Thursday, August 16, 2012

County Fair

Everyone loves a county fair. And as Martha, MaryAnne and I sat on the ferry after biking from Shaw, I wondered what would be in store. We would be volunteering for several hours that day, helping Mother Hildegard and the mothers in doing so. I took my place next to the fleece after being chided for having brought my iced coffee into the prize textile room. They didn’t know I was a volunteer at the time. It happens.

My companions were Margaret, Maxine, another woman originally from Dusseldorf. All craftswomen, all artists, all at least three decades older than me, all beautiful. Maxine, outgoing and cheerful from Brooklyn, spinning wool by the fleece, trespassing the “Do Not Touch” signs, allowing passerby to feel the woolly packs. “I bought these anyway,” she winked. “How can you go through a textile room and not be able to touch anything? That’s what it’s all about.” I don’t think the makers of the first and second prize sweaters and socks and hats and shawls and felt would agree. But as far as she was concerned, the fleece was touchable. She pedaled there, spinning meditatively, demonstrating her art to those who passed and looked, giving them tufts of the fleece to touch and smell as she explained the process. She was kind and compassionate. She was living her dream of working with sheep after growing up in the big city.

The food at the fair was of course, one of my favorite parts. Gourmet hot dogs, BBQ, sweet tea, gyros, pie a la mode, snow cones mountain high, peaches and cream. After my shift was over at 3, I found myself eating amidst the color and chaos and walking around the fair. There was food, art, music, shopping, learning. MaryAnne and I made our way over to the 4H room and found the project Mother Hildegard had worked on with the children on crows. “Any ribbon?” we asked an official looking lady. “Oh yeah,” she said, and quickly pulled out the Best in Show and First Place awards. “I hadn’t put them out yet.” Mother would be pleased.

At around 4:15 I went to the Lopez Island Creamery truck I had loved after I found out they were responsible for taking the lavender from the farm and creating it into the cold ice cream masterpiece I had tried the week before. “My wife over here is responsible for that recipe,” said the owner. I thanked her for her contribution to humanity. “What’ll ya have?” “Well a scoop of chocolate almond chunk for sure,” I said. “And I can’t decide between wild blackberry and Skagit strawberry. You pick one for me.” “How about a little of both?” he replied. And before I knew it, I had just about three scoops of ice cream in my cone. I was both delighted and slightly concerned. 

It was a long, “hot” day—hot for the West coasters anyway. The three of us sat on the ferry ride back, along with other families, dogs and teens, drowsy and satisfied.   I moved to the outside balcony after talking to ten year old Sasha and meeting her dog Lola for half an hour and sat down. The sun was beginning its descent back into what seemed like the depths of the earth. A breeze licked my face and my shirt danced. I was at peace until the landing at Shaw, until I walked downstairs and realized that my bike was on the other side of the boat, barricaded by cars.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A concert

I went to Lauds on Monday after a day vacation. It’s funny how 7:45 to me now means sleeping in. After mass at 8, Mother Mary Grace had me go up with her to take back some linoleum she had found in the “free stuff” shed that wouldn’t fit in her house. “I keep hearing about the free stuff shed,” I told her. “Where is it anyway?” Her eyes opened wide. “You’ve been here for three weeks and you haven’t gone to the free stuff shed yet?” “I know…and I’ve been hearing about it since I got here.” “Well, that’s where we’re going right now,” she responded.  We drove the heavy, rolled linoleum and placed it outside the open wooden shed next to the Shaw Island community center. “Sometimes, you can find really great things here,” Mary Grace explained. “See, now this is cute,” she continued, pulling out a red wrap dress from the hangers. I couldn’t help but think of my brother and his Goodwill runs, always scouring for treasures that many overlook or simply ignore.

Afterwards, Sue, Mary Anne, Martha and I worked with Mother Dilecta in the vegetable garden. That many pairs of hands cleared out most of the weeds, giving the garden a much needed makeover in under two hours. Aimee, a nanny from Seattle who did the land program with the monastery years ago, came with the two children she takes care of and their extra friend. We had lunch after they had unpacked and gotten ready for their five day stay. I then watered the plants in the pond again, fed the fish and began work on reorganizing a brick stack that had fallen over behind the pond shed. Each spider and centipede and slug I encountered made me thankful for my thick leather gloves. The spiders also made me think of Kathleen and how she might have handled the situation.

I went for another long run after—the loop—a four mile circle that goes up to the library, down to the community center and back up to the entrance of the monastery. (Anna, if you’re reading this, you’d call this a “jog” or small run, probably finishing in 10 minutes.) I made Vespers at 5 after a quick shower. We had plans that evening: a concert. One I would be partly giving. Humorous, considering my ten weeks of piano experience. I was paired with Sue, who has been playing the saxophone for over thirty years. She truly made it a concert experience. 

Sue and I had started a ritual after the fateful day we found out about each other’s love for Taize music: playing and singing the small chants in St. Joseph’s (our guest house) at night after dinner. We taught different groups of people: Martha and MaryAnne, Paula and her children, their grandmother, Anne. Now we were teaching Mother Felicitas, sitting in her small music room, MaryAnne, Martha, Sue, Mother and I. We had just finished our respective “concert” pieces when Mother said, “Well are we going to do Taize now?” I couldn’t help but gape while one of my dreams materialized before my very eyes. Then I got out my camera.  And so we sat, a 22 year old, a 45 year old, two 76 year olds, an almost 80 year old—professors, teachers, recent grads, a nun—from Wisconsin, San Diego, Ohio, Texas. Here we were, singing Taize music within the monastic wall guests normally cannot trespass. “How about another one?” Mother said. “Let’s do one more,” she continued after that. And when we had finished, we practiced our Gregorian round… but then it was really time to get some rest, Mother explained. She was out with guests after 8:30—not a common occurrence here.

I loved that she didn’t want the night to end. I loved that she closed her eyes as Sue played Ave Maria on the sax. I love that she clapped when I finished my piano “pieces,” despite my faltering fingers. I love that her eyes lit up and her face glowed as she sang the Taize songs and changed pitch accordingly. I love that we all participated, that music brought us together, that I could watch beauty unfold…and be part of the process.

I love it here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chocolate Lavender Ice Cream

Four words: chocolate lavender ice cream. I might as well use one: heaven. The goodness from Pelindra Lavender Farm was the highlight of my trip to San Juan Island. AND THAT’S JUST THE BEGINNING FOLKS

I walked off the inter-island ferry after standing outside by the rail, soaking in one of the most gorgeous rides on public transportation I have ever been on. (Hard to beat islands all around and miles of sea and sky...) I walked less than five minutes to the Farmer’s Market I had read about online. It was great…but could be walked through, slowly, in less than ten minutes. I got a virgin pomegranate mint mojito and walked along, when Tracy texted me asking if I was on the island yet. (She was staying there with her parents for the next few days). She came to get me and we walked around the town, in and out of boutiques and bookstores. We stopped at Serendipity, a charming and well-known used-book store on the island. It was jam packed with books and absolutely lovely. We might have knocked over a couple bookshelves though…

Next door to Serendipity was “The Market Chef” –a wonderful sandwich and deli place I had seen online. We went in and I was getting coffee when Tracy came in from a phone conversation and announced that her parents would be picking us up for a picnic. We got sandwiches and chips for everyone and were off to the other side of the island with her 80 year old parents. I couldn’t believe it. We first went to the Pelindra Lavender Farm, where you could walk right up to their lavender for free and breathe in the soothing aroma. The entire field was blazing purple. Our picnic, however, was in Lime Kiln, a park area with a light house known as an ideal spot to whale watch. Orcas, aka Shamu from SeaWorld to me, abound in this area and even come close to the shore looking for salmon. I didn’t see any, but that didn’t take away from the fact that I was eating at a picnic table looking out onto British Colombia and the vast ocean. On our way back, we picked up the chocolate Lavender ice cream from the farm and ate it in the car. I felt so incredibly spoiled and could not, still cannot, believe my day.
 I was so humbled by Tracy and her parents. I had known her at Our Lady of the Rock for barely three days, and already her family was hosting me around the island and making sure I got to know it well. I easily feel like I have known Tracy for a long time. Perhaps it was our walk the day she came to OLR that set the tone. She had lost her glasses and was going out to find them. I decided to help and we ended up walking around sunset, having a deep conversation about life.  Here we were days later, showing each other different candles in quaint boutiques, meandering through book shelves, feeling like kids at camp. Women at least two decades apart. How friendships, relationships and moments with other human beings like this occur, I can only wonder and marvel and thank God. But as I sat in the backseat of her parents car, eating chocolate lavender ice cream after a long, full day of beauty, all I could do was smile. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Life's treasures

Saturday morning. 10am. I sit at the Shaw Island ferry terminal on my way to Friday Harbor. It’s a gorgeous day. The sun is shining brightly, enjoying no competition from the clouds, while fighting almost neck to neck with the sea for attention. I think the sea is winning. I’m going to Friday Harbor for the day—oddly enough the “big” city of the San Juan's will be my refuge. A day of not being accountable to others, I guess. Though I’m no longer “house mother,” I am still veteran. I still get a lot of questions. People still think I’m somehow in charge. As I left, Fred and his wife Anne arrived with their daughter Paula and her four children. The farm was bustling so it was a perfect time to slip away.

Yesterday after lunch, I helped Mother Mary Grace at the pond, watering the diverse multitude of plants and flowers, taking off the “dead heads” and putting them in a compost pile via wheelbarrow. That was after we had driven up to her house to collect scrap metal that was going to be cleared away. “How do you feel about mice?” she asked me soberly. On our drive back down to the barn, I learned the dimensions of OLR’s cells (cell = room in Benedictine). I could tell you the exact specifications and furniture set up thanks to Mary Grace’s explanation. We had quite the conversation, culminating in subjects like C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton as we stood leaning over the wooden fence like kids overlooking the pond. “I haven’t told you the pond story yet?” she asked incredulously. It entailed her friend jumping in the vastly overgrown area, finding a water pump and beginning to clear out the gunk on her visit years ago. “She didn’t ask permission,” Mother said, looking me in the eye. “Here, you need permission to go to the bathroom.” By the looks of the waterfall, fountain, roses, daisies, and 50 fish, the pond story ended well.

I cherish these moments. The small periods of true connection with the Mothers. They give me such comfort; and I’ve learned to appreciate them because of their scarcity. These are the only nuns I’ve really gotten to know. And though they can be a little mysterious and rough around the edges (who wouldn’t be after receiving about 300 guests a year for over two decades and working on a farm?), they are also just incredibly good people.

Meanwhile, I look outside the ferry window to find the ocean offering me her own treasure: diamonds shining brightly on her surface, beckoning me to continue life’s search for gold.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Another day

Last night I stayed up past 10:30 (I know…wild) watching the movie St. Guiseppe Moscati: Doctor to the Poor. When Mother Hildegard saw that I had gone up to the library to rent movies several days ago, she said “oh gosh we have so many here. I’ll leave some out for you.” And she did. I now have five movies and the first season of some TV show. These Benedictines… (The movie is fantastic so far by the way. It’s three hours long!)

Tracy, Sue and I worked all morning in the garden with Mother Dilecta. After lunch, I went for an hour long run, which is the longest I’ve done in months. It felt fantastic (endorphins much?). I turned right at the gate outside the monastery, went up the hill of death (zigzagging of course), and kept running until I hit the end of the north side of the island.  I had never been that far before. Lush green interspersed with the forest green of Washington’s famous evergreens shaded me from the cloudless sky. I started listening to music, and instead of going straight to my chants, I played “One Day” by Matisyahu and ended up listening to the whole CD on my phone. Anyone who’s heard the song will know its appeal. It’s upbeat and inspiring—something I surprisingly found the entire CD to be. One song was about shining your light for others, another about taking care of the earth. There was one on peace and forgiveness and another called Silence. I was loving it and jamming out like a moron on my run. 

At 2:30, Sue and I washed Mother Hildegard’s white explorer. I don’t want to know when it was last cleaned. The dogs always ride in there with her, so it reeks of canine and was caked in dirt (Hello…we’re on a farm). We hosed it down, brushed it with soap, vacuumed, cleaned the windows, dusted. I have never seen that much dust in a carseat. By the end, the car and I had switched places. Let’s just say when I changed, it looked like I had two different skin colors. 

Margaret and Mary Anne were back for Vespers (they went to another island to get bikes during the day) so the entire group had dinner together. Afterwards, they all joined me to collect eggs. Tracy has been my moral support on that one, going straight into the coop with no fear. Maybe I’ll drag Sue in tomorrow after Tracy leaves. As we went back into the house, we stopped for several minutes outside St. Joseph’s guesthouse door, looking out at the Scottish Highland Cattle in the pasture. There we were, Sue, Tracy, Margaret, Mary Anne and I –a rag tag group of different ages, places and desires –admiring the poise of such magnificent creatures and taking in the last light of the day.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Getting Along

Tracy and I walked to Lauds this morning at 6. It was another feast day so I showed her the appropriate page numbers in between the Latin spurts. The group was all there for mass at 8 after breakfast and then it was time for our respective duties. Work was easy today. Tracy and I fed the cattle, moved and stacked hay bales, watered the green house and fed the llamas. She even helped me collect eggs from the chicken coop later in the evening. Feeding the llamas was the closest I’ve gotten to them yet, and much like the cow milking incident, I was thrilled. The furballs were eating out of my hand, albeit suspiciously.

I went for another run after and was back in time for lunch at 12:30. I spent the afternoon in the herb garden again with Mother Felicitas, Mary Anne and Margaret  weeding, clearing and composting. To anyone who has their own garden or has done gardening or land work of any kind: I RESPECT YOU.

Sunset with Tracy
Went to Vespers at 5, played piano til 6:30 and then biked back to the guest house for dinner. Was met by a new face: a woman named Sue from Seattle. If I thought I liked the group already, Sue took this to a whole other level. First, she brought homemade hummus and chocolate zucchini bread. Second, she plays the saxophone. Third, she plays Taize music on her saxophone and knows all about the Taize community. When she told me this, I flipped out. When I told her I was at Taize for a week earlier this summer, she flipped out. The evening consisted in a performance: Sue played the saxophone while we sang Taize songs with the whole group, who are anywhere between  15-40 years older than me. I no longer only think we will all get along. We will.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Kickin the habit

Yesterday was my last day of motherhood. That habit might never come on again. I skipped Lauds at 6am and found myself vacuuming and making beds around 7 before mass. (Are you reading this mom?)  Feeding the cattle at 10 has become a staple. And yesterday I brought a treat: extra bread to go with the hay. I had never seen cattle run that fast. And I have never felt so popular. (Unless you count today when I brought hay out to the llamas.) I worked in the garden in the morning with Mother Dilecta, clearing out weeds to make room for the tractor. Before long my hands started to blister, leaving a nice raw circle in each palm. Perhaps I was getting a bit too zealous again. 

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s Life and Holiness in my spare time. It’s a small book of a little over a hundred pages and is my first introduction to the famous Trappist monk’s work. It’s one of about 8 books I bought over spring break at Powell’s in Portland that I’ve been dying to crack open ever since. College didn’t seem to spare much time…

After helping Mother Felicitas in the herb garden in the afternoon, I did one of my last official house mother duties: picking up the next guests at the Ferry. Martha, Mary Anne and Tracy. Martha and Mary Anne have been coming up to the monastery since they discovered it fifteen years ago . They seem to have been friends forever, working off of each other’s rhythm and taking care of the other accordingly. This is Tracy’s first time at the monastery. She came up from LA, where was born and raised and works as a school teacher. She leaves Friday while the other two will be here for the month. Martha and Mary Anne know their way around AND clean the house. Meanwhile, Tracy has a sweet tooth. Let’s just say I think we’ll all get along. 

Monastery entrance

High schoolers

The group of four students and one adult startled me. They had just biked to the monastery from the ferry after getting up at the crack of dawn and driving to Anacortes from Bellingham. It was only 9:30 when they arrived. 

After the group of thirty, the meekness and resilience of this small group had not been what I was expecting. There was Angus, with his son and daughter, another girl and Magdalene with fiery red hair. Mother Hildegard had two of the girls join me in cutting yet another box of broccoli before pulling out harmful weeds bigger than ourselves in a field so that the cows wouldn’t eat them. The others went back and forth from the beach, collecting pebbles that would go around the monastery chapel and gardens. It was a slow but seemingly steady day. 

It shouldn’t have been steady. It didn’t start off that way. The group woke up around 5:30. They drove almost two hours before getting on a 45 minute ferry. They biked to the monastery. Some didn’t make it. One girl, who seems to have not ridden a bike in a while, managed to lose control of her bike and fall off the edge of the road almost thirty feet, hitting her head. When the group told me she was consequently airlifted by a helicopter, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks of my own experience.

What were they doing here? She was stable, they said, suffering from concussion, and had to be airlifted because the accident was on an island more than anything else. The fact that they continued to come, the group down by three as the others went back to the mainland, surprised me. They were, as Magdalene had explained to her friends back home, “leaving for a day to hang out with nuns.” But it was more than that. The group ended up amazing me. High schoolers speaking with me about God at I level I have barely reached. High schoolers who understood the meaning of their religion and have found their own beauty in it. High schoolers who decided to pray as a group on our walk to the beach for the girl who had gotten hurt. High schoolers who had woken up at 5:30 and made the long trip, accidents and all, “to hang out with nuns for the day.”  

Age is just a number.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Becoming Benedictine

Monsters are taking over the monastery. Monster cookies, that is. I am the victim here. I sit down after lunch and find myself next to the coffee and cookie duo—the new Sonny and Cher of my life. I blame their latest attack on the group of youngsters who have come to the island to work for the day. “A group is coming to work today. There’s lasagna and meatloaf in the cooler and a bag of cookies,” Mother Hildegard says. “Please make sure to take care of them.”

Though the other visitors have left, I remain the veteran. The house mother. (The m is decidedly lower case, thanks.) House mother has been doing the laundry all morning, setting the table and putting the food in the oven while also being a farm mother, feeding the cattle and pulling up weeds taller than herself, and while also posing as a Benedictine Mother, going to prayers and masses, pretending like she knows the Latin, when to sit and when to stand. I guess I’m becoming Benedictine aren’t I? There’s room each day for different personas, different “habits” if you will. Luckily, mine is neither black nor denim.

That’s what’s so great about the Benedictines, their inclusion of diversity in their lives and the moderation with which they do things. It’s not all work. It’s not all prayer. It’s not all play. Kathleen Norris explains this concept in The Cloister Walk. “The monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it…The Benedictines, more than any other people I know, insist that there is time in each day for prayers, for work, for study, and for play.” I concur. But little did I know I would be adopting it so easily, slipping into the rhythm like the words of the Latin chants.

We all know this adaptability. It’s how we survive. We’re students, we’re friends, we’re leaders, we’re children, we’re parents, we’re workers, we’re teachers—we’re anything depending on where we are and who we’re with. It’s completely natural. The Benedictines simply take this already natural phenomenon and give it deeper meaning by recognizing it and by shifting their own habits accordingly (both literally and figuratively), all in order to glorify and be present to God. It is a very reasonable, logical lifestyle.

The notion began to crystallize today at Vespers. I knew it was a feast day, the Transfiguration, and that the service would change accordingly. I began to poke around in the book when Mother Ruth hobbled over, cleared her throat, and licked her fingers fumbling for the right pages. “Here’s the antiphon of the day,” she said in a Southern rasp. She flipped around twice more. “Here are the psalms. Here are the hymns.” I nodded, passed out a book of the Divine Office to every other group member, and the service began. I sang the antiphon, reverted back to the psalms, antiphon, psalm, back and forth, like a conductor orchestrating through the pages. I helped the others. I knew what I was doing.  

Maybe there’s a bit of Benedictine in all of us…

Monday, August 6, 2012

An adventure

It was Sunday and I had a lot of pent up emotion. Visitors were coming and going, I was referenced in the homily, I had a good meeting of spiritual direction and thoughts were running through me. I needed to run with them. I jogged for the first time in a long time to the reserve and found myself sitting on a rock formation looking out into the sea, a small cove and beach on either side of me. Little did I know I’d be there later to watch the sunset, sitting peacefully while observing the sky turn to raspberry peach sorbet, a sea lion popping up every few minutes to say hello.

But before all that happened, I needed to have an adventure. I guess it had been a while? Usually, to my mother’s terror, I seek adventure. Not this time. I was in a pensive mood. I wanted to think and just soak nature in. After jogging and sitting for a while at the beach, my plan was to follow the shore to the end of the reserve, go back up to the road and do a loop back to the monastery. After an hour, I was finding no such “end.” I came to cove after beautiful cove, making my way past rock formations, the forest, sand and white driftwood piles, when suddenly the next cove could not be reached by the beach and there was no path in sight.  I climbed up to the forest and finally found a path heading in the other direction. Though I detest turning back, I did. Because like I said, I was not in the mood for adventure.

Adventure found me. The supposed path going in the direction back to the entrance of the reserve began to curve. It continued to curve. Next thing I knew I was going in the complete opposite direction. THE ONE TIME I DID THE NOBLE THING AND TURNED AROUND. So much for retracing my steps.. I found myself not next to the shoreline but in the deep forest, in  a completely different scenery than the one before. Everything was green.  Then the spiderwebs began. It seemed like every step led me into another the invisible trap, untouched since who knows when. “You don’t have to be worried about snakes here,” I remembered Mother Mary Grace telling me, “Just brown recluses.” “Those are the really bad ones, right?” I asked her while taking a break from roofing several weeks ago. “Oh yeah, they can kill you,” she said nonchalantly before returning to her laundry. With each web I touched, the words repeated over and over in my head until I started running as if I were in football practice. I was so fierce that a deer leaped out of the bushes and hightailed it the other way. I don’t know who was more scared of who at the time.

Eventually I got to a semblance of a road. Eventually I got to a semblance of a gate.Eventually I emerged from the thick forest to find myself in the middle of a golden field of wheat. I then felt like Gladiator.

Fast forward 15 more minutes, past the random goat on the road, and I finally saw something I recognized: a very nice house. No, not the monastery, but a neighbor on the back side of the property. I started running. How I had gotten there, I had no idea. But suddenly I felt like I was returning home after a very long journey. And, after running through our plowed hay field and down the path past the chapel and past the grazing land, after a shower and new clothes, after two glasses of water, I found myself in Vespers, recognizing life is an adventure we don’t always sign up for.

What a "veteran" does

I’ve had more visitors since Friday, seven in fact. One left today, three leave tomorrow and three will remain. It’s interesting how much the dynamic shifts in the monastery depending on who’s here…something I obviously witnessed drastically with the youth group. Suddenly, I’ve become the veteran around here. Mother Hildegard has taken to referencing me as the “house mother” …which is just hilarious because I don’t resemble anything of the sort. And there I found myself putting lunch and dinner in the oven (ok, they were pre-made by the nuns) and driving off in Mother H’s van to pick up the latest bunch. She better not have meant house Mother. Hmm…

I biked to Washington University’s reserve less than a mile away after lunch and spent a good hour and a half walking, sitting on the ledge looking out into the ocean and writing. Here’s something I felt needed to be on paper:

You can’t take a picture of the glitter on the open sea.
Or capture the snow peaks far off in a haze.
You can’t see the faces of the people on the passing ferry.
Or draw a line through the tops of the trees.
So I’ll just have to sit here for a very long time.
And stare out at all these things a camera could never capture.

Hey dad, after this gig, I’ll just live off of my stellar writing.

I managed to make some of the Vespers service after driving to the ferry and finding out one had broken down and that all of the schedules were haywire as a result. Afterwards, I went to practice my new ritual: piano. I brought my torn out papers from my music book and have been relearning everything we breezed by in class. Mother Felicitas offered me her small music studio in the evenings inside the monastery wall. It’s become such a special time for me.

Another highlight of the day: witnessing my first cow milking. I followed one of the newly arrived oblates and her two children to the barn (ok ran…) where Mother Prioress was sitting milking Claire as she ate hay nonchalantly. It was incredible. As I sat there talking, Lucina, Claire’s calf, came up to the door and peeked her head in. I know this might sound lame…BUT I GOT TO TOUCH HER! I was like a kid. If only I could get one of those Scooby looking sheep next…

After dinner I walked with Anne and Heather, other visitors, to watch the sunset. We caught the end of it, which was still beautiful, and were sitting on rocks by the beach on the reserve when we saw a seal playing in the water.

This is not my life. 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pig slop, monster cookies and Latin chants

Today was beautiful. To say anything else would just detract from its beauty. I laugh because I groan every morning at 5:40, even after 7 wonderful hours of sleep, when I bundle up and pretend I don’t need to be at lauds at 6. I don’t need to be at lauds at 6. But I want to. My fuzzy eyes and fuzzy blankets just distract me a little.

I’m getting the hang of the chants. In fact, I can satisfactorily participate in a little more than half of all the 45 minute services. At first the Latin was too foreign, the pace too fast, the pages all over. I’ve been reading for so long that my eyes look at the first and last part of the words and expect to know what’s in between—especially since it looks some much like English and sounds so much like Spanish and Italian. I’m still working on it.

After mass I made eggs with tomato and cheese and finished the refried beans with cheese from the youth group. Also had coffee. Instead of helping Mother D this morning, Mother H said I would be working with her. Next thing I knew I was wearing four layers and standing in a massive freezer moving berries around and organizing boxes and food while Mother H barked out new tasks. I made pig slop, basically a ton of leftover food mixed together and frozen, for pigs that won’t even be on the property for several months.  Afterwards I bagged and labeled fresh blueberries before cutting fresh broccoli and putting it into huge bowls. Freedom came around noon, when I decided to go to the infamous island library instead of straight to lunch. I had one hour before it closed and it is only open 3 days a week. I needed a movie.

I walked up the winding path for twenty five minutes, up rolling gravel slopes and death hill. The library was excellent because it was everything I expected it to be. Small, wooden, old, quaint. Books and a ton of DVDs…the collection was impeccable…Much better than a redbox. I quickly grabbed a bunch I had heard of but never seen:  The Secret Life of Bees, The Queen, Paris J’taime, The Descendants. I saw the first and third today, the first being absolutely incredible. After my little adventure, I ate half my chicken, broccoli and potato plate followed by a snickerdoodle and a monster cookie.

A monster cookie is a big cookie with just about everything good in it: oatmeal, peanut butter, chocolate chips and m&ms. MH says they’re called Monster cookies because of their size. I didn’t complain.

Add strong black coffee and never get up from your rocking chair again because life is bliss. But I did, because broccoli cutting called. And when I was finished, Mother F walked into the kitchen and so I offered to help her with whatever she needed. And that was the gateway to an even more magical experience thank cookies and coffee. I know, what?

It happened in the herb garden. I was given huge cutting pliers and told to clear out a section of overgrown plants next to a large aluminum compost bin once used for water. Wished I could make cool animal shrubs like the guy in Pocahontas. Could not. Had a bit too much fun destroying the plants regardless. The bees were unhappy. Mother F came back just as I was finishing and starting telling me about the different plants and flowers. Tried a cousin of licorice, spearmint and peppermint. Saw hollyhocks. And then Mother Felicitas asked me the most wonderful question I had heard in a very long time: Would you like to learn a chant in Latin?

Would I like to learn a chant in Latin? Would I? I could have kissed her feet. And so, after I pulled two dark green plastic chairs to a shaded corner in the herb garden, Mother Felicitas and I sat down together amidst the flowers overlooking the pasture while she taught me what’s called a round. I would almost start laughing in the middle because I kept picturing the scene and was just that joyous about it.  If that had been the only good thing I experienced throughout my visit, that would have still made the entire month worthwhile. It was perfect.

Books, Cookies and Emotions

I’ve finished another book and what else can one expect than a few words from me. As I type I debate whether or not to go for another snickerdoodle. The nuns left me four of the cinnamon cookies that taste like pure butter with a note saying “sorry, last leftovers I promise.” They should really get their act together. Will that cookie be my second or third of the day? The sun has set and the darkness begins to overtake the grounds. The cattle are no longer grazing outside my window. My Taize chants continue. They accompany me on my walks to and from prayer services. The French monks of Jerusalem join me in the garden. Now I am in my room, the second of my stay, listening to Taize once more. I realize I’ve listened to three sets throughout the day. Our Gregorian chant I am quickly picking up on in services. My cozy Taize ones. And the ones from the Monks at San Germain. This is getting out of control. Even worse is the fact that I was listening to some on Spotify, conveniently hooked up to my Facebook account to alert all 600 friends.

The book this time was Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl—a memoir in which the author goes through her life in recipes and adventures all related to food. Wonder why Mackenzie thought that would be a good birthday present… Though it wasn’t a particularly profound book (hey, I’ve been more into philosophy these days), it was still a great read—the first “light” book I have enjoyed in quite some time (which reminds me of Wanderlust…my last failed attempt). Call me a literature snob, but I’m not going to waste my time if the book does not make me more educated in some way or is not at least entertaining in a legitimate way. Tender at the Bone appealed to both my love of food and living through it. Best and simplest of all: it’s a real story about a real woman. And, like so many times before, as I reached the last few sentences while sitting in St. Josephs rocking chair wrapped in the quilt, I felt sorrowful. I had just lived through the new and odd life of a woman I will never meet. I had met her family, sat at her dinner table, stood behind her as she prepared a meal. And now it’s over. The beauty and tragedy of literature.

Hill of death. 

What never ceases to astound me is how many emotions can be felt in a day. Sleepiness in the morning on my way to Lauds. Coziness curling up in the morning sun with coffee and my then unfinished book. Respect and awe in mass and during Father’s homily on the kingdom of God. Satisfaction after clearing out weeds from our squash in the vegetable garden. Delight at my third meal of rice and sausage leftovers with cookies and honeydew. Liberation and passion for life biking around Shaw Island. Determination biking up a steep hill. Satisfaction with reaching it. Disheartenment realizing there were more. Sheer terror at going down “the infamous hill which caused the youth groups accident last year.” Relief for making it down the steep dirt and pebble decline. Exhaustion from an 8 mile bike ride. Comfort working with Mother Felicitas packaging and labeling the monastery’s famous spicy mustard. Hunger walking into Vespers. Peace sitting and praying in the chapel. Determination with chores. Success with my ham and grilled cheese concoction. Comfort in reading. Sorrow in finishing. Humility with such a beautiful day.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Tent City: An unexpected retreat

It’s Monday and I’ve been here for one week. I remember coming in from the garden last Monday, dirt packed tightly under my fingernails, and being surprised by how fast the tents had come up. Tent city they would call it, the Youth Group made up of members from St. Joseph’s and Assumption in Washington, spearheaded by George and Guy. Now only the sun spots from their tents remain on the lawn in front of the chicken coop, serving as a testament to the group’s loud and active presence. The new foundation at St. Joseph’s entrance, fencing, roof, stantion, buried hose, cement paths, staircase and woodshed scattered around the 300 acres, however, are what the Mothers at Shaw Island will cherish most. I have my own roof to be proud of. But I’m left with more than just the physical evidence of this group. Even greater than the scratches on my forearms from the hay, the lightly browned color of my face and skin, the blue bandana signifying my association with group Merbodo, my newly protruding tummy and the folded notes of affirmation from newfound friends are the memories created while these physical changes were taking place. As Fr. Scott said in his homily earlier this week, some things are immeasurable. He was referencing the presence of God.

But what’s also been immeasurable for me this week is the spiritual growth, newfound knowledge, levels of admiration and respect, joy in laughter, emotion in song and fatigue felt from a long day. A week that started in shyness and awkward social conversation ended in story telling at the beach, unlimited numbers of “second helpings” during and in between meals, the winning of ridiculous games, inside jokes and tears in mass. And as I sit on the couch in St. Joseph’s guesthouse, alone for the first day, eating salad and a turkey and cheese sandwich, I begin to cry. The tears that stream down my cheeks leave no footprints of loneliness or fear, but joy and humility. For I have done nothing to earn such blessings.

And so I learned caritas this week, working with love for others. I learned selflessness, giving up my wants and dreams of reflection and silence for the chatter of high school students. I learned gratitude in life for safety, food, new family and the weather. I learned humility in having to learn new things, relying on others to teach me and being grateful for their patience when I messed up. I learned compassion for the youth who have yet to know themselves—who are going through some of the most challenging years of their life. I learned respect for the church.  I learned the meaning of a well-earned day of rest. And so my learning continues.

Counting Shingles

I slept in today. That’s right…til 7. I couldn’t get up for Lauds…the thrill of an extra hour stifled any ideas of getting up. I was out. And after all the work done today, I shudder to think of the morning.

It’s funny how we measure our days. Most often in life, the measurements include academic scores, number of friends, zeros in paychecks, time spent at work. Our measurements are constantly changing. When I was at home for the week or so after I graduated, for example, I measured the significance of my days by the number of errands I ran or the number of pages I read in my book.

Today, I found myself measuring my day in roof shingles. And as I bent over, scraping ancient moss covered wood shingles from the roof of an even more ancient cabin, I couldn’t help but laugh at my change in circumstances. There I was, tearing up wood pieces furiously, chips and dust and wasps and spiders and even bats flying about me, in my attempt to accomplish yet another human task to “give value” to life.

Roof shingles? Really?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

First day

I plop down onto my bed at 10:30 and feel like it was only minutes ago that I was emerging, slightly hesitantly, from it to go back down for some breakfast before mass at 8am. That, of course, was after the lauds at 6. I woke up at 5:30, emerging from a heavy sleep into the cold, misty morning, and walked with Lacey to the small wooden chapel five minutes away. As the high school senior and I sat down, Mother Prioress, an elderly mother smaller than me, walked in. She didn’t say a word and I dared not say one in fear of disrespect or breaking her seemingly ancient rhythm. Besides, she had walked over and was looking methodically at a small book she had picked up from one of the pews. And then, after locating the page that had seemed to have been eluding her, she came over to us, placed the book in our hands and said “this should be the right page.” It said Monday lauds at the top. Welcome to my first attempt of Gregorian chant and true Benedictine spirituality.

One by one, the sisters trickled in over the next several minutes, bowing to the sacristy and the altar respectfully as they have done for decades before sitting down on the other side of the railing. They are technically cloistered, after all. And then the chanting began, only it was not like anything I had been used to.

First, it was in Latin. The psalms and responsorials and verses were connected to each other—halfway between being spoken and being sung.  I followed along as best I could, scanning the words the sisters seemed to be flying through and fumbling through the unknown pages. Next thing I knew it was 6:45.

Back at the guest house, I needed to lie down before mass. I almost don’t know what to say about what happened between those moments getting out of my flowered sheets to these getting back in. I went to mass at 8 after coffee and toast with butter and jam.After mass I met Mr. Dilecta at 10:15 in the barn to help her feed the cattle. I then did gardening/weeding until lunch time when the Catholic youth group of about 30 teenagers came in and set up for their weeklong stay (became even more grateful for my own room after seeing their tents.) We had sandwiches for lunch around 12:30 and then got a tour of the grounds and unloaded one of the trucks that had wood and roofing supplies. I joined team “Merbodo,” one of about 5 teams named after an obscure Benedictine saint, who is going to be taking down an old roof and replacing it this week. We played a lot of games outside after, including the human knot and one about being and egg, a dinosaur, a princess and a king or queen, then had an early dinner around 5:30 (spaghetti and salad), had an “adult meeting” that I was somehow a part of followed by team “challenges” and praise and worship. We won one of the challenges—a food relay race where we had to quickly chew and swallow things like gummies, jerky and saltines before the next person could go. Then a group leader gave a talk on temptation and we broke up into our small groups to talk about it. Finally hung out outside and talked to Emily, a teacher who just got married and mingled with people until now. I’m exhausted.

The funny thing is, that description doesn’t even begin to sum up my day.

My Monastery

After a very long day, I have arrived. I am in my monastery. I use my purposefully, for I have been looking forward to this time for about half a year and already feel quite at home. Just to give you an idea, I stepped off the wet ferry onto Shaw Island and waited with two other older women in front of the convenient store to be picked up. The convenient store just so happened to have just baked fresh chocolate chip cookies and it left a scent of heaven wafting through the air as I sat waiting for Mother Hildegard. I know what you’re thinking, but no, I did not get one. A dusty truck came minutes later with a woman in a habit and some other creatures bouncing around in the car. To my delight they were two dogs—Bella and Koko, Portuguese water spaniels who are fabulous.

“Are you ladies gonna get up or you gonna stay here all day?” Mother Hildegard belts as she emerges from her dusty car.   Bella, the black four year old sat up front with me and Mother H while mischievous Koko took over the back seat with the two ladies. Hildegard lives up to her name. In fact, she overdid my expectations. She is a large, boisterous nun who chats away merrily and has a killer sense of humor. I sat in the front and couldn’t stop grinning.

We arrived minutes later to the monastery, which is on 300 acres but has very small facilities. The chapel, all made of wood, is super cute and tiny. There’s a greenhouse with veggies, a garden, fields of alpacas and llamas, sheep, chickens in a coop with a sign saying “chicken heaven,” and a dairy. I also get a bike while I am here. I couldn’t have asked for a better set up. My room has tolerable wifi and is nice and cozy. I am in a guest house with five bedrooms and have one to myself upstairs. I have a desk overlooking a window and my neighbors are cattle.

After eating dinner with the two women and a mother and daughter who are helping cook for the youth group of 30 coming in tomorrow, I had a hot shower and am currently in bed. It’s been a really long day and I’m gonna get some rest soon.