Wednesday, November 26, 2008

President Elect

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

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

And has anyone seen Cheney since November 4???

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

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

Sister Jeremy Hall

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Names of Nuns

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ice Skating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rabbit Hunt

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

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

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

All in all, a good day.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Police Blotter

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

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


Iron Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

Other Artist Friends, pt. 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deer Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Other Artist Friends, pt. 1

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

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

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

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

What was the darkest night?

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

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

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

Lost Things, an Update

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

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

Jan Richardson, artist and writer

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Michelle Bachmann 2

The chorus for Barack Obama is loud enough that I don' t feel the need to add my voice. I'm truly happy about it, and it does feel a little different in this country already. But I'm also anxious about whether or not he'll be able to keep this vibe going. The threat of harsh economic times hasn't become a reality yet, and so it feels as abstract as everything else, including "hope" and "change." I'll be so happy to start seeing things get undone-- troops coming home (though will they be deployed again right away to Afghanistan?) and wiretapping stopping, and Guantanamo closing... at the same time, it seems like there could be a lot of bad stuff that will be uncovered about how our country has behaved in the past eight years. I hope I'm wrong, but the rock is soon to be overturned and we're going to see what was under it (dare I say, Cheney?).

I'm also very aware that I live in the "red" part of the country. Not even a red state, but Stearns County, a red county despite its city, St. Cloud. The New York Times election map shows Stearns County voted for McCain, and somehow Michelle Bachmann got re-elected, which is a bitter pill to swallow! The news about the city council and the mayor of this town, also is not good.

After going to the wrong polling place, I found out that I live in the township. So my ballot did not even give me the option of voting for council members or mayor. And these people might decide in the next coming years to put a road right through our house. That was a bit deflating! Especially since the candidate that did win for mayor won by only 50 votes.

So as with all elections, it's a mixed bag. I am truly looking forward to the kind of leadership I think we will see from our president in these next years. I am looking forward to having this very real family in the White House. But I am also glad the speech last night in Grant Park had the sober tone it did. I heard for the first time what I've been waiting for a leader to say-- that hard times are here and we're going to have to be in this together. That not just the president but we ALL have some hard work ahead.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Catholic Schools / Public Schools, part 2

Today I was interviewing one of the Sisters who is celebrating her 60th Jubilee next year, S. Ruth Nierengarten. For about a decade she has been curator of the Haehn museum, but she's retiring now, on the advice of her doctor, at age 83, and plans to return to watercolors and charcoals, as she said, "as long as my eyesight and dexterity in my hands hold out." But most of her working life was spent in education, every grade at all kinds of schools. When she was leaving my office, I asked her if it was true that before Kennedy elementary opened in the 1960s, all the children in St. Joseph went to the Catholic school.

"99.98%!" she declared. "That's what I was told when I came back here." This would have been the 1940s, and she said the figure she heard at the time was that St. Joseph was 99.98% Catholic. In fact, she said, there was a bit of a scandal when one of the local men wanted to marry an Irish woman. This was a German Catholic town. And yes, in the 1930s and 1940s, every child went to the Catholic school.

I've done a little research, in the Sisters' histories, two books on separation of church and state, and in a book called They Came to Teach about Sisters of several Catholic orders who staffed the parochial schools of Minnesota, cowritten by one of our nuns, Sister Ann Marie Biermeier. According to these accounts, in the mid and late 1800s, there was a fierce battle over public and Catholic schools. It was part of the attempt to Americanize German and French immigrants. Parochial schools, it was believed, kept the immigrants from becoming American, from assimilating to their new-- Protestant-- country, and the very Protestant curriculum of the public schools.

The first Benedictines came from Pennsylvania to St. Cloud, Minn. in 1857 expressly to teach German immigrant children. But when they arrived there was a battle underway about how to staff the schools and what kind of schools to have. The decision was made to have public schools and not to hire Sisters as teachers. In their second year they did find employment at a parochial school in St. Cloud, where they taught for five years, but the pay was abysmal and their situation was precarious. Then they were hired at the district (public) school in St. Joseph in 1863, but the history reports that they were used to instructing girls in a convent-like setting and "were ill-prepared to teach the young boys, many of whom were larger and stronger than their teachers." They were not hired back the next year.

The next information I have about St. Joseph is in the sesquicentennial history written for the Catholic Church of St. Joseph in 2006. It talks about the building of the current school in 1926. The first school met in a two-story frame building in town that had been the public school. So there was a public school in St. Joseph, though I'm not clear about who taught in it. But throughout their history, from the Civil War forward, the Benedictine Sisters had come to St. Joseph to teach, and by all accounts they found places to teach. They prepared each other to take the teacher accreditation exams to be able to teach in the public schools, and they also taught in the parochial schools. And as time passed they went to classes and into whatever programs were available to them for furthering their own education and preparedness, and opened their own colleges for teacher training (in St. Joseph, a normal school was run by the Sisters from 1915-1924). A common story I'm hearing from the older Sisters is of spending their summers getting degrees in education or advanced degrees in specific subjects over the course of 12-16 years, while they continued to teach in the local schools.

It does seem that Sisters provided most of the teaching in the area public schools in the latter half of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century. According to the order's history, With Lamps Burning, "While the parochial scohols were multiplying, many predominantly Catholic and Lutheran settlements in the state continued the old custom of employing Catholic sisters or Lutheran teachers as instructors in their district public schools. In the St. Cloud diocese alone there were at one time as many as fifteen district schools employing Benedictine sisters. This system received its first setback in 1904 when the Minnesota attorney general declared that the wearing of the religious garb was prohibited because the teaching of any distinctive doctrine, creed, or tenets of any particular Christian religion in the public schools is forbidden by the state constitution" (179-80). However, Sisters continued to teach in the district schools, avoiding teaching religion classes and removing from their clothes "any specifically religious symbols that might be interpreted as promoting a particular religious belief." But here was the Attorney General's opinion: "I beg to say that a person clothed in the garb of a 'Sister' of the Catholic Church may not legally be employed to teach in the public schools. Such employment is contrary to the spirit and provision of hte Constitution of the state prohibiting the teaching of any religious doctrine or belief in the public schools, and guaranteeing freedom of religious belief" (letter from W. J. Donahower, Attorney General, May 25, 1904).

This was not, however, the first setback. The ambivalence and controversy over public and Catholic schools extended to Archbishop John Ireland, the first archbishop of St. Paul. In the 1890s he sold two struggling Catholic schools in Minnesota to public school districts (for $1 each), with the condition attached that religion no longer be taught in the schools, but also the provision that the nuns be retained as teachers and paid their same salaries. This policy caused an uproar among Catholic parents who had paid to build and staff the schools so far and now weren't getting the religious education they'd hoped for their children, but was upheld and approved of by the Vatican. It was covered by The New York Times, which retains the articles in its online archives.

At the same time, the attorney general's position is like the head scarf argument. Because a woman teacher wears a head scarf to class, that doesn't mean she's promoting Islam or proseltyzing the students to become Muslim.

And of course the Catholic schools couldn't be stopped either. If a church opened one, the parents sent their children to them in droves. By S. Ruth's account, there were more than 60 Sisters living in the convent attached to the Catholic high school in St. Cloud when she taught there in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to the work, she remembered having great fun, with "Protestant and Catholic parties" serving soft drinks to the Protestants and beer for the Catholics, and also a production of Amal the Night Visitor, and games, such as one that had the Sisters stand at a board with only their noses peeking out, and the contestants had to identify them on that basis. "That's very hard, you know."

(I have to admit it sounds like the Halloween party the Sisters had on Friday night, which featured a variety of costume contest categories, including "Most pre-Vatican II, most post-Vatican II, most eco-friendly, and "The Rule." S. Dolores reportedly came as a gyrovague, a group warned against in the Rule of Benedict as hedonistic and who wandered from monastery to monastery without commitment [i.e., freeloaders]. At contest's end, she announced, "OK, I'm OUTTA HERE," to everyone's delight.)

Last Sunday we went to the monthly church breakfast prepared by the Knights of Columbus. It was my first time inside the St. Joseph lab school. The breakfast was $7.00, just like at the Chamber of Commerce lunch at Kennedy school. But for that price we got four kinds of sausage, eggs, toast, waffles with several toppings, and orange juice and coffee. The man who sold us our tickets was named Cletus Walz. I know another Cletus, Father Cletus, though he didn't choose that name, it was assigned to him when he entered St. John's Abbey almost sixty years ago. The floors were a gorgeous poured concrete, dark mottled gray with red splotches like dried blood here and there and with an inch of shine on top. There were some amazing pre-Vatican statues that were salvaged from the church when it was renovated, and also at the back an impressive case on the wall with the names of current and past members of the Knights of Columbus. Little children from the few big families left were circulating, serving juice and clearing plates. And in the back Paul, who is almost finished with that log cabin, and who is the head of the local chapter of the Knights, was making waffles.