Poetry: The Time has Come

Gentle Reader: Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time re-centering myself after several weeks of work-related busyness which left me out of sorts and, frankly, cranky.

That kind of hubbub was my norm for so many years that I’ve needed time to shift my focus and reprioritize my time. The first step came about 3 years ago during a seminar on work-life balance. As a result, I chose to set aside the early morning hours each day for poetry: writing, revising, study and reading. This has worked well since I’m usually awake around 4-4:30am. A second goal was to take 1-2 poetry workshops or classes each year. bookcase

While I am accomplishing both goals, my morning study has been random and I recently realized it lacked order.

Another breakthrough came couple weeks ago when I moved a bunch of books around and now all my poetry books are in a more accessible place. Looking at them staring back at me, I realize the wealth of poems/poets at my fingertips. I decided to study one poet a week. Yes, there will always be diversions and distractions, but the overall strategy sets me on a path of achievement.

I begin with the list of poets recommended to me for further study and to hone my craft by Ilya Kaminsky, faculty poet I studied with at a Iowa Summer Writers Festival. Some examples he suggested are: Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, Paul Celan, and Yehuda Amichai.

But my plan already starts with the first diversion. The recently released translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey has caught my attention along with many favorable reviewers. Confession: not sure how I avoided it in school but I’ve never read it. Based on the press buzz, it seems like the time to start both the epic poem and my new goal.

Landscape as Poetic and Sacred Architecture

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.

                                                            Dakota a Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris

Eons ago, a retreating glacial blade gouged a region through the center of North America known as the Great Plains. It left a vast and rugged beauty, an endless sky, and from it came peoples that are also enduring, pragmatic and spare.

More recently, German architect Gottfried Semper wrote the book The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) and about that time, the U.S. and Canadian Homestead Acts were passed. Thousands of people, including my ancestors, came to start new lives and prove their land claim. Unknown to those homesteaders, Semper’s four building techniques (the hearth, walling, roofing, and terracing) were essential to more than rudimentary shelter. The principles also applied to establishing communities, building houses of worship, and implanting a culture of respect for a place that was sometimes bountiful and unforgiving.

Long before President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition through this region (1804), fur-traders and indigenous peoples built structures that sustained life. Each preserved sacred sites and held a deep reverence for this area. The natural evolution beyond survival mode brought building designs that reflected vernacular traditions and the practical realities dealt by the harsh extremes of bitter winters and blistering summers.

Now these descendants of homesteaders– like me, whether we live in small towns, big cities, or maybe still live on “the home place,” continue that fierce love of the land and the dome of sky overhead. It has inspired writers and poets like Willa Cather, Tom McGrath, Ted Kooster, Larry Woiwode, and Kathleen Norris. Here, I’m frequently reminded the curvature of the earth is all that stands between me and infinity.

Section Line Communion

The Abbey’s sanctuary
transforms before me. A gravel
road carpets the center aisle.

Dust
of sacred relics cloud
around my ankles.

Grain
the bread of life ripens
in the pews to my right and left.

Shelterbelts
form choir stalls lined with monks
praying silently in the shadows.

Pelicans
in pearled vestments
circle their vaulted blessing.

The Profit Mountains
piled on the prairie
offer an altar in the sunrise.

Acknowledgement: This article originally appeared in Faith & Form, Vol. 49 No. 3, 2016 (faithandform.com) and is reprinted here with permission.

Easter Menu and Tablescape

2013 Easter menuGentle Reader: Our weather frequently demands North Dakotans keep things simple. Easter on the 47th parallel often means the juxtaposition of winter coats worn over frilly frocks and snow boots replace Maryjanes carried to church in a plastic bag. With Easter being early this year, we’re glad for 40-50 degree weather and most of our snow is gone. Thankfully, grilling the racks of lamb outdoors will not require a shovel.

The menu is decided and the table is set. Flowers are in place. I’ve just made a mental note that decorating for Easter is far less stressful than Christmas. For Easter, I tend to use what is on hand or readily available–a welcome alternative to hauling endless tubs of decorations out of the garage. Here I’ve used grocery store tulips and carrots –and my summer dishes which work perfectly from now through fall.

Reminder to self: Take a lesson in simplicity for next Christmas. Enjoy!!

2013 Easter Carrot & Tulip Bouquet 2013 Easter Tablescape 1 2013 Easter Tablescape 2 2013 Easter Bunny fold Napkins

U.S. Highway 83: A Plumb Line of Pavement

Gentle Reader: My recent participation in the Facebook Page for Fans of U.S. Route 83 has caused me to reflect on the important touchstone that stretch of road has been for me and its vital role as corridor from North Dakota to Texas.

For virtually all of my life U.S. Highway 83 has been my pathway into respite and recreation then back to civilization. I’ve watched it grow from a rolling 2-lane, barely paved road to a straightened and widened 4-lane with turn lanes at congested junctions and even bypasses around city centers. It is the place where I get a pulse on north south commerce and fresh shrimp trucked to my city from near its southern terminus. I’ve watched the growth of energy development with electrical transmission lines crossing the highway and now wind farms and countless turbines are within easy view. Coal plants, oil wells and water diversion. From my house, I can hear the high-pitched hum of tires on its pavement.

More importantly, Highway 83 is the place where I connect to my roots. Family homesteads and family graves are within a few miles in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. From it, I keep watch over fields and flocks and migratory birds in the Central Flyway, planting and harvest. I watch the sloughs for how much rain we’ve had or haven’t. I see the seasons and the years come and go and I simply watch life. Grandpa Scott never called it Highway 83. It was just the Main Artery. Indeed.

Over this past summer, I’ve composed several haiku on and about Highway 83. Come take a ride with me:

Churning charcoal clouds
Spill red rain on dusty buttes
Tail lights ribbon ahead

The long shadows stretch
From fields and trees and fence posts
Sun pools in the West

Nature’s metronome
Kept by mile markers for each
Seasons’ symphony

Asphalt artery
Life’s blood through the corridor
Spans the continent

Grilled Corn on the Cob– Mexican Style

SERVES 6

Original recipe from Cook’s Illustrated has been adapted by Bonnie Staiger.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS:
This recipe is easy–it just looks long because I’ve given detailed instructions. Grill husked corn directly on the grates over a very hot fire to achieve maximum charring without drying out the corn. Coating the corn with oil and chili powder gives it spice and prevents it from sticking to the grill.

INGREDIENTS
• 6 large ears corn, husks and silk removed

Pre-Glaze (Brush on for even distribution–can be done in advance. Just make sure corn is brought to room temperature before grilling):
• 4 teaspoons vegetable oil
• 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon table salt

Cheese Sauce (Recommend making in advance and refrigerate. This allows the chipotle to bloom. Stir well before applying to grilled corn):
• 1/4 cup mayonnaise (not miracle whip)
• 3 tablespoons sour cream
• 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
• 1 medium garlic clove, crushed
• 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon chipotle pepper flakes (optional—well, not really)
• 4 teaspoons juice from 1 lime
• 1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese (fresh grated Parmesan could be used)

INSTRUCTIONS
1. Pre-glaze: In a small bowl, combine oil, chili powder, and salt.
2. Cheese sauce: In another bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, cilantro, garlic, chipotle pepper flakes, black pepper, lime juice, and cheese.
3. Grill the corn, turning occasionally, until lightly charred on all sides, 7 to 12 minutes total. Remove from grill and apply cheese sauce. Serve immediately.

Friday Rituals – In Search of Work/Life Balance

Here on the Upper Great Plains and the 46th Parallel, work/life balance comes easier in the warmer months. Being nearer the Land of the Midnight Sun gives us almost 17 hours of sunlight in June. As a result, the scale tips heavily to business during the colder/darker months but come spring, there is an unwritten understanding: lots of flex time to enjoy the best summers on the planet. We be gone!

Until then, we (meaning: some of us—more than others) need to find ways to break out of that work routine. For those of us (moi?) whose office is in their home, the act of leaving the office can present a blurred line.

Insert departure rituals. Come 5:00pm, some of us have resorted to shutting the lights off on ourselves or literally closing the door of the office as a reminder that the day is done. Personally, even more helpful is a business/accountability partner who also has a home office and we have agreed to “be a stand” for departing at an appropriate hour. Of course, a glass of wine never hurts.

Friday rituals are a bit more elaborate to signal the end of the work week. My routine starts with deliberate switching gears: making declarative statements relating to a successful week with missions accomplished, turning on jazz music, and focusing on weekend activities.

This afternoon, the jazz is playing, cabernet sauvignon is poured, and activities with friends and family are planned. The best part is the chokecherry tree outside my office window has leafed out to the point where I can’t see down the road anymore. Summer is just around the corner and we be gone.

Thanksgiving Comes Full Circle

Gentle Reader: This has been a premature Christmas. Traditionally, decorations begin in this house on the first Sunday in Advent. Certainly NEVER before Thanksgiving. But this year is unusual since my home will be featured in today’s Holiday Home Walk—a fundraising event sponsored by the local Symphony League.

A year in the planning and 7+ weeks in the execution, today is the day and everything is set and staged to its glory. There is a light dusting of first snow on the ground. As I walked around the house dawn was breaking, I stopped to turn on the Christmas music. The first carol was Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel . . . Oh My!

How powerfully the gift of grace overcomes when we least expect it. All together in a swirl it is both Christmas and Thanksgiving.