Post 12/2021 Thursday 18 March . . . Carol Bly spoke her mind as a writer, teacher and ethicist. Her heartland was rural Minnesota, USA; her voice urgently timeless in promoting “national-scale virtues.” In recent months I’ve finally read one of her books, Letters From the Country (Penguin Books, 1981). This collection, 31 essays published in MPR’s Minnesota Monthly, deals with the everyday surface things of life in a small town, Madison, MN, in the 1970s, population 2,242 (1,551 in the 2020 census).
In these essays Bly probes deep beneath the surface. She is biting, funny, acerbic, irrepressible, nudging one to wakefulness.
In the chapter, “Extended vs. Nuclear Families,” Bly could not have anticipated the forced end to social gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic, In the 1970s she bemoaned the all-too-frequent extended family gatherings.
“I have been thinking about the positive side of a Minnesota blizzard. Another of the blessings is that extended-family occasions come to a halt. Thank goodness. The extended-family dinner is a threat to the pleasure and ease of the American farm family, yet it is hard to say so. In Minnesota we are great protectors of the American family–just as we are one of the last areas in which the small ‘family farm’ idea works and is sacred. We are right about this. The nuclear family is far the best of all the units human beings organize themselves into; when you break it down, its members inevitably pursue lesser, not greater, aims. They settle for cheaper values. Jung says that, when the family breaks, the adult members tend to be frozen at the level of consciousness of the moment of the break. On a less subtle level, people begin following their own noses with more abandon. Experiment takes the place of solid satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of thinking hard.”
The nuclear family includes father, mother, children, and the grandparents. The extended family adds cousins, uncles and aunts, and the in-laws. Maybe more than tongue-in-cheek, Bly pits the small unit of family over the larger one.
It’s a subject that can be discussed, dissected and one’s points defended. Nevertheless, in our current social distancing milieu, we’re hungry for the gatherings denied us. That’s certainly true for grandparents and grandchildren, for families with one member or more in healthcare. Those restrictions are being lifted, albeit with proper precautions. We anticipate the day when we can again gather in the larger circle of family and friends, of social groups, school, faith groups, community groups, entertainment groups.
I’m happy with, delighted in, extended family and friends get-togethers of the past and am ready for the same when we can talk face-to-face about how the extraordinary situation we’ve come through has changed us. We also know the truth of what Bly says near the end of the chapter: “Dozens of times I’ve heard farm men and women mention how cozy it was during the storm–‘We did whatever we liked; we talked a lot.'” We’ll have lots to talk about ’till the cows come home.
Bly died in December 2007. She authored 23 works. In a tribute to her life one person noted how he had asked Bly to review his memoir of growing up on a Minnesota farm in the 1940s and ’60s. She respectfully declined, telling him, “I realize my task more and more, is to support those American writers who are wrestling with 21st century griefs and national shame.”
Bly calls us to the present; to understand and address the issues of the day; to heed the promptings of the inner voice; to allow for engagement in righting what is wrong; to take deep pleasure in life; to discover that part of yourself, as she noted in a YouTube presentation, that rises up as the strange joy “in which there’s hope where I thought there was no hope.”
Along a path in Winona Lake
We walked some paths in Winona Lake in Kosciusko county on Sunday, including the campus of Grace College, then had lunch long after the noon hour at the Boathouse Restaurant. We were pleasantly surprised at how many people were out, both walking, using the children’s area in the park, and still eating at mid-afternoon–all mask-savvy for moving about inside and removed for enjoying the meal.
Other scenes of the week
Celtic pilgrimage, July 2013
We recall with wonder and gratitude the time we shared with 11 pilgrims led by friends Marlene and Stanley to Scotland, Wales and England almost eight years ago. At various times we were given time to reflect our experience in antiphons. As Marlene described, an antiphon is a short liturgical chant sung responsively by two choirs. Richard Skinner in Invocations: Calling on the God in All (Wild Goose Publications, 2005) adapted the antiphon form to create prayers of invocation.
These invocations have eight lines:
- The first line addresses God with an image, whether from nature or elsewhere
- Lines 2-5 elaborately describe what is named in Line 1
- Line 6 names what aspect of God is illuminated in the image
- Lines 7-8 are a concluding petition addressed to that particular aspect of God for which the opening image has become a metaphor.
Here’s one of the six antiphons I wrote. I don’t recall where I came up with the term, Ewey. It’s the name given to Ewey the Lamb in the Ty Beanies series, and is used as a term of endearment. Whatever the source, to me I’m using a sheep as an image of God. I saw the flock of sheep as we travelled through northern England with stops at a number of monastic ruins and eventually a brief time on Lindesfarne (Holy Island). I offer the antiphons as moments of revelation, as reminders, then and now, of the thin places where heaven and earth come close together in spiritual and physical assurance of life. In hallelujah.
grazing on Northumbrian moor
lambs birthed and grown
foraging flock bleating new song;
blest is your shepherd:
death’s power shattered
inspire my breath.
One more, from Holy Island:
O Kate, Mary and Ray
hallowing God’s name on Lindisfarne
cultivating Celtic-blest soil
fragrant as bread:
on pilgrim paths
be the journey sweet.
Challenge now and tomorrow
Who will step up to the challenge Carol Bly leaves us? Conversations among extended family and circle of friends post-Covid-19 will be different. They’ll be more sober, reality-based, reflecting on illnesses and death that came to those we knew, stories of our own coping during the pandemic, our hopes for today and tomorrow. We’ll need to consider how to deal forthrightly and kindly with the elephants in the room, such as conspiracy theories, those too casual about health protocols, our hesitancy to enter the deep problems and sorrows of society. Our too frequent silence. Our looking for joy and meaning in all the wrong places. How to honor humanity and the world around us. Teaming up to break through old barriers together. Laughing. Celebrating with a hug.
We journey through Lent, anticipating Easter’s Hallelujah!