Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Merging Monasteries

This week I've been working on a big story at the monastery. On Saturday, the Sisters of Saint Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, voted at their Chapter meeting to accept a request from Saint Bede Monastery in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to merge. Saint Bede Monastery will close down, and its 29 members will join Saint Benedict's Monastery.

This is the kind of thing where, given the nature of Chapter, you don't even work on the press release until the vote is taken. No assumptions, although it was fairly clear even in November that Sisters were behind this idea. I had two discussions wiht the prioress about it beforehand, so I had notes and knew what might happen if the vote was affirmative. Monday morning I began work on the press release, with input from the two prioresses. By late Monday afternoon, I was able to call the St. Cloud Times and The Visitor, the diocesan paper for St. Cloud, and tell them that the next morning I would be sending out a press release. It was a great day, doing what I most love, which is writing. This assignment was particularly gratifying because I crafted quotes and also was dealing with a delicate, sensitive situation.

Tuesday I sent it out, and got two calls from local radio stations asking how to pronounce "St. Bede." (It is the same as "bead.") I also got a call from a reporter in Eau Claire who ran the story.

This morning the story was on the front page of the St. Cloud Times, above the fold. I just love to say that: above the fold. In the world of communicators, "good placement." And he used the quotes I'd written-- used most of the press release, actually, in addition to a few other facts I provided him. He cut out some of our jargon, but hey, ok. The press release, in other words, is working for both our internal and external audiences. A large number of Sisters have told me how good it is, how well it is written, and how happy they were to read it. Both prioresses are pleased. I've had calls today from The Visitor saying the story is being moved to the Minneapolis office and will appear in both the diocesan and archdiocesan papers, and from a t.v. station in Eau Claire.

In the end the real work of these two communities coming together has just begun, but this week was a good week. Talk to me in six months when I'm putting together a photo directory for 300 Sisters!

To read the press release, click here.

photo: Sisters from Saint Benedict's Monastery visit with Sisters from Saint Bede in January.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sand Hill Cranes

It's Saturday, and time to stalk more birds in the throes of mating out here on the farm. This morning, I gasped to look out the kitchen window and see two sand hill cranes by the oak tree-- where the eagle was last week. They were in some ways more amazing than the eagle, because they're so much more elusive. Then again, we had dinner last night with two friends who live on the Mississippi River in St. Cloud-- the first to be completely unimpressed by our eagle siting!

I had no idea how big sand hlil cranes are, and their red crests were a beautiful contrast to their elegant brown bodies.

The spring I lived on the Saint John's University campus, I spent several hours sitting by ponds in the woods hoping to spot one-- and now here were a pair right outside my front door! It is a shock.

Of course, we've been hearing them for about a week now. Their call is grating and really loud. It bounces off the house and echoes, and you can hear it everywhere. I'll embed a 20 second video from Yellowstone that demonstrates their call.

They moved away from the house before I could grab my camera, but kept calling from nearby. I went out with the camera and was able to creep up behind the fir trees to get a better look at them as they processed across the farm field to the east of our property. The male follows the female, calling regularly, and the female occasionally calls back. The photo above is one I took, and below I'll put one that really shows them in all their glory... The photo below is from the Cornell Ornithology Library. To visit their page on sand hlil cranes, click here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

sustainability and the family business, not bubbles and flipping

Liane Hansen interviewed Jay Adelson of last weekend on NPR. This transcript of the last part of the interview kind of blew me away. sustainability... vocation... that's what I want more people thinking about!

HANSEN: There's a story that I read about your parents who owned a store.

Mr. ADELSON: That's right.

HANSEN: And to a certain extent your fiscal philosophy came from them. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. ADELSON: That's - yes, sure. My parents, Sheldon and Elaine, when I grew up, first they were schoolteachers initially, and then my father inherited a small electric supply business in Detroit, and at the time was a very small and struggling business. But his goals were to build sustainability. You know, this idea of the family business is something that can stay afloat, make the family, you know, secure, feed the kids so to speak, and really it should be about creating that kind of sustainable model.

Now, the problem with venture investing and the problem with a lot of the start-ups is that is not the intent when they're built. They're intent to flip, they're intent to create millions, they're intent to these giant exist. And what I found is that if you can focus on those elements of sustainability, I think that the irony is, I think you end up with the bigger exit anyway.

Now, what those governing principles are towards sustainability, I mean, I could spend all day talking about that.

HANSEN: But you managed to kind of miss the dot-com bust because of your fiscal model and your fiscal philosophy.

Mr. ADELSON: There is some truth to that. I could be wealthier but the truth is, my passions for what I do have driven my choices and vocation. My passions for having an impact on the world, for seeing whether or not my efforts can have a more long-term impact - the way I look at it is I have the rest of my life to kind of build something, you know, that makes me wealthy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mono Lake

To work out today, I put on my favorite T-shirt. It's about six years old, so it's seen better days. It is light green and says "Long Live Mono Lake" on the front.

It is my favorite shirt because Mono Lake is the only thing I know in nature that has actually been saved. When I first saw it, in 1992, it took my breath away and fast became my favorite place. It is on the "wrong side" of Yosemite, near the Nevada border, in a high desert landscape that looks pretty barren. It isn't easy to get to, and in 1993 it was in deep decline. It has an unusually high alkalai composition makes it home to swarms of annoying alkalai flies, but also makes it beautifully reflective. And it also produces tufa, which look like those drip sand castles, but are white and permanent.

In 1941, Los Angeles began diverting water from Mono Lake, and by the 1990s, the level of the lake had fallen by 40 feet. It exposed the tufa, like strange sandcastles, even poking up out of the shallow lake. The dramatic skies reflecting off the lake made for gorgeous photos. But the lake was in crisis, and within 10 years would no longer exist if something wasn't done.

At the time I made a donation to the Mono Lake Action Committee, and I got one of their popular bumper stickers,"Save Mono Lake." They were bright blue with white helvetica capital letters. You'd seem them now and then on old Volvos and VWs.

Over the years, I've taken various people there. I took my friend Susan Mastrangelo, an artist, who was blown away by the sculptural forms of the tufa. I took my first husband, and then after a weeklong Spanish class at Lake Tahoe, I convinced my friend Doug to drive back to Southern California to see it. That was in 2004, when I bought the T-shirt. It was official: Mono Lake had been saved. The water is not being diverted, and the lake has risen. There are protections in place.

The lake actually is not as eerily beautiful as it was ten years ago. There are now swarms of alkalai flies and all of the tufa except a few on the shore are submerged beneath the lake. It's best seen now by kayak.

It's still dramatic in its reflective power and its presence out in the high desert of California.

photos from the Mono Lake Committee home page. Above, depleted lake in 1968. At right, present day Mono Lake.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chicken Korma

My adventures in Indian cooking this winter have been pretty good, though I kind of got tired of making raita after awhile, and now have mint going bad in my fridge... I can make red lentils any time, any way, almost without thinking. Some chicken dishes have been too bland or not very interesting. The recipes I've found have mostly been ok, but not "restaurant good." The chicken tandoori I made using a chicken masala recipe in bon appetit but with tandoori spices was the highpoint, until last week.

Last week, by blending a couple recipes for chicken korma, I came up with one that is really amazing.

My goal was to come as close as I could to the great chicken korma we used to get in Long Beach at Kamal Palace. My friend Lydia doesn't like any spice to her food, so we always ordered it mild. I was skeptical, but the chicken korma there was so flavorful it easily became my favorite Indian dish ever-- nudging out lamb saag.

I made this chicken korma spicy, but next time I'll try it with much less red pepper-- I think it will hold up just fine.

Here's the recipe:

Chicken Korma

3-4 chicken breasts
2 onions, diced
3T ghee (or vegetable oil)
garlic and ginger, ground
2 bay leaves

1T ground coriander
1T garam masala
1T cumin
1 T turmeric
1 t or less red pepper

1 cup tomatoes
1/2 cup crushed cashews (I crushed them in a mortar w/pestle)
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup coconut milk

Heat ghee in wok over medium heat, cook bay leaves and onions until onions are translucent. Remove onions. Mix in garlic and ginger and all the other spices with chicken. After 5 minutes, pour in tomatoes and cashews and simmer until chicken is done. Add coconut milk and yogurt, mix well and reheat. Serve over rice.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Church Banners

Yesterday, March 19, was the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Joseph the carpenter is the patron saint of our parish here in St. Joseph. Steve was really excited about the feast, and got up and went to early Mass. He was disappointed that it wasn't a bigger deal in the parish. Afterward he saw the liturgist and said that he would be happy to make a banner of St. Joseph, in the woodblock style of our parish logo, which he also designed, for use on the feast. The liturgist, David, said: "Will it have words on it?" He doesn't like words on visual displays.

When Steve told me about this, it reminded me of my sister, and of our transition from the Catholic Church to an Assembly of God church when I was 12 and she was 10. When we switched churches, I think it was the visual change that was the most overwhelming for us. Instead of priests, we had a pastor in a business suit. Instead of pews, we had chairs that stacked for removal from the school classroom where we met once the service was over. The classroom was really two, with an accordion room divider opened up to make room for us on Sunday mornings. No more stained glass, incense, wood, candles, altar-- not even a crucifix. The tools of our pastor's trade were an overhead projector for the song texts and writing notes with a Sharpie during the sermon and a podium from which he preached.

There was no question for us that God was there. God was present in our prayer and in our singing, in the prophecy and tongues that were now a regular part of the service, in the love of the people for one another. But it was sort of like the Whos of Whoville after the grinch came. My sister and I, at least, missed the tree.

I was surprised when my sister went to our pastor and asked if it would be OK for her to make some felt banners. I knew this was "a Catholic thing." In our 1970s Catholic parish church we'd pitched in to make many banners: wheat and grapes, giant suns and sunbeams, Holy Spirit doves plunging into flames. And I was even more glad that our pastor said yes.

My sister made banners for the major liturgical occasions: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and for everyday. They were strung over the podium, making it look much more like a lectern, or hung from the track where the accordion door ran. I loved seeing them, and also recognized it was a profound gesture of love toward us. Pastor Stroud and that congregation cared a lot for my sister and me, the only teenagers in our small congregation. He wanted us to feel at home.

The Assemblies of God, I would learn over time, are particularly spare when it comes to religious imagery. They don't have overtly religious ornamentation in their churches. I don't think ours was unusual, even though we didn't have a permanent building. 

Felt banners were very much a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s Catholic Church. As I've learned more about Vatican II, I realize what a dramatic shift occurred very quickly in terms of church architecture and design. For the parishioners of St. Irenaeus in Park Forest who had attended in the 1950s, our church must have looked spare indeed. And into that space the folky Catholics of the Vatican II era brought large felt banners, a whole new age of liturgical design and art. And we, who only knew that, took it with us in our hearts. 

images: top left is Steve's logo for St. Joseph Church, St. Joseph, Minn. Would make a nice banner, wouldn't it?  At right is a recent example of a First Communion banner, which seems to be a common project for 2nd graders. If you'd like to see some really professional felt banners by liturgical artist James Mellick, click here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Populism: Michael Moore vs. the Tea Party Movement

Watching Capitalism: A Love Story last night has made me think seriously about populism. Michael Moore is often so over the top and ridiculous in his claims and even more in his jusxtaposition of imagery, that I find it hard to take him seriously. However, he does always make an argument, and at the end of the day he's an activist. The effectiveness of his activism is that he is entertaining as well as confrontational. He reaches a lot of people this way and makes his points in a persuasive way. He seems to me to be the only real left-wing force working against the likes of Fox News and right-wing talk radio-- which is no less ridiculous and over the top.

I've been really interested in the Tea Party Movement, particularly from one angle. How is it that this movement has managed to get so many people to advocate for policies that are against their own best interest? How have a group of politicians who are clearly aligned with the interests of big business and Wall Street managed to convince people that attempting to stop the spiraling costs of health care and provide health insurance to all Americans is a form of socialism? That regulating the banks we've purchased with taxpayer money to try to get the bailout money back through regulation is wrong and the stimulous package was unsuccessful and an attempt to cripple the country with debt?

At the end of the day, capitalism and democracy are only compatible if people are virtuous. People have to have a sense of "enough," and not seek profit as their only goal. They have to be committed to the common good and not increase their own wealth on the backs of middle-class people and retired people. The loans made to people who owned their homes and who could actually pay back the loans-- until the hidden terms kicked in and the interest rates doubled and even tripled their payments-- is nothing short of robbery. And the goal of this robbery was to make more money for the lenders.  If banks are motivated by offering a means to wealth for all their customers and are interested in building stable communities, stable businesses and lots of home ownership (the promise of capitalism), then they will behave equitably and ethically. If they do so, everyone will make money. Not a lot of money, but over a lifetime a little money and a property to pass along to the next generation.

The Tea Party believes in capitalism and freedom, and does not make any allowances for the corruptibility of the system because of greed and a disconnect from the common good. They don't see a need for regulation, because regulation diminishes real capitalism. And they believe capitalism is democratic and allows access to all and provides a level playing field (perhaps the most preposterous claim) so that anyone in America can move up and achieve wealth.

Michael Moore thinks that capitalism and democracy are by their nature incompatible. He thinks to have democracy, we need to get rid of capitalism, because capitalism rewards only the wealthy and not the people. If only the 80% of people who possess 15% of the country's wealth would stand up and "vote" against the 20% of people who control 85% of the country's wealth, we could have change-- the kind of change that Obama represented though in many ways has not delivered.

How can he deliver, however, when so many of those 85% are lured by the populism of the Tea Party Movement? How, I wonder, are we going to defeat Michelle Bachmann in my district when she can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in one night by inviting Sarah Palin to speak in Minnesota? And no, I don't think those contributors are the hard-working middle class people of my district. So that's one problem-- wealth begets wealth, and the genie is out of the bottle. The political system is controlled by the wealthy who use fear and corrupted appeals to "freedom" to control the middle class.

The best thing we could probably do to combat our current debt in this country would be to roll back the Reagan tax cuts. Increasing the taxes on the wealthiest 10% in our country by 10% would wipe out billions of dollars of debt in one year. But that genie is also out of the bottle, and it isn't going back in.

Michael Moore's populism is rooted in a deep belief in the goodness of working class and middle class people. He believes they share his values and understand fairness and justice. He believes their aspirations are reasonable and good. The film shows that these beliefs are further rooted-- and confirmed-- by his experience as a Christian, through interviews with Catholic priests and a bishop, and scenes about what his Catholic faith instilled in him. It is perhaps the Christian face of the Tea Party Movement that is most distressing to me.

Michael Moore believes that the working people of our country are our hope, and he believes that if they were given the chance, they'd choose socialism over capitalism. But socialism seems to be the biggest bogeyman in this country-- perhaps even bigger than terrorism. Somehow, it seems, Hitler was a socialist, if you read the Tea Party demonstrators' signs. No majority is going to vote for socialism in America.

The only real hope, I believe, is to work toward a progressive tax system and keep trying to regulate banking and business practices, outlawing the blatantly unfair derivitaves and hedge fund markets and certain types of home loans. And while we're doing that, we had better work even harder toward building real community and a commitment to the common good. Because in the end, only those values will save us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Wildlife Season Begins

Spring mating season on the farm began with a truly amazing sight this morning. Steve and I were in the kitchen when Annie called and said, "Are you watching the bird action in front of your house?" She wasn't sure if it was a hawk or something else, but some crows were pestering it, and she'd seen another large bird coming in to try to mate with it. When I looked out the window, I gasped. "It's a bald eagle!"

I've seen many eagles in this area, and they never cease to amaze. There was one that would sometimes fly alongside my car on my way from Cold Spring to work at the Liturgical Press. But I've never seen one on our property before, let alone on the oak tree right outside our front door. I was literally 50 yards from it.

I took some photos of it from the kitchen window, but the view was really of the eagle's backside, with an occasional turn of the head for a profile shot. I decided I had to get outside to get a better photo, so I went through the basement door and out onto the driveway, giving it a wide berth. I'm not a very good photographer, so I kept to the auto-focus setting. Shooting through the cottonwoods was challenging, getting it to focus on the eagle instead of the near branches.

It was colder than I thought, and after a few minutes I was ready to come in. But as I started coming in, suddenly the other eagle swooped in and began harrassing what I now think was the female. I tried to get a photo but it was already flying off, and the camera of course focused on this near branches, so it was just a blur. I'll post it below anyway.

The bald eagle information page I visited says the females have a "deeper beak (measured from top to chin)" than the males. It also said that they mate for life and don't always mate every year. Best of all, it said they usually mate close to their nest. If we have a bald eagle nest on our property, life will truly be complete! I have to wonder, however, since our ponds do not have fish in them, and that is what bald eagles eat.

I've been resisting believing that spring has begun, even though we just had a week of rain (35-38 degrees) that has melted several feet of snow. And today was the day for maple tree tapping at St. John's Arboretum. I went and had lunch with two of my favorite monks, Father Dan Durken and Father Wilfred Theisen, where we visited with Brother Walter and Sarah Gainey from the Arboretum. Fr. Wilfred said, "If you get serious about the maple syrup operation, you should go visit this guy up in Duluth." We looked at each other and smiled. Each year they tap 800-1200 trees, and last year they made 200 gallons, which means 8,000 gallons of sap. It's incredibly labor-intensive and mostly fulfills their desire to provide the monks with syrup and to provide education and an experience for school groups and college students.

This is the beginning of Spring. I haven't seen a bluebird yet, but the eagles have gotten us off to a great start.

Yes, I know it's hard to tell-- the blur on the tree is the female and the flat blurry line is the male flying away. You should have heard them shriek!! If only I'd had my flip camera!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Winter Visiting

The temperature has been above freezing for about a week, and although there's still snow on the ground, everyone is acting like it's spring. You would think it was planting time. Steve is getting calls about landscaping jobs he bid last fall, and today at Home Depot they were rolling out the rider mowers. We know it is still winter. We know that there will be more snow.

Last night we had the neighbors, Rita and Maurice Palmersheim, over for dessert. Last winter we went to their house, and I can't believe it's been a whole year, though we see them from time to time and stop to chat. Winter is the time for visiting, however, for soup dinners, and so it was time. Last year they entertained us with a wonderful concert on their concertinas, and Maurice (pronounced Morris) played accordion for us as well. They are in their mid-80s. Last week Steve said he had an epiphany, that everyone was going to die. "Everyone, I mean even Maurice and Rita, are going to die," he said. Living where we do, with all the longevity around us, it is sometimes easy to forget this fact.

Rita had a hysterectomy a month ago. She said she is a little tired, but not really sleeping more. She sometimes puts her head down on her hands at hte table after lunch to rest, but, she said, soon there is a knock at the door and a visitor comes by. Maurice is up at 5 a.m. and into his coveralls all winter long, in his shop with a wood stove burning, fixing lawn mowers and cars and other things. He'll be fixing Steve's 3-wheeler next week when his load lightens up a little.

On this Sunday, less than a month after her surgery, Rita and Maurice got up and went to 8 a.m. Mass. Then they went to the church breakfast, and then to the grocery store in East St. Cloud. In the early afternoon they went to visit Rita's brother. When they came home, an old friend unexpectedly dropped by and brought his concertina, so they played together. He didn't leave until 6, when they had dinner, and then they came to our house at 7 p.m. They drink strong, black coffee even at night. We had coffee and apple crisp and they told us a bit about their childhoods. Rita was her father's favorite, the second daughter. She worked with him on the farm until her brothers were old enough, running the 2-wheeled cultivator drawn by horses, the tractor, and feeding the hogs and milking the cow. Maurice's father lost his job during the Depression, but was offered a position with the same company for nine months in Cincinnati. He went there and sent money home to the family, and when he came back they were able to move to a small farm.

Rita is, needless to say, healing well. She said Dr. Newton was very pleased at her last check-up. And as for her, she is amazed by the scar. "It is so straight, I told Dr. Newton, I never could draw a line that straight with a pencil." To say they are upbeat and positive people is an understatement.

What I really need to do is capture them on video. I will take my Flip camera over and have them play the concertina some evening-- before next year to be sure. They said they'd like to do that, but they want to invite their friend who they played with that afternoon. He knows songs they hadn't heard for years, and it would be good to get him on the film as well.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tolstoy Lite

I fell under the spell of Tolstoy when I was a senior in high school. It started when Mayama's bookstore in the Park Forest Plaza closed. All the books were deeply discounted, and I took my babysitting money and did my first serious bookbuying.

My family was strictly a library family. We had a large bookshelf full of children's books, which was added to over the years because my mother became a nursery school teacher. Those were books to be read and reread, the logic went. As for adults, what was the point in owning books? You only read them once and you were done. Aside from a shelf of my father's old college books in the basement, an untouched collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books we'd acquired through gift subscriptions and some coffee-table books on display in the living room, our house was bereft of books.

I remember what I bought very clearly. I bought a large Bible that was filled with illustrations by Rembrandt, including a loose print of his portrait of Jesus which was the only thing I really wanted (and which I hung in my dorm room all four years), and a Modern Library hardcover edition of Anna Karenina.

I sitll have that copy of Anna Karenina (and my grandmother loved the "large print" Bible in her final years). It's pages were like porcelain. I loved it like a physical object, for the beauty of the type, for the simplicity of the cover, and I also loved the story, particularly the story of Kitty and Levin. I devoured it, and when I was done I moved on to War and Peace, which I read the summer before I went to college. That Grinnell had a whole course in Tolstoy was really too much good fortune to be believed, and so when I took it I got to read them both again. That the amazing John Mohan taught the course was icing on the cake of my lifelong love of Tolstoy and what Isaiah Berlin called his "big, baggy monsters." To this date, I'd have to say that was the best class I took in college.

So I was probably too excited about The Last Station. It is possible my hopes were too high. And I was disappointed. However, I was also aware of just how much the director and writer had to work with, and really, I would have been happy if they'd done any of it. This film, with excellent acting by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, was not big, and in the end felt like a real missed opportunity.

The story is simple: the great author, essayist and idealist Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, with paparazzi recording his every move, in 1910, has become an icon (first time that word actually fit the context, as they are making an illuminated saint of him!). He lives at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where his wife, the Countess Sofia Andreevna, struggles to keep his attention and to protect his legacy, namely the copyright to his books, which he is being convinced to sign over "to the Russian people" (i.e., public domain). Tolstoy is not just a writer, he is the (reluctant) leader of a movement; the Tolstoyans are a nature-loving, peasant-imitating group of bourgeois kids, who have shed the trappings of religion and other institutions and are after simplicity, equality and a good life on the land. They're ensconced on a plot of land that they run like a commune. The other major character, his secretary, played by James McEvoy, is our guide through the situation.

What I wanted was to see Tolstoy's relationship with the peasants and the land. OR, let us see the fiery anarchists and how their extremism is destructive and/or hypocritical and/or valiant. Let me see Tolstoy's wisdom and thought, his commitment and ideology. Or let me see his wife's decadence and how he figures out a way to distance himself from it. Or let it be a foreshadowing to what was coming in 1917, a critique of class envy turning to class warfare.

In the end, the filmmakers showed us a complex, unhappy marriage between two people who were nonetheless devoted to each other. Manipulation on a small and petty scale. Intrigue that was really not very intriguing. And don't ask me anything about peasants or Tolstoyan thought. These Tolstoyans were a grumpy bunch who didn't seem to have much of a program and seemed happy to abandon it at the first sight of a pretty girl. There is NO celibacy or even struggle with celibacy in this film, though much is made of it in the promotional materials and early discussion of Tolstoyanism. All in all, a surprisingly passionless bunch all around.

I recognized some of the great details of the notoriously conflicted marriage-- mostly having to do with diaries and a game of initials they played when they first met.  But there was no grand arc, no symbols, no complex intertwined stories, and despite the beauty, not a whole lot of life, in the film. It was so un-Tolstoyan!

Still, you have to see it-- the costumes are gorgeous and the acting is first rate. And it's unlikely we'll get another film set at Yasnaya Polyana for a long, long time.