Monday, August 6, 2018

Be Here (Knitting) Now.

I used to crochet until a bit of arthritis in my thumb joints made it unpleasant. So I took up knitting. I’m now SO into knitting that my daughter and I decided to make and sell handmade, adorable knitting needles:

And here’s my obligatory Ravelry scrapbook of projects:

But this post isn’t about tools, stitches, projects, patterns, etc. etc. etc. Rather, it’s a meditation, a philosophical exploration, a self-reflective hypothesis sounding board, on WHY I knit.

Prairie folk often attribute their craftiness to pragmatism: we make things because we need them. But trust me, NO ONE I KNOW NEEDS ANOTHER KNIT HAT. EVER. Admit it…you’ve got a Rubbermaid tub in your hall closet overflowing with hats, mittens, and scarves. Your drawer is stuffed with untouched handknit socks you’ll re-gift as soon as the knitter has forgotten she/he gave them to you. So no, it isn’t about need. It’s something more…

1. “Idle Hands” Knitting. My grandma, a fairly stoic Presbyterian, reminded me often that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” When she sat to watch TV, she was also knitting an afghan, mending (including socks…people used to mend and keep wearing holey socks!!), folding laundry, or writing letters. I’m not religious myself and don’t believe in devils, but I have to admit that when my hands aren’t busy, I’m twitchy, and I watch around corners.

2. Knitting as Mindfulness Practice. Though I’ve been practicing for years, I admit to having a hard time with meditation ( I’ve heard the mind compared to a willful horse that’s always distracted by sounds & sights, and that constantly wants to turn back to the barn. So for me, mindful knitting helps me rein in the horse, instead of letting the horse take me astray. It’s a chance to PAY ATTENTION to each stitch, to the feel of the yarn, to the sound of the needles, to the rhythm of the rows. It’s a chance to stay in the present moment. I’m pretty much Type A+++, so knitting helps me slow my breathing & heart, lower my BP, and let go of the day/plans/regrets/schedule/lists for a time.

3. Cheap Gift Knitting. I’m a perpetually poor teacher. Ray is a printer (he runs a Heidelberg press). We live in South Dakota, where K-12 teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. IN THE NATION. And where post-secondary teachers don’t do much better and sometimes do much worse. And where wages in general are woeful. So yes, kids & siblings, you’re getting another funky knit hat and more fingerless gloves for Christmas.

4. Social Anxiety Knitting. You might not know this about me, but I’m an introvert. I do well in small groups of intimate friends, but put me in a large group, or any group of folks I don’t know, and the outer me will be charming and all smiles. But inner me might be bug-eyed, quaking, and hanging by her fingernails from a wall sconce. I’ve discovered that taking knitting everywhere I go can help in several ways: (a) some people will stay away because they think I’m “busy”; (2) some people will approach and ask about the knitting, which breaks the ice; and (III) I can effectively “time out” when I need to by concentrating on the knitting for a bit.

5. “Ignorance is Bliss” Knitting. I have a LOT of responsibilities and stress. A lot. A shit-ton, as the kids say. Knitting can sometimes signal others to steer clear because, dangit, I’m “busy” doing something constructive and important. And trust me, EVERYONE I KNOW NEEDS ANOTHER KNIT HAT. RIGHT NOW.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

At Last!

In October, I’ll celebrate my 6th re-birthday. It will be 6 years since an ischemic right pontine stroke blasted me in my sleep, a stroke I’ve affectionately nicknamed BS (Bastard Stroke). I won’t go into the gory details here, but if you want them, they’re here:

Anyhoo, this is about a recent milestone. I am SO AMAZINGLY LUCKY for many reasons, but one of them is that I’m surrounded by a community of world-class musicians and music lovers. And once every week or two, I get to sit in with the band and sing. One of my most memorable moments singing was at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. I got to sing “At Last” with a stellar band. It was one of those moments for me when all the stars align—band is hot, voice is in fine form, you’re feeling it down to your bones, not just singing it—and I almost cried, it all felt so good. Then along came BS. 

On the day before BS, I was sitting at a singing & healing workshop offered by a friend and former Little Town’er, and one of the things she said was that it doesn’t matter if you sing offkey, if your voice is shaky, if you think you can’t sing, etc. What matters is just to open up and sing. I had already had three or four TIA’s (mini strokes) in the previous two days (which I wrote off to stress and grading fatigue), so I was crabby and just feeling off. Right, I thought, whatEVER. It would take me six stubborn years to understand how right she was.

Among the “deficits” (seriously, that’s what the med/pharma complex calls the aftershocks of stroke) I was left with after BS, was a mucked-up throat: right stroke means left vocal cord can be “sluggish,” post-stroke BP drugs and CPAP mean that my throat is perpetually dry, which can cause some swelling, which means my tone can be pinched, and, worst of all, I don’t have the vocal control I had pre-BS; my voice can sometimes be…well…wobbly and willfully independent.

It took me about two years of checking things out with a vocal rehab ENT, rehab exercises put together for me by my friend C, a vocal teacher, and practicepracticepainfulpractice before I felt comfortable singing in public again. Even then, I stuck to “safe” songs—limited range, no challenging vocal frills, so familiar I could sing them in my sleep.

Then this week, I screwed up my courage and ASKED the band if I could sing “At Last.” I hadn’t tried it since BS, except by myself, shut in my home office, when no one was home. And I did it. It wasn’t great, I missed a few notes here and there, it didn’t come out quite as good as it had when I practiced it, but DAMN, it felt FINE! I can’t quite put this in words, but for me, singing that song was some sort of threshold I’d been terrified to cross.

And that’s the real milestone…not that I sang the song, but that I remembered what a loving, forgiving, accepting, supportive community I get to live in, and that I don’t need to be afraid. I just need to open up and sing. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A marriage made in ???

The back of the monastery, outside of the chapel
 NOTE: You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.

A friend and I made a “retreat” trip last year to Our Lady of the Mississippi Benedictine monastery, a cloistered (little contact with the outside world) convent in Iowa, and we decided to do it again this year. So we recently returned from a few days at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Missouri. There are 24 sisters at the monastery, down from about 200 at its most active point (attracting young people to the “vocation” is increasingly hard). Most monasteries try to be as self-sustaining as possible, so the Missouri sisters have businesses making and selling altar bread, soap, and candles. They produce much of their own food, and they receive donations from guests and others.

Part of the Benedictine mission is hospitality, so both places provide apartments in guest houses. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sister in charge of guests. We were given simple staple food for our stay—bread, cheese, milk, fruit, etc.—and towels, bedding; really, everything we needed. In Iowa, we remained “apart” from the sisters, though we could attend offices (times of prayer) with a wall separating us from seeing, but not from hearing, the sisters. In Missouri, we could join the sisters for offices, and even for a meal or two during their daily routine. Our lodging and provisions at both monasteries were simple, but we were definitely NOT roughing it.

Back of monastery, one of the sisters' gardens.
Our guest kitchen

Our living room...never turned that TV on.

Inside the chapel. We sat in the stalls with the sisters for Vespers.
Statue of Mary inside the chapel.
Monastery cemetery.
Cemetery centerpiece.
The Relic Chapel. Each cubby along the walls holds relics (bone, fabric, hair) of saints.
That dot in the middle is bone, size of the head of a pin. I wrote a poem about St. Dymphna, and now I got to meet her.

My friend, a retired Methodist pastor who makes frequent retreats, likes to visit and eat with the sisters, walk and photograph the picturesque settings, architecture, and art. The silence and solitude provides time and space for contemplation and prayer. I do some of those things too, but I also spend a lot of time alone, writing. This year, we went to Vespers (evening prayer, which is sung verses from Psalms and a canticle to Mary) every day. There’s something about the singing/chanting voices of 24 women in a giant echo chamber (the chapel) that moves me beyond words.

I’ve always had a strange sort of marriage to the Catholic Church. We love each other, fight, make up, fight some more, make up again, and go on vacation. Like any fraught marriage, it’s a mystery why we stay/split/come back together.

I should have said up front that I’m not Catholic. I was raised (loosely) Presbyterian, though I no longer consider myself a Christian. I do consider myself a spiritual person, much to the chagrin of my atheist friends, who would like me to be yea/nay, just as my “religious” friends would. 
My odd relationship with the Catholic church goes waaaaay back. When I was growing up, our neighborhood Catholic church and Presbyterian church were ½-block apart. My best friend was Catholic. So I would often go to mass with her then go to the Presbyterian service (and sing in the choir) with my grandma, who lived with us, and who was the only “religious” member of our family. I did this so often that I learned to be a good Catholic: to genuflect & kneel, bless myself with holy water, recite the mass, make my friend go to confession when she picked flowers in the cemetery (the sign clearly said DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS), etc. I even took communion until I was finally “caught”—I didn't understand catechism and the “rules” about who could and couldn’t take communion, and at that age, I was sure God would be happy I did it.

Neighboring Conception Abbey chapel.
For my junior year of high school, due to racial tensions and upheaval in my public school in those days (we had armed police stationed outside the bathrooms in my sophomore year), I transferred to a Catholic girls’ school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. I felt right at home with the sisters, the religion classes, the uniforms, the prayer services. My senior year of high school was one religion class and five literature classes at a Jesuit high school.

Conception Abbey pipe organ. The big pipes were 10" across and 17' tall.
Conception Abbey 15th-century Italian marble Madonna with child.
It’s a chicken-egg conundrum: Do I love the Catholic church because of my youthful introductions, or did I gravitate toward those youthful experiences because of some innate love of the church or some need it fulfilled? Pretty sure I’ll never know which. But I do know I love the ritual of Catholicism, which I find soothing, comforting. The smell of frankincense and myrrh can still make me swoon. A shadowy, echo-y chapel, with its smells, its silence, its vaulted ceilings, dark woods and stone, and breathy, haunting pipe organs, can bring me to tears and make my heart ache. And I’m both fascinated and inspired by a group of sisters or brothers completely devoting their lives to a common cause.

HOWEVER...the church and I occasionally hit the skids when I think about the amassed wealth of a church whose sisters and brothers take as one of their most sacred vows the vow of poverty. Or when I think about the poor—a primary focus of most monastic orders—and how much less poor they could be if the church cashed in some of their hidden and not-so-hidden cache. Or when I think about the Inquisition. Or the “conversion” of indigenous people around the world. Or the church’s historical and continuing suppression of women. Or the sexual abuse of children. Or what happened (and is still happening, if one includes the church's refusal to contribute to a reparations fund) to the Magdelene girls under the sisters’ “care” ( Or so many other hypocrisies. Gha.

As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” So yeah, I’ll continue to examine my strange relationship with the Catholic church, because I know somehow we’re stuck together for life. Maybe we need a good (non-Catholic) marriage counselor...

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Another teacher with the summer off.

It's summer in the Dakotas at last, and as a teacher, of course I have the whole summer off to lounge and eat bonbons. 

SERIOUSLY?!? That has NEVER been true for ANY teacher EVER. In my case, Ray, my mom (who has a slowly progressing form of blood cancer), and I all live together. Sure, I could lounge for minute between trips to the store/pharmacy, doc visits for any one of us, occasional grandkid snuggling/sitting, and gardening/canning. Or maybe I could toss down bonbons while I WORK (catch up on the last semester's unfinished To-Do list, or work on next semester's list, already piling up; put together a student journal the editor bailed on; facilitate a bimonthly Little Town writer's group, etc.)? Even when I'm on "vacation," you can bet your non-contractual working arse that I've got my laptop, and that at least in the mornings, I'm swilling hotel coffee while I'm typing/scheduling/planning/updating away. (Did I mention before that the "teachers have the summer off" excuse for sheit pay and lack of respect is one of my pet peeves?)

Anyhoo...I guess we’re down to two seasons here on the SoDak prairie: blizzard and boiler. In April, we thought for a minute that we might have spring. Temps got up to the 60s, migratory birds/fowl started coming back, our leftover snow melted, and those stalwart hyacinth and iris pushed up. Then we had a blizzard. Now it’s in the 90’s with 8,000 % humidity. South Dakota likes to keep our population limited to only acquiescing, layer-donning/offing, hearty, fatalistic folk.

In spite of global climate change (my Republican brother calls it Gore-bal Warming), Ray and I got our garden in. We’ve cut back this year to only tomatoes, cukes, one pepper plant, and herbs. I had ambitions for two new raised beds (asparagus and strawberries) gooseberry bushes, and a fenceline of honeysuckle, but life foiled my plans (life often knows best, I find, and understands exactly how much area I’m able/willing to weed).

Spearfish Creek is COLD.
We’ve already been quite the travelers this year. First, Mom and I went to Grand Isle, Louisiana, so Mom could stick her toes in the Big Water. Then we went inland to soak up the southern spring with my two Louisiana nieces and their beautiful families, and to meet our newest little Cajun great-nephew. We barely got home when we left for the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Flint Hills, like the Black Hills of South Dakota, are quite a surprise for folks who think both states are all Little House on the Prairie. The Flint Hills are beautiful rolling hills, home to sweet little lakes, astounding mortarless hand-built stone fences, and (I’m not even kidding) the historical Beecher Bible and Rifle Church. There, we had more family/friend gatherings and a little lake recreation, and I left Mom to spend her twice-yearly month at the lake with a rotation of brothers. The we came back home, another quick turnaround, and we were all off for the Black Hills, where we got to celebrate a grandson’s graduation with more friends & family, and where Ray and I did our traditional annual baptism in Spearfish Creek.

New babies all look like Mr. Magoo.
This week, I kayaked for the first time ever, thanks to several friends who loaned me a kayak, hauled me to a calm little lake, showed me the ropes, and put up with me for the first several minutes when I was terrified to paddle. Or move at all. Or breathe. I did get a wee bit burnt (the Ginger Danger) in spite of several coats of SPF 100 (I’m not even exaggerating), but I definitely have the bug now and will go again as soon as I can pester my friends into taking me.

Soon, I'll be able to paddle, too!
Soon, my friend and I will leave for our annual “Get Thee to a Nunnery” road trip. Last year, in lieu of my annual birthday hermitage, my friend and I went to a convent in eastern Iowa. The trip itself was lovely, and once we were there, we spent a few days exploring the property (a working farm), enjoying our own individual contemplation time, and visiting a nearby monastery, where, over 40 years ago, I was part of a trio that played music for a Trappist brother’s Silver Jubilee. This year, we’ll be staying at a Benedictine convent in Missouri. There’s a monastery nearby, too, and between the two, they have some incredible religious art/sculpture. Although I’m not Catholic and have my own non-Christian sort of spirituality, these getaways gift me with invaluable time for writing, a spot of work, re-centering, and unwinding in what I feel are sacred spaces. Ohm...

Also this summer, I'll be working on the Magdalene poems (, so any dedicated writing time I can find will be especially precious. Just this week, Dublin hosted the first-ever reunion of Magdalene laundry survivors. It was an incredibly moving scene. I'm hoping, as one survivor suggested, that this becomes and annual event, and that I can plan my laundry research trip to Ireland around the next reunion.

On July 20, my first legit published book (a chapbook, but a fat one) comes out from Finishing Line Press. It's called The Sea is My Ugly Twin. It's a mythical, wishful little tome of watery poems, for which my youngest brother ( did the cover illlustration--the most wonderful, haggard mermaid EVER. You can pre-order the book online for $15, and read what some much finer poets than myself have to say about the book here Finishing Line will send books out on July 20 to those who pre-order.

My trouble-making sidekick, Doris.
I also have a full slate of school work to do this summer, including teach myself the software I need to put together that student literary journal before fall, complete three online English course templates, write two presentations' worth of material for a fall conference, and get ready for regular fall classes.

I'm not a whinging Negative Nelly, honest. I’m incredibly grateful for my good health, for Mom's stable health and good humor, for Ray's limitless love & patience, and for the summer schedule to combine work and adventure. Today’s adventure is hiding out in my home office while Mom and the Fearless Foursome play bridge downstairs. This could be one of the most dangerous, unpredictable adventures of them all...

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Crazy Bee in My Bonnet

I have a GIANT, angry bee in bonnet: I need to get to Ireland. Check out my gofundme page:

I’m working on a book of poems about Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, workhouses run by the Catholic Church in Ireland from the mid-1700’s to 1996 (!), and in which girls and young women were incarcerated and used as unpaid labor in an effort to “reform” them. If you’ve never heard of the laundries, you can read more about them on my gofundme page, and more here:

Because I need to go to Ireland to do research and meet laundry survivors, and because I’m a perpetually broke teacher, I’ve started the gofundme page to help me get there. (If you feel like sharing my gofundme link on social media or email, I’d be most sincerely grateful.)

I feel sheepish about asking for help (something I’m not good at) when there is so much need out there, and it’s mostly so much greater than mine. I’m not even sure why this project is so important, so consuming for me at this time in my life, but it sure is.

·      Maybe I WAS a Magdalene (what laundry girls/women are called) in a past life.

·      Maybe it’s because I had two DNA tests done, and they both showed I’m basically Irish with a smattering of Bohunk (Czech). My family had always maintained, in spite of a passel of redheads, that we had no Irish ancestry, so this was a bit of a surprise. Maybe my Irish DNA is calling me back to the land of my peeps, and to speak out. 

·      Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic mass religiously (hahaha) as a kid—though I’m not Catholic—and I went to a Catholic girls’ school, and I have a profound love for and fascination with Catholicism’s deep traditions and mythologies, saints, rituals, art, and architecture (although like so many devout and sincere Catholics, I’m horrified by the Church’s abuses past and present).

·      Maybe it’s because I can’t get these babies out of my head… (

·      Maybe it’s because in my youth, I was the kind of girl/teen who would have ended up in a laundry if I hadn’t been blessed to grow up in America in the 1970’s, when practically every girl I knew would have been likely laundry fodder. There but for the grace

Ray looks at me like, “Uh-oh…here we go again…” and tries hard not to roll his eyes or sigh too loud. I don’t know if he’ll go with me (he’s one of those rare homebodies who doesn’t care for traveling), but he’s my biggest writing fan and supports me in all writerly things, so I know he’ll be with me either way.

Whatever my deep-seated reason is for needing to write this book, and however long it takes me, I’m going to Ireland. In my own mysterious poet-y way, I’m trusting the Universe to make it happen, and I’ll be sure to blog the trip, whenever it happens. Éirinn go Brách(less)!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jack Blizzard's Final Fit

It’s Sunday, the day after Snowmageddon ’18, Jack Blizzard’s Last Tantrum (, the Great April Blizzard. Tucked in our Little Town corner of South Dakota, our magic vortex protected us from the worst of it. We only got, oh, about 10”. Surrounding areas had white-out blizzard conditions and up to 18” of snow. In 24 hours. 

Northern prairie people expect blizzards. When we hear it’s coming, we stock our larders (Friday was mayhem at Hy-Vee; amid cart races and elbow jabs, bread, milk, butter, peanut butter, and beer flew off the shelves), rinse out our woolies, fill bird feeders for the hapless migrators, start new knitting projects, set our mukluks by the back door. What made this blizzard unusual is that it happened mid-April, one day after a stretch of sunny 60+-degree weather. It had been lovely for long enough that people were foolishly raking flower beds (the iris and columbine are up), climbing into garage rafters to get out patio furniture, and swapping out storm windows for screens. Ah, that persistent prairie optimism…
Pre-storm: even squirrels stock their larders.

SD rancher Bryce Teveldal snaps his brother on calf-rescue duty.
Outside our little hamlet and our “pretty spring snow,” things got a little more dicey. Long stretches of I-29 and I-90 were closed due to 40-50 mph winds and ZERO visibility. Stuck drivers had to be plucked from cars that slid into ditches. People were quite literally snowed in their houses by drifts against doors and high as windows. Parked cars were buried. Cows were lost, frozen to death by driving wind and snow-ice, or had to be rescued by determined ranchers.

It’s mostly over now, a few flakes in the air, and the shoveling out commences. The forecast is for 40’s and 50’s by the end of this week, and our memories of Snowmageddon will, as they always do, quickly melt away.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dear Ides of March: You Don't Scare Me.

It’s my dad’s 85th birthday today. He’s in a nursing care facility with advanced prostate cancer. He’s had it for a long time, and he’s periodically refused treatment and defied the odds. Recently, one of the cancer’s rogue tumors ended up pressing on his spine, which left him unable to walk. Surgery relieved the pressure but didn’t restore his ability to walk. He does have sensations in his legs, though, so he pushes himself to regain his mobility, doing his own PT on the sly. He is realistic but unbelievably optimistic. Dang, I hope I inherited his determination gene. Happy birthday with love & admiration, Dad.

My dad once told me he was the reincarnation of Caesar. Kidding or not, he IS kind of like Caesar who, in spite of warnings, trusted that things were gonna be a-okay. So for my dad’s birthday, and for the spring geese flying over by the thousands right now, and for the return of the robins, here’s my annual poem about warnings, winter, realism, hope, and optimism…all things South Dakotans (and my dad) have in spades…


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It’s a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We’ve weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We’re tired
of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.