Monday, February 15, 2010

Blog prompt #2 (journal entry)


I have scooped up a handful of rich, black Iowa topsoil, breathed it in and allowed it to sift through my fingers. I have planted seeds and watched them sprout. I have weeded gardens and planted flowers. My hands have gotten dirty. My grandfather worked the land. His father and brothers before him worked the land, and his mother and father before him. Yet, there are no seeds taking root in my blood.

Solid ground is not what anchors me.

My ancestors were born where salt water meets sand. They were born where the waves polished the rocky shore. How they felt about living on the Northern Atlantic coast of Salten, Norway, and how they lived prior to leaving for America is unknown. Perhaps they struggled to cultivate the land, but grew frustrated with failure and were told America is much more suitable for agriculture. Was the cold climate too harsh? Did they ever miss Norway? How did America change them?

These questions will not remain unanswered for my descendants. They will know that the first place I called home was Des Moines, Iowa. The south side suburb was small, safe and comfortable for a child.  Home was also my family and all the people who loved and nurtured me. But the Midwest climate and landscape never nurtured me. Glaciers flattened the central part of the state thousands of years ago, leaving no majestic mountains, rolling valleys, cascading waterfalls or pristine lakes. Just blustery bone chilling winters that contrast with long growing seasons and scorching humid summers. While some people delight in the seasonal changes, I pop Prozac. While the corn and soybeans flourish, I wither.

I first heard the ocean waters calling me back home while on a family vacation during Spring Break in Cancun, Mexico in the mid 1990s. It was completely unexpected. I stood on the beach, enjoying the evening breeze, mesmerized by the indigo waves gently rolling in, toes digging into the soft sand, and knew that my spirit would always soar as high as the gulls as long as I was there.

Several years later, while strolling down Huntington Beach in Los Angeles, friends who knew my affinity for the ocean anticipated my delight. I looked at them, grinned, and declared, "I'm home."

Home is not necessarily Norway or any other northern climate. Home is where water meets sand. Home is where the surf crashes against the boulders. Home is where the waters appear the same from day to day, but beneath the surface, are in a constant state of change. Home is where the moon rises to direct the tides. Home is a shining beacon guiding a ship to shore.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

blog prompt #1 (journal entry)

I am the great, great granddaughter of Magnus and Sarah Romsdahl, ancestors on my father's side. They were both born in Norway in 1857, and emigrated to the New Land of Opportunity with their parents. Both endured travel in covered wagons. Both enjoyed several brothers and sisters.

Magnus spend his youth working the land somewhere in Northern Iowa, and then attended a teacher's training school in Dexter, Iowa. Sarah also grew up helping her father and brothers plant and harvest the Iowa land. As a young adult, she cooked for the Federal Land Grant College in Ames, Iowa. Today it's known as Iowa State University, the institution  where I received my first M.A. It isn't known exactly when or how Magnus and Sarah met, but they married January 4, 1889 in Story City, Iowa.

Lutheranism is the cultural and religious legacy passed down through this family line. Magnus and Sarah believed that the Hand of God guided them through every walk of life. Christmas, Easter, Lent, infant Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion are the important traditions, celebrated within the community of believers, that mark us.

Recipes and food are almost always an important cultural tradition, and mine is no exception.  One such traditional food has been Lutafisk, which is uncooked cod soaked in lye, once considered a delicacy, most  likely in the coastal regions of Norway. In the rural farm communities, and during almost all family reunions, it is now simply mocked while much more yummy dishes like lefse are enjoyed. In fact, a late blooming tradition started just ten years ago when my mother, her sisters and grandmother get together the first weekend of December to bake lefse.

The women have also shouldered the greatest responsibility in weaving religious teachings into everyday living. Both my grandmothers were faithful and active church members and each played a small role in my own spiritual development. The church was their social community and they looked forward to fellowship with friends and neighbors. And it was also through their community of like-minded believers  where they received the most support after their spouses passed away.

Neither grandfather was a faithful church attender. Both wandered in and out of various vocations,  including farming. They struggled with alcohol and struggled to support their families in small working class towns in northwest Iowa and southern Minnesota. I have only vague memories of my mother's father, who died of a heart failure when I was 10, and no memory of my father's father, who died of heart failure when I was a year old.

This family history was recorded in a cookbook dedicated to the memory of Sarah and Magnus Romsdahl in March 1986. Although I am grateful to lick the crumbs from the culture and traditions gave birth to me and nurtured me, I still feel a odd sense of emptiness that stories about my great great grandparents were not fed to me orally.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Place Entry #4 (week of Feb. 8-14)

7:50 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10

I stood on the walkway behind Lindsay House and stared at the vast depth of snow surrounding the garden and pond, searching for any shoveled path that would allow me closer access. All I saw were several blurred human tracks criss-crossing the area. Partial immersion would be required. Breaking new ground, I waded in snow up to my knees, approaching the area from the western end rather than the east. There was no place to sit, unless I circled the pond to the wooden chair on the opposite. It seemed easier just to stand along the western bank, gaze up at the charcoal sky and gaze down at my snow-covered boots and soaked pants. Small snowflakes pelted my cheeks. Female laughter and shouts drifted from the hill next to the chapel where a group was sledding and making snow figures.

I was surprised to discover that the pond wasn't completely frozen. Noticing a radius of about two feet of flowing water around the pump at the south end, it dawned on me that hot water was being pumped into the frozen ground. This raised some engineering questions that can be addressed later.

I gazed across the pond searching for the boulder on which the plaque commemorating a dedication was attached. It was buried, but Anne Putnam Mallinson's memory is not. I scribbled her name in my notebook two and a half weeks ago when I first noticed it.

Cancer may have silenced Mallinson's music, but this pond reminds me that her spirit still sings and her Chatham legacy still flows. She was a music major and Chatham choir member. She was a resident of Warren, PA, and active in her high school choir. She graduated from Chatham in 1961 and served as president and other leadership positions in many alumni fund raising organizations. The university dedicated the pond to her on May 3, 2008 in honor of her lifelong service. ( Did she enjoy a fulfilling musical career after she graduated or is she remembered primarily for her philanthropic activities? Did she have a husband, children and grandchildren? What did she enjoy most as a student? What kind of cancer was it? How long did she suffer? I can still feel the waves in the wake of her journey to the afterlife. Who made the decision to dedicate the pond in her memory? Was the pond created just for her, or did it exist before her passing, created for another purpose? More questions float through my mind, to be explored further.

Then I turned around and contemplated another choice. Follow my own footprints back to the main path, or break another new path? Thinking it would be easier, I tried to follow my footprints. I felt like a football player stepping through a series of tires. Maintaining balance was the greatest challenge.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blog prompt #3 week 2/8-2/14 (journal entry)

White Noise

Seventeen inches of snow quietly blanketed Pittsburgh last Friday night and paralyzed the city by morning. It stopped the roaring port authority buses. It muted rubber against pavement. Road conditions, weather updates, cancellations and closings dominated the local news until I silenced it as well.

Around early afternoon, as I was gazing out the window, still curled up on my couch and sipping a cup of coffee,  I watched people crawl out from their caves to slip and slide in the white ocean. A team of four emerged from my building. Armed with shovels, a broom and windshield scraper, they trudged to one of the mounds  marking the edge of a side street. Within 15 minutes, a gray compact car was resurrected. Later, a youth knocked on my door, shovel in hand, and made an offer to clear the walk way.

I was stunned, but not by the daunting task of scraping and shoveling my own car. Millions of crystallized flakes ushered in other possibilities. The absence of sound frequencies detected by my ears was startling. Silence screamed. Seventeen inches beneath the surface, I was aware of inhaling and exhaling. I was aware of my heartbeat. I could see the tiny vein in my thumb pulse. I could hear the Divine whisper. "Be still and know that I am God," it said. It continued.

I was so unaware. I was unaware of my emptiness and  deadened to my physical surroundings until I heard that voice.  The voice of the Divine awakened me. The cold, snow and ice around my soul was being scraped and shoveled. Perhaps this is why some of the religious devout take vows of silence. It's like fasting for the soul. They know that the silence will pave the way to the stillness they yearn for where the stillness will have the space to speak.

The stillness spoke the earth into existence. It will continue to speak long after the earth returns to dust. On the eve of the next snow fall, I do not despair or succumb to depression because I know that the stillness will speak to me again.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Place entry #3 (week of Feb.1-7)

Will you believe me when?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that you will become pregnant once you are long past childbearing age and have a son, and through this son, I make the great nation of Israel? Will you believe me?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that, buried beneath 17 inches of new snow, lies a small pond in this very spot, despite the fact that you've never seen it? 

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that the dove you sent out will return with an olive branch and these flood waters will subside. I'll even send you rainbow as an added bonus! You believed me enough to build the boat!

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that beneath this icy facade, water still flows and will continue to flow when the ice melts?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that I am with you  in the midst of this frustrating chaos of super high wind and waves - and if you work to keep your energy focused on me - rather than the chaos,  that I will lift you up and help you navigate these troubled waters?

Will you believe me, dear child of mine, when I promise you that, all in due time, my warmth will melt away every single snow flake, even though you feel cold and hemmed in from every side right now?

Will you believe me, dear, precious child of mine, if I was to tell you that I am preparing a spouse who will be suited for you, and that I'll arrange the meeting in due time? Would you believe me?