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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Kathleen Norris

Monday's Menu: An Essay Review and A Recipe for Alfredo Sauce

I read like I eat, having to decide between the savory flavors of non-fiction and the sweet of a great story. I’ll take the bag of chips any day over a tub of ice cream. Pass the non-fiction, please. And, feeling the pressure of days since past when babies screamed and food got cold if I didn’t gobble it up in three enormous bites, I have the unhealthy habits of eating -reading - too quickly, not letting my body or mind digest the diet I give them. My bedside table is my overstocked refrigerator, and when I feel like munching, there is a book to taste. Right now, you’d find there, along with four back issues of The Atlantic and an article from The New Yorker, which someone has clipped for me:

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Marytr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

Confessions by St. Augustine

Ryan asked me the other night, “How many books have you actually finished this year?” And it’s a fair question because like a bored lover, I cast off books abruptly, jilting them for newfound crushes. My reading habits, plagued as they are by attention deficit, are nothing of which I am proud, and 2012 was supposed to be a year of working to stay faithful to a list of books I’d set down in January as books I’d like to meet and sit with. I’m happy to say that this year, I’ve finished:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (OK, maybe I didn’t get all the way through.)

Junia is Not Alone: Scott McKnight (an e-book, SHORT!)

Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (uh, yeah, only half)

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

The real truth of it is, only TWO of these books were on that list I made four months back, and they were the two books I didn’t finish.

But I didn’t start this blogpost with the intention of laying out all my dirty laundry when it comes to my failure as a reader, but it makes for a handy segue to the essay I came here meaning to tell you about. It is a MUST READ for the women out there who have, like I, struggled to find meaning in their daily responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work" was the 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality given by Kathleen Norris at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame. You can’t buy it in print, I don’t think, but it’s a quick download from Amazon onto your Kindle or iPad.

Norris opens with her an experience at a Catholic Irish-American wedding, which began for her a season of re-exploring the childhood faith she’d left behind. She watched with fascination as the priest, in the middle of the mass, washed the chalice. "After the experience of a liturgy that left me feeling disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework. This was my first image of the mass, my door in, as it were, and it has served me well for years." When Norris couldn’t sink her teeth into the non-material ideas of spirituality, she lay hold of the housework present in the mass. It became for her a metaphor of the spiritual life.

Her essay brims with hope for a woman like me, who struggles against her desire for contemplative silence and the realities of my noisy family. "I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demand of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self."

She reminds me that making dinner, straightening shoes, and matching socks are not the interruptions I imagine: "But it is the daily tasks, daily acts of love and worship that serve to remind us that the religion is not strictly an intellectual pursuit . . . Christian faith is a way of life, not an impregnable fortress made up of ideas; not a philosophy; not a grocery list of beliefs. . .It is the paradox of human life that in worship, as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation.”

And she takes aim at my wayward longings for a life that is far more spectacular than the one I lead. "We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places - out of Galilee, as it were - and not in spectacular events, such as the coming of a comet."

Read the essay, and make dinner tonight for someone you love. Do both for the sake of following Jesus.

Here's an alfredo sauce recipe that is EASY. Make fettucine, boil broccoli with your pasta, and stir in the sauce at the end. Poof. Dinner on the table in 20 minutes. Or, spread it over a pizza crust, and then add your favourite toppings. With alfredo sauce on a pizza, I love chicken, spinach, broccoli, feta, ricotta. Any of the above!

Alfredo Sauce:

  • ½ pint heavy cream
  • ½ cup butter
  • 2 tablespoons cream cheese
  • ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 - 1 teaspoon garlic powder (to taste, as you like it)
In a saucepan over low heat, mix the cream, butter and cream cheese, stirring constantly, until melted and well-blended. Mix in Parmesan cheese and garlic powder. Continue to cook and stir 15 minutes, or until Parmesan is lightly browned.

The Jesus Landscapes

Our three stories are alike in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Having traveled the world, Dave and Jodi decided to do their staying in West Norwood, Ohio. It is not a landscape rich with color and beauty, nor a destination for those seeking the inspiration of the Muse. But Dave and Jodi have left their shoes at West Norwood's front door and hung their coats, answering the call of Jesus to do a life's work of re-imagining this place.

Having put himself through law school and landing a job that was sure to go places, Dan MacDonald would hear and answer a call from Jesus into the ministry. I don't know his story well - only what he has shared in the small bits and pieces from the pulpit. But Dan, too, did a giving up for Jesus. His life as a pastor would mean of course less money, but also less social and cultural currency which which to build his life's identity.

The faith and courage of Dave and Jodi and Dan have not necessarily been mine, but it has also been my experience to hear Jesus lead into places of greater invisibility and surrender. Being a mother has landed me in my own West Norwood of sorts: in years past, with five young children underfoot, I would spend many days, one after the other, inside the four walls of my home. And when it has ever the occasion to fill out a form and identify my life's work, I will either check the box, "other" or "unemployed."

I ran across a description of ascetic life in Kathleen Norris's book, Dakota, which helped me see what each of these three stories shared in common, Dave and Jodi in West Norwood, Dan in the ministry, me as a mother. Norris describes in this particular section what landing herself in western South Dakota has meant for her life as a writer.

"The grim surroundings used to overwhelm me, and it was only when I began to apply what I had learned from the fourth-century desert monks I was reading that I found I could flourish there. . . I had stumbled upon a basic truth of asceticism: that is it not necessarily a denigration of the body, though it has often been misapplied for that purpose. Rather, it is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society - alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels - that aim to make us forget. . . A healthy ascetic discipline asks you to rejoice in these gifts of deprivation, to learn from them, and to care less for amenities than for that which refreshes from a deeper source. Desert wisdom allows you to be at home, wherever you are."

When God asks us to give something up, this is good and necessary. Henri Nouwen refers to this process of relinquishing as God tearing down our "scaffolding." We all seem hell-bent on making our lives depend on certain markers of identity: we depend on these to make our life meaningful, even admirable to others. And God will work, in His patient mercy and grace, to remove these false gods. I admit that even here, in this small corner of the web, I fight this same urgency to be something, to say something, and in some way, to find that I am at last, meaningful and useful. I confess this walking to school yesterday afternoon, admitting that I often want God less for Himself and more for the ways I can make Him useful in my own purposes.

The desert, West Norwood, pastoral ministry, motherhood. For all the ways they lead us out of our self-importance, they are the Jesus landscapes. And it's here, we finally come home.


A Sense of Sky

I tie my boots and open the front door, my hat pulled low. The sun is just beginning to rise, the sky etched in reds and pinks. I take to the sidewalk, turn downhill towards the path that leads to the ravine. I find snow and ice. The water of the brook has slowed and muted, having lost its summer hurry and babble. Winter's air is cold and still. I am small under this illuminating expanse of sky. The sky is my fixed point: or is it? I look up, following the flight of the clouds. It is they who move, and I am the rooted one, as strong and imperious as the winter trees. Or am I?

The kids have asked me before. How is it that the world turns, spinning us upside down, the blood rushing to the head of an entire hemisphere, but we never fall? I'd like to know.

The sky hues the expanse of dawn and dusk, shrouds night and enthrones sun. Above it, there is only thinning atmosphere and far-flung galaxies. Beyond and below, there is mystery. We are infinitesimally small.

Winter makes it hard to find the sky. Hurried and cold, we pay the clouds our dimmest attention.

The sun rises and sets. Every day, there is a fixed point, a rooted certainty. Evening and morning. The cadence of creation. The Creator innovates in color and cloud, improvises on the sameness, wakes the sky. It is not tedium, but steadfast beauty.

How is it that I've come to despise the humdrum sameness of my life, my sky? Evening and morning, a lurching, losing battle against the crumbs and the noise. Life has become a fissured list of "have-tos" and "want-tos." The "have-tos" have mounted a violent and bloodied coup.

It's I that have chosen this divide. I have made my own prison of what's daily and routine. I pay the clouds my dim attention.

2012 is my search for sky.

At the dawn of this new year, I pray for hues and mystery, smallness and worship. Evening and morning, God in the daily probabilities of sky and socks.

I'm tieing up my boots, throwing open the door, and setting out for a sense of sky.

“The often heard lament, ‘I have so little time,’ gives the lie to the delusion that the daily is of little significance. Everyone has exactly the same amount of time, the same twenty-four hours . . .But most of us, most of the time, take for granted what is closest to us and is most universal. The daily round of sunrise and sunset, for example, that marks the coming and passing of each day, is no longer a symbol of human hopes, or of God’s majesty, but a grind, something we must grit our teeth to endure. Our busy schedules, and even urban architecture, which all too often deprives us of a sense of the sky, has diminished our capacity to marvel with the psalmist in the passage of time as an expression of God’s love for us and for all creation.”

-Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work