A Season of Contemplation

I confess. When I began my research on Saint Francis of Assisi, I expected brief, flowery biographies and thin books about the bird-loving friar. How shallow of me, a Protestant Christian, who knows little about Catholic saints.
Thanks to Richard Rohr’s book, “Eager to Love”, I’m cloistered in my study, contemplating his point of view regarding the life and writing of San Francesco d’Assisi (1186-1226).
A contemporary Franciscan friar, Rohr offers no biography, “what is too often jokingly called “’birdbath Franciscanism’”, and expounds on the spiritual partnership between Francesco and Chiara Offreduccio (1193-1253), a woman overshadowed by her “counterpart” throughout history.
You may find this common knowledge, but it’s a surprise to me. Rohr sets the record straight. “A supreme irony is that Francis and Clare, two dropouts who spurned the success, war, and economic agendas of thirteenth-century Assisi, have been fully sustaining its economy for eight hundred years through the pilgrims and tourists who pour into this lovely medieval town. The Bernardone and Offreduccio families are very proud of their children, but they were not when those children were alive.”
Francis’s father, a wealthy cloth merchant, didn’t appreciate his son’s conversion to poverty, prayer, and charity, called him before the bishop of Assisi for money Francis threw away in anger when a priest of the church at San Damiano refused it.
On April 16, 1210, Pope Innocent III gave oral approval of the Franciscan rule of life.
Posthaste, Francis repaired the San Damiano church and established the Poor Clares within its parish. Chiara scribed the Rule of St. Clare: “When the Blessed Father saw that we had no fear of poverty, hard work, trial, shame, or contempt from the world, but instead held them in great delight, he created a form of life for us.”
“How countercultural can you get?” Rohr asks.
Indeed. Thankfully, I’ve never feared poverty or hard work. My granny, mother, and uncles taught me mankind is born first to dig, plant, and harvest. Nature and the Bible encourage me to trust God to provide my bread.
Unlike Saint Clare and Francis, I do not delight in trial, shame, and contempt from my family and the world. I fear separation from those I love, consider the faith and courage required to become a dropout from the rat race of our secular world.
Come spring, with new meaning I will set my garden statue of St. Francis amidst my hydrangeas. Meanwhile, I read his poetry, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, hear the voice of a man who followed God’s call into the heart of Jesus and Creation. I find Saint Clare’s letters and begin to see the widespread legacy of two thirteenth-century Italians – kindred spirits calling to one another from San Francisco Bay to our Great Lakes.
Dear Reader, I just ordered a garden statue of Saint Clare seated and snuggling a fawn. I’ll place her in the garden overlooking her Franciscan brother and the hydrangeas, his head bowed, in her shadow. Assisi’s beloved dropouts.

A Reminder from My Hens

I carried fresh water downhill to the henhouse. We have only five girls now. When I opened the door, four of them squawked, “It’s about time!” Broody, their roommate with misplaced maternal affection was on the nest again.
I apologized for my tardiness, found a solid ring of ice in their water feeder. My poor egg layers forgave my neglect, pecked snow off my boots and ice chunks from the frozen hydrator. I retrieved Broody from her box.
The hens went straight to their clean water, dipped their beaks into the moat and lifted their heads to swallow. They were so parched and still I could hear water run down their gullets. Amazed by their communal thirst, I watched them awhile, aware again of their dependency upon my husband and me for their basic needs.
The girls didn’t budge from drinking as I replenished their grain, scraped droppings off roosting posts, and refreshed the straw. I plugged in the heat lamp above the waterer, thanked them for their eggs and said goodbye.
Perhaps the mild January relaxed my guard. The ground thawed enough to let the girls out in their tractor pen several times. They ran onto the green grass like prisoners set free. Room to roam is a priority for healthy and happy hens.
Winter prohibits dust baths and foraging for bugs. For their vicarious exercise and nutrition, we hang a head of cabbage from the house’s ceiling about once a week. Better they peck a vegetable than one another. Cabbage is also a source of hydration.
More like a camel than a chicken, my feathered friends reminded me to drink more water. Childhood habits are rather steadfast. My capacity to endure thirst came from avoiding the rotten egg odor from Kentucky spigots and the chlorine taste in Detroit’s water. I could run and play all day without a thought or sip of water, then gulp down a tall glass of cold milk at the dinner table. Mom doled out our fair share of the family’s milk. The refrigerator was off limits.
Coming from southern farm families, my parents adhered to water conservation when they moved north. They turned off the tap between rinses when brushing their teeth. Mom filled our bathtub the southern three inches deep. We weren’t allowed to run through the sprinkler because of water bills and polio scare.
Dear Reader, Warren and Sadie O’Brien were folk who once drew water from a well, knew the labor involved in keeping a pure supply available. They knew the independence and health good water brought their homestead. After their divorce, Mom returned to Kentucky and built a new house with a well. She watered her flowers, a vegetable garden and fruit trees.
My mother didn’t live to see me fall in love with chickens, perpetuate in some small portion the McCoy farm where she was raised and I was born. I feel like her when I carry water down to the girls. Mom preferred to drink iced tea.

The Art of Stacking Books

You learn some interesting things about a person when you open books they’ve left behind. As students, their doodles and poetry on front and end pages give them away. You sense a hint of angst or adventure in mantras like “California here I come!”

I didn’t know my belated father-in-law took that trip until yesterday when I selected a textbook from his collections titled “Molders of American Thought”. I was unaware he attended college until I spied the mottled green book cover pasted with Wayne State pennants.

Here’s a quote from E.F. Orr, published in 1933. “Data have always come to us in greater quantities than what we could use and without any effort on our part. In fact, most of us have to take refuge in secluded places to avoid being harassed by the great volume of them.”

Oh, I could spend a month in seclusion with the timeless tome.

I found another textbook titled “Better Speech” by Woolbert and Weaver with “M.R. Underwood 12-A 1936” inscribed. Dad’s printing is a fine hand with a scroll under SEHS, Southeastern High School in Detroit. I’m glad he was mindful to date his books. What a privilege to hold these archives today.

In “Better Speech”, Dad wrote quotation marks around “Speech…is a key which opens our minds and hearts to one another. If a man lived in complete isolation he would never need any means of communication and he would never learn to speak.”

Thirteen years after his passing, I regret again my father-in-law didn’t share his education and life’s experiences with his children. This was typical of our parents’ generation. Neither my father or father-in-law spoke about the War.

Dear Reader, now my father-in-law’s books are talking to me. What fun to find his signature inside “Direct-Method Materials for Gregg Shorthand”. This explains the strange scribbling on end pages of several other books from that time. Remember the tedium of college studies and lectures?

“Only an Irish Boy” by Horatio Alger, published in 1874, is the oldest book I found. It called my name in Irish brogue. “For Frank, Xmas 1894” is penciled on a front end page. Frank was my father-in-law’s uncle. I met the funny, old man once.

I had three piles of books to box when my sister-in-law, Mary, entered the room. “I really like the colors of those books stacked like that,” she said. Good eye, I thought. She found several vintage books with subjects of interest and played with stacking them. “I’ll decorate the house with these.”

Today I’ve been playing with my new old books, reading bits here and there, stacking them, admiring their beautiful spines, works of art inside out. Tis my delight to share a poem Dad copied on the front page of “Three Centuries of American Poetry and Prose”, his 10-A English class.

Books are keys to wisdom’s treasure;

Books are gates to lands of pleasure;

Books are paths that upward lead;

Books are friends, come let us read.

Unpredictable Pot Roast

My history with pot roast begins with the perfume of Kitchen Bouquet, expectations of potatoes, carrots and onions browned to perfection in au jus. These blended scents of spices, beef and vegetables wafted through our house and out windows in domestic stability.
                  There was no escaping the power of those prophetic smells when I played outside. Mom didn’t need to call me to the table when I caught a whiff from her Dutch oven. For my Italian playmates, it was simmering spaghetti sauce and boiling pasta that yanked them home. My Polish friends ran toward the aroma of pierogi. Like bugs, we all scattered and disappeared at dinnertime.
Ah, the fleeting, carefree 1950’s.
My Irish father was the typical meat, potato and bread man, my Scott-German mother an exceptional cook and baker. She crowned her menu with cloverleaf light rolls, the finishing pre-dinner scent that glued me to my chair at the table. There I waited for Dad to reach for the first roll and commence our meal.
Slathered with butter and sopped with gravy, I could’ve lived on Mom’s light rolls and roasted vegetables. The flavors nourished my childhood. I loved a pot roast.
          Except for the meat. Fork tender half the time and tough the other, a pang of dread dashed through me when Mom filled my plate. There’s nothing more delicious than tender beef, and nothing more miserable than eating fat and gristle.
With its fickle reputation, I avoided a boneless chuck roast when I took up housekeeping. If my mother struck out half the time, a newlywed like me didn’t dare try.
           Then, one fateful day, that Kitchen Bouquet memory smote my taste buds and good sense. I called Mom for her recipe and promptly placed the dredged and dressed meat in my avocado green Club Aluminum Dutch oven. To my surprise and husband’s eager appetite, I served a tasty, tender dinner.
           Several years later, after carving a series of dry, stringy roasts, I sat back in my chair and submitted to the nature of the beast. “I give up.”
           “I’ve never did like a pot roast,” my husband said.
            Really? Without debate, that unpredictable cut of beef fell out of favor in my kitchen. A faithful ground sirloin and vegetable pie soon occupied its place and became a family favorite. My daughters never knew what it was like to chew and swallow fat and gristle.
           Dear Reader, I thought pot roast was ironclad history until two weeks ago. I caved when a savory memory persuaded me to give it another chance. That’s all it takes, isn’t it, to chase a forsaken flavor and happy place in our lives?
           I lifted the pot’s lid, disappointed the vegetables weren’t browned like Mom’s. But oh, the meat compensated more than enough.
“Mmmmm,” said my husband’s change of mind.
Can’t give up now. Have to perfect browning those potatoes and carrots. Perhaps attempt my mother’s light rolls again and beat the odds. There’s plenty butter in the fridge, for old times’ sake.