Hermits are supposed to live alone. But do they ever? First of all, even in solitude, our memories and families are always with us. Second, most hermits worth their salt are somehow in communion with a monastery or other religious community.
Third, there are usually at least a few critters around.
For instance, I have nine neighbors who I tend to see only in passing. Four adult and five teenage turkeys live in the oak savanna and woods across the road. They gobble and bustle about, always in a group, pecking for insects as they go. I wish I had better pictures of them, but the shots always seem to be of them running away from me.
(See turkey, running, at lower left.)
When the new monastery building was completed in 2009, a tom turkey would walk by the oratory (or chapel) windows on the ground floor quite regularly, and see his reflection in the glass. A rival! With his feathers puffed up, he’d pose and strut, trying to intimidate the upstart. Benedictines are hospitable, so no one tried to chase him away, even during the daily office.
I met another's acquaintance early on, while I was sweeping the front stoop. I noticed cobwebs all over the door and the sign, so I aimed my broom and brushed them. When I jostled the sign, a tiny paw and wing fell out at the bottom edge. A bat!!! I was so excited! I stood dumbstruck, watching as it jerked and adjusted to withdraw its “hand” back into its sleeping spot. I felt I had to vacuum the hermitage with the windows shut, not to bother the sleeping bat any more than I had already. But the next day, it didn’t come back – that hiding place was no longer dependable.
Other neighbors I’ve encountered are Sandhill Cranes, garter snakes, whitetail deer, coyotes, grey squirrels, hawks, rabbits, chipmunks, and moles. The squirrels constantly scratch and fuss through the leaf litter, looking for and burying acorns – it’s actually unbelievably irritating. Chipmunks always seem to be running for their lives to somewhere or another. I hear coyotes in the distance at night. Hawks whirl around high in the sky (except for the one that sat across from me in a tree, and tore apart some small creature for dinner). My. Finally, I trip over mole tunnels just about every time I leave the house. I imagine the moles cursing in the dark, saying things like: That dang girl collapsed the living room again!
On a regular basis, I smell my neighbors, the dairy cows, on the Wisconsin breeze.
I have an apple orchard for a neighbor, which seems almost too bucolic for words. The sisters’ apples are delicious (although it may just be because they’re monastic apples?). I pick up the windfalls. I like to cut one up, poach it in the microwave, and have it for breakfast with honey and toasted walnuts, over oatmeal or yogurt. (I’ve done this with peaches and pluots, too – yum!). But the other day, the ground staff and some volunteers picked almost all of them and put them in cold storage.
Fall is moving along.
Last Wednesday was a “Prairie Workday” and I helped collect prairie seeds. It was like playing pioneer, to walk through the tall grass, hunting seeds, except with pruning shears and plastic 5-gallon buckets. Now whenever I walk by dry Black-Eyed Susans, I have this urge to clip off the tops and put them in a bucket.
Almost every day, fires are my neighbors - I smell the wood smoke from fires around the property where the grounds staff are burning up piles of brush and old wood.
My other neighbors, of course, are the monastic community here. I spend a lot of time in solitude, but I wanted to come here so I could also be part of a community - to join the liturgy of the hours, and share a meal with others now and then. It helps and feeds my time in solitude. Sister Joanne, Sister Mary David, Novice Rosy, and “Sojourner” (or intern) Karyn, as well as the staff and other oblates here, are very dear to me.
Part of why I'm writing for you about tangible things like apples and turkeys is that it's hard to describe what's going on here intangibly. For instance, I wish I could write a post about what I’m learning about prayer here but I’m not sure I know how to yet.
Instead I’ll describe some of the books I’ve been reading:
Seven Sacred Pauses, Macrina Wiederkehr (using the monastic liturgy of the hours, technically seven times a day, as times for pausing in ordinary life)
My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead (mixing her autobiography and George Eliot’s life with the themes and characters of Eliot’s famous novel)
Thoughts Matter, Margaret M. Funk (how the spiritual life can come out of awareness and self-direction of thoughts – especially about food, sex, anger, despair, pride, etc.)
Addiction and Grace, Gerald Mays (all humans use some kind of addiction to replace the harder trials of love relationships with other humans and with God) Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard P. Feynman (a scientist tells funny stories about his goofy, interesting life)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass (The institution of slavery and institutionalized racism are deeply ingrained in American history. You already know this, I imagine, but if you really want to know / remember, read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. It was first published in 1845 but it’s very readable, full of fascinating -and horrible- historical details, and gorgeous prose. And it’s short!)
A Life of Being, Doing, and Having Enough, Wayne Muller (What it says.)
I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl (on memory, memoirs, human lives, and human history, told mostly through the lives of: Ann Frank, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Czeslaw Milosz, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and Augustine)
Reading I’ve been doing for our trip to Israel/Palestine and Jordan:
The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane (how deserts, mountains, and other “wastes” inspire us spiritually)
The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos (stories and anecdotes from a 6th century traveling monk about the desert monks and nuns he encountered)
My favorite neighbor, who I’ve been separated from these last three weeks, is my husband, Adam. He came for a visit this past weekend. It was wonderful to show him what my life has been like here. I’m grateful to him for allowing me to spend a whole month away from home, and for being so interested in all that I’ve been doing and learning here.