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...