and moved: “Michael Parks?” waving his prize check in the air. The audience laughed, as again the robot froze and tried to find the woman with his money. This got her attention, and they managed to meet center stage.

A few days later, on Halloween proper, I went to pick Michael up for trick-or-treating after school, and he was alone at the house. As I was coming to the door a group of small children came running up and pushed in front of me. “Trick or Treat!” they yelled. Michael took out a giant bowl of candy and held it out to them. Then he stood there, his mouth a wide “o” of surprise, while the kids scooped handfuls of candy into their bags. When they’d left, and I was telling him, “Michael! You don’t hold out the bowl! You give them the candy!” He replied, “I think they were here already.”

That was Michael. No one was more generous, more open-hearted. Michael was kind and funny, and he was also my biggest and earliest fan. In fourth grade our elementary school got a new principal and with him, a student council. Michael ran for Treasurer and I ran for Secretary. Only 4-6 graders could run for office. We were young and my race was, as it were, contentious. Michael, though, tirelessly worked on my campaign: “Think Pink! Vote Sink!” “You’ll turn pink if you don’t vote for Sink!” were two of his favorite slogans. He made posters for me on his own time, at home, and brought them to school to hang up.

Michael got me to join 4-H with him, because instead of badges you could earn cash money: $1.50 for each unit completed. Write a speech: get $1.50. Learn to cook five dishes: $1.50. He figured we could easily earn $10 a year doing things we’d like to do anyway. I learned that I did not at all like to do embroidery.

It was also Michael who, somehow, found out we could audition to be in the summer play at the local community college. I hadn’t thought he was interested in plays—I was already involved in the theater run out of the basement of the Park Forest Public Library, and he’d never shown an interest. I think he just thought it would be a fun thing to do. And we’d make friends. I never would have tried out for something so far from home—too far to get to on my bike. I didn’t like to ask my mom to drive me places, and I knew it was hard for his mother to drive us too. That first summer we auditioned, at the end of eighth grade, Michael was cast in a small role, but I was not. Then I got a phone call a week before the play began. I was next on the list, and someone dropped out, so could I do a part—3 lines and some stage action. I said yes! Michael already had friends there, but he welcomed me and introduced me as quite the special addition to the cast. Those plays would become a very significant part of my teen years.

We did two more summer plays, landing bigger parts each time. In the last year the play was a kabuki-style production of “The Little Peach Boy” and Michael was Momotoro, the peach boy. I was the Ferocious Dog. It was easy to see this play was a version of the Wizard of Oz, and I had landed my dream role, a version of the Cowardly Lion. Michael was scrawny, with a big afro and knobby knees, and a sight in his tights and kimono, sword outstretched. He led us—dog, pheasant, and monkey—to the village to kill the ogre.

One of the unusual things about that summer theater at Governor’s State College in 1977-1981 was that it was decidedly interracial. Cross-racial casting was the norm, like when Sleeping Beauty was played by a black girl and had two white parents, and I was cast as a fairy princess twin—with my black twin sister. We remarked on that twin situation between ourselves, but it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was my black twin who pointed out: “Look at Sleeping Beauty’s parents—white!” I hadn’t noticed. Sleeping Beauty was played by Celene Evans, obviously the most beautiful and talented girl there, and that’s why she’d gotten the part. Who else could have played the princess?

I think in retrospect that the interracial nature of the casting is how Michael found out about the plays. There were no black kids in the theater program I attended in town. (I’m cringing now, wondering if I ever invited Michael to join me.) Very few, if any, black kids auditioned for plays at our junior high or high school. The few black kids who were in choir, or on speech team, were smart and pretty much outcasts from black society in our school. Because I was in the majority, I didn’t have to be aware of things like this. And I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t really think about what it meant to my best friend, Michael.

In junior high, of course, I knew what was happening. Our happily integrated block was breaking up. We were going our separate—race-determined—ways. But the forces seemed outside my control. It seemed like the way things had to be, the way things are. My job—both our jobs—was to negotiate the social system, not to change it.

In the eighth grade, Michael was getting ready for high school by going to parties in other neighborhoods. His brother Andy, who now wanted to be called Anderson, was initiating him into “black culture” in our area. Michael invited me sometimes. He wanted to teach me “the steps,” would demonstrate them on the sidewalk, and he wanted me to come over and listen to Bootsie Collins and the Funkadelics albums. For the first time, though, I declined. I knew he was talking about parties with all black kids, although there’s no way he ever said that. I couldn’t go there with him. Those summer plays were the last place our world was integrated. When we went to high school, I’d see Michael in a few of the honor’s classes he was in, but not in the cafeteria. Not at parties, hang-outs, school plays, speech team, student council. My friends didn’t know him. I hung out with a group of seven girls, and we moved on the periphery of a popular crowd in our quintessentially John Hughes-esque world, dominated by class issues, not race. Michael went to parties in Beacon Hill, in Chicago Heights, in black neighborhoods. He was in the Afro Club. I’d finally see “the steps” in action when he invited me to one of their shows—a “step show,” where I was the only white person in the audience. Not an experience I had very often in high school, where African Americans were 25% of the population.

When he turned fifteen Michael came to our house to use my typewriter to change the date on his birth certificate. He heard Ponderosa, at the end of our block, would hire you for $2.90 an hour but you had to be sixteen. He went off to work and regaled me with the stories of how fun it was, how outrageous it was, how much I was missing. When I turned sixteen I made a half-hearted attempt to get a job at the mall, then joined Michael at Ponderosa. And he was right. It was a blast. It was more money than babysitting (still fifty cents/hour, sometimes seventy-five). I didn’t mind the polyester jumper and flowered headband. I wore my hair in looped braids on either side of my head which I thought of as Dutch, but Michael called me Princess Leia and said I should always wear my Princess Leia hair.

Again I was in a world unfamiliar to most of my classmates. Illegal immigrants and struggling, pregnant girls with their greasy boyfriends or deadbeat husbands were working there. The managers were (with one exception) not good human beings. And there were Mexicans and black boys from Beacon Hill working in the kitchen. One, Dale, from my own high school, rode a motorcycle and was a portrait in despair. He had a broken front tooth and a scar on his face. I was a little frightened of him, but my friend Laura (who I convinced to work there) befriended him. He had one of the worst stories I’d ever heard: his family car broke down on the side of the road and some white rednecks shot and killed his brother and left him for dead in the back seat. Laura did such a good job befriending him that he began to smile when we greeted him, and even talk to us in the kitchen, where we’d go to sneak pieces of cheesecake from the freezer.

Dale was always warning us there was going to be a race riot at school, but he said he’d protect us—if anything went down we should come to his locker. He dubbed us honorary Disciple Queens with the dishwasher nozzle and taught us a gang sign. I understood it was all in fun. When we did see him occasionally in the hall, again he’d break into a broad smile and give us the sign. Race riots were a thing of the past, but they had been severe not too long before we arrived at the school, when there were major controversies over bussing and the composition of a new high school in the district. We heard stories of locked down classrooms and overturned school buses. There was still a full-time policeman on duty. But he was not at all threatening, despite his gun, and I would not say it was a tough school. The fights that broke out were as segregated as everything else.

When we were in grade school, Keith, Michael, Cathy and I used to sometimes go into Ponderosa to get a drink of water from the drinking fountain. It was just the thrill of being in a place we weren’t supposed to go, and the managers would chase us off when they saw us. But Michael also showed us the gunshot holes in the wall outside, and two he said were gunshot holes in the paneled wall inside. And it’s true, Ponderosa was regularly robbed. Part of our training was detailed instructions on what to do in case of a robbery: give them the money, point out anything that might be unusual that could happen—someone coming from the kitchen, for example, through double doors—so no one got hurt. I never experienced a robbery, but Michael did. He walked into the office when a robbery was underway, asked what was going on to the cashier and the manager unloading the safe. The robber had them all take off their clothes and locked the clothes in the safe. It was the suburbs. Then again, bad shit does go down in those suburbs.

It actually never occurred to me to ask if the robber was black or white. I don’t know to this day, but I assumed he was white—or maybe I was told that. Somehow the white people who came in there seemed much more desperate characters than the black folks.

Michael was ambitious. He was set on going to Northwestern University, and that’s where he went. My best friend Kim went there, too. When I went to visit her sophomore year, she got me in touch with Michael. He invited me to an event he was in that night, a show for some occasion, probably Martin Luther King’s birthday. So I found myself in another auditorium, in a sea of black folks with here and there another white person. The show was joyous and, in places, intense. It was political, as the Afro Club show had been. Michael’s mother was there and I sat next to her. At the end we all stood up and joined hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Then Michael came and innocently wanted to know if I’d liked the show, as if it had just been a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland revue. And we went over to his fraternity house, which was of course a black fraternity.

I’ve been in these situations a few times, but more often as the only woman at a primarily gay male event. And the treatment is the same—people falling over themselves to talk to you, to make you welcome, to get you something to drink. I always end up feeling uncomfortable because I so obviously stand out and get special attention. Much the way it is for minorities at white, straight parties I’d imagine. After the party, Michael and I walked out to his car, so he could take me back to Kim’s dorm. I said, “Michael, you have been such a good friend to me. And you have never, ever acted like there was any diff—“

He cut me off. “Stop it,” he said, across the top of the car. “Don’t. Don’t every say that.”


We got into the car and after a brief silence, talked about his classes, my classes, the weather, something else—I don’t remember. I remember it was really cold outside. It was January.

Michael Parks was my best friend. And for much of our childhood, we really did live in a world free of race prejudice. We were aware we were different races. We were proud of it, even. Because of Michael I knew about nappy hair and ashy knees, and I was happy to know those things. It is true that when it was time to play at romance, during fifth grade, Michael paired up briefly with Cathy and I paired up with Keith. But Michael, well, Michael was like my brother—I’d like to think it was more about eros. And I noted that Michael only dated black girls, ones he met at those parties or the Ponderosa.

That also made sense to me. In the world of our high school, interracial dating relegated you into one group or another—invariably it meant a white girl who hung out with the black kids, regardless of her status at school. But I can’t think of any white girls with status who dated black boys. After junior high, there weren’t many black boys around. The ones who “mixed” with us, didn’t date. However, I think both Laura and I secretly had crushes on Gavin Sutton, who was moody and loved early Peter Gabriel era Genesis music and was lead singer in a band that did a few Cars covers and played some (white) parties. But Gavin took off right after high school for college in Mississippi and we never heard from or saw him again. Like Dale, I think in some ways he was humoring us. But I also think he was from the South, and saw the racial barriers in our part of the world more clearly than we could. He saw that there was a limit on our friendships, and dating was out of the question. He saw our quiet, unexpressed racism—though we thought ourselves the opposite.

The truth is, my grade school and high school experience represent what is great about race relations in America and what is awful. But it was a step on America’s journey toward having a black president. I’m 44, and so just a little ahead of me, Barack Obama was growing up in Kansas, and in Hawaii, with a white single mom and white grandparents. I don’t know what his high school was like or who his friends were.

But Barack Obama is the black son of a single mother, and got himself to Harvard Law School. Michael got an MBA and a law degree, and last I heard works for the Chicago Tribune as a lawyer, because it allows him to be home with his young daughters. His wife is a lawyer, too, beautiful, and her name is June. I learned this from my mother, who saw him at a funeral for Marty Zilverberg, Cathy’s brother, who was black, her mother’s child from a first marriage. Marty was among the nicest guys I’ve ever known. My parents read about his death in the paper and showed up at the wake, although they left Park Forest in 1993 and moved to a more rural, much whiter place further west. She said she and my father were the only white people there from the old neighborhood, and how happy Myrtle, Marty’s mother, had been to see them. I was living in California at the time. I tried tracking down Michael after that, left a message, but he didn’t call back.

It had been a long time. And we had parted ways long before. I tell my husband that I miss black people, and that’s why I want to have season tickets to Penumbra theater—just to hear black people, albeit on stage, talk. When I go to Chicago I like to take the train and hear people talk, and go to the Wishbone on Washington Street, which is the most integrated restaurant I know, just to see black people and eat near them. I go to Hyde Park when I get a chance, for soul food if I can get someone to go with me. My friend Kevin Young, a poet who grew up in Kansas too, son of a black father and white mother, who went to Harvard and Stanford and Brown and is an acclaimed poet, he sometimes came to Chicago and would go eat with me in the joints there. Kevin was born in 1968, four years behind me, and has his own story to tell.

I sometimes feel stupid for missing black people. For regretting that the world I grew up in during fourth-eighth grade came to an end, that paths diverged, that I made choices not to go to the step dances—but I know it was impossible. It didn’t happen because of who I was, and because of my perception of what was possible. I was not brave, and that was not my path. Only Michael Parks helped my life stay as integrated as it was for as long as it did.

I feel grateful, though, that there continued to be Affirmative Action efforts at Grinnell College where I went to school, and for Young, Gifted and Black Gospel Choir at Grinnell that fostered black culture, that gave black students who landed in Iowa from Hyde Park in Chicago and elsewhere a place to feel safe, experience their culture, apart from me and my middle-class white John Hughes suburban ways. When people were up in arms about the choir keeping whites out, I said: “Please. Do we have to be everywhere?”

And so it doesn’t surprise me that now, with my generation growing into our middle age, is the time for Barack Obama to be president. That it begins with my generation. Because we grew up with Michael Parks in our neighborhoods. We grew up where Michael Parks lived. And though we were just children, and only did our part innocently, as children will, it is because of the people before us who made sure that anyone who excluded a black person from anything would be ashamed of it, and made sure the schools got integrated, albeit tenuously and not in the lunchrooms so much, or even sometimes in the classrooms just then. It is because of Temmie Gilbert, the director at Governor’s State, who somehow got the word out about her plays and her casting policies to black kids and white kids, even though she herself lived in tony Flossmoor! It is because of the people of Park Forest who were committed to interracial neighborhoods, and the people of my block, where everyone welcomed any of the kids into their home, including my parents who were not raised that way but managed to learn it—even the children who showed up in combat hats and army jackets, even pesky little Ricky Payne who got in fights and had mean dogs—but was no worse than the troubled white kid next door who smoked pot and set my brother’s Halloween decorations on fire and peeped at my sister through our bedroom window. Less worse in many ways.

It’s because of my experience, that it feels exactly right that now is the time for a black president in the United States. And that the man who is running reminds me, and reminds my mother, of Michael Parks. And it is because of my experience that I’m not counting on a victory until all the votes are cast and counted on election day. Let us see how far we’ve come. Let us see if we can celebrate that progress now, and move even further as a nation in the years ahead.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Thomas Carey, OSB

These past two days as communications director at St. Benedict's monastery I've gotten a crash course in Sister Thomas Carey, a painter and Sister of this monastery who died in 1999. Her work is amazing, and I was familiar with it already. I've seen the posters in our gift shop, and there's an original oil hanging in my office. Her work is modernist, very colorful, and she painted a large number of Madonnas and Madonna-with-Child paintings. She also sculpted, Madonnas and a number of austere crucifixes. We are going to use one of her paintings for our Christmas card this year at the monastery. So I called S. Baulu Kuan who is an artist and who curated and produced a catalogue of Sister Thomas's work for an exhibition at the monastery's Haehn museum in 2004.

The image I wanted to use, she told me, was the Christmas card last year for St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul, a "daughter" monastery of St. Benedict's. They have a lot of Sister Thomas's paintings, including the one I wanted an image of, hanging in their monastery. And until the 2004 exhibit, many of the Sisters there didn't know what they had. If you go looking for examples of her work on the internet, you aren't going to find any.

S. Thomas's paintings are unsigned. And she gave many of them away, so they're hanging all over the place-- in private homes all over the St. Cloud area, and in other monasteries, and elsewhere. Which isn't to say she wasn't appreciated in her own lifetime. Blue Cloud Abbey in Marvin, S.D., commissioned S. Thomas to paint a series of Stations of the Cross that are among her best works. She painted them in the 1950s on 7' x 2' panels of walnut, and returned to do some restoration work on them in 1991-92. Blue Cloud Abbey was a very large monastery at that time, and Sister Thomas was a significant artist. And as you'll see later, in 1958 it was already brave to commission her work. She was controversial.

(By the way, Blue Cloud Abbey is a place I HIGHLY recommend you go see if you ever get a chance-- a community of men Benedictines out on the prairie near a town of 28 people. I stopped there overnight with my friend Bob Sauro on a trip two years ago, and he's still having nightmares, I believe, about the town of Marvin and what goes on there. [Bob has a website featuring his writings and great T-shirts based on vintage New Jersey sites you can find here.])

Sister Thomas had great humility. She never pushed her cause. If you read the catalogue of the 2004 retrospective, that comes through more than anything else about her. Some of the brothers living at Saint John's Abbey down the road had only a vague idea of the extent and accomplishment of her work. Brother Placid Stuckenschneider, a liturgical artist at Saint John's, wrote of coming face to face with her large body of work for the first time: "Where had she been hiding all this time?... To be sure, I wasn't ready for such a creative talent hidden behind the monastery wall." And this is truly the sign of a great Benedictine, her ability to work steadily at her art without ambition for fame or recognition. In fact, in an essay republished in the same catalogue, one feels her excitement at the great gift of her life as an artist in the monastery. She writes:

"When I came to the convent, I felt here a long-standing ... love of art.... There was an expressed hunger [in the monastery] for the beautiful, for the precious. There seemed a pervading awe for culture, the arts, for learning and the growth of worship. At that time the College of Saint Benedict was growing, along with the liturgy and the desire for liberal knowledge. We not only had a total submersion into a liturgical atmosphere and preparation with table reading and study clubs on the Divine Office, but also a terrific excitement about philosophy and the liberal arts in the college. ..

"I remember being told that if I were willing to go into art, I would not be rushed. I would be allowed to grow, and some day I would study in Europe. These were days of planting for the future. These were also the 1930s, when our world was falling apart, yet we were mindful of the liberal arts. Our focus was on learning for its own sake. Our focus was on culture. The whole community was hungry for learning.

"It seems even in our pioneer days as a community, when we would expect that survival would use up all our energy and push aside other values, we had not only the desire for culture but actually fostered its arts and its creative people as life-saving and worthy of great respect. Many have commented on what vision it took to build a virtual cathedral here on the flat lands of Stearns County, to provide an elegant chapel beyond all proportion to the rest of the visible evidence around us."

Sister Thomas wrote this essay, "Community and Creativity," in 1978. It was a happy time for her, when she was teaching in the art department at the College of Saint Benedict, brought in by college president Stanley Idzerda after he saw her work in 1968. She taught there from 1969-84, and while there, in addition to teaching and doing her own work, she collected 45,000 images of world masterpieces for the College's Picture Library. A hunger for beauty, indeed.

But her obscurity was not and is not completely a matter of temperament. The story the Sisters are quieter about-- although it is more open now as an example of "the bad old days"-- is of how Sister Thomas's work was banned, and she was suppressed. "Sister Thomas was ahead of her time," is how her friend Sister Kristin Malloy put it. "Not many people could understand and appreciate her art, including the local bishop. In 1954 she hoped that he would approve her crucifix, but disliking anything modern, he banned it. A half-century later, the same crucifix is considered by art historians as one of the most elegant expressions of contemporary religious art." The words "exile" and "officially censored" come up in conversation about her and her work. This is all the more striking to me given that it was also in 1954 that the monks of Saint John's Abbey hired Marcel Breuer, that master modernist architect, to design and build their abbey church, and construction began in 1958. As Sister Thomas was being shut down, the monks of St. John's Abbey were moving forward in ways that would make them internationally known for their liturgical vision and construction of a landmark modernist church.

A look at the chronology of S. Thomas's life shows 12 major exhibits throughout the Midwest in the years 1954-58. After this, she is teaching high school art at parochial schools, and the exhibits dry up-- a few pieces in annual Madonna Festivals, notably in Spokane, WA, far from the bishop of St. Cloud's watchful eye. It is only when Mrs. Idzerda, on the recommendation of Sister Kristin, hangs a painting in her husband's office to see if he likes it, that she is brought back to the art department at the college.

Meanwhile, she painted. She gave her paintings away. She didn't sign them. They're scattered to the winds-- who knows what is out there.

One mystery painting is this year's choice for a Christmas card. Sister Baulu, who keeps track of S. Thomas's work and brought it over for me to see, said she saw it for the first time only a year ago. When S. Kristin died, she left in her belongings a page of slides of Sister Thomas's work. Someone at the monastery passed it along to S. Baulu. In it was this Native American Madonna and child, and a few other works, which she'd never seen. We do not know where the original is. The slides are the only evidence. We may never know, unless the Christmas card reaches the owner (we send out 10,000-15,000!). As a Native American Madonna, it is outside the mainstream-- enough so that she might not have wanted to draw too much attention to it. There is another "Indian Madonna and Child" from 1958 that was commissioned by Blue Cloud Abbey at the same time as the Stations of the Cross, for the Chapel of the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Marty, South Dakota, an Indian mission church. How wonderful that they had that image-- and that she had the vision to make it for them.

It is not an uncommon story, the suppression of the women in the monastery-- for decades many Benedictine women's communities were not allowed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours that is at the heart of their monastic practice-- because it was believed to take too much time away from their active service ministries. Abbot Wimmer interfered with St. Benedict's Sisters on this account and from 1858-60 and 1880-1926 their prayers were curtailed to the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.

It is also not an uncommon story, the suppression of women artists who were ahead of their time.

That Sister Thomas continued to create work, and continued to create work in this monastery (not leaving to pursue her career as an artist or over the disapprobation of the bishop), is a testament to her faith, to her love of Benedictine life, to her love of her community, and to the purity of her calling as an artist. Someone supplied her with paint and canvas and other materials, and time and space to do her work. In fact, she continued to attend summer art classes when the high schools where she taught were not in session, at Notre Dame, at the University of Minnesota, at St. Cloud State University. With the blessing of the prioress and her community.

In the catalogue, she is described in a community tribute this way: Gentle, Shy, Creative, and Imaginative. Also "Energetic: Her great talent and inner artistic conviction impelled her to unbelievable productivity foor Sister Thomas every minute counted; Resourceful: Her motto was that every difficulty could be transposed into a value, and opportunity; Happy: Sister Thomas was happy to be who she was and left her imprint in her paintings, feeling no need to sign her work. She delighted in her work and always turned out something spectacular; and Peaceful: She was a completely 'at home' personality; her being was in harmony with her art."

I know many artists who did not respond as Sister Thomas did to her circumstances. I know many bitter artists. Some have been my teachers-- well-published folks who felt their students got more fame than they did. My 85-year-old poet friend at Saint John's once called me "angry" (I told him I didn't want him to send me his used copies of Poetry magazine-- I didn't want that toxic, elitest rag in my house!), but I think he meant bitter. Lord knows bitter is the opposite of what I want to be. I want to write poetry out of joy, not hoping someone will publish it or recognize me. My intention is more and more to be a person who writes for its own sake, out of joy. The goal is to recognize that people have a hunger for beauty, and to seek to fill that need with what one makes. That is a lesson to be learned from Sister Thomas. I am trying to be worthy of it, as of so much about this place where I live and work.

At the end of Sister Thomas's chronology is this entry: "Painted angels' faces until she died on December 15 [1991] at St. Scholastica Convent." May we all be so lucky.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Here is a picture of a new house that has just gone up. I pass it every day on my way to work, and it has gone up quickly. I have various thoughts about it. First, I think the tradesmen must be very happy for the work. Second, I wonder who has the money/financing to build it. Third I wonder if it is already sold, and if so, why does it look like all the other houses on that block. And fourth, I wonder why they are building it, since of those other houses on the block, at least three are empty and for sale.
We used to complain about the ugliness of the development. The land was formerly farmland, so it is without trees, and the houses are cheap-looking and identical. A lot happens on this new house in one day-- those cannot be real bricks along the trim put up by a real bricklayer. I think it must be prefab. These are cheap houses, and the people living in them are making a go of things. They're working class people, working in a variety of businesses around St. Cloud. This is a "coved subdivision" which allows for larger lots and meandering streets that appear nicer, and maybe discourages speeding (though I fear just reduces visibility and means people are taking curves fast, instead of straightaways). There is the appearance of an upscale subdivision-- but really it's just new. It's not nice. Still, it's attainable and a middle-class aspiration. There are several stay-at-home moms here offering daycare. You can tell those houses by the kids there playing on the driveway waiting to be picked up at the end of the day, and by the amount of play equipment in the backyard. Trampolines with those hideous safety nets around them, and the big wood swingset/playsets. Lots of riding toys. In the summer, those giant rubber bladder pools. In a word, crap. There is a nicer subdivision on the other side of a large park I walk in near our house. The quality of the homes is higher, the amount and type of landscaping.

My husband Steve was a Catholic high school teacher for years. He left that after he had a vision of growing and selling trees to these people in these new subdivisions. He learned how to do lawn seeding and basic landscaping, bought some machinery, and totally changed his life. And he started a tree nursery, which now has maybe a couple thousand trees in it, none of them big enough to sell. He has done some seeding jobs in the new development, and built some folks in that other, tonier subdivision, some raised garden beds, and done some seeding there too. Mostly, though, he goes out to an even nicer subdivision, in Sartell, where he gets a lot of jobs. What he would like to do is more native plantings, "prairie resto," and jobs converting farm properties to prairie and natives. He is a big promoter of fescue, an imported but low-maintenance, eco-friendly grass. The people in this subdivision just to the North of us are not investing in fescue. They're installing sprinkler systems. On credit. He recently did a job for a couple living just northeast of us, and the guy asked, as a matter of course, if he could pay $100/month until the job was paid off. That's not really the way things are done-- you get the service and you pay upon completion. But this guy, he doesn't pay for anything upfront, or all at once. There isn't anything, he doesn't believe, that can't be taken care of on a payment plan.

I wonder about this subdivision near us. There are lots of homes for sale-- many by owner. Some are empty. No one is investing much in trees, or landscaping, or finishing details they left for later (I love the sliding glass doors to no-deck, though I can't speak on that one, since we have two on this very house built in 1987). These are the people who are going to "feel it" now that the economy is changing. I think I'm going to have a good view, and that's not necessarily a good thing.


On my way home Friday I stopped at the entrance to the property to take this picture of Tim's scarecrow and pumpkin display. Hooray for Tim, Steve's brother, for this annual decoration. We live at the very end of a road through some old, then some new, subdivisions. You start seeing "Dead End" signs several blocks before you reach our gravel drive. I'm thinking no Trick-or-Treaters will make it out this far. Now and then some couple of young family wander back, and you see them pointing at the houses and trying to figure things out, all the while knowing this is clearly private property and they will have to scram when someone makes an appearance.

I also wanted to take a picture of this path through the cornfield. We lease two small fields to a neighboring farmer. This year one was fallow, and the other was in field corn. Field corn is nothing like sweet corn. It must be more drought-resistant, for one thing. Most of the fields around here are planted in it. It stil needs lots of water, and in fact for the three summers I've been here, the first two years the corn failed to germinate because June and July have been too dry. This is the first year there's been actual corn on the stalks. Field corn just sits out there until, well, mid-October, drying and seasoning, before it's harvested. So our corn field has been yellowing and drying and looking very happily fall-like. And then a week ago a single path was harvested through it, leaving this cool opening.

Good thing I took the picture on Friday afternoon, because Friday evening the combine showed up. It harvested late into the night, and in the morning was sitting right outside our bedroom window. They finished the harvest on Saturday. (yes, this is ANOTHER pond. The one in our backyard, which irrigates the vegetable gardens. When the water shortage comes, Minnesota will be sitting pretty-- there are 11,000 lakes in the state, and pretty much anywhere you dig, water comes up. We have three pond here, and the wetlands...)

There are so many things I want to write about-- including the play we saw last night-- but I'm pretty tired. I hope to write a few "essays" this week, so keep checking in. Meanwhile, enjoy the photos!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sisters not Mothers

Two weeks ago I spent an afternoon at St. Scholastica, the retirement center for the Sisters. It's something I've been wanting to write about, and have been talking about to people since. I went mostly just to see the place-- 90+ of our 300 Sisters live there, and it's an assisted living retirement center but I knew it wouldn't be like other retirement centers-- like the depressing vision I have of "old folks' homes." It's in St. Cloud, on the other side of the Mississippi River from the monastery, and I know it's hard for Sisters here when they move over there. In my job as communications director, I want to find a way to make sure those Sisters and their stories are included in a significant and positive way in our publications-- that they're not forgotten or put out to pasture (more like "put out to pray") over there. Because that's how it is sometimes presented-- that these Sisters who have spent their lives serving in health care or education or other ministries, go to St. Scholastica to return to their primary mission: prayer. And it's true, but for women who were so active in their professional careers and lives at the monastery, it must sound like their usefulness is in some way relegated to the background.

I also wanted to meet some of the Sisters who will be celebrating their 60th and 75th Jubilees next year. (This means it's been 60 or 75 years since they took their final vows at the monastery.) I will write about them in our next magazine, Benedictine Sisters and Friends, and want to include some meaningful or at least interesting stories/anecdotes about them. To this point the profiles that have run with their pictures in the Jubilee section have felt more like obituaries: how many children in their families, their main ministries/work during their lives, etc.

I have several stories from that day, but the one that I woke up with this morning was told to me by Sister Victorine. She has been in the monastery 75 years come July 11, 2009. That means she entered in 1931, and took final vows in 1934. And when I went to talk to her she was just waking up from a nap, but after I talked to Sister Elvan, who also entered in 1934, I went back and she was up and in her wheelchair, completely focused and ready to talk.

She told me great stories. She worked as a pharmacist at St. Cloud Hospital, which the Sisters started during the Depression. The Sisters who worked there lived in a convent next to the hospital, right on the Mississippi River. She said that despite a genetic condition that made her sick if she had too much exposure to the sun (not diagnosed until the 1970s), she loved the outdoors and being active, especially rowing the boats they'd take out on the river. She told me of one time a group was out on the river and a storm came up. She rowed them toward shore, and one Sister stood up to grab a rope or something, and fell in the river. "Well," she said, "everyone else jumped out to help her-- leaving me alone in the boat!" She was livid, still angry at them. "Not one of them stayed behind to help me get the boat to shore. I had to jump out and push the boat in to shore." The abandonment was fresh. So was the adventure. And when she told it, this 95-year-old woman's spirit and vitality was completely present to me.

She also spent some time at St. Benedict's Hospital in Utah, which was one of the missions started by the Sisters. It sounds like it was a difficult mission-- the hospital was successful, but the place was of course completely Mormon. There is an independently run community there, (a daughter house of our monastery), Mount Benedict Monastery. It is currently at 8 women, 4 of whom are from Minnesota. Many of the older Sisters here worked and lived at that monastery for various stints, and it too looms large as a great adventure, a time of travel and seeing another part of the world.

Sister Victorine was first assigned to the polio ward. What she remembered was caring for a polio baby. She said she was the primary caregiver for this child for the first two years of her life, and the baby called her "Dictidine!" Her love and bond with the child was clear, and when I asked if she knew whatever became of that little girl, she shook her head sadly.

The issue of childlessness, much more than the issue of celibacy and singleness, is one I'm aware of with these women. For one thing, it's another thing that separates the discussion of the lay employees from that of the Sisters. When I'm in the lunchroom (the "lay lounge"), quite often Jennifer and Stacey talk about their kids, as does Lori when she's around. In conversations with the Sisters, they do a good job of listening and asking questoins, but they often seem taken off-guard-- it's not a topic of conversation that comes up in community.

I've become very aware in recent years that when these discussions happen I, too, listen and ask questions. What I have to contribute are stories of my own childhood, or stories of my niece, or my friend's children. I do pay attention and love to retell the stories of those children and their rearing. I feel self-conscious now when it's my own childhood stories I share, and evn in some ways when my story is about my niece or a friend's child.

The Sisters also have nieces and nephews, and some are quite close to them. But it's also clear that many of these women would have been such good mothers, and would have been quite happy being mothers. The Church's focus on the importance of having children must have been difficult all along for those whose life choice meant they wouldn't have children. I think it's harder than not marrying-- though of course the two go together. The women clearly find real community together, have real, deep loving relationships with each other, true support, special friendships. But children is something different. I picked up a book from my shelf at work, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, written by Cheryl Reed, a reporter who spent four years visiting women's religious communities to write the book. She began with St. Benedict's (she was from the Twin Cities), where she'd come on retreat and had gotten so involved she'd kept coming back for years, before she even knew she'd write the book. She quotes Sister Linda Kulzer, who is an amazing Sister, a much-honored former professor and dean at the College, and for whom there is now a major annual award in social work. The book cites her as saying that the trade-off of becoming a nun was never having children. "There is something unnatural about being a celibate," she said sadly, "of not finding a life partner, and not having children, which you always think in the back of your head you could do someday."

But also, though I have wondered about celibacy and whether it's necessary to religious life, feeling like it's a terrible burden to put on monks and nuns (but especially priests, who can so obviously do their ministry while being married), it is very clear that there's no way they could have led the lives they did if they'd had children. They just could not have gone to prayers 4 times a day, plus Eucharist, and worked the jobs they did at the levels they worked them, and built the communities they built, if their primary emotional and physical responsibility for 18 years was children. The life in community-- and it seems essential to me that it is a community just of women--would not have worked. (But the topic of women-only is for another post...)

I know this is part of my own reflections these days. I didn't have children, and though I felt this as a conscious decision when I turned 38 and it was time to decide-- when my first husband and I moved to Southern California for his tenure-track job and I felt very strongly that if he'd have gotten a job in Reno (another possibility and where we lived the year before) we'd have had children, but I didn't want to raise children in Southern California-- now I live in Central Minnesota, where having children is like breathing. Like the Sisters, I'm an odd duck out here. I don't at all regret the decisions I've made, and even the possibilities for the future and what I'm able to do precisely because I haven't had children, but there is a melancholy there-- a sense of being incomplete, and of not having done something it was natural to do.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Every morning for about six weeks I've been waking up to Fall. It's been a lovely, glorious fall, and the landscape has been straight out of Keats' ode"To Autumn." When in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence getting my MFA back in the Fall of 1988, our first workshop leader, Joan Larkin, insisted we all memorize this poem. If it had been up to me, I'd have chosen something else. But she wanted it to be something classic, that rhymed. The idea was that it would come to us and inform us throughout our life. Say, in fall.

This was New York City (well, no, the leafy suburbs of Westchester County). I was a much more urban person, and the whole reason I went to Sarah Lawrence was its proximity to New York City. So memorizing a long rural ode from the 19th century wasn't really where my heart or head was at the time. But I did it.

And I knew even then it was going into my short-term memory bank, the one where I'd put all the Bible verses I memorized as an evangelical Christian. The one where I'd put all the scripts of plays I'd memorized in junior high and high school. I'm good at memorization-- just not good at keeping it long term, or accessing it. So it's been astonishing to me that I've woken every morning for six weeks now with the lines right there at the front of my brain:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
close-bosomed friend of the maturing sun.

That's all I have left intact, but it's served me well these mornings. And with it came some intimations (to use a word from fellow Romantic Wordsworth) of other images in the poems-- bees, and plumped gourds, and vines running round eaves, and hay on a threshing floor, though I couldn't put it together.

Here is the complete ode:
To Autumn
by John Keats, 1819/20

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

When I first came to Minnesota, for my year at the Ecumenical Institute, I wrote an autumn sonnet. I do love sonnets, with their tight form of fourteen lines and rhymes. I patterned it after Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 , which is my favorite, and that compares a person in his old age to the late fall just before winter. I'll also say I have this one by heart completely, and it's a function of having taught it. I used to be incredibly impressed with my professors who had poetry by heart, until I started teaching, and realized that after you teach it a few times, it becomes completely a part of you, you just have it by heart. I realized this almost by accident too, when in intro to literature classes or creative writing classes I'd suddenly have a poem there-- not just to say "let's turn to x" but to say it.

My sonnet is not as clever or complex as Shakespeare's. It has a lot of internal rhyme, but doesn't follow the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, just it's logical development (and it's iambic, but not strict pentameter). Still, I like it, and it is its time. I'll put a photo next to it that I took that year on November 5 from my living room window. Yes, this was my view every day.

Minnesota Sonnet
by Susan Sink (2005)

That time of year it is when leaves have turned
and lost their grip on limbs, blown down
an inch deep and brown, covering the bones
of kindling, hidden paths, the season’s varied dead.
The waters set in spiking weeds assert
their true nature as precious stones, amber and jade,
bidding the deer approach for one more drink
before the ice encroaches. Everywhere
the acorn stores of busy, slender, panicked squirrels.
Could this really be winter coming on,
with the sun this bright at noon, the sky this blue?
See what happens in the slant of five o’clock:
the trees, stripped naked, reveal their strength;
the wind bares its teeth and the lake shivers.

I'm wondering today if, as I grew into memorizing poetry as a teacher, I'll grow into this landscape until I can write an ode, not just a sonnet, to autumn. It is absolutely my favorite season. I'm thinking of yesterday, when I walked through a path in the corn rows of the neighboring field. And of course, of squashing Asian beetles and sucking them into the vacuum cleaner to prevent their overrunning the house. There's no lack of material. I wish I didn't work full time so I could write it! We'll see what happens now that I have you, an audience!

(Could I just mention that I've been sending this poem to magazines for three years, and all I really wanted was to put it before an audience some Fall and have people read it. That you, dear reader, have read it now, in its season, makes me very happy!)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Yesterday's Readings

I found yesterday's readings in church, particularly the first two, to be really inspiring in these times. The first was from Isaiah and was about the coming of the kingdom-- a really beautiful view of God's kingdom. The second was from Paul's letter to the Philippians, and was about living in times of abundance and times of need equally, because of the strength that comes from God. They're brief, so here they are if you want to read them.

Is 25:6-10a
On this mountain the LORD of hostswill provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe awaythe tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken. On that day it will be said: "Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the LORD for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!" For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Phil 4:12-14, 19-20
Brothers and sisters:I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all thingsI have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress. My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.

These days of changing fortunes, when we're given all these dire warnings and predictions and watching retirement funds lose 1/3 their value in a week, what a good thing to be able to assert: I know how to live in humble circumstances and how to live with abundance. Both at the same time I'm hoping. Maybe it is in humble circumstances that we begin to see what is really of value, and what is really there. I feel a bit like a child, whose environment is expanding to meet my view every day. And I like what I see. I see things of value-- relationships, my same and reawakened interest in the people and world around me. I see the earth infused with meaning. It feels like becoming unveiled. And if we truly see as God sees, then doesn't that sustain us, a bit?

Lost Things

I have been settling in in stages. And most of the stages have felt exactly like the stage before-- total chaos and confusion. Mostly this is about moving in, but it's also been true of my job. I'll have these moments of clarity when I'll see that something I've been pushing up against, struggling to understand, suddenly becomes clear. And then I can move forward, move into it. Since basically every single thing in my life was upended in July 2008, there have been a lot of these moments. It's been easiest to see, however, in the adjustment to living in this house and this marriage. And since I've just hit a new stage, I thought I'd try to delineate them so far.
  1. Putting things away. It consisted of cleaning out all the cabinets and shelves, taking off what was on them and had been on them for up to twenty years, and then figuring out what went back on the shelf, or went elsewhere, and what went away, and how my things joined the other things in that space. The effect was always to have the same uncluttered surfaces and usable cabinets, closets, and drawers, when things were done. And not to have two of everything. Among the things I took off the shelves were: birthday hats from a child's birthday party; canned goods, vitamins, juice boxes and cereal with expiration dates going back to 2003; lots and lots of dried up children's art supplies; very old sheets, pillowcases, towels, and blankets. What I moved in were new and improved pots and pans; a large and small food processor; supplies for Thai stir fries and noodle dishes; nice mixing bowls; a bunch of vintage china I got at Savers. I also didn't really hang any new pictures for a long time. I took down a few and replaced them with my own, but I didn't impose on the spaces. The house was already decorated. And it all looked like it was supposed to look. Which is to say at least in part, not like me.

  2. Looking for my own space. Once all my things were put away, I entered the most difficult phase. I kind of wandered around miserably trying to figure out what my space was. I was fit into the spaces here, but I felt vulnerable. The problem was, it turned out, that my office was really Catherine's Room, his oldest daughter's room. She is 25, and had done an excellent job of clearing out a bunch of her stuff so I could put my things there. But I knew she'd be coming back to claim the space, at Christmas, and so my stuff felt totally unsafe. Would she read my old diaries from the shelf? Would she judge me based on my books, the few prints I'd risked hanging alongside her artwork? (It took me 6 weeks to hang anything up there at all.) Also, I shared the bathroom downstairs-- the best bathroom, really my choice-- with the girls. So there are Martha's products, and I got this irrational fear she was going to start stealing Tampons from me or Ibuprofin or my jewelry. No way would she ever even want to wear my jewelry. I just felt like I was in unsafe, other people's space. People who don't even really live here anymore. About this time I also had a huge bout of insomnia (part of it was Steve's snoring and shifting in his sleep, and part of it was me getting off a medication, and part of it was this big transition). So at night I'd be downstairs, roaming, and end up in Catherine's bed in Catherine's room, feeling a little like I was being punished or exiled. Feeling a lot like I didn't belong here.

  3. Finding my own space. Then, suddenly, everything changed. Steve gave me the bedroom, which despite our efforts I thought of until that day as his bedroom. Of course! Before I'd moved in we'd renovated the master bedroom. We'd replaced the carpet and I'd painted it a color I had left from my house back in Cold Spring, a peach color I really liked. Steve refinished the desktop for me and even cleared out the bookcase over the desk. When Steve gave me the bedroom he even started sleeping in Catherine's room, so I could roam around upstairs with my computer in my room if I couldn't sleep. I moved my stuff up from Catherine's room and suddenly it all made sense. Everything fit. In fact, the walls were the sizes and color I needed to hang the artwork I'd brought over. There was a place for my lamp by my reading chair. It was obvious where my dresser should go. And within three days I was sleeping perfectly again. (We're going back and forth-- he sleeps with me awhile, then moves downstairs.) When the girls come to visit, I can go up there and shut the door and no one will come in. No one will go in my closet and get out my embarrassing childhood diaries. So it was that in late September, as if for the first time, I moved into my space. I started for the first time feeling like I live here. And like I and my things were safe.

  4. Figuring out the groceries and chores. We're still in this phase. At least now I know what it is. With my room all figured out, I still raged downstairs. I'd been cooking-- cooking BIG-- since I arrived, as a way that I felt connected to who I was and what I liked to do. As a way of controlling my environment. But I am not on top of things. We run out of eggs. We run out of butter. I went to bake cookies three times in one week and each time we were out of a different thing. Then we ran out of garlic even though it was on the grocery list. I've been grocery shopping every week. I've been filling my basket. I've been filling the refrigerator. I've been paying close attention to the new things I need to get that Steve eats regularly. So how could we run out of butter? How could we run out of eggs? I'd never run out of eggs in my house! This was so totally annoying-- and clearly Steve's fault because he never went grocery shopping. Which isn't true. Just a way of not facing what I felt, which is totally not on top of my environment. So out of control and so incompetent that suddenly I could not keep staples in my house. This was a disaster. Soon I am sure I'll be able to keep things stocked, because I am learning what we eat. We eat a lot of butter and eggs. It used to take me 6 months to go through a carton of eggs.
  5. As for chores, well, we're not on top of those either. Yesterday we had a huge argument about what chores are involved with making and cleaning up after dinner. In my house the person who cooks does not have to do any cleaning up afterward. In Steve's house, we clean up together. One person washes the dishes. The other person puts away food, cleans the countertops and stovetop, and sweeps the floor. Well, I like to put away the leftovers sometimes because I like to split them into proportions I can take with me for lunch. But I do not sweep floors. I don't. I won't. And if I have to, I'm not cooking. The idea of cooking, then having to clean up and sweep the floor afterward seems totally unjust to me. It was very difficult to come to an agreement on this. I'm not sure if we did.

  6. Realizing what is missing. Ever since I moved in, I've been looking for things. Things like the gift cards from the wedding, the thank-you cards, my financial records, the book I was reading, the recipe I put on the counter, my keys, my wallet, my shoes, the apple I just took out of the fridge to eat, the lavender seeds I dried and stripped off the plant for a sachet. Part of this is Steve's (annoying) habit of putting away things the second they catch his attention. Constantly clearing off the kitchen counter. Throwing things away that look like trash (the lavender). I couldn't get my bearings. I turn on a light, he comes behind me and turns it off and turns on a different one. I open a window, he comes in and closes it, and vice versa. But in every instance like that, I found what I'd lost. I remembered where I put it or asked Steve and he told me where he'd put it. Then tonight I realized I can't find my framed print by Mary Lum. I haven't seen it since I moved in. I have no idea where it is. Steve doesn't remember ever seeing it, even at my old house. And I've looked through stacks of things, through boxes, in the basement, everywhere. I can't find it. I have a place to hang it now, in my room, and it's just plain gone. There is nowhere it could be. Maybe it's in the barn with things going to the Goodwill. Maybe it's already at the Goodwill. Or it could be in a bin or box somewhere I haven't thought of looking yet. But the good thing is-- I can see its absence. I can see where it should be, and where it is not. I remember it, and I want it, and I know it is gone. I am ready to realize that other things are gone too. Lots of my furniture is gone. I might have given up too much, knowing that this space was already full of furniture and art. I tend to do that sometimes. But I'm starting to see my room more clearly, and what should go in it. And I the next stage will be hanging pictures on the wall.