Life in Progress: A weblog by Heidi Price

A good start to class

On Friday, as part of a career day at McGuffey Middle School, I spent the day talking to seventh- and eighth-grade students.

Every time I do this, I walk away with a renewed respect for teachers. I wanted inspire. I wanted to entertain. I didn't want to be funny because every time I try to be funny, I end up insulting people.

By the third class period, I was convinced I was repeating myself. Had I already told the story about going to Cleveland to report from behind the scenes of a Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus?

How do teachers do this for nine months on end?

The teacher who invited me, Chantelle Nicolella, is a natural. She has the respect of her students, at the same time, you can tell they really like her.

"Hey, Ms. Nicolella, I hit a home run yesterday," a red-haired girl with a splash of freckles across her cheeks said upon entering the classroom.

On Nicolella's desk is a pile of books, well-thumbed paperbacks including the titles "Running out of Time" by Margaret Peterson Haddix and "The City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau.

And every day, for the first few minutes of class, Nicolella reads to her students.

Her strategy is two-fold. First and foremost, it encourages her students to read. As an added benefit, by simply starting to read at the start of every class period, the students go completely quiet. On their own, they go quiet, she told me. No yelling. No threats. The students just enter the classroom quietly, take their seats and listen.

"The students actually come to class early because they are afraid they are going to miss a part of the story," middle school principal Beverly Arbore told me during one study hall that I spent reading in the library.

A good way to start class, I'd say.

Nicolella gave me a list of some of the titles that her students loved:

"Running Out of Time" by Margaret Peterson Haddix, who, according to Nicollela, is one of the best writers for young adults out there today.

"The City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau.

Her students also loved "Uglies" and "Pretties" by Scott Westerfeld.

I wanted to make dinner

"Don't make them dinner," he told me. "I'll give you money. You can take them out to dinner."

This, I knew, was not a comment on my cooking but the generosity of a man who knows how insecure I am in the kitchen. And while he applauds my vow to learn how to cook by cooking more, he also thought it might be a bit too much to start with a dinner party for seven.

Saturday was my day to take our four Ukrainian visitors on a tour of Pittsburgh. You may have read in the Grumpy Old Editor blog, or my own postings a few months back, that Park Burroughs (aka Grumpy Old Editor) and I visited Ukraine as part of a newspaper exchange program in January. And while Ukraine was in the midst of a deep freeze that held the average temperature at -17 Fahrenheit while I was there, I've never encountered such warmth. When it was time to leave I wept.

I wanted to make the Ukrainians feel as welcome as they made me feel. To me, a home-cooked dinner says welcome much more than one at a restaurant cramped with people with mass-produced prints hanging on the wall.

He found me a recipe for Barbecue Beef. He lent me his roaster. Set out any ingredients and utensils I might need, and let me borrow his kitchen for an evening.

The next night, Saturday, was the dinner party. The roaster full of beef, which had simmered all day, was devoured. I made a salad. Cut up some fresh fruit and bought plenty of beer. Everyone ate everything. After, we sat on my front porch, drinking coffee and talking.

I think food should be judged by its ability to be consumed as a leftover. If a slice of pizza or pasta can hold its own the next morning, straight out of the fridge, to me it is props worthy.

Everyone asked for take-home containers of the barbecue roast. The next morning, I ate the quarter cup I saved for myself, for breakfast, cold.

Here is his recipe for roast barbecue. I'm not sure which of his cookbooks it came from but it was submitted by a Nancy M. Frank.

Roast Barbecue
- yields 12 servings
- may be doubled or tripled

3 lbs. chuck roast
2 Tbsps. shortening ( I used butter)
1 large onion, chopped
2 Tbsps. vinegar
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 cups catsup
3 Tbsps. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsps. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. prepared mustard (I learned after asking several shoppers at the grocery store that prepared mustard is, in fact, yellow mustard, not a spice)
2 Tbsps. chili powder
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper

1. Trim meat and brown in shortening. (The cut of roast I found was pretty lean and didn't need trimming. And, as I stated above, I browned the meat in butter.)
2. Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. (I added all the remaining ingredients including the now-browned roast) to the roaster and after it reached a boil, I turned the heat down.)
3. As soon as meat is tender enough, approximately 2 to 3 hours, use to forks and shred or pull meat apart. (We had to take the roast out of the roaster about two hours into it and boil it in a separate pot of water for an hour before it reached the point where it could be shreddded. Then, we added the shredded meat and water we boiled it in back in the roaster).
4. Continue cooking until meat is very tender. Cooking time frequently varies from 3 to 6 hours.
5. Serve on buns.

A rockin' Monday

No matter how hard I try to be on time, I'm 15 minutes late for everything I do.

Take this morning, for example. I woke up at 6:30 a.m., more than 2 1/2 hours before I was scheduled to make an appearance at my desk. I need 40 minutes to get to work in the morning which meant I needed to leave at 8:20 a.m. to be on time. At 8:15 a.m., I locked myself out of my house. My main set of keys were sitting on my kitchen table. My spare set was locked in side my car.

I had to call my editor and admit that yes, for the second time in less than a week, I had locked myself out and, for the second time in less than a week, I would be significantly late for work.

It got me to thinking about the last time I went on a space cadet spree. Not too many years ago I locked my keys in my car so many times in one week that the AAA tow truck driver thought I was hitting on him.

"You know," the driver told me on my third lock-out in as many days "you could just ask me out."

My friend who works in a bank

was recently promoted and is now a supervisor.

In his previous job, it was important that he always be talking on the phone so he called - a lot. I was nervous that with this new supervisory position, he would be so busy supervising, he wouldn't have time to call me.

He still calls. Take our phone call of five minutes ago where he gushed about his first big meeting at his new job. It was the greatest moment, he said.

All the people he now supervises were all saying why a certain project wouldn't work. My newly-promoted friend overruled them saying "I'm the one in charge and that's the way it's going to be."

"What did they say?" I asked.

"Nothing, because they couldn't," he said.

The silence

Though cell phones and walkmans are allowed, I decided to leave all my "gear" - my laptop, my I-pod and my cell phone - at home.

Less than an hour inside the Abbey of Gethsemani, the first thing I noticed was the silence and how much it differed from the world I just left.

Our days are filled with noise, did you ever notice? The radio when we wake up, talking on phones while driving to work, talking while being at work, talking on cell phones, on work phones, on phone phones. Talking. Talking. Talking. Background noise is so essential to our day, we even pipe it in at the grocery store and on elevators.
The visual noise is no less intrusive. We get it on our computers, our televisions, on billboards, even toilet stalls are plastered with advertisements.

So in not talking, in not plugging into any of the technology-fueled chatter that provides the soundtrack to my day, I had no choice but to listen, to pay attention to the internal soundtrack.

It was a din, a flood of messages telling me to do more, buy more, earn more, read more, write more, work harder, relax more. I could barely sort them out, let alone listen.

So after three days of what was supposed to be silence, I left the abbey, driving away from the Kentucky hillsides. I returned home Sunday night with an idea, not a directive or an order, just an idea. First, I wanted to sort through these messages, throw out the bad ones, keep the good ones and, every once in a while, I hope to quiet them a bit.

Sunday morning

"Didn't you attend any religious services while you were there?" my friend Paul asked me last night on the phone.

I didn't, I admitted, although I had plenty of opportunity.

The day of a Gethsemani monk is marked by seven prayer services, the first, vigils, beginning at 3:15 a.m. It is followed by Lauds at 5:45 a.m., Mass at 6:15 a.m. and ends with a 7:45 p.m. Chaplain's talk after supper.

Sometime after breakfast on Sunday, I was walking down the back steps of the guest house on my way to go hiking and I heard organ music coming from the abbey church. Hoping to go unnoticed, I entered from a side door which opens onto the balcony.

There was no service, just a monk practicing. I sat to listen. I can't remember for how long.

The abbey chapel is simple. White walls, a pebble stone, concrete floor. The stained glass windows are gray, geometric shapes. I had my digital camera but it would have been profane to take a picture.

My friend Paul, who is a Sunday School teacher and my go to guy on all things Catholic, told me that the abbey chapel was renovated in the wake of the second vatican council which brough about changes intended to make the focus of the church on the people.

"They toook the chapel and made it more austere to get back to this idea humility and simplicity in life," he said.

On Saturday I spoke

I didn't intend to speak, but on Saturday morning, I locked myself out of my room.

I went to the welcome desk on the ground floor of the retreat house. While I waited, I read the coffee table book about the Garden of Gethsemani, a collection of bronze statutes in a wooded area on the monastery, erected in the memory of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian who died to save another woman in Alabama in 1965.

After a few minutes a monk approached and asked if I needed help. I told him that I had locked myself out of my room.

I thought that would be the end of it. After telling me that he could unlock my room, the monk continued talking even as we walked through the "silence only" hallways and rode the elevator to my third-floor room. He told me that his sister (I think he said she was a Dominican nun) was visiting the abbey for the weekend.

"I told her I would meet her in the chapel in 10 minutes. That was 30 minutes ago," he said.

I would have been stressed to be so late. He just smiled and, after unlocking my door, inquired of me. What brought me here? How was my retreat going?

Then he asked if I would be joining others later that evening to pray the rosary.

I didn't know how to answer. He wasn't pressuring me, but at the same time I didn't want to say no, so I didn't say anything. He didn't pressure me, just smiled again and wished me a nice weekend.

And that's it: My speaking engagement for the weekend.

After lunch, I set off to find the Garden of Gethsemani.

Inside the abbey

After several more hours of procrastination driving, I made my way back to the abbey.

The Abbey of Gethsemani is situated among rolling Kentucky hillside and woodlands. It looked peaceful and calm but I still was nervous about pulling in, about committing to silence. Is now the point when I should stop talking? I asked myself after I stepped out of my car. Outside the gift shop and welcoming center, I ran into three women from Fort Worth, Texas. I lifted a hand in greeting but did not speak.

"Can we help you?" one asked while another told me that I better move my car out from under the tree so the birds don't play Tic-Tac-Toe on my windshield. They directed me to the lobby of the retreat house, a four-story structure anchored by the chapel to the quarters where the monks live and work.

I checked in and was asked whether I wanted a view of the road and fields beyond or the garden that was a monks-only area. I picked the view.

Though I wasn't conscious of it until later, it was about this time that I spoke my last words. "Thank you" I told the monk who had shown me to my room.

I made my way to the meeting room for an orientation to welcome new retreatants. A monk explained *that except for the reception desk and a few designated areas, silence is maintained everywhere inside the retreatant house and on the grounds immediately surrounding it. And that is the only rule that must be followed during retreats. Retreats are wholly self-directed.

In the library on the first floor of the guest house, I found "Benedict's Dharma, Buddists reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict" and went to look for a place to read.

I learned about St. Benedict right before coming to the abbey. Benedict's thoughts on a monastic life, published sometime around 530 A.D., became the framework for monastic life and has been cited as the chief reason for the spread of monasticism into the West. Today, Benedict's spirituality and wisdom are used as a source of inspiration to many who live outside abbey walls.

I climbed a hillside just across the road from the abbey and sat down on a crude, wooden chair that looked out over 1,000 acres of field and forest. As I read, a young couple walked past me and knelt in a field a few yards away to meditate.

I like this passage from the book and I copied a rough translation of it in my journal.

Living according to a rule is a lot like believing in a marriage, according to Judith Simmer Brown. There are always hard times, times when you wonder whether you should be married. A lot of people, if things aren't working, tend to split or have an affair or take up a very absorbing job or hobby. This is what I call leakage. But sticking with the marriage, one develops a sense of depth in the relationship and in oneself. Norman Fisher agrees. A rule is a commitment and you are doing it whether you like it or not.

I also liked this passage.

One always commits oneself before one knows what one is committing to. There is no such thing as a commitment made after all the evidence is in. Commitment is based not on facts but on desire - and the root meaning of desire is to follow a star.

Procrastination in Kentucky

Part Deux

"Okay then, I'll have a root beer float," were the last words I spoke before entering the Abbey.

It was Friday afternoon, and I was about a mile and two turns down the road from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I had driven more than six hours and 400 miles to spend the weekend in reflective silence. Now that I was actually here, I couldn't make the final jump into quiet simplicity.

I had arrived well before noon and driven straight past the last turn I needed to take to get to the abbey. For a while I just enjoyed the drive, riding around the scenic countryside, trying to drive slow enough so the beautiful butterflies had time to fly away from my windshield. Then I saw a sign for Knob Creek. Why not just travel on down the road a bit to visit Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home? I asked myself, suddenly the historian.

I hiked around the grounds a bit and got back in my car, driving back towards the monastery. What about a visit to the Maker's Mark distillery? I could get back on the Kentucky Scenic byway, drive a few miles down the four-lane and buy presents. But somehow, a visit to a distillery seemed incongruous with the whole back-to-basics nature of my trip.

I was getting closer to the turn off to the abbey when I saw it: a roadside ice cream stop that promised my treat would be "udderly" delicious.

I ordered a hard scoop vanilla milk shake at a pricey $4.09. I figured the investment worthwhile because the ice cream had the beans in it, looked homemade, and anything vanilla makes me happy.

"Wouldn't you rather have something else?" the lady behind the counter asked. Silently, her eyes pleaded. Please don't make me scoop one more ball of that hard, unyielding, back-breaking frozen lard out of the barrel. Please.

"Are you out?" I asked, looking down into the cooler at the nearly full jug of vanilla. I pleaded back with my eyes. Please give me the vanilla hard-dip shake. Who knows what my next three days are going to be like. I'm scared and vanilla milkshakes make me happy.

"No, it's just that they are so expensive and they take an awful lot of scoops of ice cream," she said, looking again at the metal scoop and bucket. "Why don't you have a float?" I wanted to be a bitch about it. I wanted to demand ice cream, but that didn't seem very monastic either. The woman registered defeat in my eyes.

She grabbed a cup and headed for the soda fountain.

A quiet weekend

A few cell phones ago, I checked and discovered that I had logged a total talk time of 20,000 minutes.

20,000 minutes, almost seven hours wasted talking on a cell phone, not a work phone or a home phone but the one that was initially just supposed to be used for emergencies. And that is just my total time on that phone which, if memory serves, I later dropped in my dog's water dish. Who knows how many minutes I've logged on cell phones since.

I've gotten worse this past year.

As soon as I get in my car, I don't reach for the radio dial or my cd case anymore. I reach for my cell phone. I used to study French. I used to listen to NPR on my morning commute. I used to listen to stories, amazing stories, from the audio books I checked out of the library. Lately, I just check them out and then I renew them and then I renew them...

I don't want to be this type of person. This talk all the time kind of person. I want to make my words count. So when a friend recently told me about a silent weekend retreat he was planning in Trappist, Kentucky, I was intrigued.

I signed up earlier this year. Judging by the schedule posted on the Abbey of Gethsemani's Web site, I can spend the weekend attending religious services or I can spend it in quiet reflection, or some mixture of both.

I chose quiet reflection. I'll admit, the thought of not talking from Friday afternoon through Monday is more than a little scary. Those that know me seem doubtful I can do this. One even asked for video proof.

I leave Friday.

Out the door

When will the coffee finish brewing? I should have left for work 10 minutes ago. Do I need the iPod charger cord? I'm bringing my laptop to work and I can charge it there. Is that the charger cord for the laptop? No, that's the cell phone headset which is now tangled up with the iPod cord.

Don't forget the library books/cds/dvds that were due yesterday! What about my lunch I packed and my wallet? I always seem to be forgetting my wallet.

Out the door. Halfway down the steps, I try to pick up the newspaper with my free two fingers and spill coffee all over myself.

I'm trying to hold onto everything and unlock the car door. I drop my cell phone for perhaps the 5 millionth time in its short life. How is it still working? I throw everything in the back seat on top of a book my friend recently gave me, "Living the Simple Life," and I break several traffic laws trying to make it to work so that I'm only 20 minutes late instead of 30.

If we reduce the amount of stuff we allow to accumulate in our lives, we won't have to organize it. If we cut back on the number of things we have to do each day, we don't need a large double-page spread on which to track them.

- From "Living the Simple Life" by Elaine St. James

Delicate little things

I received my seeds in the mail a few weeks back, and I have been planting ever since.

"Couldn't you send me the just half packs?" I asked the man on the other end of the phone line when I called to place my order with Grow Italian for the Pomodoro plums and tomatoes,the Genovase Basilico, purple eggplant, Italian Flat Leaf Parsley and Pepper Corno di Toro Giallo, also known as Yellow Horn of the Bull. (I hope these aren't too spicy hot.)

But the packs arrived, filled - in the case of my Sweet Italian basil, with close to 5,000 seeds. It seemed wrong to let them go to waste.

I planted as many as I could. I chopped all my coffee-to-go cups in half and used every other container I could find in the house: tomato cans, the containers I buy my roasted almonds in, and even a nacho dish. Once planted, I converted my dining room into a greenhouse, hanging flourescent lights and laying out newspaper.

They're delicate little things, these seedlings, and they'll teach you a thing or two. I've learned flourescent light doesn't seem to be enough. My seedlings flourished with a mixture of sunlight from the window and flourescent lighting after the sun goes down. It's tedious, moving them to the windowsill every morning and bringing them back to the flourescent lighting in the afternoon, but I try to alternate them, giving each seedling equal time in the sun. It comforts me that the plants still needed the sunlight.

And still some of the seedlings haven't made it. One long weekend without water at work, and all the basil and four plum tomatoes wilted away. At home, I turned the space heater too high in an attempt to give them more heat, and I'm convinced I scalded a few of the parsley seedlings that had just broken through the soil.

Maybe it's good they sent so many.

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