Lens-Artists Challenge: Favorite Things

Patti challenges us this morning with a request to see our Favorite Things. Here’s a glimpse of me enjoying my favorite thing — 

Yesterday, I was volunteering at the Riveredge Nature Center in a classroom of 5th Graders learning about Pond Interactions. 

“Who can define ‘interaction’? The way two things engage with each other – excellent! Now, who knows what we call things that are living or were once living? Good – ‘biotic’ is the right word. What do we call something that was never alive? ‘Abiotic’ – that’s probably not a very familiar word. What do you see here that’s ‘abiotic’? The eyeglasses on my face is a good example. And how do I engage with them? I carry them around on my ears and they help me see. Exactly.” 

My favorite things are not things. They are biotic and abiotic energies. Living beings and non-living elements like water, air, warmth, and rock.

In my highest tier of living Favorites would be the family that I helped create. My late husband, who kissed me for the first time exactly 41 years ago today, and the four children that we loved into being.

And because I have four children, I am not practiced at playing favorites and picking out specific individuals for special affection. So I have to say that also in that highest tier is My Favorite Planet – Earth. The whole thing. My favorite part of Earth is that interaction of biotic and abiotic energy that has not been dominated by human technology. Things like water vapor and trees…

…and rock and air and plants…

…and wild animals in their natural habitat.

When I think of the abundance of interactions going on all around, of Life on Planet Earth, how can I judge that anything is out of favor? My preference can’t magnify or diminish any of it. All I can do is reflect on how much I appreciate being part of it, being here to witness and to marvel.

Maybe that’s my favorite thing of all – being alive.

80 Years in 8 Days – Day 2: 10 Family Foods

10 Family Foods.  10 Fabulously Festive Family Foods!  (Ah, ah, ah…*thunder and lightening*)

Is this a Muppet Count-down?  No, not really.  This is Day #2 of my mother’s birthday present.  Yesterday’s post introduced the project and 10 Background Bits of my mother’s life.  Today being Christmas Day, I want to tell you about my mother’s culinary talents.  This is a day that we would spend feasting and in high spirits.  Christmas Eve Mass having been accomplished and Mom’s choir commitment completed, she’d turn her attention to Christmas dinner.  There’s so much I could write about, but I’ll keep it down to 10 things, and I’ll limit them to things that I have actually made myself.  Except for this first item…

1) Fruitcake —  You may shudder, but wait!  My mother’s fruitcake is a triumph of dark, rum-and-brandy-soaked cake popping with candied fruits and savory nuts.  The recipe is from Julia Child herself.  Mom used to make it weeks ahead of Christmas in a huge, plastic tub (which later served as an infant bathtub for my baby brother), wrap it in cheesecloth, douse it with brandy and let it age.  A dozen foil-wrapped parcels went out to the most appreciative friends and neighbors.  Now my sister Sarah makes it, and if I’ve been good, I may get one in the mail this year, too.  I have NEVER attempted this on my own.  I doubt I could live up to the legacy. 

2) Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook —  Fannie and I have become good friends, and though my original copy is pretty trashed, I am partner to a bookseller and have a few new editions at my fingertips.  Yes, I can make this…and have!

photo by Steve

photo by Steve

3) Cran-orange relish —  The recipe is on a postcard my mother sent to me when I moved back to the Midwest from California.  It simply says, “1 bag cranberries, 2 navel oranges, 1 cup sugar.  Grind and enjoy!”  I should mention that I’m still using Grandma Marion’s food grinder from the 1940s.  I’ll probably keep using it until that worn out cord and plug start a fire.

pecan pie & cran orange relish

4) Pecan pie (and mince pie) —  Again, from Fannie Farmer. 

5) Lobster — When we lived in Massachusetts where I was born, Mom learned how to cook a live lobster.  I didn’t end up cooking the first one on my own until we were living in California, and I was in college.  My fiance Jim drove home from the fish market with the live lobster on his shoulder just to freak out passing motorists.  I showed him how to hypnotize the lobster by holding it head down and stroking its tail.  When it was limp, dropping it into the pot of boiling water (don’t forget a bit of Vermouth!) was a cinch. 

6) Roast leg of lamb —  Make slits in the outside and insert slivers of garlic cloves before putting it in the oven.  I like rosemary and gravy more than mint sauce with it.  I have a picture of myself one Christmas with a Lambchop puppet on my arm; we’re both looking aghast at the serving platter. 

We can’t feast like Christmas all year long, so here are some samples of every day fare. 

7) Soup —  My mother kept a stock pot in her ‘fridge all week.  On Wednesdays, when she’d be going out to choir practice, she’d make a batch of soup from leftovers and stock that we could eat ‘whenever’ and clean up without her supervision.  To this day, she makes soup every week for the Food Pantry.  Steve and I have dubbed her “Our Lady Of Perpetual Soup”. 

8) Chili —  The family recipe is pretty mild.  Steve adds Tabasco and cheese and oyster crackers, and if I let him really indulge his Milwaukee roots, I’ll serve it on spaghetti noodles.  Texas folk, please avert your eyes!

9) Chicken and rice —  Basic dinner memories: the smell of onions and mushrooms sauteing in butter as the sun goes down.  Add the chicken, rice and liquid to the same pot.  Season with your favorite flavor combinations.

10) Brownies —  Not from a box! Made by melting Baker’s chocolate and butter on a double boiler and adding it to the creamed butter and sugar. Then add the eggs and the flour and dry ingredients.  Memorable mishaps: pouring hot, melted butter and chocolate into the creamed butter and sugar AFTER having added the eggs and watching bits of cooked scrambled eggs emerge.  And my sister putting in half a cup of baking SODA instead of half a TEASPOON of baking POWDER.  The brown, bubbly stuff spilling out of the pan and all over the oven resembled lava!  Cool! 

Tomorrow, for St. Stephen’s Day, 10 Musical Memories…

Advent Day #24 – Love

This is the last entry from my series of posts two years ago.  Not much has changed in my love for my family, except that those “significant otters” have become more formally (and legally) incorporated into the clan and that the arena of family celebration has moved from my duplex to my daughter’s house (and will take place on Saturday).  The snow is deep and sparkly here in Milwaukee.  Steve was out the door before 6 a.m. to deliver mail and packages for the US Postal Service.  Last night, he didn’t come home until 8:30 p.m.  The temperature is -2 degrees Fahrenheit (without the wind chill factor) this morning.  If you get a mail delivery today, give your carrier a warm smile and your gratitude and appreciation.  Remember the free gifts that come to you each day, regardless of season, with no carbon footprint.  Live life in gratitude and happiness and peace.  The world will benefit.

How About Love?

My December countdown was completed yesterday.  I did not have a chance to post about the gift of love because I was living it.  My four children plus two “significant otters” came over for feasting and gifting and sleeping over.  All six of them ended up on the living room floor under mountains of sleeping bags and pillows and blankets, just like they used to when they were kids in a cousins pile.  Except now, they’re all adults — beautiful, interesting, caring, amazing adults who actually like each other.  And me.  How did I get to be so blessed?  This morning, I repaid them all for years of running in and jumping on my king-sized bed full of eager energy at an early hour on Christmas.  I dived onto their sleeping bags one at a time and gave them a great big hug and kiss.

We have lived through a lot together.  And we have lived through a lot separately.  Their lives matter to me in a way that I can barely describe.  Steve keeps challenging me to come up with ways to articulate what this is.  He has no children, and philosophically wonders why family is esteemed so highly.  “Oxytocin,” my daughter replied one day.  That explains one level of it, I suppose.  My biology has loaded me with hormones that make me love my kids.  My religion loaded me with beliefs that urged me to love my kids.  My experience of life has loaded me with the joys of loving my kids.  And my kids are just plain lovable.  I can agree with the reasoning behind his argument that all people are equally valuable, but I just can’t help feeling that my kids are more valuable…to me.  Yes, I’m playing favorites shamelessly without really understanding why.  Is it possible that evolution favors fiercely loving families?  Do they tend to be larger and survive better?   This might have negative effects on the planet in terms of population.  Would it be better for the world if we were less filial and more agape in our love?  Less sentimental and more altruistic?

 

Table fellowship

I don’t think that I am going to do justice to the topic of love in a scholarly way when I am full of mince pie, chocolate, and happy memories of the hours I just spent.  I am starting to sink into that melancholy that bubbles up when all of the guests have gone home and you ask yourself if you can be truly happy without that rush of energy and affection.  Of course, I am happy and even more peaceful living without all my children still under my roof.   I am in love with the world, in love with my partner, and in love with my children every day.  And it is marvelous.

Advent Day #23 – Peace

Peace On Earth

It is Day #23 in the December countdown.  Today’s gift is Peace.  Ahh, peace.  Take a deep breath.  Relax the muscles around your skull; feel  your ears and eyebrows pull backward; close your eyes and roll your head. Do you feel a sense of well-being?  Julian of Norwich claims that God himself spoke these often quoted words to her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  Do you believe that’s true?  Do you believe that’s possible?  I do, although I don’t always act as though I do. I forget.

Wikipedia uses these phrases to define peace:  “safety, welfare, prosperity, security, fortune,  friendliness… a relationship between any people characterized by respect, justice and goodwill… calm, serenity, a meditative approach”.  Where does peace come from?  Buddha, the Dalai Lama and many others will tell you that peace comes from within, not without.

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” – Black Elk

But perhaps, there are things outside of you that will remind you of the peace which dwells within you.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” – John Muir

Do you feel peace in your mind and body and soul all at once?  Do you descend into peace from your head down?

“I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.” – Helen Keller

I suppose each of us must find his/her own journey into peace.  Anxieties and conflicts are particular and personal.  Facing each one head on is not a passive task.  Making peace is not for the weak of heart.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Is God about making peace?  Is making peace the work of the Universe?  Is it perhaps that joyful effort that gives life meaning?

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we can make peace between ourselves and God, ourselves and Nature, can we then make peace between ourselves and others?

“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” – Mother Theresa

Steve constantly reminds me that in every situation, especially in those that cause anxiety and conflict to arise, I have 3 choices.  I can hide/run away.  I can try to change the situation.  I can change myself.  The first option doesn’t exactly make peace; it simply avoids confrontation.  You can hide away all day long and still feel the fear of whatever it is that scared you.  So, why do I often employ that choice?  Because I lack courage and I’m lazy.  I sometimes pick that choice first to give me time to screw up my will and motivation.  I don’t want to get stuck there, though.

Trying to change the situation requires engagement.  Making peace with hunger, poverty, sickness, and distress this way requires an understanding of  causes and effects on all different levels.  It requires negotiation, and it requires cooperation.  You don’t always get all that is required to change a situation.  Not all situations can be changed.  Death is the big one that comes to mind here.  You can’t hide or run away from it, and you can’t change the situation so that you don’t have to experience it.  Now what?

Change yourself.  Sometimes the only way to make peace with something is to change your thinking, your belief, your approach, your attachment, your aversion, your ignorance or some other aspect of yourself.  “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!” is the simplistic way to say it.  If you’d “rather fight than switch” (old cigarette commercial – pop philosophy at its finest), then you have chosen to fight, not to make peace.  Our egos make it really tough to change ourselves.  Sometimes we’d rather fight, sometimes we’d rather die, sometimes we’d rather do anything than change ourselves.  You have to ask yourself very seriously what your ultimate goal is to get past this one.  Is your goal to keep your ego intact or is your goal to make peace?   I’ve come across a lot of phrases that address this ego dilemma: “take up your cross”, “turn the other cheek”, “deny yourself”, “die to self”.  I think that dogma is probably more an ego thing than a peace thing.   If you can’t let go of your religious beliefs in the interest of peace, then your religion is more about yourself than it is about God, in my humble opinion.   I love the part of the movie “Gandhi” where he counsels a Hindu man who is distraught at having murdered a Muslim child.  “Raise a Muslim child and make sure you raise him as a Muslim, not as a Hindu. This is the only way you can purge your sins.”  This is true wisdom about peace.

Give peace a chance. It requires your will, it requires your strength, and it requires you to lay aside will & strength.  I am looking forward to enjoying the peace that my family and I have created.  We are still creating it, and will be our whole lives long.

Advent Day #22 – Joy

Joy to the World

Gift of the Universe #22:  JOY!

I truly believe that joy is available to everyone.  No one is denied the opportunity to be joyful.  Many people on this planet will never have a full stomach or adequate shelter or enough material wealth to climb out of poverty, but believe it or not, some of those very people know joy.

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”  – Richard Wagner

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”  – Joseph Campbell

My late husband was ill for many years.  He went under the knife for open heart surgery when he was just 31.  He suffered a host of medical problems stemming from diabetes, always believing that he would get the disease under control.  When he realized that was not going to happen, he said, “Okay, I’m sick.  I can be sick and miserable, or I can be sick and happy.  I choose happy.  Pain is inevitable, misery is optional.”  I really admire him for coming up with that maxim, and for embodying it.  The night before he died, he called me at work and asked if I’d like to go out to dinner.  Our daughters were out for the evening, and he took the opportunity to enjoy a ‘date’ with me.  We went to a local sports bar & grill and enjoyed veggie appetizers and sandwiches.  Our youngest called from rehearsal to say she was not feeling well and was coming home early, so we went home to be with her.   Jim was tired, so he took his medications, hooked up to his dialysis machine and CPAP and watched some TV.  When I came up to bed, he turned off the TV and the light.  We fell asleep holding hands.  He never woke up.  And he never complained.  Some people claim that “if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything”.  I don’t buy that.  Jim didn’t have health, but he had joy and love and he knew it.

Many people would foreswear food, health, housing, and money in order to find joy in an ascetic lifestyle.  Mendicants, yogis, monks, and priests of different faiths have adopted austere practices in order to experience the bliss of enlightenment.

“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.”  – Julian of Norwich

This is a deep and serious topic, and much too heavy for me to write about today.  My brain is circling closer to Dr. Seuss and The Grinch who puzzles how the Whos could be singing without “ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags”.  Perhaps joy means a little bit more than the glee we feel when we get a shiny, new present.  Happiness is fleeting.  Joy is deeply felt.

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  – George Bernard Shaw

I’ve got to say that the way I have most felt this joy of being used for a mighty purpose and force of Nature is through mothering.  I know what it is to be thoroughly worn out and joyful.  I know what it is to feel like nobody is devoting himself to my happiness and not to complain because I am finding so much joy in devoting myself to someone else’s well-being.  Not that I didn’t complain occasionally (hey! I’m human!).  I always felt that mothering mattered.  That I was truly making a difference, a big one, to at least four people in the world.  I smiled at my babies even when I was not feeling joyful, and joy emerged.   Never underestimate the effect of a smile.  Check out this Still Face Experiment by Dr. Tronick on youtube.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

 

My joyful (and crazy!) kids

Are you smiling every day?  I’m sure I am.  I even busted a belly laugh today as Steve was describing a Giotto fresco…of Mary and Joseph… kissing at the gates of Bethlehem…with Snoopy in the background.  He speaks like a nerd who knows everything, and then I realize he’s bullshitting me.  I fall for it all the time and then get to laugh at him and at myself.  Steve’s identity motto, which he came up with at a psychology school retreat, is “I am the joy in change and movement”.  I am really benefiting from his perspective because I am often afraid of change and movement.  I so don’t need to be.  There is freedom in allowing joy into your life.

Let Heaven and Nature sing…and see if you don’t find yourself singing along.  Rejoice, my friends.

Advent Day #21 – Passion

Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm

Happy Winter Solstice, everybody in the Northern Hemisphere!  As the sun hits the lowest spot on the southern horizon, it seems to stop in a lyric caesura for a moment.  Now the earth begins to doe-Si-doe around its stellar partner, coyly tilting the top of her head toward him.   The night is long, and the dance goes on.  Passion builds towards the summer solstice when the sun will caress the earth with daylight for 24 hours at the North Pole.  Humans have celebrated these celestial events with festivals for centuries, and we still do.  As I write this, Strauss polkas punctuated with small, percussive explosions and various train whistles play in the background.  It is riotously fitting.  (Steve is cleaning, stacking and re-stacking his books.  We are expecting company for the weekend.)

The door marked 21 bangs open, and the gift unveiled is Passion.  Enthusiasm!  Energy!  I contend that this is another Universal endowment.  The word ‘enthusiasm’ has at its root the Greek ‘theos’, meaning God.  To be enthused is to be filled with God.  “In the throes of passion.”  See Bernini’s sculpture of “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” for a marvelous visual example.  (We watched a video on this narrated by Simon Schama: “The Power of Art”.  Highly recommended!)  Is this kind of experience available to all or just the sainted few?

I believe that if you are open to the energy of passion, you will receive it.  And I believe this fact scares a lot of people, especially those in authority who are working to gain and maintain control.  Do you want to live in a passionless world?  Do you want to live in a tempest of energy?  Do you seek some Middle Way, a quiet infusion of God?  How have you marshaled and channeled energy by your own choices?  Have you felt someone else’s hand tempering your energy?

 

Excited to be back in Massachusetts (Photo by my oldest)

I think I was a pretty enthusiastic kid.  I was often told that I was loud.  My facial expressions were pretty dramatic.  I loved theater and the chance to “act out”.  My third grade teacher wrote in her notes to my mother that “the play’s the thing for your youngest daughter”.  I did feel that my parents were always asserting a more reasonable response.   They were intellectual and Anglican and well-mannered.  I wanted to please them, so I didn’t allow myself to be wild.  When I began voice lessons in college, one of the first things my teacher said to me was, “You sing as if you’d been told all your life to modulate your voice.”  How did she know?  So I had become outwardly prim and proper and covertly silly and animated.  My passion for my husband was greeted initially by my parents with the same kind of circumspection.   After all, I was only 15 when we met and 20 when we became engaged.  Gushing about how I “knew” he was the right one for me was unconvincing.  I prepared logical and practical reasons why I should marry before I graduated from college and while we were both unemployed.  His father was not at all persuaded.  My father had seen us courting and knew more intuitively that our determination was real, fueled by much more than reason, and that in a marriage, that is a definite harbinger of success.

I am still hesitant to show emotion and passion.  Steve is always delighted to see my enthusiasm about something, and frankly wary because it doesn’t assert itself in important decisions.  I was brought up to be very serious about decision-making, and to mistrust my enthusiasms.  Steve seems to approach the issues from the opposite direction.  He feels that the best reason for doing something is because you REALLY WANT TO!  In some ways, that seems like a no-brainer.  Problem is, I have esteemed The Brain far too much, I think.   So, I am learning to try to listen to those exuberant voices without shushing them so much.  And I am learning to be more open to the zeal of others.  My children, especially.  My parents modeled the “voice of reason”.   I can’t deny that I play that role in my parenting, but  I want to model the fervent voice of encouragement, too.  (This goes along with the ongoing safety/adventure discussion that I have with Danger Mommy.)  I keep trying to get away from dualism and embrace the dynamic whole.  “Don’t be so worried about ‘supposed to’,” says Judy Dench’s character in the movie “Chocolate”.

Is it possible to be both wise and passionate?  Is it possible for me to be both wise and passionate?  I’m hoping so.

Advent Day #20 – Wisdom

Wise and Otherwise

December 20.  The 20th free gift of the month is something that can be acquired, but cannot be bought.  I don’t think that it can be given, either.  The gift is Wisdom.  According to Wikipedia, “Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to apply perceptions, judgements and actions in keeping with this understanding.”  In other words, “To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)  However, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”  (George Bernard Shaw)  And finally, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”  (Mohandas K. Gandhi)

It would seem, then, that wisdom is something that can be acquired in living with awareness and engaging humbly with experiences.  It seems to me, though, that you can’t give someone the benefit of this process.  You might point out the process and talk about its benefit, you might set up the beginning of the process, but you can’t impart the journey or the result.  It has to be lived.  I’m a mother; trust me on this.  I wanted to give my children wisdom more than anything, probably for selfish reasons.  I wanted to be spared the pain.  I wanted to spare them the pain.  I asked God to give them wisdom…like on a magic platter descending from heaven…but spare them the pain.  Can’t be done.  Wisdom is born of pain and suffering and effort and failure.  You have to be awake through it all as well.  You can’t gain wisdom while you’re anesthetized.  I’ve made a great discovery, though.  This process is a great equalizer.  Keeping Gandhi’s wisdom in mind, my children and I are fellow travelers on this path.  We share our stories as friends, we perhaps contribute insights to this process, but we cannot assume the roles of provider and receiver.  I try to remember that as I talk to them.  It is too easy for me to slip into the “teacher” role and begin to spew language about what they “should” do and what is the “right” way to do something.  I often issue too many reminders and begin to sound like I’m micro-managing them.   They notice.  They mention it.  I have to challenge myself to be wiser and trust them to be wise.

I remember the day my father told me that something I said was wise.  It felt like a great victory for me.  I was 19 or 20.  I had been talking to my oldest sister about some article I had read in an evangelical Christian newsletter taking issue with science and carbon dating.  My father was eavesdropping from the breakfast room and jumped on the subject by voicing some objection to the fact that the money he was paying for my college education hadn’t stopped me from discoursing like an ignoramus.  I was scared of his strong emotion, ashamed of myself, and angry at his insult.  Embarrassed and hurt, I fled.  We didn’t speak for 3 days.  I realized that he wasn’t going to apologize to me or mention the event on his own, so I decided I needed to take the initiative to talk to him about my emotions, clear the air, and try to restore our relationship.  I’d never talked to my father about our relationship very much before.  He was always right, often angry, and anything that was amiss was my fault.  I also knew that he would not show his emotions, that it would be a “formal discussion” on his part, but that I would probably not be able to contain my tears, making me feel foolish and not his equal.  I decided to brave the consequences and approach him with Kleenex in hand.  I began to talk, and cry, and tell him how I felt.  Then he asked me if I wanted an apology.  “What do you want me to say?”  I told him that part was up to him.  My dictating an apology to him would be meaningless.  That’s when he said, “That is very wise.”   Suddenly, I felt I had grown up and been respected as an equal to my father in some way.   What I understood or didn’t understand about evolution and carbon dating and creation didn’t matter to me any more.  That I had been able to navigate emotions with my father and repair a broken relationship was far more significant.

Dad & me in 1992. Photo by my 8 year old daughter.

Wisdom isn’t easy to get, but it is available.  If you pursue it, you’ll probably get it eventually.  It’s completely avoidable, though, if you so choose.   I know which way I want to go, so I’ll keep paddling my canoe and checking the horizon.   For those of you heading the same way, STEADY ON!  I salute you.