Love and Information

2545B146B-94C6-D1B6-B9A0B42451E4E6B7The two best cultural events of this past winter/spring were two plays I saw by Caryl Churchill. The first was at the College of Saint Benedict, A Number, performed by two theater professors. I expected it to be somewhat difficult to understand, in a Godot kind of way, from the description on the back of the short program distributed. However, it was completely straightforward and engaging. The play is about cloning, a man visiting with three sons, the “original” and two “copies” he had made in hopes of having a better relationship than he had with the original. It’s fairly dystopic, and raises various questions about identity, relationship, etc.

A friend then alerted me to a U.S. premier of Churchill’s latest play, Love and Information, in New York City while I would be there. We got tickets and went with Steve’s daughters and everyone loved the play. It was very well-acted, directed and staged, but mostly it was just incredibly well scripted. I started to have an experience about halfway through the play that I usually only have reading poetry– I wanted desperately to write! All sorts of little fragments of speech were going through my head. The play was totally inspiring  as a creative experience.

This play is really a series of 57 short scenes, exploring themes of love, identity, the nature of information, truth, but most of all communication– what we say and what we understand and how we understand it. The play is organized into 7 sections of 7 scenes and a “Random” set that can be interspersed anywhere.

For the first time in my life of theater-going, I felt compelled to buy the script. I just had to see the words on the page, the stage direction, how she told the actors to embody these myriad characters and situations, what she told the directors, etc. Aside from a brief note about the ordering of the scenes, there is no stage direction to speak of. Most of the scenes take place between two people, but if not, there is a brief and sometimes vague instruction, as before “Wedding Video”: “Several people.”  That’s it– and then what is spoken. No identifying character names or descriptions, not even genders. The woman telling a child that she is actually the child’s mother and who is thought to be the mother is the grandmother could be speaking to a male or female child of any age, but presumably at least nine or ten.

The point is, the intensely distilled dialogue is completely clear in its content and import. Never did I feel unsure about what was going on or who the characters were while watching the play. And though I now have the performance informing me, I think the experience is probably the same reading the play. I would just love to teach this play, especially with something like The Glass Menagerie or Death of a Salesman which has so much written structure (stage direction, author commentary) into the script, like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were conscious of writing literature.

It might be my experience writing 100-word stories that made me so appreciative of the compression and clarity of these scenes. And it is not just those two things but also the depth of them. If it weren’t for intense copyright infringement warnings, I would give you one section in its entirety. It is 98 words long, titled “Schizophrenia,” but you don’t need to know the title to know exactly what is going on. In it, one person questions another, beginning with the question: “How do you know I’m evil?” The relationship between these two is not given, but it is clear the two are close and their relationship is specific. And there is big trouble brewing here. The “solution,” medication, is rejected. The piece is what poetry, at its best, does, and what flash fiction, at its best, does. There is form and there is a depth of emotion and experience that could keep one occupied with this little exchange for a long, long time.

There are scenes in the script that are shorter. And there are scenes that are longer,  including one, maybe my favorite, in which a woman gives an account of her scientific research on what is possibly a first date. It’s an answer, we can assume, to the simple question: “What do you do?”  Her answer, punctuated by brief interruptions by the date, is compelling, fascinating, funny, and completely open and engaging. It is also so, so revealing about the way we give ourselves to others, full of hope and joy, wanting to be understood and to be loved. And of course, the way we receive each other, with fascination and an equal longing to understand and to love.

I cannot recommend Love and Information, on stage and in writing, highly enough. If you ever get a chance to see any of Churchill’s plays, go! And if you only have the chance to read the script, well, you will not be disappointed.


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Lamb Kofta Feast

IMG_8226I made this lamb feast a week ago, as part of my ongoing exploration of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s cookbook Jerusalem. The recipe is available on the London Telegraph’s  website here.

I was thinking about this feast because it’s Holy Thursday, traditionally for Christians a day of feasting before the fasting of the Triduum. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the last Passover meal with Jesus and his disciples, makes me want lamb and spices!

In fact, I made my new favorite thing for dinner tonight, chicken breasts pounded out and rolled around a stuffing of feta, shredded zucchini, onion and red peppers (in this case I used a jar of red peppers I canned last summer that also had leeks and olives in it). I sautéed the zucchini mixture and used the extra to dress up some butterfly pasta. It was more Greek than Middle Eastern. Eh, close enough. It got us finished in time for the liturgies.

IMG_8224But I’ve been meaning to recommend this meal, which I made “for company.” The meatball dish is “Kofta B’siniyah,” a mixture of lamb and beef (veal is recommended, and I used a 2:1 ratio of lamb to beef), that is mixed with all sorts of spices and even chopped pine nuts. In the morning, you mix the meat and shape it into these “torpedo-like fingers.” It makes you feel like you’re Jiro Ono making sushi when you’re shaping them in the palm of your hand. Then you leave them in the fridge all day until you’re ready to cook. You fry them and then finish them in the oven and serve them over this great sauce “the consistency of honey made mostly like hummus with more lemon juice and water, and I also mixed it with Greek yogurt.

IMG_8225The side dish was this amazing cardamom rice that the cookbook pairs with chicken thighs. It’s available at the New York Times website here. I just skipped the chicken and made it on the stove. I love it because it calls for 10 cardamom pods and whole cloves (as well as cinnamon sticks). I’ve never cooked with whole cardamom pods before and boy do they add a great flavor to rice. Also, I warn my guests about their presence, but after cooking 40 minutes, they do soften enough not to interfere with the dish. I was not looking forward to digging out whole cloves and cardamom pods from a rice dish.

This rice dish is supposed to have about a cup of mixed herbs on top, but I only had parsley– I will not pay for fresh herbs.

Finally, because this meal was really light on vegetables, and because I had a bunch, I mixed in a couple handfuls of mung bean sprouts into the rice. Mung sprouts, I’m finding, can be rather strong tasting. They are best thrown into other dishes with some flavor. Although the flavor here is complex, it is light, and the sprouts really worked both in terms of texture and taste. Also, Greek yogurt or more of the tahini sauce are great on this rice.

Both of these recipes are the kind of daunting, with long lists of ingredients down the oversized page. But like Indian food, the list is mostly spice mixtures. I found I read the recipe over and over again, even before I started cooking, but everything came together really quickly and easily. It was a great way to cook some of the local ground lamb I can get at the market and experience some unusual flavors. It felt exotic and fancy, and we ate all of the meatballs that night. Maybe next year this time, I’ll be making it for Holy Thursday.

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Sewing the Potato Bags

IMG_8255We are in the grips of a winter storm today. When I drove home from work at 1 p.m. there were white-out conditions. This would mark the continuation of the waiting-for-spring anxiety, except that Steve and I have both retreated to projects.

At work, we’re getting new carpet and furniture, and that has led to a massive cleaning out of the space. Yesterday I brought home two duvet covers that are supposed to be twin size but seemed more like queen to me. They’ve always been a problem– way too much fabric and a hassle for people who have to remake the beds. I cut 24″ off the width to get them to fit the duvets.

I got out my sewing machine for this project. I had totally forgotten how much I used to like to sew! I was supposed to make curtains for the guest bedroom, but fabric is so expensive, and I couldn’t find any that I liked. I ended up getting cheap but stylish curtains at Target.

IMG_8250I learned a while ago that the global garment industry has made sewing clothes obsolete. Because of this, fabric shops are as depressing as bookstores these days. What few remain clearly make their money on quilters and crafters, Halloween, dance and other costume makers, and the occasional pillow recoverer or reupholsterer.

When I was a teen especially, I loved sewing clothes. I loved everything about it– the fabric, the patterns, the marking wheel, the deluxe scissors (my left-handed model), even the ironing and pinning. I had my sewing machine set up in the basement and would set up several of my dad’s albums upstairs, turn the stereo knob to the remote speakers, and retire downstairs. After a few hours, I’d go upstairs and flip the stack of albums over. I associate this time with going deep into my dad’s collection. Beyond Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles and all the way to Sonny and Cher and Roger Williams. I was really into Sonny and Cher for a few months, there. I have no defense.

However, I was never good at sewing. My fabric choices were odd, but also I’m not very detail-oriented, so often settled for “good enough.” Of course, clothes in the early ’80s were a little odd. My two favorite things were a shirt made out of silk jacket lining (with a wool bow-tie that matched the coordinating pencil skirt with kick pleat) and a shirt I made out of mattress ticking. That shirt was cool, but the ticking was an odd width and I didn’t quite have enough, so one placket was jiggy. The clothes I made didn’t fit well, had puckering and other issues, but I wore them anyway.

I was kind of dreading the duvet project, but in the end, it made me so happy to work on it. I clicked on the first in a long list of “Tiny Desk Concert” podcasts I had on iTunes and settled in. I think part of what I liked about sewing was the sense of having a whole day, or days, or even just an evening, to work on something. I never felt rushed. That came back to me yesterday. After the duvets I started on another project, the potato bags I mentioned in the last post.

Last year I paid $25 for two lovely blue felt potato bags. They worked very well, especially for my small red potatoes. But I could see from the Kenosha Potato Growers site that people use all sorts of things for grow bags, and there had to be a cheaper solution for expanding my potato operation.

One night in January I went down a Youtube wormhole and spent about two hours watching videos by “Larry from Brainerd.” Larry makes great grow bags out of landscape fabric and just closes the end with zip ties. Since 100 feet of landscape fabric costs about $30, I could see the definite possibilities! (Larry makes all kinds of things, including some very elaborate DIY watering systems.)

IMG_8248I had picked up the landscape fabric, zip ties, and some heavy duty black thread this weekend. And yesterday and today I made 10 bags in a couple hours! They are not fussy to make at all. I even stapled the edges (I made them double thickness because I got a mid-quality 4 ft landscape fabric and that made them sturdier and also the height I want.

I cut the fabric a little over 60″ wide, sewed one seam and then a zig-zag seam to reinforce.

I used a zip tie to secure one gathered end (the stapled/raw edge), and flipped them inside out. They are almost exactly the same size as the “professional” grow bags and even stand up on their own!

IMG_8251Now if this snow would melt, I could make my grow mix (compost, mushroom straw, perlite, peat moss) and plant them!




blue felt bag on the left, my bag on the right!

blue felt bag on the left, my bag on the right!







Here is Larry’s instruction video on the grow bags if you want to see how he does it.

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April Showers


Early yesterday morning I dozed as it rained outside. It was a lovely April shower that took out the last remnants of snow. It was a nice enough week that I got out on my bike six days out of seven, even for ten-mile rides out past some rather rough looking farms. Things have not quite woken up and the ground is not yet ready for the plow, between cold and wet, but you can see the even rows that were disked last year.

Once the rain stopped, it turned out to be a nice day. Thinking about all the seed packets that advise they can be planted “as soon as the soil can be worked,” I got busy. Cold weather crops, let’s go.

I planted a whole bed of beets. In a bed they have to share with half a bed of garlic, I planted lettuces and parsnips (dedicating that space for the next six months!) Last week I added carrots and spinach to the cold frame, where other greens are already coming up.

I also may have found a solution for the peas. I planted them along a fence on the other side of the asparagus. I planted the asparagus on the “sun side” of the bed, which is a problem as the plants turn into large ferns, shading the other side of the bed. I’ve planted carrots on that shady side, but last year tried beans that didn’t thrive. But this year the peas will be finished, or happy for some shade, by the time the asparagus really start bulking up.

This week, my seed potatoes also arrived! First the box of La Ratte fingerlings and Sangre reds from Seed Savers. Then a very special package from Curzio Caravati of Kenosha and the Kenosha Potato Project. Curzio is the king of True Potato Seeds (TPS) in the US. His online group for the project on Facebook has members from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Australia and Asia. That’s a lot of continents, and it’s great to see crops growing at all different times of year. And it’s also wonderful to hear the discussion of Kenyan, Ugandan, and Namibian farmers working to improve yields and maintain seed diversity.

Elmer's Blue

Elmer’s Blue

About a month ago, I sent Curzio $20 and asked him to choose four varieties of potatoes to send me. I wanted a blue and a red and then just two others of any type. Thursday, I received a padded envelope with four little brown bags of potatoes. Elmer’s Blue, AA Peerless, Yungay/Papa Chola and Cups. Two are already starting to sprout. I’ll plant them in potato bags. Curzio recommends planting the whole potatoes, not pieces, if planting in bags/containers, to give the vines more strength. According to Curzio, the first three will provide loads of small potatoes, about the size of a large egg. Cups can get bigger if given space in the bag.

Also on the Kenosha Project Facebook page I saw instructions on making potato bags out of landscape fabric. You sew up one side and use a zip tie to close the bottom of the bag. This way you can put a light, fluffy mix in the bags to encourage growth. It’s a cheap way to make bags that can cost a lot on garden supply websites. Compost, peat moss, mushroom straw and vermiculite will be in my bags. The only challenge is keeping up with the watering, but I’m hoping for great success.

Today it didn’t get above 40 degrees. No bike rides, but I hauled out water to the newly planted beds and the cold frame.

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Return of the Sand Hill Cranes

During National Poetry Month (April), my inbox and FB page get filled up with poems. I love it. It’s a great time to write poems, and I’ve been working for a week to get this one in shape. It’s still shaggy, but it is time to post!

sand hill cranes adjusted

Return of the Sand Hill Crane

At the close of this and every long winter
when the length of the day
and height of the sun say more
than the still-frozen ground,

we hope you will return to us,
find the small, snowy patch
of wetland shining like a tiny hand mirror
to the sky, the particular reed-pocked
marsh with its few blue puddles
just south of our house.

And then, during a late March snowstorm
as I am planting pepper seeds
in a hive of pots on the windowsill
with heat to trick them awake,
you announce your arrival
with rolling chortles, with raspy trumpeting.

And a few mornings later you are heard protesting
the Canada geese who pause here, too,
asserting your ownership of this particular spot.
I see your size, sentinels flanking the water,
and hear your vulgar cries:
“No room! Push off! Move on!”

What coordinates get you exactly here,
how related to the hours, the slant of the sun,
wind resistance? Do you look for the house,
for the oak, some pinging black box?

We hear bad news while you’re away,
oil spills, changing winds and currents,
encroachments along migration routes,
so we worry. What if you’re blown off course,
diverted, misdirected, or just plain killed.

All day today the geese have been passing over
in long, loud, honking vees and ragged lines.
They seem to be shouting from the back of the flock:
“How much farther?” and “Are we almost there?”

You are off-site, running the errands
of return, getting resettled and restocked.
I know you’re not far, and the geese
seem to have gotten the message, too.

Even though the frost still holds the ground
and my pitchfork stops halfway into the bed,
I begin my annual conversation with the ground.
But you wake the earth, you great birds,
your gawky grandeur, your masked heads,
your calls bouncing off my window:
“Again, Again, Again.”


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Spotted March 23 in Grinnell, Iowa

Spotted March 23 in Grinnell, Iowa

There are certain things that make me wish I lived a little bit farther south. Not a lot farther, just, like, Iowa.

Especially when recipes start coming into my inbox for things like: “asparagus, ramps and morel frittata.”

When someone posts a photo of a garden bed full of crocuses and the shoots of daffodils.

When I hear about the call of red-wing blackbirds and throw open my window but all I can hear is the distant sound of traffic.

When friends are embarking on 30 days of biking and I just can’t get myself to do it during the April 1st snowstorm.

When I’m wondering if the snow will be gone in time to put out candy eggs for Easter.



sand hill cranes adjustedThen again, there are things I would sorely miss:

The sound of the sand hill cranes defending their frozen wetlands from loud flocks of geese;

and the soft blue light in April at 8 p.m. when there is snow on the ground and the sun is just going down.


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Props for Father Daniel

92d22d378cec056600bd2d10ad206ce9_f2500Father Daniel Durken died on Saturday, March 29, at the age of 85. For me, he will always be the model of what a priest should be and can be. Hard working, fully engaged with Scripture, prayer and with people, he was a delight right up to the end.

He was ordained in 1956 and served as a weekend priest in parishes until 2007. When I worked in the office next to him at Liturgical Press, he would drive down to St. Clement’s, an African-American parish on Minneapolis’s Northeast side, and help the resident priest by giving the Masses on Saturday night and Sunday. He said the teenagers there called him “Father Props.”

This was due to his penchant for using props in his homilies. (He also loved puns and alliteration, and wore black turtlenecks monogrammed with his initials, DDD.) The first homily I heard him give was at Saint John’s Abbey church. It was up in the choir stalls, a congregation made up primarily of his confreres and also a few of us lay people. He opened his homily by noting that the kings had arrived at the nativity scene but that something was missing. He had driven out to the local gas station before Mass to rectify the situation. With that, he opened a paper bag and took out three boxes of cigarettes. “Camels,” he said, and went down to line them up by the nativity.

There’s not really anything to that story, except that Fr. Daniel got my attention. In a setting that was often serious, and even, dare I say, competitive, when it came to homilies, he reminded us that Epiphany was a great and joyful celebration. When I remember Fr. Daniel, as when I remember Sr. Ruth Nierengarten, I will remember his smile and laughter, his joy, more than anything.

Father Daniel loved people, and I think this is the best possible quality for a priest. There was no ego in this love, no sense ever that it was about him, his popularity or anything else. He was genuinely interested in what was going on in people’s lives. This made him a great editor of The Abbey Banner, the abbey’s magazine. He loved finding out interesting things about his brother monks, but he also loved hearing the stories of employees at the abbey’s other businesses: the wood shop, the university, the fire station, the prep school. Everyone was interesting to him and he delighted in learning about their lives and telling their stories. I helped him in the last few years of editing to assemble the files for the magazine before it went off to the graphic designer. He was organized and able to understand quite a bit about computers, but still needed some assistance gathering photos from e-mails and resizing them, getting the stories and photos all together on a disk at the end of the process. It was a delightful job.

In addition to serving at Mass and in the local prison, Fr. Daniel had two other careers. He was a teacher, both a theology and speech professor at Saint John’s University, and a visiting professor of theology and lecturer in many other settings. From 1978 until his death, he worked for Liturgical Press, beginning with a decade as the director of the press.

We often noted how extraordinary this career was. He began at the top, as director, but with a very clear vision that he wouldn’t continue as director more than a decade. Though he was very good at it, and still clearly had energy for the task, he voluntarily stepped back after a decade, so that someone else’s ideas could come into play. He had a quality I see in mature spiritual people– he was so secure in who he was that he was free to act in all sorts of capacities. His talents were loosed upon the world for all our benefit. Beyond the directorate he wrote and edited, and embraced technology to make tools and materials available to priests and church personnel.

When I worked alongside him from 2006-2008 he was a bright spot in my day. He was still actively editing manuscripts and, in addition to the Abbey Banner, he was in charge of the Homily Hints and Daily Scripture Reflections for a product called the Loose Leaf Lectionary. This was an insert for busy priests to help them with daily Mass. It included the complete order for daily Mass with the readings and prayers, and also a 250-word reflection on the scripture readings of the day. These were meant as suggestions for the priest to develop into homilies, but who has time to do that when you’re in a busy parish and saying Mass daily?! I am sure many priests read them out verbatim.

Daniel asked if I’d like to try my hand at some reflections, and he gave me a short course in homiletics. He encouraged me to think first and foremost about who is in the pews. We know that at daily Mass it is probably mostly women, almost entirely elderly men and women. Offer some encouragement. Make them feel good and strong on their long spiritual journey. Comfort them in their mourning and physical pain. Bless them by opening up something about the Word they might not have heard before.

He liked the pieces I wrote, continued to advise me about them, and later invited me to write some of the Sunday Homily Hints. This is probably the biggest gift he gave me– he introduced me to the Lectionary in a deeper way than I’d ever experienced it sitting in the pews. He showed me how it works and invited me to bring my heart and mind to the text to share with others. In our last conversation, over lunch a month ago, I told him I was still writing the daily reflections and still thinking about who was in those pews, trying to bring them comfort. We agreed, the three elderly priests and I, at the lunch table in the Abbey retirement center, that the last thing the elder faithful need, is a lesson in the cost of discipleship.

At that lunch he also asked what else I was writing. He was a great fan of Habits. I told him I was working on a novel and he wanted to know what it was about. Over that lunch he asked me at least three times when it would be finished and when he could read it. There was a real urgency. He was very frail after a several-month bout with a respiratory illness. It was a little shocking to see him. But his mind was so sharp, as sharp as ever, and so was his enthusiasm about reading. He said he needed to get in touch with the press to get another manuscript to proofread for them. I promised I would bring a draft of the novel as soon as it was ready to read.

And I left that lunch with a real sense of urgency in my revision work. I was revising so Fr. Daniel could read the book. A couple weeks later I felt like I could give him the first 100 pages even if I hadn’t gotten to the end. I printed them out and even called to arrange dropping it by, but didn’t get him or a return to my message. I also started thinking I really did want it to be better before I gave it to him. I took it out and started making changes. I wanted him to be proud of me and have something good to read.

I was still carrying around the manuscript in my backpack when I read online that he had died. Although his death didn’t surprise me, it was too soon; I was hoping we’d have more time.

Five years ago, after a Mass he gave for the employees of Liturgical Press, on a Marian feast that was also a Holy Day of Obligation, a friend and I left saying, “Wow, he is really something.” I said, “When he is gone, and those of his generation, we won’t see their like on this earth again.” It wasn’t anything Father Daniel said that day that had impressed us, not his wit or his scholarship or his voice, which was not particularly fine. It was simply his presence and his engagement, with the Mass, Scripture, and with the people.

I do know other priests like Father Daniel, and a few of them are young men. I recognize them by their interest in their parishioners, their lack of ego, and their joy. The priests of this generation, though, Father Daniel, and also my friends Father Wilfred Theisen and the Jesuit Father George Wilson, have given me a real glimpse of what the church is at its heart, and what it can and should be.

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