Friday, March 4, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 1

I sent the email on July 27

To the Sisters at Our Lady of the Rock:

I live in Princeton, New Jersey. I have heard vague references to you over the years and have finally been able to track you down on your little island. I would like to visit your monastery and would be free any time after the 2nd half of October. Please let me know if this can be done, and what might be needed for such a visit.
In peace,
Marcia W.

July 28

July 28
Yes! I know just where you are...I grew up in Washington and have felt the pull of the San Juan Islands most of my life, although I haven't explored them nearly enough. Being out here in New Jersey makes me miss the San Juans even more, and once I found you I thought it would be the perfect thing to do. I will be in Seattle the 24th, and would be able to come to your island any time after that. The 25th would be wonderful.


P.S. I am a trained cook The thought of cooking out there sounds like heaven to me.

Aug. 2

Oct. 8
Dear Mother Hildegard,
Once I catch the ferry to Shaw Island, how will I find you? Can I get there without a car?
Thank you,
Marcia W.

Oct. 11



Oct. 12
Thank you! I will be dropped off on the mainland side. I'll let you know about my arrival as soon as I get the ferry schedule.

Oct. 22

The tiny old ferry, like a magical rumbling boatman, navigates the mysteries of The San Juan Islands. I first encountered these old green and white rusted metal carriers when I was twelve years old and had just moved from Los Angeles up to the Northwest Puget Sound. I thought those ferries were the closest thing on this earth to angels. Fat, slow and unassuming; yet weightless and able to carry so many people’s burdens.

Looking out the window from the upper deck I can already see the islands. Like the people who live here, they are difficult to approach, and one can’t easily find that first foothold. There are no soft, sandy beaches: rather, each island is a rock that falls straight into the icy water. The peeling red-barked madronas have managed, though. They don’t grow just anywhere, yet here they cling tenaciously to the plunging rock by the thousands, giving way to cedars and firs as one moves inland. There are few buildings to be seen, no lights, just island rock.

Those who live by the ferry schedule learn to be patient, practical and self-reliant.

The rhythmic rumbling of the engine mutes the scraping of my suitcase as I walk down the aisle past blue leather restaurant-like booths. Silver-haired folk (they don’t color their hair much out here) wearing Goretex jackets, Nordic sweaters, and blue jeans listen to an old salt strum an acoustic guitar. He’s staring out the window as though he’s playing to the sea birds and icy-green whitecaps. One fellow with a well-trimmed beard wearing a pea-coat and wool fisherman’s cap nods at me silently, as though he thinks I’m a local. Maybe my suitcase gives the impression I’m coming home.

Pushing through the double doors to the outside deck I close my eyes and relish the cold stinging drizzle as it hits my face. Ah, this is the Puget Sound of my teens, before Microsoft and Google...

I remember feasting on raw oysters with a bewildering taste of watermelon, eating crab while still on the boat where we caught and boiled them, fishing for salmon back when they were easy to find, tasting my first clam chowder cooked on the beach over a driftwood fire...

The ferry pulls into the Orcas Island terminal and everyone gets off, except me. It is only noon, yet it feels late in the day, as though the place is closing up. As the ferry takes off again, I look around and realize I am the only passenger left. Suddenly I’m gripped with the fear that I’ve taken the wrong boat. A crew member pushes a mop nearby and I ask, “Is this ferry going to Shaw as well?”

“Yep,” she says. “It’s just that most people only go this far.”

“Is there something I need to know about that?” I ask concerned.

“Nope,” she replies without lifting her eyes from her task at hand. “Not much going on there...just the nuns, mostly. They even used to land the ferry out there a while ago. But they’re older now, and not so many. They got other things to do.” She pushes the mop on by.

Just a few moments pass before a voice booms over the loud speaker for my ears alone, “ALL PASSENGERS PREPARE FOR DEPARTURE. WALK-ONS DEPART FROM THE CAR DECK!” I roll my suitcase down the ramp as we approach the tiny dock. There is a one-person shack for the ferry worker on the left, a tiny weathered cedar-shingled store on the right, and hanging above the dock is a primitive carved wooden sign of a whale, over which is engraved in free hand, “SHAW”.

Islanders' Clam Chowder

As my husband (a fifth generation Puget Sound Islander) says, “This chowder is just like something you’d find at a stall while you were waiting for the ferry!” It is a rustic dish made in one pot, preferably cooked on the beach where you dug the clams. While the milky broth may be delicate, the eating of it is not. Pick the clams out of the soup with your fingers, carefully pluck off the stringy bits, then suck out the meat and throw the shells against the rocks for the seagulls. If you are faint of heart and don’t want to look at a whole clam in your bowl, you can always shuck and mince them, leaving the shells and the occasional grain of sand, out of the soup entirely.

One last note: if you are missing a minor ingredient, do the best you can. Today you’re an Islander, by God! Make do!

2 slices bacon, chopped
1 clove minced garlic
¼ cup chopped onion, shallot or leek
¼ cup chopped fennel bulb and/or celery
1 bay leaf
⅛ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning or curry powder
small pinch of cayenne
1 ½ cups water
1 lb fresh clams, extremely well-scrubbed and preferably left to empty their stomachs
in a bucket of salt water and cornmeal.
½ cup fresh corn kernels
¼ cup heavy cream
1½ cups whole milk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, chives, tarragon, what-have-you
Pepper to taste, (salt is probably not necessary)

In a 2 qt. pot saute the bacon until brown and crispy. Add the garlic, onion, celery and bay leaf cooking until the onions are translucent. Add spices, cooking a minute longer (careful not to let the spices burn.)

Add the water and bring to a boil, then add the clams and cover the pot, cooking for 5-10 minutes (depending on the size of the clams), until all the clams are open. Toss in the corn, cream and milk. Heat until almost simmering. Serve with a grinding of pepper and a sprinkle of herbs.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 2

There was only one road leading off the ferry, and it followed the contour of the island. Although thankful for the lack of traffic, I kept to the side of the shoulderless road, minding the steep woods sloping into the water on my right, the cedar fenced sheep pasture stretching towards the sky on the left. I spied a rustic cedar shelter perched close to the water with the opening facing sea. It was just large enough for a dreamer to sit in solitude meditating the tides while breathing in cedar, seaweed and salt.

A large muddy ford drove up and a grizzled older man in a flannel shirt asked awkwardly, "Can I offer you a ride of some sort?" It sounded well-meant, like something my late father would have said in his shy Idaho farmer way.

"No thanks," I replied. "I'm just lovin' the walk!" He grunted and sped away.

And I was, really, loving the walk. Somehow wildly fueled for this trek, I found myself almost sprinting to Our Lady to meet the Mothers. The road took a sharp turn though, and I came face-to-face with a road sign reading, "DOGS SEEN CHASING OR INJURING LIVESTOCK MAY BE SHOT BY PROPERTY OWNER." Above that in hand-written scrawl were the words, "OFFICIAL SIGN."

'What would be the chances of seeing that in Princeton?' I mused. But I began to wonder how much farther it was to the monastery anyway. "God!" I whispered, "I hope I'm on the right path...I just don't remember any other options!" I continued, although now with the feeling that I was running from something rather than towards Our Lady. My thoughts turned toward my own mother.

"You should be with her now," the words resounded in my head. And it was true. It had been months, and she so wanted me to spend some time with her, "to see her one last time" as she told my husband. I comforted myself with the confidence that she will live to be a hundred. The years since my father's death have been so dark for her though.

Like the nuns who have chosen to withdraw from the world and its comforts, she too lives with curtains closed, oblivious to the magnificence outside her window. And not so different from these sisters who have opted for simplicity, she survives with the austerity of a martyr, refusing to eat much or to turn up the heat in her home. Why is it then, that I think these nuns have so much to tell me, and my own mother so little?

If you had asked me (and precious few ever have) why I chose to seek an understanding of the facets of faith, I would tell you this: faithlessness just doesn't age well.

I think back to the moment that I had decided to seek a spiritual life. I, at barely fifteen, had taken myself on a 30-hour bus ride to Humbolt, California to visit a very religious cousin in college. After a day or two of following after her and those fundamentalist friends of hers, I found myself dying of boredom. I was desperate for a little shake up! The moment itself meant very little to me, a careless ‘what the hell’ kind of instant that gets fifteen-year-old girls in all kinds of trouble. I was in a prayer meeting led by another student in a cramped dorm room. As directed, I repeated the words. You know the ones, asking Jesus to come into your heart? They were powerful words only because by uttering them, I had done the most forbidden thing I could imagine, worse than if I’d gone and had sex. I spoke them. And disappointingly, I felt nothing for it: no rush of energy, or flood of love or anything that felt Jesus-y. Yet, because it was so big, so forbidden and yet so nothing, I simply laughed. And I laughed for days.

How could I have understood what it all meant then, to start on such a path?

Now surveying the island road ahead, I was convinced that I had truly lost my way. I grabbed my cell phone but there was no reception, there were no houses in sight, nowhere I might ask for help. Suddenly, an old station wagon came from nowhere and stopped. Staring at me from the passenger seat, with huge and curious ringlet covered eyes, sat a large black Portuguese water terrier. And poking her head from behind the dog, sitting in the drivers seat, appeared a tiny nun, barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. In a slow, high, voice which was full of a plain sort of kindness--not at all cloying, she asked , “Would you like a ride?”

Oh, yes!” I answered with relief. I opened the back door, threw in my suitcase, and jumped into the back seat. The dog pressed her huge body between the two front seats so that she could get a better look at me. Then the nun asked, “And where might you be going?”

"Oh! I’m the monastery!” I answered, embarrassed because I thought she already knew.

"If you don’t mind, then, we have one milk delivery to make before going back...We are certified raw milk producers for the island,” and she pulled up a gravel road to a large Northwest style house. Stopping the car, she opened the back and removed some milk bottles. I studied her as she bent down, carefully placing each bottle full of milk in a delivery basket and switching out the empty ones. She wore a sturdy linen wimple that had seen some wear. It was held in place by a serviceable black cable knit skullcap, an old magnificently cabled indigo sweater, and a simple faded denim dress showing evidence of the day’s work. (A dear ex-nun friend of mine once explained that the nuns who still wear habits usually have one for work and one for church. Only in the Northwest, however, would one see a habit made of denim.) I wondered how old she was. She had beautiful skin, but her delicate posture and slow, careful movements seemed elderly.

She got back into the car, ignoring the dog, who was inching closer to me and by now had her paws on my shoulders.

"That's Bella," said the nun,  eyes on the road ahead but speaking of the dog behind her, now in my lap. "She runs this place."


No recipe this post, except the explicit instructions to go out and find yourself a glass of true raw milk. You haven't lived until you've tried it. There is a sweetness and complexity that remains unmatched by that pasteurized stuff you find on the shelves these days. It's not always easy to find, however, and is illegal to sell or even to give away in some states. As for me, since it is a banned substance in New Jersey, I take myself into Pennsylvania and bring the contraband home. So go find yourself some. You'll need it for the recipe in my next post!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 3

The car made its way back to the main road following the edge of the island, then turned into Hoffman Cove Road where to the left the sister pointed out a wildlife preserve owned by the University of Washington. On the right was ancient cedar fencing containing some of the oddest looking cows.

"Over there," said the sister in her soft no-nonsense voice, "are the Kerry cattle we keep." She nodded towards some small black cows with glossy coats. "And those," she said pointing to some long-forelocked red ones, all fully horned, "are the Scottish Highland." I had read earlier that they kept these heirloom breeds here as a way of preserving them.

Coming finally to the large iron Maltese cross, we turned into the dirt road of the monastery. The sister pulled up to a tidy but aging two-story gabled house with covered front entry. The car stopped at the back of the house and the sister said, "Your dinner is waiting for you in the refrigerator--and on the door you'll find your room assignment. Sister Barbara will be with you shortly to show you around, and Vespers will be at five, if you care to come."

"Thank you," I said as I stepped out of the car. "By the way, I'm Marcia," I said, wondering what Vespers was.

"I am Mother Therese," she responded, then drove away.

I swung open the screen door and stepped into the mud-room, neatly lined with a variety of work shoes and garden equipment.  I then opened the door into the tidy kitchen of a 1970s house. Beyond the kitchen was the living-room: a plain wooden dining table, a couch and other probably donated chairs and such. The living-room led into a small sun-room filled with various crafts and bottles of mustard for sale. A donation box tucked discretely among the goods reminded all to pay for whatever one wanted, as well as the room. No price was specified, just a note that the monastery was solely supported by donations.

A large picture window next to the kitchen table opened into a corralled area where a Scottish Highland milk-cow stood looking into the window at me. As she turned and walked away I could see her udders were heavy but her upper body seemed to have no muscle at all. The skin on her back stretched over bone so starkly that I wondered if she were starving. Couldn't be, I thought. Not in this place! I gazed beyond the corral to the hills and meadows, sloping to the ocean. Not in this perfect place. I closed my eyes and took in a long and luxurious breath. 
A knock at the door brought me back, and a short woman about 60 with a simple scarf tied at the nape of her neck entered. She smiled and cheerfully said, "Hello, I'm Sister Barbara...Oh!"  She suddenly turned around and removing her shoes left them in the mud-room. I took it as a gentle reminder to do the same. I ran over and kicked them off into the mud room as well.

"I just wanted to cover a few housekeeping details," she said cheerily. "First of all, you have been assigned the single room upstairs, but since you are the only guest, you can have your pick. Secondly, this is an 'enclosed' monastery, which means that the nuns are semi-cloistered. If you see a closed gate please do not enter it unless invited. Please refrain from wearing shorts or bathing suits, and do ask permission before taking pictures of the nuns. Some don't like being photographed. Do you have any questions?"

"What is Vespers?" I asked.
"That is the five pm service. As you see on the refrigerator schedule, there are several throughout the day."

"I'm a Quaker, we just sit with our eyes closed. I don't know when to stand or genuflect or whatever..." I said awkwardly.

"Oh, don't worry about it. If you like, you stand when the nuns enter, stand when they leave, stand when they stand..."

"Whew! Sounds complicated," I said. She smiled and left saying she would see me at Vespers, and that Mother Hildegard would meet me outside afterward. 

I opened the refrigerator to find a bottle of milk (presumably the wonderful raw stuff they produced), a large salad and a casserole enough for feeding three people, which I warmed and ate entirely. Then, like Goldilocks, I wandered upstairs and found just the right room with a dormer window facing the wildlife sanctuary; and in the unbelievable silence of the afternoon, I took a nap.

Awakened by church bells calling me to Vespers, I quickly dressed and left the house. My shoes were now neatly tucked next to the others. I put them on and wandered up the hill, past the herb garden, the dairy, the Cotswold sheep behind stack rail fencing, to the chapel at the top of the hill.

It was still a few minutes before five, so I continued past the chapel to the beginning of a switchback that continued up the mountain. There was a clearing there that allowed a view down into the valley, framed by trees sloping down to the basin itself. Lush, verdant, and peaceful, a smattering of contented llamas grazing, the valley gave way to water, and opened out into the sound. My heart ached with its beauty. Who would ever want to be anywhere else? I wondered.

I returned to the chapel. The L-shaped building was of simple Asian architecture, wrapping around a large moss-covered rock. One flank gated the nuns quarters which was blocked from view, the other was the entrance to the small chapel. I walked through the rock garden and entered the chapel itself. It was almost tent-like with a single beam in the center supporting, it seemed, the whole structure. The architecture was simple and exposed, with smooth natural wood everywhere, warmed by soft lighting. Someone had built this place with so much love, I thought.

There was a slatted wood separation between the nun's area and the public pews. I was the only one in the public section of the chapel and I chose the farthest, darkest corner. My entrance had interrupted a nun in meditation on the other section, and she scurried through a side door. 

But soon, the door re-opened and all the nuns entered their area. I saw among them Sister Barbara and Mother Therese, all now in the more formal black and white full habits. I stood, sat, stood, sat, listened, and felt horribly awkward in my Quaker ignorance. The Sisters took turns singing parts. Mother Therese sounded like a young woman in her high clear gentle voice. Another nun's voice distinguished itself from the others, savoring each articulation; it was her voice that rose a little higher than the others, then lower, and it was her voice which trailed a fraction of a second longer than the others before each pause. One nun stared out the window, as though God was really out there in the valley. And just outside, barking her praises along with the nuns, stood Bella. In time, I just closed my eyes and surrendered, letting their chants wash over me, hoping they'd understand.

Note: sorry I lied about the raw milk recipe. That will be in the next post!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Our Lady of the Rock -- Part 4

Mothers. Here was a room full of them. Orderly and crisp in black and white. Worshipful, generous, aged but strong. Here in this woodland island chapel, they offered this place of peace, a lovingly burnished sacred space. I drank it up for a glorious while, but it wasn’t long before my euphoria began to crumble. I started to squirm, pestered by thoughts of my own mother nibbling at my consciousness.

I should be there with her, not here. I can see her staring into the darkness of her living room with drawn curtains while I enjoy all this.
But how could I not be here?
I’m taking it all for myself.
Bring her here...
How could I bring her here? She couldn't stand it.
...Hush then...Let her be.

My ruminations turned into anticipation of meeting all the sisters; I had my afternoon to settle in and have a nap. I was ready for some fun; I anticipated hanging with the sisters in the kitchen, asking them all about life, their life, farm life, my life, all while cooking together... When was this Vespers supposed to end anyway?

Finally, the nuns stood; blessed me, then left through the door on their side of the partition. I hurried outside. One of the sisters, looking serious and substantial, waited with a small basket in hand covered with a cloth. I recognized the nun as the one who sat staring down into the pasture at her flock of llamas and sheep.

"Hello!" I said, excited to begin our time together. It was hard to read her. She had a no-nonsense, almost stern expression; and I couldn't tell if she was welcoming me, or if I just sort of was.

"Hello," she replied. "I am Mother Hildegard. I understand you would like to cook with us while you are here. Were you thinking of something in particular?" Her expression remained plain and unreadable.

"Oh, I'd be happy to do anything you like!" I chirped, hoping to make a good impression. Knowing how wholesome this place was, I continued, "I could do some bread, something with that pastured meat, or if you have any produce still here I could work with that...or..." Mother Hildegard furrowed her brow and looked down at her feet. I could see this was not what she had in mind.

"Well, we were thinking something more in the line of desserts." she hedged, meeting my gaze from beneath her starched cap. "The sister who usually does that kind of thing is not here right now."

"Hmmmm." I said. "Well, with all that raw milk you've got here, we could do a crème brûlée?"

Her eyes met mine and grew wide. "Oh yes!" she said, "I love creme caramel made with raw milk! The milk sort of separates while it is cooking so it gets creamier and lighter at the top than on the bottom!"

Raw milk crème brûlée. That was intriguing. "Crème brûlée it is then, if we can get some cream.” I said. "When should we start?"

"I will come down to the work kitchen right next to the guesthouse, tomorrow morning after Terse, about 9:45. I'll show you around and make sure you have whatever you need. Will that do?" she said as she held out the basket. "Here is your supper. It's not too fancy, we were trying to use up some of the things from earlier this week."

"Uh, sure...thank you!" I said weakly as I took the basket, realizing that I had just been dismissed. She nodded and disappeared behind the gate. I stole a look of the monastery itself as she slipped behind the gate. It was a simple single-story structure mostly hidden behind a moss-covered boulder. How can all those women live in there? I wondered. The front of it was perhaps glass and heavy wooden beams, not surprising architecture in the Northwest--kind of Asian-in-the-woods. The gate snapped shut behind Mother Hildegard; and I stood for a moment, staring at the wall before me with the realization that I was to be left alone for the rest of the night, and for the rest of my stay, with my thoughts. And darkness was coming.

Basket in hand, I wandered back to the guesthouse, slowly, for time was all I had. Silently, I lifted the cloth and pulled out a bit of beef and noodles. I heated the meal, and ate some of it at the table; but I hadn’t planned on eating alone, and didn't really have the stomach for it tonight. I made some tea and sat back down at the table, and watched as the cow, heavy with milk, skin pulled over bone, amble back to the barn.

There we were, me, my mother, the nuns, and the cow; all cloistered in our own little corners. What is the difference, anyway? I thought ruefully. It’s time I went back to her. I watched as darkness, the deep darkness that only happens on islands, enveloped our worlds.