Saturday, January 31, 2009


Another thing we do in winter in Minnesota is order seeds. The catalogs arrived a couple weeks ago, trees and grasses for Steve and the Burgess 2009 Garden Catalog for me. Last year I put in the tiered garden along the side of the house, so had bulbs sent here, although I was still living in Cold Spring. It took me by surprise when a seed catalog arrived addressed to me.
Steve made me another raised garden bed last fall, so now we have five. We rotate one for compost, so there are four to plant. Steve has been a pretty big "monocropper," one bed in beans, one in butternut squash, one in tomatoes. I've discovered I'm not really a big butternut squash fan, and we still have four left. My plan is to plant fewer of each plant, with more variety. I also want to not load myself up so I burn out or get discouraged the first year. Tomatoes are the most important, and they'll get their own bed. I'll buy a few plants at the local nursery, and get roma seeds in hope of having good tomatoes for sauce. Two butternut squash plants will be plenty. I'm not a big green bean fan, so am thinking snow peas instead. There's a woman at the farmer's market who grows the sweetest peas on the planet-- so why compete?

Here is my plan for vegetable seeds:

Straight 8 cucumbers
Roma tomatoes
Squash medley (zucchini and yellow)
Snow peas
Brussel sprouts
Butternut squash (2 plants, not 8)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Oral Histories

In my job I am currently preparing for two things: the opening of this year's exhibit at the Haehn Museum at Art and Heritage Place (a small history museum), and the Spring issue of Benedictine Sisters and Friends magazine (though the current one doesn't come out until next week). In the Spring issue we feature the Jubilarians celebrating 50 years of religious life. There are 15 of these women currently at the monastery. What this means is that we sit down with each of them and write a profile of their ministries (work) and life in the monastery. I've been working with our student intern, who is going to interview 6-8 of them and write the profiles.

One Jubilarian, S. Geraldine Zierden, was clearly thinking ahead, and in November she sat down arnd wrote a 5-page history of her life in the convent (1959-2009). It is a remarkable document and was a joy to read. I have to find a way to cut it down to 250 words, which will not be easy.

The first story is the one that really caught my attention. When she entered as a novice, her aunt Arinna Zierden was the community cobbler. That's right, cobbler. When she died, Geraldine was assigned to the cobblery shop. As she said, "I think just because I was Sister Arinna's niece, they assumed I automatically knew how to do that." Fix shoes, that is.

Can you imagine becoming a nun and being assigned to be a cobbler? Set down in a shop with no apprenticeship whatsoever, to pick up the leather and nails and other tools and just start resoling and stitching and repairing women's shoes? I would give anything to have seen that cobblery shop.

From 1964-1968 she was at the mission at Red Lake, where she said "I had beautiful Sister Johnette Kohorst to show me the ropes." The two of them cooked hot lunches for 115 school children, and all the meals for the 15 Sisters, 2 Brothers, and 2 priests who lived and worked there. They tended a huge garden and also had a great time together. My favorite passage is this:

"In spring when the ice broke up on the huge Red Lake, we could hear the crash of it way in the house. So whenever we heard that I would run up to the fourth floor to look out the window to see the ice fly. It always sounded like train cars colliding; that's what we heard in the house. The ice would fly in the air really high up in large pieces-- sometimes they looked as big as a house. It always depended how windy it was when this happened."

I don't understand all of it but it's an amazing oral history. After Red Lake she was at the mission in Salt Lake City, Utah. Since 1979 S. Geraldine has worked in the copy center at the College of Saint Benedict, which she also loves. She says, "The reason I love my job here is the people again. I get to know the teachers and lots of students ... They all spoil me rotten, but they tell me I spoil them too, so it is a two-way street."

The museum show this year is titled, "By the Work of Our Hands." It is a celebration of the land, buildings and operations at the monastery over the last 150 years. The place was like a little city for many years, self-sustaining and buzzing with cottage industries. I saw an aerial photo they were mounting that showed the lands that belonged to the monastery, including the farm where we now live.

I'm sure it's going to be a great exhibit, with artifacts from the farming operations, kitchens-- and cobbler shop!

(Open March 8 - December 23, 2009. Special preview and tour dinners on March 5th and May 7th. If you're in town, drop in and see it.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Power Outage

Sunday night at 5:30 the power went out in St. Joseph, Collegeville, and Avon. It would have been more romantic if the temperature hadn't been 5 below and falling. Steve was over at Tim and Annie's and we were about 30 minutes from pulling a duck out of the oven. After 20 minutes, by candlelight, I wrapped the duck up and put it in the fridge, fearing Salmonella. After the five minutes that told me this was for real, I called Steve and he came home. His phone was already ringing, and when he answered it he said, "We're at Ground Zero, here!" His adrenaline had kicked in and he started finding things to do. He took candles downstairs to our renter. He talked about when we should think about draining the pipes and turning off the water.

A friend who is a more isolated also called. His parents are in Florida and asked Steve to watch out for him. He wanted to know if our power was out, too.

Steve's daughter called with information at the college-- the power would be out 6-7 hours, the students were being told. She was headed into town to study at a warm Barnes and Noble. That's when I put the duck away and we started thinking about going out for dinner.

I was on edge by then. The house was cooling down, and in a few hours it would be actually cold. We'd need to bring the renter up from the even colder basement. The back bedroom would stay a little warmer.

His brother called ("We're at Ground Zero, here!" said Steve) and that's how we knew Avon had no power either.

The friend whose parents are in Florida called again wondering if it was time to turn off the water-- now afraid of the freezing pipes. Steve reassured him that if it was really 7 hours, things would be fine.

Almost exactly an hour after we lost power, with the car heating up in the driveway, the lights went back on. I put the duck back in the oven, but it took a long time for it to cook.

It was about checking in, the phone calls, and I was moved, really, by the connections to Steve in his community. Today the renter left the candles outside our door with a note: "Thank you, Steve and Susan." A little light. A little warmth. A phone call.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Catholic Literature

I'm always interested in how people define "Catholic Literature." I tried making a serious study of this question when I was a resident scholar for a year at the Collegeville Institute. Although I was raised a Catholic until 12, I spent the next ten years in an evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal environment, and it is the stories I heard in those churches, the behavior I observed, and that world view that I think has primarily shaped my aesthetic vision. However, I know Catholicism was also formative for me. In the end, I like the idea that there is such a thing as a Catholic writer, and so I've looked for ways to cultivate and understand what that might mean.

I never did get a good definition of Catholic Literature from my self-guided study. For the most part, perhaps like all these classifications of literature, people seem to define it as 1) work written by Catholics, or 2) work about Catholics. As a poet, I was looking for something a little more philosophical, a Catholic imagination. The biggest contribution on this issue is offered by the theologian and philosopher David Tracy, whose work on "the analogical imagination" claims basically that the Catholic imagination is shaped by analogy, in images rather than abstract ideas. That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but it basically works. Catholics are liturgical, whereas Protestants are steeped in sermons. Catholics are drawn to the icon, the symbol, visual images that guide them in their faith, whereas Protestants are sola Scriptura, "proof-texters," focused on the Word of the Bible and its meanings.

It was with great interest I spotted a volume on a bookshelf in our basement a month ago called: Great Modern Catholic Short Stories. It was edited by Sister Mariella Gable, OSB, a Sister at Saint Benedict's Monastery who died in 1985. (I have to note that they misspelled her name on the spine of the book, "Marilla Gable.") It was published in 1942 by Sheed and Ward.

I opened it this morning and found the table of contents organized this way: Ten Stories about Nuns, Seven Stories about Monks, Nine Stories about Priests. As straightforward a definition of Modern Cathlic Fiction as you might find.

In the introduction, she talks about the way these short stories mark a watershed in writing about religious. For the first time, she says, there are stories telling it straight and plain, giving a real view into the lives of priests, monks and nuns. She gives some examples of the earlier type of fiction, including a story that tells of "a young Trappist ... seduced immediately upon hearing the voice of a woman." Of this, she says, "After [James Lane Allen's] portrayal of a monk, the yarns of the Arabian Nights read like stark realism." The collection is a celebration of the ordinary life of monasteries and rectories, and so had my attention. After the introduction, I read two of the stories that were written by monks, although most of the stories in the collection were written by laypeople. One was called "Reading in the Refectory," by Peter Whiffin. It is more a reflective essay than a short story as I think of them. It is a first-person stream of consciousness, a monk who seems to be speaking to us directly about the experience of listening to "holy reading" during mealtime and thinking about his own experience with the kind of piety portrayed in the reading. It's a wonderful story about the disconnect between the reading, that leads the monks into a sort of competition "counting" how many holy acclamations they can make during a period of time, and the simple holiness he observes in another monk who has spent the night with a fellw monk who is dying in his cell.

The second hit closer to home for me. It is called "Monks Die Good" by Jack English, a pen name for Brother Caetan, a Brother of St. Francis Xavier. It tells the story of a burial for a monk, "Brother Raphael," who dies on New Year's Day. It is focused on the physical discomfort of the process-- the hard work of digging the grave, the awkwardness and banging of his knee as they carry the casket down the narrow aisle, the cold when he forgets his gloves, the annoyance of having all the other brothers tell him he should have worn a hat. It's steeped in physicality and in the awkwardness of community life. The monks discuss the imperfect job done by the mortician (too much powder, unevenness of tone), the way the monks move back to the tasks at hand after the burial. Near the end he offers up a simple prayer.

It is a brilliant story, really. I'm going to make a copy to give to the prioress at Saint Benedict's Monastery, Nancy Bauer, who wrote an account for the upcoming issue of our magazine of how our monastery marks death, following the directive by St. Benedict in the Rule to "keep death ever before your eyes."

It is also a Catholic story-- steeped in the physical reality while seeking simple transcendence. That is more and more becoming my working definition.

The copy of the book we have on our shelf doesn't show up on an Amazon search, but another does, published by Sheed & Ward in 1943 and reissued in 1944. I suspect it's the same book, hopefully with her name correctly imprinted on the spine. The title had also changed, more reflective of the contents: They Are People: Modern Stories of Nuns, Monks and Priests. It is long out of print, but there are still a couple of used copies available.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

winter (2)

It is now light enough when I get home to go and tromp around in the snow for about 40 minutes, from 5-5:40. It's the most gorgeous thing, really. The snow is very white and heaped in creamy hillocks. After one day my tracks are drifted into soft ridges or filled in completely. It's stayed cold enough that the snow is powdery and moving like sand. I think this is the reason to have 80 acres.

Now the deer are walking in my footsteps, the indentations left by the snowshoes.

The light changes pretty quickly and pretty dramatically, as the sun goes down red over the ridge where I-94 rises up a few fields over. Everything is incredibly soft. I think about taking pictures, but I know I couldn't capture it. You just have to be there. And it isn't easy-- after work to put on my snow gear and go out. I think of my mother who swims all winter in the early morning. She gets up in the dark and cold and puts on a bathing suit and jumps in a chilly pool at the high school. I could never do that. It's the best exercise for her because she has some arthritis in her hip. And my mother is driven by virtue. She knows it is good for her, and so she does it. I use this as a motivator to get myself outside-- because this is so much easier to do, dress warm and walk out into the beautiful landscape. And I've just this week reached some fitness plateau so it's easier.

I am a little surprised at just how much I like winter. I realize I'm bonding with this property the way I didn't in summer, when everyone said it was so beautiful. The flowers and weeds and thistles were high and there was much more of a barrier for me. Now I can really walk out into it. I feel like I can see everything and make my way. I feel much less likely to get lost, or overwhelmed. Even though it requires equipment, it is so much more approachable and manageable to me now. In the summer it's hot and I like to sit on the screen porch and feel the wind and watch the sun go down from there. It's a picture. But this is inviting to me.

All this makes me think of Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man" in a different way. It always felt like a really gloomy poem, sort of nihilistic, but now it seems sort of the opposite.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Well, I don't feel like "nothing" myself, and I do think when you say "not to think / Of any misery" you introduce the idea of misery in the poem even though you're negating it.

But I do feel that this winter, walking around our property, I am seeing "nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." And I do think it's because we had those days below zero that now, "cold a long time," I can walk out and be part of the landscape with the milder cold of 15 degrees.

There's a realness to the place, to every single thing. Every prickled stem and piece of grass that pokes out of the snow. And today I walked past three cattails-- and thought, "Now I'm in the wetlands." Places I can't go in summer. Suddenly clear and every piece separate and lovely.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hospital Sisters

Today out snowshoeing I took poles. The wind has been blowing and the drifts are high-- it was quite a trudge. As I walked I thought about Sister Colleen Haggerty. She was sitting in front of me in church this morning, recovering from knee replacement surgery. S. Colleen is in her 70s, and currently works in our development office. Her main ministry was health care, including stints on several hospital boards.

Wednesday she came by on her scooter and told us that the next day she and her brother were putting her mother, Olive, who is 98, into a nursing home. I'm assuming it's the St. Benedict Center, also founded by the nuns, but I'm not sure. Names of institutions like that are taken for granted when people at the monastery speak. Colleen said it was going to be a horrible day, although her mother was resigned to it. They were putting her into "the tiniest room on God's green earth." No singles were available, and there were seven people on the waiting list ahead of Olive. The room was tiny, and shared, no room even to take one of her chairs-- nothing but her bedding and a few pictures. Colleen said it was devastating to think of what her mother was losing.

Friday, however, S. Colleen came walking past my door, bright, no scooter. I looked sad and asked, "How did it go with your mother?"

"It was a miracle," she said. "I think it was the Goreckis. They say they didn't do anything, but I think they must have." The Goreckis are good friends of the monastery, and major donors to the hospital and college.

"Did she get a private room?"

Colleen came in and sat down and told me what happened. It seems when they arrived at the center she wanted to give a book to one of the administrators, so was waiting in a chair in the lobby. She was warmly greeted by the administrator, and then someone else very high up in the administration came by and asked what she was doing there. "We're putting my mother in here," she said. And she said he looked blank. "Where?" "On the third floor," Colleen said gravely.

"Oh, Olive Haggerty is your mother?" He told her to wait there a minute, not to go anywhere. When he came back he told her that a room had just opened up, it wasn't cleaned yet so would take awhile, but it was for Olive. It was on the fourth floor. Colleen assumed I knew what that meant, but I had to ask.

"That's the new floor," she said. "My mother was over the moon. She kept saying-- this is like a luxury hotel! This isn't like a home at all." Colleen sent her brother back for some of their mother's furniture to put in the room.

"Colleen, it wasn't because of the Goreckis," I said. "It was becaue of you."

"I know," she said quietly.
She wouldn't want me to write this, I'm sure. The Sisters are like that. They would never take advantage or press their case, and they never look for special treatment. They never even had a capital campaign to raise major funds until their motherhouse was in desperate need of renovation and they were forced to-- about five years ago. S. Colleen, and many like her, served that hospital and its ancillary partners for decades, but they would never expect their mothers to be moved up on the list. I've been thinking a lot about that humility, especially in relation to the difference between St. John's Abbey and Saint Benedict's Monastery. It's part of the gender picture portrayed in Doubt. And it's a little frightening to me, because the Sisters are going to need to be less humble, and depend on others more, if their ministries and this monastery is to survive another century.

There's a great article in the St. Cloud Times today about the relationship between the hospital and the Sisters, "A Hospital Built by Nuns." To read it, click here. We're lucky in that the archivist is a good friend of the monastery, and everything looks good and well-documented. They even refer to us by our proper name: "Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict." But really, the hospital does a great job of telling the story of their connection to the Sisters, even better than the college. And it is a sight to see-- until surprisingly recently it was nuns whose pictures were on the wall as chief administrators, and there is always a Sister on the board.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


One thing about 83 hours below zero is, it makes 15 above feel like spring. After three days of temperatures between 30 below and 5 below, today we woke up to a balmy 15-degree day. Of course, the wind has picked up, and snow flurries are flying, so once I strapped on the snowshoes and got out on the prairie it didn't feel quite as good.
A friend posted a video yesterday of himself throwing a cup of boiling water in the air outside his Minneapolis apartment. Supposedly at 20 below the water will turn instantly to steam. Well, his more or less poured out on the ground. It was anticlimactic to say the least. When I got home, I noticed this great icicle growing up out of the ground beneath the vent from our furnace. To think that hot steam was turning to ice this quickly is kind of freakish.
This kind of cold doesn't bother me, really. You know it's going to happen, and it doesn't last more than a few days. The heat runs all the time and rooms are still cold, but you put on a knit cap inside and some wool socks and hunker down. School was canceled for elementary and high school students for two days because it was too dangerous to stand at the bus stop. Otherwise, people went on as usual.
I was feeling a little homebound, so it was good to get out on my snowshoes. However, the wind was really intense, and the drifting made it hard to trudge around. I am not a believer in using poles with snowshoes; I think they end up becoming a crutch. But it did mean I fell twice getting tangled up in drifts. On Christmas and the day after there was perfect weather and about a foot of snow, and I ust loved walking around on the deer tracks. I saw a poor vole some hawk had stuck on a thistle branch, and the tops of grasses are really lovely. Now the snow is up to about two feet, and it's more work. The deer tracks are drifted over. My brother and sister-and-law go out cross-country skiing on the property quite diligently, and it looks like a lot of work. But that's part of what I like about winter: the Puritan or pioneer sense that there's something good about working hard in your environment. It's a virtue I found lacking in both Northern and Southern California, and remember telling people in Palo Alto that I really missed having something to struggle against, even if it was just the weather. In Southern California it was better-- at least you had the density of population to struggle with.
Last Saturday Steve and I went cross-country skiing out at Quarry Park. It's a giant old quarry and there are lots of granite rock piles around. In the summer people swim there (think Breaking Away). In the snow it was quite beautiful. The ski trails out there are also lit at night, so I'd like to get back there this season. We were skiing over an hour and hardly saw anyone, though the parking lot was full. Then we did the inner loop, which was more crowded. I never understand what it is about National Parks or other places that you only have to go about a quarter-mile off the trail and suddenly you're alone. It's kind of wonderful.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chicago Theater

When we were in Chicago over Christmas, we went to see my friend Joe Dempsey in a play. Joe is a well-known and accomplished Chicago actor. After years of doing commercial work, in the last several years he's focused almost entirely on being on stage. Basically, he reached the point where he had to go to Hollywood and start trying out for pilots and films, stick to commercials, or try to find some meaningful life as an actor in Chicago. His wife Paula, truly one of my best friends in life, is a librarian at DePaul University. They have a great apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood, family and friends close by, and committed to stay put.

I started going to theater in Chicago when I moved there in 1993, and most of what I saw was in one school of theater: Angry Homeless Guy Absurdism. It's work that idolizes Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and has as its aim to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible using two blunt instruments: volume and angst. This is the town of Gary Sinese and John Malkovich, who founded Steppenwolf Theater. It's aggressive and masculine and in the end, I didn't like much of what I saw. But something happened in the mid-90s in theater in Chicago, the rise of a few really interesting theater groups and playwrights who began to make a different kind of theater, what I'd call the Theater of Spectacle. Among the most well known of this group is Mary Zimmerman, whose Metamorphoses went eventually to Broadway. The set is a pool of water and the characters, enacting myths from Ovid's epic poem, change costume and shape as a narrator tells the stories. I didn't see her production; I'd left Chicago by then, but I saw it on the stage at Fullerton College where I taught English from 2002-05. It is perfect for school groups, if you can build the pool, because there is a large cast.

My favorite production was Dear, by a theater company called Doorika, who also eventually moved to New York City. The production was based on the work of Chris Ware, a Chicago cartoonist. At the time he had this elaborately drawn and colored serial in the Chicago alternative newspaper New City. I looked forward to it every week, and immediately bought the collection of the strips in book form, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, when it came out. I also have several small books by Ware that you could buy at a funky record store in Wicker Park and through the mail from the publisher in Portland or Seattle. What I really wanted was an original piece, but I couldn't figure out how to get one, and I knew by the time I did figure it out he'd be too famous for me to be able to afford them. Sure enough, soon he was doing covers for the New Yorker. The Doorika production had this box on wheels on stage, meant to suggest a panel in a cartoon. The actors wore drab olive and mustard clothing, and acted out little vignettes. They also spoke through microphones attached to speaker boxes that they wore around their necks. The effect was amazing, and I can't say I got it, but I was mesmerized by it all-- the visuals, the language, the set and lighting. Chris Ware hated it.

There was also Redmoon Theater, which was run in the early days by Blair Thomas and Jimmy Lasko. Blair was a genius as far as I'm concerned, a genius puppeteer. The first time I heard of them was after Redmoon's production of Moby Dick had closed. It was not a narrative so much as a series of tellings of the basic Moby Dick story with puppets of various sizes on various stages. Think marionettes, shadow puppets, larger puppets, and then full-size papier mache models operated by multiple people. It's hard to describe the surprise of those early spectacles, and even after Blair left, though there were fewer puppets, the spectacles the company created were wonderful, very handmade but with a high level of artistry. Now they have lots of money, though they're still committed to free art in public spaces. But here's a link to a Youtube video that shows the kind of thing they do now.

Visiting Chicago from California in 2004, Paula and Joe picked me up at the airport and we went straight to a park along the river in Chinatown. Redmoon was putting on a grand, daylong spectacle called Sink, Sank, Sunk that did include a sort of nonsense romance play at the center of it. There were wheeled contraptions, bands and jugglers and "vendors" walking around before the actual show, and as the sun set and moon rose, they assembled in the middle of the park between one set of railroad tracks (Amtrak) and the El. There they put on a girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-finds-new-boy, old-boy-competes-for-girl, boy-gets-girl plot. And if I remember correctly, it ended with spurned-boy-kills-himself and is floated down the river in a flotilla of fanciful makeshift boats with lanterns attached. The plot doesn't really matter. There were lots of goofy props and sets, and during the wooing scene one of the suitors brought in the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus to sing. We saw Jimmy Lasko after the show and asked how he managed to get permission from the City of Chicago to unroll a mesh blanket of kerosene lamps over the side of a bridge, making basically a wall of fire. He said he probably didn't technically have a permit to do that, but he had so many permits for so many things, if anyone confronted him he'd just start shuffling through them until they gave up.

Joe Dempsey wasn't in either of these productions. However, he has a good deal of acrobatic talent, and I saw him in a production of Baron in the Trees once that was amazing. The play we saw was The Marriage of Figaro by Remy Bummpo Theater Company at a theater in Lincoln Park. Joe found us free parking, which was a thrill. The tickets were double what I ever remember paying for theater on that size stage in Chicago, and it was nearly sold out in its last weekend. The production was fun, with a great deal of theatricality, stylized and comic. The play itself was so anachronistic in its premises that it's hard to see how it could have "worked." (The count is entitled to sleep with his servant and we're supposed to see it as a huge act of magnanimity that he won't? He's a rat but we're supposed to believe that no one can do anything to stop him except trick him into rendevous-ing with his wife in error?) But Chicago Theater, at least as I know it, is not really about the story. It was very well-acted, with some standout comic performances (but unfortunately the female lead was not very good). It was meticulously well-choreographed and the costumes were marvelous. It was set in an indeterminate era where Swingers ruled (but men still played tennis in knickers? A hybrid of the '20s and '50s).

Still, when I thought about the plays of Joe Dempsey after we left the theater, I had to say my favorite is still a straight-up production of Mister Roberts, where he took the role back from Jack Lemmon, which I thought couldn't be done.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Spoiler Alert: I'm not going to give anything away in this review/entry, but I also am not going to hide my "read" on the events portrayed in the film. So if you want to go into it with an open mind, best to skip this entry perhaps. But whatever you do, go see this film!

I saw many, many excellent films this year, but my votes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress go to John Patrick Shanley and Meryl Streep for Doubt. I had to talk Steve into going, because he feared it would "set the church up as a straw man," paint a bad picture of the Catholic Church. The premise and the commercials did seem like a set-up. Pedophile priest, or maybe just really mean bitter nun who wants to accuse him. It was possible we'd have to suffer through all the stereotypes.

I had hope for better things because the Sisters of Charity of New York, whose habit is used in the movie and whose schools Shanley attended as a child, endorsed the film and participated in its making. For a link to their web page on the movie, click here.

The movie, I believe, is a brilliant account of one way that many pedophile priests in the United States escaped prosecution within the church. Their crimes could not be proven, and although people within the church knew what was going on and did heroic things to try to stop them, the hierarchy, but more particularly in this case the gender prejudice within the church structure, protected them. They could use the clerical structure of the church to hide what they were doing—to deny what they were doing. The character of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has the script of this “Vatican II” priest down, the caring, reaching out priest, and uses his authority and the language of change within the church to identify and take advantage of the most vulnerable member of the school. This is most clear in the way he takes his authority for granted and in one breath talks about “opening” the Church and his care for the community and in the next breath scolds Sister Aloysius for not following “proper form” (i.e., chain of command) in her complaint against him.

The thing I'm afraid is lost on the general audience, including the people sitting behind us in the theater, is the heroism of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and the way in which that heroism comes out of her cultivation of her world view. I wonder if it’s possible to see this defense of her austere and rather rigid ways. What we as a culture condemn her for-- her seeming harshness in raising young boys in "the virtues" and her focus on the corrupting influence of ball point pens on handwriting--is exactly what makes her able to do the right thing in this movie.

The softer, and much more sympathetic character, Sister James (Amy Adams), who wants to see only the good in everyone, and wants to believe in the goodness of Father Flynn is naive, and would let him get away with his actions by believing in his explanation. She is the spirit of Vatican II openness, but also reveals its limitations. Vatican II did nothing to strike down the gender inequality in Church structures or the clerical culture. When I consider it in this context, I think: No wonder so many women religious left the Church. It may have “opened the window” and let in the fresh air of the times where laypeople were concerned, but when it came to women religious or the absolute authority of priests, the window, and the door, remained shut.

I am as critical as anyone of "absolute certainty," which is at the heart of S. Aloysius' character. However, I don't think it is fair to use her certainty about Father Flynn’s character against her. Basically, I think she has ample evidence of what she believes, and she will not be pressured to believe otherwise on the basis of Church authority or on pleas for sympathy. This Father Flynn is a fox and a rat, and she's right about him! To have the courage of her convictions means she "fights the power" using the only tools she has at her disposal. It's heroic. And it's an excellent defense of the Church, because she does not forget her charge and responsibility, her primary purpose. At the same time, she is not a caricature. She is shown to be kind and loving to older Sister Ramona who is losing her eyesight, and she is loving and open to young Sister James. With her Sisters, she shares power, she loves-- but not at the expense of what is right. In the end she has more bravery than the child's mother, plenty of compassion for those who deserve it, and moral high ground to boot.

The doubt she expresses at the end brought me to tears. It is not doubt in herself, or doubt in the truth, but doubts about God and the Church that is the natural response of someone who sees a criminal abusing children rewarded instead of taken down. And for a woman religious, someone with her complete conviction, her lifelong dedication, her commitment to her vows, those doubts about the Church must be crushing. They threaten the very thing that makes her heroic.

I see with the Sisters I work with the way they have found to be Church, to work within the Church and to work for their vision of the Church, despite grave injustice regarding gender equity. It has made them humble, and it has made them truly equipped to take the Church forward. Here is one example. There is a story in our current magazine about The Sophia Program, a program for women in ministry run by our Spirituality Center. In the rationale, Sister Kathryn Casper gave the shifting numbers of women in ministry. In 1990, 41% of parish ministers were women religious. Now the percentage of lay women is 64%, lay men 20%, and women religious, whose numbers are shrinking drastically, 16%. If we were talking about the priesthood, the interpretation would be: This shows a lack of men hearing and/or answering the call to the priesthood. This is a sad situation and marks increasing burdens on the Church. But S. Kate's interpretation of these numbers is quite different. In these numbers she sees "a true movement of the Holy Spirit in response to the signs of the times," lay women called to serve in ministry. She sees great possibility, and an important moment in the life of the Church. It's not a clerical reading of the situation. It is one that Sisters like those portrayed in this movie-- and I absolutely include S. Aloysius in this group, who wanted her students to grow up "different" and grow up well in the Church-- make possible.

For those interested in reading a critique of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that takes on exactly this question of how a clerical culture made the abuse and cover-up possible, and that offers hope for taking on that culture and moving the Church away from clericalism, I highly recommend the book Clericalism: The Death of the Priesthood by George Wilson, SJ. I worked with George on this book for Liturgical Press (and he wouldn’t want me to call him Father Wilson). I challenged him on many points, and we reworked the book (he did all the real work of course) three times before publication. It’s a wonderful piece of work that went into a second printing in the first year. He is the kind of priest who fully understood Vatican II and has worked to truly open the church. He is also in his 80s, and I know several other priests his age who are like him. Recent movement in the church, however, has moved not just toward more conservative liturgical expression (which I have nothing against except when it alienates the congregation-- as in un-singable Latin chants and inscrutable, arcane homilies), but also toward more emphasis on male hierarchy and more distance between congregation and clergy. I fear the church will not see the like of his generation of priests again. And if the church insists on moving away from the people, it will not solve its child abuse problem, and it will in fact lose even more parishioners than it is currently losing.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Police Blotter

A recent entry in the St. Joseph Newsleader:

11:27 a.m. Officer was passed on County Road 75 with snowcovered roads and poor driving conditions. The officer followed the vehicle to pace it, and eventually activated emergency lights and siren when he reached 60 mph. A 22-year-old Albany male was identified and appeared to be surprised he was stopped. When asked if the road conditions were good, the male replied, "I can drive in this." The male was then issued a citation for speed too fast for conditions.

Been there, done that. Gotta appreciate the detail, no?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Park Forest

We squeezed in a trip to see my family in Chicago and Frankfort, IL over New Year's, and it was a good trip. Steve had not been out to my parents' house, which is warm and inviting and in an old town that prides itself on "1890s charm." My mother is a great cook and a wonderful hostess, and we had a very good visit. They've lived there since 1993, when they left Park Forest, IL, the town I grew up in. Over the years as I've visited I've seen the town of Frankfort transform. The small, quaint downtown is still there, with a bike trail running through it and the old tavern that has been in existence since the 1870s (in my time a popular biker bar called "Rosie's" now renamed "The Plank Trail Tavern" with an outside patio to attract a different kind of biker). The town is surrounded, however, by all sorts of new construction, mansions and mini-mansions, upscale shops and lofts. It is becoming, in a word, Naperville. It's been interesting enough to watch this developement take over the countryside. The construction started on Hwy 45 between I-80 and Frankfort. First the gas stations were built all along both sides of the road. Then came the banks. Then all the other spaces were filled in with housing developments and strip malls, and a large number of chain restaurants.

It was with this picture in my head that I prepared to show Steve the town I grew up in, Park Forest. We drove out on Friday, headed down Rte 30, and in no time at all were at the Lincoln Mall in Matteson, and then under the Illinois Central tracks, and bam-- Orchard Street in Park Forest. It was exactly the same. There is the eccentric split-level house that looks like a Buddhist temple on the corner. And Orchard is still only two lanes wide. Driving up our old street, Farragut, I stopped in awe at the home of my childhood friend Anne Lloyd, whose parents still live in the ranch home. It is still painted white with green trim. And the wood shutters on the front are exactly the same. Even our own house looked basically the same. The hedges out front were the same. And the beautiful large locust tree in the front yard was still there.

The next stop was the Park Forest co-ops, where I lived from age 1-6. This was truly a magical place to be a kid. It was one of the first planned postwar communities in the country. It is a series of row houses arranged in "courts," that have parking areas to the side. This means children don't ever have to worry about cars in the neighborhood. We lived on Dogwood, in court D-4. And our row of houses faced the forest preserve-- dense forest right out your door. When we walked up this visit, there were two very tame deer eating grass beside the parking lot. They watched us until we moved on, but clearly had no intention of making a break for it.

The co-ops themselves look, well, the same. The porches have been replaced, and air conditioning units have been added, but otherwise they're the same tidy postwar spaces I remember. Our unit was snug between its neighbors. But it is all about that forest. And you just really don't see places like this in the United States anymore. It was kind of thrilling.

The Park Forest Plaza shopping center downtown has been completely reconfigured, and this is where we saw the only new construction of the visit. They're trying to integrate housing with the shopping center, which in the 1980s and '90s became a dangerous empty space at night. That said, we stopped by the Illinois Theater Center, a theater that used to be run from the basement of the Park Forest Library, and that whole end of the center is now occupied by galleries and art organizations.

Park Forest still feels like the progressive place it has always been. I have so much to say about this town, I'll have to wait for future blogs. For now, in the midst of a very busy week, I wanted to check in and leave an essay about "what I did on my Christmas vacation." Thanks for reading.

The black and white photo above is of the co-ops taken by Dan Weiner, called "Party in the 'tot yard,'" Park Forest, Illinois, 1953. It was taken as part of a photo shoot for a three-part article that ran in Fortune magazine that year. I first saw the photo and bought the post card (and several others like it) at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 1990. Later I found the photos again in a book called America Worked. Here's a link to another amazing photo, of commuters in Park Forest (most likely the Matteson train station). When I was in fifth grade, and someone asked what my father did for a living, I said, "He's a commuter." Told "That's not a job," I replied, "Yes it is! My father's a commuter for CNA insurance!" I bought all available copies of America Worked at a book kiosk in Central Park back in 1991. It's great stuff.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Man On Wire

Man on Wire

By far the best film (video) we saw this Christmas season was Man on Wire, a documentary about the tightrope walker (wire walker) Philipe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope in 1974. It is an astonishing film, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

There is, first and foremost, the audacity of the act. Before the Towers were even built, when he saw a drawing of them in a magazine at the dentist's office, he drew a simple line connecting them. There are so many ways to see that act itself: what does it mean to connect these buildings or to see the world as a series of points to be connected and/or traversed?

The act itself is, as many people in the movie say, "impossible." There are only reasons against it, and no reasons for it. All that is accomplished is an act of pure art, an act of beauty-- made all the more beautiful because it is so, well, impossible.

Mostly what it made me think of is a video I watched recently from the AIGA (association of graphic designers) of a talk by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have 38 minutes, you should watch this video. He basically outlines the concept of his new book, Outliers. From what I can tell, the book explores why certain people are extraordinary or able to accomplish extraordinary things. At the heart of his theory is the "10,000 hours rule;" basically he claims that it takes 10,000 hours of "work" dedicated to a task before you can expect to achieve something extraordinary.

What impressed me most about Philipe Petit and his extraordinary accomplishment was that he didn't practice walking on a wire until it was "easy." He didn't spend his 10,000 hours until he was "at home" on the wire and it was like walking down the street. He became absolutely extraordinary at walking on wires, it's true, and even this individual act seemed to require about 10,000 hours worth of planning and execution time, but in the footage you see that every time he stepped out on the wire, be it in his backyard or between the Twin Towers, it was hard. And he snapped into this focused state, his face became a mask of concentration, and he executed the task-- not easily, but with supreme focus.

There is so much to see and say about this movie-- it is endlessly rich for interpretation. There is the echo of the hubris of Petit's act and the hubris of building the Towers themselves. There is the echo of this extraordinarily triumphant act with the knowledge of what we know happened to the Twin Towers in 2001. There is footage of the Towers being built, and that site looks so much like Ground Zero after the Towers fell. There are airplanes flying low overhead as they stand on the top. There is the knowledge of those who jumped from the Towers. No parallel is ever made-- much to the filmmakers' credit. Why state the obvious?

There is also the aesthetic reality of the Twin Towers and the art they inspired. I remember being at my friends' Frances and Jim's loft on Henry Street in Brooklyn where we could lean way over and get through one of their windows a view of the Twin Towers. And one night we could see this amazing art project taking place, where it looked like electric current was moving between the two Towers as between nodes on a battery, and enveloping the Towers themselves. It was extraordinary and beautiful. And of course the twin towers of light projected up into the dark space of night after they were brought down on 9/11.

There is also the fact that right up to the very end, walking between the Twin Towers is not on some level the right thing to do-- not because it is illegal but because it is too risky. Some of the more rational people on the team, who have put considerable time and energy into planning it, start to drop out. Yet, he does it.

And it is transformative. He is not the same, ever again, for having done it. In this way he is like we have imagined in our film and literature the mythology of astronauts who go to the moon and return changed. Petit is, in some very real and inexplicable way, no longer one of us, not of this world. In some ways that makes the act heroic. In many ways the film, and the act, invite us to consider: What would I risk to do something extraordinary? And what would my extraordinary task be, should I imagine myself in that way?

It begins in a dentist's waiting room. He sees the Twin Towers, and he draws a line between them. That line changes the world. It introduces something impossible, and yet he really says, "It is possible. I will do it."