Food Memories: Utopian Visions?

I missed June’s blog. I’m making up for it by referring here to a short blog that appeared elsewhere last month. I wrote “Koulourakia Cravings” for a website called  Historians Cooking the Past.  I, like most other contributors, wrote of a strong food memory. It simmers up at certain seasons. When the light, the weather, the smells–all the senses–send me back to another place and time. And then, I reconnect to that past place by recreating that food with my own hands. In this case, it was the Greek sweetbread, koulourakia, that I wrote about, after baking a batch this spring.

Since first writing about utopian foodways before Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias appeared, I’ve thought and taught about them often. But what I’ve not asked anyone is this:  how are food memories utopian? And how is nostalgia connected to utopianism?

Generally, utopia, or the perfect place that is no place, is in an imaginary elsewhere in time and space. Often, visions of utopia are futuristic. Utopians seek to make the world a better place. They are forward-looking rather than past-gazing, right?

Actually, no. It’s past experiences–memories of them–and the current conditions–often dystopian–that motivate dreamers to visualize utopia.

What was it that I was trying to recreate when I made koulourakia last spring? What was it that I was craving that went beyond butter and sugar?

As the blog explains, I associate those sweet treats with time abroad in Greece, younger days of marriage and motherhood in New Hampshire, and even my early career in Missouri. Certainly those days were not all utopian bliss. I was not living in a utopian world. But the conditions of the current moment–amidst the Covid pandemic, sheltering in place, and teaching online–pushed me to recreate cookies that I associated with moments of sheer pleasure. Consuming cookies, shared with friends, neighbors and family, speak to me of a perfect place. Nostalgia is more than longing for the past. In the best cases, and in the healthiest conditions, it can be a stepping stone for moving forward in community. In the worst, nostalgia can be holding on to something unhealthy that should only be remembered for what it can teach us about how we may move forward differently.

Cancelled!

As Italy crawls back to life, many of us mourn the loss of trips planned and cancelled. This week-after-semester’s-end at the university often finds me in flight across the Atlantic. For most of the last decade, returning to the peninsula I fell in love with during a study abroad semester has been an end-of-term ritual. Often those trips to Italy are with others–sometimes university students, sometimes life-long learners like me. This year was to be no different.

Image from a plane of Italian coast north of Rome

Nearing Rome in 2019

But the change of plans became official a couple of weeks ago. When the airlines sent the flight cancellation notice, I wiped off my calendar a group trip scheduled for late June. Our small group had anticipated the change, discussing it even in early March. Nonetheless, the message still delivered a sting of reality.

The trip would have been my fourth with a group of curious adults willing to follow my lead. Our goals?

  • Personal pilgrimages to lesser-known sites, but with a small group flair
  • Fun with a few others willing to explore “off the beaten path”
  • A schedule with time and room to explore individually
  • Daily reflections on the unexpected and serendipitous.

Rome would have been a starting point. The Colosseum and St. Peter’s were to be mere touchstones, as these spots famous for early Christian martyrdom create the context for thinking about the ways in which religious life and cultures change over time.

Connecting Spiritual Sites to Personal Journeys

Considering our own paths, our journeys would intertwine with what we would witness.  Passersby in the popular Piazza Barberini, for example, often miss the bones encasing the crypt of the Cappucin church in Via Veneto. Nathaniel Hawthorne twisted these into an evil scene in the Marble Faun. Yet we  would consider how they reflect a reverence for life and for death, admonishing us to think about our places in this Great Circle.

Another stop, Santa Pudenziana, originally a Roman bath house, is now a thriving Filipino congregation. Visit on a Sunday to experience a lively mass that exhibits ever-changing church life, but another morning allows a close up view of the apse mosaics. These date from the fourth century, demonstrating visions of Jesus and his disciples as Roman rulers–not uncommon imagery in these early Christian worship sites. Nearby, for example, the church of Santa Pressede offers similar mosaics and cool silence among central Rome’s heat.

Image of early mosaics in church of Santa Pressede in Rome

Mosaic in Santa Pressede, early Christian church in Rome

Image of mosaics in dome of chapel in Santa Pressede, Rome

Dome mosaics in chapel of Santa Pressede, Rome

Other early imagery decorates the mausoleum of Santa Costanza, outside the city’s walls. Our group would travel east on the Via Nomentana to experience the explosive floral and organic imagery inside this burial site of Constantine’s daughter. An effusion of flowers and abundant grapes combine to create an almost Bacchanalian aura. They evoke celebrations a far cry from Victorian pearly gates, golden streets, and singing seraphim and cherubim. On the same campus, the body of Saint Agnes lies entombed, at the entrance to the underground catacombs that provide insights to other ancient burial practices.

These three ancient sites are not secret–certainly others visit them–but they are far from the madding crowds of central Rome, thronging the piazzas and streets winding from the Colosseum and the Campidoglio through the Campo dei Fiori, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona. We would visit these–Saint Agnes’s head is in the church bearing her name in the Piazza Navona–along with other “not secret sites” in the city. All ask the thoughtful to reflect on their own journeys within this larger context.

From Rome to Umbria and Arezzo

Umbrian verdure from heights of La Verna

Our group after a few days would have escaped the urban hubub to the cool heights of La Verna. Perched aside a hilltop northeast of Arezzo, the village of La Verna sits sleepily. I learned of it while reading On Journey, the autobiography of social activist Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), who visited regularly as she wrote a history of Saint Francis and his early followers. Further above the village, at the end of a drive that veers off a windy mountain road, the Franciscan Sanctuary that arose in the saint’s honor lies almost hidden in a thick forest. Arriving at the monastic sanctuary and guest house, I sense I’m following not only Francis’s footsteps but also Scudder’s.

Buffered by the dense foliage, the monastery and its inviting guest spaces inspire rather than intimidate. Of immediate note, the birds’ mesmerizing songs send spirits soaring. They speak the language of Francis’s life, known for a connection to animals. And they remind visitors of nature’s bounty, a far cry from the sounds of urban traffic. Rome’s sounds and diesel smells are also dissipated, as forest paths underfoot release their damp, earthy pungency. The paths, part of the larger system of The Way of St. Francis, lead to the nearby spot where the saint is said to have received his stigmata. Here our group would spend part of two days in times of silence, walking the trails and mediation. (Thanks to friend and former traveler Deborah Cox for giving me permission to share these four photos she took a few summers ago.)

Along one of the paths at the Franciscan Sanctuary above La Verna

Franciscan Sanctuary La Verna

 

Other Sites of the Saints

Other sites associated with Francis would dot our travel. Lodging two nights in another monastic site in Assisi would allow us to begin and end our days with views that stimulate and stir the senses. Later, an easy morning’s drive would take us to Siena. Although both Siena and Assisi are thick with tourists, we would add some lesser seen sites to our days–like the home of Anne Hampton Brewster, Philadelphia journalist who died in Siena, after writing from Rome for twenty years. And of course we would visit sites associated with Saint Catherine, whose life also motivated Scudder’s writings and social activism.

Assisi in the evening, when most tourists have vacated the streets

 

Siena’s campo, famed for its annual horse race, has fewer visitors after dark

A quiet corner in Siena, near the final home of American journalist Anne Hampton Brewster

Siena’s Basilica of San Francesco, slighted by visitors who opt for San Dominco, associated with Saint Catherine

 

Along the Tuscan Coast and South

After Siena, a short stop in Porto Santo Stefano, would precede a longer pause in Tarquinia. In this ancient Roman town, an Etruscan necropolis reminds visitors that other civilizations predated the Romans. And Tarquinia’s peaceful streets speak to most travelers’ needs for time outside of tourist centers.

We would end our trip with another site similar in its beauty, history and distance from the crowds. Ostia Antica lies near Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino, yet far away from its bustle. A national historic cite, the grand park offers an expanse of ruins that exhibit an almost pristine amphitheater, ancient toilets, and rich mosaics. The remnants of former worship sites, such as the Jewish synagogue, would remind us once again of how ancient Rome embraced diverse religions. Ostia also boasts beaches–so some of our group would stroll the lungomare, or venture into the sand to dip their toes into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Perhaps this touch, like throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain, would signify a journey that they hope to remember, if not repeat.

 

Image of the amphitheater at Ostia Antica, Italy


Amphitheater at Ostia Antica

Remnant from the Jewish Synagogue, Ostia Antica

Restructured toilet fragments, Ostia Antica

View of the Sea from Lodging in Ostia

The Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia

 

What’s Next?

None of us knows what the future holds for us, but we plan nonetheless.  As far as travel is concerned, we wonder what’s next.  Some trips have been cancelled–others have been postponed. Our group trip is a mixture of the two. With the indefinite future ahead, we hope to know more by fall. Then, if possible, we’ll plan more specifics–new dates, new times, new itineraries. And perhaps even a few new travelers. Maybe you would be interested in joining the group? Or maybe you are part of another small group–a few couples, a few single friends–with whom you’d like to travel? If so, let me know.  One of my passions is advising, planning, and sometimes leading such small group trips. Contact me here or through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

 

A Privileged Perspective: On Escaping A Stricken Field

Photo of the book cover of Martha Gellhorn's novel, A Stricken Field

Cover of 1940 edition of Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field

In January, reading Anne Boyd Rioux’s review essay of Martha Gellhorn’s A Stricken Field,  I was intrigued enough to order a copy. Rioux had written for LitHub that Gellhorn’s 1940 novel delivers “a gut-punch” as it “powerfully illustrates how Western societies fail in their duty to protect the most vulnerable among us: stateless and homeless refugees.”[i] I didn’t really want a “gut-punch” from reading about refugees. Instead, the novel’s setting in Prague, where my husband and I were headed in March, prompted me. I thought Gellhorn’s account would help me prepare for our planned spring break trip to the Czech Republic, where we would visit our son who was studying abroad. Put another way, we’d be escaping the late-winter doldrums of life in the isolated Ozarks.

Put another way, we’d be escaping the late-winter doldrums of life in the isolated Ozarks.

Gellhorn’s best-selling fictional account of the Nazi regime’s rise in power would be more interesting and engaging than Count Francis Lützow’s The Story of Prague (1902), another historical volume I had begun in hopes of educating myself. (The volume’s illustrations by Nelly Erichsen, a professional expatriate artist from England, had caught my eye—but she’s the subject of another article). I soon set that history aside, as Gellhorn’s journalist heroine sucked me in to her relationships—relationships both with young political activists she had befriended and her fellow journalists.

Martha Gellhorn during the Spanish Civil War, c. 1937-1938. Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Described in heart wrenching and soulful scenes, without one bit of sentimentality, A Stricken Field provides a story of an occupation that arrived gradually—creeping in like a virus—until suddenly it has ravaged the entire city and destroyed those the journalist (and sensitive readers) have come to hold dearly. As the one character jokes nervously upon her arrival, “What, no pictures of Adolf in the windows yet?” But within a matter of days, the ancient city has been turned upside down.

Gellhorn’s account differs from Anne Frank’s famous diary,  not only because it’s fiction, but also because it captures the interiority of adults—more mature characters as they move about the city—even as they hide in isolation or huddle in quickly established “quarantine” housing for recently arrived exiles from Germany. Most notably, Gellhorn’s account differs from Frank’s in this mobility.

Mobility through Privilege

The mobility emerges through the movement of the journalist’s and the narrator’s privileged eyes, blurred by the perspectives Gellhorn’s crafting creates. She allows readers to witness scenes of passionate lovers in hiding—clinging to each other in moments of unknown futures; abuses of resistors, victimized by German authorities; and slight fears of news-following journalists. As readers, our eyes move from scene to horrific scene, often with the eye of the American journalist, Mary Douglas, who generally feels her position provides her safety.

The journalist’s choice, finally, like Frank’s, is to use writing as a tool. She will tell the story of her experience, as she smuggles documents in her suitcase so that the records will remain. Yet the journalist’s experience, she tells herself throughout the account and especially as she flees Prague in fear, is an experience of privilege, from a privileged position. The horrific life she witnessed in Prague, under Hitler’s regime, was not her own. She has credentials that will help her to escape it–and she has the documents that will help her tell the story.

Yes, journalists were traveling by plane in 1940, and the plane becomes the most fraught symbol of her mobility and privilege.

Culminating the novel’s numerous nerve-wracking scenes, the narrator moves through intimidating customs clearance questions at the airport. Yes, journalists were traveling by plane in 1940, and the plane becomes the most fraught symbol of her mobility and privilege. In fact, the novel opens inside a plane, where the narrator and journalist recognize that “the land looked the same as when they flew across France, summer green and rich.”  Were they “looking for . . . maybe a swastika painted on roof?”

Fertile fields in the plain of Forez, Les Massards, Loire. Wikimedia Commons : Hélène Rival / CC BY-SA

By the circuitous return to the plane setting in the novel’s closing, the book title’s meaning emerges. Here the journalist and other travelers who have escaped the horrors of the occupied Czech terrain observe once again from the plane window, happy to have crossed the Rhine and be over France.

View from a plane of fields in Sicily

Fertile fields of Sicily in late summer–one of my privileged views

Photo from an airplane of fields near coast of Rome, Italy

Fertile fields along the Italian coast near Rome–another privileged view

Yet as the journalist gazes “down at the neat fields, brown and green, purple brown, yellow” she recognizes even more than she had months before—“the land doesn’t look any different . . . the land doesn’t look different at all.” What has “stricken” the “field” are the behaviors of people within it, and those infectious actions might happen anywhere. As she returns to France, where the fields are not stricken, she struggles with what she will choose to remember and what she will easily forget.

A False Sense of Security and Privilege

The irony for readers today, of course, is that we recognize the travelers’ and the journalist’s false sense of security and privilege—for France soon will be occupied as well. A Stricken Field becomes a metaphor not merely for the Czech’s land but for almost all of Europe. The journalist’s privileged escape is only temporary and in a physical world rather than in her emotional state.

Gellhorn’s tale resonated even more with me a month after I read it—by mid-March—and now. When my copy arrived in February, news of the corona virus outbreak in Wuhan was becoming more on our radar, as the virus had made its way to western Washington. But I was reading with plans of my own privileged spring break trip yet ahead. A month later, when my trip had been cancelled and I couldn’t even enjoy a pizza out at a local pub with friends, as I reflected on Gellhorn’s Stricken Field, I realized that China’s virus outbreak had become Italy’s and Italy’s had spread to Prague and other parts of Europe. Soon the outbreak would become our own. Our son was headed home, with thousands of other American university students, and we would not be traveling.  No perspective of privilege would prevent the impact.

Anne Hampton Brewster: Another Perspective of Privilege

In a few days I’ll be discussing another mistaken “perspective of privilege.” This time it will be an American journalist in 19th century Rome who wrestled with cholera and Roman fever as she shared the news with readers in the US. My discussion of Anne Hampton Brewster‘s writings is part of a webinar series sponsored by the Library Company of Philadelphia. The webinar is FREE, but you do need to register through the web page for the series.  I hope you’ll tune in to have your thinking piqued about quarantine and our relationships with those around us. History continues to speak. It teaches those who are willing to listen.

[i] Rioux’s phrase has since been picked up by Amazon and by the University of Chicago Press, who published a reprint of the 1940 novel in 2011.

A Valentine’s and Presidents’ Day Book: Precious and Adored

Cover of book Precious and Adored

Cover of Laskey and Ehrenhalt’s book, Precious and Adored

Here’s a book suited for both Valentine’s and Presidents’ Day. No, it’s not about Abigail and John Adams. Nor is it yet another account of Honest Abe and Mary Todd. But it is about a First Lady.  Melania? Michelle?  Hillary? Their love and marriage stories are certainly intriguing. But no, the story is not one of recent years. The First Lady was Rose Cleveland (1846-1918).

Rose served as First Lady in 1885-86, although she never was legally married. So what’s the story?

Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey give the account in Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918. The book appeared a year ago, but the story remains new and engaging–even though it speaks of a woman and a relationship that began in the 19th century.

Authors and historians Lizzie Ehrenhalt, of the MInnesota Historical Society, and Tilly Laskey. Outreach Curator, Maine Historical Society

Rose became the official First Lady when her brother, the unmarried Grover Cleveland, became US President. (It was essential that the White House have a “First Lady,” of course). She remained in the position until he married. Not long after, Rose began writing to a “wealthy widow,” then Evangeline Marrs Simpson, whom she had met in Florida, sometime in the late 1880s. The rest, as they say, is history–and a fascinating love story. It includes the widow’s second marriage to Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple in 1896 and Evangeline’s life with him in Minnesota.

Before that marriage, Rose and Evangeline had traveled to Europe and from north to south along the East Coast. (Both women owned property in Florida, where they wintered). And they frequently wrote to each other. The letters serve as a record of their changing relationship.

The letters serve as a record of their changing relationship. . . .

After Evangeline’s marriage to the Bishop, not surprisingly, the women’s relationship changed. Evangeline became engaged in Minnesota with women of indigenous tribes–the Dakota and the Anishinaabe, in particular. Rose occupied herself with writing and real estate. She wrote of strong female figures–such as Joan of Arc and the popular author George Eliot (a pseudonym for Mary Ann Evans). At one point she owned property in Maine, Florida and New York, and she was managing two businesses, as well as writing.

After the Bishop’s death in 1901, the women began seeing each other once again. In June of 1910, they left the US together for Italy. After a short period with Evangeline’s brother in Florence, the two settled in the Tuscan resort village of Bagni di Lucca. Rose died there in 1918, when the influenza epidemic (“the Spanish flu”) spread through Europe and the US. She, Evangeline and their friend Nelly Erichsen had all been involved in helping victims of World War I and the epidemic. (Biographies of Erichsen and of Rose and their activism and deaths at Bagni  are available here and here.) Although Evangeline did not die until 1930, and she then lived in London, she had already made plans to be laid to rest next to Rose in the English Cemetery at Bagni di Lucca.

Whipple’s and Cleveland’s graves in the English Cemetery, Bagni di Lucca, Italy

This brief synopsis does not do justice to the story of the women’s lives. Erhenhalt and Laskey provide an excellent and thorough overview in the 56-page introduction to their book. The remaining pages are the love letters between the two women–a remarkable “inside view” of a near-thirty-year romance. Precious and Adored also includes about a dozen photos, a list of “characters” mentioned in the letters, and a Foreward by historian and scholar of sexuality Lillian Faderman.

Not the story many readers are likely to have imagined about a US First Lady,  Precious and Adored  reminds us that history holds many surprising pictures. We need only take the time to look at them to think differently about the past–as well as about the present situations that surround us.

Stephen Fried's biography of Benjamin Rush, early American man of science

Fried’s recent biography of Benjamin Rush, early American “man of science”

Mel Ulm’s recent review of Stephen Fried’s biography of Benjamin Rush prompted me to revisit my writing and research on #BenjaminRush from year’s ago. So when Springfield’s David Cornelison contacted me a couple of weeks later about an interview regarding my interdisciplinary work in early American literature and science for #KSMU‘s #STEMSpots, I said “sure!”

Then, the anxiety crept in.

I am a dabbler–and that’s dangerous. My first disclaimer to David pronounced this precarious position. He propped me up by asking some great questions about how I incorporate “men of science” into my teaching of American literature, and we bounced around from Rush to Benjamin Franklin to Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards and Henry David Thoreau–and their relevance today (that’s the most important part!) Hope you’ll tune in to listen.

We did discuss these men’s positions of power and how that provided them–relatively speaking–the ability to obsess over their inquiries. We should all be so passionate in our pursuits of what we believe will make the world a better place. 

What we didn’t have time for–an egregious absence–was women of science. Perhaps that will come later. Tina Gianquitto’s work on nineteenth-century figures brought much-needed attention to women’s scientific work about a decade ago.  She wrote of Almira Phelps, Margaret Fuller, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and Mary Treat. (Follow Tina’s current project through the website Herbaria). Sharon Harris and Theresa Kaminski have brought attention to Mary Walker, one of the earliest recognized female physicians in the US. And Renee Bergland’s biography of astronomer Maria Mitchell informs my project on American women in Italy. Mitchell traveled abroad as a “professional,” visiting other astronomers and their observatories.

If I get another chance to chat with David, I’ll be ready to talk about some of these women.

The short STEM Spot  aired February 13 and then a longer version became available through the #KSMU & #NPR websites. It’s accessible through this link.

Timothy Miller on Communes in America, 1975-2000

Book cover Timothy Miller's Communes in AmericaFor anyone interested in alternative communities in the US, Tim Miller’s book on the last quarter of the 20th century is a thorough and accessible read. Miller started studying and writing about communal life as a young scholar of American religious history. No one can delve into that topic without encountering such groups.
(I am a case in point–I first published on New England Puritans, then the Shakers, followed by the Quakers. More recently, I have written about two spiritual communities in Italy’s Piedmont, Damanhur and Villaggio Verde.) Miller made his way into 1960s communes as a sub-specialty, and this book reflects that work.
Communes in America is the last in a trilogy, though. The first two focus on the earlier parts of the 20th century. With a broad foundation in America’s past, Miller writes authoritatively, accurately and accessibly.  This final volume is a fine example of his work.
Yes, Miller writes about Jim Jones and People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians near Waco, and Fundamentalists Latter Day Saints, among many other groups you likely never knew about.
My longer review of the book appeared last week in Religion, State and Society. The journal is allowing free access for the first several viewers, so I’m providing the link below to anyone who is interested in reading more. It may help you decide whether to buy the book.

Here’s a little bit of my review:

“For readers interested in church–state relations, Miller’s final chapter ‘Communities in the Media Spotlight: Crisis and Controversy’ is the richest. Here he explains that the communities that have made the media spotlight have done so because of crises, which are not the norm but rather the exception. The reasons for these crises, he explains, are both internal and external issues and differ little from crises that occur in US culture outside of communities. . . .

One example of an internal crisis that bled into an external one was the leadership of People’s Temple. Jim Jones (1931–1978), a charismatic Protestant minister initially in Indiana, eventually led followers to California and Guyana, where they established the community known as Jonestown. Many of them later drank Fla-Vor-Aid laced with cyanide in 1978. Increasingly disturbed by mental illness and drug abuse, Jones’ behaviours included involvement in the death of California Congressman Leo Ryan and several reporters, who had arrived at Jonestown to investigate the community following a child custody case with defectors. Behaviours such as Jones’ are the exception rather than the rule, Miller asserts.”

Read the entire review here.

Traveling to Monasteries: One Part of a Larger Journey

Last month, I interviewed Paul Green, who left his job and took off on a journey to seventeen Trappist monasteries in the US. The journey resulted in a photo book, Silence is Spoken Here, but more importantly, a change in how he sees himself and his sense of place.

Tina Moore hiking, one of her favorite spiritual practices

Paul’s wife, Tina Moore, inspired the journey and traveled along with him. I interviewed Tina, too, thinking they would respond differently to questions about their motivations and what they found. (I also wanted to ensure that  neither husband nor wife would overpower the other.) And, of course, they shared different stories!

What follows is my conversation with Tina. As you will see, if you read to the end, Tina views her journey to Trappist monasteries as only one part of a much larger journey. She’s been a spiritual seeker since at least her college years. And her searching has always included looking for the right everyday practices. Today she’s settled in northwest Arkansas, where her volunteer work factors into her training to become a spiritual director. Tina’s advice–if you feel stuck in your situation–look deep inside for what your desires really are. And, reach out. Don’t be afraid to look for someone who will help you take the first steps.

“I was looking for something . . . meaningful”

Etta:     So, Tina, I have read Paul’s book Silence Is Spoken Here, which is full of beautiful photos. But it’s notable that your name isn’t on the cover. Maybe it should be—for how you influenced the journey? I really enjoyed hearing from Paul about how you guys came up with the ideas, from his perspective, and what he has been doing since then, but I’m interested in your perspective. What prompted you to take the trip to the 17 Trappist monasteries scattered across the US?

Tina:    I think in the back of my mind I was looking for something that Paul and I could do together that would be meaningful. I wasn’t sure what meaningful meant, but a few years before, a friend of mine and I had talked about doing a coffee table book. We were both just a tiny bit involved with photography–nothing professional at all–and we were going to travel the country. We were going to take sunrise and sunset pictures from every state, so we kind of had this dream of doing that. We joked about taking her daughter and homeschooling her.

Paul Green and Tina Moore, whose trip to Trappist monasteries throughout the US prompted this interview

That was a long time before Paul and I were in a relationship together. So that was back there somewhere [in my subconscious], and I think all these years later I had this epiphany. I pictured Paul and me doing something that had to do with his photography and traveling and exploring places–meaningful places, sacred places–that was sort of this broad idea.

“I expected that he would turn me down”

I expected that he would turn me down, because he was working full-time and not ready to quit that, but I thought, you know, I’m just going to throw it out there and see what he says. And he actually liked the idea. But we needed to refine it a little bit, because visiting sacred places–you can imagine–we were going to do one in each state, and there’re so many! “Sacred places” is a very broad term. We needed to narrow it down. And it wasn’t too long after that we went back to St. Benedict’s Monastery in Colorado and were able to visit with the Abbot, Father Joseph who has since passed away. He offered the suggestion to start with just visiting all the Trappist monasteries in the US. There are just 17 of them, and that felt doable. It allowed us to envision the journey in a way that we could make it happen.

Etta:     Tell me about Colorado — why were you there, from your perspective?

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

Tina:    I think it was in 2012 or 13 that Paul and I went for a 5-day retreat. My stepfather has been on staff out there for 25 or 30 years–a long time. He’s not a monk; he’s a lay person who leads centering prayer retreats.  So we did that. Then a few years later, I was at a workshop for dream analysis in North Carolina at a place called Kanuga Retreat Center. I knew about Kanuga and about the Haden Institute, which put on the dream workshop, because of my stepdad. (I was getting introduced to a lot of these practices through my mom’s husband.) I had this series of experiences that got me to the point of wanting to do this particular project with Paul.

But previous to all of that, in 2009 I began studying theology at Drury University (just from an academic perspective), where I met Dr. Peter Browning. I was picking his brain one day as I pondered where I might be headed on the spiritual path, and he suggested that maybe seminary would be what I was looking for. So I entered Phillips Theological Seminary in January of 2011, and I believe it was the next year that I was introduced to centering prayer at the Trappist Monastery.

Etta:     Were these experiences something new this point in your life?

Tina:    Yes!  I think this happened because for years I had been really wanting to be able to call myself a Christian, wanting to have a church home, I guess you would call it, because I did not grow up going to church, and I always felt excluded, living in the Bible Belt and living in Arkansas, growing up in this place where everybody goes to church. I was sort of on the outside. At college at Missouri State, I went to church and I had a lot of Catholic friends and I remember doing a weekend lock-in retreat with the Catholic campus ministry.

I remember my ex-husband, who was my boyfriend then, telling his fraternity brothers that I was trying to find myself.

I remember my ex-husband, who was my boyfriend then, telling his fraternity brothers that I was trying to find myself. I was 19 or 20, and I would say that was absolutely what was happening.  Although now I, at age 51, I know this is lifetime process for me.

“I missed the mark for a long time. . . .”

I missed the mark for a long time because I had kids and started doing all of the secular things that we do–PTA and all of that. But I got to this point where I was really, really existentially lost. Part of it was my marriage was not fulfilling, and I was trying to stick with it, and eventually it was obvious that that wasn’t healthy and needed to not continue. And then I had a therapist ask me, “what would you do if you were divorced? What would your life look like? What would you do with your time?”

It was extremely terrifying. You’re doing what you think everyone else is expecting you to do and fit a mold that you think is set for you. I’m not saying it was that–I’m saying I thought it was. And so the therapist said, let’s just try this on. If you were divorced, what would you do? Would you go back to work? Would you go to school? So I really thought about that, and I thought I would go back to school. And he said, okay, what would you study?

I have so many interests, and I love learning in general, but I narrowed it down to nutrition, addiction and religion–and those I would say are all three related. I have a close relationship with people who struggle with addiction, and my kids both had health issues when they were young that related to nutrition (food allergies and such), so I already had kind of immersed myself in that, but the religion thing just kept coming back up, because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be a Christian, but whatever Christian means, I couldn’t say yes to all the things [some people expected]. I kept thinking there’s got to be a way that I can educate myself enough about Christianity and about religion that I can figure it out for myself. It’s not going to be me going to church and listening to the preacher. It’s going to be studying it in a formal, academic way, following all kinds of different angles.

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

“I never had a feeling like, we can’t make all this come together.”

Etta:     In Paul’s interview, he described a bit about how you planned the travels. You are a logistics person and organized, he said. Can you explain how you dealt with making the planning happen? Were there moments that you thought, “this is crazy” or “we can’t do this”? Were there moments where the organization went out the window or that made you want to give up?

Tina:    Never. That never happened. I can see where that would be a real hindrance for some people because it might seem overwhelming. I have areas in my life that I would avoid because I wouldn’t know where to start. For example, writing a book. But planning this trip was a challenge that was fun, and I never had a feeling like, we can’t make all this come together.

Etta:     You said you wanted to travel with Paul.  This kind of fits into that vacation mode. But you also mentioned “sacred spaces”–so you were hoping to find something spiritually. What did you find?

“Even going to a baseball game can be a pilgrimage”

Tina reflecting over an evening campfire during the monastery trip

Tina:    One book that probably prompted this journey is The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. I read it in 2010, five years before all of this. I was going to go on a trip to Iona, which is a very sacred island off the coast of Scotland. It was on the list of books to read before  you do the trip. I signed up for it and I backed out, because that’s when my husband and I started our separation. But Cousineau talks about turning any adventure, any trip–you can call it a lot of different things–but it can become a pilgrimage. It’s all about meaning-making, establishing meaning. He gives an example of going to baseball games with his dad when he was young. Cousineau says even going to a baseball game can be a pilgrimage. At that point I decided I’m not going to travel anymore unless it’s meaningful. Recently, I would say there have been more opportunities like that than I could count.

Etta:     You remember one that you can describe?

Tina:    You know, almost at almost every monastery I found a sense of it being pilgrimage.  Paul was doing the photography, and I didn’t need to be a part of that, so I would find either the book store/gift shop or the library (almost all of the monasteries had one). There are libraries for people that are staying there (the retreatants) who can just pull any book off the shelf. What I felt called to do is to just let a book pick me, basically. I would go into these libraries and find a book, immerse myself in it along with the atmosphere of the monastery and just let the whole experience speak to me. I made that my thing for each monastery visit.

Etta:     I was going to ask you what your plan or routine was, since you’re someone who’s really organized.

“I didn’t have a routine planned when we left home.”

Tina:    It developed. I didn’t have a routine planned when we left home. It was at the first monastery we visited, in a small town outside Atlanta, where I found a book…actually a monk gave me a book based on a discussion we were having and so going forward it just seemed like I would find a spot, and I could nestle with my book.

On the grounds at Assumption Abbey, Ava,  Missouri

Each time it would seem like the book picked me…and the spot picked me. It was anywhere from a bench, or my little cell–you know they call them cells for a reason. They’re tiny. That in and of itself is really interesting, because I would go into my cell and I would move the chair where I wanted the chair, and there’s a lamp where I set my books up. I was making it my own—making it my spot. I would say, now that you mention it, I’m kind of a creature of habit and I would develop my own little routine.

Etta:     Were you and Paul in separate rooms?

Tina:    Sometimes, but it really just depended on what the set-up was at the individual monastery. Definitely there were times when we were split up and I would say, “Good night! See you tomorrow.” And then everyone has to be quiet, too.

Etta:     And there wasn’t Internet, so you weren’t texting?

Tina:    Sometimes there were places that we could text.

Etta:     It sounds like an interesting way of being together but alone. You were thinking originally, “where can we go together?” But you weren’t completely together!

“an interesting way of being together but alone . . .”

Tina:    I can’t picture myself being a monastic in the full sense, but we’re both very drawn to silence and more drawn to places where you can be silent. There’s a place that I go to for conferences called Kripalu. It’s really more of a place for yoga, but they have workshops and guest speakers and stuff. It’s in Massachusetts, and they have a silent dining room as an option. You can go to the silent dining room or the big cafeteria. I always eat in the silent room.

Etta:     Your mention of Kripalu brings me to the question of what are you doing now that’s connected to what you learned from your journey? or do you have something ahead?

“this journey to the monasteries was part of a bigger journey”

Tina:    I think this journey to the monasteries was part of a bigger journey. For me the very first intro class that I took in seminary was where I learned about the vocation of spiritual direction. It is basically spiritual counseling. A person can be a spiritual counselor in a group setting or in an individualized, one-on-one spiritual therapy setting. That really struck me, because I love having personal conversations with people. I think I thrive the most when I can get into deep, meaningful conversations with people in a group, but also with one-on-one time.

I have had this idea of becoming a spiritual director in the back of my head since then, which was 2011, that maybe down the road, when I’m further down the spiritual path, maybe I will be at a place where I can provide spiritual direction for other people. A lot of these things that I’ve done since then have helped me get to this place where I feel like, “okay, now it’s my time.” Typically, the spiritual direction certification is a two-year process. Over the years I learned about many different programs. And then in 2017 a very synchronistic thing happened, which involved finding out about a certain program that seemed like the perfect fit, so I signed up for it.

Etta:     Where is the program?

Tina:    It’s in Massachusetts, between Albany, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut. What was coincidental about it, is that the person that started that school–and this is only the third class, so it’s a new school–was one of the speakers at the dream conference that I was at when I got the idea for the book back in 2014. I remembered her, and I had actually emailed with her and thought I’d like to work with her, but she lives in North Carolina and I live in the Midwest.

“I’m not sure I’m at a place where I can help other people on their spiritual paths, but I’m going to go ahead and take a chance.”

And then I dropped that whole idea and did the monastery trip. Then in 2017 when I was asking an Episcopal Rector in my hometown if she knew of any schools, she told me about this new program in Massachusetts headed by a friend of hers. I remembered her as the speaker from the dream conference.  It felt very synchronistic and also, after eight years of being really serious about the development of my own spiritual life, I was finally ready to delve into becoming a spiritual director in order to assist others with their own spiritual development.

I’m not sure I’m at a place where I can help other people on their spiritual paths, but I’m going to go ahead and take a chance. I’m in the middle of that right now. That’s where I am. It’s exciting. But of late I have decided to consider that I might use all of this to help people at the END of their lives. So I’m gathering information now about hospice care. There’s also something called a death doula. It’s been around for a while. It’s this idea of the midwife-type person whose role is helping people as they make the transition from their Earthly life. As a spiritual counselor, we are basically companioning and listening and just being with others as they explore their relationship with the Divine.  And the importance of companioning a person at the end of their life is really just to be there and be present.

Etta:     I love what you said about having conversations with people. Especially the return of what they’re saying and how you learn from it. You seem to have the right skills for that listening.

Tina:    That’s very kind. I think it needs to play out, you know? I don’t want to presume. There are sometimes that you can say, “I want to do this.” And then you do the training, and you go do it, and as much as you thought you wanted to do it, it might not be your calling. I just want to be really humble about it. I want to find my place.  Angie [a person Tina had just met with] told me some interesting things that make me eager to keep exploring the hospice idea and keep feeling this out.

Etta:     How did you come to the idea of hospice?

Tina:    I had been on a three day silent retreat and on one of those mornings, during the morning meditation time, the word “HOSPICE” just basically appeared in my mind’s eye.  I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but shortly after I had finished my meditation, I picked up my phone to check my email. I receive a daily email from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and author, and this particular email happened to be one about the end of life and hospice care. It was just such a beautiful quote that really stuck with me–along with the experience that happened during the meditation.  And then further down in my email list was the newsletter from the school that I go to, and in that there was an article about how to tell if you have a true calling.

How do you know that something is your calling?

Etta:     How do you know that something is your calling?

Tina:    The article that I was reading distinguished six signs that a calling is true– synchronistically. Gregg Levoy, the author of Callings,  formulated this idea that there are at least six different things that happen, based on many interviews he’s conducted over the years. So you can go down this sort of shopping list of six items. I was sitting in the room there after my meditation, and I said to myself, “you know, this seems like something I should pay attention to.”

Etta: Yeah. That’s awesome.

Being Mindful and Present

Tina:    People throughout time have become really conscious and mindful and present at a young age. But I certainly was not. I was struggling a lot and was very self-absorbed. Not just in a typical egocentric way, but in some way of being in the world that felt uncomfortable. And I can see that in other people when they are not, let’s say, comfortable in their own skin. And as long as I lived that way–I lived that way for a really long time–I stayed really self-absorbed because I was just trying to make it. Figuring things out now feels, you know, intuitive. It just feels right. That happens when you can quit thinking about yourself and focus more on how we are all connected and how are we all equal.

Etta:     Can you tell me about how that factors in to where you are and what you’re doing now?

Tina:    I now have the desire to physically, relationally, work with people, but I wasn’t sure what opportunities there would in Northwest Arkansas, where we moved once the monastery trip was completed. However, I found out about a brand new opportunity to work with women coming out of prison, most of whom had been recovering from addiction.

Magdalene Serenity House welcomes women into a  two-year residential program where they can heal from trauma such as sexual abuse, trafficking, addiction, incarceration, and everything that might go along with those things. The original model of this is in Nashville. A woman who is an Episcopal priest started this program about 20 years ago. Her organization is set up now to train other people throughout the country who are interested in developing programs like hers.  One distinction with this program is that there is no real affiliation with a religious organization and so many of them [shelters for trauma victims] are with very specific requirements—the residents must do a Bible study, or they have to be Christians, or whatever.

When I first got involved, the residence had been purchased but needed to be remodeled, so there were no residents yet and the program was just being established. The three women that were the very first [residents] have now been in the house for about a year and a half, and we’ve had a full house for about six months. My desire was to work side by side with the residents. I wasn’t interested in joining the board, and I did not want to become a staff person. What I wanted to do was to be in the trenches with these women as they dealt with the day-to-day issues of recovery and of learning to be self-supportive.

Etta:     How would you describe what you’re providing by “being in the trenches”?

Tina:    Right now, I’m just being there. Each weekday morning they begin their day with what is called Morning Circle. We light a candle and read a daily meditation. Each person can talk about what the meditation means to them, and then we go back around the circle and each person does what is called a “feelings check.” Then we close with the Serenity Prayer.

Etta:     You know how to listen to these women and feel with them?

Tina:    I try to always remember I could have easily found myself in their shoes. It really could have been me. There were decisions I made in my life that could have taken me down a similar path. I really think about that when they’re talking about whatever they’re going through, whatever they’ve been through.

Advice for the Stuck – Reach Out, Collaborate

Etta:     I wanted to bring us around to a question that builds from what you’re getting into now. Question isn’t really the right word—it’s really a topic. Privilege. You are very fortunate that you were able to do that trip, and you’re free to do the volunteer work now. What advice do you have for people who may not have that freedom. Just based on your ability to listen and to be mindful – I’m curious what advice you would give to people who might feel bored or stagnant or not alive anymore? about their ability to do something? Is there some advice that you would give to them, based on what you’re doing now?

Tina:    I would just say for someone who thinks, “I’d love to travel. I’d love to do what you did, but I have to work,” or, “I am not working now but I don’t have the funds to do that,” go back to what I mentioned earlier about The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. I would highly recommend checking this book out. When Cousineau says, “anything,” can be a pilgrimage, I think we can think of it in terms that fit our own particular situation. Perhaps an overnight stay at a state or national park would fit better with someone’s schedule or financial situation.

Anything that we find ourselves doing throughout the day can feel meaningful and even spirit-filled, but I think sometimes our lives are so full that a lot of the time we don’t really have the chance to say, “what would I really be doing if I could do things that add meaning to my life? What gets me excited? What would I do if no one else was in the position to judge me?” I would tell people to really look introspectively and ask, “what’s truly meaningful to me?”

And if it requires time that I’m short on, or a budget that I’m short on, start collaborating with others, asking them these questions as well. Getting into these types of discussions is a really good starting point.

Etta:     I’m wondering if someone who may be working 8 to 5 and they feel like they can’t leave that, and they feel stuck . . .

Tina:    But reaching out or being with someone else can help motivate a person, once they have figured out what it is that turns them on. Let’s say they love to hike. They don’t have a lot of time to hike. But you know there’s lots of hiking around Missouri and Northwest Arkansas. So you find out if there are any hiking clubs in your area or documentaries that are coming to the area. Really, it depends on having a desire to figure it out first.

Collaboration & Moving On

Tina and Paul with the book, Silence is Spoken Here

Etta:     To conclude I want to circle back to a couple of things about the trip and the book I first mentioned–that are related to your relationship—not to make you say anything bad about Paul—just to kind of understand the collaboration about your book, Silence is Spoken Here.

Tina:    The original plan was for me to do the written part of the book. I was going to use the talent that I don’t have any of, because I have no experience in that area! I can diagram a sentence pretty well. I know my grammar pretty well. But then when it came down to it, I felt so unqualified that Paul finally just said he would do the whole thing. He doesn’t have any experience with writing either, but he doesn’t carry my perfectionist attitude about it all. So Paul ended up taking the photos, editing them, creating the written content, and then he proceeded to educate himself on how to self-publish. He really ended up doing it all.

Etta:    Did you help with selecting the photos?

Tina:    It was a collaborative process in that respect, and I did do some proofreading, but most of my part was just with the logistics of the trip itself.

Etta:     The collaboration was in that you planned the journey, and you were on it?

Tina:    Yes. It wasn’t like I helped throughout the whole project. He managed the whole project. I felt like I was with him on the journey—the physical journey—and then we got home, and I kind of stepped aside. And he said, “it’s no problem.” And I moved on. I moved into the volunteer work at Magdalene Serenity House. It all happened when I could start the spiritual direction certification, so it allowed me to really say, “yes,” to that. And I could jump in with both feet.

“Jumping in with both feet”

 I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview and that it helps you think about your own journey. Is there something you have yet to do? Would you “jump in with both feet”?  Is there someone you know who has similarly jumped into something new?

I’d love to have your ideas or suggestions for future posts about people who have followed interesting “later vocations.”  (“Later” doesn’t mean “old people”–it means taking new steps beyond those earlier career or life paths of young adulthood. . . .)

And, if you haven’t yet, sign up to follow my blog so you’ll receive an email when a new post appears. 

 

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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