March 31, 2009

Blue green

It was another Tuesday morning: I meditated. I took a shower. I worked on my manuscript. I sent some emails. I sat in a sunny spot on my couch and ate a bowl of leftover angel hair pasta. I left a bunch of ridiculous tweets on twitter. (For those of you don’t know, twitter is yet another procrastination, I mean, “social networking” site on the internet.) Artist Friend sent me a short story he had just written, and I made him stop what he was doing -- even though he was at work -- so that we could talk about it. I do love analyzing a great piece of writing, especially if I am talking to the author.

But the sun was shining, and it seemed wrong to be inside on the computer.

My parents came by to give me some mail that had come to their house despite the fact that I haven’t lived there in 25 years; my mother convinced me that I ought to go with them for a walk at Pretty Colour Lakes. The wind was cool enough for a winter coat. After all, we had snow yesterday.

It’s too early for foliage, but the lawns near the park entrance were green. A few other people were at the lake already, sitting on benches near the beach to absorb the sun. We walked the mulch-covered trails around the lake, talking as we went. Whenever we came out from under the cedar trees, I could feel the sun on my head and face, warming me. The ice had melted from the lake, and when the wind died down, the still water on the far side of the lake shone blue-green.


After the ice has melted

March 30, 2009

Waiting for the train

Waiting for the train

The weather was so warm this weekend that the little neighbor kids came over wearing shorts and t-shirts. We walked down to the end of the road to watch the trains go by. They threw rocks while they waited for the trains and ate the apples we'd brought from my house. Soon the tracks began to rumble. Ponytail squealed and hung onto my hand as a train rushed past, carrying freight to some other town east of us.

March 29, 2009

Crocuses and pussy willows

Hopeful

Yesterday temperatures rose. And the sun came out.

My daughter, my teenagers, and their friends celebrated by playing Ultimate –- running about madly in a muddy field, doing layouts onto the soft, wet ground. My husband had to stay inside to write a depressing, yet reassuring speech about the economy. Boy in Black was off at an Ultimate Tournament although he still can’t play because of his injury. I’m sure Boy in Black would argue that watching other people play Ultimate on the first warm day of the year while standing on the sidelines with an injury is sadder than trying to figure out what to say to hundreds of people about a bleak economy.

I’ve got a lingering cough that would make play Ultimate impossible so I sneaked away to visit a friend: Long Beautiful Hair. We walked around her city neighborhood to look for signs of spring. And we found them: the very first flowers opening amidst all the dead stems and leaves from last year. Her neighbors were outside, raking and cutting shrubs, and we kept stopping to talk to people as we wandered the curving streets. The sun felt warm on our backs as we walked, both of us stripping off our fleeces so that we could feel the heat on our bare arms.

“Look! Pussy willows!” Long Beautiful Hair interrupted our conversation. They were out, little clumps that looked like smooth cat fur. We stopped to pick some.

Several blocks from her house, we walked onto a construction site – a reservoir that’s being rebuilt. The reservoir sits atop a tall hill that’s considered one of the best sledding hills in Snowstorm City. Sledding on the hill has been illegal for as long as I can remember, but people have ignored that law for as long as I can remember. This January, though, a twelve-year-old girl died after her sled crashed into a parked car at the bottom of the hill, and now the city has put up orange snow fencing to help enforce the no-sledding rule.

Long Beautiful Hair had just finished telling me the story about the sledding accident when the project manager came out of a trailer to tell us we weren’t supposed to be there. He was about our age, and clearly not a local. Beautiful Hair said to him, “I live in the neighborhood.”

She looked at him expectantly.

He hesitated. “Um, I can’t let you walk up there. We’re working today.”

Beautiful Hair shifted the branches of pussy willows she held in her arms. “I was hoping to see what’s been going on.” She nodded toward the steep hill that blocked any construction activity from the view of neighbors.

Project Manager made a fast decision. “How about if I give you a tour in my car?”

So we climbed into his car, piling the branches of pussy willows onto his back seat, and he drove us up and around the hill. As his tires crunched over the gravel, we found ourselves at the bottom of an empty water storage tank. Big walls were going up around us – and tall columns that would support a roof. The reason for the project was to create covered water storage, to protect the water supply from terrorists. The curving walls rose like the sides of a dam. “It will hold 32 million gallons of water when it’s done,” Project Manager told us.

After the tour, we stood and chatted in the sun for a while. Project Manager’s next water reservoir project will be built out near my way – on land adjacent to Pretty Colour Lakes.

“It’s near a nunnery or something,” he said.

“The Franciscan Sisters own that land.” I explained. “It’s their retreat place.” It’s a place I’ve been to many times, including an all-day retreat in eighth grade that led to me and Outdoor Girl taking a swim in their pond.

Project Manager said he was from the West Coast. How funny it must be to travel across the country to work on a major project in a place where you don’t know the landscape or the community.

We walked back to Beautiful Hair’s house to sit on her front porch with cups of hot tea. She warmed up pita bread, and we rummaged through her refrigerator to find carrots and hummus. The sun shone down on us as we ate and talked. But too soon, we looked at our watches and realized that the afternoon was over. She was in charge of a youth event at her church, the brick building just next door, and I had to go home and shower to go to the event my husband was speaking at. We hugged goodbye, and I drove home with a pile of pussy willows on the seat next to me.

March 27, 2009

Almost

Ground level

My woods are brown still, filled with dead leaves and broken sticks and trees that crashed down under the weight of ice this winter. As I walked the trails this week, I could smell the mud. Some puddles had just the thinnest layer of ice, not even thick enough to make a noise as I stomped through in my boots. The only green I could see was moss: brilliant mosses on old stumps and logs, on any surface raised about the suffocating layer of dead leaves.

But spring is coming. Last night, when the rain stopped, I opened my bedroom window a crack and music came in with a gust of cold air. The spring peepers are singing.

March 26, 2009

In early spring

In early spring

the drainage ditches are filled with cold water, algae, dead leaves. Plus the reflection of sky and trees.

March 25, 2009

Riding bikes

Riding bikes

Even during the winter, the eight-year-old neighbor boy rode his bike up and down the road every day, shoving his front tire right through snowbanks and over ice ruts. We don’t get much traffic here because the road deadends into the railroad track so it’s a pretty safe place for kids to play. Now that the pavement is dry, Ponytail, who just turned five, has been learning to ride a bike.

Yesterday, she asked me to help. So I put on my winter coat – it was still cold despite the sun – and came outside to hold her bike steady as she pedaled along. She said she needed help only to get started. As soon as she got the pedals moving, she’d yell, “Let go!” and she’d go careening off down the road, her ponytail flapping above her pink and black winter coat. Her brother would yell helpful things like, “NO! Don’t turn that way!”

The road has deep ditches on either side, filled with cold water and floating algae, but it’s a wide road and flat. We decided to see if we could go all the way to the end where we’d be able to watch the trains go by. Little Biker Boy circled around us, yelling importantly, while Ponytail rode her bike a few feet at a time. As she gained confidence, she’d go ten feet or maybe fifteen, all by herself, with me shouting encouragement.

The wind died down, and I could feel the sun on my face as I walked. I held Ponytail’s bike steady and then sent her off. “That’s great! You’re doing great! You’re – oh, no!” As I watched, helpless to do anything, Ponytail swerved to the right, peddled madly for several feet, and then went straight down into the ditch, splashing dramatically into the cold water.

As I pulled her, sobbing, from the ditch, her brother came swooping back jealously. “NO FAIR! I want to ride my bike into the ditch!”

Ponytail was soaking wet up to her waist and covered with mud, but her wails turned to a smile when she realized that she’d done something COOL.

March 24, 2009

Spaghetti and blogging

I’ve been blogging for more than four years now, and the line between blogger/real life friend has long since disappeared. When Songbird came to town this week, I didn’t even think of it as a blogger meet-up, but just a chance to have lunch with a wonderful friend. What made the lunch special was that I finally had a chance to meet her husband, Pure Luck, a man I’ve heard great things about for the last four years. We ate in an Italian restaurant, with Songbird and me talking furiously and Pure Luck getting a word in edgewise whenever he could. (He’s taller than us, but we talk faster.) Even though it was the first time he’d met me, Pure Luck gave me a sentence of advice that was so perfect that I’ve written it on an index card to put on the bulletin board in my office. (Nope! I’m not going to say what it was, so don’t ask.) After being down with a bad cold for so long, it felt great to be out in a restaurant, chatting and laughing and spending time with two such nice people.

March 22, 2009

Pajama party

It’s an annual event. We bring food, always a ridiculous amount of random food, and sleeping bags and pillows, and CDs to play. And pajamas, of course. Nine of us women gathered this year, talking by the fire as we said goodbye to winter and welcomed spring. We jokingly call ourselves the Wild Women, but really, we don't do anything all that wild. Or at least nothing I'm willing to reveal to my blog readers.

Beautiful Hair usually arrives with some kind of activity in mind. This year, she made us play a game that was a cross between Scrabble and Gin Rummy; each person had to make words out of the cards in their hands. Instead of reading the directions, which were written on print clearly not meant for the over-forty crowd, we made up our own rules. The scores got a lot higher when we started awarding extra points for any words that had to do with sex.

Because I’d been sick with a bad cough, Quilt Artist brought something she called Slippery Elm Bark. She mixed it with boiling water until it made a disgusting-looking paste. Then she dumped in some apple juice and cinnamon to disguise the fact that she was feeding me something that could be used as wallpaper glue. “I shouldn’t have let you watch me make it,” she said when she saw the look on my face. “Just close your eyes, and drink it.” I tried not to gag as I sipped the hot gunk, which tasted mostly like apple juice, and I have to admit that by the time I was done, my throat did feel much better.

Signing Woman had told us all in an email that she wouldn’t be able to make the party this year: she had a work function she really needed to attend. We all cheered when she came through the door and announced, “I decided that this is where I needed to be.” Gorgeous Eyes couldn’t make the party this year because she was out of town, visiting her girlfriend in the City of Sibling Love, but she sent an email to the group, and we ate chickpea salad in her honour.

We did some reiki and massage, and we played some silly games, but mostly we talked: intense one-on-one talks by the fire or in the kitchen or over plates of food and then group conversations that ranged from serious to hilariously funny and back again. In the morning, we drank hot tea and found places to sit in the sun, falling back into a lazy conversation that was as comfortable as a pair of flannel pajamas pants.

Inked

Inked

March 20, 2009

Interrupting this nap for a photo

Sill

I’m finally beginning to feel human again. I’m still coughing, but it’s not the deep, hacking cough that I had earlier this week. The aches are gone: I’m no longer noticing my ribs when I breathe. The headache is gone, the fever is gone, and mostly I’m better.

Today I actually felt well enough to get dressed and go to the grocery store. Every time I’d cough – every single time – someone would turn to me, sometimes even from half an aisle away, and say, “THAT doesn’t sound good.”

I kept trying to explain to people that no, this isn’t the bad cough. The bad cough is gone. The virus is gone. This cough is just a harmless remnant from being sick. But people still kept backing away from me as if I'd just announced I have TB.

The best thing is that I am finally able to sleep again. I’m catching up, in fact, on a few weeks worth of missed sleep. When I woke up from a nap yesterday afternoon, my bedroom was filled with afternoon sunlight. I took a photo of the candles on the windowsill. And then went back to sleep.

March 19, 2009

Don't panic

Shaggy Hair Boy's music lesson was in fifteen minutes, and I was running late. He’d already taken his books and gone out to the car. As I grabbed my journal and an envelope that needed to be mailed, I could hear the horn honking.

How rude, I thought. He’s trying to hurry me along.

Here I was doing him a favor, driving him to his lesson, and he was behaving like a spoiled brat. Since when did one of my kids act like that? I stomped out the door, my anger mounting with every step, ready to launch into a rant the minute I got into the car.

The sun was glaring off the windshield so it took me a moment to see inside. Shaggy Hair Boy was sitting in the front seat of the car, his face hidden by his long curls. The horn was blaring loudly. He was looking through his piano book, while protecting his ears with his hands. He gave me a tolerant, exasperated look as I opened the car door.

That’s when I looked down at the keys in my hand.

I’d been pushing the panic button.

Damn technology.

March 18, 2009

Almost three weeks

Arbor

This photo was taken almost three weeks ago. THREE WEEKS AGO. The reason that's significant is because the photo represents the last time I was completely healthy and free of cold germs.

I haven't been this sick in a long time. I'm beginning to think I end up catching several viruses at once. I seem to have all the symptoms that everyone else on the planet has been having, plus a few extra symptoms of my own. The deadly, hacking incessant cough has been the worst of it.

I'm finally beginning to feel a bit better; I think I hit some kind of turning point. I'm starting to get some sleep -- just a few hours at a time, but that's a huge improvement. The cough is weakening, losing its grip. I think I've managed to avoid pneumonia.

It's possible that at some point in the near future I will once again become the kind of human being who puts on real clothes, who combs her hair, who speaks in whole sentences, and who writes something other than how miserable she feels.

March 16, 2009

Lauds

Lauds

The pond at Southern Monastery in early morning. Another photo.

Because I’m still miserably sick.

March 15, 2009

Eh. Here's a photo.

Open to rain

I returned from Southern State with a cough that has gradually gotten worse, and which includes an excruciating headache, aches and pains, a sore throat, fever and chills, and a head cold. Yes, I seem to have a bit of everything. It’s that whole Southern hospitality thing, I guess. They didn’t want me to go home without a whole host of symptoms. Generous people, they are.

Unfortunately, when I get a cough, I get a really bad cough -- a trait I’ve inherited from my mother and passed onto my daughter. I’ve been coughing so hard that I vomit.

It’s not all bad. My daughter has gotten sick too and so we’ve been bonding over cups of hot tea. (Have I mentioned that my daughter decided that life in Big City Like No Other was not for her? She’s back at home and will be going to grad school in the fall.)

I don’t have the energy to write any kind of blog post so instead I am going to just stick up more photos from last week’s trip. The blossoms were taken in Southern State of Peachtrees and Red Soil, of course. Nothing is blooming yet here, although the snow has melted so we have hope that spring will be coming at some point ….

March 13, 2009

Unto dust

Unto dust

One morning near the end of my week at Southern Monastery, I walked through the church and saw what looked like a simple wooden casket -- shallow and open, with handles on the sides and some folded white cloths on the bottom -- resting near the big cross in the back of the church. A Lenten decoration, I thought to myself. How nice.

Another group of retreatants had come, stayed for three nights, and left, mostly in silence. The retreat house was again empty. A bus had arrived that morning with a group of elderly people, but they were day visitors. They spent their time in the bookstore or the bonsai shop; they wandered the grounds in the sun. This group weren't observing silence. They'd say hello to me when we passed on the paths and ask where I was from. After six days of silence, it felt strange to talk again.

After the bus left and I was walking back through the church, I saw that the open wooden casket had been moved up close to the altar. There was a body in it. An old man, dressed in monastic robes with sturdy black shoes sticking straight up. Other monks were sitting around the casket in silence.

I slipped past and through the door into the retreat house. When I looked out the window towards the enclosure, I could see two old men, dressed in workclothes, digging a grave in the monks' cemetery. They were using a couple of shovels and wheelbarrow. The mound of red dirt kept growing higher and higher.

I went down to the kitchen to get a cup of raspberry tea and found the housekeeper.

"You're still here?" she asked in surprise.

I explained that I had come by airplane and wouldn't be leaving until the morning. "You should come to the funeral," she said. "It's closed to the public, but you're staying here. It's at 4:30 pm."

The Funeral Mass was in the big church with slanting blue light making patterns on the floor. It was attended by the community of monks, 43 of them. And a bunch of priests who had driven in. A handful of old women (relatives, I'm told) dressed in dark clothes. The housekeeping staff. And me. The monks and priests were dressed in cream-coloured robes with purple stoles. I was dressed a bit informally, in jeans and a bright red fleece, which is pretty much what I'd worn all week because it's what I had with me.

A monk gave a little talk about Brother Clarence. He was born in 1923, became a priest in 1950, and became a Cistercian in 1969. The monk giving the talk said, "Brother Clarence had the gift of taking something simple and making it complex." The other monks laughed.

After living in community for so many years, it must be like losing a family member. The monks chanted and sang. They sprinkled the body with holy water and sent big puffs of incense into the air. As we went up for communion, we all walked right past the body, and several of the monks reached over to pat Brother Clarence's hands as they passed.

At the end of the service, six of the monks lifted the casket, using the wooden handles on the side, and carried it outside, using the door near the altar. We followed them to the little graveyard nestled up against the building. They sang as they walked. Then a monk folded the white cloth over Brother Clarence's face.

Long strips of cloth, almost like belts to a bathrobe, were attached to the white cloth he was wrapped in. The monks lifted the body out of the casket, using the long strips of cloth, carried him over to the hole that had been dug, and lowered him in. Then each monk took a turn shoveling red dirt into the grave.

Afterwards, we were all invited to the crypt for food. I don't think there are funerals in any tradition that don't include food. We stood around chatting, balancing plates of fruit and sandwiches, cups of iced tea. I hung out with the housekeeping staff.

An old monk said to me, "When Clarence was dying, I told him he had to send us a replacement." I smiled and said, "Hey, I've got three sons." I know a whole lot of young men, actually, but it's hard to imagine any of them becoming a monk. I wonder what will happen to monasteries after this generation of monks dies.

Later, when I walked back through the church to take an evening walk, I noticed two of the monks carrying the wooden casket. They were putting it back into the storage closet until they needed it again.

March 12, 2009

The scent of pine and silt

Through the cemetery

Since I often hike alone, silence seemed completely natural the day I decided to explore the 2,100 acre grounds of Southern Monastery. The snow had melted, and it was warm enough to strip down to a t-shirt as I followed a winding path through the woods. The first part of the trail, which was covered with crushed stone, glinted in the sunlight, just like the roads at the monastery did. Bits of mica, I guess, or some other shiny rock. I couldn't help feeling, the whole time at the monastery, that I was in some magical place. The very roads glittered.

I'd been hiking for about 30 minutes when I heard noises: laughing and talking. A group of college students were doing trail work, and they came past carrying rakes and saws and piles of old branches. They were teasing each other and giggling and squealing in the way that kids their age do. I often accompany my own students on this kind of service project so the chatter was familiar, but it made me smile to hear the accents -- very definitely southern accents -- and the swirl of noise seemed startling after the silence of the monastery. They smiled back at me as they went past, and soon I was on my own again.

I was hiking through a cemetery, actually, even though I saw no tombstones. I'd read about the cemetery online before I'd arrived at the monastery. They practice conservation or "green" burial. The bodies are not embalmed: they are wrapped in a shroud or biodegradable box, and they are buried about three feet down, with a mound of dirt on top. Instead of a tombstone, a tree or bunch of wildflowers or native rock might mark the grave. The expectation is that the bodies will decay and return to the earth, a process that is both ecological and biblical. ("Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.") People who choose to buy plots are choosing to help preserve a piece of land. And they save their families money, too, since "green" burial is about half the price of a contemporary burial.

The land had been a terraced farm, a hundred years or so ago, and the trails wound their way up and down hills. I found a bridge over a muddy stream where I could sit in the sun and listen to the water pushing silt along the banks. On one hillside, I found clumps of daffodils, scattered near what I'm guessing was the foundation to a farmhouse. Even though I've been to City That Burned During the Civil War several times for conferences, this was my first time seeing some of the landscape outside of the city, and I admired how beautiful it was: the tangled vines that hung from the trees, the stream that swirled around smooth banks of mud, and the spectacular red soil that made the ground itself so pretty.

The smell of new mud

March 11, 2009

About silence

Balance

For six of the eight days I spent at Southern Monastery, I observed silence. I did not speak. Those who know me in real life -- I'm a talkative extrovert -- may find that hard to believe. The silence was both easier than I thought would be, and harder.

I'm used to silence on the days I work at home. I never turn on a television set or a radio. I'm not someone who likes background music. So my house -- although it's crowded in the evenings and filled with live music on weekends -- is mostly silent during the day, when I'm writing or grading papers or reading. When I was in my room at the monastery, writing or reading, or taking walks around the grounds, or sitting in the church, the quiet seemed completely normal.

What felt strange was staying silent when I came into contact with people -- in the hallways, at meals, in the gardens. Especially the meals. It felt odd to sit at a table with other retreatants and exchange nothing more than a smile. At first, it caused me to eat incredibly fast. Talking is what normally slows me down. So I'd go to lunch, get a tray full of food, and be done in about five minutes flat. By the end of the week, the quiet in the dining room was beginning to feel normal, and I was able to relax and drink a cup of hot tea after my meal. Most of the retreatants looked down at their plates when they were eating, and I had the distinct feeling, as I'd gaze around the room, that I was the lone extrovert in a sea of introverts. Or perhaps they were all thinking deep thoughts.

Silence meant that my thoughts were not interrupted. I can remember the days of trying to write in a houseful of small children, and being at a monastery was the opposite of that. Even meals or snacks or walks didn't break my concentration. I've never been able to focus so intently on my writing. I was meditating three times each day, and going to some of the services in the church, but in the silence, I was able to move from meditation to writing to prayer and back again without any distractions. It's hard to describe the intensity of spending so much time with myself, with no one else to take care of.

The other people at the retreat house had come for a structured retreat -- with talks given by a retreat leader in the big conference room, a set schedule of things to do. There were about forty of them altogether, moving quietly along the hallways or eating at the tables in the dining room, or joining the monks for prayer in the church. But then, on Sunday, that particular scheduled retreat was over, and everyone went home. Everyone.

Late afternoon, when I padded down to the kitchen in sweatpants and a t-shirt to refill my tea mug, I noticed that the silence in the building had a different quality to it. No footsteps. No coughing. No clink of mugs. The housekeeping staff, who normally could be found near the kitchen, had gone home. The God-love-you Woman, who ran the little office near the entrance and was so helpful that she'd brought a quart of soy milk for me to have on my cereal, had locked her door and gone home. The parking lot outside the retreat house was empty.

When I went to Compline at the end of the day, the big church held about forty monks. And me. Everyone else was gone. As tradition dictates, Compline was held in the darkness. I could just make out the outlines of the monks in their cream robes as they sang and chanted, but I suspect that in my red fleece and dark jeans, I was invisible. When the church bell rang for the last time, the monks disappeared into their enclosure, on the far side of the church. These hours after Compline are called the Great Silence, and for most of the monks, whose day starts at 3:30 am, the Great Silence means bedtime.

As I walked back into the dark retreat house, I was alone. From my window, I could see the dark shape of the church looming over me, with its high, arched windows and the cross held up to the sky. The wind was howling -- snow was still falling -- and I could hear what sounded to me like coyotes. I felt like I had strayed into a Gothic novel, or perhaps a spooky episode of the Simpsons.

I stayed up and wrote as long as I could, and then slept until the church bells rang, just outside my window, for Vigils at 4 a.m. I didn't get dressed and go to prayer, but stayed in bed, listening to the wind push its way through cracks in the inefficient windows. Despite the haunting darkness, my thoughts were calm and comforting, not like the demon thoughts I often have during February. Perhaps it was all those monks just on the other side of the stone wall, praying.

March 10, 2009

Amidst the magnolia trees

Amidst the magnolia trees

The long driveway onto the Southern Monastery land was lined on both sides with magnolia trees. They weren't flowering -- I don't think I've ever actually seen a magnolia tree in bloom -- but I loved the thick green leaves, and the shapes they made against the sky. Some of the trees had branches that hung down low, and I could stand against the trunk and feel hidden. What wonderful forts they must make for kids. Underneath each tree, piles of thick brown leaves and big seed pods crunched under my feet. A white gazebo stood out amongst the trees, and one sunny day I sat there for a couple of hours, gazing at the shadows and light while the magnolia trees kept my thoughts company.

Honk!

Honk!

One my favourite places to walk in the early morning at Southern Monastery was down the hill to the pond, where the geese and ducks never failed to entertain me. Two of the geese, in particular, would serenade me with incredible honks and screeches. Clearly, no one had explained the rule of silence to them. They didn't like it when I knelt down to take photos -- they'd come rushing at me, in full-attack mode, butting their bills against me. The ducks ignored me, mostly, waddling about like cartoon characters, and fishing in the water for food.

Bottoms up

Bonsai at large

Monasteries run all kinds of businesses to support themselves; manual labor was part of St. Benedict's formula for monastic life. The monks at Southern Monastery, in addition to running a guesthouse and a bookstore, do such things as make stained glass and bread. One of their coolest industries is raising bonsai trees. Even outside the bonsai conservatory, the grounds nearest the buildings had a zen-like feel to them. Along the brick wall near the entrance to the retreat house, I found a tree that looked like it had escaped from the bonsai garden and was holding branches up to the falling snow.

Bonsai at large

March 09, 2009

And I kept taking photos of dirt

Still

The pond at Southern Monastery -- well, actually, I think it was a wide part of a flowing stream -- reminded me of the ponds and lakes in Snowstorm Region. Except the colours were different.

Perhaps it's because I've just had months and months of a white and grey landscape, but I just could not stop marveling (silently, of course) at how pretty the dirt was. A warm red. The colour of a brick hearth or a rusty barrel or a bed of pine needles in the sun. Such richness. I kept thinking of scenes from the book Gone With the Wind, a novel I read at a most impressionable age, and I kept hearing the Irish brogue of Gerald O'Hara in my head. "It will come to you, this love of the land. There's no gettin' away from it if you're Irish."

Some of the monastery land did, indeed, used to be cotton fields, just like the fields in the book. When the weather grew warm, and I hiked through a field of grasses, I could just imagine the cotton plants moving above that rich red soil.

Lovely red dirt

Magnolia leaves in the snow

Magnolia leaves in the snow

Even in the South

When I first arrived in Southern State of Red Dirt and Magnolia Trees, I was thrilled to see flowering trees. And daffodils in bloom! How wonderful it was to walk around without a winter coat on.

And then it snowed.

Yes, really. On Sunday, we got a couple of inches of snow, enough to stick on the ground. It was the heavy, wet snow that we get in April or May back at home. Spring snow, for sure, but snow none-the-less. The long driveway of green magnolia trees were covered with white. I put on my fleece, took my camera outside, and stood underneath a tree, watching as the snow came down, and laughing at how ridiculous it seemed.

Southern snow

March 08, 2009

Chant

It didn't take me long to get settled at Southern Monastery. It was different than the monastery I go to at home -- Trappist instead of Benedictine -- and much larger and more formal. But all monastic life is based on the rule of Saint Benedict, so the routine was comfortably familiar. Besides, I'm the type person who makes myself at home anywhere. I dumped my suitcase at the foot of my bed, put my laptop and journal on the desk, and put my toothbrush in the bathroom. I discovered that the coffee machine in the dining hall was filled with hot water, so I bought a mug in the bookstore (I refuse to drink tea out of a paper cup) and made myself raspberry tea.

I'd been at the monastery for about an hour when I decided to read the list of rules on the desk in my room. I'd already broken four of them. One rule was that retreatants observe silence in the retreat house, even in the dining room. That explained why the building seemed so awfully quiet.

When the bell rang for Vespers, I slipped through the door into the church. The church smelled different than the chapel at my monastery: apparently the monks here don't go as crazy with the incense as they do back home. And they had no votive candles, which I really missed. I love lighting candles. The prayer schedule was similar, except that they called Sext "midday prayer." Perhaps they thought the name was too suggestive.

The monks were wearing cream-coloured robes, rather than the black robes I'm used to. I counted forty of them. I'd guess the average age to be about 85. At least. The first section of wooden choir stalls seemed reserved for the monks, but the God-love-you Woman from the front desk was sitting in the next section, so I clattered up the wooden steps to sit near her. The raised wooden stalls seemed formal compared to the simple wooden benches I'm used to, but it was handy to have the desk-like compartment for the binders of psalms and the songbooks and all the confusing papers of prayers. The monks across from me began the familiar chant, and the monks to my left responded, and I felt right at home.

From inside the choir stall

What's missing in the photo are the monks, of course. I only took photos in the church when it was empty. I didn't want to be disrespectful.

Arrival

Through stained glass

It was early afternoon when I arrived at the monastery in Southern State Where It's Easy to Get Lost Because There are a Million Streets Named Peachtree. The retreat house itself was a big old building, nestled up to a church that was cathedral in size. I walked into a little lobby, where a woman with a Southern accent gave me a room key and gave me complicated directions to my room. I nodded as if I had some clue as to what she was talking about, and then I set off to explore the building, which was a cross between a college dorm and a medieval castle.

I passed a sitting room with a couch and a cherry coffee table. I found a dining room with tables and chairs for about fifty people, and a balcony outside filled with tables and chairs, and a conference room that had windows on three sides. Through keen detective work (I looked at the signs on the bathrooms), I figured out that the third floor was where the men stayed and the second floor was all women. I kept losing my way, because there seemed to be an unusual number of corners, although I have to say that the the design certainly did maximize the number of windows. Even the stairwells were filled with sunlight. Chairs and bookshelves and plants filled nooks and corners. My room was at the very end of a hallway on the second floor, the farthest possible spot from the front door. It was a clean, cream-coloured room with a bed, a desk, and a chair.

About ten feet away from my room was a door with a white paper sign that said "church."

I opened the door and suddenly, I was inside the church -- a huge church with gothic arches and a very high ceiling. Two long rows of wooden monk stalls faced each other in the main part of the church. My footsteps on the shiny stone floor made an echoing sound. There was nothing ornate, nothing decorative anywhere -- a simple design. Blue light spilled from the rows and rows of stained glass windows high above my head. I was standing right near the front of the church, just to the side of the sanctuary.

Whoever designed these buildings had spent time studying and thinking about light. Because my room was so close by (I was sleeping closer to the sanctuary than anyone -- even any of the monks), I walked through the church whenever I went outside, and I walked through at all times of day. And always, light was falling -- sometimes, the blue and purple patterns would light up the rows of columns. Other times, the yellow windows in the sanctuary would be glowing. Or red light would spill from the round window at the front. It was sort of like rafting through the Grand Canyon; I couldn't help but admire the reflections and shadows and colours that kept changing as the day went on.

Blue light

Townspeople who come into the church are asked not to go past the wooden rail in the top picture. But because I was staying at the monastery, I could go sit in the wooden stalls with the monks or walk through the church to get to my room. I loved that.