Friday, December 26, 2008

The Shack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sacred Heart Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas Cookie Recipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Trees

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Rabbit Hunt, 3: the Pheasant!

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

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

I called out, "Who got it?"

Joe Meyer yelled back, "Your husband!"

I couldn't be more proud.

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

Rabbit Hunt, 2

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

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

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

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Back to the Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 1, 2008

Controlled Burn

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

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

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

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

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