Author: Etta Madden (page 1 of 3)

Traveling to Trappist Monasteries: An Interview with Paul Green

Tina Moore, at one of many campfires she and Paul Green shared during their journey

What if your partner or spouse asked you to quit your job so that you could travel? What if that seed of an idea they planted casually one day started to germinate? Would you let it keep growing until it flowered and came to fruition?

Paul Green did. And he did it with intention. As he explained to me, his wife Tina asked him in May of 2014 to consider this big step. He gave notice to his employers in August of 2014 and by the next March, he and Tina set out on a three-part journey visiting 17 Trappist monasteries scattered throughout the US. Part of the results of those travels appear in his book, Silence is Spoken Here. Filled with beautiful photos, the pages only hint at the motivations for the journey.

Tina and monks, prayer chapel, Assumption Abbey, Ava, MIssouri

I interviewed Paul last month about the process, as part of my interest in “later vocations”—people’s decisions, sometimes less intentional than others—to step out onto a path that earlier in life they never dreamed about.

Paul and Tina didn’t leave their home in the Ozarks without some clear goals in mind. And, of course, they did quite a bit of planning before taking on this endeavor. But what Paul found was quite unexpected.

He describes what he discovered late in the interview.  The Trappists’ teachings and their practices–especially their silence–helped him listen to what was being spoken within himself. As a result, he’s settled down into a new “later vocation” in Northwest Arkansas, where he runs Interbeing Images and he and Tina engage with their community in several ways.

Here’s much of the interview, which I hope will speak to you, as it did to me, about Paul’s journey. (Although he refers to Tina’s role in the process, I interviewed her separately. I’ll share those thoughts next month).

Paul’s words may inspire you to let that seed of an idea you’ve been protecting begin to warm up. You can also follow him and his fantastic photos on Facebook.

Motivations: Spiritual & Professional

Etta: I am fascinated by the trip that you and Tina took to visit Trappist monasteries. And I have read your book, Silence is Spoken Here. In the introduction you talk about how you got started with the idea. Would you say a little bit more about what motivated you?

Paul:   Sure. I think from the book you can tell it was somewhat of a long process. It didn’t just happen overnight. It was 2012 when we first visited Snowmass [the home of St. Benedict’s, a Trappist monastery and retreat center in Colorado], and that planted some seed of the spiritual aspect of the book. But at that point certainly there was no idea of traveling to visit Trappist monasteries. And there was certainly no concept of a book. But around that same time, my photography was starting to become more important as a creative outlet that I never had during my career has a telecommunications engineer.

So there was a combination of my really enjoying nature photography and the beginning of a spiritual journey. Tina and I both realized as we came together [as a new couple] that we were both on this journey but maybe in different places. She was really diving into it for the first time, and I was kind of reconnecting to my previous life.

In the book you read about her inspiration at a retreat in North Carolina. That was the first spark of an idea. Our original concept was creating something–we didn’t know whether it would be a book or not–to let people know about taking pilgrimages without leaving the United States, and maybe not traveling more than two or three hours. So that was the first spark of the creative idea.

Hey, we can do something like that–teach others about making a sacred journey somewhere. And it doesn’t have to be this big extravagant trip to the Middle East. Don’t know how yet–but that sounds like something important for us to do.

Etta: To back up a bit–you said that you had been to Snowmass on a spiritual retreat. Can you say why you went there for a spiritual reason?

Paul:   Sure. We went there for a centering prayer retreat–centering prayer being a kind of a Christian meditation. What led us to that was Tina’s stepfather, who has led retreats at St. Benedict’s for almost 25 years and had told us of the impact it had on his life. It was one of the spiritual tools that we thought we would check out. Around the same time, we were doing labyrinth work and some Buddhist Meditation. Centering prayer was combining a lot of things we were already doing.

Chapel, St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado

Etta:   You said that this was sort of going back to something preceding your telecommunications work. What you mean by going back to something before that?

Paul:   For most of my life I was as a telecommunication engineer. But in reference to what I was going back to–I grew up in a very conservative southern Baptist family. When I was a child though, I had a great love for my grandfather who was a revivalist preacher in Carroll County, Arkansas. He had his own church later in life. But for the early part of his life, he traveled around to different small community churches and preached revivals. By the time I was around, he still did a few revivals, but by the time I was old enough to remember–three, four, five–he already had a church and was pretty much preaching at the church. But I remember he had a Sunday morning radio program on one of those local am stations. I heard that on our way to church.

Etta: Going to Snowmass then was taking you a different direction from that early childhood religious life, but still you were familiar with prayer and scripture?

Paul:   Yeah, I went to every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday service as a child and, maybe like a lot of people, became a little disenchanted as I got older with the conservative evangelical type churches. And so I quit going to church for most of my adult life. And then after the end of my first marriage, part of my trying to figure out who I was again, was figuring out what does church mean to me? And my religion–do I still have one? All of that was starting to come into focus in the two years before my wife [Tina] and I got together.

Etta:   You have referred to her several times, and I had assumed that Tina sparked this searching. But it was already there–you were searching for who you were after your first marriage ended?

Paul:   Right. And religion was a part of that, my reconnection. For her, she didn’t grow up in the church. So our meanings on this journey were quite different. We came from completely different backgrounds. For me, it was more of, where are my beliefs?

Etta:   So this retreat at Snowmass was not something unfamiliar to you, spiritually speaking, it just introduced new practices?

Paul:   Yes. A newer approach to a religious tradition I was familiar with–a totally different approach and much more in line with how I felt internally, versus how I might’ve felt as a child being at times forced to go to church. This was something I really wanted to try and practice.

Etta:   The book introduction explains that Tina called you from a retreat in North Carolina. Tell me about that. What happened?

Paul:   I can’t remember why I didn’t go to that retreat. I was still working in telecommunications for a company in Boston, working from home. But when she got back from that trip we talked.

She gave me this idea–“hey, I want to travel. I want you to do photography.” And I didn’t refuse right away, but I just said, “I’m working full time. This isn’t a good time, but I’ll consider it.”

I think it sounded like something I would like, but I mean, I’ve been working since I was 16 years old. It’s what you do. You get up and go to work every day. I couldn’t imagine not. I tried. She’s like, “well, just, just think about it.” It was May . . . 2014.

Etta:   And you took the trip starting in March of 2015. So less than a year. A lot to decide in less than a year . . .

Reading the “Signs”

Paul:   Yeah. It’s interesting. When she first brought it up, I really thought, this will pass. She has ideas from time to time–another one of Tina’s ideas–and we kind of knock them around. But we never say no. We don’t rule anything out. We just kind of go, “okay, maybe not right now, but let’s continue to think about it.” I think, at least for me, I notice if things keep repeating themselves or, there’s gotta be some other, for lack of a better word, “sign” indicating that this is really something I should be doing.

Etta: What were some of those other signs during that nine-month period? What else happened?

Paul:   That was mid-May, I guess, until early in July. I’m still working, working from home and I had an incident with a guy I had known from work–I’d known him for eight years. There was a questioning from him of how much I was enjoying my work. I guess, because I worked from home and we didn’t see each other a lot face to face, he was starting to have concerns that I wasn’t happy in my job anymore. I don’t know what gave the friend the impression that I might not be happy. I certainly hadn’t thought, “am I happy or not happy?” But then my boss calls me and asks point blank. He’s like, “are you happy with your job?” And I said, “well, of course.” But the honest answer was I had never thought about it.

I didn’t ever put it in these terms. Of course, I’m happy. I show up every day. And then I hung up the phone and set back for a second. I said, “Well, am I happy with work? Why did he call me? I don’t know.” Honestly, I have to think about this now. As I thought about it and the way some relationships we’re going within the company, I was like, “You know what? I guess I’m not happy.” But had my boss never asked me that point blank, it would have never crossed my mind to ask that myself.

That was one definite sign–maybe not that we were going to run off and do a book–but that I really wanted to consider the next step.

Etta:   So that was July. Was there another sign?

Paul:   No. At that point I began to talk to Tina about the project again. We had kind of dropped it when she first brought it up. I had said, let me think about it. And that was kind of it. But then all this happened, and I started bringing it up. “I’m considering, maybe, possibly retiring, leaving work and doing this project. Are you really serious about it?” She absolutely was.

Etta:   And you were already developing your skills and talents as a photographer. You also mentioned the book plans. By the time you planned the trip, were you planning a book?

Challenges of Planning

Paul:   Yes–with no idea how to do a book, or whether we were going to find a publisher. It was, I think, Tina’s way of getting me to consider retiring and traveling. I think her focus was, “I just want to get you in a van and travel around. We’ll see what comes out of it.” But for me, the book was a focus. Originally the concept was to go to spiritual places in all 50 states. We really wanted to let people know about the pilgrimage, and we thought if we found two places in each state, then everybody would have a place they could go that would be close by.

Etta:   And you would say you’d been to all 50 states, right?

Paul:   But then we started trying to think of what’s spiritual or religious? What’s sacred? And then narrow it down to only two sites in each state.

Etta:   It was probably so hard. So that was almost the scrapping of the entire idea because it was overwhelming, or what?

Paul:   Absolutely overwhelming. Like, okay, this original idea was way off base. We’ll never be able to write that, and it will certainly take more than a year.

Etta:   Remind us of when this discussion was going on?

Paul:   Starting in July. I finally put my notice in at the 1st of August, to leave work on October 31st. Between July 1 and October 31st, we kept tossing around these ideas of, “I’m now committed. I’ve put it out there. We need to figure out what we’re really going to do.” And that got a little scary.

Etta:   October to March–you had four or five months to figure everything out.

Paul:   We bought that 19 and a half foot small class VRV.

Etta:   Had you ever traveled in an RV before?

Paul:   No, and that was not even a full size one. It’s a tiny thing. We met with a friend who travels for photography quite a bit, and he recommended a brand and we went and researched it and went, okay, yeah, this will work for us. We can do this.

Etta:   Since you were beginning to think about a book and you were thinking about photography, tell me more about how you were developing your photography skills during that same period.

 Paul:   It was just a matter of really focusing, at that time, on landscape and nature photography, which is what I had fallen in love with originally. Tim Ernst, a photographer for National Geographic back in the 70s and from Fayetteville originally, has been doing workshops in Arkansas for probably 20 years. He puts out a book a year, travels around the state. Tina got me a private one-day workshop with him for my birthday.

Etta: You’d been working on photography for three or four years?

Paul:   I played around with it, of course, with having a young child playing sports and in the choir at school. I started wanting to take better pictures of those events. But after I did the Tim Ernst workshop, I made an attempt to get out at least once a week, depending on my work schedule. If I had to travel, I couldn’t do it. But I tried to stay committed to getting out and practicing all the things he had taught me in that one day.

Etta:   What was it that was motivating you to that? To the photos? Because there’s gotta be some kind of a drive . . .

Paul:   Again, it all comes back to what I was realizing–this introverted nature that I have but didn’t really recognize. I felt like a good social guy and it turns out I’m just really aware of other people’s feelings and come off socially introverted and empathetic.

We did enneagram work as another one of the spiritual tools. It’s made me aware of how much I enjoy being outdoors and how that gave me a connection to the divine–the divine being things bigger than yourself.

For me, being in nature is always that reminder of my place in the world. Like anybody that has a huge ego, they need to take a walk around the Grand Canyon or look up at a starry night and go, oh yeah, okay. And photography for me was the chance to be out in the woods and see things in that way. I hadn’t taken the time to see before then.

Snags & Roadblocks

Etta: What else happened in the planning?

Refectory, St. Benedict’s Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado

Paul: What finally shifted everything was another two day visit out to St. Benedict’s at Snowmass to sit down with Father Joseph and Father Charlie. Not to really talk about the book. They listened to us go off on a tangent. “Paul’s retired now and we’ve had this idea for a project to travel around and visit spiritual places. But that’s overwhelming, and we’re just really not sure what we’re going to do next.”

And it was Father Joseph who listened to all that and just very calmly said, “well, have you thought about just visiting the Trappist monasteries?”

They both asked really pointed questions: “Once you identify the places, how are you going to make contact? And how are you going to get in? And what are you going to take pictures of?” We hadn’t really planned that far!

Etta:  They were trying to help you get through the difficulties and helping you refine it?

Paul:   Absolutely. I think they just listened. And in their vocation, they’re very good listeners, and they are very good at analyzing situations. They don’t get flustered. They take forever to make decisions.

Etta:   Like academics!

Paul:   They’re just very practical. And of course, they can remove the emotional stuff that we were feeling–that anxiety that’s overwhelming–and look through the muddle. They just said, “don’t know if you’re interested, but here’s one solution”–[Trappists monasteries]!

Etta:   Remind me how many monasteries there are? And you visited all of them?

Paul:   There were 17 at the time we did our travel. We visited all of them. And I stayed in all but one, and Tina stayed in all of them, too. We both couldn’t stay at Saint Joseph’s in Massachusetts because of their rules and the timing that didn’t work the first time around. I made a second trip back so I could actually stay there.

Etta:   It’s almost as though Father Joseph was one more of these signs, providing a way for this to happen? You were sort of overwhelmed.

Paul:   Right. If we hadn’t had that conversation with him, I don’t know if we would have come up with that idea on our own, to be honest. I don’t think it ever really crossed our minds just to visit Trappist monasteries. And we would have been stuck with an RV and a plan to travel and I don’t know what we would have done. We may have just traveled and gone to state parks and, and said, “forget the book.” I think the travel was a part of it, as a chance to see different parts of the country, which we loved. It was as important as the monasteries.

Etta:   I want to hear more about what you did in each of the monasteries. But can you tell us more about the logistics? I know you had to contact all the sites, and I’m sure there are stories about that, contacting them and making the arrangements, planning exactly where you were going to go first, what your circuit was going to be. Do you want to say anything about that?

Paul:   Sure. Tina’s first calling in life might’ve, should’ve been logistics. I didn’t have to do any of the planning.

Evolving Routines

Etta: OK. You don’t have to talk about that part! Tell me what you did when you got to each monastery. If you had a routine, what was your baseline?

Paul:   It evolved over time. When we first talked to Father Joseph, he sent out an email to all the monasteries giving me a brief introduction. He said, I will give an introduction, but it’s going to be up to each community on how they receive you and what they allow you to do. And some may say no. And so we had that expectation. I don’t think there was any fear. We were going to give it our best shot and see how things turned out.

We broke up the travels into sections. We visited the monasteries in the Southeast in the spring, the Northeast in the fall to try and get foliage, and the West coast we did late summer, to try and take advantage of a little cooler weather out there. For the first one, in the southeast–Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky–they had no idea who we were or what we were doing, and we couldn’t get in consistent contact with them. Most of the email addresses we could not find for them.

Etta:   Was that because they were just more behind on technology?

Paul:   No, it’s because they don’t all use the technology that’s available. It’s part of their lifestyle to be as removed as they can. A project like ours doesn’t really register on their radar. They’ll read. My guess is they probably read the email and went, “okay,” and never gave it a second thought.

Etta:   Because they’re going about their business whether you show up or not?

Paul:   And they’ve had lots of guests and writers stay with them. They’ve had NPR and TV producers come and do extensive stays. One has been in Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon’s book. So they’re used to people coming and seeking these things. And we weren’t very professional in how we approached them. We assumed that they had read Father Joseph’s email and we could show up and go from there.

So the first couple were a little different. It didn’t feel all that intimate starting off. But even by the time of Gethsemani, which is one of the more famous Trappist monasteries because of Thomas Merton, when we got there, things started to change a little bit. They still didn’t know who we were exactly, but they have a resident photographer, Brother Paul, who actually was there at the time Merton was there. Since he was a photographer, he took a special interest in our project and was the first one to invite us behind the cloisters–or me. Tina wasn’t allowed. It was just through our conversation that he said, “Well, tomorrow if you’ve got time, I’ll give you a tour around — behind the scenes a little bit.” That was overwhelming.

Etta:   Unexpected. It was one of those serendipitous moments. That must’ve made a huge difference in your trip, I would guess?

Chapter room, Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky

Paul:   It kind of gave us that second wind. Yeah. Because at the first two, we just took pictures out front. I wasn’t getting everything I really wanted. And I promised that there would be no pictures of monks in the book, if they didn’t want it. I wanted to respect their privacy more than anything, but there was that hope–I really wanted some pictures that the average person isn’t going to get. And the nature stuff there was really good. I was happy with how that was going, but I was missing a piece of what people would want to see in a book about monasteries, which is architecture. I felt like it was a turning point. That was the end of that section, and then we had a two-week layoff.

Etta:   What’d you do during that time? That two weeks?

Paul:   Repack. Organize my photos a little bit. Save and put them away so I didn’t have to worry about losing them along the journey.

Etta:   Talk about what hadn’t gone well and what you would want to do differently?

Paul:   Absolutely. We made more of an effort to recontact monasteries before we got there. Remind them who we are before we showed up. And around that same time, when we started the second part of the trip, all the abbots come together for US regional meeting. And Father Joseph spoke at that as a reminder, “Hey, by the way, there’s this couple that’s making visits. Some of you might’ve seen them already, but others of you should be expecting them to show up in the near future.” So that changed our cause.

Even Ava’s Assumption Abbey and then Our Lady of the Mississippi in Iowa, which were our first two stops on the second phase, both were very well aware and just threw open the doors to both of us. Tina got to tour around Assumption Abbey with the Superior there. He spent probably five hours of his time, just walking us around, telling us the history of Assumption Abbey and his personal history.

Monk at prayer, Assumption Abbey, Ava, Missouri

Etta:   It sounds so stupid on my part, but your discussion of Tina not being allowed to go in because she’s a woman–in these works by the 19th century American women in Italy that I am writing about–one of them was visiting these monastic sites in Italy. I didn’t think about the women not being able to go in, but they had to wait outside. So that’s still the case? It wasn’t just that it was the 19th century?

Paul:   Right. I mean, it depends on each community. It’s interesting. I’m trying to think of the nuns’ monasteries. I guess Santa Rita in Arizona is the only one where I didn’t go back in the cloister areas, but all the other ones gave me tours of their private areas. And most of the [men’s] communities allowed Tina inside. They toured us both through.

Energizing Moments

Etta: You mentioned the experience with brother Paul being different. What are some of the other moments that you remember as just being very energizing?

Paul: Our Lady of the Mississippi was probably one of the most. Again, it was another first. We showed up there, just south of Des Moines, Iowa, up on a hillside that overlooks the Mississippi River. We arrived there after maybe a four or five hour drive that day, about 15 minutes before their evening service. And they had been in good contact with us on the way. They were working on a book about their monastery at the time for their 50th anniversary. So they were very interested in whether I would share my pictures with them, which of course, was a given. And so there was some excitement from their side in us.

Etta:   What was so fantastic there?

Paul:   Usually we would check in, go to our room, settle in, and I walk around and start scouting it out. But here, Sister Kathleen who was working on the book immediately says, “Oh great, you’re here. We’ll get you down to the house shortly. But we were wondering if you would join us for service and take pictures there.”

Laboring sister, caramel factory, Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa

So here I am, I’ve barely gotten to see the first two [monasteries]. The third one, I finally got to go behind the scenes and take pictures, but not during service. And now it’s our first nuns to visit and they’re like, “Hey, take our picture. We’ve got 50 minutes–will you come? And don’t worry about getting in the way. Just go wherever you want to.”

I wasn’t ready to take pictures. I was tired from driving all day. “Okay,” I said, “let me get my stuff together.” And then on the way to service they said, “Oh, so after service we’ll have dinner for you with Mother Rebecca, who is the Abbess, and the Superior and Sister Kathleen want to have a private dinner with you and the Abbess in their private dining area.”

We’re like, “what?” We’ve never had a meal with a monk. Here we are with the nuns. Not only we’re going to have a meal with them–we’re going to have a special meal, and they want to ask us questions, like what are you doing and why? That was a whole new energy.

It was our first group of nuns, and it’s such a different feeling than for men. They were so engaging, asked so many questions, and they felt very motherly–not just to me but also to Tina. “What can we get you? What can we do to make your stay better? Would you like to borrow our mule? (which was actually a four-wheeler. Tina thought it was an actual mule.)

Etta:   Was she disappointed?

Paul:   Extremely. It’s what she needs to get around on this large, large property. Tina was disappointed, because she had on her jeans and boots, and it was a four-wheeler! She had on her boots and the Mother came driving up in this four-wheeler and she was like, “oh, a mule. I was kind of hoping to see you on a mule.”

Etta:   You said that they’d asked you a lot of questions, and I was thinking they were more questions about your journey and what you’re trying to accomplish. But all the questions that they asked you were more about hospitality, kind of motherly.

Paul:   It started off certainly with, so why is a married couple from Arkansas visiting a silent monastic Catholic order. And so we shared a lot of the background of that, but then it just got into, “So, do you have kids? and what do they do?” And it became just very conversational.

Silence is Spoken Here

Etta:   You mentioned this conversation over dinner, but these monastics are supposed to be silent. Talk a little bit more about the silence in these places and your behavior. How were conversations handled if you weren’t supposed to be talking?

Paul:   The silence really–not ended–but changed drastically with Vatican II. Pre-Vatican II, it was total silence and you had to seek permission from the abbots to speak. Otherwise, it [communication] was written and passed via note or monastic sign language. They created their own sign language.

Etta:   There are always ways around the rules, right?

Paul:   To speak, you had to have something really important—like, “I’m thinking about leaving, or I’m maybe dying.” Other than that, they didn’t speak, uh, except the guest master or whoever interfaced with the clients. And if you think about the history of the Trappists in Europe, so these are monasteries where people would come in and stay for a couple of nights while they were traveling. The Trappists have always welcomed all guests (Benedictines as well welcome all guests) as if they were Christ. And so there was always the one monk who was guest master that could speak with guests to take care of their needs. But Vatican II changed all that.

They don’t have to all line up anymore so strictly. It is up to each community how much, how freely they are to speak. You see the difference between ones where it’s still kind of–you don’t interact with monks much, even in our situation. And then others like Our Lady of the Mississippi, if it’s just the nuns, they still don’t speak freely. But if there’s other people around, they greet guests after service (mass) every day. A couple of the monks or nuns, they’ll stand out usually and greet guests and talk to them at length. The only time they still observe as total silence is at the end of Compline, or the last service of the day, until the end of mass the following day. It’s what they call Grand Silence.

Etta: What time is that mass the next day?

Paul: It depends on the site. Anywhere from 7:30-9 a.m. would be the start time.

Etta:   Half a day of silence, anyway.

Paul:   Half a day in a sense. And like I said, there are many other brothers that don’t have to interact with guests for any reason. And when I’ve walked around the cloisters, I’ve noticed that you don’t hear idle chatter.

The big picture: “What were you looking for?”

Etta:   What you were hoping to find? and did you find it? or maybe something else?

Paul:   The big picture. What were we looking for? The honest answer is I had no idea. I brought this up in my contemplative group on Tuesday. I still didn’t have an answer at that point. But it made me really think about a lot of things in my life and, and, and what am I looking for in any given situation.

The honest answer was, I don’t know. What I did know was that there was something I was missing, and at the time had no idea what it is.

What this whole journey has led to, I think, was that what I was looking for was roots back near home, with a contemplative men’s group. I come together with a group of men who are willing to be vulnerable and share. I would have had no idea that’s what I was looking for back in whenever. How would I know that that was a need I had until something led me to it? And then it became very overwhelming. Like, I need this. Any Tuesday that I can’t be in that men’s group is hard.

Etta:   That’s so powerful. It reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson, commenting on all these people in the 19th century going to Europe, looking for these great things. And what he wrote was, you come back home, and you face the same realities of life. I’m paraphrasing. He said it much more eloquently, but the realization that those things that people are going somewhere else looking for you, you’re going to find the same things, answers or questions, right here.

Paul:   That’s right. Those travels and those journeys might help you along the way to defining and finding what that is. But ultimately what you need is in here [points to chest], and you’re going to find it more in your daily life. Along with this journey, we were also relocating from Springfield to Arkansas and we didn’t know where for sure in Arkansas at that time. I really think all of those kinds of ideas helped even with finally picking our home because it became more clear that we need to focus on what are we going to be doing every single day.

Etta:   And what you said, which is so mixed, makes so much more sense to me now about going out to do your photography and going out and being in nature. It’s about having your eyes open to see what is there.

Paul:   That’s right.

Etta:   And reminding you how little you are in relationship to everything that’s around you. That’s what I’m hearing you say.

Paul:   Absolutely. And, it’s part of this development and this transformation into a contemplative life. It’s the practice that we learned in centering prayer. It is just one small step into being in a more prayerful–and I call it more aware–state of mind every day. And that leads to things like finding a group of men that share with me. And if I’m not paying attention to those needs I have internally, I’m not going to seek out a group like that.

Etta:   It sounds like in some ways you’ve become, your grandfather. Seriously.

Paul:   Maybe.

Etta:   You are realizing, as you said,  the need that you have for nature surrounding you. And you need community that you regularly meet with. Both of those are keeping you grounded. They’re part of your centering.

Paul:   That’s right. It’s all part of that.

As I said, the start of this journey was my trying to figure out how to get back to who I was. This [journey] has made me rethink all the messages I heard from my granddad I had growing up. What I would hear later on in those same churches, what I remember, was this–love thy neighbor and, help the poor and all those in need. That’s what really resonates in me today.

Etta:   Yeah.

Paul:   And then I lost that along the way because of all the other stuff that was getting thrown in there that didn’t make sense. But when they are all stripped out of the way and we get down to the basics, that’s who I am today. I want to help those who need help.

Etta:   Such a beautiful story.

Paul:   This project helped pull all that we were trying to do together. But this wasn’t the initial idea.

Etta:   Right. But one of the things that I’ve heard you say, which is very resonant, is that you weren’t sure what you were looking for, but you went with a photographer’s eyes. You went with an openness to the process of the journey.

Paul:   That’s right.

Etta:   And just seeing what would happen.

Paul:   Tina and I keep trying to balance that in each other. She’s very goal oriented and focused on planning. I’m a little more, um, well, okay, I’ve got a framework and that’ll get me going. We both are able now to see the benefit of both sides of it. There’s gotta be some very focused and organized planning, but you really have to stay open to, “okay, here’s the plan, but if it starts falling apart, that’s okay.”

Etta:   Yeah. You’ll build a new plan based on another path.

Paul:   That’s right.

Listen to what’s calling you

Etta:   I wonder how other people might be able to do something like this if they weren’t quitting a job, or if they feel like, “I can’t do that. I can’t buy one of those vans.” You’ve sort of addressed that because part of what you’ve come around to is realizing what you can do, where you are right now. Do you want to say anything more about that?

Paul:   Yeah.

I think the start of anything is really starting to listen. Listen to yourself, listen to what’s calling you internally, feelings, things popping up multiple times. Pay attention to those. And then you don’t have to quit your job to start something else.

As you’re learning, you can start dipping your toes in or finding out more about that, and using whatever time you can to learn more about the craft or the hobby or whatever it is. To wait until you have the time might be too late and you’re going to miss out on opportunities. I think it’s feasible for all of us to just pay attention to what’s going on around us and how we feel about those things. And that’ll start leading you into those paths.

And then you can’t be afraid to fail or try. Once something comes up for you, I always say, give it as much attention as you have time for, and you’ll know pretty soon whether it’s going to stick around or not. If it doesn’t, that’s okay. Something else will come up and eventually, you’re going to hit on that thing that says, okay, yeah, I’m ready to spend once a week with my photography. Before I did the photography workshop, it was just a passing fancy that I spent a little time on, but I didn’t dedicate myself to it. And then after that workshop, I realized that I really enjoy this whole process of being out in nature, of setting up my camera and waiting for good light. And maybe it’s not about the photography at all. It’s about the whole process.

Etta:   So what’s next? You guys have another trip planned or another project or projects?

Paul:   One of the things that this project taught us is how much we were ready to be really rooted in a community. After being on the road, which is wonderful, we realized that what we want to do is wake up every day and be useful in a community. Now, almost three years of being in Fayetteville, we finally feel like we’re there.

Etta:   That’s it–being a vital part of a community. And you’re using what you learned from it.

You are totally employing what you learned from visiting those monastic sites where they are grounded, very focused. They have a purpose. They know what they’re going to do every day.

What we need is here

Paul:   That’s right. What we need is here. They still wake up in the same place every day and do the same thing and know that that’s just as important as anything else.

Etta:    That’s beautiful. So many ideas you shared–I didn’t know them from reading the book, looking at the pictures or from hearing you guys talk.

Paul:   Anytime we’re out and talking about the book, it’s more about sharing them [the Trappists] with the world and getting people to think about “how do we listen to ourselves.” The way we learn to do it is to go and be silent.

First Lady Rose Cleveland and Bishop’s Wife Evangeline Whipple: Later Vocations in Italy

Who knew that former US First Lady Rose Cleveland moved to the Tuscan town of Bagni di Lucca, Italy? Or that she lived there with Evangeline Whipple, the widow of an Episcopal Bishop?

Intrigued?

Historians Tilly Laskey and Lizzie Ehrenhalt’s new book, “Precious and Adored,” tells the story through the women’s letters. And the authors provide a contextualizing introduction and notes that assist readers with these sometimes ambiguous communications, which began in 1890 and continued through their departure from the US in 1910. Available now for pre-order through Amazon, “Precious and Adored” also includes historian of sexuality Lillian Faderman’s Foreward to the volume.

Cover of Tilly Laskey and Lizzie Ehrenhalt’s new book, Precious and Adored, available now for preorder through Amazon

Co-authors and historians Lizzie Ehrenhalt (left), of the MInnesota Historical Society, and Tilly Laskey, Outreach Curator, Maine Historical Society

Later Vocations

Here is yet another account of two women of more than a century ago who followed “later vocations”–paths neither one anticipated when younger. These callings urged them to step beyond the typical and predicted.

Granted, their earlier lives were not the norm for white, middle-class nineteenth-century women. Cleveland, a single woman, became First Lady when her unmarried brother, Grover Cleveland, became President. Whipple, whom some might consider a gold digger, had been married twice to older men before being widowed the second time. The two women had met in Florida prior to Evangeline’s second marriage. Then, after Bishop Whipple’s death, they reconnected–making plans through letters for their future in Italy.

Social Activism

Once in Italy Whipple continued her labors as a social activist. (She had labored for Native American rights and education in Minnesota). Cleveland joined her in new efforts in Tuscany. There, the two served people victimized by World War I–especially refugees from northern provinces who arrived in the small town. They provided assistance with food, clothing and education, and they nursed the sick through the 1918 flu epidemic. Cleveland, however, succumbed late that year, just after the war ended. The women were buried side-by-side in the English Cemetery at Bagni di Lucca.

Tilly Laskey at Evangeline Whipple’s grave, Bagni di Lucca, Italy. Cleveland is buried in the adjacent grave.

Bagni di Lucca: A Thermal Magnet

I first learned about these fascinating women’s relationship at a conference, hosted by Bagni di Lucca’s Montaigne Society. Known for its “baths,” or hot springs, located in the hills above Lucca, the town has long been a magnet for Anglo expatriates, such as Percy and Mary Shelley and other travelers, including the French essayist Montaigne.

Laskey in front of villa where Lord Byron once lived, Bagni di Lucca, Italy

The Montaigne Society’s annual conference which first attracted me focused on Anglo-Italian relations. I presented on Nelly Erichsen, an English visual artist and travel writer. That same year Laskey, now curator with the Maine Historical Society, enticed conference goers with her story of Whipple’s life. And Sirpa Salenius, an American literature professor with a long history in Tuscany, engaged us with an account of Cleveland. Salenius, now at the University of Eastern Finland, has since written and published a biography of Cleveland, placing her within the context of literary women and activists.

Erichsen: A Third Wheel?

Active as an illustrator from 1884 through 1914, Erichsen  briefly lived and worked with Cleveland and Whipple in the last years before her death. She, too, died in the 1918 flu epidemic and was buried by them in the English Cemetery. In her last publication–a poignant one–she referred to herself, Cleveland and Whipple as “jetsam of the war too.” In short, she connected the three women’s dislocated status to those of the refugees. Certainly, some today would contest that similarity–especially when considering how Cleveland and Whipple planned their “later vocations.” My presentation on Erichsen as a travel writer became an essay co-authored with Sarah Harkness, who has since published a biography of Erichsen (available from Encanta Publishing).

The essay on Erichsen, along with Laskey’s and Salenius’s conference accounts, all appeared in an issue of Anglistica Pisana on Anglo-Italian relations, published by the University of Pisa. And now Laskey’s and Ehrenhalt’s volume brings another layer of these women’s lives to the public.

Cover of biography of Nelly Erichsen (2018) by Sarah Harkness.

Photo authors Etta Madden Sirpa Salenius American Women Writers Italy conference

Sirpa Salenius (left) and myself in Tuscany, after publishing our initial works on Cleveland and Erichsen

Another view of Whipple’s, Cleveland’s and Erichsen’s graves in the English Cemetery, Bagni di Lucca, Italy

Follow “Later Vocations”

These women’s lives clearly connect to my “later vocations” project, in which I feature interesting paths people have followed after their early years. Sometimes I write about people of the past, but I am equally interested in the present.

My next posts, for example, feature Paul Green and Tina Moore, who recently set their regular routines aside in order to follow their spiritual seeking at 17 Trappist monasteries in the US. What did they find? My interviews with them provide some insights. As you might imagine, they’re not simple answers.

You can subscribe to follow my posts, and of course, I would love for you to leave a comment as well. If you wish a more private communication, send an email to ettammadden@gmail.com.  I only post twice each month, so your email box won’t be swamped. However, if you decide you want to unsubscribe, you can easily let me know by email.

 

 

 

Cultural Crossings in Denver: Union Station, Ume Tsuda & Others

A few photos on Denver’s Union Station in October prompted a friend to ask for more. My initial post focused on the warm and inviting lights on a cold night, when the winds blasting by the tracks outside drove me inside. I was waiting for a train to the airport after an academic conference in a posh downtown hotel. The station’s public space, I noted, provides shelter for weary travelers and for the homeless. A number of us from different walks of life that night enjoyed the beauty and festive décor. Some were feasting at eateries, some were munching on snacks pulled out of plastic bags, and others were asking for cash.

An image of Union Station Denver Colorado

Regina Yoong’s photo of Union Station, Denver

I couldn’t help but think about Union Station as a public space with a long tradition of various types of people crossing paths. Since I write and teach about people of the past, I tend to roam about in historic sites reflecting on their connection to the present. For more than a century this beautiful structure has seen people come and go. Like many other American rail stations, in the mid-to-late 20th century it faced decline but has been beautifully renovated. Here, between travels east or west, the economically privileged meet the impoverished.

Only after posting my photos did I learn that another conference attendee had written similar comments. Regina Yoong won the conference’s photo contest, stating that our conference was a “Union Station” in that it provided “an important intersection of sorts.” What struck me—in addition to the “great minds think alike” cliché—was that the station’s history captured for both of us something that we had experienced at the conference.

We had both sensed the same invigorating crossing of cultures. She had come from Malaysia but by way of Ohio. I had traveled from Missouri but to talk about Italy.

We had both sensed the same invigorating crossing of cultures. She had come from Malaysia but by way of Ohio. I had traveled from Missouri but to talk about Italy. We met during a workshop on the US Fulbright exchange program, where I spoke of my experiences as a Fulbright recipient almost a decade ago. She spoke of her more recent experiences, as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at Ohio University. Staying beyond her time as a teacher of Malay, she is now studying 19th-century American literature, with an emphasis on women writers. As a doctoral student, she was covering the conference as a reporter for the academic journal ESQ.  And she writes for both Cosmologics Magazine and Parlour: A Journal of Literary Criticism and Analysis. (You can see Regina’s fascinating bio here.)

Portrait postcard courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum and the Margaret Fuller Society

A second time at the conference Regina and I crossed paths—her coverage for the journal brought her to a session sponsored by the Margaret Fuller Society. Fuller’s story—especially her global travels and international impact—is a well-known one among scholars of American literature and women’s writing. A nineteenth-century New England author and intellectual, Fuller worked closely with Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and later, in New York, with Horace Greeley and his liberal-leaning newspaper, the Tribune. She is known as the first US female “foreign correspondent” for her reporting on the European revolutions of 1848. Sadly, upon her return to the US in 1850, Fuller’s ship went down just off shore from New York, where she, her young son, and the son’s father, Giovanni d’Ossoli, all drowned.

But more importantly to Denver as a site of cultural-crossing, Fuller’s story influenced Professor Yoshiko Ito’s presentation.  Ito, a professor at Taisho University in Japan, shared another fascinating story of global influences and cross-cultural exchange. Her subject: Ume Tsuda, who visited Denver in 1898 as a Japanese representative at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs convention.

Image of Professor Yoshiko Ito

Professor Yoshiko Ito

Janice P. Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai includes Ume Tsuda’s story

Tsuda was among the first five Japanese girls sent abroad to be educated. Only 6 when she left home and 7 when she arrived, Tsuda’s education, of course, was much more than academic—it was acculturation. The story of her acculturation, for better and for worse, is addressed in several biographies. The most recent, by Janice P. Nimura, contextualizes Tsuda’s transcontinental and global journeys. Highlights include the young woman’s resistance to marriage and to allowing her American adoptive “father,” Charles Lanman, a well-published author, to use her papers to write her biography. Tsuda also studied biology and women’s education at Bryn Mawr, the institution which served as a model for the school she established in Japan. All the biographies in English, and Ito’s presentation in Denver, point to Tsuda’s important role in fighting for female education in Japan.

Tsuda biographer Barbara Rose explains that the Japanese women said little surprising in Denver. Her talk remained in “the comparative safety of platitudes,” as Tsuda took on “the role of a wide-eyed visitor from a remote and archaic country.” Yet, as Ito explained to us, what was most important to her as a contemporary scholar and professor was the cross-cultural exchange that occurred. She continued that tradition by traveling to speak to an audience in Denver in 2018.

Ito noted that Tsuda’s work in 1901, reported in the June 4 New-YorkTribune, appeared on the same page as an announcement related to Margaret Fuller.  Fifty years after Fuller’s death, the Point o’ Woods Improvement Society had selected a memorial site for a tribute honoring her, not far from where she drowned.

Fuller and Tsuda in New York Tribune 1901

Although it is somewhat accidental that the two accounts appeared in almost adjacent columns that day (they were both on the Only Women’s Page), their connection highlights a point Ito made: people’s influences upon each other are not always seen, nor are they always known. Making those influences more overt benefits us all.

“people’s influences upon each other are not always seen, nor are they always known. Making those influences more overt benefits us all.”

As a case in point, Ito discussed her own reading and teaching of Fuller’s famous lengthy essay, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). While Fuller advocated for female education (among other topics), she also wrote in that essay that there was “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” This easy-to-read and politically sexy phrase is equally easy to quote. Nonetheless, Ito noted how difficult Fuller is for her students—and for herself—to read. (Those of us who teach Fuller regularly to native English speakers certainly understand. Her writings are challenging enough for our students!) Finally Ito confessed, with a few tears, how glad she is to have translated Fuller’s work into Japanese, for through translation she more fully grasps the powerful truths Fuller expressed 150 years ago.

Yoshiko Ito & Japanese translation of Fuller’s work

Caroline Crane Marsh, 1866 from University of Vermont Library, Special Collections

Ito’s point was exactly my own, as I followed her as a conference presenter. My account focused on another woman’s translating work. Caroline Crane Marsh—one of three women at the center of my book project, “Engaging Italy”—also followed in Fuller’s footsteps. Believing in female education, she began instructing younger girls at age 12, when her teacher quickly snagged her as an assistant. Later, she would teach in schools in Vermont and New York.

And, like Fuller and Ito, she believed in the power of translation. Even before she crossed the Atlantic a second time, she had translated two volumes of fiction and poetry from German, learned to read French and Latin, and had begun to study Turkish. Later, she would study and speak Italian—assisting her with responsibilities as wife of the first US Minister Plentipotentiary to the new Kingdom of Italy, from 1861 through 1881.

As I shared in my message in Denver, Marsh, like Fuller believed in the importance of continually seeking new truths. They, like Ume Tsuda and the attendees at the Denver conference, often did so by studying the past and other cultures, considering what both had to offer in the present.

I began this blog by explaining how the warmth and lights of Denver’s Union Station prompted me to consider the numerous paths crossing in that space. I seem to have meandered from Denver to Malaysia and Italy, and then to Japan, New England and Italy again, with Denver as a point of convergence. So, too, many of my posts here will ask you to travel across space and time as they give you glimpses of others who have taken interesting journeys. Perhaps they will provoke you to think about your own steps in a new way.

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Silence is Spoken Here: Spiritual Journeys & Later Vocations

Last week I talked with friends Paul Green and Tina Moore about their experiences traveling to 17 Trappist Monasteries scattered across the US. Through this journey that zigzagged from Massachusetts to California, they not only witnessed some life habits different from their own—they also participated in contemplative techniques that enhanced their spiritual practices.

I had already heard a bit from Paul and Tina about their motivations for the trip. And I had seen Paul’s stunning photos as he posted them online (Paul and Tina both are easy to follow on Facebook and Instagram). Even more, I had savored tidbits of their journey through the pages of Silence is Spoken Here, the book documenting the trip.

Primarily photos rather than text in this book tell the story of Paul and Tina’s stops in Utah, South Carolina, Iowa and elsewhere. They share the story of Father Joseph Boyle’s influences at St. Benedict’s in Snowmass, Colorado, and Father Thomas Keating’s at St. Joseph’s in Spencer, Massachusetts. But last weekend Paul and Tina shared with a group of us in Springfield some of the contemplative practices they have adopted since that life-changing trip.

Later Vocations

“This was not just a trip, or even an adventure . . . it was a calling.”

Paul and Tina’s journey interests me for many reasons. But a primary one is that they chose this journey in 2015 as part of what I call “later vocations.” Neither imagined they would set out this direction when they were younger. As they express in the book, “This was not just a trip, or even an adventure . . . it was a calling.” They have agreed to talk with me further about their call to follow this path, and I plan to share some of that interview here after the first of the year.

Their decision-making steps may not move you to visit Trappist monasteries, but they may inspire you in other ways. Paul’s and Tina’s insights to what first sparked the idea, what hurdles they crossed in planning, and how their past failures and successes prompted them—these comments just might influence you as you reflect on your own journey.

Learn more about Paul’s book here. Follow his blog or see his photos and videos through his website Interbeing Images.

Anne Hampton Brewster: Nineteenth-Century News from Rome

Think of Anne Hampton Brewster as a precursor to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli. American, female, news correspondent in Rome,  writing stories followed by many in the US.  The similarities stop there. Brewster, a Philadelphian, left for Italy 150 years ago. She began her news correspondence later in life,  in 1868, when she was  well-beyond age 40.  Looking forward to this new chapter in her career,  she had no idea she would send back to America more than 500 “letters,” appearing in papers from North to South, Atlantic to Pacific. Her “later vocation” prompted me to explore her life–one part of my current book project.

Regular readers of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and Boston Daily Advertiser knew Brewster’s name and looked forward to her news from Rome. Other writing agreements flooded in, so that her accounts appeared in the New York World, the Chicago Daily News,  the Cincinnati Commerical and numerous other papers. Why, then, is Brewster’s name now unknown?
Anne Hampton Brewster and Rodolfo Lanciani essay published in Questioni di Genere

My essay in Questioni di Genere  (Questions of Gender), provides an answer. It describes Brewster’s sometimes crafty choices and, at other times, self-destructive decisions. These allowed her to make connections with men in Rome like Rodolfo Lanciani, a “social climber” himself. Lanciani became a civic leader, an expert on excavations, and a professor at the prestigious La Sapienza, Rome’s premier university.  He lectured at prominent venues throughout the US, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins. While Brewster’s relationship with Lanciani was, at first, one that might be deemed “mutually beneficial,” it went awry. He achieved fame.  She fell to obscurity. He married another US citizen. She remained the single “Miss Brewster.”

He achieved fame.  She fell to obscurity. He married another US citizen. She remained the single “Miss Brewster.”

I explore just how and why the relationship went wrong, as the essay traces Brewster’s time in Rome, at the Tuscan resort town Bagni di Lucca in 1873, and afterward.  Brewster was never a sleeping beauty, as the cover image of Questioni di Genere may suggest. In fact, Frederic Leighton’s dramatic oil painting Flaming June  appeared after Brewster’s death in Siena in 1892. At that point she was more than 70. Even twenty years earlier, when Brewster posed for another type of portrait, she was far from a blazing beauty.

Elegant or Assertive–How Should a Woman Writer  Be?

Anne Hampton Brewster Carte de Visite Fratelli d'Allessandri Rome ca. 1874

Anne Hampton Brewster, ca. 1874.  Carte de Visite by Fratelli d’Allessandri.  From the Library Company of Philadelphia.

This Carte de Visite photo, taken by the successful Fratelli d’Allessandri at the prime of Brewster’s Roman years, demonstrates her self-assurance and the elegance she wished to present. Known for wearing black velvet and diamonds when she hosted her regular evening receptions, the unmarried “Miss Annie” wanted to be a proper woman-of-leisure as well as a professional writer. The two desires did not mix well.

Anne Hampton Brewster’s  Anglo-American Circles in Italy

Brewster’s active life in social and professional circles–including Italians and Americans, men and women–reveal much of the life of a nineteenth-century career woman abroad.  Her story is a poignant one among many about Anglos in Italy that recently have engaged readers and writers of women’s history: Margaret Fuller, Jessie White Mario, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Harriet Hosmer, Louisa May Alcott . . . the list goes on.

 Margaret Fuller, Jessie White Mario, Constance Fenimore Woolson, Harriet Hosmer, Louisa May Alcott . . . the list goes on.

Yet in spite of the similarities among these brave women of “genius,” as Anne Boyd Rioux, Kate  Culkin,  and Renee L. Bergland  aptly dub them, each one experienced professional life abroad differently. They brought with them diverse desires and haunting pasts, sexual preferences and religious stances.

Brewster, for example, had converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult in Philadelphia. She was wooed by both men and women in the US and abroad. But she died as a single woman in Siena, Tuscany, in 1892. Her story is worth remembering for what she offers all of us about journeys that take people around unexpected turns and across wide waters.

I hope you will follow as I share more about Anne Hampton Brewster and other women whose “later vocations” merit our attention. Her life motivated me to my current book project. In the process of learning about her, I have discovered many others. Some went to Italy. Others stayed in the US or traveled here from abroad.  I would love to receive feedback from you about how these women’s lives may inspire you–by triggering your memories or motivating you to move ahead.

Let There Be Light: Leaning in to Change

We finally have a “new” antique light in our dining room. After 18-plus years of wanting to gaze upon something other than a 1970s Victorian reproduction chandelier, we have made a change. Some of my friends who are architectural historians and preservationists may not like that this ornate pendant is Spanish Revival style and our home is not. But I love the light and the warm glow it casts in a space I already enjoyed as a gathering place for guests and family. It speaks to the value of leaning in to change.

 

This “new” old fixture was a long time coming, and not without some challenges:

  • Where to find the best style for a 1920s home?
  • Whether to go with a reproduction or an antique?
  • How much to spend?
  • If an antique, whether to restore or buy already restored?
  • And, once I found the Spanish Revival style light–whether to follow my gut and go with it?

These are only a few of the questions which for me became roadblocks in taking a step. (I am sometimes slow to make decisions.) Each supposedly simple question seemed to stub my toe in the midst of an already complicated path of daily life, with work, family responsibilities, and social events.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rumbles through my family . . .

And, quite frankly, we already had a dining room light that worked just fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” rumbles through my family background and my husband’s, and he’s my number one carpenter, engineer, and electrician. In short, he’s the light installer.

But I’m the major decision maker for choices related to our home, so I am the one who let this project take 18 years. I bear full responsibility for delaying the change. When I saw the results–you can easily imagine what I asked–why so long???!!!??

In fact, this whole light buying and installation process resonates for me with questions I have asked for years. Some people seem to make choices easily and move right ahead, diving in to the proverbial cold water without a thought of potential hypothermia, or stomach cramps, or not being able to swim well enough, or any one of the number of things that cause others to stand on the edge. Some of us hesitantly dangle a toe in the water.

Chaos and Confusion–A Temporary Matter

But even once the change begins, its not always easy to continue without second-guessing and self-doubts. Being in the midst of change is not always easy. The light installation was not without some moments of chaos and confusion.

I think of the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her.” The woman of the lyrics leaves her marriage and position as housewife, where for “15 years she had a job, and not one raise in pay,” where “she does the carpool, she PTAs” (yes, the lyrics use PTA as a verb). She does not drive herself into a fantastic fantasy position but finds herself “in the typing pool at minimum wage.”

“for 15 years she had a job, and not one raise in pay” – Mary Chapin Carpenter

The song, however, is not a depressed song of mourning. It celebrates the choice of change. It sings of the woman’s agency, making a decision to move from one 13-year tradition to begin a new one.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lyrics don’t lie about change being easy. It’s not without its challenges. But this woman, like many before her, stepped out of what had once been a comfortable path. When it became one of crippling discomfort, but before it killed her, she took action.

True, leaving a marriage of many years it not the same as changing a light fixture. But the point is, what pushes people to step out? What happens when they do? And what about people who are in life-relationships that seem to limit their abilities to change? How do they respond to opportunities beyond redecorating or traveling?

Many people—not just now but also before our time—provide examples that answer those questions. My reading and writing through the years has explored many of them, especially those who have left behind letters, journals and autobiographies that trace their paths. I will be sharing parts of some of their stories here.

A 19th-Century Case: Caroline Crane Marsh

Caroline Crane Marsh

Caroline Crane Marsh, ca 1866, courtesy of University of Vermont Billings Library, Special Collections, George Perkins Marsh Collection

Most recently, I have been writing about Caroline Crane Marsh, the wife of a US ambassador who lived in Italy for more than twenty years. She, along with Anne Hampton Brewster, who left Philadelphia to become a newspaper correspondent in Rome, and Emily Bliss Gould, a New Yorker who established an industrial school and orphanage in Rome, are three women at the center of my book project on Italy and what I call their “later vocations.”

Last week I traveled to Denver, where I talked about Marsh, comparing her to two more radical and better-known women: Margaret Fuller and Germaine de Staël. I refer to Caroline Marsh as a “semi-feminist.” She did not push overtly for women’s roles to change, and she didn’t break the bounds of accepted behaviors in the realms of romance and sexuality, as Fuller and Staël did. As a woman married to a rather mountainous man and public figure, Caroline lived somewhat carefully in her husband George’s shadow.

But at least two loves link the three women—the Italian people and language study. They loved language study for how it opened up their worlds. As Staël wrote in On Germany, language study broadens knowledge beyond a person’s “own nation—a circle that is narrow” and “exclusive.” Focusing on children, in particular, she wrote, “the child who translates gradually perceives everything” about human communications. This perception through language study leads to “independence of thought.”

Title page from one of Caroline Marsh’s translated volumes

When you think about it, this quote is about change–change brought about by language study. Caroline Marsh translated books from German and studied Turkish when she lived in Constantinople, where her husband also was an ambassador. Later, in Italy, she would communicate in the local language as well as study French with her nieces. My longer writing on Caroline looks closely at how language study and juggling new responsibilities transformed her. She constantly faced changes brought about by her husband’s career rather than her own ideas. She continually had new homes–and new dining room lights–forced upon her!

Learn more about Caroline and other women negotiating change by following my Facebook author page, where I’ll be posting blogs about twice a month. Or, send me a message here to let me know you’d like to follow the blog. I’d also love to know your thoughts—about my posts, or about your own challenges with change. What advice or stories do you have about leaning in to change? What happened with these women in the past only gains value as we connect it to our lives today.

More than a Haunted Cemetery: Public Humanities Past & Present

Mausoleum Row, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

Mausoleum Row, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

A tour at Mount Mora Cemetery in St. Joseph last week gave me much more than a Halloween scare.  It connected me “with the people, places and ideas that shape our society.” This phrase from the Missouri Humanities Council, one of the tour sponsors, markets its mission as “to enrich lives and strengthen communities,” as well as to connect people with ideas. Like events I experienced many years ago in New Hampshire, this one confirmed my belief that while our world continually changes, the value of public scholarship does not.

My eyes might have glazed over as I read the Missouri Humanities mission statement–had it not awakened memories. This phrase about “people” and “ideas,” on the table at my first board meeting of the Missouri organization, resonated with one I heard thirty years ago. Then, I was working with the New Hampshire Humanities Council. “Connecting People with Ideas” was our new brand. We called them slogans then, but the idea was the same. The phrase rang out our dedication to bringing public programming to people in the Granite State.

Humanities Past

Missouri Humanities was one of the sponsors of Voices of the Past at Mount Mora Cemetery

Now New Hampshire Humanities, the organization had supported a young Ken Burns, with his film on the Shakers, Hands to Work, Hearts to God. We had recognized Donald Hall when he was poet laureate for the state, long before he was honored with that role for the country.  And we celebrated the bicentennial of the ratification of the US constitution, with speakers such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, before she won a Pulitzer in history for The Midwife’s Tale. What I witnessed then was how the organization fostered the intellectual and creative productivity of people such as Burns, Hall and Ulrich. They were concerned not with themselves and their own fame but with ideas–ideas they believed would touch lives of local people. And they were correct.

Gatherings with each of these articulate, wise authors touched the broader public and still resonate for me. They remind me of the value of humanities scholarship made public–for how it enriches the lives of those who hear or see it. Last week, I had a similar experience in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Haunting Figures

In the evening air of Mount Mora Cemetery, rather than in a lecture hall, local actors and actresses gave voice to the early settlement town’s prominent figures.

Standing on Mausoleum Row, surrounded by a community of interested others, we felt history come to life.

Angelique Robidoux portrayed by Elaine Justus

Angelique Robidoux portrayed by Elaine Justus, Mount Mora Cemetery, St. Joseph, Missouri

We heard of the town’s European settlement by a French fur trader Joseph Robidoux of St. Louis, hired by the American Fur Company to establish a post in the Blacksnake Hills. We learned of Robidoux’s interactions with the indigenous Osage and Creek peoples and his later “negotiations” with the Ioway, Sac and Fox tribes. From Robidoux’s third wife, Angelique, we learned that his second was an indigenous woman and that their daughter, Mary, married Ioway chief Francis White Cloud.

Jeffrey Deroine, Robidoux’s former slave, explained that although he was fluent in several languages and served as an interpreter with the natives, he died illiterate.

Gary Wilkinson portrays Jeffrey Deroine, Mount Mora Cemetery

Jeffrey Deroine, enacted by Gary Wilkinson

This status remained even after his friends bought his freedom from his abusive owner and he worked for the US government.

Robidoux’s work for the US government platting of the area brought some people rushing west in response. But others migrated more slowly. Among these were the Scotch-Irish Kempers from Kentucky. We learned from Simeon Kemper that he and his wife lost not only a 35-room house due to the Civil War but also three sons in the brutal conflict–two fought as Union soldiers and one as a Confederate. Kemper’s message was haunting indeed, in today’s divided nation.

Scott Killgore portrays Simeon Kemper

Simeon Kemper, enacted by Scott Killgore

Some might have expected the Mount Mora tour to be haunting in other ways, but the emotional shivers sent through the cemetery’s air came from how real these horrors of the past continue to be. The local actors were neither Pulitzer-prize winning authors nor famous filmmakers. But  like Ulrich,  Hall and Burns, they care about how the past informs our present. And they know how such stories can direct our future. What might we learn from these stories of indigenous and European interactions? from the injustices of slavery that continue as social injustices today? Of families divided over political and economic differences that erupt in warfare?

While witnessing these figures bring the past to life, I made another note of what moved me. None of the actors was young. Nor were those of us in the supportive crowd.  The roar from the nearby football stadium and its Friday night lights signaled loudly enough where some of the younger set was. Some say history and education are wasted on the young. As a mother of two sons who love history and an educator, I won’t go that far.

Later Vocations

But I will add that many of us, as we garner experiences with our gray hairs, become  interested in the lives of those who have gone before. We reach out to read about our ancestors. We want to learn about our origins. We get our 23andMe results. But we also want to know about people who took different paths. We want to know of the Robidouxs and the Kempers and the Deroines and the White Clouds. What drove them? What kept them going?  And, when they found what they loved–a place, a person, a creative passion–how did it feed their daily lives? How did it foster their “next steps”?

“many of us, as we garner experiences with our gray hairs, become  interested in the lives of those who have gone before . . .”

In the coming months I will be writing here about my research in the lives of nineteenth-century Americans whose journeys took them on different paths. I’m zooming in on a newspaper correspondent, Anne Hampton Brewster; an ambassador’s wife, Caroline Crane Marsh; and an activist Emily Bliss Gould, who established an orphanage and industrial school in Rome. The three followed what I refer to as “later vocations”–callings that in their earlier years they likely never imagined. Yes, all three were women, but their lives were not without men. Nor were the women’s decisions made without men’s influences–that’s an important part of their stories!

Some of you have heard me talk rather obsessively about these women. If you have not, you may be intrigued by how these women have haunted me as I have uncovered their paths. They speak to us–as do those souls in St. Joseph’s Mount Mora cemetery–as we reflect on where we are now, how we got here, and where we might go. May the ideas I share resonate with you on your journey, as you come to better understand the people and places that shape our society.

Candace Millard and the Library Company

Candace Millard & the Library Company

Invitation to Library Company of Philadelphia annual lecture with Candace Millard

Candace Millard speaks at this year’s Library Company of Philadelphia lecture

Missouri author Candace Millard speaks at this year’s annual dinner of one of my favorite places to conduct research, the Library Company of Philadelphia. Millard’s book on Garfield’s murder, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness Medicine and the Murder of a President  was my selection for the Thorpe Menn Award in 2012. Here’s a bit I wrote about it in my stint as judge for the American Association of University Women-Kansas City’s annual contest that year:

 

“Reading Millard’s book, I placed myself in the seat of an adult drawn to historical fiction and murder mysteries. Since I knew next to nothing about the topic, and I don’t usually read histories, historical fiction, or murder mysteries, I assumed the volume would be a challenge and was happy to see it included pictures and informative captions and source citations. Soon, however, I was swept up in the heroic and romantic rags-to-riches early life of James Garfield and his wife. I was intrigued by the background of Garfield’s deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau—fascinated to learn of his brief membership in the “free love” Perfectionist Oneida community, his numerous schemes to make and borrow money in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, and his sense of personal destiny as murderer of the President.

I was intrigued by the background of Garfield’s deranged assassin, Charles Guiteau—fascinated to learn of his brief membership in the “free love” Perfectionist Oneida community, his numerous schemes to make and borrow money in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere, and his sense of personal destiny as murderer of the President.

Guiteau’s personality, along with details of the political conventions in Chicago, Chester Arthur’s position as Vice President, and scientist Alexander Graham Bell’s role in Garfield’ s medical treatment all intertwine to remind us that a shooting is never simply a shooting, nor is a death merely a death. Multiple factors and causes contribute to the complex social fabric in which each of us lives. It is the best historians and story tellers who provide us with glimpses of how and why events unfold as they do—enriching our understanding of humanity in the process.

This year’s finalists have several similarities . . . each is a work situated within a solid historical context; each is a history, and each was written by a woman. In addition to this similarity of genre—a genre usually associated with male writers—there is the odd similarity of subjects. Each of these three histories is notably not focused on women, nor does it zoom in on domestic life. Rather, all encompass issues of concern to culture that extends beyond gender. Each, as a social history, nonetheless reflects the female authors’ collective concern with issues touching the larger society—not merely those limited to or by gender. All three women writers are to be commended for their desires to touch and change the larger culture through their use of language and narrative. Each of the three finalists selected illustrates the gifts of literary women of Missouri.

This year, however, I select Candace Millard’s Destiny of the Republic as the Thorpe Menn award winner—for the overall strength of research, creativity and clarity of narrative voice and presentation.”

Looking Back

Looking back at what I wrote six years ago, I see that then I didn’t consider myself a reader of history a much as fiction. Now, I would write otherwise. As a reader and writer of “serious non-fiction,” I hope I will be asked to review and comment on many other works like Millard’s.

Also of note regarding Millard as an author: as a friend of the Provost at William Jewell College, Millard spoke this year at the annual dinner for my son’s Oxbridge program. Of course, he was surprised when I said I knew something of her work. Our conversation a few weeks ago sent me back to Destiny of the Republic and my thoughts of what it means to be a Missouri woman writer of serious non-fiction. It is inspiring to be surrounded by such award-winners.

Alternative Spiritual Formation in the Italian Piedmont & Tuscany

Soon after I announced this summer 2018 spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up.  (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we were eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.

Sunset Arno River Florence Italy

Sunset over the Arno in Florence, Italy

With Roman Catholicism as a backdrop,  “off-the-beaten-track” sites populated the foreground. Santa Caterina del Sasso, Damanhur, and Torre Pellice were our starting points in the north.  What are these spots? A lakeside hermitage, an earth-centered ecovillage, and home of the Waldensian church, respectively.

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

 

Then we headed to the Ligurian coast and Tuscany for familiar stops in Pisa and Lucca.

Ligurian Coast near Rapallo

Then the English community of Bagni di Lucca (a hot springs resort that became a WWI refuge), and Nomadelfia, a Roman Catholic commune (that began as an orphanage), will remind us of many ways of putting faith into practice.

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Finally, a few days in Florence  & Fiesole provided glimpses of Roman and Etruscan ruins, reformer Savonarola’s cell, and the historic Jewish community. Such alternatives have existed for centuries on a peninsula primarily known in the US for the influence of St. Peter’s.

If you missed this opportunity, keep a trip in mind for the future. What will be next year’s itinerary?  Think about it . . . . And then let me know. It only takes an idea–and a handful of interested travelers.

 

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers & The Good Life

Mark Sundeen Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life

Mark Sundeen’s book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017.  Here are some highlights from my  review of it, which appeared in Communal Societies a few months ago. Perhaps these lines  will intrigue you, if you’re looking for a few more titles for your winter reading list.

In this piece of “immersive journalism,” Sundeen explores three contemporary couples  whose searches for “the good life” took them down paths to lifestyles different from those of most Americans. His intensive interview time with the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in urban Detroit and Lifeline Farms in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, contribute to a story that is both personal and engaging.

The Unsettlers Tradition

With echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s apology for his two years at Walden Pond, Sundeen explains his motivation:

“I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit. . . . What I wanted to learn was how to lead a good life.”

Sundeen’s past experiences–before journalistic authorship–also pushed him toward this topic. With years of outdoor work experience, plus lots of travel, he, too, had been often in search of something other than a career “tethered to a screen”  and enslaved by capitalism.

With this personal background revealed. Sundeen places himself, his humor, and his occasional skepticism into the immersive experiences. These occur primarily in the three featured sites of the diverse American landscape. But other locales, such as Brooklyn and rural France, emerge as well.  And he sinks the stories of Sarah, Ethan, Olivia, Greg, Luci and Steve into the larger context of America’s many utopian and communal experiments. Their personal histories with alternative agricultural practices, in particular, come to life within this larger context. Sundeen discusses movements as diverse as the celibate, religious Shakers of the nineteenth-century and Stephen Gaskin’s the Farm, a latter-twentieth century enclave that continues today as an educational site.

This larger context of communal, utopian practices is what drew me to his book, of course. (It also explains why my review appeared in the latest issue of the Communal Studies Association journal.) Sundeen’s interviews should interest others, however. Those skeptical about or interested in urban agricultural practices should be enlightened by Brother Nature Produce and its history in Detroit.  They should find fascinating the longstanding but changing organic practices in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. And the Possibility Alliance in northeastern Missouri draws interest because of its attempts to live off the grid.

Past Heroes, Present Purposes

Sundeen and his subjects have certain heroes whose names continually resurface. Chief among them: Wendell Berry (his The Unsettling of America influenced this book’s title) and Mahatma Ghandi. Their beliefs capture a spirituality, self-discipline, and social activism that Sundeen believes many liberals don’t quite understand.

Many liberals talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, they’d rather drive.

By contrast, his subjects make sacrifices in order to share their visions of how the world might become a better place.

Stylistically, The Unsettlers reverberates with the tone of J. C. Hallman’s In Utopia (St. Martin’s). Also like Hallman’s book, Sundeen’s study provides a broad historical context for this topic of living intentionally.  It, too, is worth a read.

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