I recently spent a weekend with my husband at the Outing Lodge, a few miles outside of Stillwater, Minnesota. The Outing started in the 19th century as a poor house, then was transformed into a nursing home, and is now a bed and breakfast lodge. The location feels secluded because it is set in the middle of a large park. It is a popular location for weddings, especially in the summer when the gardens are in bloom. Once a month or so, the lodge hosts special, themed dinners. We were there for the Valentine’s dinner followed by tango lessons (!). One of the owners is an artist, and she hosts paint classes occasionally as well. The rooms vary and each is based on an different person. Ours was the Picasso Room and was pleasant and roomy.
I highly recommend the Outing Lodge as a good weekend retreat, especially if you include one of their themed dinners.
Writing about erotic love is hard. One has to navigate so many obstacles: romantic clichés, pornography, cynicism, and the desire to sing Barry Manilow lyrics. Writing about ghost lovers is even harder. Is it possible for an author of realistic literary fiction to write about a character who believes herself to be in a romantic relationship with a dead man—and to do so without mocking the character? Louise Erdrich does so in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001).
The main character of The Last Report is Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest who serves the Ojibwe Indians on a North Dakota reservation named Little No Horse. He has tended them faithfully for many decades and has earned their trust. One thing his flock does not know about him, however, is that he is actually a woman named Agnes (a.k.a. Sister Cecilia). (I am not giving anything away here. Readers know this from the beginning of the novel.) Agnes has had a few romantic relationships in her life. Perhaps the most passionate of them was with the spirit of Frederic Chopin.
The Last Report is a long and complex novel with many disparate strands. Agnes’ erotic relationship to a dead composer is just one thread of this intoxicating book. It is a strand I found compelling, though–maybe because I am learning to play the piano myself, or maybe because I find it easy to become deeply attached to a beloved author. (I may have had an erotic dream about Chaucer when I was younger.)
As a very young woman, Agnes DeWitt becomes a nun and is called Sister Cecilia. She takes her vows seriously and considers herself married to God. God has some competition, though. Her true love is music:
“She not only taught but lived music, existed for those hours when she could be concentrated in her being—which was half music, half divine light, only flesh to the degree she could not admit otherwise. At the piano keyboard, absorbed into the notes that rose beneath her hands, she existed in her essence, a manifestation of compelling sound.” (14)
Agnes empties her whole soul into her piano, especially when she plays Chopin. It was “as though her soul were neatly removed by a drinking straw and siphoned into the green pool of quiet that lay beneath the rippling cascade of notes” (14). Put simply, “Chopin’s spirit became her lover. His flats caressed her. His whole notes sank through her body like clear pebbles. His atmospheric trills were the flicker of a tongue. His pauses before the downward sweep of notes nearly drove her insane” (15).
Her relationship with Chopin is so real to her that she feels guilty about it. After Agnes leaves the convent and receives a marriage proposal from Berndt Vogel, she tells him “that she must never marry again, for not only had she wed herself soul to soul with Christ, but she had already been unfaithful—her phantom lover the Polish composer—thus already living out too grievous a destiny to become a bride” (17). Chopin, through his music, has become more real to her than anything else in her life.
To be clear, Agnes is not psychotic. She is not pathetic. She has simply realized that piano music is where she can best express the essence of herself. In a very real sense, she finds herself in communion with Chopin through the music he composed a century earlier. When she plays his music, he comes alive for her:
“There was the scent of faint gardenias—his hothouse boutonniere. The silk of his heavy, brown hair. A man’s sharp, sensuous drawing-room sweat. His voice, she heard it, avid and light. It was as though the composer himself had entered the room. Who knows? Surely there was no more desperate, earthly, exacting heart than Cecilia’s. Surely something, however paltry, lies beyond the grave. At any rate, she played Chopin” (16).
Because she is able to summon him through his music, Chopin the man exists as a real lover for Agnes, one who provides erotic satisfaction. Berndt Vogel realizes this truth about Agnes as he watches her play: “and as the songs Chopin invented were as much him as his body, so it followed Berndt had just watched the woman he loved [Agnes] make love to a dead man” (22).
I find Louise Erdrich an astonishing writer for many reasons. One of them is her abililty to convey how the unseen world—be it the world of the spirit or the world of the imagination —is for some people more vivid and meaningful than the so-called “real world.” I wish I could tell you in Three Easy Steps how Erdrich does it so well. Certainly she relies on sensory detail and a varied sentence structure. Mostly, though, I think it is her openness to the possibilities of the world. She refuses to reduce the world to simple categories of real/not real, physical/not physical. She sees fullness where others might see lack, magic where others see drabness. If you have not read her books before, I recommend that you do.
I love old houses, especially mansions. I also love that many of them have been turned into Bed and Breakfasts so that I can occasionally spend the night in one of them and pretend I am a grand dame. Last night, my husband I spent the evening in a historic Minneapolis home: 300 Clifton.
This house was originally built in 1887 in the Queen Anne style, festooned with turrets, porches, and other architectural “eye candy.” In 1905, the house was purchased by Eugene and Merrette Carpenter, who renovated the home dramatically, transforming the Victorian house to a Georgian Revival.
After 1948, the house was no longer a single-family dwelling. For a while, it served as a boarding house, and later, it was turned into offices. Eventually, it fell into disrepair and was on the verge of being condemned.
The present owners, John and Norman, bought the house a few years ago and lovingly transformed it back to its original beauty and opened it as a Bed and Breakfast in the heart of historical Minneapolis. (The gallery of photos below were taken there during our stay.)
For me, one of the best parts of staying at the house was listening to John tell his guests the history of the house and its original owner, Eugene Carpenter, who was instrumental in transforming Minneapolis from a dusty industrial town to a flourishing center for the arts. John is both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject and can regale his guests for hours with tales from the past.
For more information about the history of the house, click here. For information about staying at the house, click here.
I have stayed there twice now, and would love to go back again. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in old homes, history, and the arts.
I spent this weekend at Garmisch Resort in Cable, Wisconsin. This resort area in northern Wisconsin, near the famous Birkebeiner cross-country ski course , is a mecca for cross-country skiiers in the winter and mountain bikers in this summer. Garmisch is a beautiful resort that I would definitely recommend to others. Here are some photos of it.
Cardinal Guzman hosts a Changing Seasons photo challenge. (Click here for more information.) The challenge is to pick a place near one’s home and post 5-20 pictures of it once a month in order to highlight the changing seasons. My focus is on Murphy Hanrehan Park, which is very near my home.
Alas, I have not traveled anywhere since November, and I do not have any travel plans for the foreseeable future. This makes me restless. I have decided I will have to focus on “travelling” in my local community; I will visit and highlight places, events, etc that have a multicultural/international theme.
Last night I visited the Midtown Global Marketplace in Minneapolis with some friends. I love this place! It is an indoor shopping center devoted to the businesses of local merchants from around the world. For more information, click here.
After having margaritas at a Mexican restaurant and buying spices at the Holy Land, a Middle Eastern shop, my friends and I had an amazing dinner at the Rabbit Hole, a Korean restaurant. The last time I was at this place, I had a camel burger at a Somali restaurant. All of this was under one roof, so we did not have to brave the arctic winds.
Did I mention that I love this place?! Below are a few snapshots I took while walking around the marketplace. Minnesotans: I definitely recommend checking this place out if you have not already been there.
Ordinary Grace, a novel by William Kent Krueger, 2013 . Atria/Simon & Schuster
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, fails drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” -Aeschylus (quoted in Ordinary Grace)
Semi-Spoiler Alert: In this post, I will not reveal “whodunit,” but I will reveal one of the characters who is found dead in the middle of the novel.
In the early 1960s in New Bremen, a small town in Minnesota, nothing much ever happened—at least most of the time. During one hot summer, however, several people died unexpectedly, some of them from foul play. We learn about this town and these deaths in the novel Ordinary Grace, told from the perspective of 13-year old Frank Drum. Frank is the son of Nathan, a preacher whose faith in God is unshakeable, and Ruth, a restless woman who wants more than her small-town life can give her. Frank has a younger brother, Jake, and an older sister, Ariel. As the novel unfolds we learn more about the dynamics of this family and their interactions with other members of the small community.
Minnesota author William Kent Krueger is perhaps best-known for his mystery novels featuring detective Cork O’Connor, most of which are set in northern Minnesota. Writing about murder, then, is nothing new to him. However, Ordinary Grace is not a crime or mystery novel. Figuring out who is responsible for the various deaths that occur this summer is only part of what this novel is about. It is, more importantly, about how survivors respond to loss and how grief affects us all differently.
This question of loss comes to the fore midway through the novel when we find out that one of the people found dead is Ariel, the beloved daughter of Nathan and Ariel. It is one thing for a pastor to minister to other people who are suffering. It is quite another thing when this pastor has to grapple with his own devastating loss. As Nathan and his wife attempt to come to terms with the murder of their daughter, readers see how differently the husband and wife respond to their loss. Their reactions are so different, in fact, that their marriage nearly founders upon the rocks of their grief.
Despite the horror of losing his young daughter, Nathan never for a moment falters in his Christian faith. This is not to say that he does not grieve for Ariel; of course he does. His soul, however, is not tormented to anywhere near the extent his wife’s is. Far from being comforted by her husband’s faith, she is, in fact, enraged by it.
In one scene, for example, Ruth expresses her despair to Frank by saying, “There is no God to care about us. We’ve got only ourselves and each other. . . . But your father, Frankie, he cares more about God than he does about us. And to me that’s like saying he cares more about the air and I hate him for that.” (224)
This scene, I think, beautifully encapsulates one of the core conflicts of this book. Not only does Ruth not share her husband’s faith in God, she actively resents it. She cannot understand why Nathan is not as shattered and full of rage as she is. It appears to her that he simply does not love her or their child as much as he should. She mistakes spiritual peace for indifference.
I found Krueger’s portrayal of a family’s grief and their struggles with faith profound and moving. Overall, I found the novel compulsively readable as well as emotionally satisfying and I would highly recommend it to others. One element of the novel, though struck me as false: the quickness with which Ruth recovers her equanimity. One day she is raging with fury and even leaves her husband because he says the word “God” too much. Then, already a day after her beloved daughter’s funeral, her emotional fragility is gone and she says, “It hurts terribly, Emil. Maybe it always will. But I’ve survived and I believe I’ll be all right.”
This scene strikes me as unrealistic, happening just a few days (possibly a week?) after the child in whom she had invested all her hopes for the future is taken away by a murderer. Krueger’s portrayal of her earlier fragility and rage seem believable, but this “recovery” strikes me as coming much too soon. Yes, the narrator tells us he does find her crying occasionally in the next few months, but still that does not seem like enough to me for a parent who has lost their child far ahead of their time.
But maybe I am wrong. Maybe people CAN recover more quickly than I expect them to. This discussion reminds me last season of “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Mary was grieving from the sudden loss of her husband. The family “allowed” her six months to grieve. After that, she was expected to “get on with living.” Yes, I know, “Downton Abbey” is not real life. But I do see this reaction in the broader society as well. It seems that we get the message that if we are to grieve, we should get it done as quickly as possible and we shouldn’t make too much of a spectacle of ourselves. This strikes me as being more about the needs of the non-grievers than about the needs of the grievers. It seems that others simply do not want to be bothered too much with other people’s pain. But perhaps I am off-base here.
What do you think? Do you think we are “supposed” to grieve for a set amount of time? If so, how much is the “right” amount?
I can’t seem to get enough of challenges. I just discovered a new one I’m going to join. Cardinal Guzman hosts a Changing Seasons photo challenge. (Click here for more information.) The challenge is to pick a place near one’s home and post 5-20 pictures of it once a month in order to highlight the changing seasons.
My focus will be on Murphy Hanrehan Park, which is very near my home. I live in Minnesota, and today it is relatively warm (20s Fahrenheit) but gray.