Thank God for Babcis

Happy to report that I’m in Poland and on the farm, which sounds a lot more straightforward than what has actually transpired the past 48 hours.  (Lots of details follow; feel free to skim.)

My flight transpired without incident.  I flew LOT, the Polish national airline, which meant I was able to get a direct flight from JFK to Warszawa, and taht I got an early taste of what I was going to be in for.  After finding a seat at the gate, it became apparent that I couldn’t understand a word being spoken around me.  Even though I understand English is part of the national curriculum, it’s not widely spoken or understood.  I tried to make small talk with my seat mate who simply looked at me with terror in his eyes and said “No” apologetically but dismissively.  Since I didn’t have to talk to him, that gave me plenty of opportunity to watch the in-flight film: a vintage Donald Duck dubbed in Polish.

Frederic Chopin airport in Warsaw is one of the most modern, clean, and beautiful I have seen anywhere.  Unfortunately, this efficient design does not follow through to their transportation system.  It took half an hour, visits to both the information desk and tourist center as well as  half a dozen butchered conversations to discern that “Sanniki Warszawa Zachodnia platform 2  via the PKS bus,” my instructions for how to get to the farm, meant go to the Warszaswa Zachodnia bus station and get a bus to Sanniki; no one knew what “platform 2” referred to.

Nevertheless, I made it to Warszawa Zachodnia, I bought a ticket for the bus to Sanniki, and even figured out how to buy a phone card to call Peter to let him know that I’d be on the 16.00 bus.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t get either of the two phone numbers I had to go through, so I gestured a passerby for help.  He was unsuccessful as well, so he pulled someone else over.  At one point, I think their were four people animatedly talking in Polish trying to help me make a simple phone call.  I’m still not sure how we got it to work, but we (they) did, and Peter assured me he’d be waiting at Sanniki.  Of course, that assurance only came after I had to chat in Polish for several confusing moments with a woman who I later met as babci (generic label for old lady/grandma).

I think regional buses are the same everywhere in the world – sketchy and cheap but efficient; regional bus stations, not so much.  In my mind, a ticket to a destination implies a station and a stop goes without saying.  Not so with the PKS.  After a couple hours of driving – longer than I thought it took to go 100km even with some traffic – we stopped in Gostynin where everyone appeared to be getting off.  I timidly approached the driver to ask the driver “Przsepraszm. Sanniki?” which elicited an eruption of Polish from the driver and a flurry from a pair of babcis behind me. I later learned that we were 40km past the Sanniki stop and that it wasn’t a stop at all.  There wasn’t even a station, just a bench on the side of the road with an inconspicuous sign.  Thankfully the babcis took pity on me and eventually got me in a taxi going to Sanniki, but not without a lot of confusing gesticulations (sensing a pattern?).

Got to Sanniki, had to wait for Peter, so what else to do with the taxi driver but compare drivers licenses and teach each other numbers in in Polish and Angielsku.

Finally made it to the farm in time for dinner (freshly baked rye bread using rye grown on site, homemade goat cheese, garden grown basil, tomatoes, cukes) and met my fellow Wwoofer, a professor of English from the University of Cork who did her Ph.D. at Cambridge, the first person I’ve met since checking in at the LOT desk who speaks my language.

Tomorrow, I’ll write about work: sweeping the mill, picking plums with babci, weeding the garden.  Maybe some pictures, too.

It’s a monk’s life

The few times in my life that I have watched the clock strike 4 am have more often been the result of a late night than an early morning.  After two weeks as a vocationer at an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan, (, I, unfortunately, don’t think I can make this claim any longer.  Though I think getting Pizza Hut to deliver outside their delivery zone, after hours and breaking the Greater Silence to do it has better story making capacity, any.

St. Gregory’s Abbey is a community of men living under the Rule of St. Benedict in the Episcopal Church.  Each July they sponsor a vocational program for individuals who are curious about monasticism and serious about faith.  Seeing as how I recently found myself with a free July, I figured living a couple weeks as a monk would be more productive than haunting Salem coffee shops, so I hopped the Amtrak to Kalamazoo and arrived just in time for the Feast of St. Benedict – an auspicious beginning to my monastic tenure, which had a couple consequences for my first day as a member of the community:

1. I got to sleep in.  Instead of the bell for Matins ringing at 3.50 am, Matins and Lauds were combined and held at 5.30.  The other five offices (Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline + Matins and Lauds = 7) were similarly enjambed.  Tea was a full hour instead of just a half of one and we didn’t have class. 

2. I got to talk at dinner.  Traditionally meals are taken without conversation.  After being summoned to your place by a bell and a short prayer, everyone sits in his assigned seat, uses various improvised gestures to pass jugs of milk, Tobasco sauce, or the  dense, dark “monk’s bread” that serves as a staple of each meal and listens as a brother reads aloud from a book selected by the Abbot.  During my time at St. Gregory’s, we finished Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making and began Touched By God: Ten Monastic Journeys inspired by the BBC’s recent miniseries “The Monastery.” In addition to conversation, we got to enjoy some table plonk to celebrate the Holy Father’s life.

3.  I didn’t have to work.  For two hours in the morning between Mass and Sext and for two hours in the afternoon between None and Tea, the brothers work.  This is not to say that they only “work” for four hours a day, however.  A monk’s primary labor is prayer and he engages in this activity 7+ hours hours a day, 7 days a week.  Those four hours designated as “work,” then, are for earthly labor: beer making, groundskeeping, office work. While I got out of work my first day, the rest of my days as a monk involved moving dirt to fill in around some newly poured side walks.

Many of my preconceptions of monastic life were true – it’s very quiet, the refectory menu is similar to that of a nursing home’s, the majority  of religious are homosexual.  There were surprises, too, though – I had conversations about the band Tool, Facebook shenanigans, and post-modern East European literature.  Playing corn hole does wonders for humanizing the otherwise other-ed character of a monk.  It quickly became apparent that each of the brothers had a story of life before entering the Order, and that while one gives up a lot to devote himself wholly to the worship of God, having a personality is not among the prohibitions.

While I don’t anticipate formally entering the novitiate anytime soon, there are some things I do plan to takeaway from my experience (and wearing a black cassock on a regular basis is not one of them):

  • Ritualizing the day by reading the daily offices.  I don’t think I can swing taking seven prayer breaks everyday, but reading morning and evening prayer from the BCP is surely doable.
  • Don’t work so hard to fill the silence.  Following Vespers each day for 30 mins we would sit in the choir and silently meditate.  At first I considered this an intellectual exercise: how could I keep my mind busy with no outside stimulus? – free association gone wild.  Then, I realized it was a time not to concern myself with what I was putting into the universe but simply to be aware of what was happening around me on a micro and macro level.

Tomorrow I meet the goats. . .

if at first you don’t succeed

Obviously, my first (or was it second?) attempt at keeping a blog was an utter failure.

With so much change and activity and news to report now, though, I figure this is as good a time as any to reinvigorate the oft-discussed blog.

Sunday I embark on an adventure I never dreamed possible even just a few weeks ago: a month on a goat farm in Poland, then (potentially) the Trans-Mongolian railroad to Beijing, Lhasa, Kathmandu, and Calcutta.  I’ll surely find plenty to write about from these adventures and will try to share the stories here rather than scatter-shot.

In the next few days, look for a report from my two weeks as a vocationer at an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Michigan as well as some thoughts on marriage following a ceremony I recently attended in Missouri.

Now to finish this packing. . .

Week in Review

Sunday: Odds of dying in a Fung Wah accident increased as I returned safely one once more from a weekend on the Chinatown bus – this time in a blizzard.  I did end up missing Nook at the Lily Pad, unfortunately.

Monday: Recreated the Grotowski inspired Crying Deer on a River Street living room floor, ate cauliflower-potato-cheese-pie and discussed the tragedy of “Saved!” embodied in the dialogue:  

“What’s a good evangelical girl doing at Planned Parenthood?” 
“Planting a pipe bomb?”

Tuesday: Hired my first employee.  Look for The History Press to come to Midwest town near you soon.

Wednesday: Attended the Feast of Altagracia and celebrated the second anniversary of the Hispanic ministry at Grace Church in Salem.  

Thursday: Discussed Eurythmia and Anthroposophy over pints at The Old Spot.

Friday: Coordinated 200+ piece mailing to  sluggish Indiana Historical Societies who don’t seem to know how to act in their best interests.  Opted out of a trip to the Rhumb Line with a motley group of Waldorf educators.

Saturday: Caught up on backlogged New Yorker reading, attended reading at Athenaeum, made an appearance at Strega.

Look for more detailed analyses in the weeks to come.


A sick day today means that I have some time to undertake some of those resolutions I’ve been putting off.

I actually got started a couple months ago with the acquisition of a dining room table.  If you’ve ever visited what I’ve affectionately been calling “The Parlor” at 15 Winter in Salem, you’ll know that this acquisition represents a significant contribution to my furniture holdings. After reading Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things, I began to think about how my possessions parallel my relationships, and more particularly what types of things and people I wanted to intentionally bring into my life.  A dining room table seemed to fit the bill, and I hope to now be able to invite diverse groups of folks to share a meal and make a memory in my home.

The other thing that I’ve long wanted to bring into my life is a blog.  I know it’s cliche, but with friends and family spread literally around the world it seems to be the best way to stay connected to a network that continually grows ever more complex and diverse.

I’m not sure exactly what form I want this to take, whether a daily diary  of a New England niche publisher’s life or a subject-driven clearing house for my ideas on various subjects of semi-relevance.  Surely, it will end up being something of a combination, but I’m always open to suggestions and not afraid of surprises. 

Here’s some of what I’m planning to discuss in the days ahead:

  • A review of the Grotowski inspired silent play Crying Deer (
  • An exploration of the tragic elements of the 2004 film Saved!
  • Doctrines of the Family
  • Ideas about how to renovate local history through online social networking and concepts of “home”
  • A review of the Museum of Art and Design
  • A recipe for cauliflower-potato-cheese pie 

 Needless to say, it shouldn’t be boring.

Continue reading “Resolutions”