October 29, 2013

First snow!

First snow

When I woke up early my first morning at the monastery and looked out the window, I was surprised to see the green grass covered with drifts of snow. The first snow of the season. It was just a dusting, really, and I knew it would melt as soon as the day grew warm, but I liked the way the white contrasted with the green grass, the dark pine trees, and the hardwood trees that still held leaves of gold and yellow and orange. I dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and slipped out the front door for an early morning walk. I can’t sleep when the outside world is so beautiful.

The air was frosty. I hurriedly pulled the mittens and hat from my camera bag and zipped up the winter coat I’d thrown on. I passed a monk on his morning walk, and he gave me a smile. Down the hill, I could see the prior, walking his dog. Monastic days begin early, with vigils in the chapel at 4:45 am. I’ve attended vigils, which take place down below the chapel in the crypt, but most of the time, if I wake up and hear the bells ringing for vigils, I like to snuggle in my warm bed and think about the monks singing in the dawn.

Early morning at the monastery

Big clouds hung over the monastery buildings as I tramped down the hill, past the bright red sumac trees and the cemetery for oblates, past the huge old tree on the edge of the road and the fenced pasture where sheep turned to stare at me. By the time I reached the chapel, I’d pulled my hood up against the wind. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped gratefully into the warm air of the chapel, with its familiar musty smell of incense and melting wax.

No monks were in sight. I’d arrived after lauds and before mass, but I climbed down the long stone staircase to my favourite place at the monastery, the crypt where visitors come to light votive candles and place them in front of a 14th century stone statue of a young woman holding a baby. I love the candles. I tended to them, picking up a couple of the empty glass jars and carrying them over to the storage room, where I slid them back into a cardboard box. I carried a full box of candles out and refilled the supply on the wooden table near the entrance to the crypt. Then I slid some money into the donation box and carried my candles over to the middle of the room, where the statue stood.

Sitting cross-legged on the stone floor, I lit my candles with a wooden taper. I pushed them across the stone to mix them in with the other candles. More than a hundred little flames flickered in the dim crypt, each little flame rising from a pool of melting wax contained by a glass jar. I stared at the candles and felt the frazzled energy of mid-semester anxiety draining out of me. I could feel myself sinking below the thoughts and distractions of every day life, sinking into the peace that the monastery offers.

October 28, 2013

Monastery in fall

Monastery Crossroads

The women’s guesthouse at the monastery used to be a farmhouse, and the chimney from the old stone fireplace goes up through the bedroom at the top of the staircase, creating a little nook where the monks have placed a desk. That’s the room I stayed in last weekend. As soon as I arrived, I emptied out my backpack and spread my things on the desk: my monastery journals, my daily journal, the manila folder that holds the first three chapters of my manuscript, a yellow legal pad, several pens, three books, and my laptop. From the inside pocket of my cloth bag, I took out my purple-and-white Two Row Wampum bracelet, two long braids of sweetgrass, and the crystal that Mystic Woman gave me during a Full Moon ceremony several years ago. I arranged them just below the lamp.

Next I unpacked my bag of clothes, dumping most of them into the top drawer of the wooden dresser. I hung my winter coat in the closet, jammed my mittens and winter hat into my camera bag, put my wet sneakers near the heat register, and put on a pair of fuzzy socks. On top of the chest of drawers, I arranged my essentials: a toothbrush, the kind of toothpaste they make for old people with sensitive teeth, deodorant, and eyedrops. Plus, my cell phone. I didn’t plan on making any phone calls, but I use the alarm clock on the cell phone for timing sessions of daily meditation. (Twenty minutes exactly, if you must know.)

I picked up the puffy quilt that I had taken from Monking Friend’s room (she had extra), wrapped it around my shoulders, and sat down in the comfortable chair. The ceilings in the room are low, as if the room was designed for someone my height. I could hear the sounds of the house. The stairs creak, the floorboards shake, and the furnace rattles when it comes on. I could tell from these comfortable noises that my friends were unpacking in their rooms, and that the woman with the lovely British accent who lives in the house was running the dishwasher.

My journals and books glowed under the warm light of the lamp on the desk. The windows were dark, but outside, I knew, were sheep pastures stretching down the hill to the bookstore, the sheep barns, the big hay barn with the white cross on it, and the chapel where the monks would soon be gathering for Compline, the last service of the day. I looked around the simple room and I thought, “I have everything I need.”

Monastery in fall

October 24, 2013

Weekend retreat

Guarding the sheep

After my classes for the week are over, I'm getting into my car and driving south. I'll wind my way past cornfields and pumpkin patches, small towns and big red barns, and I'll keep going until I arrive at the sheep pastures of the monastery. It's a Benedictine monastery, built high in the hills above a sleepy river. I'll be staying at the women's guesthouse, the old farmhouse where we gather for meals. I'm bringing the manuscript I'm working on, plus some books and my journal. I'm looking forward to taking this break from my busy life to write, to meditate, and to take early morning walks through the sheep pastures.

October 22, 2013

Cat in a quiet house


Every two weeks, I get a Monday without meetings or classes — a day when I can stay home and write. I’ve been getting better about guarding my writing time, pushing aside my to-do lists and stacks of papers that need to be graded. I’ve learned to ignore the dishes in the sink, the lawn that needs to be mowed, and the living room that looks like it’s been ripped apart by vandals.

The only thing I can’t ignore is our cat Gretel. No matter where I sit down with my computer, she climbs onto my lap, swishing her tail across my keyboard, butting her head against me, purring until I pet her. If I take a break to get a snack, she follows me into the kitchen, meowing until I open a can of cat food.

She's lived with us for more than fourteen years, and this is the first that she has suddenly paid so much attention to me. She's the cat that used to always sleep right on top of Boy-in-Black whenever he took a nap on the couch, and I think she misses the older kids.

October 20, 2013

Sunday walk at the lake

Fall at the lake

I'm so busy during fall semester that sometimes it seems like I hardly have time to breathe. I'm preparing for classes, going to meetings, grading papers, teaching classes, and going to more meetings. In my spare time (which ends up being early Saturday mornings), I've been working on a revision of my manuscript.

But too much time indoors can make me miserable. So when the rain stopped and the sun came out, I said to my husband, "Quick! Let's jump in the car and go to Pretty Colour Lake! This could be the last nice day of autumn."

We weren't the only ones who had that idea. As we walked the trail around the lakes, we passed all kinds of people coming the other way: A man with three young kids, who kept wanting to stop and throw sticks in the water. An elderly couple who held hands while they walked. Two women who had three dogs between them, who were chatting while they walked. Some teenagers who were shoving and teasing each other. All of us, it seemed, had the same idea -- to enjoy this beautiful weather before the snow comes.

  The trail around the lake

October 16, 2013

Surprise vegan cupcakes

Last July, when my mother-in-law was dying, I spent many hours in a hospital room with my husband, his brother, his sister, and his niece. Other family members and visitors came and went, but we were the core group, the Hospital Five.

During the last days when my mother-in-law was unconscious, we spent hours playing games, like playing old television theme songs on the iPad and trying to guess them. Many of our conversations focused on food. None of us wanted to leave, so for every meal, we'd figure out where we could order food and then we'd call one of my kids to pick it up and deliver it to us. 

My sister-in-law and niece, who live in another state, kept talking about this great vegan bakery near them that makes really delicious cupcakes. "You would LOVE them," my niece said, and even showed me photos on her phone. But clearly, 300 miles is too far for cupcake delivery.

Until last Friday. Late afternoon, I heard a knock on the door. It was my out-of-town sister-in-law and her family, who had driven here for the weekend. As soon as I saw my niece carrying the white bakery box, I knew what she'd brought me. Delicious vegan cupcakes! They'd waited until the shop had opened and bought them fresh before making the trip to Snowstorm City. I put on a kettle of water for tea, and we sat right down for a cupcake taste-testing session. The chocolate cupcakes with the raspberry frosting and filling were the clear winners.

October 13, 2013

Naked under the arches

The conference last week was held on a Catholic campus that’s big into football, crucifixes, and shamrocks. So naturally, when it came time to choosing a lucky volunteer for the naked photo, I thought of Artist Friend. I mean, he actually watches football. I’d even found the perfect spot: the sidewalk in front of Touchdown Jesus.

“I’m tempted,” he said. Then he began hemming and hawing. “Can I just take off my shirt? You could take the photo from the waist up.”

I sighed. Partial nudity is not in the spirit of Project Naked. Too often in advertisements, the human body is reduced to a single body part. That drives me crazy. So I always try to include the whole body in my photographs.

A beautiful woman named Fire came to Artist Friend’s rescue. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I like the idea of an outdoor shot. But I don’t want Jesus in it.”

“I’ve heard that there’s a lake nearby,” I said to her. We figured out that if we woke up early on Sunday, we could walk to the lake 7 am, take the shot, and still be back for breakfast by 8 am. Sure, it would mean rising early after a late Saturday night, but a lovely naked photo in the morning sunlight would be worth it.

By the time 7 am Sunday morning arrived, I was seriously sleep-deprived, thanks to friends who like to stay out late talking. But I woke up promptly, dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and went down the hall to Fire’s room. She’d already showered. And her bag for the airport was packed. There was just one problem.

It was still dark. We hadn’t taken into account how far we’d traveled to this conference, right to the western edge of the time zone. I felt a little panicky. This was the last morning of the conference, and everyone was leaving. The lobby was filled with people rolling suitcases along the tiled floors. I didn’t have a back-up plan.

As we left the building, prospects didn’t look good. It was raining. And dark. The nice man in the uniform at the front door handed us umbrellas and said cheerily, “Have a good time!”

Fire whispered to me. “I wonder what he thinks we’re doing.”
I shrugged. “I think there’s some kind of early morning church service.”

Ignoring the rain, we started briskly off in the direction of the lake. But I have no sense of direction and soon we were lost. Fire, dressed in jeans and a sweater, was shivering already, and she hadn’t even taken off her clothes. Clearly, we should have thought this through.

Wandering around the dark campus in search of a lake didn’t seem like such a great idea. I abandoned the idea and gestured to a building with lovely arches, lit by a bunch of spotlights. It might have been a dorm, or a library, or a chapel. All the campus buildings, with their vaguely gothic architecture, looked alike to me.

“We can use that light,” I said. “It’ll just be a silhouette, but I bet the arches will make a great background. Just take off your clothes and climb up on that ledge.”

“Here?” she asked. We were on the main part of the campus, on a well-used walkway. “I’m kind of worried they might arrest me.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “If anyone comes near, I’ll hold up my umbrella.”

Surprisingly, she seemed to have confidence in my ability to fight off the campus police with an umbrella. Stepping onto the porch, she began stripping off her clothes. “Do I need to take off my Tevas?” she called.

“Yes, of course!” I said. “No sandals!” It’s true that sandals would kind of fit the theme of the campus — I think Touchdown Jesus was wearing them — but I do think full nudity is important for this project.

Fire climbed up onto the ledge, balanced precariously, her naked body silhouetted against the glaring lights. It occurred to me that the bright lights were a beacon that would pull people toward us. We needed to be fast.

 “Put your hands up over your head!” I yelled.
 “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my balance!” she yelled back.

She steadied herself on the stone wall, and I snapped quickly. Within minutes, we were back on the sidewalk, moving along with our umbrellas while the sky around us turned from black to dark blue.

Naked under the arches

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos. 

October 09, 2013


I had an aisle seat on my flight home. Next to me sat a young woman, about the age of my college students. She had blond hair that hung into her face and stylish plastic glasses. I knew something was wrong when she began searching the seat pockets frantically.

“Where’s the airsick bag?” she asked. “I’m going to need one.”

I pulled mine out. “Here.”

She opened the bag and held it near her mouth. The plane hadn’t even taken off yet, so this precaution seemed strange.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She burst into tears. Not just a few tears rolling down her cheeks, but anguished sobs. I patted her back until she was able to breathe.

“My grandmother died,” she said. “I tried to get there in time, but I didn’t make it.”

I talked to her soothingly while the flight attendant was walking up and down the aisles, telling everyone to put on their seatbelts. It was during take-off, when the plane was ascending with sickening lurches that I realized that the young woman was pretty drunk. The flight had been delayed for several hours, and she’d spent that time in the airport bar.

“I tried to drink my problems away, but it didn’t work,” she said to me tearfully. By the time the plane had risen above the clouds, she was vomiting, repeatedly, into the airsick bag. The flight attendant brought us more bags and some napkins, plus a glass of ginger ale. Flight Attendant wasn’t much older than Drunk Young Woman, and she seemed relieved when I assured her I’d keep an eye on her sick passenger.

Outside the window, the sky was dark. Inside, the plane was mostly dark, too, filled with sleeping passengers. In the dim light, I took the hair tie from Drunk Young Woman’s wrist, and pulled her hair back from her face so it wouldn’t get drenched in vomit. She spilled the glass of ginger ale into my lap. I wiped her face with wet towels I’d gotten from the airplane bathroom. She leaned against me, saying things like, “I’m not usually like this. I’m just really sad.”

Pretty soon, she stopped talking. She slumped over the airsick bag. Her skin was pale. I talked quietly to the Flight Attendant, who assured me that she’d have medical personnel meet the plane when we landed. I kept talking to Drunk Young Woman, and she usually would at least nod in answer to my questions.

When we landed, the Flight Attendant asked everyone to stay in their seats. I found Drunk Young Woman’s purse, put her glasses and phone safely in there, and closed it. Three men in EMT uniforms hurried down the aisle towards me. I gave them her purse, and two of them lifted her to her feet and carried her off the plane. I sat back down and attempted to clean up the area – stuffing all the vomit bags and wet cloths into the plastic bag Flight Attendant had given me.

That’s when, to my surprise, all the passengers around me began talking to me. I’d thought most of them were asleep during the flight, but it seemed they’d all been listening the whole time. The older man in front of me stood up, turned to lean over the seat, and said, “I just want to tell you that you handled that REALLY well.”

The woman across the aisle, who had given me her extra airsick bag, said, “I was so impressed. You were really great with her.” And the woman on the other side of her chimed in, “If I’m ever sick on an airplane, I want you sitting next to me.”

It was lovely, really, to get such affirmations from strangers. As I stepped off the plane into the cold night air, I could see the ambulance: the girl was sitting up, at least, so I hoped she’d be okay. As I came though the gate into the baggage area, I saw an older man and a woman who looked like they were waiting for someone. I knew they must be the uncle and cousin who had promised to pick Drunken Young Woman up. I went over to tell them what had happened, and they rushed off to the counter to figure out how to get to her.

I hope by today, she’s recovered. I know she wanted to be at her grandmother's funeral, and I hope her family and friends are helping her grieve.

October 05, 2013

Conference life

I’ve been going to talks, looking at art, watching video clips, talking to friends, getting into arguments, making lists of books I need to read, meeting new people, exploring a campus I’ve never been to before, and eating delicious food off little china plates. The only drawback to the last few days is that I just haven’t made much time for sleep.

This afternoon, Artist Friend and I took a short break to walk around campus and find a shady bench where we could just sit and talk. It's still warm enough here for short sleeves, but we saw signs of fall. When the wind rose, leaves from the trees came swirling down, landing on us. We talked until dark clouds moved in, and we got back to the conference center just as the rain began.

I feel like I spend the first few days of any conference just hugging friends hello, but then our time always goes by so quickly. Tomorrow, most of us will begin the journey home, so tonight will be another night of talking late, savoring these last moments together.