Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Strings Too Short to Use

At today's birthday lunch with the Sisters from my office, the talk turned to stories of nun frugality and of savers extraordinaire. One story was of a Sister who saved and reused everything, beyond reason. In her office she had various boxes marked with the contents. One box read: "Strings Too Short to Use," and contained just that. I suppose if you tied a few together?

Wouldn't that be a great title for a short story or poem? (writer friends, note: it's mine!)

Another Sister was wondering if maybe this woman had also been on mission as a teacher in Staples. When she lived in the house where Sisters who taught there lived, they'd cleaned out the attic and were surprised by what they found. Everything, she said, had a note attached instructing the future Sisters on how to use the contents. In one box there might be old curtains, with a note: "These are for the kitchen windows when the current ones wear out," or a box of clips: "These clips are helpful for hanging herbs, but might also be used as clothes pins or to close bags." "This rod matches the living room window but will not fit on the current brackets." "This broom is best for use on the back walk when the current one wears out."

My favorite story from today, however, was about a teacher, and how a child saved the day. It was relayed by someone who heard it from Sister Suzanne Helmin yesterday. Sister Suzanne is 98 years old and sharp as a tack. She remembered teaching a kindergarten class and one day they were so unruly she had to step outside of the room and take a break. She went for a sip of water to calm herself, then returned. Looking through the window she saw all the children sitting silently at their desks waiting for her. She was still angry when she walked in the room. Before she said anything, however, one of the boys in the front row stood up and launched into "Hello, Dolly." He sang the whole number, start to finish, with a little dance to accompany it, while the other kids watched in stunned silence.  Sister Suzanne said it was just what she needed. She couldn't help but smile at that, and the class could continue.

Werner Herzog reads Where's Waldo

A friend shared this video with me. After listening to it on my good home speakers, I have to say I don't think at all that it is actually Herzog. The accent is overdone and the voice isn't soft enough. Still, it is so spot on, and since Herzog is a bit of an obsession of mine, here it is for you to enjoy as well. If you realy like it, track down Herzog reads Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


My advice to film lovers is: watch German film, especially East German. Last week we watched Jerichow, a film by Christian Petzold. At first, it seems like a genre film about infidelity, and an obvious one at that. But it's really about theft-- and a wife is only one thing that gets stolen. 

A down-on-his luck guy comes home to bury his mother and moves into her modest house. He wants to renovate it and live there, but he has no money. The opening scene shows him being followed by thugs who want their money back. We don't know what transpired here, but they find their money and take it back. Our hero, Thomas, claims that he just wanted it for the renovations, and planned on getting a job and paying it back.

After a set of circumstances, he ends up working for "Turk Ali," who owns food stands all over Germany and loses his license for drunk driving. Turk Ali came to Germany from Turkey, in part to get out of compulsory military service. Thomas, we know from an encounter with his welfare officer, was dishonorably discharged from the army-- he had served in the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Turk Ali has a beautiful wife, Laura. We can see what's coming a mile away-- Thomas and Laura fall in love.

Ali is suspicious of everyone, especially Laura. Twice he follows her and spies on her, the second time catching her in the act of being unfaithful with the beverage distributor. But it turns out she's not having sex with him-- the two of them are stealing from Ali, raising the prices of the beverages and splitting the profits.

Suddenly the pattern is clear-- stealing. Everyone is stealing from Ali. The business managers at the stands have various ways of stealing from him. They are even newer immigrants, like the Chinese couple running a modest food stand who pocket the price of an order Ali has set up in order to catch them at it. Then there's the distributors, Laura and Thomas. Only Thomas doesn't steal his money but his wife. Of course, it is still about money. She can't get free of Ali because he took over a large debt for her, and a prenup will send the debt back to her if she leaves him. She may love Thomas, but not enough to live impoverished with him.

There's nothing to do but arrange a sort of Postman Always Rings Twice plot device.

I won't give away the ending, but what I find interesting about this film is it's real comment on the political situation. The young generation of East Germans can't function in the "new" society after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They want the prosperity of capitalism, but seem incapable of being the kind of entrepreneur Ali is so gracefully. They all work for him, which doesn't sit right. They take what they need, or what they feel they deserve. Ali is not a bad guy, but his lesson is that, of course, you can't buy love or friendship or loyalty-- you can't buy anything that really matters.

The film is great-- well-acted and compelling, and a look at a world we don't usually see in film. Don't let the straightforward romantic suspense drama formula fool you-- this is a rich film with a lot of depth.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Steve and I discovered early that we were going to have to work to converse with each other. It's not just the classic "men/women venus/mars" thing. Steve is a very analytical and abstract thinker, and I'm all story. Which is not to say I don't thrill at a good idea and he doesn't relish a great story. But when I talk, I tend to be associational, and when he talks, he seems to my mind to lack important details.

Take landscaping. The first few seasons, he would say I wasn't interested in his work. He would complain that he spent a lot of time listening to me about my work, but I didn't care about his. Which wasn't true. What I don't care about is the intricacy of machinery. Or the broad strokes of machinery. I'm interested in the projects up to a point, but what I really want to know about is the clients!

And how hard is it to listen to me, anyway? I mean, I'm so darn entertaining with all my stories! Stories, he would point out, that are often held together by the thinnest thread imaginable and take significant energy to follow.

This year already there have been some good stories, like the one in the last entries. My favorite from last week was the report about a burn he did for one of his regular customers. He does work every summer on a large property owned by a cardiologist. This year they were ready to do a sizable burn to plant an area in natives. However, given the dry February and March, burn restrictions went into place early.  Then suddenly, a window opened for April 22. Steve got the permit and went out to do the burn.

For which he incurred the wrath of the cardiologist's 8-year-old. He brought her out to see the fire, and she just glowered at Steve. He wasn't sure what the problem was, so asked her if she was afraid of the fire.

"No!" she scowled.

"OK," he said.

"Tell Steve why you're mad," her father instructed.

"Don't you know it's Earth Day?!" she asked. "How can you be out here destroying the earth-- on Earth Day!"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dying in Spring, a coda

Steve got the couple's plants moved and in the ground yesterday, since the forecast was for rain today. Indeed it is raining today, so it's a good thing he did it. It was about 3 hours work, he bought some plants, so when finished he told the old man that the bill was $130. The man wrote him a check for $150.

Steve was fine with this, and went on to the next job. He would not even have mentioned it, except I asked. I reminded him how much extremely low-cost work he gets from his older neighbor, who undercharges dramatically.

Today in the mailbox there was a letter and I knew from the spidery script and return address it was the client in Cold Spring. Steve opened it and the letter and a check for another $100 fell out.

The letter was written in a script I recognize well-- we get letters like this with donation checks almost every day at the development office at the monastery. The Palmer method script has a sort of immigrant edge to it, squared-off letters, but the writing is careful, straight, and eloquent. I would bet money he was educated by nuns. On the page he explained, "I didn't write out the check the way I wanted to. I realized my mistake later. Here is the rest. Thank you for your kindness and thoughtfulness. I enjoyed meeting you. I hope to see you again soon."

He must have driven down to the post office that afternoon for us to get it the next day.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dying in Spring

Steve came home with a heartbreaking story yesterday at lunch.

He got a call from an elderly woman in Cold Spring who needed some bushes moved. He couldn't understand what she wanted, but it sounded like a job that would be too small for him. Still, he said he'd come by and look at it since he had to be in Cold Spring on another job on Wednesday.

When he arrived at the small patio home, she came out and showed him five spyria bushes she wants moved. They are small enough to dig up with about two digs of the shovel, he said.  Then her husband came down, holding a pad and pen, and demonstrated that he doesn't speak. He has cancer of the esophagus. He finished showing Steve the job, and Steve said, "Well, I could do it, but I don't think I'm the right person for this job."

"No," they said, "you're the one."

He explained: "If I do it, it will take a half day, and I'll have to charge you my going rate and also pay my assistant. There is driving time to Central Landscaping. I'd have to charge you $250 or $300.

The husband began writing on his pad. "Let's say it's $300. I'll pay you $600 if you can do it on Saturday."

"Why?" asked Steve.

The man wrote: "I am dying."

"How long do you have to live?"

The man held up two fingers.

"Years?" Steve asked.

He shook his head. "Months," he mouthed.

Of course, Steve will be there on Saturday. And he will make them the best possible yard and garden to enjoy in this, their last spring together.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

tick and rhubarb

This morning the first tick.
Lodged in the arch of my foot.

This evening, first rhubarb.
Thick, fragrant stems and elephant leaves.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nun Conference

I was in Ferdinand at a conference on Vocations. It was five days long, which is a really long time to be at a conference. It went at a nun's pace, which meant the breaks were long for those who needed to recharge or take naps, and there was free time and lots and lots of hospitality. Three social receptions, two of which included fudge from Gethsemani, Thomas Merton's Trappist monastery down the road in Kentucky. The monks there sent seven boxes of fudge, mostly with bourbon but some without, along with two Trappistine Sisters who visited on their way from their monastery in Virginia to the conference in Indiana.

I hope that someday I will give a full account of the world I'm experiencing now, the world of nuns at the beginning of the 21st century. Right now I feel self-conscious about it, because I am an official representative of a monastery, and because I am conscious of their image and the image they want to use to portray themselves.

At the conference, and most of the time, of course, it is clear that most nuns today are old, first generation American women. In the Midwest, they are mostly the daughters of German and some Irish immigrants. They are mostly the daughters of farm families.

On the final night, there was a Eucharist just for the 25 of us at the conference, so we wouldn't have to worry about getting to Sunday Mass on the day we were traveling. After the Eucharist, there was a party with all the Sisters at Ferdinand. The younger Sisters were all out, except for a few who live and work at the monastery. Most of their younger Sisters work in parishes and schools in Louisville or Evansville or even farther away.

Four Sisters have a combo: upright bass, guitar, electric piano and drums. When they play liturgical music (without drums), they call themselvesStillpoint. When they play at parties, they are The Combo. They had a large repertoire. Much to the chagrin of the three Redemptorist priests from Ireland, they played "When Irish Eyes are Smiling," "Toura Loura Loura" and "Danny Boy," though Father Dan did sing along. They also played a Schottische. Of course, the chicken dance and hokey pokey. Some Sisters got out and danced as well to a few polkas. There was one line dance. Sisters danced at everything they played.

Then, during what seemed like a break, the pianist played a tinkling little number that sounded like something you'd hear from a music box.

That is when Sister Catherine got up and danced. She turned 73 during the conference, and she is the prioress at the Trappistine monastery. Her young colleague had asked during a presentation, "Could you tell us what this Facebook is?" The 10 Trappistines make cheese as a community one day a week, just enough to cover their expenses, although there is demand for more. They want to figure out how to attract more women to their way of life, and I'm not sure what they made of the conference. They did determine they need a web site, and probably it was not realistic to think a Sister would be able to make one using the copy of Dreamweaver they bought for the community.

Sister Catherine danced by herself, spinning and moving lightly across the floor. Her hands moved like butterflies, like birds. She was out there about three whole minutes, while we all watched. After the number was over, we all clapped, and she graciously bowed.

Not all Sisters are the same, and not all monasteries or orders are the same. There is great variety, that goes overlooked in the stereotypes and generalizations. They are vibrant and they are in possession of a culture, which they are practicing in these days, despite all the rapid change going on around them and even in their communities, and that in another generation will be gone.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Southern Indiana

I've been out of the blogosphere while attending a conference at St. Benedict's Monastery in Ferdinand (pronounced FUR-dinend) near Louisville (pronounced Louv-uhhl), Kentucky all week. It has been like being dropped into summer, as the trees are in full leaf and the grass was being mowed when I arrived. The monastery is a gorgeous place (are any of them not gorgeous??) and down the road is the even more impressive (some might say imposing) St. Meinrad Monastery for Benedictine men. If you get a chance to see or stay at either, I recommend it.

What I've loved most have been the dogwood trees. I wish I had a picture, but I left my camera in Chicago and have been feeling the lack of it all week. Dogwoods are very special trees, with dark almost-black trunks and four-petaled white flowers big as saucers. The petals are bruised, or indented in the middle edges. The trees are quite striking, especially among the super-tall spruces, pines, oaks and other trees I can't identify. All the trees here are very, very tall.

The other site we visited, yesterday afternoon, was Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home. It is just a replica, but on the spot where his family's cabin stood. I remember seeing a documentary on his life in this area back hear president's day, and was surprised that he grew up in the woods. I'd always pictured him in a log cabin in Illinois, on the prairie, and walking down long, open prairire roads. But this place is all old-growth forest, very open and light on the day we were there, but definitely dense forest. No vistas or views. It's interesting to think of him, in this extraordinarily small one-room house, casting his vision out on a national scale.

I'm off to another session now-- yes, even Saturday-- but will come back to post a photo of a dogwood flower and some links to Lincoln's birthplace...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chicago: Perfect Day 2010

Any day that starts with Captain Crunch and Spongebob is likely to be good. If it's followed up by an hour of 6-year-olds playing soccer, there isn't much that can stop it's trajectory upward.

After eating the one thing I really have a craving for every time I come to Chicago: an everything bagel toasted with salmon cream cheese and a tomato slice at Einstein bagels, I went in search of free wifi to post a blog entry. Wifi they have aplenty. Free, not so much. I did write a long and satisfying entry on Romanticism and nature and spirituality at Starbucks, but it's locked in my laptop for now...

It was a gorgeous day in Chicago-- 70 degrees and sunny, so after the iced latte, I walked one of my favorite old routes, Andersonville to Southport, to the Music Box theater to see a film by Werner Herzog. What joy. It was in the small theater, since in the large one was a science fiction festival--- 14 hours of old sci fi films playing one after the other. A man was trying to get the ticket taker to tell him what the next film would be and when it would start, and she had no idea. "It doesn't matter, does it? When this one is over, we'll start the next one. I have no idea what it is. I don't even know what's playing now." I stood in the back and watched, and truly, it doesn't matter. Two classic sci-fi astronauts with big guns were exploring a space cave, very, very slowly and with no dialogue for at least five minutes. The place was loaded with geeks who I'm assuming were not going to see the sunny day...

In my theater, people knew exactly what we were in for-- absurdism from the mind of Herzog. The only thing that could have improved this film would have been to have Herzog doing a voice-over of some sort. The film was full of non-sequiters that made one guy at the end of my row laugh so hard he had to put his head on his hands. I, too, cried at points from laughing so hard. My favorite line was: "He told me he cried for four years in a laundry once, until they renovated it for other uses." Perhaps the funniest thing about the film was the line saying: based on a true story. You can just add "in Werner Herzog's head" like you can add "in bed" to fortune cookie lines, and you'll be closer to the truth.

The film, probing the motives of a man who commited matricide in San Diego, was coproduced by David Lynch. That explains the midget and the ostrich farm, but this film had none of the creepy wierdness of Lynch. It had a protagonist who returned from a trip to Peru, where he was the only person in a group of guys sane enough not to go down the rapids during the rainy season (all the others purportedly died), and returned unhinged. That is pure Herzog, who clearly is interested in people who have been to the edge-- and maybe beyond-- and have to figure out how to live in the world. Sometimes they figure it out. Other times they see God in a box of oatmeal and have pet flamingos. Life is just like that-- humans are just like that.

Afterward I took the Clark Street bus up to my friend Paula Dempsey's house, which was full of daffodils and crocuses and expertly renovated. We went to a wonderful Tapas restaurant-- particularly good was the stuffed pepper and egg. And we talked about many very important things that only matter to the two of us. If I miss anything in my new life in Minnesota, it is women friends like this, with whom I've shared complicated history and who has known me through several lives.

Not sure what it means that my best days are in cities-- mostly that you can string together a really great day and because I'm away I can do exactly what I want all day long!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter 2010

I made a little video of the house set up for Easter before eveyone arrived. I meant to take another one from the same place with everyone eating, but I forgot! It always surprises me we can get 26 people sitting down for a dinner. The only thing I had to borrow was silverware, and I'm going to use this as an excuse to get eight more settings of my silverware for the future.

Our dining room table and chairs, just refinished by Steve this winter, is a Heywood-Wakefield set from his grandmother. There are two leaves, expanding the table to seat eight. We hauled in a large folding table from the barn that seated eight in the living room, and four kids can sit at the island once all the food has been served (buffet style of course). We set up one more small folding table in the entryway for four older kids, and two girls decided to eat on the porch.

I like the video because it shows how clean and simplified our living room/dining room/kitchen are. There are still Christmas lights lying on the top of the hutch, but overall everything is pretty spare.

Four years ago, I first met this family when I went with Steve to Tim and Annie's for Easter. We had been dating less than a month, and the people on the farm knew we were dating, but everyone else was to treat me as a friend of Steve's who just didn't have anywhere to go for Easter. Which was absolutely true-- and I had tried inviting myself into Easter with two other families.

I remember sitting next to Kevin, who said: "Wow, so you got into a Minnesota family Easter celebration. That's a big deal." I had heard from others who moved to Minnesota that people can be clannish and don't really invite others to family gatherings. And that had been more or less my experience. I thought maybe he was saying in a way, "This must mean you're more than a 'friend,' right?" but it didn't seem like it. Kevin is not nosy like that. The others-- Steve is the oldest of eight children-- were all friendly, and his mother was especially solicitous. No one made me feel put on the spot or pressured or odd. This family is very laid back and easygoing.

In no way, however, did I think then that three years later I'd be hiding plastic easter eggs filled with candy and helping get the patio furniture out and cleaning to host Easter. And now, my second year, I'm happily thinking it could be a long tradition. I like hosting meal-based holidays, and this one seems particularly nice. Ham is easy, and the menu can be simple but satisfying. It comes at a really nice time of year, when Spring cleaning is called for and it's nice to open up and air out the house a bit. This year I was tired afterward, but not as tired as last year. And I have Easter Monday off to recover. In a way it's a highlight of life on the farm.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday, The Suffering Servant and The Saint John's Bible

Today, Good Friday, I awoke thinking about the passage in Isaiah commonly called "The Suffering Servant." It is a long passage, so here is just an excerpt:

He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement
that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.

We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.

For the full passage, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which is the first reading for liturgy today, click here.
When I think about this passage, I always think of the illumination in The Saint John's Bible that accompanies it, by Donald Jackson (above).
I first saw it in a slide presentation at Saint John's University, and immediately when it was flashed on the screen, I thought-- that's the Door of No Return! The abstract bars that hold in the suffering servant looked to me so much like the door of no return in Accra, Ghana, the door through which slaves passed to board ships for America.
The image of the suffering servant in this illumination is based on starvation victims in Africa, not slaves, but for me, slavery is an apt association with this story. In fact, Holy Week has had me thinking about slavery and the general mistreatment of Africans and African-Americans in this country. After hearing the Passion story last Sunday, all I could think about was lynching. And what a horrible time it must have been to live in a country where lynching was going on regularly. Innocent people hung from trees by angry mobs. I am worried about the potential for violence, politically-motivated and racist violence, in our current society. But nothing can really compare to those decades of violence in the mid-20th century, in America and abroad.
There is still much suffering by innocents-- victims of terrorism, ongoing slave trade and mistreatment of children throughout the world.
That is a heavy burden we place on our God.