On the Phone

June 4th, 2017

“Certain kinds of intimacy emerge on a phone call that might never occur if you were sitting right next to the person.” – Errol Morris

 

During the course of our four week road trip, we sometimes heard from our children, usually in the form of texts. Hannah wrote to me about a money issue. I told her that we would handle it when I got home. All conversations with Hannah are like scenes from The Godfather; everything is strictly business. Stefan would text us occasionally. Mostly, he was responding to how we described our travels. He would send short messages that said, “Cool” or “Fun” or “Some of us have to work for a living”.  He would also assure us that the house had not burned down, and that the dogs were still alive. Good to know.

Hans liked to call us, and he liked to talk at length. Sometimes, it was about work. Some, he spoke about his Harley. Sometimes, he just rambled on. Hans never called to have a conversation. He called in order to have a monologue. It was pure flow of consciousness; no regulator valve between the brain and the mouth.  Hans just loved to talk.

He called one time while we were in California. I told him where we were and what we were doing. It was quiet on his end, and then he asked,

“So, how long has it been since you left my place in Texas?”

“I don’t know. A week or so,” I replied.

“And you’re still not home yet?”

“No, we’re not.”

“This doesn’t sound like the Dad that I know.”

“Well, I changed. We are taking our time.”

There was a pause. Then Hans asked, “Who are you, and what have you done with the real Frank?”

“Just shut the fuck up.”

Laughter.

Then Hans said, “Well, it does sound pretty cool. I would like to take a trip like that on my bike.”

“Well, then, go do it.”

Hans said, “What I really want to do is take a ride like those two guys in that old hippie movie.”

“You mean Easy Rider?”

“Yeah. That one. You know, it had those two guys on choppers. What were their names?”

“Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper?”

“Yeah! Those guys. And there was the guy who played the lawyer…”

“Jack Nicholson.”

“Yeah! Him! That would be cool. Well, except for the part about getting murdered by hillbillies.”

“Yes, that would be unfortunate.”

Hans laughed. “I’m a redneck, so I would shoot back. They wouldn’t expect that shit.”

“I would expect not.”

“Hey, I’m getting another call. I got to go.”

“Okay. Love ya.”

“Love you too.”

Cars and Trucks

May 22nd, 2017

“If you own a home with wheels on it and several cars without, you just might be a redneck.” – Jeff Foxworthy

That Tuesday night Karin met up with Shawn and some other girls for a meeting of The Pontifical Biblical Institute of the Holy Hippie Sisterhood. They were going to catch up on old times, and maybe even talk about religion. Karin and I waited in the Harvest Café for the other women to arrive. When the first one showed up, I took my leave.

Hans was working a long shift that day for Capitol Concrete. We didn’t know quite when he would be done. Karin and I knew that he wouldn’t have the time or energy to make himself any supper, so I planned on getting us all a big pizza from Mr. G’s, and then taking it back with to Hans’ trailer, once he was off of work. In the meantime, Karin would have coffee with her friends and I would find something to do.

There is an Irish pub just down the block from Harvest. I went inside and asked the bartender to cut me a slice of Guinness Stout and put in a glass for me. Then I found a quiet booth and started reading some more in Joseba’s book, That Old Bilbao Moon. Joseba is a Basque and he teaches at UN-Reno. I met him at Creech AFB in Nevada. The book is about Joseba’s experiences with Bilbao and the boys in the ETA. I love the book, mostly because much of it is so alien to me. Some of the stories are pretty wild, but clearly authentic.

Eventually, the beer was gone and it was time to pick up the pizza. I put it into the car, and went into Harvest to alert Karin that we needed to move on. I knew the women in the coffee shop. They seemed glad to see me. Shawna shouted out, “Look at Frank! You can tell he’s retired. He’s positively glowing!” It was true. It’s hard to hide that sort of thing.

We met Hans back at the trailer. He had his pickup truck parked out back. It’s an ’88 Chevy diesel with a blown engine. Hans had the truck bed full of bags of garbage, mostly because the dumpster at the Shell station was already full of trash.

We started to eat the pizza. Hans looked at it with suspicion.

“Why did you get a pizza with all this weird stuff on it?”

“Like what?”

Hans sniffed at a slice. “These are mushrooms. I hate mushrooms. And I think this is an olive.”

“It’s all good for you.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Hans chewed on the pizza, and looked out the door at the Toyota.

“Why didn’t you get a cool car? Aren’t you going through a mid-life crisis? Was the BMW the only cool car you were ever going to buy?”

I replied, “Yeah, the Beemer was it.”

Hans said wistfully, “I wish you still had the BMW. Then you could give it to me.

“That’s strange. Your brother says the same thing. He thinks that he should have had the BMW.”

“What?! I’m the eldest son. I should have gotten the BMW!”

“Really? Are we going to stand here and argue about a car that doesn’t even exist anymore?”

Hans smirked and said, “Yes.”

I sighed.

Hans said, “You should get a truck. But you can’t get one like mine. It’s hard to find a truck like mine. It’s a collector’s item.”

I replied, “It shouldn’t be that hard to collect, seeing as it doesn’t move.”

“What?! You hush now! Enough of this foolish talk!”

Hans ate more of the pizza that he didn’t like. Then he asked, “Do you know what pisses me off?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Those young, college kids that talk shit about veterans. They even do that at A&M.”

“Really? At Texas A&M?”

Hans nodded, “No place is safe. Bunch of liberal punks.”

I shook my head and said, “Yeah…those goddamn liberals.”

Hans gave me a stone cold stare. “You know what I mean.”

“Do I?” I smiled.

Hans rolled his eyes. “You’re a liberal, but you’re a Vietnam-era, hippie kind of liberal. I can deal with that.”

“That’s comforting.”

“These young guys. They go to school with their daddy’s money and their nice cars. They don’t know what work is. They got to have their ‘safe zones’ where nobody will talk mean to them.” Hans’ voice was full of disgust.

Then Hans said, “They don’t respect their elders.”

I raised an eyebrow at that comment.

He went on: “I got into it with one of those guys.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Well, one of these guys was talking shit to me, so I pulled back the edge of my jacket a bit so he could see my knife.”

Big knife?”

Hans shrugged, “Just standard military issue. K-bar.”

“And then what?”

Hans continued, “The guy started backing up. I didn’t threaten him or anything. I never said a word to him. I just showed him my knife hanging off of my belt. The guy was still talking shit even as he was moving away from me.”

We finished the pizza.

 

 

Travel Trailer

May 21st, 2017

“A bachelor’s life is no life for a single man.” – Samuel Goldwyn

Karin and I spent five nights with Hans in his travel trailer. It was old and rundown. It was small and cramped. However, it was his. Hans had been couch-surfing for almost one and a half years (ever since the house fire), and now he finally had a place that he could call home. Yeah, he was renting this thing, and it wasn’t in a prime location, but Hans wasn’t homeless any more.

Hans gave us his bedroom, and he slept on the couch in the kitchen/living room/everything else room. We asked Hans about bed linen.

Hans said, “Well, I have a sheet.”

“You mean one sheet.”

“Yeah, well, I was going to go to Walmart, but I didn’t have time to do that, you know, with work and all.”

“That’s okay. Do you have any bath towels, if we want to take a shower?’

“Well, I have a towel.”

It became obvious that Hans was lacking certain basic, household items. We decided to go to Walmart after Mass on Sunday and pick up a few things. We got Hans sheets, pillowcases, and a comforter. We bought towels, a rug for his tiny bathroom, knives (Hans had forks and spoons, but no knives). We got a small plastic trash container. A broom. A lighter for his stove. A coffee maker. I don’t remember what else we picked up. We didn’t buy anything extravagant; just the sort of things that a single guy really should have available.

Hans gave us a short tour of his home. He had a small table with benches around it.

Hans told us, ”Don’t move that cap there on the bench by the door.”

“Why?”

Hans lifted up the cap and there was “The Judge” underneath it. The Judge is a five shot revolver that takes .410 bore shot shells or a .45 Colt cartridge. I knew it was loaded. The Judge will probably put a hole through a cinder block.

“Yeah, nice.”

Hans looked at me, and said, “You don’t know who might be knockin’ on this door. We got some druggies around here.”

Hans had a dresser next to the door of the trailer. In one of the drawers he had his 1911 .45 semi-automatic.

“Is that one loaded too?’

Hans squinted at me through his glasses, and said, “I don’t want to take a chance of wasting time trying to reload the Judge.

You can never be too careful.

We also realized that Hans had no clean clothes. None. Nada. He had been working mega-hours at the concrete company, and he had completely run through every piece of clothing that he owned. Karin and I asked him if we should take his stuff to a laundromat on Monday morning.

Hans said, “You don’t need to do that. It’s just that it’s been hard for me to get clothes washed, with the hours I’ve been working, and I only got the Harley running right now.”

“It’s okay. We have to wash our clothes too. We’ve been on the road for a while. It would be no big deal for us to take your things along with us.”

“Well, if you’re sure…

“Hans, it’s fine.”

Hans sighed, “Oookay.”

Hans had a drawer full of loose change. Hans believes in cash. He just throws extra questers, dimes, and nickels into the drawer. The quarters came in handy for the laundromat.

We packed up baskets and bags of Hans’ clothes into the back of the Corolla early on Monday morning. We drove him to work. It was a bad morning to be on a Harley. The rain poured down. I could barely see the road. It was a Noah’s Ark kind of rain; just nasty, and windy as hell. Hans figured that they wouldn’t be going out on a job with the weather being so bad, and that he would probably only be doing vehicle maintenance that morning. So we told him that we would pick him up whenever he was done with his shift.

Karin and I went to the Village Coffee Shop for breakfast, and then we found a laundry on Texas Avenue. We dragged in all of the clothes, and a nice Latina showed us how to use the machines. We filled up three of the big, heavy duty, industrial-sized washers with Hans’ things. First we had to dig through all of his pockets. He had lighters, cigarette butts, and fifty bucks in cash in his pockets. We didn’t find all of the cash prior to washing. Some of his money was a lot cleaner, and a little damp, by the time we were finished. We stayed at the laundromat all morning. We used two monster dryers; the kind that would fit a queen-size mattress inside of them. Several hours and many quarters later, we got a text from Hans, and we drove to the concrete company to pick him up.

We parked out front of the shop. A big, heavy-set guy walked up to our car. He had a wide smile and he introduced himself as Jeromy.

“Y’all Hans’ folks?” he grinned as he spoke.

“Yep.”

“Glad to meet y’all!”

“We’re happy to meet you too.”

Jeromy hollered back toward the shop, “Oh Haaaaaans! You’re Mommy and Daddy are here to pick you up! They’re here waiting on their little boy! They don’t want you getting wet in the rain!”

I could faintly hear an indistinct, but obviously obscene, response from the back of the shop.

Jeromy laughed loudly. He asked, “Did y’all do Hans’ laundry for him? Hans said that he only had one load of clothes. Is that true?”

I replied, “Well, if one load means that all his shit fit into the car, yeah, then he only had one load of clothes.”

Jeromy roared with laughter. About that time Hans walked up to the car.

Jeromy looked at Hans and said, “You stay dry now. I don’t want you catching a cold.”

Hans smiled and gave Jeromy that “fuck you” look.

They both laughed.

 

 

Anderson

May 20th, 2017

“When the peace treaty is signed, the war isn’t over for veterans, or the families. It’s just starting.” – Karl Marlantes

Hans lives in Anderson, Texas. More accurately, he lives somewhere near Anderson, Texas. Unfortunately, a GPS is not good at locating somebody with no physical address, who lives near a little town in eastern Texas. I tried to get some more precise information from Hans before went we drove down to see him.

“Okay, so where exactly do you live?”

Hans drawled, “Well, the travel trailer is behind the gas station on Highway 30. It’s on the right side of the road as you’re heading toward Bryan. It’s not that far from Yankee’s. You know, that’s the tavern we went to last time you were here.”

“That doesn’t really help, Hans.”

“Well, it’s pretty close to Carlos.”

“Carlos?”

“That’s a little town close by.”

“How about Mom and I just meet with you at Yankee’s? We can eat supper there.”

“Okay, let me know when you guys are getting close.”

Karin and I spent all of a Saturday driving though southwest Arkansas and northeastern Texas to meet up with Hans. The GPS took us through the hills and backroads of the Ozarks. It was all pretty country. It was to drive. Once we got to Texas, the names of places started to look familiar: Tyler, Palestine, Crockett, and Madisonville. Over the years, we had made so many trips to Texas that it was like driving back home.

Yankee’s is a biker bar. It isn’t really in Anderson either. The truth is that there isn’t much of anything that is actually in Anderson. Anderson is the seat of Grimes County, and it has one main street that ends up at the courthouse. Other than that, the street has an antique shop, a couple offices, a mean dog, and the Confederate Memorial Park. The park has a fine statue of a rebel soldier with the Stars and Bars waving proudly overheard.  Welcome to the South.

Yankee’s is a good place. It’s kind of rustic. It’s a Harley hangout. We arrived late in the afternoon.  The Toyota Corolla didn’t quite fit it in. At least we weren’t driving a Prius.  Inside there is a bar and some rough-hewn wooden tables. Lots of biker paraphernalia on the walls. Fox News on the TV. A few locals were holding down some stools. The girl behind the bar gave us a big smile and a “Hi, y’all” before she asked what we would like.

Karin asked for a water.

I asked for a Shiner Bock and directions to the bathroom.

We texted Hans. He was on his way to meet us. He had stopped at the Harley shop to get a new helmet. The old one had a crack, and wasn’t much good any more. I didn’t bother to find out from Hans how he got a crack in his helmet. Some questions are better left unasked.

Then we heard a Harley roll up, and Hans walked in the door. He was wearing old jeans that were stuffed into his scuffed up boots. He had on a faded jean jacket that had an eagle on the back. He had a fresh haircut. It was high and tight; shaved on the sides and the back, with just a fluff of reddish-blond hair on the top. Hans had a moustache that looked like an orange caterpillar on his upper lip. He had a scruffy beard on his chin and on his upper neck. He wanted to go back outside and light up a smoke.

After Hans burned one, we all ordered something to eat. I think each of us had a hamburger. Hans paid. He got himself a Miller, and he bought drinks for Karin and me. We sat together and ate, and then we all went outside in the evening twilight. Hans wanted to show us his bike, and he wanted to light up again.

Hans was starting to feel good. He talked with us, as he sat on a picnic table in front of the tavern, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other.

Hans smiled at me and said, “So, how does it feel now that you’re a felon?”

“Okay.” I smiled back.

Hans laughed to himself, “Well, you’re not really a felon, I guess. You’re not convicted yet. So, tell me again, what was all that nonsense in Nevada? What did you get busted for?”

“Civil disobedience. Disturbing the peace.”

Hans chuckled and shook his head. “My dad…” and then he laughed some more.

Hans talked a bit about the Hells Angels, and then we started talking about the Army. We always wind up talking about the Army. Hans looked at me, and he said with enthusiasm, “

That deployment to Iraq was the high point of my life! I will never again have the feeling and the brotherhood I had there!”

We followed Hans back to his home behind the Shell station about ten minutes down the road from Yankee’s. Hans lives in one of the old travel trailers. He showed it to us. As I looked at the outside, he said,

“Yeah, I know. White trash.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

Hans replied, “You didn’t have to.”

It was getting dark. There was some light coming from the gas station, so we could still see a bit while we were outside. Hans lit up. I could see a few stars. Facing away from the filling station I could make out some trees and fields. It was all country in that direction.

Hans started talking about the Army again.

He shook his head as he blew out some smoke, “Sometimes these young officers really didn’t know what they were doing. Our platoon leader, he didn’t get it. You know how lieutenants are.”

“Yeah, I know. I remember.”

Hans got really serious. “I disobeyed an order form the LT. You know why? If I hadn’t, he would have got us killed.”

“How so?”

Hans told me a story about his unit taking some rounds from guys who were hiding in a line of palm trees. Hans pointed out at a fence line in the distance.

“They weren’t any further away than that fence. The platoon leader didn’t want us to fire back. Fuck that! We went after those guys.”

Hans laughed. “I had a machine gun. I didn’t have time to set it up. I was doing the Rambo thing and firing from the hip.” He laughed again. “I didn’t hit anything. I was shooting all wild. But I managed to provide cover for the other guys, so they could do their jobs and get those fuckers.”

“How many were guys were in the palms?”

Hans took a drag and said, “We found around thirty bodies.”

I watched Hans as he told the story. Hans usually speaks slowly and in monosyllables. But now he was excited. His face was flushed and he spoke quickly.  A couple beers probably brought up the emotions. The fact is that, while he told the story, Hans was back there. He was in Iraq again.

Hans calmed down, and got serious. Then he said, “Yeah, I got in trouble for that shit. I had to talk to the battalion commander, with the CO and the First Sergeant there. One of my sergeants talked up for me. My platoon leader wasn’t happy though.

Then Hans laughed again. Hans said, “The colonel, he took my side. He was yelling and carrying on. He was even hollering at the CO! He said, ‘Specialist Pauc did the right thing! We’re supposed to engage the enemy!’ He was all wound up.”

Hans shrugged, shook his head, and said quietly, “Some people didn’t like me much after that. Nobody wanted to help me get promoted. I knew to get out.”

Hans put out the remains of the cigarette. We went inside the trailer.

 

 

New Clairvaux

June 3rd, 2017

Monastic communities are by definition counter-cultural. Their members have lifestyles that run contrary to the prevailing values and mores of the surrounding population. This has been the case since St. Benedict founded the first monastery in the West back in the 6th century. Benedictines embrace lives that emphasize personal poverty, obedience to authority, humility, and an intense devotion to God. Their days follow a rigorous schedule of “ora et labora” (prayer and work).

There is a direct connection between Benedict’s centuries-old monastery at Monte Cassino and the Trappist abbey at New Clairvaux in Vina, California. There is a fifteen hundred year lineage. New Clairvaux can trace its heritage back to St. Benedict’s original monastery in Italy. New Clairvaux is a Trappist monastery. The Trappists are reformed Benedictines. Actually, they are reformed reformers. The Benedictines had become somewhat lax in their rules by the 12th century and a group of monks, later known as the Cistercians, attempted to bring the community back to its earlier reliance on prayer and manual labor. St. Bernard was one of these monks, and he founded the Abbey of Clairvaux in northern France (hence the name of Californian monastery, New Clairvaux). A few centuries later, another group of monks decided to reform the Cistercians, because they saw them as slackers. These monks were the Trappists.

New Clairvaux is a monastery in its infancy, relatively speaking. It was founded by monks from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, back in the 1950’s, when the monasteries had a huge influx of novices, and those institutions were bursting with men desiring to be monks. The abbot of Gethsemane sent some monks forth to found a new monastery, and they did so in northern California, near Chico. The monks tried to make livelihood through dairy farming, but that didn’t work out for them. However, winemaking did work. So now, New Clairvaux has extensive vineyards, walnut groves, and plum orchards. The only problem is that they lack monks.

Karin and I were completely unaware of the existence of New Clairvaux until the day before we went to stay there. We were visiting the Earth Abides Catholic Worker farm in Calaveras County when Marcus, a resident of Earth Abides, told us about New Clairvaux. Karin and I had been trying to stay at Catholic retreat houses during our seemingly endless journey across America.  Marcus suggested that we contact the people at New Clairvaux and perhaps go there next.

I called the Retreat center at New Clairvaux. I talked to a guy named Will, who then put me on the line with a woman named Michelle (we found out later that Will and Michelle were married, and that worked together as guest masters). Michelle informed me that they had one room left at the retreat house, but we would need to stay there for three nights and two days. The monks required that anybody coming to the abbey make an actual retreat. The house wasn’t to be used simply as a spiritual motel. Karin and I were good with that, so the next day we drove north to Vina.

New Clairvaux is somewhat secluded. It is that way by design. The monks want to be separate from the rest of the world, and they arrange things to make that happen. The grounds have a very Mediterranean look to them. New Clairvaux could easily be somewhere in Italy or Greece. There are towering pines and cedars. We saw orange trees heavy with fruit, and great oleander bushes filled with pink, red, and white flowers. Near the retreat house are massive and ancient black walnut trees. One of them had to be at least six feet wide across the base. There is a church, and a great stone chapterhouse which is under construction. The monks themselves live in a cloister, set apart from the rest of the property. There are outbuildings that house shops and farm equipment. Fruit and nut trees extend outward from the monastery in all directions.

Karin and I met with Michelle. It was early in the afternoon of Friday on the weekend of Pentecost (Shavuot). She informed us that we had arrived a bit too early to check in. However, Michelle mentioned that we could stop at the Oliva Room to learn about the history of the abbey, and that right next door to that was the winetasting room. We told Michelle that we would be back in an hour. After sampling the monastery’s vintages and engaging with random conversations with total strangers, we returned to the guest master office to get settled.

Michelle gave us our keys, and then Will showed us to our room. Will is a short, wiry man. He has white hair and a goatee. Will is officially the “porter”. It’s an old-fashioned title, but it fits. Will cares for the grounds and he is there to get people settled in for their stay at New Clairvaux. Will is passionate about his work. He likes to talk, and that is what we did.

Will said, “Didn’t I just talk to you yesterday on the phone?”

I said. “Yeah.”

“Boy, Michelle got you in here quick! This place is usually booked solid. You know, she is already taking reservations for 2018.

Will asked us where we were from and what brought us to New Clairvaux. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I had been in the Army, and that our oldest son, Hans, was an Iraqi War vet.

Will is also a veteran. He had served in Vietnam.

Will walked us to our room. He laughed and said, “Yeah, I survived the ’60s!”

I asked him, “Do you remember much of it?”

He laughed again, “No, not really.”

Will told us, “When I got back from Vietnam, I just couldn’t fit in. I finally hitchhiked from Philly to Chico back in ’71. I slept in fields for seven days while making the trip. I did that sort of thing for years, well, until I met Michelle. Then my life changed.”

Will talked about the monks: “These guys pray. That is their real job. They keep this world from falling apart. I tell these young guys who are thinking about joining up that this something that is worthwhile. This is life that means something!”

Will showed us our room, and he explained to us how to operate the air conditioner. Our new home was actually two small rooms with a shower/bathroom. The rooms, like most everything else at New Clairvaux, were austere. The walls were all plain cinder blocks. There was very little decoration. The rooms were comfortable, but extremely simple.

Will took us to the dining facility. That too was simple. Breakfast was whenever we felt like eating. We were on our own in that regard. The monks brought hot food to the dining room for lunch and supper, but they just dropped it off and left. Our interactions with the monks were to be at an absolute minimum. Our interactions with other retreatants were going to be the same. The focus was on silence. Peace and quiet were paramount here.

Monastic life is based on a rigid schedule of prayer and work. The monks gather for prayer seven times a day. They start at 3:30 AM with Vigils. Then at 6:00 Am is Lauds. Then Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and finally Compline in the evening. The prayers consist primarily of the recitation of the psalms. Karin and I attended the prayers with the monks and got into their rhythm. We also went to Mass with them.

We had time. Being at a retreat house means putting the brakes on life for a couple days. A person is Internet-free, and suddenly there is time to read or walk. There is time to eat and sleep. There is time to think and feel. There is time to just be. I took to walking along the gravel roads that led past the groves of fruit trees and past the vineyards. At certain points I could make out the snow-capped mountains in the distance. If I got restless, I walked.

Hans called. It was early on the morning of Pentecost. I was walking past the straight lines of walnut trees when my cell phone went off. I saw it was Hans, so I answered the phone.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Hans yawned. He said in his Texas drawl, “Not too much. I didn’t hardly get any sleep last night.”

“Why?”

“An Army buddy called me in the middle of the night. I’m not even sure who he was. He woke me up from a sound sleep, and it took me a while to understand him.”

“Why did he call?’

“He wanted to tell me about a guy who went to Iraq with us. The guy killed himself yesterday.”

“What happened?”

Hans sighed. “Well, the guy decided to get crazy. He pulled out the twelve gauge, and he shot his wife and girls, and then he shot himself.”

I could hear my feet crunching the gravel on the road as I walked.

Then I asked Hans, “How many died?”

“Four.”

“What was the guy’s name.”

There was a pause, and Hans said, “Joe.”

“Where was he?’

Hans got irritable. “I don’t know. He was still in (the Army). He could have been anywhere.”

“Did you know him well?”

“For a while we were close. We used to barbecue together and stuff. Then I lost track of the guy.”

Hans went on, “After the call, I went to the gas station and bought me a twelve pack of Limeritas. I drank those until I fell asleep. Dad, you know, my mind was just racing. That was the only way I could get it to stop.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve been there.”

Hans yawned again. “Well, I’ll let you go. I just wanted to tell you about what happened.”

“Okay. I’m glad you called.”

Hans said, “Okay. Bye. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I stopped walking. I looked at the trees. I breathed.

“Fuck! Doesn’t this shit ever end!?”

I went back to our room. I told Karin about Hans’ call. We went to Mass.

Sunday Mass at the monastery usually has more people in attendance than at any other time. The section set aside for lay persons was almost full. I was tense. Karin knew it. She can always tell. I emit nervous energy like a furnace does heat.

During the service, the congregation always prays aloud to ask God for help. The prayers are sometimes called “petitions” or “intentions” or “prayers of the faithful”. Generally, there are a series of standard requests that we ask of God. Each prayer ends with: “Let us pray to the Lord!” The response from the entire community to those words is: ”Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions usually end with prayers from individuals in the congregation, personal requests.

At Mass the deacon recited the list of petitions. People dutifully, and perhaps without listening, responded to each request with “Lord, hear our prayer!” The petitions are all worthwhile, but they are also somewhat impersonal. It is easy to grow numb to them. It is easy to respond without thinking.

Then the priest asked if anybody in the congregation had a personal intention.

I spoke up: “For a young man named Joe. An Iraqi War vet. He shot his wife and kids, and then he killed himself yesterday. Let us pray to the Lord.”

There was a pause. Very brief. Perhaps no longer than a heartbeat.

Then, all at once, “Lord, hear our prayer!”

I shook for a while after that. Karin squeezed my hand. I went through the rest of the Mass feeling a kind of disconnect. I was there, but not entirely. I received communion. We sang the closing hymn. Karin and I left the church in silence.

I think that sometimes people go to monasteries expecting that God will magically keep the outside world at bay. It doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes the world kicks in the door, and screams, “I’m baaack!” The monastery is an oasis, not a fortress. It is a place to heal, not a place to hide.

Karin and I left the monastery the following morning. Michelle and Will asked us about Hans and about his friend, Joe. They really cared. I think the other people at the church cared too.

That’s good enough.

 

Christ in the Desert

May 27th, 2017

“There, in the desert, there’s hunger, thirst, prostrations-and God. Here there’s food, wine, women-and God. Everywhere God. So, why go look for him in the desert?” – Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ

“Christ in the Desert” has been called the most remote monastery in the Western Hemisphere. It is. I have no doubt of it. The abbey is hidden in New Mexico among mountains of breath-taking beauty, and it is an absolute bitch to reach. The journey to this monastery is probably easier than a trip to Lhasa in Tibet, but it also not for the faint of heart.

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert appears to be located near the tiny New Mexican community of Abiquiu. One might get that notion from the monastery’s website. This is totally misleading. This is like saying that Milwaukee is near La Crosse.  It is true that both Milwaukee and La Crosse lie within the borders of Wisconsin, just as Christ in the Desert and Abiquiu are both in New Mexico. However, that doesn’t mean that these locations are anywhere near each other, in the usual sense of the word.

The monastery uses Abiquiu as its mailing address, and for good reason. There is no post office closer than the one in Abiquiu. It is still quite a haul from Abiquiu to the monastery. First, a person needs to drive twelve miles north through the mountains along Route 84. Then the fun starts. There is U.S. Forest Service Road 151 that eventually takes the traveler to Christ in the Desert. This dirt road is thirteen miles long, winds through Carson National Forest, and it dead ends at the monastery. On a daily basis, the monastery posts the road conditions for 151 on its website. This is important information. If the road through the mountains is muddy or snow-covered, it is impossible to get to the abbey. Don’t even bother making the attempt in those conditions. 

               Forest Service Road 151 is not a private road. Other people, besides monks and visitors to the monastery, use the road for various reasons. The Chama River flows swiftly through a valley, and the Forest Service has set up recreational sites along the river for kayaks and canoes. There are a few ranchers in the area. So, this road gets more traffic than one would expect. It’s not necessarily busy, but it is not always empty either.

I didn’t mind the condition of the road. It was bumpy and dusty, but Karin and I traveled some other roads that were much, much worse during the course of our journeys. I wasn’t so much bothered by the steep grades and hairpin turns. I didn’t get too excited about the fact that 151 clings to the sides of cliffs without even the thought of a guardrail on the edge. I was concerned that this road had only one lane. True, there were occasional turnouts along the side, but these were few and far between. I was very worried about climbing around a steep curve and then suddenly facing an F-350 coming in the opposite direction. In that case, somebody needed to back up, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.

Karin drove the Toyota to the monastery. I drove us out when our visit was over.

Karin was amused by my nervousness.

As she went around a tight curve in second gear, she asked me, ”Are you scared? You’re holding on to that door handle pretty tight.”

“No, I’m okay.”

Karin smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m in control.”

“Focus on the road.”

“I am focusing on the road. Hey, that’s a beautiful view across the valley! Look at those mountains! We should take a picture.” The car got close to the edge of a drop off as she said this.

“Focus on the ROAD.”

“Just relax!”

Forty-five minutes later we arrived at Christ in the Desert. The car was coated with fine, red dust. There is no check in procedure at the monastery. Nobody greets you. There is simply a note telling you where your room is located. Ours was in the ranch house, just beyond the church.

The monks require that any visitors making a retreat stay for at least two nights. This seems reasonable. Why would anybody make this kind of trip and only stay overnight? We were arriving on a Friday night, so we would be spending most of the weekend at the abbey. It takes at least a two nights and a full day to appreciate the experience. We had arrived at the monastery after supper time, and the sun was setting over the tops of the surrounding mesas. It wasn’t dark, but the shadows were getting very long.

Christ in the Desert has a guesthouse and a ranch house for retreatants. Karin and I stayed in the ranch house. That house, like everything else in the monastery, is built in an adobe style. Massive walls painted a kind of reddish-tan color. Many buildings in New Mexico have that look. The thick walls of the house keep the rooms cool during the summer. The ranch house has three rooms for guests, and then another room containing a kitchenette, bathroom, and a shower. The guestrooms don’t have any of those things.

Our room had two single beds, each of them with a fluffy comforter. The beds also had extra-large pillows. The floor was made of brick with a carpet over a portion of it. There was a free standing, wooden closet for hanging clothes. There was a small desk and a comfortable chair. Of course, there was a crucifix on the wall.

The most remarkable thing in the room was a large reproduction of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. I didn’t get to see any of the other guest rooms, but I suspect that each one held some work of religious art. The monks have excellent taste. They have examples of religious art in most areas of the monastery: murals, icons, statues, paintings, sculptures. Everything I saw there was beautiful. Modern religious art tends to be cheesy and sentimental. For art to inspire, it needs to be a little edgy, a little mysterious. I looked at Return of the Prodigal Son several times, and I always found something new.

The monks had left guest instructions in the room for us. There were prayer times listed, and the times for meals. The instructions made it clear that we were not to interact with the monks, and to maintain a respectful distance from the other retreatants. If we had issues, we could speak with the guest master, Brother Andre. The note showed that there would the evening prayer, Compline, at 7:30 PM. We went to the church to attend the service, but the monks had some kind of meeting going, so Karin and I just went back to our room and got ready for bed.

I got up at 3:50 AM. That is when I heard the bells ring for Vigils, the earliest of the morning prayers. Karin had told me to take her along if she woke up on her own. She didn’t. So, I got up in the dark, dressed, and went outside to walk the gravel path to the chapel. I had to stop on the way.

It is difficult to express just how dark it gets at Christ in the Desert. I stepped out of the ranch house and I looked toward the sky. I have never seen so many stars. The Milky Way crossed the heavens like a ragged band of white. I could pick out a few of the constellations: Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Cassiopeia. Mostly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars, shining above me like frozen fire. After a while I had to look away again. My mind couldn’t take it all in. There was just too much to see.

I looked to my left and saw the open door of the church. The light from inside shown like a beacon. I stumbled toward the light.

The chapel is not very big. There are two sets of choir stalls facing each other. Near the entrance door are the seats for lay people. There aren’t many seats there, because usually there aren’t many lay people in attendance. The chapel is dimly lit. It seems much brighter from outside.

The monks find their seats and start chanting the psalms at 4:00 AM. The service starts with the sound of wood striking on wood. It reminds me a bit of how meditation practice begins at the Zen Center at home. The monks use Gregorian chant. They do most of it in English, but they occasionally say a prayer in Latin. The service lasts for almost an hour. The monks alternate singing the psalms. First one side chants, and then the monks on the other side of the church chant. There is a rhythm to the prayers that draws a person into them.

Karin and I went to Mass with the monks later that morning. We also celebrated with them on Sunday. They use many Latin versions of the prayers during the Mass: the Agnus Dei, the Gloria, the Sanctus. They do the Kyrie in Greek, but then it’s supposed to be in Greek. They love to use incense while they pray. Somehow, when these monks recite or sing the Latin prayers, it sounds right.

I have sometimes met Catholics who like to show the world how traditional and pious they are. They seem to have an intense nostalgia for the days before Vatican II, or for how they imagine those days must have been. These people bow and genuflect at odd times, and generally come across (at least to me) as being superficial and inauthentic. It is not like that with the Benedictine monks. It is all real. They are old school in a lot of ways, but that’s just who they are. They never have to talk about their faith; they live it. Their devotion to God is clear and clean, because it flows from the core of their being. These men seldom said a word to us. They didn’t need to do so. Their daily lives were a sermon.

Karin and I did talk with two of the monks. Brother Andre and Brother Benedict are guest masters, so they have to interact with visitors. Brother Andre is a short, compact man. He speaks in a clipped staccato that reflects his years of living on the East Coast. He’s wound tight. Brother Andre is a native of Connecticut. Brother Benedict is a tall black man with hair going grey. Brother Benedict has drooping eyelids that partially cover gentle brown eyes. He smiles slowly and broadly. He has a deep chuckle in his voice when he is amused. Brother Benedict is as relaxed as Brother Andre is hyper. They make a good team.

There must be around thirty monks at Christ in the Desert. Many of them are young. Many of them are from foreign countries. The community is multi-racial, multi-national, and dynamic. At other monasteries, the communities seem to be barely hanging in there. Christ in the Desert feels alive and growing. It would be interesting to me to find out why this group is different from the others.

The landscape around Christ in the Desert is gorgeous. The towering mesas have sheer cliffs that extend down into the river valley. The lower strata of rock are red in color. Above them are layers of yellow and grey stone. Pines cling to edges on the cliffs. During the day, the sunlight plays on the rock formations, and brings out the various hues. The Chama River flows green and peaceful down in the valley.

The land has an odd smell. I noticed it mostly in the water, but the scent is everywhere. It’s in the red dust. I can’t really describe it. It smells like flint. Maybe a little like iron. Maybe a little like blood. Maybe it’s just a desert smell. Whatever it is, it is now part of my memory of the place.

Years from now, I will forget many things. If I think back on Christ in the Desert, I will most likely remember stars and dust and prayers and blood. That’s not too bad.

 

 

 

Goddess Temple

This is from April 28th, 2017

It was early evening. I walked out of the yellow trailer that served as a guest house on the temple grounds. I stood on the deck. The sun had already set over the mountains to the west. There was still an orange glow in the Nevada sky. The crescent moon hung low in the sky. To the left of it I could just make out the faint stars in Orion. Above Orion I could see the shape of Leo. I stared at sky for a while to take it all in.

The temperature was dropping rapidly. I was glad that I wore my sweater. Dim landscape lights marked the edges of the footpaths that snaked through the temple area. I followed one of the paths to a shed that was also painted yellow. On one side of the shed was a mural depicting the goddess Sekhmet. It was illuminated by a flood light. Sekhmet is an Egyptian deity with the a lion’s head and a woman’s body. In Egyptian mythology Sekhmet was a warrior goddess as well as a source of fertility.The eyes of the goddess stared straight into mine. I moved on.

The official name of the place is “The Temple of Goddess Spirituality”. Everybody at the desert campsite just referred to it as the “Goddess Temple”. The temple is about three miles west of Creech AFB on US 95. It is set back somewhat from the highway, and has the feel of a retreat center. The grounds are covered with the usual desert flora, flowering creosote bushes and bursage. There are also rose bushes blooming in pink and red, grape vines on a trellis, some hardy pines, a couple mimosa, and two massive poplar trees whose trunks are as thick as my waist. Tall mountains loom to the north, still covered with snow at the high elevations. There is a constant wind. Sometimes a person can see a dust devil whirl across a distant plain.

The guest house is cozy. There a three bedrooms and a kitchen/dining room area. It’s a trailer that has been enlarged over time. Everything is painted in pastel colors. Lots of paintings and books. The reading selection is eclectic. There are Buddhist texts, a biography of Thomas Merton, Native American studies, Wiccan literature, and a guide called Pagan Parenting.

In a soft and gentle way, the whole setting screamed feminine. It’s not that I felt unwelcome there. Quite the opposite. People there made me feel very much at ease. However, deep inside I knew that I didn’t belong there. This was sacred ground for women. I was poaching on their turf. This was not, and could never be my home.

I had wandered the temple grounds earlier in the day. It was well laid out. The trails consisted of the dusty tan soil that is omnipresent in the Mojave. The paths took me to odd places. I stopped at a labyrinth outlined with white stones, I found a Zen garden with a bench, a fairy shrine, and a statue of Kwan Yin. There was a circle with benches all around and a fire pit in the center. Peace flags flew in the breeze. The whole meandering set of walkways seemed to encourage meditation.

At night much of the grounds was hidden from view. This was all right. When sight fails the other senses take over. The desert sounds became clear. The crunch of the soil underfoot seemed much louder. Not everything was lost in the darkness. Up on the hill I could still make out the outline of the temple. I walked up to it.

The temple itself is a small adobe structure, open on all four sides. There is no roof. Instead it has metal latticework on top in the shape of a dome. Inside the shrine is a fire pit. There are four alcoves in the corners of the building. In one corner is a statue of Sekhmet, surrounded by small offerings. In other space is a statue of Kwan Yin, along with images of other Asian goddesses. A third alcove has a mother image, a statue called “Madre del Mundo”. In the last corner are image of Mary, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In the dark I could no longer see these figures. I looked up at the dome. I saw starlight filtering through the steel frame. The stars provided the faintest of light in the temple. I felt something, and I am still unsure what it was. It was something good, but alien in a way. I stood for a while. Then I made my way back down the hill.