Tuesday, December 28, 2010

New-found faith

Freewriting exercise

Rick Bragg, Somebody Told Me, p. 186:

“The housing authority found Bill Simpson living on the street, relying on a new-found faith in God and the kindness of strangers.”

Billy’s smile could light up the room. Back then, before Vietnam, Billy Simpson and I danced in his basement. He had one record that he played over and over again on the little record player—Chances Are by Johnny Mathis. We danced real slow on the green and black asphalt tile floor while his mama’s dryer went thump, thump in the corner. Every once in a while we’d stop dancing to eat some potato chips and drink some RC Cola. And every once in a while his mama would come downstairs to put another load of towels in the dryer. She’d chuckle and say, “You two just love that song, don’t you now?” His mama was a real sweet lady. She was a nurse’s aide at the Catholic old folks home and Billy said she held the hands of a lot of old people when they died but she was so used to death that it seemed normal to her and besides, he said, she was real religious and just prayed to Jesus and all the saints when people were dying. Billy said she should have been a nun and he was probably right, except she wouldn’t have had Billy if she’d been a nun. I wondered how she could spend so much time with dying people and still be so sweet. I thought being with someone dead would near to kill me, but it didn’t kill Mrs. Simpson. Billy got a big break and went off to college on a football scholarship but soon he got in big trouble. He had been put on probation at the college for drinking and when he was caught cheating on an exam, the college kicked him out for good. That was bad news for Billy because he then got drafted and soon went to Vietnam. But I heard he started using heroin in Vietnam and the army kicked him out too. Sitting with all those dead people didn’t phase his mama, but the shame that her son brought down on the family killed her. No one was sure where Billy Simpson was when his mama died. Billy’s father tried to find him with no luck. Five years after Mrs. Simpson died I saw a picture in the newspaper of some homeless men eating Thanksgiving supper at a shelter run by Catholic nuns in Newark, New Jersey. I looked closely at the photo. Even though the man in the tattered coat and the baseball cap was older and worn by life on the streets, he had the unmistakable smile of Billy Simpson. I passed on the information to Billy’s family. The housing authority found Bill Simpson living on the street, relying on a new-found faith in God and the kindness of strangers.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Dig the hole. Start climbing out. Dig the hole. Climb out again. I’ve been digging. Through sheer will I think about climbing out but sometimes it’s slippery and cold and I sit at the bottom, shivering. I know there’s sunshine out there somewhere because I’ve been out there recently, warm, walking in the light.

On Christmas Eve I was singing carols, cooking, thanking God for all my blessings. But soon the sense of loss crept in like King Herod, the villain in the Christmas story. I talked to my son and my daughter on the phone but after we talked I couldn’t stop crying. And a dear friend of mine has just been diagnosed with cancer and is about to begin treatment. I missed my dad. This was our first Christmas without our father. He was such a presence, the heart of our family. I just wanted to talk to my dad, to tell him what’s in my heart, to have him reassure me that everything would be alright, to stop me from shivering.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Competitive Christmas

No, the photo isn't my house. Sadly. It's a house down the street from me in Pimmit Hills. Every year it's gloriously tacky, a mixed message of Santas and Smurfs and an occasional helicopter. I love it.

When I was a kid Christmas decorating was a competitive sport. More than a competitive sport actually, sort of like a glittery version of ultimate fighting in Heitmuller Estates. My mother wielded a can of spray-on snow like a deadly weapon and my father spent hours on the roof with a hundreds of multi-colored lights and a staple gun.

Every Christmas Heitmuller Estates had a house-decorating competition. Despite the combined efforts of both of my parents, Trixie Herlihy always won first place. Trixie did things like wrapping her entire house in red cellophane with a big bow on top. The houses weren’t that big, but it still took a boatload of cellophane. So the next year my father put lights all along the peaks of the roof and all the eaves and he made reindeer out of plywood. Trixie had a nativity scene with live sheep. The annual Christmas rancor lived on

One December in the early 1960s my father was called to Florida when my grandfather had a stroke. So my mother decided that she and I were going to do the Christmas decorating on our own and this year she had the idea that was going to whip Trixie’s butt. My mother wanted to make our little rambler in Maryland look like a traditional New England house in the snow. So with masking tape we created panes on our big living room picture window. We used spray snow in a can to simulate the look of snow drifts in each of the “panes” and we used fishing line to hang ornaments in them. Then the pièce de résistance—she had seen it in a magazine—we glued cotton balls to the front door and sprayed them with glitter.

I don’t remember what Trixie Herlihy did that year, but she won again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Heart attack

So I'm innocently browsing the Internet, looking for the Cooks Illustrated infamous recipe for pie dough. It's infamous because the secret ingredient is vodka. Yes, vodka. Is browsing ever innocent when I'm searching for anything to do with pie? Perhaps not. But, as I said, while innocently browsing I stumbled upon Smitten Kitchen's recipe for Nutmeg Maple Cream Pie. "Oh, heart be still," I muttered to myself when I read the recipe and looked at the photos. It's simple--maple syrup, heavy cream, egg yolks, freshly grated nutmeg, and vanilla. Heart be still is pretty accurate. I'm wondering if the pie will cause me to have a fatal heart attack and I'm wondering if it's worth the heart attack risk. I think I'll make it for Christmas Eve dinner, hoping I don't kill the entire family.

Here's the recipe that Smitten Kitchen adapted from the New York Times. Smitten is fabulous.

Nutmeg Maple Cream Pie

3/4 cup maple syrup
2 1/4 cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 9-inch pie crust or tart shell.

1. Par-bake pie crust: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line pie refrigerated pie shell with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until beginning to set. Remove foil with weights and bake 15 to 18 minutes longer or until golden. If shell puffs during baking, press it down with back of spoon. Cool on wire rack. Lower temperature to 300 degrees.

2. Prepare filling: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, reduce maple syrup by a quarter, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in cream and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks and egg. Whisking constantly, slowly add cream mixture to eggs. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a cup or bowl with pouring spout. Stir in salt, nutmeg and vanilla.

4. Pour filling into crust and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until pie is firm to touch but jiggles slightly when moved, about 1 hour. Let cool to room temperature before serving.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Being chosen

In the past few days I’ve been re-reading the parts of the gospels that tell the story of Mary being chosen to be the mother of Jesus. (These are in both Matthew 1 and Luke 1.) As if he was reading my mind, today in worship service Pastor Mark preached about Mary.

What strikes me as simply amazing is Mary’s faith and her acceptance of God’s will. She was just a teenager when the angel Gabriel delivered the startling news that God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. Imagine that—an ordinary teenaged girl. God chose a teenaged girl to bear his son. Being chosen by God did not make her life easy. To the contrary, it made her life much more difficult. Certainly she was ridiculed and considered a sinner for being unmarried and pregnant. And she witnessed the horrors of her son’s unjust crucifixion when he was in the prime of his life.

I sometimes wonder if she ever regretted the decision to accept God’s plan for her. When God chose Mary, she had to surrender any plans she had for the direction of her life. Did she yearn for an ordinary life without the tremendous weight of being the mother of the Messiah? Did she have any idea how God’s plan was going to be played out? Did she wish that her son would just work as a carpenter, marry a nice Jewish girl, and give her grandbabies? Perhaps so, but she accepted the will of God when her son was conceived and she gave her life over to God, not knowing what it meant but with trust in his plan.

Being chosen is risky business. Like Mary, we who by grace believe in God are chosen. We may be ridiculed, we may question our faith, and we not have easy lives, but aren’t we blessed?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Assaulting the senses

I've got a batch of rutabagas simmering on the stove. They stink when they're cooking but I love the earthy taste of rutabagas, served mashed with only butter, salt, and pepper. Perfect for a cold winter day. Like today. The human sense of smell cuts through the brain to some primary memory central. And in this case, the smell of rutabagas wafting through my house reminds me of the persistent cabbage odor in our old apartment in Silver Spring, sometime in the late 1960s.

In 1967 my new husband John and I moved into a swank apartment in a brand-new, elegant, contemporary high-rise building. At least it was swank to us, struggling young students. The day we were married we moved into a fifth floor apartment, bringing with us only a mattress, a second-hand dresser, a small table, and two chairs from Salvation Army. Soon we inherited a cheap motorcycle that John sometimes used to commute to classes. We were afraid someone would steal the motorcycle so we snuck it onto the elevator and into our apartment and kept it in our living room. Eventually we bought a green area rug that some guy was selling out of the back of his truck. I suspect it was stolen or maybe it was a remnant left over from carpeting the lounge of a second-rate country club. The rug shed horribly. Everything we owned was covered in green fuzz.

Picture our living room—beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows, parquet floors, a ratty parrot green area rug, a table barely big enough for two, and a motorcycle. We lived there rent-free because John was the building night porter, meaning he got the emergency calls in the middle of the night when Mrs. Lebowitz’s toilet wouldn’t flush. John knew nothing about plumbing but somehow he charmed himself into the job. From the rooftop of the building, in April 1968, we watched the fires burning in the city during the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

John was in law school and couldn’t be a night porter forever, so after a year in the swanky apartment, we moved to more modest quarters. The only apartment we could afford was a ground-level unit in a musty old World War II era garden apartment complex. It was sweltering. The building's furnace was directly under our apartment and we never, not once in two years, turned on the heat because heat just seeped up through the floors. We didn't need heat and there was no air conditioning until we installed a rusty old window unit in the living room window.

The building smelled like a combination of cabbage cooking with a hint of leaking natural gas. The only thing worse than the cabbage smell was the dead cat smell. There was a herd of feral cats on the property. In an effort to eradicate the cat problem, the property maintenance man closed off the cats' access to the utility room under the building. The cats got sealed ­in the utility room and died directly under our floor. The smell was so bad we had to move out for a week.

The apartment was ugly, it smelled bad, and it was noisy. It was on a major road, but the noise of the traffic was more tolerable than the music Herb and Linda, our next-door neighbors, played day and night until the walls shook—the theme song from the film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We survived. We were young, we were foolish, we were delirious from the odors and the incessant Western movie theme.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Lil Libby

Writing exercise today. But I slightly changed my rules this time. Yes, I closed my eyes and picked a book off the shelf and, sight unseen, found a sentence and wrote a piece around it. No paragraphs, no plan, just go! But this time I stuck the sentence in the middle.

William Styron, Three Tales from Youth: A Tidewater Morning, from a story entitled Shadrach, p. 42.

“Junk and auto parts were a sideline of Mr. Dabney’s.”

Lil Libby was sitting among the weeds beside the mailbox, just sitting there counting mosquito bites and picking at the scabs on her legs. All that summer she spent half the day sitting by the mailbox, waiting for who knows what. Lil Libby did not get her name because she was petite. Far from it—Lil Libby was huge. Her full Christian name was Lillian Elizabeth Dabney, in honor of both of her grandmothers. Lil Libby dropped out of high school in her first year, not long after she started. She was too big to sit at the desks at Washington and Lee High School and she was sick of being the object of ridicule. So long before she might have learned the Spanish word for water and long before she had a clue what algebra was all about, she ditched school for good. When she wasn’t sitting by the mailbox, she spent her days on the sofa watching The Price Is Right and her soaps. She only got up off the sofa to adjust the rabbit ears on the television or to prowl around the kitchen to find where her daddy had hidden the cheese puffs and the Pepsi Colas. “Doggonit, Da,” she muttered, “A girl could starve half to death in this house looking for something decent to eat.” Trouble is most people would presume Lil Libby was the victim of circumstances, just a redneck who could not rise above her humble background. But Lil Libby came from good stock, from landed gentry who had a couple hundred years of prosperity behind them in Virginia. But her daddy was in a precipitous decline from the status that he was born to. Her daddy didn’t toe the line to honor his family pedigree. He had no ambition beyond catching an occasional big fish and he earned a meager income leasing land to the local chicken processor. Junk and auto parts were a sideline of Mr. Dabney’s. Most of his inventory of junk and auto parts was scattered in the back yard, all the way down to the creek. Lil Libby’s mama didn’t have much ambition either but she had just enough ambition to run far and fast, leaving behind her daughter and her husband. No one knew where she went and in the past 10 years she never once tried to contact the girl. But apparently Lil Libby believed her mama would come back to get her. She refused to give up hope. Hope was about the only thing she had going for her.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It’s the first of December and I don’t want to look into the abyss. It’s a pattern of mine to start a downward emotional slide at this time of year. First comes the pre-dread phase at about the time Christmas decorations appear at Target. By late November I’m becoming anti-social and may stay home alone on Thanksgiving, eating a veggie burger and a bottle of beer for good cheer. But when the first of December comes, the Christmas season is in full tilt and I’m into the nose dive.

In this age of psychobabble and full disclosure (I know I’m part of the problem—I’m writing a blog for heaven’s sake) most people are aware that the holiday season may not be all happiness and light for everyone. The holidays can just be a reminder of the big holes in your life, a longing for family and friends who are gone or who never existed in the first place.

I’ve been reading a great book, a novel entitled The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel. In a passage about Amos, a young pastor in a small town in Indiana, the author writes about longing.

“That wasn’t what he really wanted to say. What he was aiming for was nostalgia, heartache, homesickness. Or stranger yet, the heart’s desire to return to someplace it had never been.” He sees a beat-up old car on the highway carrying an impoverished Hispanic family—parents and six children. He envies them. “And who on earth would want to be those parents? Amos did, and it wasn’t the first time. Certain houses caused the same wave of longing—the look of a particular curtain in an upstairs window, or a bike left on the lawn—and some movies.” He asks himself why this happens. “Because we have abandoned an infinite number and variety of pure possibilities, and perhaps they live alongside the choices we did make, immortalized in the cosmic memory. Perhaps there are unknown lives walking alongside ours, those paths we didn’t take, and we reach for them, we ache for them, and don’t know why.”

That’s as good a description of longing as I have ever seen. But I have a plan. I won’t long for what I no longer have. I won’t long for what I never had. I’m going into the Christmas season with prayer and a new heart and thank God for His infinite blessings. Wish me luck!