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.