IMG_0144Last night I caught just a bit of a Minnesota Public Television program with Kevin Kling. Kling, a Minnesota storyteller of great accent and great talent, was speaking to On Being host Krista Tippett about resiliency.

Kling was born with physical disabilities, but they didn’t limit him. Then in 2007 he was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident. The recovery was long and hard, and has given a spiritual depth and weight to his storytelling, which before that was mostly humorous and nostalgic.

Kling told Tippett he looked up resiliency and found it means “keeping your shape.” The twisted nature of his body after the accident, painful surgeries and a full brace, and in the end paralysis of his right arm, the arm he had used for most tasks, tested that shape. And in the end, he didn’t come back to his shape, but rather grew into the new shape.

One must live.

I have been tested in my life, no doubt. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and came through a divorce. I have been disappointed that my writing hasn’t found a wider audience, even as I’ve persisted in writing and arranging my life to make writing possible.

But I have not been physically challenged before this cancer fight. The procedure to insert the port for drug delivery was the first time I’ve ever been operated on in any way. And it will not be my last operation.

There is a poem in my new book which I almost didn’t include because it seemed a little overly dramatic. In the end I included it as part of the trajectory about my divorce and remarriage, a sort of turning point when I came to Minnesota. It opens like this:

After two years of so much loss
it had the shape of a country song—
my car crashed, my husband and my cat
run away, my job, my home put in storage,
the friends that fell silent or chose sides,
the in-laws and an in-law’s child taken

by the State and no words to sing it—
God would have had to start carving
from my body itself to take more.

Some days I’d start to speak and lose my breath.


The loss after that divorce was emotional. And it was a space I could navigate well. I was surprised to find out how solid I am, how much I remained myself through that loss. I always felt myself intact. The poem is called “I Greet the Fall” and here’s the rest:

I left the sad crowded shore of California
and moved to a place where the leaves fall.

And the leaves fell slowly to the earth,
spinning and floating in twos and threes
down to the still surface of the lake.
Overnight they dropped and blew around
until they covered all the ground.

It did not feel like loss at all.

The birch trunks were such a glory,
the gnarled branches of an oak by the water,
the two maples still themselves
without their party dresses on.

Someone built a fire one night in my yard
and I saw a shooting star, even that.
The frost formed like white moss
and I found myself not alone
in singing and celebration.


In the natural world, signs of resiliency. Maple trees without leaves are still maple trees. In fall, loss that does not feel like loss but has its own beauty, and provides an opportunity for celebration.

The lines that have come to mind recently are the ones about carving something out of my body. That is something I have been spared. My body has always been strong, well-nourished, kind to me. It has not required much care, and it has done whatever I asked of it.

badlands denmark 2014 import 044 (1)Again, I am glad for the things I’ve done with my body. I have not stood back from cold water on a hot day. A friend sent this photo of me in a creek. We were on our way through the Badlands of South Dakota and pulled over. I quickly changed into my bathing suit to jump in, while my friend held back, thinking it was too cold. What joy, a rushing creek.

I did my backpacking and hiking in wildernesses. I tramped on snow in snowshoes and cross country skis. I did not do anything risky or life-threatening. But I have heard snow sliding down the sides of a tent. I have seen the night sky undisturbed by light pollution. I have ridden waves and climbed high. It was not always in my comfort zone to be in those places– I hate bugs, especially mosquitoes. My feet are flat and I’ve whined under the weight of the pack. There are plenty of things I have not done. Some of them I might still do, but most of them I don’t even want to do.

Still, I believe in resiliency. I believe we keep our shape, or grow into the new one with plenty of opportunities for pleasure and selfhood. We continue to be physical beings in community and in nature.

Today, the temperature went up to 62 degrees, a record for March 11th in this town. I walked a bit, and went outside to the cold frame, which was full of warm, dry soil. It needs to be watered, and it is time to scatter seeds for greens. It will snow again next week, but the greens can wait it out beneath the frame and adjust to spring high and lows, and then, maybe in just one month, we will eat. It is that time of year– when the soil is ready to be worked.

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Art in the House

Sophia and Annie painting closerOne of the things that was important to me right away after the diagnosis was to get art in the house. There was one print, particularly, that I wanted to get framed. Then a friend who is a letterpress artist and whose class did a letterpress project with my stories from HabitsRachel Melis, sent me a few broadsides. Interestingly, Rachel is a fellow Grinnell alumnus and also her grandparents lived on our farm.

Right away I also knew I wanted art from my niece Sophia. Sophia grew up on the farm and began painting at a young age. She went to the Rhode Island School of Design for her B.F.A. and then came back to the farm for a year to concentrate on her painting. After some experimenting with abstraction, she settled in on a monthly series of large paintings based on landscapes that are a combination of elements on the farm and a soaring vision of the natural world. She claims Grandma Moses primitivism as one influence, but these are mythical and realistic at the same time, and textured with materials like plants and seeds and fibers from the farm itself.

I knew which one I wanted to borrow– “February,” a winter scene that included a view of our house and the gardens. I don’t think I remembered that it included the whole farm and all its buildings, and the tree nursery, and a cross country skier, too. It struck me that Sophia’s house is really in the middle of things– the tree nursery to the west and our house to the east and the buildings with all that action directly north, the large skating pond directly south. She grew up seeing all of it. Sophia immediately agreed to loan the painting to me, and we’ve decided to switch it out every 6 weeks– 3 paintings over my chemo journey. Next will be “May,” and then “July.”

On Sunday afternoon, Annie (her mother) and Sophia (accompanied by Ellie the dog) carried the painting across the commons and up into my bedroom. It almost immediately began working on my imagination. That night, I wrote a poem about it. I hope to write more about it in the six weeks, but here is a start.


on a painting by Sophia Heymans

The painting is carried across the field to live with you.
In it you recognize everything except the perspective.
There’s nowhere you can stand to see that much,
not even on your porch, not even your roof.
Not where you can see every crooked nursery tree
and your own garden and the pig barns, too,
and the Kluesner grove, and all three houses,
and even your husband’s foot track to his shop,
and there, look—someone skiing the perimeter.

You have to be a child of this farm, one who can fly
above it all and see beyond the windbreaks,
one who can hover in the cold winter sky
for all the days needed to capture it.


photo of painting copyright Sophia Heymans.

To see more of Sophia’s paintings, including this entire series, go to:

To see a music video made by Steve’s daughter Catherine Orchard for Paul Spring’s song “Conversation of Mass” that features Sophia (and boyfriend Paul) at Saint John’s and in our neighborhood, including Sophia painting, click here.  This farm is a wonderful, creative place inspiring art in all its forms.

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Minnesota Musician Stories

I’ve written before about how special Minnesota Public Television is for its recognition and celebration of things particular to the Minnesota culture. Whether it’s documentaries about pond hockey or Scandinavian cooking shows, a profile of a homesteader in Alaska or the story of a major, sudden blizzard that caught the whole state unaware, Minnesota appreciates its art and culture. You can get a crash course on curling and lutefisk, prairies and fishing. Their show Minnesota Originals featuring local artists and craftspeople is very high quality.

On Saturday night we stumbled on two profiles of young Minnesota musicians on the Brainerd station (we get three different PBS stations, all good). The programs were produced by Pioneer Public Television in Appleton, Minnesota (population 1412). We caught half of the profile of Caroline Smith, a young woman from Detroit Lakes, a town in the northwest of the state near Grand Forks, ND (my feelings about that rural expanse borders on obsession). She had a great voice and a good sound, and a few male collaborators helping her. Her energy and quirky sensuality were infectious.

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen photo from

The next episode, however, featuring Holly Hansen, completely captured us. If you are interested in young people, rural poverty, music and creativity, small town life, the role of religion in formation, or just want to watch an articulate young woman talk about her art and life, this documentary is for you. It is available for free streaming here.

Hansen is another woman who has put together a band (of men) to help her bring forth her sound. They go by the name Zoo Animal. These women are the guiding force in these bands, not women who sing someone else’s songs. Both women are singer/songwriters at heart, although Smith is more folksy and Hansen is more electric and rocking. Hansen’s music struck me as Americana-grunge-meets-shoe-gazer, sort of a synthesis of 1990s styles.

Hanson is from Cokato/Litchfield, a place we went to a few times last June when my FIL was in a geriatric behavior unit there for dementia. It was an odd time, and the drive was so beautiful it broke your heart. There is also a great cafe in Litchfield, the Parkview Grille. Hanson moved there at age 12 with her single mother (and sister?) to live with her grandparents in the house where her mother grew up. She explains what she lost from San Antonio– a skate park near the house! arcades! Endless entertainment– and what she gained by connecting with Minnesota by playing hockey and ice skating, attending the family’s church, picking up her uncle’s guitar and making music, and a lot of wandering around the natural areas near home. As she says, she had to get creative because there were no distractions. Her choice not to hide or wait it out on electronic devices but to engage– with her grandparents’ religion as well as music and small town life– is very impressive. As are the results.

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You Are Not Alone

wetlands 3-6-16I know there will be times on this journey when I will feel alone. But right now a surprising thing is that it isn’t just my friends and family keeping me company– my medical care providers in a strange way let me know I’m not alone.

First there is the Cancer Center itself. That place is full of patients. Each one a family tragedy, a personal tragedy, a community affected. Everyone there valiantly following the plan. We feel in good hands. We each have a team.

But what is also encouraging somehow is the way the medical staff tell us what will happen. They know how this goes. As my mother says, “They even said when the nausea would start– Wednesday late afternoon.” And it’s true, it comes on at 4:30 on schedule and I can take the pill marked “take first” and don’t need to take the second, because it works.

They tell me what day I will start losing my hair. Videos online give me a number of approaches to the hair loss. There’s surprising information– a woman in treatment says that you’ll be surprised how much your eyebrows and eyelashes do to keep things out of your eyes.

lichen tree 3-6-16Although of course I wish they would figure out a combination of drugs that would more specifically target the cancer itself, leaving the hair and nails and blood cells alone, but I do not feel like a guinea pig. Not at all. I feel like they know exactly what they’re doing and there is good reason for this regimen, the number of weeks and the dosage and the combination.

Meanwhile, the nutritionist is there and knows what I might still enjoy eating. And the Enhancements Program is there and want to see me this week to know what kind of wig to make. And the reviews on hats and turbans are very helpful.

Today was a great day. Steve and I took advantage of a warm day (in the 50s!) to walk in the wetlands, which are still frozen enough to support our weight. Tromping around on the edge of our 80 acres, I called “Yoo hoo!!” to the frogs and we looked ahead to some of our favorite times of the year, when we’ll sit on the porch and watch everything come to life.

wetland border 3-6-16

For a Cowbird story of this new community I find myself in, click here.

This is a tricky story, that I hope illustrates the complexity of the rural place where I live. Yet as it unfolded I felt sympathy for all the people involved, and a belief in the essential goodness of the people I live among and their challenges.


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Good Reads

Lest you think I am not in the best place ever to convalesce, here are three things about today.

steve's chair

1. Steve brought back my favorite chair from his collection for me to sit in (there’s an ottoman, too).

2. It snowed a bit…

3. So Steve burned the big burn pile.



brush pile fire 3-4-16Meanwhile, I had a nice, quiet day puttering around the house, writing on the computer, doing a little laundry and tending things, eating what I can manage, and reading.

The good news is that yesterday went fairly well. The anti-nausea meds worked and the Tylenol kept my headache at bay and I mostly slept and rested. Today I woke up feeling much better, even well enough to do some work online. Quite manageable. I continue to feel a deep peace and abiding gratitude for my friends and my life.

books gifts

Many friends have sent books. Books! I am a reader of course, and I’ve been kind of drifting in and out of the various books. My concentration is off, and I’m not reading in long stretches, but what a stack of beauties. Fiction and nonfiction, essays and psalms and meditations. I’m covered on ALL fronts.

kooser winter walks coverBut what I’ve been reading most has been the book Winter Morning Walks by Ted Kooser. I ordered this one for myself the day I was diagnosed. I’d been thinking about it a lot in another context, but suddenly I had to have it. I thought it was a book of poems Kooser wrote while undergoing chemotherapy. Actually, Kooser wrote a poem a day for 100 days after chemo, put them on postcards and sent them to his friend, the poet Jim Harrison. This is a selection of those.

He and Harrison had done a collaboration of back-and-forth haiku earlier, and in his recovery, this seemed a way to enter back into poetry. The poems are very much like haiku, steeped in the nature of his early morning walks, in the moment, and with deep, rich metaphors and imagery.

He begins his walks in November, which is tough. Here I am coming out of winter, and he’s walking into it. This morning I did what you can do in poetry but not elsewhere: I skipped to the end! December, January, February– March! I found the penultimate poem in the book so cheering, I have to share it here.

march 18

Gusty and warm.

I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival. Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and
for a lifetime, having been given
this world.

# # #

Almost a decade ago, Steve and I had our first date, on a beautiful April day. We live in a small town, so he suggested hamburgers at a bar in St. Anna, 10 miles into the countryside, where it wasn’t lost on me that we wouldn’t run into anyone we knew. Afterward we walked along the road by Pelican Lake to the Pelican Lake Ballroom, which is a pole barn but always sounds like a romantic place to me… and we saw the first bluebird of the season.

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Ways to Pray for Healing

Sherie's lanternThe poem about carrying images and other prayers is ready to share.

I posted it on Cowbird, which is a lovely platform for poetry with multiple images. To read it, go here:

I am so grateful for people who have been sharing their memories of me and also sending me photos of lights and other things.

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Chemo, day 1

Chemobay2_3545_M11-610x467Here it is, March 1st. March is the month that gives us hope for spring up here, and in this El Nino year, might include a fair amount of spring weather. Today is the day I started chemotherapy. Day 1 in a list that counts by sevens and threes (two auspicious numbers!) Day 1, Day 8, Day 15, (end of first three-week cycle); Day 22, Day 29, etc.

It did not go so well today.

It made me think of Stephen King. (Don’t worry, it was not that bad). Steve and I have watched two episodes of the Stephen King mini-series on Hulu, 11.22.63. It’s about a man, played by James Franco, sent back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He arrives three years early, in 1960, and has some investigating to do (don’t want to kill Lee Harvey Oswald if he didn’t do it).

I’m not a fan of time travel films, and Steve really doesn’t like them. I turned it on because I am very interested in what goes on in Stephen King’s head. I find his imagination and inventions delightful, and he just throws in anything that comes to him. It’s a quirky world.

I wanted to see what  Baby Boomer Stephen King is nostalgic about. All time travel is ultimately about nostalgia– perhaps even more than regret, because the idea of changing the past is not nearly as powerful as the idea of re-experiencing the past.

What caught my husband’s attention, though, is one little quirk in the formula– in Stephen King’s version of the past rectified, the past fights back. If the time traveler gets too close to changing something significant, Time responds with a really bad payback. For example, when Franco’s character goes into a phone booth and calls his own father, he gets a “bad line.” As soon as he steps out of the phone booth, a car careens through it, killing the driver. There’s one rule about the past, and it is: you don’t belong there. The past is alive and it doesn’t like change. At all.

The reason I thought of this today is that today the cancer got word that I’m coming for it, and it fought back.

One of the drugs in my chemotherapy treatment is called Taxol. I heard several times that this particular drug can be a total shock to the system (and it’s the first one in), so before administering it I was given a low dose of Benadryl, a low dose steroid, some anti-nausea meds. I could also have been prescribed a little morphine if I was in pain to begin with, which I wasn’t.

The allergic reaction is very predictable and usually happens in the first 15 minutes. It took me 4. It is flushing, dropping blood pressure, difficulty breathing, and sometimes lower back spasms. It came on suddenly and was quite intense. The nurse came right away and turned off the IV. The protocol is another shot of Benadryl and then once the symptoms are gone, start up again. Invariably the body is prepared then and the treatment goes smoothly.

However, I had another symptom, horrible cramping in my abdomen, like very bad menstrual cramps. That is where the cancer is, and I figure it had just gotten the message that I am coming for it (no delicious glucose dye like it got with the PET scan last week).

I was desperate to get to the bathroom because of the cramps. After the Benadryl was administered and the nurse was going to wait a few minutes and start the med again, I insisted on going to the bathroom. The last thing I heard her say was “the bathroom is so close to your room– right here.”

I woke up on the floor of my room, and it was about 20 minutes before everything quieted down. The allergic reaction went away, but not the cramping. They administered a low dose of morphine and within 10 minutes that helped. It is completely gone now, and was by the time I left an hour later.

The result was, no Taxol today, which is a bummer. Freakin’ cancer. But I did get the other drug, and that one is the mighty mighty drug that I only take the first week of every cycle.

Meanwhile, we’ll take more precautions next week before starting the Taxol again. I want the Taxol. I want it all, every cancer-fighting thing they can give Cancer-Center-Mayo-Strongerme.*

I knew it was poison they were sending into my system. I didn’t think that would make anything in my body happy. With Steve I’ve been using the Round-Up analogy to describe chemo: scorched earth policy before we plant the natives, then as much care as possible to give the natives a chance to grow and banish the weeds.

In the second episode of 11.22.63, Franco’s character has a personal score to settle. Time fights back, but kind of lamely, with a stomach bug and nausea. That’s no deterrent! And the abdominal cramps really did make me feel like muttering to my belly: “Oh yeah, I know where you are. You can’t hide from me anymore, mo-fos!”

Meanwhile, I have to thank everyone who thought of me specially on this day, and messaged or texted or e-mailed or just sat down and prayed.

And I’ve been getting these lovely memories sent by friends of my own past. First came this photo of me on a horse in LA in 1993 when a friend and I discovered a horse concession at the foot of the Hollywood sign and rode up there for $5. Then a friend from Albuquerque dug up a couple photos of me with her son near Taos. That visit we went to a Chinese restaurant and he asked for a second helping of “Susan [sizzling] Rice Soup.” I’ll never forget that.

And third, someone I know much, much less well, sent me an old thread from 2008 on which we were discussing Polish film of the 1970s.

Even if I could go through a portal and get back to my past, really, there is nothing I would change. (Well, I would have gone to the Soviet Union in 1985 on a college trip I skipped for a number of lame reasons, but oh well.)


*A word about the fainting: I am least alarmed by this,  though it was what freaked out the nursing staff the most. My family are a bunch of fainters and I’d just had my blood pressure drop and a shot of Benadryl into my bloodstream. I once fainted in a high school classroom doing a “Poet in the Schools” lesson. I once had to sit down or risk fainting when I was teaching Dante’s Inferno. I fainted at a friend’s garage sale because of the fumes. I am the easiest fainter there is. But I need to remember that before I want to rush off somewhere when I’m feeling dizzy. Maybe some peanut butter toast first.


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“The Prayers of All Good People Are Good”


I used to teach Willa Cather’s My Antonia quite often when I taught English at community colleges. It is still one of my favorite books. The one line that has stayed with me all these years is one said by Jim Burden’s grandfather. The scene is Christmas, and Mr. Shimerda, the Bohemian neighbor, has come to visit Jim Burden and his grandparents. Here’s what the narrator Jim tells us:

“As it grew dark, I asked whether I might light the Christmas tree before the lamp was brought. When the candle-ends sent up their conical yellow flames, all the colored figures from Austria stood omy antonia coverut clear and full of meaning against the green boughs. Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the tree, his head sunk forward. His long body formed a letter ‘S.’ I saw grandmother look apprehensively at grandfather. He was rather narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people’s feelings. There had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now, with someone kneeling before it—images, candles… Grandfather merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere[. . . .]

At nine o’clock Mr. Shimerda lighted one of our lanterns and put on his overcoat and fur collar. He stood in the little entry hall, the lantern and his fur cap under his arm, shaking hands with us. When he took grandmother’s hand, he bent over it as he always did, and said slowly, ‘Good woman!’ He made the sign of the cross over me, put on his cap and went off in the dark. As we turned back to the sitting-room, grandfather looked at me searchingly. ‘The prayers of all good people are good,’ he said quietly.”

It is a triumph of religious tolerance on the prairie– in an era when Protestants and Catholics wouldn’t enter each other’s churches or let their children intermarry. Often, even Catholics of different ethnicities didn’t mix. In a town near us, with a population of 700 people, there are still two large Catholic churches, a block from each other, one for the Germans and one for the Bohemians.

I’ve thought of this phrase several times this week. So many people are praying for me. And there are so many traditions. I’ve been asked my permission for people to put me on prayer chains (“Of course! No one needs permission to pray for me!”) My name has been entered on prayer lists with other intentions of various communities. One friend rallied some Congregationalists to add to the chorus of prayer. I’ve been enrolled for prayer at Lourdes and by religious communities.

IMG_2116A couple friends told me they lit candles for me, and I asked them to send me photos. One is before the madonna and child at Saint John’s Abbey Church, and the other is at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis.

And there are also many, many people holding me in light, thinking good thoughts, sending healing energy. All these things are wonderful and helpful. Really even just the “like” on Facebook to let me know someone read the post or is thinking of me is comforting.

One woman asked on Facebook “Is there an image you’d like me to carry for you?” I have to admit this one both intrigued and perplexed me. I didn’t really know what it meant. But my mind could range over so many images… and I felt a poem coming on. I’m working on it, and will post it if/when it comes together.

Meanwhile, I’m luxuriating in the prayers of all good people.

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Salmon with Sweet Chili Glaze


My parents and sister are here visiting. It was important to all of us to be together before the chemo starts and I have never looked forward to a visit more, I don’t think. Wednesday we went to “chemo training” and I got a PET scan, today there is an anointing at church, and we’re going to do some shopping.

But I was more engaged in planning for the meals! It’s clear that part of chemo is struggling with appetite and food tasting “off,” so I wanted to get in a few more “culinary experiences” as Steve calls our dinners, before things start on March 1.

When I found a BOGO deal at Byerly’s our first meal was set. Salmon. My mother has several dietary restrictions. This dish is gluten free and though she never eats meat, she does eat some fish. Also, I had a tray of pea sprouts ready to harvest on the windowsill and a bag of sunflower sprouts. We used some other bits and pieces of green vegetables and asparagus. The whole thing takes about 30 minutes to make and it’s delicious. It has a nice bite from the ginger that goes well with the sweet chili sauce.

(Thursday it’s homemade tomato sauce and pasta, and Friday is steak night! (I know it’s Lent, but sick people are excused… Steve and my mom will have leftover salmon.)

It’s adapted slightly from here:

Salmon with Sweet Chili Glaze and spring vegetables

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/4 cup Asian sweet chili sauce plus
3 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 tablespoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger, divided
6 6-ounce salmon fillets with skin
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (we used sunflower oil, and a splash of sesame oil)
3 garlic cloves, minced
spring vegetables: one or more of the following: asparagus, snow peas, snap peas, shaved Brussels sprouts, sunflower sprouts, radish sprouts, pea shoots or any greens,
leeks or green onions would also be a good addition
1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine (mirin)
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil and more sweet chili sauce

  1. Line rimmed baking sheet with foil. Coat with nonstick spray. Whisk chili sauce, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon ginger in small bowl. Place salmon fillets, skin side down, on prepared sheet. Spoon chili sauce marinade over and let stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat broiler. Spoon any marinade remaining on baking sheet over salmon fillets. Broil salmon without turning until browned in spots and almost opaque in center, 6 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness of fillet.
  3. Meanwhile, heat vegetable oil and splash of sesame oil in wok or heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon ginger and minced garlic; stir until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add larger vegetables (asparagus, peas, onions, etc) and stir until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce, rice wine, and pea tendrils/sprouts/greens and stir just until wilted, about 1 minute. Drizzle with sesame oil and more chili sauce to taste.


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Second Sunday of Lent

date farm desertI went to Mass today with surprisingly little trepidation. I was ready for the hugs and even the one friend who was teary. I was ready to listen to the Scriptures.

And I knew the first reading, Genesis 15, at its opening line. It is one of my absolute favorite readings, and it made me smile to be treated to it on this of all Sundays. I’ve never heard a homily that focused on it– the Gospel is the Transfiguration, after all! Jesus went to the desert in last week’s gospel to fast and be tempted, and now he goes to the mountaintop where his glory is revealed to the disciples.

But I had been inspired back in 1989 sitting in a Catholic church, not quite a Catholic again, to spend a year with the story of Abram in the desert. He asks God: “How will I know that I will get the promises you’re offering, of descendants without number?”  And God sends him into the desert to sacrifice some animals, and then birds of prey come (not the cleansing fire of God to consume the sacrifice) and he has to beat them off, and then “a deep and dreadful darkness” falls over Abram, and he spends some time in a terrifying trance. It must have seemed like God abandoned him, not like the beginning of a sacred time. But something happens. At dawn, the darkness lifts, a fire passes between them– the sign of a covenant being made between them. When Abram leaves the desert, he is almost immediately renamed Abraham. It is his transformation story.

I wrote a cycle of 15 poems about that passage. I actually had the good fortune to perform them at a poetry event with the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Orange, California in 2003. But mostly I’ve not done anything with them. They are strange and dark– there are birds of prey and visions. And in the end it is still a mystery to me what makes an Abraham out of an Abram. What it is in this desert experience that prepares a man to be willing to offer his son as an offering after what he has been promised is a son even when the odds of age and his wife’s barrenness are against him. It is a cycle built on my imagining, knowing poetry can explore and convey mystery better than other forms.

desert shadowsWhat about me? I am in the desert now. With my deep and dreadful darkness, and the birds of prey, and visions. With my faith in God, and knowing by dawn I will be transformed.

I want to share the very first thing I wrote, the night before the official diagnosis. It was the middle of the night, and I knew some of what was coming but was still hoping for better news, and I wrote a prayer.


Let me fall into it—the need for care
and the offer of care from others,
the helplessness, let me let go when needed.

Let me not worry about all the outside;
let me let go, move away from all that
if only for a little while. For this time.

Let me walk with grace through it,
the indignities and pain and need,
whatever bad food or lack of appetite.

In the middle of the night,
let me have hope and peace and love.

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