Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Where I Live

I got married on July 26, 2008 and on July 29th I closed on my house in Cold Spring, Minnesota and moved to a farm in St. Joseph, Minnesota, about 8 miles away.

The farm is 80 acres that used to belong to the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, the largest order of women Benedictines in the United States. It was once the Sisters' hog farm, back when they kept pigs and turkeys and had about 1200 nuns in their order, a number that started to decline almost exactly 50 years ago, to the nearly 300 who are there now. When it was a hog farm it was known as St. Isidore's Farm. That is still the name in some official city documents-- related to a dispute about putting a road through the farm.

After the animals were gone, Sisters still lived in the house on the property. A group of them were trying to think of a name for the place, and they decided on Grace Acres. The name is after Sister Grace McDonald, who wrote their history, Lamps Burning. It was a farm, and she was a McDonald, and it seemed to go together, along with the "grace-filled" spirit of the place. It stuck.

In 1987 my husband Steve and his first wife bought the property from the Order. They were Oblates of the monastery and committed to keeping it from development and living according to Benedictine principles: simplicity, humility, hospitality, community. Soon afterward his sister Amy and her husband moved into the original house, and Steve and his wife moved into a house they built. The two families began raising children on the property and generally enjoying the place.

When Steve's first marriage ended, his wife took their three daughters and moved to Syracuse, New York. His brother Tim and his wife Annie moved into Steve's house while they built a third home on the property. They had two young daughters and Steve lived in the basement apartment until their house was finished. The girls spent the summers with their dad in Minnesota, and the cousins had a great time building tree forts and swimming in nearby lakes and canoeing down the Sauk River.

Paul, Steve's nephew, is a very hands-on guy, and together Steve, Tim, and Paul set about restoring areas of the prairie and wetlands on the property. Five years ago Steve quit his job teaching high school and went into business for himself landscaping in the summer and doing graphic design in the winter. This past spring Paul had two giant trucks of logs delivered to the property. We're talking trees basically, on giant trucks, that came down the field road and dumped their loads behind the barn. Paul is spending the year building a log cabin for his parents. They're going to move the bulk of the structure up to land they have on a lake two hours north, and he'll live there this winter finishing the inside of the place.

That, in a nutshell, is the life of the house up to the point that I arrived. This house and the land that it is on has had a fruitful life so far. And it is a life that is very close to the people who live here now, and the Sisters who lived here before. On July 7, 2008, a few weeks before my wedding, I left my job as a copyeditor at a Catholic press nearby, and I began working as the communications director for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict. My boss, Sister Gen Maiers, was in the last group of Sisters to live at Grace Acres. Every day I hear stories about this place and its life.

Tonight at dinner I was talking to Steve about the blog. I said it seemed a bit self-aggrandizing, to think someone would want to read about whatever I feel like writing about. I said other people have sort of a major theme-- their travels, the food they eat on their travels, their lives as irreverent stay-at-home dads, or the saga of how they're trying to change the world one step at a time. Or they're celebrities.

I just have opinions, I said. About religion, about politics. And I write some poetry. And I can write about living on the farm.

He wondered what I'd write about life on the farm, and said I spend more time inside than out, don't actually do anything on the farm. There's more to this story, and it's partly about gender. The women don't operate any machinery, don't mow or restore prairie or walk around with a gun looking for pheasants. We don't do much of the farm recreating, no chipping golf balls or playing frisbee golf. But I do hang laundry like my sister-in-laws, and I have already done some gardening. I painted most of one side of the house one weekend. The farm seems very big to me, and I have mostly been trying to break it down to a manageable size. So far that's been the house, and even there I feel most days I'm not succeeding.

I have lived here almost 10 weeks. I've mostly been learning the story of the farm-- what went on before I arrived. I've also been completely overwhelmed trying to carve out a space inside a house that has been inhabited since it was built by a family that was not mine, and is not mine. Trying to figure out where I fit in this house (and clearing out decades of accumulated detritus and figuring out what needs to be saved and what doesn't).

Taking in the views. There are beautiful views.

I've spent a lot of time cooking. I've harvested the tomatoes and beans and squash in raised garden beds I did not plant, and done the minimal work to keep weeds out of the flower garden beds I did plant before I moved in.

I've done a lot of raging around, stumbling around, wandering. My new job, my new marriage, my new house, all seem to tell one story-- but it is a story that I am only just dropped into now, like a character in a book that appears 3/4 of the way through (I hear the reader saying-- wait! That's not fair! I already know all the characters I needed to know!)

Sisters come into my office to tell me they went to college with Steve's mother back in 1948. Occasionally I'll met a Sister and learn she too lived at Grace Acres awhile back. At one of the first big events of my worklife, our Donor Appreciation Day in August, I took a trolley ride tour of the Monastery. I sat next to an old man, and asked him how he knew the Monastery. It turned out he had been the hog farmer. He and his wife, who was sitting next to him on the trolley, had raised their four children on Grace Acres too, and he'd tended the hogs, and all the animals. During the tour he pointed out where the other barns had been, and the field where he'd grown hay to feed the animals. And me? I'd been on the scene for exactly one month. I'd been in Central Minnesota for exactly 3 years.

I have a story, but it is not this one. My story in this place and this world is just beginning. I haven't even yet left the house.

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