Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Turkey Girls

My other video project has been putting together some short video tours of the Haehn Museum exhibit, "By the Work of Our Hands," that closed on December 23rd. The exhibit explored sustainability at the monastery over the past 152 years, including land management and their various businesses. I walked through the exhibit with Sister Moira Wild, the museum director, and she simply told some of the stories on video. I do believe her favorite is the turkey story, which we have all enjoyed hearing in different forms throughout the year. Sister Dolores Super wrote about this for the Sisters' blog last week. Her account drew on the records kept by the novices who cared for the turkeys.

I love this piece of video-- the story is great, and S. Moira tells it really well. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I'll be posting more videos from this museum show over the next week or so. To visit them, go to or click here.


The choir at Saint Benedict's Monastery is a "schola." "Schola" is short for Schola Cantorum, the Latin term for a school or group of people who join together to learn and sing ecclesial chant, the song of the church. It is a choir, but one dedicated to the ancient chant tradition-- although that's not the only music they sing. On Christmas Eve before Mass, there is a half hour of music, some traditional carols sung with the congregation, and several amazing numbers by the schola. Saint Benedict's Monastery has a long tradition of wonderful music, and several Sisters who are well known for writing hymns and arranging liturgical music.

I brought in my flip video camera to film, primarily, two liturgical dances that were going to be part of the caroling service. I was so taken by the music, however, that I tried to capture that as well. I was sure the sound would be awful, given how far away I was from the choir, but it turned out quite nicely. The church has amazing accoustics, and though there is definitely an echo, and it's not good at all for the spoken word, music is extremely lovely in that space. In fact, I don't think proper microphones would have helped all that much, as the sound might have been out of balance. I do wish I'd been closer to get better video quality. If you could see how tiny this camera is, though, and how far away I was, you'd be amazed at what I captured!

So here it is, the schola, singing "Of the Father's Love"
text by Aurelius Prudentius (4th century)
arranged by Christine Manderfeld, OSB

And here is a traditional Spanish carol, "A La Nanita Nana" with Christine Manderfeld, OSB, on flute, Katherine Howard, OSB, on cello, and Elisa Ugarte on guitar.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Best Dip of All Times

This Christmas we tried a little experiment. Faced with another year of 35 people for a sit-down holiday meal at the farm, the three families here, only one of whom was willing to actually host, decided we would make the switch to finger food. There would be spiral-cut ham sandwiches, peel-and-eat shrimp, and a variety of dips and other dishes, all purchased at Sam's Club. It was pretty pedestrian fare, but I didn't mind at all. It was a lot less work, and we'd had a good dinner, though not exactly fancy, on Christmas Eve when we were a smaller number. We had lots of homemade cookies, and it was fine.

The "kids," however, meaning the middle generation of 20-somethings, were not happy. They used some very derogatory language about the meal; I believe "depressing" and "pathetic" were at the top of the list. It was Christmas. Where were the mashed potatoes? Who knew they were so sentimental? I mean, they don't want to watch It's a Wonderful Life, or my annual Christmas fave, Remember the Night. We watched Taking of Pelham 123 on Christmas night (albeit, after a late afternoon matinee of Up with 14 kids squeezed onto a sectional in Tim and Annie's wonderful big-screen basement projection room).

On the 26th I was feeling a little guilty. Not a lot guilty, but it did strike me to the heart when someone said, "I mean, no one even made an interesting dip. It was all from Sam's Club." I'd already had plans to make an interesting dip, but given the post-Christmas blues (and the fact I wasn't going to make even one more Christmas cookie), I made an extra trip to the grocery store for the ingredients.

And what I made was something that Catherine's boyfriend Homer had featured on his blog a few years ago. I'd held onto the recipe and now was the time to make it. As I was putting the cottage cheese and feta cheese into the food processor, he said: "Wait a minute. Are you making The Best Dip of All Times??"

"Why yes," I answered. "Yes I am."

It is truly the best dip of all times, and he got the recipe from a guy named Mario who is a fan of his band, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Mario came to a show in Germany and brought the dip as part of the spread for the band before the show. They liked it so much, he brought it again, and the recipe for Homer to post on his blog, to another show. The ingredients were in grams, but I did some rough calulcations, and here's what I came up with:

Best Dip of All Times

1/2 cup of sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup feta cheese
2-3 cloves garlic (note: this is very garlicky. You can cut back if you want)
1/2 cup sour cream

I blended the cottage cheese and feta cheese first. Then I added the tomatoes, walnuts and garlic and blended them. Finally, I added the sour cream, mostly because this was the ingredient I was least sure about. You see, the recipe we got from Mario said: "cream, small package." Hmmm. I'm sure it's not actual cream. And how much is in a small package? It could be sour cream or it could be cream cheese. Either would be delicious. The dip is very creamy with the sour cream, and you can still dip a cracker or, much better, a hunk of bread, into it. If you used cream cheese, you'd probably want to add that first to really whip it up, and even so you'd probably need a knife to spread it onto the bread or cracker.

I'm not sure even The Best Dip of All Times made up for the lack of mashed potatoes. It did go pretty far, however. I'm also pretty sure we're not going back to the full Christmas dinner with the family in its present form...

Tonight I made my black bean soup, with its secret ingredient, sundried tomatoes. It was easy and a big hit, as big a hit as last night's real meatballs and spaghetti with tomato sauce from the garden tomatoes. The fridge is looking pretty empty, and I do not know how people cook for six every night of the week. But I'm so happy to be here "on the other side of Christmas." Today was another of those near-perfect days. It began with cross-country skiing at Quarry Park, on fresh snow with at least an inch clinging to all the branches of the trees. Then waffles at home, and a great movie, Up in the Air. Finally, the black bean soup, and continued great discussion and laughter. The only thing that would have made it better would be the Vikings playing, and winning, tonight. But that will have to wait until tomorrow... :-)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Cookie Recipe (2)

This year, I've been more workmanlike about my Christmas cookies. I'm bringing cookies to the family Christmas dinner for 30 people (down seven from last year), so that's about 100 cookies right off the top. I've set up a few batches in the freezer and will make more on Christmas Eve. I've also had a supply for around the holiday, and will give a plate to my sister-in-law Amy to take to her in-laws on Christmas Eve.

I've made three kinds, which I like for various reasons. First, the butter cookie recipe I have from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts is amazing. But it's also really not good for you: sugar, flour, three sticks of butter and egg yolks. I made one batch and have been sort of doling them out particularly, because I don't want to make more.

Then there are  the 110th Street Walnut Crescents, from the same cookbook. I shared this recipe on the blog last year. These are not much better for you: powdered sugar, flour, two sticks of butter, vanilla and ground walnuts, but a batch makes a lot more cookies, and they're amazingly delicious as well. They feel a little more grown up than the basic butter cookie.

What I've really gotten into, however, are the Gingerbread Trees. The recipe is from an old bon appetit magazine, at least three years old. It calls for the addition of a juniper berry glaze, which I'm sure would be amazing, but I like them just fine without frosting, just a few decorative sprinkles and some red hots pressed into them before baking. And I don't know why, but I always make them as just tree cut-outs. The dough is amazing to work with, really supple and can get warmer than the heavily butter-based ones above and still be manageable. I've already made three batches, but they've gone quickly, so I'll be making at least one more. Here's the recipe:

Gingerbread Trees

2 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup mild-flavored molasses

Mix the first six ingredients in a medium bowl. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in molasses. Beat in dry ingredients (keep beating until it's a really nice, moist dough). Gather dough; divide into 2-4 pieces. Wrap and chill at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheets. Roll out dough between two sheets of wax paper. Cut out with cookie cutter. Bake for 12 minutes. Cool on racks.

If you want to go the extra mile and make the glaze, here's how that works:

Bring 3/4 cup half and half and 1/3 cup of lightly crushed juniper berries to simmer. Cover and chill 5 hours (this is definitely where you lose me). Strain. Place 1 pound powdered sugar in bowl. Whisk in half and half by spoonfuls until glaze is spreadable. Frost cookies and decorate with assorted decorations.

I've found myself as I baked this year being grateful about two things: that my father liked Ramsey Lewis' Christmas album when I was a kid, and that my mother taught us the joy of smearing the butter on the cookie sheets with our fingers...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Saint John's Abbey Christmas Tree

I just had to post this wonderful video of the Christmas tree being pulled through the doors of the Great Hall at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, five miles up the road. The monks cut down a giant tree from their arboretum (they have plenty) each year for this space, and it's always spectacular.

We kind of marvel at the scale of what the monks do. They have a very well-run Arboretum, and bring school children through on field trips and tours each year, as well as host an immensely popular maple syrup festival out at their sugar shack, where they make 80-150 gallons of syrup each year. This year, after long considering building a wind turbine to generate some of their energy, they instead have begun a gigantic solar field on one of their outlying properties. It will mean less noise for the neighbors!

The monks are also responsible for The Saint John's Bible, a commission of the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible since the 16th century and the invention of the printing press. (I wrote the web site and also two books on the art of the Bible, which can be found here.) They have a woodworking shop that makes high quality furniture, and a pottery with the largest woodburning kiln in the United States. (This last kind of bugs me-- no one needs a kiln the size of a warehouse, and I don't really see the point. It seems inefficient. Why not have more firings in a smaller kiln? I am not convinced.) 

The Abbey Church, with its distinctive bell banner, was also groundbreaking and monumental. I love it for its audacity and although I'm not a fan of that much concrete, I do love the choir stalls and altar, the wood and tiles and stone. Praying there, you do feel part of a community.

I'm an Oblate of this abbey, though with my move just five miles down the road to St. Joseph and changing jobs from that campus to the women's community, Saint Benedict's Monastery, I feel less connected there. And now, living and working in such a female environment, I do experience the abbey differently. It is quite a male space and place. Yesterday, I was reminded by a friend of an important experience I had there. It was during the abbey's Sesquicentennial in 2006. I was invited by the liturgy director to write three poems, or monologues, or whatever I thought appropriate, to be read during a special evening prayer liturgy for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the abbey church. The event was on June 24, and there were several hundred invited guests.

At the end of May, I moved from Southern California permanently to Minnesota. I'd spent the previous year at the Collegeville Institute at St. John's, which is how I got connected to the community. I wrote the three pieces, very much inspired by the Holy Spirit, I believe, while on a two-week residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. Then I flew to Southern California to get my things out of storage and onto a moving truck. I flew back and took a summer school class before starting a new job, living in a dorm until I closed on my house in Cold Spring, then living in my house in my new small town. I hardly knew a soul, though my neighbors were friendly and I did have one friend who helped me out a lot. But that weekend, I didn't have anyone to attend the liturgy with me, and was facing the prospect of a birthday alone, spent scraping linoleum off the dining room floor (yes, the dining room).  That evening I read my poems at the big liturgy, though they didn't make clear anywhere that I was the author of them, not just the reader. Then there was a big dinner-- I hadn't been invited but I went anyway, and there people started to understand that I'd written the pieces, and come up to me. Several Sisters came up to say how much they liked the piece on Elizabeth.

Even that day, only 2 1/2 years ago, seems so far away. When I see this video, it's like a land I used to know. I had lunch with my friend from Cold Spring today at the Saint John's dining hall in this same old monastery quad. It was fun to be there, and I was able to greet quite a few people. I was happy to be less lonely than I was that day (although I wasn't particularly lonely during that time). I was happy for the connection.

Here is the poem, based on the account of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke.

   (a villanelle by Susan Sink)

Like Sarah, mother of promise, I was barren.
Perhaps God would do for me what he did for her.
This was my hope, my prayer.

What could I do but be faithful, a daughter of Aaron?
Servants of Abraham and Moses, we have our parts.
Like Sarah, mother of promise, I was barren.

The Spirit of God prepared me to receive,
and the herald grew in my womb.
This was my hope, my prayer, speaking

for the baby who leapt in greeting: Blessed are you
among women, and blessed the fruit of your womb.
Like Sarah, I was a mother of promise.

How could we know what was to come?
We had life inside us, and that was all
the rejoicing, hope, and prayer we could contain.

They came to bring life to the world,
to turn children to parents, parents to God.
Like Sarah, we were bearing promised sond.
This was my hope, my prayer.  

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Frozen Pond

Here on the farm, we haven't done any real snow removal yet. We're laying down a "base" of packed snow so when the Kabota gets out there with its big shovel attachment, it isn't clearing gravel along with the snow. The snow has fallen only at a rate of an inch or two at a time, and no more than four inches total, so it's easy to drive over it and pack it down.

But yesterday, Tim got serious about snow removal on the pond. It's impossible to skate when there's snow on the ice, and this year we didn't get out there before the snow fell. What I like about this photo, taken early in the process, is the view of Steve's tree nursery in back, with its rows of arbor vitae. It looks impressive, whereas for me, in other seasons, it just looks like an enormous amount of work.

Tim and Annie are hosting Christmas, which means 30-37 people, and of course he's thinking, "What will we do outside?" When Paul lived here, some years he would string Christmas lights around the pond for night skating. We're not really up to that task. But Tim got out there with a little snowblower and cleared off a large figure eight pattern on the ice. It's really beautiful. It's been at or below zero for probably six of the last 12 days, and it's not supposed to go above 20 this weekend. As long as it's near 20, I'll skate.

The thing about skating is that it's so painful, you really can't do it for long. I don't really understand why skates can't be made that have structure but don't kill your feet, but it seems to be true. The pair I bought were even specially designed to mold to your feet. The salesman put them in a special oven and then in the store I sat with them on my feet until they cooled, supposedly custom-molded. I don't think it did much, really. After about 15 minutes, I can't bear the pain through my arch, even with my orthotics in the skates. It's time for hot chocolate.

Steve cleared a winding path through the prairie below our bedroom window and out through the wetlands at the end of the season, and it's filled with snow. I love it, and think it will add a lot to the view next summer. But just seeing everything transformed like this, I realize that I really do love winter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gaudete Sunday

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
                  Luke 3:10-18
This was today's Gospel reading, for Gaudete Sunday. "Gaudete" means "Rejoice," and as Father J.P. Earls pointed out at Mass at the Monastery, the reading can make one uneasy. The prophecy by John that the Christ will arrive with "fire" and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire is not exactly something to rejoice about. What I know is that this reading felt fresh and new to me, and is what I love most about Scripture. Look at the three-part structure of those who come to ask John's advice: the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers. And the advice they're given seems so basica nd common-sensical, it's hard to imagine that the crowd would respond so enthusiastically. Was it such a change to hear someone saying: "Hey, give to the poor, don't be corrupt, and don't be greedy" that the crowd thought he must be the messiah?

I also like the more difficult part of the passage, the prophecy. One is coming who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Who wouldn't want a promise of a messiah like that? The one for whom baptism will not be a ritual, not representative, but transforming. And I know that baptism can be transforming-- how much American literature and film has shown this, and haven't I seen it in actual churches? But for most of us, most of the time, the experience of God with us is not as visceral as this promise.

This weekend I feel like I moved into Advent. I am happy there are two weeks more until Christmas. I'm not sure what it was, but probably partly the cold, and certainly going to a store and finishing the shopping on Saturday morning with a very well-behaved crowd and Christmas music playing, and also making cookies, and two nights of dinner guests. Today the Vikings won, and we put up the Christmas tree, and I made more cookies. And there was more music. And the Sisters were dressed in pink and purple and there was wonderful music and lots of people in church. And the Scripture readings were so rich and spoke of essential things: God is coming; God is with us; Rejoice! And this, from the first reading, the prophet Zepheniah:

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,

a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.
That is right: The Lord, our God, will sing joyfully, because of us. There is a promise there of a time when we humans are such, that God is moved to sing, instead of the other way around.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Away We Go

The film Away We Go is not, I don't think, your average hip, Sundance-y independent film. There's nothing particularly great about it. The main characters, played by Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski, aren't very unusual or compelling. If anything, the actors underplay the roles, presumably so you won't think of them as "that woman from SNL and that guy from The Office." They can do "straight." They're educated and in their early thirties, and she's pregnant. The plan is to raise the child where they've recently moved, an unidentified, kind of rural place that seems like it's in the Northeast, like upstate New York, Massachusetts or Western Pennsylvania. The main thing this area has going for it is the presence of his parents, who are wacky as only Catherine O'Hara can be, and who announce at dinner that they're moving to Belgium for two years and have already rented out their house. Our couple, Burt and Verona (yeah, I know), seem to have nothing else holding them to this place, and go off to find a place that will feel like home, a place of their own choosing, where they can start their new family.

Marriage is out-- seemingly because Verona's parents are dead and she just can't see herself having a wedding without them present. Plus, she just doesn't believe or care about it. "I'll never leave you; I promise." The entire marriage commitment comes down to this, and as they move around the country (and briefly into Canada), it seems true enough of the couples they meet. What is holding them together? A shared (and often demented) world view? Fear of being alone? The burden or blessing of children? If it weren't for the children, would any of these couples stay together? Finally, in the case of Burt's brother, even the presence of a child isn't enough. His wife has left him, occasioning a quick trip by Burt and Verona to Miami. The real problem of the film, the real problem of society and perhaps of several generations, now, (certainly mine and the ones after mine, but also maybe of a few before), is this lack of connection, this lack of a philosophy of connection. If the myth of romance fails, and your parents die or move away, what is holding anyone together?

The tenuousness of the whole project-- coupling, marrying, having children, putting down roots-- has never seemed so palpable.  They get increasingly desperate as their visits implode, deciding to move to Montreal on the basis of one/half a nice night out. That, however, also fades-- into the one exploration of the real depth of what marriage is about, bad times as well as good. Still, there must be something! I want to believe the romantic promises right along with Burt and Verona as they affirm them, but they sound so meager or even downright unbelievable ("But no one has been in love like us before, right?").  Eventually, the couple finds a place, and it's a place of indescribable beauty and also rooted to their own story. It's an American landscape, and hip, and solid, and presumably paid for. And, after the journey, it is clear they will have trouble and sadness, along with the joy. That's what life is. It's more frightening to think they might have a really hard time, given the track record in this film, finding people to be friends with! They seem intensely isolated, and the final location does nothing to assuage that isolation-- it comes completely without community.

I might be making too much of this film. It was written by Dave Eggers, who started McSweeney's and wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That book, too, is much, much better than its surface would lead you to believe. He wrote this movie with his wife, Vendela Vida, a writer in her own right. The two of them spend most of their time now, it seems, writing about extreme subjects-- people in poverty and suffering from human rights abuses around the world. Eggers has also given a large amount of money and time and energy to connecting people to local communities and promoting writing groups in public schools. Which adds another layer to it for me. 

And if you don't go see it based on all these things, at least go see it for the absolutely hilarious scenes with Maggie Gyllenhall as a woman named "LN" (Yes, Ellen), and her academic uber-mom performance. That alone is worth the price of the rental.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Huck Finn

I've restarted my subscription to the Library of America after about a 10-year lapse. I get a beautiful, hard-cover, slip-cased volume every six weeks, and only the ones I've checked that I want from their complete inventory. It's part of my dream that someday I'll have time to read all of American literature. Or at least much more than I have so far. I was also motivated by wanting a good edition of Main Street, which was the first volume I bought.

Maybe it was the Norman Rockwell, but I got a hankering to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I've never read, and which so many people I know enjoy teaching. For me, given my snobbish disposition, Mark Twain is a lot like Norman Rockwell. I know he's a master, but maybe a master stylist and a humorist. I admire him and love the quotes by him that are sprinkled everywhere in pop culture. But I associate Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with children's stories, not entirely serious, and have not been sure where he fits into "literature."

My reading this weekend was impaired by some kind of terrible bug I'd contracted. I didn't have a fever, but I had terrible body aches, sharp pains when I breathed, and a headache. I slept mostly, but between naps I read, and the book was good for this because the chapters are short and the book is episodic-- I could get through an adventure or two before putting it aside to sleep again. But it also suffered from this. The river is kind of delerium-making, despite Huck's detailed accounts of how orderly their lives were.

What I love so far the most, though, is that same river. It is very easy to imagine it, the broad river with banks on one side and forest on the other, the smell of it and the easy current. It is easy to imagine what it would be like to be on a raft at night, with myriads of stars overhead, drifting south.

Now that my head has cleared, I can appreciate more the beauty of it as literature. It's very much like an 18th century novel: picaresque, with satire (the duke and king are prime examples) and a bit of foiled allegory (the river journey is no Pilgrim's Progress, though we have Jim's freedom to worry about always, and in that way it is a journey-- though more literal than spiritual-- to redemption). And in its way, it is the best of what America has to offer: imaginative and rooted in the character(s) and landscape of this unique place.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mom and Dad Dancing

My mom and dad will take any opportunity to dance. They call it "jitterbugging," which is a region-specific term from what I can tell. They both grew up in South Jersey, and my mother lived in Philadelphia from 1944-1958 and as an adolescent hung out at the studios for American Bandstand. She tells stories of dance parties with her friends in the basement of the row house where they lived. 

My parents met at a dance, when my father was 22 and a senior at Rutgers in Camden, and my mother was 18 and working in an office. They were married a year later, in 1963. And they've been dancing ever since. I shot this video the day after Thanksgiving at Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois. We were in the lodge after a day of hiking and a good dinner. A wedding was taking place in the other half of the lodge, and the music was quite loud. And the playlist was pretty good! It was only a matter of time before my parents danced. When "Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison, they got up to dance. I had to replace the audio, but this music was one of the no-copyright clips available to merge on YouTube.

This is a time when it's nice not to be fifteen and mortified by one's parents. They've been dancing together for 48 years, and I wish them many more.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Park Forest Girls' Softball

In 1973, when I was nine, the youngest you could be and still play, girls' softball came to Park Forest, Illinois. We'd had boys' baseball, well, forever, and my father was an umpire. When I was five or six, my father was an umpire at the state championship, and my mother woke us up at 6 a.m. (my sister was four) and sat us in front of the little black-and-white television and said, "Your father's on t.v.!" I didn't see my father. I did see a baseball game. "That's him, the umpire, in the mask and chest protector." It didn't look anything like my father. And when he called out the balls and strikes and dramatically, "You're OUT!" he really didn't sound or look anything like my father.

When girls' softball arrived, it arrived as an entire league, with three tiers and at least 24 teams. My father took me downtown and signed us up: I would play and he would be the manager. His friend from work who also lived in Park Forest and had a daughter named Suzy, Jack Sizemore, would coach. So we were Suzy Sizemore and Suzy Sink (I had not been Suzy before, but softball meant extraordinary efforts for me to fit in) and our dads were in charge of our team, the Kittens. (At age 11 we would become Cougars, and then at 14, Lions). Our color was navy. We played teams like the Ponies (Yellow), Papooses (Green) and Cubbies (light blue). We were issued hats and jerseys and randomly assigned to teams. We showed up for the opening day parade dressed in our uniforms, some girls with jerseys down below their knees, more than 300 girls in colorful ranks.

The Kittens' first practice was rained out. But my father still held a team meeting in our basement, and an intimidating group of girls showed up. He set up a blackboard and instructed us in the basics: names of positions, rules of the game, etc. I was more interested in the social aspects of the situation. I remember Cindy Cissell chewing a wad of gum and blowing very large bubbles. Maggie Egofske paid attention. Suzy Sizemore played with her hair. Neither of them looked interested in being my friend.

Eventually, the team meeting ended. Girls had to wait for their parents to pick them up, and the sky had cleared. They all seemed to have gloves already. Someone had a softball, and Cindy and Maggie started playing catch. Others joined in. My father stepped back and said, "Wow." He was already assigning positions. Cindy Cissell had an amazing arm-- 3rd base. Maggie knew how to pitch already, and Jill could field-- 1st base. One by one, parents came, and players left.

The promise of that first day was more than fulfilled in the first season. We soundly won every game, by as much as 33-3. After batting around, the inning was over, so there were checks on our rallies. It turned out there were other girls in Park Forest who didn't know how to play as well as the girls that landed on our team.

I played center and right field. I was told right field was important for backing up the first baseman, but at that level, nothing ever really left the infield. Girls couldn't hit that far, nor could they "overthrow" that far. I sat in the field with my glove on my head and watched butterflies. One miserable day I poured lemonade over my head between innings, thinking it was water.

I continued to play until I was 13, when I moved on to summer theater at Governor's State College, a much better fit for me. But I did like many things about girls' softball in Park Forest. I liked practices, especially those breezy evenings in midsummer and evenings when rain blew through. I liked the girls on our team, and the hats. I liked especially the scoreboard my father made out of wood, with painted number blocks my brother would hang from pegs to track the innings, outs and score. I liked the annual parade. I liked playing on different fields all over town, driving into neighborhoods I hadn't known before, where there were named fields with dugouts and backstops and bleachers.

The entry on Norman Rockwell has brought some other Kittens out to the blog. More and more people I grew up with are finding these happy memories, and asking that I write more about that special place and the privilege we had of growing up there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Norman Rockwell

I think like most people my age, I have mixed feelings about Norman Rockwell. Growing up, we had four framed Norman Rockwell prints over our living room couch. They were the four seasons, and a quick Google search shows they were the "Young Love" series-- still available on collectible plates. I saw them every day, and engraved on my brain is the one of the boy testing the buttercup under the girl's chin, and the one of him carrying her books to school. There is a dog in every picture. The kids are freckle-faced and belong to an idyllic "small-town" America.

I like Norman Rockwell's work, and like many was surprised to see his more socially conscious pieces later in life. I appreciate that he always saw himself as an illustrator-- he had a genuine lack of pretension in that way. I don't embrace his vision, though for the most part that may have to do with seeing too many of his images on collector plates. Still, I was surprised this morning to hear in a story on the photographers who took the photos he painted from, that one painting, "New Kids in the Neighborhood," was based on a story on integration in Park Forest, Illinois.

Of course, the models are in Vermont, where Rockwell lived. I don't know where the houses are from, but that is not Park Forest. In Park Forest, the houses in the neighborhoods are much closer together, the lawns end much closer to the street, and I'm assuming the houses are smaller. They're certainly not made of brick and stone. They're 1950s split-levels.

It's funny that I assumed I'd see my Park Forest in the painting. Rockwell painted it in 1967. Well, I was in Park Forest in 1967! I was three years old and living in the Co-ops. What I do like about this painting is that all the children are from the same class. They are all middle class children. In fact, the African American children are quite dressed up. They're making a first impression. One can write a back story to this. And the white kids are interested as anyone would be to have new children in the neighborhood. I still vividly remember the arrival of new children in both the Co-ops and on Farragut Street. The day Katie moved out was one of great sadness, and the day Michael moved in was one of great anticipation, some anxiety, and much joy. The first storybook I wrote was in sixth grade, and it opened with a moving truck bringing a mysterious and magical girl to the neighborhood, and ended with the moving truck that took her away.

I don't see my Park Forest in the painting, of course. This is the crux of Rockwell, I think, the blend of "realism" with his very specific vision of how people looked and what they were up to. Steve says the lasting value of his work is that it was narrative-- that back story I was talking about. And I agree. As long as we also realize that the narrative is fiction, not history.

Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve

Steve and I were with my family near Chicago over Thanksgiving. I still made my Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve, my new favorite Thanksgiving dish. I did buy two bags of cranberries before leaving, and a turkey (69 cents a pound, come on!) and some yams. I just love Thanksgiving and will cook up the turkey next weekend. I put two loaves of cranberry bread in the oven just now. The sky to the East is that charcoal gray giving way to white that suggests snow is on the way. The small pond has a sickly layer of ice and snow on it, the only remnant of the Thanksgiving snow we missed. I'm transitioning quickly into holiday mode.

Here, for those of you who can't get enough of cranberries, or bought an extra bag, or have some left over after stringing them for the tree (does anyone still do that?), is the recipe... the original makes about 12 cups, so I've cut it down a bit, with rough proportions. The key is to put the cranberries in the pot in stages, so you have different consistencies in the final product.

Cranberry, Apple and Walnut Conserve
3/4 cup water
2 cups turbinado sugar (raw sugar)
1 cinnamon stick (or teaspoon of cinnamon-- to taste)
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 bags fresh cranberries (9-12 oz)
2 apples (gala), peeled and chopped
1- 1 1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted
2 Tbsp brandy (red wine also works, or nothing)

Simmer water, sugar, cinnamon stick (or cinnamon), allspice and half of cranberries in heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until cranberries start to pop. Add half of remaining cranberries and cook 5 minutes more. Add apples, walnut pieces and remaining cranberries and simmer for 5 more minutes. Add brandy and simmer 1 minute. Discard cinnamon stick and serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Wisdom is the beginning of knowledge. This quote is from the opening of Proverbs, and also prominent in the Rule of Benedict. I like it because it reverses something I usually think: that wisdom is deeper (and thus comes after) knowledge. That only in reflecitng and probing knowledge do we get to wisdom. But really we need to have wisdom first, as our foundation.

I gave a talk last week on Wisdom and the Wisdom Books of The Saint John's Bible. I was really happy to go back and think about the illuminations in that volume again, and more particularly to think about Wisdom, a character in those books of the Bible, a female character, to be sought after and wooed and won. She is the architect of the universe, present with God at creation, the one who gave specific shape to everything. In this view, God is the big Creator, whose order is more abstract and large, but not penetrable by human beings (as suffering and death are not penetrable by human understanding). Wisdom made things visible. Wisdom is the breath God breathed into the earth-- which means she is the life-force itself, and an Old Testament version of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom is at the heart of human creativity-- what joins us to God, what informs our vision of the world, what infuses art with its "transcendence."

It is interesting to think about what that means-- that maybe the part of God that we are made in the image of is Wisdom, a woman, or even moreso, the artist/creator. If that is the essential way we can be said to reflect God, to bear in ourselves the image of God, doesn't that turn conventional wisdom (and the foundation for priests being male) on its head?

There was a woman at the talk who was in tears a lot of the time. Afterward she said it was because she was sad that she'd never heard about Wisdom as an image of God before. As a friend says, she is in the hard process of "healing her God image." She's learning about God beyond what she experienced as a child, the Old Testament judge, that triad of men.

I recognized those tears. During the years spent in an Assembly of God church, I saw a lot of tears. I've shed my own, though not for the same reason as hers, but as I've struggled to reach God and in the process to love myself, understand what it means that God loves me. But many of the tears people shed in church  were joy at finally being given the "God image" of Jesus being presented there-- Jesus as personal savior, as friend and beloved, as God you could have a relationship with. It was not a good God concept for me, actually. I spent a lot of time trying to connect with that Jesus, and in some ways I found him, but that image was never very helpful and, it seemed, too easily diminished by the culture. In some ways, my earliest image of God-with-me (Emmanuel), Jesus, was the Eucharist at First Communion, and that image was real when I was seven and continued to be real (as odd and abstract as that seems even in saying it).

But I think going from the Catholic Church to the Assembly of God Church did a lot for me in terms of seeing that our images of God can be flexible. It seems like the opposite of what was intended, but I know it was there that I came to know a large God, much larger and more real than I had before. In metaphor, in images-- as many as my mind and heart could fathom-- I could find and continue to find, God. That is why, I think, Wisdom was an exciting revelation to me, and rather than displacing some other image of God, Wisdom adds to what I know of God and of myself and my place in the world. That I am a woman and an artist doesn't make me a god, but makes God here with me. If that makes sense. And this is for me the continuing joy of reading the Bible.

I'd like to direct folks to the Sisters' blog, which has a good entry on the 1919 influenza epidemic by Sister Dolores Super.

And if you'd like to read much more about what I have to say about Wisdom Books, here is the book I wrote, Art of The Saint John's Bible: A Reader's Guide to Wisdom Books and Prophets.

photo above of Wisdom by Cari Ferraro.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Music Dillemma

There was an article last week in the St. Cloud Times that really bummed me out. It was about local businesses getting in trouble and facing possible fines because bands were playing music in their establishments without securing proper licenses. In other words, cover bands. The result will be that some locales will stop having live music unless the artists write all their own songs or obtain proper licensing for what they're performing.

I'm sympathetic to musicians and songwriters, and certainly think they should get paid for their work. Steve's daughter's boyfriend Homer is a successful drummer. He gets paid for session work, for touring with the Dap Kings, and also for production/producing work he does through the studio he opened this past year, Dunham Records.  He said the money for him and other musicians is probably better and more long term in producing in the studio. If you produce a hit or for someone established, you're likely to draw more money and continued royalties. It's also good to write and place a song with a major artist or have a song picked up for a television show or film. [Can't resist posting this link to his recent performance on Jimmy Fallon's Late Night with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. You have to scroll to the end of the program.]

I do think musicians have to be creative in how they earn their money, and that as with so many things, more people will be able to be in the business, but fewer people will make the "big money." Record companies and distributors are in crisis. I bought a song tonight on Amazon for 99 cents. Singles are back (and Homer's studio, along with its predecessor, Dap Tone Records, is known for making singles, on wax, mostly old-school funk, with analog equipment).

But I think there should also be room for these local bands playing in small venues. The local businesses reevaluating their music programming are coffee shops, a couple brew pubs and bars, and a local sandwich shop called Bo Diddley's. One of the bands affected will be my favorite local band, whom I won't name because I don't want to get them in trouble. I first heard them play, covers of Americana/folk/bluegrass, at the Farmer's Market. Then I heard them play at a Democratic fundraiser at Fisher's Club, the local set-up club in Avon that specializes in walleye, ribs and rhubarb pie. We also went to hear them play at McCann's, a local brew pub where one of the bandmembers is also the brew master, and again on my birthday at the White Horse in St. Cloud, a bar with an incredible, self-taught cook (last week when we went the special was an Indonesian beef dish that had been marinated for 12 hours and slow-cooked for 6 more, though I had the crab cakes, which are the stuff dreams are made of). The only bad thing about the White Horse is that the "booths" are giant slabs of plywood with benches that are actually church pews-- you feel like you're far from the table and far from the person you're sitting across from.

What I'm saying is, these places are providing a public service by having local bands come in and play a few sets of excellent music, and they're operating on a shoestring. Our friend Nancy plays mandolin and violin in an excellent band, Random Road, that plays at the Local Blend, a  St. Joseph coffeehouse that has finally come into its own after three different owners, mostly because of the connection to local musicians. Random Road is not likely to get in trouble, since they mostly play Irish traditionals and public domain folk songs. But it seems sort of crazy to me that they would be scrutinized or the coffee shop owners would be fined if they played a song without proper licensing.

These are not really concerts, you see. This is one step above playing a wedding or in your neighbor's garage. And why can't there be an exemption for this? Can't we sing and play music for each other, sometimes, for free? We're not selling CDs or putting it on the internet or even selling tickets (though donations are often welcome, and you're encouraged of course to buy a beer or some fresh produce from the vendors). And I feel so lucky to live in a place with such a lively and active music scene.

I feel much the same way about this issue as I felt about the fees I used to pay to show foreign films to community college students. It cost $300 to show an obscure film to the 10-20 students who would show up for the series. Well worth it for the cultural experience, I believe, but also kind of crazy, since they could (but wouldn't) rent most of these at their local video store for $1.99. And the value added was my perspective and brief post-film discussion, which-- my hope-- might make them into lifelong film watchers, or at least not afraid of subtitles.

I hate to say it, but I also feel this way about church music. I know composers write the stuff, and put their time and energy into it. But to charge churches for their congregations to sing a song together on a Sunday morning just doesn't sit right with me. We have a popular composer in the monastery, and I'm very glad she gets paid for her work. But I still think it would be better if all the music we sang each day in liturgy was free. It doesn't sit right with me. To record it, yes, or publish it, yes, but that should be the hymnbook publisher's cost. Once you buy the book, you should be able to sing anything in it anytime you want. But it doesn't work that way. In the Assembly of God church of my youth, this was a major issue. We used an overhead and projected "worship choruses" onto a screen. Pretty quickly that was a licensing issue, and a system was set up to license the songs per use. To this day, my parents' evangelical church projects lyrics via PowerPoint and pay the licensing fee-- no need for books or worship aids printed up for everyone. And licensing fees are paid. I certainly see the rationale, and I'm not even disputing it. It just doesn't sit right with me.

It's music. It's meant to be performed. Everyone should sing! And singing should be free.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My New Grocery Store

I don't ever remember being as excited about the opening of a business as I am about the fact that on Wednesday our town is getting a Coborn's grocery store. Not when IKEA opened in the Chicago area, or even when Trader Joe's opened in Minneapolis. I mean they were nice, but neither changed my life. But living in a town with no real grocery store (there is a dusty old market downtown and two gas station mini-marts, but that's it) has been a total pain. Have I mentioned how important cooking and food are to me? The nearest grocery store right now is a fifteen-minute drive away, and I know that isn't much, but when you live in a small town it seems very far away. It is in "town," and means going into town. Town is St. Cloud, where there's traffic and too many stoplights, and basically aggravation. Going into town is a trip. When I come home from work, which is 5 minutes away, the last thing I want to do is go to town!

Wednesday, we'll have a major chain grocery in St. Joseph. I can send Steve to pick up things (in the last month we've had an urgent need for barley and for black beans, for which I've been lucky to have Annie to borrow from next door). I can stop there on the way home. I need not worry when I go on the weekly shopping trip that I'll forget something important.

It's seriously like entering civilization. Now all I need is for our renter to move out so I can do laundry in the house, and I'll be set.

Of course, it will mean the end of Loso's, the dusty market downtown. It's a beautiful building, and Loso is a founding name in this town. I've maybe bought things there four or five times. Overpriced, not-the-right-brand things. I have very little sentimentality when it comes to basic needs. And despite the fact that the overstocked shelves of bright, shiny too-many-choices and too-much-to-consume grocery stores have caused me more than one anxiety attack, I'm so glad one is moving to my neighborhood.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monastery Blog

The monastery has launched a blog, with eight Sisters signed on to write once a month (one is on for the fifth Tuesday of the month, so really there are two holes in the schedule if we want every Tuesday and Thursday covered). So far, two entries have been posted. As communications director, I set up the blog template, put in the basic information, and did an orientation for the bloggers.

I've also offered to sit with them and help them post their entries. I'm certain that at least four of them will pick it up almost immediately, and it will probably only be a regular thing to help three of them. And it doesn't take long and is really a pleasure to get a visit once a month from some of these Sisters to post their entries. I'll fill in here and there with other entries, things I have access to or that work best on a site where I can post links-- and hopefully drive people to our Web site. I am a communications professional, after all.

Today I watched a free webinar on public relations through social media. It was a little overwhelming. The speaker works for major clients as a public relations expert and introduced not just the concept of publicizing businesses through use of social media but also these crazy, complex online press releases. It was for Anheuser Busch, promoting a video they were releasing that was a behind-the-scenes look at the making of their Super Bowl commercial. The release included a Twitter post, a "summary" that was basically the release, had video clips down the side, and had links to all kinds of things-- interviews with the makers of the making-of video, to the video site, to a promotion site for the video, e-mails to all the people involved and a variety of other organizations, links so you could easily "share" the content of that very press release, YouTube embed codes you could paste right in your blog if you wanted to include one of the clips, etc. Everything you'd need as a blogger or online media outlet to link to this promotion.

He also had some high-power graphics of social networking relationships-- how he identified people in a certain target industry tho were all loosely interconnected in terms of their discussion of issues and yet who reached all kinds of different niche audiences. With this chart of connections and connectors developed, you'd have a really powerful list for submitting your PR press release. And you could build buzz and seriously promote something...

Home for lunch I heard an "Intelligence Squared" debate on NPR on the proposition: "Good riddance to the/mainstream media." I love these debates, mostly because they remind me of teaching rhetoric. But unlike many of these "Oxford-style debates," which are always quite civilized and stable, this one devolved right away into heated discussion, shouting even. What was clear was what was at stake. The representatives of mainstream/traditional media are in complete emotional crisis mode over the impending death of their industry. Right away I'd been slightly offended by the way the proposition was phrased. It seemed so callous. Could anyone think that the death of newspapers and magazines in this country is a good thing, long overdue?

I think it's inevitable, given the huge technological transition we're in, but I also think it should be attended with respect and even some sadness. You know, like the death of the record album. Or even the death of the CD. MP3 files are not very high quality, and albums are basically dead as a form, replaced by digitized libraries full of singles. I'm happy to have digital music, and in fact downloaded a CD yesterday (the whole thing, not just the songs I really like-- but I also bought another one by the same artist used online because it was cheaper and I'm thinking will last longer than my next system crash). Still, I know it's not as good as the old technology and I know we're losing access to what was a truly formative experience for me: listening to records, then to CDs, one at a time, in their entirety, on music systems with good speakers or headphones.

Things are changing. For real.

Four of the Sisters wrote their first blog entries right away, and even found photos/artwork for them. They wanted me to proofread the entries and advise them on length and content. Two are holding onto them until their day-- the week of Thanksgiving. The Sisters are nothing if not perfectionists, which will make it hard for them to really get into blogging. But they'll also enjoy having their writing "out there" right away and for an audience. It's my job to build an audience, I think. It's my job, certainly, to help them get what they've written onto the blog itself.

It's hard to say what my job is. I work with an organization that is in some ways slowing down, but which is still constantly courting new ideas. Many of these Sisters want to find a way into the future-- giving online courses, retreats and webinars of their own. They want to share their wisdom and have someone help them navigate the world of technology. In some ways, however, the line between programming itself and promotion of that programming becomes blurred, because there aren't many Sisters who can actually make the transition on their own-- give me something to promote using the new tools of "my" profession. 

After lunch, a Sister dropped by to hand in a profile she's written for the next magazine. I'll have to retype it because, although she did create it on her computer, she's forgotten her password and can't get back on. Then I met with a Sister who is ramping up one of the monastery's traditional programs, a scholars-in-residence program, and starting a new initiative to sponsor students for a year of service living with Benedictine communities after college in needy areas of the world. She needs a bookmark and two brochures. We made a plan, looked at sample text and pricing. This, I told her, is something I can definitely do.

Tomorrow I'm off to the Archives to try to find an image of the 100-year-old grotto with snow for this year's Christmas card...

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last night, sort of by default, Steve and I watched Unforgiven. Neither of us had seen it before, and it's been more than 15 years since it came out. I am a big fan of Westerns and the Western genre, but I'd never gotten around to this one. Mostly, I think, because I don't like Clint Eastwood. (Bridges of Madison County kind of did me in on Clint.) More than that, however, I think maybe I just don't "get" Clint Eastwood. We both hated Gran Torino and found almost no redeeming qualities in the movie whatsoever. I knew Unforgiven was a revisionist Western, and was interested to see what we'd find. Also, the film has a 96% approval rating on That is incredibly high-- universal praise.

The movie left us puzzled. Basically, we were on the sheriff Little Bill Dagget's (Gene Hackman) side, and we were pretty sure the film was not.

As far as revision goes, I'm not sure what was being subverted. Clint, as Bill Munny, is a former assassin, a man paid to kill. He was domesticated by a good woman, whom he married and who got him to give up drinking whiskey and settle into life as a farmer. His partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) married an Indian woman and likewise settled down. Feminine=domesticity=emasculation. His wife is dead of small pox, and after twelve years out of practice, Munny can't shoot straight or seat a horse, and is a poor pig farmer with two small children. That's standard Western stuff.

He leaves those children more or less to their own devices to set out to get his manhood back and take on one more job. Ned needs no arm-twisting at all to join him.

They're going to kill two cowboys, one of whom slashed a prostitute's face because she insulted the size of his penis. Again, emasculation by women. At the time of the incident, the sheriff intervened and, given the argument by the saloon owner that the cowboy had ruined his valuable property (the prostitute), he passed sentence: the two brothers were required to pay the saloon owner 7 horses in the spring. Fair? No. An insult to womanhood? Of course. This is 1880. Prostitutes have no rights, although the woman is well cared for by the others and even is kept on at the saloon to do cleaning (is this beneath her? do we feel bad that she isn't attractive enough to get paid for sex?). When the men return with the ponies in the spring, they bring along an 8th one and offer it to the woman herself. She seems moved by the offer, but the other women chase the men off.

By any estimation except a politically correct, anachronistic one, this is good lawing by Bill Dagget. The women don't agree, and they put up a reward for whomever will kill the two cowboys. This is what Munny and Ned are after.

But before they arrive in town, it seems to be what a cruel-hearted, dastardly, cowardly braggart of an Englishman is after as well. He breaks the town's ordinance against carrying firearms (again, a reasonable ordinance in the Old West, it seems to me). Dagget disarms him and then beats him up rather mercilessly and throws him in jail. OK. I still haven't turned against Dagget. He is a braggart, and may not be fighting "Old West" fair, but he's sending a message to criminals to stay the hell out of his town and don't bring any guns around.

When Munny and Ned and their other sidekick, a short-sighted (in more ways than one) young man with dreams of being a gunslinger, come to town, they get more or less the same treatment. However, they also manage to shoot the two unsuspecting cowboys. And they carry out the hits in the most cowardly way imaginable. These acts of violence turn the stomachs of Ned and the young man, who just don't have what it takes to be cold-hearted killers. Munny, however, is back in the saddle, and carries out one more bloody rampage before heading home to his children. This time it's to avenge the death of Ned-- which we're told quite clearly is accidental and unintentional-- at the hands of Little Bill Dagget. I don't think we're supposed to cheer for Munny, and this is clearly a dark Western and he is an anti-hero. However, I think we're supposed to respect Munny, and also we're supposed to think the sheriff "had it coming to him." (After the shooting of the unarmed cowboy in an outhouse, the young gunslinger says, "Well, he got what he deserved," and Clint says, "We all deserve it.")

OK, so no one is without sin here. But it's just hard for me to see what the sheriff did wrong. I don't think he deserved what he got. I think he was a good sheriff! Looking over the plot, I just can't see where he crossed the line. There were many places in the plot he could have gone wrong or stepped over the line, but in all instances it seems the script goes out of its way to show him behaving appropriately. Yes, he beats Clint within an inch of his life, but Clint has come into his town, refused to give up his weapon, and with clear plans to kill two citizens working at a local ranch whose debt to society has been paid. Hmmm. What's a sheriff to do?

It's a good, complex film. But to go to and read reviews about the little tyrant Bill Dagget and the individualist who puts him in his place, well, it just makes me wonder. When I read reviews about Clint Eastwood in this movie "redeeming" his earlier career in Westerns and rising heroic once again, albeit with more honesty about the nature of violence and his character, I am confused. Did the critics get it? Did the audiences get it? Do we have a philosophy that allows us to get it? Or is the myth that guides the Western in some ways too resistant, too unassailable, for us to overturn it? In the end, does the gunslinger, outsider, manly individualist who refuses to be permanently domesticated the only one who gets away with murder, who needs no forgiveness?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I'm not a good dieter. I don't find abstinence from food to be a worthy virtue or one I'm interested in pursuing. After the first few weeks of good, solid, daily exercise, and the rewards of two more weeks combining the exercise with diet, I've come to that terrible point where it's time to "institutionalize" the changes. Self-control and hard work toward a goal is one thing, but when it becomes clear that I need to do this another four weeks to reach the goal, and after that to basically keep doing this to maintain it, I'm crabby. Really, really crabby.

I don't like thinking about weight this much, and I don't like working out. But more than that, I love to cook and to eat, and these weeks of eating small amounts with little variety is getting to me. I am officially no longer interested in eating any more broccoli. Tonight a dish of kale and beans that tasted delightful last week had much less flavor (I was out of sherry, clearly a key ingredient not replaceable by a little shot of red wine).

In the end, I am-- and knew this about myself--a binge person. I do well in spurts, not in the dailiness of work routines and working out in gyms and eating right. (This is why teaching suited me-- 18 weeks of intensity followed by a break to write.) I don't think it is that I am easily bored. I don't have a short attention span. I just bristle against routine and against spending my energy toward being thin, fit or making money. I recognize fully the value of all three of these things, and the way being thinner would contribute to my health and well-being. I know that abstaining from most sugar and from caffeine and alcohol, dairy and bread, as I have for the past month, makes me feel more clear, more awake, less sluggish during the day.

It just takes my attention and makes me feel pinched and stingy, unattached to the joys of life. But then again, winter is coming, and discipline may be a good way to direct one's attention in these pinched, cold, dark months. In the end, I will buy new clothes, bright and charming.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Star

While the three guys kept at the chicken plucking, Steve and I headed off to Edina to see Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film that completely rehabilitates John Keats.

This is no blond, curly-headed, pale, frail frilly-shirt-wearing, consumptive, sissy-poet John Keats. He is an ordinary young man, and a poetic genius. He has a sense of humor, is good with children, and in love in a very believable way. And he catches a very bad cold. Romantic, but with that innocence that belongs to the early 19th century. And Fanny Brawne likes fashion, but that doesn't mean she's not also serious. She pines like a girl her age, and is curious and earnest, but not silly. Played by Abbie Cornish, she's also just a bit understated and believable-- both parts are very well cast, if a bit on the anachronistic side, a little too contemporary. Ben Whishaw looked like he could be a British lead singer in a college band. I hope this doesn't make it seem like it's cool to be a poet! ;-)

I have to say it kind of threw me, to see John Keats so, well, healthy. His friend John Brown tries to keep Keats from any distractions, but Keats doesn't seem to suffer so much as languish while writing poetry in the study. Whenever Fanny comes to the door, he seems to be on the couch, so it's hard to see what she's interrupting. The quills are functional, not affectations, and the love-notes exchanged throughout the movie are endearing. All the characters, in fact, are fully realized in the film, and so we get the sense not just of the couple but of a whole family (Kerry Fox as Fanny's mother is particluarly good). Everyone is likeable, and even the tragedy doesn't feel terribly tragic-- well, then again, it was a foregone conclusion.
I did hear someone sniffle behind me, but what I liked best, and what Steve liked, was the tone of the film, not too artsy, not over the top in terms of romance or music, but a story of young love that is recognizable and enjoyable. And the sets and costumes are wonderful, too. I give Jane Campion a lot of credit, for the script and for keeping it simple. The scene where Fanny is in her room with the window open, letting the breeze blow the curtains out and lightly puff her skirts, in the clean, spare room with her beloved on the other side of the wall, will stay with me a long time.

Chicken Butchering

This morning, with a break in the seemingly endless rain, Steve let me know before heading out to the tree nursery that the Ebels were coming over to slaughter some chickens with Tim. Tim has had 30 chickens, and all of them have lived, so it was time to "thin the flock." As he said, they were getting too expensive to feed. The Ebels had fewer laying hens, but still too many to roost in the garage all winter. One of the boys told me these eight were the "bad chickens" who didn't stay in the yard. They are in a cul-de-sac where free range must be limited.

As usual on the farm, there was a well-set-up system for the butchering of the chickens. A line was strung, and the butchering station was set up at an ergonomically efficient height on the hay wagon. They were building a small fire to boil water for the dipping necessary to get the feathers off. The chickens themselves were in two crates, with no idea of their fate.

The butchering was efficient and seemed very humane. Temple Grandin would have been proud-- and Tim said he was reading her book the night before, Animals Make Us Human. The chickens squawked a little when they were taken from the pen, but once they put the wire over their heads, they settled down completely. The butchering was clean and over in a second. I couldn't have handled it if there had been a lot of flapping and squawking, but this was actually peaceful.

The guys, Tim Heymans, Tim Ebel and Alex Schleper, seemed happy to be there. It was a very "guy" thing, and to see them standing around the chickens plucking them, one could have mistaken them for guys at a tailgating party-- not that these particular guys would ever be at a tailgating party. The Ebel boys, Blaise, Joel, Eli and Henry, were more cold than anything. They sat by the fire to keep warm, then moved into the truck. Blaise and Joel spent some time chasing around the chickens who got to live. Eventually their mom picked them up to take them to get costumes for tonight's trick-or-treating.

For the complete slideshow, click here.  (NOTE: I've fixed the link so they should be accessible to all now...)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hotel Poetry

OK, so more luxuriating than writing on my retreat. It was a good weekend, and I did read and think and even write a bit. I was reading Ellen Bryant Voigt, whose Messenger: New and Selected Poems I bought after hearing her read at the College of Saint Benedict last week.

It was a good reading, and she was speaking my language. I associate her with the early low residency MFAs, Warren Wilson and the one she founded at Vermont. Her name was around, but I don't remember reading her work as a graduate student in the late-1980s. The language she was speaking was narrative and lyric. She read some narrative poems, a poem she called a lyric that sounded like narrative to me-- it had a setting, characters, even a small action. She had spoken to a class earlier in the afternoon where she'd explained what she meant by these terms, and why she was referencing her poems this way.

She also talked about getting tired of writing narrative and consciously switching to lyric, and then going back. At the end of the reading she read new poems, without punctuation, packed with words and association and ultimately seeming like more work than they were worth. I'd have to see them on the page, but afterward a friend summed it up saying, "What is it with contemporary poets piling on words?"

My favorite of the poems she read were a series of monologue sonnets set during the 1919 influenza epidemic. The poems were elegant and detailed, evocative and believable. I asked after the reading why she'd written so many about this epidemic, and whether they were based on research.

She said they weren't based on research, as her research had turned up no stories of the influenza at all. One book on the subject full of facts, but no stories, no mention in literature except for one paragraph by Willa Cather. How all those authors could have lived through something that decimated the population and not leave a creative record was beyond Voigt's understanding, and is beyond mine. I'm interested in collective memory and more particularly in collective forgetting, so this was equally interesting to me. Voigt said the lack of a record gave her creative license to "make it up," focusing just on not being anachronistic and fully imagining each situation.
Her starting point was a story a friend of the family had told, a country doctor, who had traveled during the time of the influenza with an empty bag, seeing the ravages of the flu but unable to offer any treatment or relief. I can certainly see how helplessness like that could take hold of someone and result in poetry. And once you're in that place, and exploring that story, other characters speak to you-- if you're lucky.

I fed on her poems, on the language and lines, and attempted something. I made a heading: "Garden Poems" and started to try to write about vegetables. I wanted to make them one by one, carefully drawn like illustrations on old-fashioned seed packets or calendars, or traced on cloth to be embroidered. That would make them lyrics, I think, crafted pictures, standing alone. And it would depend on music and shape, on craft. I started with carrots, and moved on to peas. And for a few days I kept that image of the carrot in my head. When I read the poem again today, it seemed oddly perverse, sort of darkly sexual, in a way that made me embarrassed. Not at all like the image on the side of the seed packet. But not far off Roethke's root cellar.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grand Hotel

About a month ago, I decided I really needed a break. I also wanted to get away and write. I sent off an e-mail to Sisters Kay and Annette Fernholz, Notre Dame Sisters who have a yurt on their Earthrise Farm in far Western Minnesota that can be used for retreats. I've been there once before, on a cold November weekend. It was quiet and warm and I was fairly productive. They weren't around that weekend, so it was a good solitary retreat for me. The one major drawback is that there are no bathroom or even outhouse facilities there, so you have to make trips to the nearby farmhouse to use the bathroom. That worked OK, since no one was in the farmhouse, but I got the impression after meeting them and having brunch with them on Sunday morning that if they were around, it might interrupt the solitude.

The yurt reservation fell through after they got a request for someone who wanted to stay a whole month. But things at work have been very difficult, and there have been weekend and evening obligations as well. My anxiety level has been high, and I knew if nothing else that I needed to "get away" for a break.

Of course, I'm now very in touch with the religious retreat options throughout the state. Every order has a guesthouse or retreat house of some sort. It would not be hard to reserve a room for a quiet, individual retreat. But due to my job, I just really wasn't relishing the idea of a religious retreat. I want to get away, after all. Thinking about what I would like, I realized that what I would like more than anything else would be to stay at a luxury hotel. Something old and classic, with a comfortable bed and deep tub. I went to Orbitz and looked around. After all, I've been an urban person most of my life, and I do miss cities, just being in them. And I feel like I know Minneapolis less well than any other place I've lived. (do I sound defensive? Yes, I feel a little embarrassed about this whole extravagent thing!)

So it is that I am spending two nights at the Grand Hotel, a 4-star hotel in Minneapolis. It has the added attraction of one of the city's best sushi restaurants and a world class fitness club (used by all sorts of people in the city, two floors, to which I have access).

I am trying not to put pressure on myself to write, but just to be-- to read, to relax, to continue my fitness program (18 days of Jillian Michaels workouts on the way to 30 days!) and the detox diet I've been on (adding miso soup and high quality raw fish to the regimen of broccoli, brown rice, oatmeal and a few fruits shouldn't throw my system off too badly). And now that I'm here, it clearly is a spa vacation more than a writing retreat. I'm trying to let myself have that, as I think it's exactly what I needed.

So after last night's workout, I soaked in the perfect tub, watched television and went to sleep early. This morning I got up, read the paper, went to breakfast (oatmeal, herb tea) at my favorite local joint, Moose and Sadie's, and took a walk over the Stone Arch Bridge that spans the Mississippi. Now I'm off for another workout, after which I will read some poetry and maybe write a little. The rules for myself are No Facebook and No E-mail (my boss always sends messages on Saturdays, and often others do, too). What I want to do is think creatively. What I want to do is feel good in my body, in space, and not have to clean, cook, garden or grocery shop. I think that will be very possible.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Autumn Light

It is clear that fall is all about light. All of September was very warm-- our summer finally-- but it was undeniably fall because of the light. Steve talks about humidity and dry air as his signs of seasonal change, but it is about light. For the first two weeks of October we've had cold and rain-- complete cloud cover, freezing ground, even those two days where snow fell and fell and fell. It felt like November; it felt like March. Without the sun we were unmoored from the season. Green leaves were falling from the trees. The pond had a skim of ice on it. Geese may have been flying overhead, but I didn't see or hear them because the house was closed up tight and I didn't go out much. The transition to the long months of going to the car, the office, the car, home.
But this morning, even with ice on the railing and the lawn chair on the balcony, the sun was shining and it was obvious that yes, this is fall. There is a coppery, metallic hue to everything, and layers upon layers. It is so far from death, this season, even as it portends death-- or maybe there is no death, and we have thought about the seasons all wrong.
Just this morning I finished Sister Mara Faulkner's book Going Blind about her father's blindness from a genetic disease that also afflicts her and many in her family. In it she quotes memoirs of other blind adults, including Stephen Kuusisto, whom I met when he was at a pretty low point in his blindness, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. He wrote a memoir called The Planet of the Blind and both Sister Mara and Stephen imagine a world rich in compassion and empathy and simple, common-sense kindness, as well as one of rich imagination in a world of the blind. Her view is not of replacing the sense of sight with sharpened other senses, but of seeing the blind world in a new and positive way-- as rich in itself and life-giving. I wonder if we could-- or if I already do-- accomplish this with fall and winter.

There is a coppery fullness, a rich, warm texture, an inner life of fall, to be followed by the quiet depth of winter, that is life itself.