Almost home.

Best weekend of our lives . . .

Closets thrown open after years of careful arrangement,

Drowning complaints of not enough time or too little in common.

Exasperating family members rendered comical in the early morning light of consciousness.

Fast forward to another Christmas, another year.

Guessing who or what will dominate the dinner table commentary.

Hating the shallow thought, “Next year will take the prize.”

Insinuating that somehow this year was less authentic, not as well lived —

A jive-talking jabberwocky moment of pretense,

A kaleidoscopic collage of disconnects and scullduggery . . .

Instead of the magnificent moment of happiness we know we shared.

“Nonsense!” I proclaim to no one in particular.

“Nothing shall overshadow this special edition performance.”

Proof positive that blood is truly thicker than

Quirky history and rocky beginnings.

Signature 2

An Ode to Nat King Cole

Autumn leaves drift by the window.  Autumn leaves of red and gold.

According to my faithful book index, GoodReads, I have only read 22 books in 2011.   Last year, I read 32 books by year’s end and vowed publicly that I would read at least that many in 2011.  I suppose I could hurry through 11 short novellas and meet the goal, but is that what a resolve is all about?  Is it about meeting the letter of the resolution while breaking the intent?

I see your lips, the summer kisses, The sunburned hands I used to hold.

I intended for this year to be chockerblock full of reading and writing.  Instead it’s been a year of frantic action . . . helter skelter movement as opposed to thoughtful introspection.  I did not mean for it to be so busy.  Honest, I didn’t.  The year started out so relaxed, so full of earnest reflection.  The beach in Zanzibar.  The meditative mornings.  The trip to Berryville.

Since you went away, the days grow long. And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song.

Time which seemed so abundant in January hit a patch of ice and now it is almost Thanksgiving.  What thief absconded with my early mornings, quiet evenings, and lazy weekends.  And, why was I an accomplice to the crime?  When did I start pushing away the days?  What conspiracy led me to complain nonstop about spring’s saturating rains and summer’s humidity?  Was I really in such a hurry to face my kids’ first quarter interim grades?  Yes, I am to blame for having wished away the year.  Ah, time . . . if only.

I miss you most of all, my darling, When autumn leaves start to fall.    

Signature 2

A Modern Day Herzberg . . . A Good Luck Wish for My Friend, Brigid

After spending two weekends in a row, trying to teach a 9th grader how to study, listening to a husband scream at the same 9th grader about world civilization, and trying to convince a 7th grader that living in two-feet of clothing is a fire hazard, I feel like I could write a book on the downside to a lack of leisure in one’s life . . . instead, my friend, Brigid is writing such a tome.  This posting — albeit way longer than any of us has time to read is for Brigid on the relevance and importance of her work.  Intrigued?  Good.  Get ready for a long story.   Grab a cup of decaf, find a quiet space and settle.  Or, you could just hit delete. It won’t hurt my feelings — much. 😉

For the past ten weeks, I’ve been studying culture in an effort to help our company determine what ours is and then determine if we have the right culture to support where we are headed as an organization. I was handed this “project” by my manager whom I dearly love with these words, “Marcia, I’m responsible for this project and because I am, you are, too. Let me know what you think.” From that day forward, I had to wedge in time to get my arms around the subject and figure out what to do with it in time for a company-wide meeting to be held over three days at a bucolic location off Skyline Drive. In between rides to travel soccer, field hockey, tutoring, and piano as well as teacher conferences, groceries, cooking, running (yes!), and planning an engagement party for a friend, I’ve managed to read over 2,000 pages on change, innovation, culture, management, and motivation from people like John Kotter, Marshall Goldsmith, Daniel Pink, Ruth Kantor, Frederick Herzberg, and the like — people I deem to be way smarter than I am.

Early on, this project was shaping up to be a lecture to the team led by my manager and me. The more I read the more I thought this was certain suicide. Culture is not an it, it’s a living and breathing thing shared equally by all. Yes, there is a tone set by the top — executive managers — but who wants to hear your CFO and your head of HR dictate to you what you should be thinking and feeling about your workplace? No wonder I was getting anxious thinking about it . . . we were on the wrong track. I scheduled time with my manager and cited my sources. The clock is ticking. We were now eight weeks out from the offsite.

“I think we’re on the wrong track. We probably need to ask questions and talk less,” I suggested.

“Hmmm . . . like what?” he asked. “This is starting to sound kind of woo woo.”

I then rambled off the kinds of questions that could get some meaningful dialogue started — what are the culture’s values? what do we want to keep? what don’t we like? what is missing that we should add? what steps would you take to institute more meaningful values?

“Yuck, it does sound woo woo,” he responded. “Okay, I’ll take this to the exec staff meeting on Wednesday. Meanwhile, don’t stop writing the speech and creating the powerpoint.”

The more I read, the more I was convinced that dialogue was the answer. Also, the more I read, the more I started to think about the culture I’d grown up with, the culture I was creating in my own house. I read this incredible lecture-cum-article written by Clayton Christensen of Harvard entitled “Measuring Your Life” (   and began to see the principles that were at work in companies at work in my own household. I did not feel particularly able to articulate anything or stop anything from happening, but I was awake to the fact that these concepts were not just applicable to business, they were applicable to all of life. Meanwhile, life was moving along — Costco runs, back to back fatal heart attacks of two friends’ spouses, birthday parties, impromptu gathering for the rising of a harvest moon, planning the annual Halloween party for 90 teenagers, church small group, and the list goes on. Luckily, the executive staff agreed that a dialogue was the answer. We were all in this together.

My reading continued. I was now becoming attuned to juggling work and life with business reading. I read before I ran. I read after I ran. I even tried running while reading on the treadmill, but almost killed myself falling off of it. I decided that some innovative modification was definitely required to make this a safe effort so I abandoned that one, but I continued to read at lunch. I read at the doctor’s office. I read getting my nails done. I read before dinner/after dinner/before bed. I dreamed about what I was reading. I had dialogues with Herzberg and Maslow. I woke to Pavlov’s dog (our 14-year-old pooch Kofi) barking to be let out. To say I was consuming a lot of material is an understatement; I was being consumed by the topic.

Our chief of staff was catching the bug, too. What if culture became the theme of the offsite and all our sessions revolved around it? Wow! What a concept. Instead of our stand-up routine, which could have been a comedic one (because I hate delivering serious content to a group), the agenda took shape — corporate jeopardy on Wednesday night, executive overview on Thursday morning, group exercise on culture mid-day, team-bonding with dice/cards on Thursday night, and family feud game on talent/people on Friday. My reading was starting to pay dividends at work . . . but not at home. Harried, harried, harried. A resolve to eat better produced two meals in one 10-day period. A well-intentioned stock-the-freezer trip to Costco resulted in a collapse of the shelves. An innovative program designed to give parents access to high-schoolers’ grades turned into the shocking revelation that the 9th grader was making Ds in two subjects, one of which was English. How the hell do you get a D in your native language? Gaps were being revealed all over the place. Ours was a culture of chaos, disruption, broken promises, and snarky responses.

To say Frederick Herzberg saved my life is so nonsensical, I can’t even believe I started the sentence that way. It makes me, and probably everyone reading this think I was looking for him . . . that I was aware that there was an answer and I was aggressively seeking it. Kerphluie! I was becoming increasingly convinced that there was no way out — that there was nothing that me or any one of my talented friends could say or do that would relieve the pressure I felt as a professional, a mother, a wife, and as a person. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. However, I was still reading, reading, reading until I felt like I couldn’t stomach one more list — Goldsmith’s list of derailing behaviors, Bill Murphy’s list of entrepreneurial traits, Donna Dubinsky’s top five leadership lessons, and Jim Collin’s traits for the best kind of employee. I was now skimming tables of contents before I put time into another article or a book.

It was in this context that I almost skipped Herzberg’s article, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” What, after all, did a psychologist who studied motivation for 50 years and who passed away in 2000 as the internet boom was in full-swing have to say to me or to our cool, cutting-edge company which was launched the year before he died? With offsite planning in its final stages and my presentation recast as a gameshow with a partner who is arguably the most fun person I’ve ever worked with in my 30 years in business all but done, I was not interested in learning anything new. The title caught my attention. Starting out with “one more time” reminded me of an aerobics instructor from days gone by who sensing the reluctance of her students to give their all to lunges and grapevines barked, “one more time and THIS TIME with feeling!” Excuse me. Are you talking to me?

I started to read the article . . . and I started laughing. Laughed, you scoff? Yes, laughed. LOL. Belly laugh. Cracked up. Doubled over laughing. Herzberg was writing to me — the weary parent, devoted employee, busy person, do-gooder wanna-be. Herzberg had my attention. I learned that motivation has primarily focused on positive and negative KITA behaviors — kick-in-the-ass tactics used by management (applicable to spouses and parents, too!) to get employees (read: spouses, kids, colleagues) to do what we/they want them/us to do. Apparently, as humans we’ve gotten smarter over the years and our tactics have become more subtle. Whereas corporate beatings or corporal punishment in schools were early ways of maintaining order, today we send employees to classes on working with difficult people or managers to sensitivity training — all with the same goal of getting them to work better in a culture that thrives on hierarchy and discipline. What Herzberg learned was that once you get beyond the KITAs and actually tackle the concerns employees have about their jobs, there is no lift to motivation. What???? So you can resolve everyone’s concerns over money, time off, benefits, working conditions and they’re still not happy. This is starting to sound like justification for the boot-camp tactics at Parris Island, I think. But no, Herzberg argues, you should fix those things anyway just don’t expect them to send your employees into a productivity upturn. So what’s the point here? Harvard’s teaser to the article reads, “Forget praise. Forget punishment. Forget cash. You need to make their jobs more interesting.” What does interesting have to do with anything? It’s midnight and I have to stop reading because I have to get up at 6am to fill out paperwork for school, write checks for picture day, and figure out what we have left to do to complete our 2009 tax return — yes, it is October 2010. Please do not smurk if yours were done well before now, it won’t help. 😉

I wake up unhappy. I now have proof that wheedling, cajoling, bribing, sugarcoating, ass-kissing (hey if Herzberg can write it in the Harvard Business Review, I can write it here!) does not make me or anyone around me happier. Plus, I could give in to all my teenagers’ requests, give raises to all of our employees, grant sabbaticals right and left, and still experience no lightening in my load at either home or the office. No more laundry would get done, we wouldn’t do any more deals than we’re currently doing, and most importantly, I’m still the b—- on wheels I currently am. I then remembered that I haven’t finished the Herzberg article. I am not hopeful, but I am intrigued. I realize that I’m not going to have any time to get to it until lunch. I sigh and accept my lot in life.

In a cozy alcove of the Wilson Boulevard Corner Bakery I tackle Herzberg’s article. Yup, I’ve read it correctly. I can’t expect more from anyone by satisfying their list of demands. But then again, I can expect worse if I don’t do those things that should be done — however, moderation is recommended. I envision a conversation with my 9th grader, “No, you still cannot go to a movie at 9pm and then hang around Hoffman until midnight. Don’t mess with me. I have Harvard professors on my side now.” Although I am buoyed by this, I am still left wondering what is the key to motivation? Mine and others? How do I become more engaged in my multiple roles? How do I motivate others to do and tackle more? How do I get this blasted monkey off my back? I am in favor of a more interesting life, I have an interesting job. Job enrichment, I learn is the answer. Job enrichment, what the heck does that mean to me? “Stifle,” I say to my subconscious as I feel the bile rising from my gut. Humans crave being of value. They want to feel useful, engaged, committed, interested, I read. Herzberg writes:

The term job enrichment describes this embryonic movement. . Job enrichment provides the opportunity for the employee’s psychological growth, while job enlargement merely makes a job structurally bigger. Since scientific job enrichment is very new, this article only suggests the principles and practical steps that have recently emerged from several successful experiments in industry.

I push away my soup and croissant. I think about what’s been written. I think again. I grab my journal and start writing. How do I feel about this? What implications does this have for me, my family, my workplace? Does this apply to everyone? I go back to the article and search for footnoted exclusions. No references to teenagers and spouses who have given up alcohol/TV/caffeine are included. Have I found the answer? I don’t know, but I do feel a lot lighter.   I’ve got to share this with Brigid, I think. How do I weave this into the offsite? We are t-minus a week and counting.

Last week, we conducted our offsite at Airlie. Although I was stressed for two-and-a-half days waiting for the opportunity to contribute my piece to the content, I could sense a shift in the load management was carrying. We were sorted into six teams ten days out and those teams were gelling nicely. Some had taken creative names, the Q-Shore, a take on Jersey shore, the 50-Cent Gang for a group that was 50% men/women, Workaholics, etc. Others had t-shirts, bandanas. When we arrived, there was energy. Ad hoc running groups were sprinting out of the complex at 7am and on breaks before dinner. Someone had brought a guitar — there were sing-a-longs until 2:30 in the morning. There were questions from management — teams had answers. There was stimulating content from people who know how to deliver a presentation from a podium — I promise to learn how to do that one day. The feud game my colleague and I led on Friday was long, fun, but definitely not boring. The offsite had been improved. My reading was paying off and the offsite was the beneficiary.

Home? I got home around 1:30pm on Friday. I was going to go to the office, but was exhausted. I decided to take a power-nap and woke up 2 hours later. It didn’t take long before the inhabitants of 101 Uhler Terrace were all at each other again — curfews, laundry, nothing to eat in the refrigerator (despite the crushing weight of all of the food in the freezer), Swahili lessons, cellphone upgrades (or not!), studying, etc. I went to bed at 8pm on Saturday night and dreamt of Herzberg — no lie. I had now seen so many images of him on Google he had a face — a kind of modern-day looking Einstein with more weird hair. He, or rather his picture, kept floating around in my dream talking to me. He wasn’t talking about motivation he was just talking to me. Odd at best, possibly deeply disturbing at its worst. I prefer to think of it as uplifting and a reminder that this “enrichment” thing may be something we all need to ponder — men and women, moms and dads, brothers and sisters.  All of us.  However, in the case of my circle of mothers, we have to realize that we are management and the only way to enrich our roles is to enrich the roles of others.  As the editor writes in the notes to Herzberg’s article, “But the real key to motivating your employees is enabling them to activate their own internal generators. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck trying to recharge their batteries yourself.”

Worth pondering . . . I wish Herzberg had lived long enough to study families — parents, spouses, and children.

Oh wait a minute . . . Brigid!  That’s the answer. You’re the one to take up the mantle and go from here, a modern-day Herzberg. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.

Signature 2

Day 1: Our Journey to the Heart of Darkness

“So are you ready for the biggest adventure of your life?” Sara asked us as we piled out of the mini-van that literally limped into the Rwanda-Congo border town of Gisenyi.  Yeah, baby, the Call-Riches had arrived in Africa.  So begins our tale . . .

We left the day after Christmas from Dulles on a non-stop flight to Africa with 15 bags including 7 laptops, 17 soccer balls, a lifetime supply of bic pens, Sara’s Christmas presents, and an obscene amount of cash.  We were ready.  Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was our first stop on the continent — 12 hours with every kind of movie available you could possible imagine — Wall Street, Vampire Tales, Up — as well as more audio channels than satellite radio.  The food was great and we did not sleep despite the Benadryl I pumped into all of us.  We were way too excited and rightly so.  The airport in Addis is the equivalent of a US Airways hub — people and planes going everywhere.  The only difference was that there were no screens telling you where to go and no printed boarding passes.  Oh-oh.  I could feel Lonnie starting to tense up as Ethiopian Airlines personnel started to screech out the names of places.

“Luanda?” a woman yelled.

“No, Rwanda,”  Lonnie responded.

“Ah, Kigali,” she said with an open, welcoming smile.  “Okay, follow me.”

“Follow you where?” he asked with a wee bit of edge.

“Just follow me, please, ” she said with a confident wave of her hand as she turned and walked away.  We pursued her like lemmings, queuing up to a desk she staffed.  I was the queen of the passports with the equivalent of a portable safe on my person doling out the valuable documents with my eyes on them at all times.  After about 15 minutes of waiting, we had our handwritten boarding passes.  We then scurried up stairs, hurried down Hogwarts-esque corridors, huddled on a fast-moving Dulles-like “mobile transporter” or bus, and were led eventually to a much smaller plane that would transport us to Kigali, Rwanda — the capital of the land of 1,000 hills (mille collines in French).

The flight and arrival were exactly the way you’d want them . . . uneventful.  Our fellow passengers  signaled their approval for the pilot’s successful piloting with applause upon landing– we joined in.  Not only did we arrive safe and sound in Kigali, so did all of our luggage (see litany above!).  The next big challenge was using the mobile phone my office had given me — I think they thought I might need it for something really important — to call our hotel, the Mille Collines, to have them pick us up.

“Oh, the Rich Family?  Yes, your transport was there at noon; it’s now 2pm, ” the gentleman at the other end of the line said matter-of-factly.

“Our flight was late.  Sorry.”

“You’ll have to get a taxi.”  Bottom line — you snooze, you lose . . . even if it’s not your fault.  Note to self . . . all the trouble of trying to figure out how to dial the number the hotel wasn’t worth the effort, but it did get my Swahili brain going as I had to ask a Rwandan woman how to dial the number of the hotel.  Now, I’d have to use my Swahili again to hail a cab.   Deep breath.  Kabahita, our good friend and Swahili instructor, had taught us how to do this.  As soon as our convoy emerged from the airport, we were engulfed with offers of support.  It was a bit difficult singling out who was a driver and who was a handler, but there was one earnest fellow named Athanase who somehow caught our attention.  He didn’t speak Swahili — only Kinyarwanda and English.  Lonnie was happy.  His comrade only spoke Swahili and Kinyarwanda.  I was happy.  Lonnie and Mattie went with Athanase.  Megg and I went with Paco.  It was a 30-minute $20 cab ride from the airport to the hotel.  We wound our way from the airport, which is southeast of the central city, through the crowded commercial district, and up many hills to the Mille Collines Hotel, which is situated in the northwest corner of the city amid a lot of government offices and residences of important Rwandans and expatriates.

Mattie, Megg, Marcia, and Lonnie

I had thought a lot about what this cab ride would be like long before our plane ever touched down in Kigali.  First, I had been to Kigali, but not since the genocide so I was curious about what a place that had undergone so much violence would look like.  Second, I have seen Hotel Rwanda more times than I care to admit and we would be staying at the hotel the movie had made famous.  The cab turned a corner and there it was — the large cement sign with the signature hills on it representing the logo of the Mille Collines Hotel.  We turned into a parking lot which is divided by a 100-foot median strip with beautiful flowering trees planted in it.  There were angled spots for cars to park like I have at my local Giant grocery store.  For ease, there was one way in and one way out of the hotel.  Our taxis arrived at the modest entrance — a glass exterior with no trace of the oversized wooden doors that Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) locks with so much emphasis near the end of the movie.  Our luggage was efficiently whisked out of the vehicles and into the lobby.  We contracted with Athanase and Paco to come back the next day to take us to some sites before we caught our ride to Gisenyi and ultimately Sara.

The view off the lobby was breathtaking.  From there, you could see the main city center of Kigali as well as the surrounding hills.  Although the panorama was clear, it was not as clear as it would be in a few weeks.  The rainy season had only just begun and the air still had a fair amount of dust in it obscuring the view somewhat, according to the locals.  We didn’t notice.  As we walked over to the windows and onto the platform off the lobby, we looked down on the pool and beautifully landscaped bar area.  It was Christmas Monday and people were still in a reveling mood.  Again, the parallels to the movie were stark so I decided that it was time to abandon my Hollywood-esque vision and live the Mille Collines as I saw it that day, December 27, 2010.  I was not cheated.

Our rooms were modest by American standards and more than adequate, although I did blow out the power using a hair dryer the next day.  Wasn’t that the reason I had my hair cut before I left?  Some habits die hard.  Megg was exhausted and decided to nap while Lonnie, Mattie, and I went down to the pool bar to see what we could see.  A little girl was swimming in the pool and before her mother could muzzle her, she shrieked, “Muzungu!”  much to her caretakers’ chagrin.  Muzungu, the swahili term for foreigner, has become synonymous with white people and is often heard in rural settings whenever white newcomers enter a public square.  However, having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Congo (formerly Zaire), I was used to it and had prepared my family for its usage.  We laughed and gave her the thumbs up sign, a seemingly universal symbol of good will in almost any land.  We’d overcome our first cultural event with ease.  I ordered a Primus, the local brew, Mattie ordered a “coca,” and Lonnie ordered juice to celebrate our arrival.

That evening we had a lovely dinner in the Panorama Restaurant on the fourth floor of the hotel.  Imagine the lobby view four stories up with all of the lights of the city below us and you have the picture.  We ordered steaks and vegetables, which were well prepared, however, I don’t know that we would have really noticed if they weren’t.  We were as tired as we were hungry.  One thing was certain . . . we were not going to die of hunger on THIS vacation.  As we were sitting there, not one but two UVA shirts walked past us.  Yes, there was a family of Virginians who, like us, had come to visit their adult Wahoo child who was doing something exotic with her post-collegiate career.  They had come to Rwanda to see the gorillas and Kigali was the perfect place to sojourn before the trip into the bush.  I sighed . . . we would have to leave that to another time as Megg and Mattie did not meet the 18-year old age limit for such an adventure.  I think Lonnie was relieved as a hike into the wet bush was not his idea of fun.

With visions of internet connections and facebook chats in their heads, the girls politely asked to be excused after dinner.  Abandoned, but not at all unhappy about that, we sat and marveled that we were now in Africa.  After months of logistics — renewing passports, soliciting letters of invitation, paying for visas, reviewing itineraries, undergoing shots for every disease known to man — our dream trip was unfolding in front of us.  The biggest adventure of our lives was NOW!

Signature 2

Running for My Life

This post was written on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at Airlie House, Warrenton, Virginia.

Today is proof that running is not about running.

After leaving three friends who were embarking on a 5-mile run,  I jogged down the hill to meet another friend for a more civilized early morning 3-mile walk/run.  No friend.  Oh well, do I walk or do I run?  I decided to run.  As I was leaving the main house at Airlie in the rear view, I realized that for a few weeks now, I’ve been struggling with hills – both up and down – and punishing my knees as a result.  As I was mounting the hill immediately leaving the property I started to think about this.  A hill is just a hill, right . . . every hill has an up and a down slope so what’s the big deal?  If you run down, you have to run up and vice versa.  All pretty obvious stuff.

Well the more I started to “think” about hills, the more I ran and the more I ran the more thoughts came to me about this dilemma.  As the Airlie house came into view after having run up and down hills for 3 miles, it all came to me.  Running is really not about running . . . it’s a pretty decent metaphor for a lot of life.  Not an original thought, but a good one for me to remember.  For example, running down hill makes me feel alive, vibrant, ready to attack challenges vigorously so I run joyfully and quickly down them . . . running uphill makes me feel cranky, irritated, life is burdensome so I plod up them and sometimes I stop.  The bottom line is they are just upslopes and downslopes and that’s all.

Meanwhile, there is the sun starting to crawl above the trees to my left.  There are the swans on the pond calling to me as I pad on by.  Oh my, I startled a doe as I ran past the abandoned landscaping truck rusted out by the side of the road.  Is that a rabbit that is crossing the path in front of me?  I wonder if I’ll catch up to that walker ahead of me . . . I’ve finished this run and I feel like I’ve barely started.

All of this insight and I didn’t have to pay a cent and I got the exercise I wanted.   I think I’ll keep running . . . with thanks to Haruki Murakami for getting me started on “thinking” about running.


Signature 2

Restless in Berryville

God shops at Costco! He has the same tupperware cereal containers here at Berryville that I am using at home. It’s a sign . . . I am forgiven.

I have never actually witnessed the movement of wind through trees until this weekend. I first heard something on Friday night. It was as if someone was moving through the brush. I caught a sense that something was happening, but turned towards the source and only then was I treated to the full breathy, expansive fullness of the sound. Yesterday, the same experience, however, I wondered why I’ve never felt that before. Such a common phenomenon . . . On my way back from Compline, I felt the same thrill. Why was this such a new thing?

This morning I have been restless since 3 am. I was sorely tempted to go to Vigils at 3:30 am but rolled over instead. I tossed and turned but not at all unpleasantly until the clock glowed 6:30am. With that, I realized it was time to emerge from my cocoon. I stripped the bed — this was our last day at Holy Cross Abbey — as requested in the ‘dear friends’ note on the desk, balling up the sheets and shoving them into the pillow case. I pulled off my pseudo-pajamas — running shorts and a t-shirt — and traded them for a white pants skirt and a black polo. I took one more minute to brush my teeth and grab a sweatshirt, even summers in Berryville are chilly, and headed off for Lauds.

The chapel is about a half-mile from the retreat house. The road is paved, but the adventurous may take shortcuts through the unfenced fields. Leaving the premises, a modest yellow brick building that houses 16 rooms, kitchen, dining room, foyer, library, and chapel, I am greeted by two cats. There are several that inhabit the grounds, but are not allowed inside. The fat yellow tabby that is queen of the brood is nowhere to be found. Instead her lord and maiden have come to greet me and are glad for the gentle touch of my hand. They, too, appear to have been roused recently from sleep, but are not at all unhappy about it. In fact, we all seem quite content and pleased with ourselves to be up before most of the others. There is no hum in the air, no buzz of activity as I round the garden of zinnias and sunflowers — the bees and butterflies have not yet woken. There is a slight chill in the air and I am glad that I have worn the West Loudoun Vikings hoodie I purchased on Friday.

The road winds past the pasture. There are cows grazing, but nowhere near the number that were parked on this plot of land last evening. Lupe was so entranced by them she took pictures of every one of them that would come to the fence. They were as curious about us as we were delighted to meet them. Most were black with tags in either or both of their ears. We assumed they were beef cows, but again someone who reads this will confirm or deny the fact. Today, none of them are even close to the pathway. Having satisfied whatever curiosity they had, they have moved on. So have I.

The next patch of road is a straight stretch that passes the monastery gift shop. This is my favorite part of the walk. It is bordered by the cow pasture on one side and farmland on the other. I love the wire fences, the random trees, the abandoned stumps, the hay ricks, etc. I wonder if I came for a week would I see a whirlwind of activity? Would I be waving to farmers on tractors? Would there be threshers and irrigation machines? There must be some activity on these lands.

Regardless, I am content to walk on the road between the fields. As I approach the trees that have entertained me morning, noon, and night, there is no sound. Perhaps they will not talk to me today. I am not unhappy but curious about where the sound is made and why I have only been allowed to hear it so richly in my 52nd year. I pass the copse and move on to the gift shop corner.

Cool Spring Mansion

There is a sign as I round the corner that points the route to the retreat house, the chapel, and announces my arrival at the gift shop. The sign is gray — painted wood with black calligraphy. I wonder, do the monks create and maintain all of these signs? There must be a hundred of them on the property. If they do this is there anything they don’t do? Do they mow? Do they weed? Do they mop? Do they sort socks? Do they clean bathrooms?

Fr. Mark and Ruth

These thoughts preoccupy me as I head towards the Cool Spring mansion house. It was once a residence, but now serves as a meeting place and houses Brother James’ collection of prehistoric arrowheads and civil war artifacts found on the property. How can they maintain all of his? Their numbers are dwindling. This summer they lost Father Mark to complications after surgery and Brother Michael to a massive stroke. I will count them again this morning, hoping that overnight their ranks will have swollen to accommodate several hearty-looking thirty-somethings. There were four of them in a back pew last night — maybe they were the four new recruits reporting to duty. I will look for them.

I am thinking this as I mount the stairs to the chapel. I am alone. None of my fellow retreatants are visible on the path behind me. I will have the monks to myself. I am happy. I take my seat in the first pew behind the velvet cord that announces the separation between the monks’ worship quarters and the cheap seats. I am not put off by this restriction. To pass beyond that rope is to swear fealty to a life of unlimited otherness and I know that I am not ready for that. It is 6:50 am and the chapel is dark. I am alone.

A bell tolls and a monk appears in a walker. I wonder if, he too, rose at 3:30 am for Vigils or if like me, his first appearance before God is now. This thought is designed to make me feel better, but I know the truth. He was here even though he had to physically struggle to do so. I am humbled by this fact. This is a good sign. I am in their realm — humility is one of the virtues they preach. The work on me is already starting and the office has yet to begin.

More monks file in — there are four on the left, one in the front pew (Brother Vincent from the gift shop) who has a cold, four on the right plus one young man in street clothes. One of the new recruits, perhaps? None of the others from last night are with him. I can’t help myself; I contemplate the recruiting statistics — one out of four. Not bad, but at this rate the place will be in ruins before long. We need more troops, God.

Finally, my fellow retreatants appear. There are now four of us behind the cord. More bells. No more monks. Lauds is to begin.


The abbot has signaled that it is time to start. The cantor begins. His voice is strong and beautiful. His colleagues join him and the sound surges towards the middle of the chapel. Facing each other in two pews, their voices entwine naturally and lift us all. The music hangs in the rafters — yes, there are rafters. The crucifix and statue of the blessed Virgin Mary seem to glow. The light is sparse and I realize belatedly no one has turned on the lights in our section. In fact, we’ve been sitting in the dark all weekend. I never noticed until now.

The service continues and I wonder how long these rituals will continue. I pray they will last forever. Everyone should have the opportunity to worship like this. The simplicity of the words, the purity of the emotion, and the basic adequacy of the surroundings amount to a glorious experience. The service is over quickly. We are out of the chapel by 7:20 am. I do not feel cheated. I have received more than I ever expected and am grateful that I pushed myself out of bed. I remember reading that Thomas Merton observed privately these liturgical offices for many years before being claimed by the Cistercians. The rhythm and discipline of it are appealing. Starting one’s day with a heart full of gratitude is the most attractive part.

I am the leader of the pack. I pull ahead of my fellow worshippers so as to avoid conversation. The path from the retreat house to the chapel and back is open for quiet talk. I want none of it this morning. I am actively engaged in worry about the size of this monastic community. We need these men and we need all that they bring to our world.

Prayer Trail

Then I felt it.

The hair on the back of my neck rose as I drew parallel with the stand of trees on the corner of the path. There was movement and my body sensed it. I turned to the trees and I could hear them. I could hear them brushing gently against one another — the breeze was light. I heard their trunks creaking and I could see the leaves clapping each other as if to provide applause for the sudden rush of wind. Suddenly, I was a part of it. I could feel the air on my cheeks, my bare legs. It was a beautiful moment . . . one that I’ve waited 52 11/12 years to experience.

But then again what should I expect? When have I ever really stopped to see, feel, and hear the magnificence I witnessed this Sunday morning? I am reminded of this quote from Haruki Murakami.

It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself.  No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.

Daniel, I thank you for all you’ve taught me about myself this weekend. The retreat house at Holy Cross Abbey is in good hands — your hands. I wish you well, my new friend.

This is the final in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Sunday, August 15, 2010.

Who’s in the Mood for a Prayer Request?

Lunch . . . I think I have given Daniel a bad rap.  Maybe all of his careful instructions before Friday night’s opening meal were required listening.  Maybe I needed that preamble to allow me to work the verbosity out of my system.  Maybe his voice and the reciting of the code of conduct was God working through him as a way to get my attention away from the mind-numbing nattering in my own head.

Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!
Ding a ling a ling!
Ding a ling ling!

Once again, we are summoned to a simple meal in the dining room. I filed in to find my seat. Would I take the same seat I had yesterday? Would my friends join me? Should I branch out and take a new seat in another location? This was all useless chatter as the decision was made for me. Someone took the seat I had last evening. In response, I did not stray too far taking the seat next to my old one where Rosa had sat the night before. This set off a chain reaction of seating changes. Rosa moved one seat down, but next to me. There was now no room for Ruth so she moved across the room on the other side of the u-shaped arrangement. Lupe, who came in late, had to fend for herself finding a non-descript corner seat. The seating ritual was settled.

Next, the water pitchers were fetched by two well-meaning women. They poured water for all of us even responding as new people entered, well after Daniel’s ringing of the chimes. Glasses were filled. Places were assumed. Daniel entered from the kitchen with a sheaf of papers in his hand.

“We have assumed a new practice here at Holy Cross. If you would like, the monks and I will pray for you specifically. All you have to do is complete one of these prayer request forms and leave it on my chair in the hallway.”

Hrrrmmmppph! We have a prayer team at Commonwealth Baptist which does a more than adequate job of taking care of my unspoken needs. What more do I need? But the idea of being prayed for by a monk-in-training (Daniel) and the remaining monks of Holy Cross is very appealing. So what should I do? Stealthily pick up a form, take it to my room, write out my request and sneak it back to his chair? Do I sign it or just leave that detail out — God knows who I am, doesn’t He? Or, maybe I should just “let it all hang out” as we used to say in the 70s? And does this whole line of thinking brand me as shallow or just plain ridiculous? I can’t worry about this right now as the chow line has started and I am the fourth chair in line for a square of lasagna, garlic bread, and salad.

As we progress through the line, Daniel starts where he left off.

“Simplicity is not asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of doing without things. Simplicity is the practice of using all that you have in practical, non-ostentations ways.”

I had never thought of that before. Nor had I wondered whether or not God had an opinion about Costco, but now I do. I think He’d love it if we used all that we acquired at their warehouse prices. I bet He’d hate the mindless spinning I do down every aisle looking for something I don’t need at a price I can’t refuse. Think of all the shopping carts he’s tracking right now at Target, T.J. Maxx, Steinmart, Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, etc. (Oh please, God, don’t put look-outs at Steinmart and Barnes & Noble . . . they’re my favorites!) Or, just think about the internet! Imagine God or one of those angels like Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life earning his or her wings by reporting what earthlings have on their wishlists or in their carts. I can hear them chortling now, “Guess who’s going to have a hard time getting through that eye of the needle!”

Or, maybe, just maybe, he’s not thinking about any of this. Instead, what if he’s pondering new ways to get my attention so that I quit filling my shopping basket mindlessly? What if he’s betting ON me and not AGAINST me making it through the eye of that needle. Maybe just maybe he wants all of us to make it through. After all, isn’t heaven supposed to be infinite? If it is, what difference does it make if me and the rest of humanity end up there? If you think like that, why should we even spend one iota of energy fearing we won’t make the cut? Why not focus on the fact that we might make it? What’s wrong with aspiring to that end? And by the way, while we’re on this subject, what’s wrong with failing — stumbling and then getting back up again? Isn’t that how any activity is perfected — walking, riding a bike, swimming, playing an instrument? Or are we just so dominated by fear that we fail to attempt anything?

Fear is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. Failing to live up to our parents’ expectations. Failure to achieve success that will feed our families and bring honor to ourselves. Failure to enjoy life to the fullest. Failure, failure, failure . . . at every turn. But! What if we don’t have to be committed to that? What if we trained ourselves in the discipline of wanting to be what God wants us to be? What if I personally worked on that more than anything else? What if failure then became a necessary byproduct of striving to obtain a grace that is more immense and forgiving than anything I’ve ever imagined?

The reading is over. The plates are cleared. My place is reset.

Daniel — one. Marcia — zero. The new guest master is winning and I’m glad. Berryville is working its magic even without a prayer request on file.

This is the second in a series of three meditations written at Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, VA. This entry was written on Saturday, August 14, 2010.