Betty Duffy

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writer's Conference

I thought I might write up a play by play of my vacation. But if I keep waiting to do it right, I may never write again. We started off at the Gerasene Writer's Conference, hosted by the O'Brien/Johnson family at their farm in Wisconsin, with fellow attendees the Darwins, the Lickonas, one Ellen Finnigan, a couple priests, a couple professors, Grandpa Barney, brother Canisius, the lovely wives of our hosts and exceptional cooks, Cecelia and Marguerite, and roughly fifty children.

This Wisconsin farm life--this is the life I always fantasize about living--a dirt road block from my parents and grown siblings, all of our children running back and forth from one kitchen to another, and out to the barn to milk the cows, feed the chickens, or check on the status of the latest litter of piglets. Neighbors sharing produce and dirt and immune-system-strengthening microbes, lamenting or rejoicing together in the weather, running the music ministry at Mass on Sunday, and every once in a while, just for kicks, throwing a writer's conference. These people are doing it.

On the kitchen counter in the big house, there's a bowl for the compost, a bowl for the slop, a bucket of milk coming in from the cows. Marguerite and Cecelia are filling many many bowls with chopped vegetables and roast ham. Animals feeding people; people feeding animals. Life begetting life. And a sheepskin-covered easy chair (!) in the corner, for the cooks to sit down and rest, or nurse a baby, or for interlopers who want to be near the ladies without a knife and a vegetable in their hands (this kitchen easy chair is an idea well-worth taking to the bank).

At morning and midday, Marguerite, pregnant with twins, jumps a fence to bring in the cows for milking. This is something I have never seen in my life--a pregnant woman jumping a fence--a gaggle of children following her in hopes of getting a hand in the milking action. A couple of kids, always mine it seems, have climbed up the rock wall in the woods again and are hovering precariously over the ledge of a slippery moss-covered hunk of granite. Your life, Kids--live it or lose it--but I'd really rather you come down.

At night, I walk around collecting the shoes my kids have dropped all over the yard, then collecting the children themselves--which is slightly more difficult than finding the shoes. There's a ceremonial hand and tooth washing, which makes approximately two small areas of their body relatively clean. And then the kids are to bed. It's damn late already.

Cecelia, Marguerite and various hands have cleaned up the dinner, which was long in preparing, but so quick to eat, and then the farm wives lead their kids from the big house back to their own houses for bed. All that work-- I wish they'd at least stay up for the whiskey. Tired or not, I will always cast my lot with the late crowd. But they assure us that the whiskey has been uncorked for quite awhile, and they're ready to call it a day.

Here the poetry reading and playacting begin in earnest, along with song-singing and general merry-making-- the conference part of the conference. A chapter was read from Mrs. Darwin, a play by Matthew Lickona, a poem by Joseph O Brien, an orphan opening from Mr. Darwin. I had thought about sharing bits of this dumb book I've been pulling out of drawers and putting back in for about ten years about my experiences with Regnum Christi--(I imagine there are many who could write this book, and probably are working on it much more efficiently than I)--but there is the whole "I" problem with my writing, that I don't mind hearing the "I" in my head, but that "I" sounds like such an idiot on someone else's lips. I chickened out.

In the morning of the second day, after two nights of late readings, and two full days of lectures and listing around the kitchen and the porch, from cooler to cooler, conversation to conversation, we stopped in at the O'Brien house to say our goodbyes. The late crowd was barely awake, myself included, a bit parched and spotty. But there, surrounded by boys in baseball caps in various states of repose, was Cecelia, white robed, hair around her shoulders, the sun reflecting off the wood floors and bookcases and casting her in warm light. The trolls of the night had pursed lips and puffy eyes, but Cecelia was queen of the morning, and laughing.

There's something very invigorating about watching people work for their rest, and then seeing that  rest has accomplished its purpose. I'll always be a troll, most likely, but my husband set to work reading Wendell Berry again once we'd hit the road and exhausted the first shift of driving. He becomes more and more the early riser, the one trying on a conversation in the morning while I'm pulling the blankets over my head. Nevertheless, seeing how agrarian life actually functions when it's done, not just in bit parts as it suits us, but in its entirety as suits a large hungry family and the beasts of burden in its care, made us both ripe for a stroll on the Berry guilt trip we've been on so many times before. Maybe we should just do it. We've got a place for goats and chickens. We've had big gardens we've both ignored.

We got to the chapter on spouses contributing to the family economy by engaging in small crafty enterprises, like writing or woodworking, the chapter where Berry recounts how he doesn't have a computer, but rather a wife who types up all of his manuscripts, the chapter that makes feminists go bonkers, and actually, makes me a little nuts too. And here we came to an impasse, because we couldn't agree whether he should type my manuscripts for me, or whether I should plane his boards for him--so we settled that things actually work ok for us as they are, and that instead of going all agrarian and quitting his job and starting a small business, we'd just buy a deep freezer and fill it with meat for the winter. What we need is a fence-jumping farm wife.

Home now, we've purchased said freezer. It's plugged in the basement, waiting to be filled.


Theresa said...

I smiled as I read this. Such a grand life. Blessings to you!

nancyo said...

I love peeping through this window into the literary life! Don't we all need a farm wife?

JOB said...


Thanks, Duffy.

What a pleasure to have you and your family! Here's to hoping it builds each year...

On to G13!


Melanie B said...

I think I'm much too lazy for the farm life. But I see the charms.

I was at the University of Dallas with a Joe O'Brien who wrote. Any chance they are one and the same? I know it's probably a pretty common name.

Hope said...

I made a little note to myself about having a kitchen easy chair when we replace our falling down trailer with something else. I love the picture it put in my head and I have a chair that needs recovering that would fit the bill perfectly.

It's a very vulnerable thing to share one's writing with a live audience.

BettyDuffy said...

Melanie--it is very likely the same Joe O'Brien.

rosetells84 said...

What is it about Wisconsin? We feel the same way every time we're there. I'd be a mess of a farm wife, but I loved reading this. Glad you're back.