May 30, 2009

I'll be back

The friends I've made through blogging are scattered all over the world, and often I find it frustrating that I can't just pick up the phone and invite them to meet me for lunch, the way I do with my local friends. But the advantage is that no matter where I go, whether it's a major city or a small island, I have blogging friends -- wonderful people who take me out to lunch, show me where they live, and share their lives with me. Blogging has made the earth seem like a small and friendly neighborhood.

Now I'm leaving again for another trip -- the last adventure of my sabbatical. It's time for the biennual gathering of the Friendly Green Folks. I'll spend a whole week at that conference, hanging out with old friends, hearing great speakers, joining some bloggers for a roundtable, and exploring Beautiful Island in the Country to the North. Then I'm visiting a friend, meeting up with a blogger, and exploring City Where Frasier Lives before flying farther down the coast for a vacation with my husband. Our 25-year wedding anniversary is this August, and we've decided to celebrate a little early.

I'll be offline for three weeks. I'm not bringing my laptop because I don't want to leave it locked in the trunk of a rental car while I'm hiking; I'm too worried about heat damage. Besides, sometimes it's more relaxing to get away from the computer. I'll be thinking about my blogging friends, though, especially at the conference, where I'll be coercing Friendly Green Folk to pose naked. I'll return late in June with photos to post and stories to tell.

If you're trying to guess which state my husband and I will be visiting, the title to this post is a clue.

May 28, 2009

On the wall

You can spend a lot of time thinking about random stuff when you’re in the dentist chair and you’re trying not to think about the fact that the someone is poking at your sensitive gums with sharp instruments. As I gazed about the sterile room, trying to keep my eyes away from a ridiculously bright light leftover from the last Inquisition, I noticed a small, square, foil-wrapped object taped to the otherwise blank and empty wall.

When the dentist finally put aside her drill and pulled all the weird cotton crap from my mouth, I asked her the question I’d been wondering for the last fifteen minutes. “Why do you have a condom taped to your wall?”

Her assistant, who had been quietly arranging a tray of sterile instruments, looked up, startled, and said nothing.

The dentist, who is a woman about my age, laughed. “I guess it does look like a condom.”

Then she shrugged. “Well, it gets boring here when patients cancel their appointments. We gotta find something to do.”

Her assistant gave her a horrified glance and continued putting dental instruments into neat rows. Later, when they were done working on me and I could stand up to leave, I looked at the square little package closer. The label said “CPR face shield.”

May 26, 2009

Weekend at camp

Memorial Day Weekend at my parents' camp was cold, as it usually is, far too cold for swimming, except on a dare, but the sun shone most of the weekend. Close to the ground, in the boundary layer, the air was almost hot. On an old quilt spread across the grass, Blonde Sister-in-law and I sunbathed until our pale skin remembered what it felt like to be warm. My husband and I set our little tent up under the lilac bushes, so that we could wake up to the scent of blossoms and the sound of birdsong. We played bocce and went canoeing in the marsh. My father and I took a sail to see what changes the winter had brought to the river.

For the first time in 23 years, my husband and I had no kids with us at camp. (Our sons were at the College Ultimate Championships, and our daughter was busy fighting crime in a long red cape.) As I watched a pair of geese swim near the dock with four little babies, I felt a pang at the thought of my own little ones all grown up. But of course, even though none of the grandchildren were at camp this weekend, that doesn't mean we didn't hear from them. My father, still getting used to his new cell phone, happily called family members at the end of the day and gave us reports. Blonde Sister and her family had gone to Big City Like No Other for the weekend, so he put her on speaker phone so we could hear all that they had done that day. “Isn’t this something?” he kept saying, “To think we can connect with everyone no matter where they are ....”

How the day ends at camp

My sons had taken my camera with them, so this photo is from last year. It could just as well be from forty years ago. The familiar view across the bay has not changed.

May 25, 2009

Powerful women

Fighting crime

It began with women dancing naked on the roof.

See, my sons were driving to the Midwest to go to the College Ultimate Championships, my husband was still at work, and I was packing for camp. My daughter was staying for the long weekend because her friend Free Spirit, who currently lives in Southern State with Obnoxious Theme Parks had driven up here for a visit. When Free Spirit bounced into the house, I was busy making fruit salad at the kitchen counter. I listened while the two young women talked excitedly and made plans for their weekend.

Hey,” I said jokingly, “You can pose naked for my blog. You’re both old enough now.”

Free Spirit looked up. “You put naked photos on your blog?”

My daughter nodded, “Yep, she does.”

I hastened to explain, “Usually women much older than the two of you.”

My daughter opened her laptop. “You should see the yoga pose her one friend did. She can touch her face to her legs. And she’s a grandmother.”

Free Spirit looked at the computer. “I love this.”

Minutes later, my daughter and Free Spirit were climbing naked through my daughter’s bedroom window and out onto the roof.

“Maybe we need to wear hats,” Free Spirit said. She’d brought some hats with her, including one that made her look like a pirate.

“How about capes?” I asked. “You can be superheros.”


Happily, they donned two of my capes – the shiny red one for my daughter, the purple velvet for Free Spirit. And then using their special powers, they began crawling up the roof to save the world.

May 23, 2009

The turtle with the brains

When the woman from the junior high attendance office called me on Friday to tell me that my eighth grader, With-a-Why, had been marked absent, I gave her my standard reply. “That’s right,” I said. “He’s absent.”

I didn’t add the part that might call into questioning my judgment as a parent. “Yeah, he’s on a roadtrip with a bunch of college students.”

With-a-Why isn’t even in high school yet, and he’s already spent considerable time hanging out with college students. He’s the youngest person to play on the Snowstorm City Ultimate League. He’s already earned the nickname Donatello because of the purple scarf that he knit himself and uses as a headband to keep back his long black hair. I think the nickname fits – not because of the superficial resemblance to the Mutant Ninja Turtle, but because the original Donatello was an artist.

The only thing that shows With-a-Why’s age is the way he packs. While his older brothers and First Extra were packing t-shirts, underwear, and hoodies, With-a-Why stretched out on the couch, half-asleep, hoping his Mom would come to his rescue. “Have you seen my purple shorts?” When I came downstairs to say goodbye to the group – handing my car keys and my good camera to my persuasive oldest son – the only things With-a-Why had packed were a chess board, his knitting, and the stuffed dog he likes to sleep with.

First Extra hurried the group along, getting Shaggy Hair Boy to move his stuff out to the car. Boy in Black was still trying to work his charm on me. “Yeah, thanks for the car and the camera. Could I borrow your credit card too?” They had a long drive ahead of them – almost five hundred miles to the College Ultimate Championships. As With-a-Why stumbled sleepily out to driveway, I heard him say to First Extra, “I couldn’t find the deodorant. So I used toothpaste instead.”

May 21, 2009


86th Street

The subway tunnels are the essence of Big City Like No Other. The air carries all kinds of smells, from soft pretzels baking at a stand to the whiff of perfume as a woman walks past to the every-present stench of stale urine. The ground vibrates as a train approaches. The dark tunnels connect us mysteriously to other parts of the city. You can see everyone in the train: parents with small kids, teenagers with their friends, street people, young couples, and well-dressed business people.

Street performers play near entrances, serenading the crowd with music that is often touchingly awful. Sometimes a rat will scurry along the tracks. Breezes rush through the tunnel, cool and musty. As a train approaches, people will come hurrying down the steps, their feet clanking against the steps as they rush to jump on before the doors close. The mood of the tunnel shifts constantly from bored and sleepy to frantic rush. The train takes away the crowd of people on the platform, but always more people come hurtling down the stairs, an endless supply of humans going somewhere and then returning home again.

Even in the subway tunnel

In one tunnel, I found a snake.

May 20, 2009

Every voyage is a journey


I can remember riding Famous Ferry as a kid, standing on the back of the boat with my siblings. We’d gotten pinwheels and they blew crazily in the wind. We were all pretty young, and Urban Sophisticate Sister wasn’t even born yet.

Forty years later, my parents and I returned to the ferry, just to ride it over and back, getting a view of the harbor and the city in the mist. My mother said when she was a kid, the trip cost a nickel. Now it’s free.

The breeze was cold, but we stood at the back to be warmed by the sun as it came out from behind the clouds. My father, holding his newly acquired cell phone, was calling my brother. “Hey, guess where I am? Nope. Here’s a hint: I’m staring at the Statue of Liberty.”

On the ferry

Those are my parents in the photo, of course.

May 18, 2009

Waiting for a crosstown bus

Waiting for a crosstown bus

As we stood on the street, a man with greasy hair and a big smile stopped at the same bus stop. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he said cost him $12.

“Here’s how to get a bus to show up,” he said. “You light a cigarette.” He’d taken only one drag when the bus appeared magically from around the corner. With a sigh, he tossed the expensive cigarette to the ground, and we all boarded the bus together.

Little known fact

Art museum

On every trip to Big City Like No Other, I go to Ridiculously Huge Art Museum. Usually, I get lost almost right away and just wander about happily, stumbling upon whole sections I've never seen before. Mostly, I don't bother with the floor map, preferring instead to think of myself as an explorer. On this trip, though, I was with my parents.

My mother kept looking at the museum floor map and finding stuff she wanted to see, mostly artwork on the very other side of the building. Then after we'd looked at about twelve rooms of art from one period, she'd point to something on the map on the very other side of the building. That means that we walked miles and miles, crisscrossing the whole museum, making our way through art from every continent. Just as I was about to collapse from exhaustion, I discovered something even more exciting than another group of paintings or set of statues: the cafeteria in the basement serves great vegetarian food.

May 17, 2009

Lazy afternoon in the park

Afternoon in the park

Friday, after a morning wandering through a history museum, my parents and I decided to get some deli food and have a picnic in the park. (Big City Like No Other has the best deli food in the universe.) Although most of Central Park has a naturalistic design, my mother had read about a six-acre formal garden in the northeast corner: the Conservatory Garden. To enter, we walked through a tall wrought-iron gate that once served as an entrance to the Vanderbilt mansion.

Formal gardens – with their carefully planted beds, neatly trimmed hedges, and fountains of water – always remind me of Europe. We sat under arching branches to eat our food, and then wandered through the paths, admiring the spring flowers in bloom. Near the fountain in the center garden, a bunch of school kids had spread towels on the pavement and were eating their lunch, while their teachers kept a careful eye on them. On the stairway that led to a vine-covered arbor, a group of teenagers were sitting with notebooks and pencils, sketching and writing, while their teacher hovered near.

By the time we walked back through, the teenagers had moved to a different spot, all talking and giggling as they looked at each others’ notebooks. The kids had packed their towels into backpacks and were running around the fountain. The sparkling water looked tempting: I’m sure only the presence of the teachers kept them from jumping in.

May 16, 2009

Riding the tram

Commuter tram

Mostly, the people who ride the tram are commuters, traveling from Main Island to the Dead President Island after a day of work. But for visitors, it’s a fun ride — free if you have a Metro card — that takes you 250 feet above the river, moving alongside the 59th Street Bridge. The trip takes less than five minutes, but for most of it, you are high up in the air, looking at the skyline of the city.

Of course, not everyone thinks it’s a fun ride. Red-haired Niece still shivers when she recalls the ride she took on the tram once with her grandparents. “Dangling from a cable! It was terrifying.”

Usually, we take the tram at dusk, so that we can watch the lights going on all over the city. But since the weather was overcast on Thursday, we decided to take the ride in the afternoon. There were just a few other passengers on the tram, since we weren’t even close to rush hour, and they smiled indulgently as I took photos and exclaimed at the view. People in the Big City Like No Other are used to putting up with excitable visitors.

This post is in response to readers who asked, "How did you take the photo of that bridge? Where were you standing?"

May 14, 2009

My parents in the art museum

My parents

When I was a senior in high school and complaining about going on a summer vacation with my parents (since it meant leaving behind my friends at home for a whole week), my mother said to me, dramatically: “This might be the last vacation you ever take with us.” She said it again the next year, and the next.

Thirty years later, I am STILL taking vacations with my parents.

We arrived yesterday in Big City Like No Other, just in time for a late afternoon walk by the river. We’re staying with Urban Sophisticate Sister, who claims to be thrilled to have her parents and older sister staying in her one-room efficiency. Red-haired Niece stopped after work to say hello, and then we went to the local Thai restaurant for a great meal.

This morning, the weather forecast for City Where You Can Get Great Vegetarian Food Everywhere included a prediction of rain. So we spent the morning in Huge Art Museum, a place whose permanent collection includes over two million pieces of art. We saw famous paintings and gorgeous pottery and Eyptian tombs and stained glass windows and lots of naked stone statues.

When we needed to rest, we went to my favorite spot: a huge room with a slanted wall of windows, shallow reflecting pools, and a sandstone temple from Egypt. “Watch,” I said to my parents. “Everyone wants a photo in front of the temple.”

Sure enough, a young couple stopped on the steps of the temple to pose for a photo. Then a family group came by, and the mother took a picture of her three kids in front of the sandstone. Then a bunch of schoolkids came through, all making faces and silly gestures as they snapped photos. Every minute, someone was taking someone’s photo in front of this old Egyptian temple.

“Here’s a whole group who are going to stand in the doorway of the temple for a photo,” said my Dad. As he watched the tourist flurry of photography, and my mother looked at the museum map to plan our next move, I took THEIR photo.

Low tide

Low tide

From the window of the train, I glimpse other worlds, other lives.

May 12, 2009


I was going to take the time tonight to write a nice blog post and maybe put up a photo before leisurely packing for the trip I’m taking tomorrow. But instead, I spent hours searching the household for my grey zip-off pants. Hours. I’m leaving in the morning, going out of town for another trip, and I need my grey pants.

They are the pants I always wear when I travel. They’re as comfortable as sweatpants. They’ve got all kinds of pockets, handy for holding cash and Dramamine. They go well with my red fleece, which I always bring to use as a pillow. They could even be considered stylish, if you think that hiking pants are cool.

I knew I’d worn them home from the monastery just a week ago. I knew they must be somewhere in the house. “Do you remember me coming home without pants on any time last week?” I asked my husband.

He searched the house with me. Since he does the laundry, he felt a bit responsible. We both knew it was highly possible he’d put the pants in the wrong closet by mistake – he simply does not possess the skill necessary to look at an item of clothing and know whom it belongs to. We looked through every closet, every drawer, every laundry basket. The pants were nowhere.

Finally, I gave up and sulkily got out my khaki pants to wear instead. That’s when the gang of teenagers came home from playing Ultimate. As they settled in the living room, I regaled them all with the story of my missing pants.

Shaggy Boy looked up, “Grey pants? Do they have two snaps above the zipper?”

“You know where they are?”

It turns out he had found the pants in his closet and tried to put them on. When he couldn’t zip them up, he realized suddenly that he was wearing his mother’s pants. Horrified, he stripped them off and threw them across the room.

I made him come up and search the boys’ room with me. And there, under the pile of blankets and pillows that the kids use for sleeping – we found my pants. Crumpled, but not forgotten.

May 11, 2009

Go ahead, write a blog post about my junk

It’s been almost nine months since Boy in Black said to me, “I need to go to the doctor's.”

He’d been playing Ultimate Frisbee all summer, and he was the kind of player you’d notice on the field – running, leaping, moving directions quickly. He’s also the type to play through pain, so when he started sitting out, or at least handling instead of cutting, I knew he had to be really hurting.

His injury was diagnosed as a pulled groin – something that would simply get better with time. So he stopped playing, hoping that rest would heal him.

But it didn’t. And for nine months, Boy in Black has gone back for repeated doctor visits. He didn’t snowboard last winter, or run, or play Ultimate. He’s been to several rounds of physical therapy, although he’s had to fight the insurance company every time. He’s had an MRI. He’s had X-rays. At one point, he took antibiotics, with the theory that an infection had developed. Nothing has helped. He ended up sitting out of Ultimate – a sport he loves – for his whole junior year of college. He still went to every practice, but he simply couldn’t play.

Most recently, an orthopedic doctor diagnosed the injury as osteitis pubis, an inflamed pubic bone and sent him for a bone scan that involved him taking radioactive isotopes. We were relieved to at least have some kind of diagnosis.

But the bone scan came back negative. That means no one is really sure what’s wrong with him. The theory now is that there is still some kind of strained abdominal muscle -- or perhaps a sports hernia. He and the doctor are fighting the insurance company to get him more physical therapy.

He knows that he still has a very privileged life – he can walk, even if he can’t run or jump or snowboard. He’s been in pain, but many people live with things far worse. He’s got a brilliant mind, a close family, great friends, and all kinds of advantages that most people don’t.

But still. Boy in Black is an intense young man, and he has devoted himself to the sport of Ultimate. His passion is so contagious that all his siblings and our extras now play Ultimate, and even his parents will join in for pick-up games. His life still revolves around Ultimate – he drives his brothers to Spring League and coaches from the sidelines. When he stays up late at night, he watches youtube clips of Ultimate games. When he hangs out in the living room talking, he throws a disc back and forth constantly.

All we’ve talked about for the last nine months is Boy in Black’s groin. Seriously, he’ll walk in the door, and I’ll say, “How’s your groin today?” It’s amazing how quickly that conversation felt normal. All of us in the household want desperately for him to recover. Because despite how much he jokes around – and believe me, I’ve heard every groin joke possible – it’s obvious to anyone who looks at Boy in Black’s face that he is feeling just miserable. He’s not a little boy any more, he’s a mature adult, but even so, watching him be so down all year has been very tough to watch. It’s frustrating that we don’t know when or how this saga will end.



May 10, 2009

Secret Mother's Day Project

Making a Mother's Day gift

For the past few years, I’ve taken photos everyday. This habit seems to please some of my blog readers and flickr friends – who, really, just encourage such behavior – but it often drives the people I live with crazy. The typical response of a teenage boy to a mother and a camera is NOT a cooperative smile. (Actually, the typical response of a teenage boy to his mother and ANYTHING is rarely a cooperative smile.) My husband hates how often I’ll stop to take photos when we’re on a romantic walk. He’ll turn to kiss me and see that I’ve suddenly run down to the water to take a picture. He has been known to ask wistfully, as we leave for a walk, “Any chance you might leave the camera home?”

But the little neighbor kids have always been happy to accompany me to the railroad tracks or into the woods while I take photos. They move at the same pace as me, taking their time, stopping to look at things and explore. “You can bring your camera,” Little Biker Boy will always say to me when he’s trying to get me to do something fun. He knows the presence of the camera means I’ll meander about and lose track of time. The result is that I have hundreds of pictures of Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, all taken in natural light.

So last week, we chose the best 100 photos of Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, and had them printed out. Then we put them in an album for them to give to their Mom for Mother’s Day. She doesn’t have many photos of Little Biker Boy – he was missing for several years and she just got him back last fall – so I knew she would be happy to get the pictures. For that matter, since she doesn’t have a camera, she doesn’t have many photos of Ponytail either.

The two kids had fun looking at the photos and re-arranging them. Little Biker Boy kept noticing details that I would have paid no attention to: “See, I have my old sneakers on in the one!” and Ponytail liked best the photos in which she is being completely silly. Because most of the portraits were taken in late afternoon light, which is when I usually spend time with the kids, they came out great. And it felt good to give the photos to the person who would appreciate them the most.

May 08, 2009


Athough the monastery sits high on a hill surrounded by sheep pastures and woods, many people from the nearest town consider themselves very much part of the monastic community. Lay people who are formally associated with a monastery are called oblates, and this monastery has a strong group of oblates. The population of monks has dwindled – and the average age of the monks has to be about 75. So lay volunteers help with much of the hard work that needs to be done on the farm: they help shear the sheep, run the gift shop, pick apples in the fall, and garden with the monks.

On Sunday mornings, the little parking lot and the road near the barns fills with cars, as townspeople arrive for Sunday Mass. Afterwards, everyone hangs out in on the sidewalk outside the chapel or in the basement room of the bookstore, drinking coffee and eating homemade goodies, the black robes of the monks swishing as they move through the crowd.

Of course, for the little kids who come with their parents, the sheep barns – filled with exotic smells and interesting creatures – are the main attraction. On Sunday, I followed a father and his two daughters into the old part of the barn to the stall where Brother Tractor keeps the “orphans.” Mostly, these lambs aren’t actually orphans (it’s rare to lose an ewe during lambing season), but lambs who have been rejected by their mother or sometimes a triplet that Brother Tractor has taken from its mother. When a ewe gives birth to a stillborn sheep (and this does happen -- about eight dead lambs this year), Brother Tractor will give her one of the orphans to nurse. This arrangement sounds a little strange to us humans, but it seems to work out for the sheep.

Until the orphans are adopted by ewes, they are bottlefed. And that’s what’s happening in this photo. The old barn is dark and cool, even on a summer morning, but light was shining through the window. Brother Tractor was holding a bottle for one of the babies, and Little Girl from town, almost beside herself with excitement, was feeding another of the babies. The little sheep were moving, all four feet pumping up and down, and their tails wagging as they sucked, and Brother Tractor was laughing at their eagerness, and Little Girl From Town was squealing as the baby sheep butted up against her, their warm furry bodies wiggling in the morning light.

Feeding the orphans

May 07, 2009

Brother Beekeeper poses for the blog

At the end of February, I spent a week at Southern Monastery, a Trappist monastery almost 800 miles away. I couldn’t help compare that big, formal monastery with the little Benedictine monastery here in my own state. I felt like some kind of monastery connoisseur. I kept wanting to tell the other guests about MY monastery, but they keep silence there, and it’s hard to have that conversation when no one is talking.

Last weekend back at the familiar Benedictine monastery, I was eager to tell Brother Beekeeper about my experience at Southern Monastery. “I didn’t meet any of the monks,” I told him. “I mean, they were there at services and such, but they didn’t hang out and joke around with the guests.”

He laughed. “Not like us.”

“And they didn’t have votive candles!” I said. Lighting candles for people is one of my favorite forms of prayer. When I’m in Europe, I go into churches all over just to light a candle.

Yes, visiting another monastery did make me appreciate my own – and how well it fits my own brand of spirituality. At my monastery, the small octagon-shaped chapel has four doors facing the four directions. Two rows of windows let in natural light. The simple altar, which stands in the very middle of the room, is built from rocks from the surrounding land. The wooden benches – benches rather than formal choir stalls -- are pulled into a circle around the altar, so that everyone is equal. A long rope hangs down into the chapel: seven times each day, a monk unties the robe and rings the bell, inviting guests to prayer.

The Benedictine monks wear dark robes, which are practical and don’t show the dirt. For some of the services, the monks come in their work clothes, since they do the hard work of running a sheep farm. The chapel is unadorned, except for a vase of flowers next to the altar and candles that are lit for the evening service. Brother Tractor’s harp stands to the side, ready to be played at Vespers or Compline. In the crypt, surrounded by votive candles stands the fourteenth century stone statue of a young woman – Mary, Queen of Peace, they call her. Each day ends with the monks standing around the statue of the woman, singing.

And of course, the monastery is a working sheep farm. The pastures that surround the clump of buildings on the hill are filled with sheep. During any season, I walk through the barns every day, and I hike through the pastures or the woods, sometimes down to the river in the valley far below. Often I can see a flurry of activity in the apple orchards or the gardens. The big barn, filled with hay for the sheep, is just as sacred as the chapel.

But perhaps this monastery is just where I feel at home because it’s a place I’ve come to for so many years. And of course, the Benedictines take an oath of hospitality, which means that they make every guest feel at home. When I told Brother Beekeeper I wanted a photo of him for my blog, he obligingly came by the guest cottage the next day, dressed in his beekeeping outfit. For a fleeting moment, I thought of asking him to pose naked (I mean, it is a tradition, and the monks are all about tradition) but then I figured maybe I could go to hell for taking too much advantage of that Benedictine hospitality.

Brother Beekeeper


Posing for my blog

When they heard that I was a blogger, these two lambs obliging turned their head so that I could take a back-of-the-head blogging photo.

May 06, 2009

There is no end of things in the heart

When I was younger, I read greedily, starting books the moment I pulled them from their wrappings, devouring them in gulps. Sometimes I’d buy a book and read the whole thing in the parking lot of the bookstore, not willing even to wait until I got home. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to savor a book, how to wait for the right moment, the right place and time.

For weeks now, the book Carta Marina, the newest collection of poetry from Ann Fisher-Wirth, has been sitting on the edge of my desk. I’d glance down at it as I grabbed the yellow legal pad that serves as my to-do list; a few times, I’d even picked it up to look more closely at the lovely, puzzling map on the purple cover. I’d taken a moment to open the pages at random and read a few lines, enough to know that the book was going to resonate with me.

The Swedish doctor said,
Be assured.
The pain is not your heart,
but in the cartilage and bone, the cage around the heart.

Or another time, I opened the book to these lines:

a boy who will blame his body
that warm midnight and never
tell her, never
tell her why he vanished.

I wanted to read more. I had glimpsed a narrative woven into the rich imagery of an ancient map: a married woman exploring the landscape of her past when the boyfriend she had at eighteen appears back in her life 37 years later, the ghost of a stillborn daughter still binding them together. I’d read some of the poems so I knew what to expect: a story of grief, of heart wrench, of steadfast love, and the puzzling ways those can be twisted together. I’d gotten a glimpse of the rhythm of the language: lyrical descriptions brought down to earth with expressions like, “before I fuck it up again.”

But my living room — filled with college guys and high school kids, tossing frisbees and insults freely to each other — didn’t seem the right place to read this book. When I packed for my trip to the monastery, I slid the thin volume of poetry into my bag with the pile of books I always bring.

That morning, I drove to the monastery, listening to music and drinking apple juice as I passed farms and towns and cornfields. I pulled into the little guest cottage, unpacked my stuff, stopped at the bookstore to let the guest brother know I’d arrived. I walked over to the chapel to light a candle in the crypt, to sit for a few moment on the stone floor, cross-legged near the warmth of votive candles. I wandered into the sheep barn to admire the newest baby lambs, to take photos and feel the rough wool against my hands.

When rain began drumming on the metal roof, I pulled up my hood and went back to the cottage, put water on for tea. I drank hot raspberry tea, heated up some broccoli with garlic sauce over rice. I could hear the chapel bell ringing: that meant that the monks were gathering for prayer.

And then, lying on a handmade quilt stitched by a monastery guest, near the big window that overlooks the sheep pasture, I pulled Carta Marina from my bag, and opened to the first page.

There is no end of things in the heart

May 05, 2009

Inside the sheep barn


When I visit the monastery in winter, my favorite place to think is in the crypt below the chapel. After walking through the cold wind, I’ll enter the warm chapel and descend the long stone staircase into the candle-lit space that smells like incense and melting wax. In the very center of the octagonal room, a stone statue of a young woman is surrounded by vigil candles. I’ll sit cross-legged on the stone floor, just staring at those little flames, sometimes for hours.

But in spring time, my favorite place in the monastery is the sheep barn.

The ewes will turn and look at me as I enter, and sometimes a skittish mother will stamp a foreleg in warning. But once I settle into a comfortable spot, leaning against the wall to watch, they ignore me. Each ewe usually has two babies. They wobble at first, as they try to get up on all four legs, but soon they are jumping about and knocking into each other as they push under the mother to nurse.

When I see Brother Tractor hurry by with his shepherd’s staff, I know that another ewe is about to give birth. He’ll rush from the barnyard to open the gate, and with his staff, he’ll separate a ewe from the others and guide her into the barn, pushing her into whichever pen is empty. “She’s having a bit of trouble,” he’ll say to me, conversationally, putting on a long plastic glove that goes way past his elbow.

Sometimes I’ll see a baby’s head sticking out. That’s an awkward way for a sheep to give birth – usually the two forelegs come first, just as if the baby is diving. So Brother Tractor will reach in to find two legs and help guide them out. “It’s a tangle of legs,” he’ll say, laughing. Sometimes a bag of waters will pop, causing a rush of fluid. Within minutes, he’ll pull out the legs and then a newborn lamb will slide right out, choking a bit as it takes its first breath. And then a second lamb, and sometimes even a third.

The babies are slimy, covered with yellow and sometimes a bit of blood. It’s a messy process – the afterbirth that still hangs from the sheep is bloody and dark, and dripping all over the pen. But the mother starts licking the babies immediately. A healthy baby will struggle to its feet right away, first getting up onto her knees and then figuring out how to unfold the long legs. Before long, the baby will begin butting her head against the ewe, figuring out how to eat. And within a few hours, the newborns look like the kind of lambs you might see on greeting card: their wool dry and fluffy.


May 04, 2009



During my five days at the monastery, I stayed in a little guest cottage over by the sheep barn. A the end of April, the sheep barn is an exciting place to be. About a dozen pens are set up under the high metal roof. When one of the ewes in the barnyard goes into labor, Brother Tractor will herd her into a pen, and there she will give birth. The ewe and the newborn lambs stay in the barn for about 24 hours, while the newborns struggle to their feet and learn to nurse. As soon as he sees that the babies are eating, Brother Tractor will send a ewe and her lambs out to the pasture to make room for the next laboring sheep.