Monday, December 31, 2012

Free falling rage

It’s the last day of 2012 and I’m listening to Tom Petty sing Free Fallin’—how appropriate as our lawmakers continue to duke it out to negotiate some sort of last-minute deal to avoid falling down the “fiscal cliff.” I say let us fall. What the hell? It’s just political game playing and I don't want to get caught up in their silly game.

My overriding image of 2012 has been the year of rage, a time when rage has become a way of life.
Rage on a big scale that affects masses of people. Rage on a small scale that affects individuals.

On a small scale, just days ago I witnessed first-hand a silly, yet frightening example of a man whose rage was pointed toward me. I was pulling out of a spot in a parking lot, in the dark, in pouring rain. A man walked in front of my car and started gesturing. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so I stopped. His gesturing became more animated. Then he began spewing obscenities and started kicking the bumper of my car. He wanted me to pull out faster. He was an enraged adult who looked like a bully of a little boy.

Earlier this year I sat through the trial for the murderer of my little brother Mark. My brother, who was unarmed and trimming the shrubs in his yard on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, was shot in the back at point-blank range by his enraged next-door neighbor. My brother’s dog had walked into the neighbor’s yard. And when he had the opportunity to address the court, the murderer just spewed more rage about the county’s Sheriff’s Department and not an ounce of remorse for taking my brother’s life. The murderer was found guilty of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
 
And then I raged at God. I was enraged with him for letting my nephew Jasen—the son of my murdered brother Mark—get badly injured in a horrible car wreck. Jasen broke bones, spent weeks in a coma, and is struggling to recover from traumatic brain damage. When he regained consciousness, he kept asking for his father. The memory of his father’s murder had disappeared. I didn’t like feeling that kind of rage but I didn’t know what else to rage against but a God who seemed unjust and unfeeling.

And we re-elected a president. The focus of the election got ugly, directed by a bunch of silly bullies who were raging against the other side, trying to impose their wills and their points of view on the American people. That rage has carried over and created a situation where those with political power in our country can’t get past their rage, their self-righteousness, their indignation to do what’s right for the country. I see them just like I saw the raging man in the parking lot­­­­ kicking at my car, like silly little bullies trying to get their way. It is an undignified way to govern a nation.

Then Newtown. There’s nothing to say other than the word Newtown. I can image that for many years to come that single word will resound as a symbol for how the rage of one young man resulted in a horrific tragedy, unfathomable pain for families and for the nation as a whole.
 
December 31st—New Year’s Eve—has been a landmark day in my life. For many years it was a day to celebrate. It was the day my former husband and I met on a blind date. After 30-plus years of celebrating it with him, as a kind of anniversary for us, our marriage ended. It ended in part because of his rage. I’ve never known a man so full of anger, so torn up, psychically entangled in barbed wire. He has since died and, when I think of him, I think of love entangled in rage.

I would like to believe that 2013 could be a better year, that we could somehow find a way to get past the rage and live in peace. It’s probably beyond our flawed human nature. But I can only hope. And pray.

Happy New Year! My God be with all of us and bring us peace.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Madonna and child

It's Christmas! Joy to the world! So there's a website I like that has a wonderful collection of images of paintings throughout several centuries. And today I decide to look through some of the Madonna and child paintings. It seems that at a certain point in the history of art, all the major artists felt compelled to paint their own versions of the Madonna and child. Some are beautiful, sacred, inspirational. Others are just plain weird. What in the world were these artists thinking?
 

Like this one--gives me the creeps. The other "babies" are just odd. They look like dwarfs playing miniature instruments. And baby Jesus is wearing some sort of disk on his head and he looks like he's devouring his mother.


You see a lot of this full frontal nudity. It seems a little disrespectful of the Divine Infant. Couldn't they have used the swaddling cloths to hide his privates? Note that Mary and Joseph are fully dressed with cloaks and things and the baby is totally naked. He's going to catch the death of cold.


What's with the baby Jesus's abdomen? Does he have some sort of odd infant six-pack? He looks like Nero, about to burn down Rome. At least he's discreetly covered.


This baby looks like some sort of alien life form. I'm not feeling the awe here.


Okay. Is this baby Jesus dressed in a gladiator outfit? It's either a gladiator thing or some sort of tutu. Come on--he had to be a manly baby. I'm not into this look either. Doggone. Mary should have had a shower, registered at Babies R Us and gotten the little guy some decent clothes.

 

 
I have to say this one is my favorite in the level of horror. Baby Jesus has to be the world's largest infant. I think Mary deserved sainthood just for agreeing to give birth to this child. And remember--it was natural childbirth in a cave because there was no room in the inn. Holy Mother of Christ!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

"A love like this the world had never known . . ."

It’s Christmas Eve. I went to an evening worship service, drove home in a frigid rain, and heated up the leftover half of a Chipotle chicken burrito for dinner. I know it sounds rather pitiful, but it’s okay. I’ve got a fire in the fireplace, Christmas songs playing on the iPod, and a glass of red wine. I read all three Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus and then read part of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. And I tried playing some Christmas songs on the banjo. It’s okay. I’m alone on Christmas Eve, but I’m going to make it. I’m not going to freak out, gnash my teeth, or cry. It’s really okay.

Well, I might cry a little because I miss my dad and my brother, because I miss Mike. But I’m not dwelling on the sadness, I’m going to bask in the blessings.

So let me count just a few of the major blessings:

I talked to my nephew Jasen this morning on the telephone. A few months ago we didn’t know if Jasen would survive. He was in a horrible car wreck—broken bones and traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for weeks. But he’s home now, still healing, and he has come so far. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.

My kids and all five grandchildren are doing well. Thank you, Lord.

Mike became a Christian in the weeks before he died. Let me repeat that just to remind myself—Mike became a Christian! I am still in awe of the power of God. I am still amazed at the surprises he has up his sleeve. So when I cry about Mike being gone, I can also be so grateful for God's wondrous work. Thank you, Lord.

The blessing of knowing that God sent his own son to be our savior—how amazing is that?!! Nothing I do EVER could repay God. Nothing could be enough. So I don’t have to worry about earning my salvation. It’s done. God loves us, he loves little old me. That’s a great big love. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.

Merry Christmas. And happy birthday, Jesus. Thanks for coming down here with us.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Be careful what you wish for

The Mayans predicted that the world was going to end yesterday. It appears they were wrong. Or at least I haven’t noticed that the world ended. Maybe I’m missing something—I’m not always totally attentive.

I wonder if the winter solstice and the failed end of the world made things go wacky and caused me to have a strange dream last night. I dreamed that I asked God to let me rewind my life and let me go back in time and spend just one day with Mike. God granted my wish. But perhaps I should have been more specific with the timeframe of my wish. The day I got to spend with him was a day in the final weeks of his life.
 
He was living at Edenwald, in the nursing unit, under hospice care. He and I didn’t talk about anything particularly heavy or memorable. We were just together. But I carefully observed details about him. How his hands looked, his arms, how his face had changed when he was becoming so thin and wasted. I kept looking at his hands, amazed that a person’s hands could change so much in only a few months.

I woke up, crying softly. I didn’t expect to spend that particular day with him, yet I was somehow still grateful that I got any time at all.
 
Tonight I put on the fingerpicks that he wore on his right hand when he played guitar. I remembered how his hands looked before he got sick and how beautifully he played. And I miss him.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Sally Simpson

I had never seen anyone as old as Sally Simpson. She couldn’t tell me how old she was. She couldn’t speak. She was confined to her bed in a dreary nursing home, steeped in the stench of urine and stale institutional food.

I was a young teenager, a volunteer in a nursing home run by Catholic nuns. On my first visit to the Sacred Heart Home, one of the nuns assigned me to Sally Simpson, to bathe her and comb her hair. Sally was immobile; she just lay in her bed, little more than a skeleton. Her skin was dry and ashen, loosely hanging from her gnarled bones. And she was covered with bedsores. The nun quickly showed me how to bathe Sally and left me alone with her.

Fifty years later I can recall details about Sally's body, how her breasts were nearly non-existent, how her pubic hair had turned white, how I twisted her few strands of long white hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. Nearly afraid to touch her, afraid of her fragility, I carefully washed her, redressed her, and tucked her back into her bed. It was a strange intimacy with an ancient woman I didn't even know. And I have no idea if she was even aware of my presence.

For all these years I have been haunted by the only facts I knew about Sally Simpson—that she had never married and that she had been a nurse. Her aloneness was stark. A woman who had spent her life caring for others was lying in a bed in a dreary nursing home, covered with sores of neglect, unable to communicate.

When I went back to the nursing home one week later for my volunteer work, I learned that Sally had died not long after my visit the previous week. At the time I was shocked and saddened, horrified to think she died so soon after I cared for her. But now, fifty years later, I have a different perspective. I am relieved that she died then, and I am comforted knowing that she was clean and her hair was tied in a knot at the nape of her neck.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Faith like a mustard seed

 
 

 
 
Luke 17:5-6: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."

 

 
And I say to the Lord, “Lord, please give me faith.”

There is so much trouble in this broken world. So much that it is beyond description, certainly beyond understanding. I ask God to explain, I ask him for some sort of understanding of his plan. Please, Lord, help me to understand why you have heaped upon us pain after pain after pain. And then I realize that understanding is too much to ask for. I need to simplify my plea to God. So I just ask him for faith.  Please, Lord, give me faith. I don’t need you to give me an incalculable amount of faith because you have said that even faith like a grain of mustard seed is enough. The simple presence of faith is all I ask. Faith that can give me courage to stand up to evil. Faith that can give me the conviction to speak the truth, to call out the name of Jesus even when I may be despised or mocked for being a Christian. Faith that allows me to hold on to hope and love when my heart is broken. Faith to realize that this earth is not my home, it is not all there is, there is something much, much better that one day will be mine if I just persevere in faith. In this little bit of faith that is enough to move mountains.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bark awards


I won the Kings Manor cookie exchange today. Scratch that--it's the holiday treat exchange. Actually I won two major awards--best cookie and best container. Sadly the prize was not a large lamp in the shape of a leg, rather two certificates, suitable for framing.

First the containers--vintage blue/green glass canning jars that I found at a thrift store. With little tags that I made to look like chalk boards, tied with twine.

The "cookies" that weren't really cookies? Bittersweet chocolate bark based on a recipe developed by my daughter-in-law Rachel. (You can find the recipe with suggestions on variations on her blog at http://www.thejoyfulkitchens.com/2012/04/dark-chocolate-bark-with-toasted.html.)

I used a mixture of Scharffen-Berger bittersweet chocolate with a little Trader Joe's bittersweet chocolate thrown in. (I needed a lot of chocolate!) I followed Rachel's recipe and instructions. For my version I added roasted marcona almonds, chunks of coconut (not shredded), and dried montmorency cherries. I added some cinnamon, smoked chipotle chili powder (Penzey's), and a pinch of cayenne pepper into the melted chocolate. After adding the fruit and nuts I topped it with grey sea salt. I threw a handful of loose roasted almonds in with the pieces of bark just to fill the spaces in the containers.

Now I'm going to have to start the thrift store search to get more vintage canning jars for Christmas 2013. And another recipe. I have time.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown

Twenty children shot in their school? Little kindergarten children shot with an assault rifle in their classroom? Teachers murdered? The school principal murdered? There is no explanation, no way to understand. Along with millions of others, my heart breaks for the families affected by the horrible killings in Connecticut. I cry out to God to fix this troubled world, to comfort those whose pain began today and will never end. This at Christmas. There is no real peace in this troubled world. This is not our home. Lord, hold us tight, help us. Please help us.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook today, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1864, at the height of the Civil War. And still so true today.

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
...
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas story


Went to the church Christmas party tonight. I got a $50 parking ticket. Aggghhhhh! Other cars were parked on the street where I parked, it was dark, and I saw no sign prohibiting parking at that time. I needed to purge my stupidity from my head. So I got to thinking about the pageants we used to do when I was in grade school at St. Camillus back in the day before color television and digital recording and $50 Arlington parking tickets. And I wrote my own Christmas story. The story is fiction but many of the details are true. I'm just not saying what's true/what's not.


Bridgette Marie Does Christmas

Bridgette Marie Donnelly wanted nothing more than to play the angel in the school Christmas pageant. In second grade she had been a bit of a disciplinary challenge for Sister Ignatius, flipping baseball cards with the boys, letting her dog eat her homework, and disrespectfully mouthing off. She even got the attention of Monsignor O’Donnell when she wore red socks to the First Communion rehearsal. The girls had been explicitly ordered to rehearse in the shoes they would wear on First Communion Sunday. Everyone knew they had to wear all white—white dresses, white shoes, white socks, and of course, white veils. Bridgette Marie had no intention of wearing red socks with her new white shoes for the real First Communion day, but she wanted to save her clean white socks for Sunday. And besides, she just wanted to be a little bit of a rebel, even when she didn’t know what a rebel was. After all, much to the dismay of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her given name was not the standard Irish Bridgid, but rather a bastardized, French version of the name. She was only permitted to be given the name in baptism because of the Marie attached to it.

So she started off the school year in third grade focused on being really, really good so she would be chosen to be the Christmas angel. A third grade girl was always the angel. It had to be third grade girl because at Christmas the second graders had not yet received first Holy Communion. And fourth grade girls just were not suitable to be angels. No one dared say why a fourth grade girl could not be chosen to be the Christmas angel, but it was whispered that some of the fourth grade girls were beginning to develop breasts, and everyone knew angels did not have breasts.

She knew she’d have a good shot at winning the angel role. Mary Catherine McCarthy had fair skin and golden ringlets, but she was so awkward it was likely she would fall off of the ladder where the angel stood. (When Mary Catherine McCarthy was in her twenties, she became the mistress of a Congressman and got involved in a bit of a scandal when the much older Congressman left his wife of 30 years to marry Mary Catherine.) Maria Torina loved the Blessed Mother and knew the Baltimore catechism inside and out, but she had raven black hair, and everyone knew angels were blonde. (Maria grew up to become a sex therapist.) Mary Annette Johnson could have had a shot at the angel role, but no one had ever seen her father and it was rumored that her father wasn’t even a Catholic, so Mary Annette was not angel material. (Mary Annette emancipated herself and moved to Paris when she was 16 and she made a fortune in pharmaceutical sales.) The students at Our Lady of Sorrows School were held to a high standard.

The school principal, the draconian Sister Philomena, had the final say on which girl would be chosen as the Christmas angel. Even Monsignor O’Donnell dared not interfere with Sister Philomena’s decision. Sister Philomena summoned Bridgette Marie Donnelly into the office.

“Well, Lady Jane, I suppose you know why I have called you here.” She didn’t give the girl a chance to respond.

“Something tells me I could be making a big mistake but I have chosen you to be the angel in this year’s Christmas pageant. You know that only the role of the Blessed Mother is more cherished than the Christmas angel. You, of course, are not eligible to be the Blessed Mother. The Blessed Mother must be an 8th grade girl who intends to enter the convent. Only such a holy girl can portray the mother of Our Lord Jesus.” As always, she bowed her head when she said the name of Jesus.

Bridgette Marie looked down at her lap and softly said, “Yes, sister, thank you, sister.”

“Off you go, missy. Don’t you dare disappoint me.”

“Yes, sister, thank you, sister.”

Bridgette Marie Donnelly walked down the hall, directly into the girls’ bathroom and upchucked.

Every day after school for two weeks, the children practiced their roles in the pageant. Bridgette Marie’s role was simple. She had no lines to speak and she didn’t have to enter or exit the stage. She just stood on a ladder behind the Christmas tree, looking with angelic awe at the baby Jesus (an oversized rubber baby doll wrapped in swaddling clothes). At home she tried to practice looking with angelic awe at her Chihuahua Marvin, but Marvin didn’t appreciate being wrapped in swaddling clothes and wriggled free. Marvin was a lousy substitute for the Divine Infant.

Her mother constructed an angel costume with sheets, gold Christmas garland, and coat hangers. But to compensate for the homemade angel costume her mother gave her a home perm and bought her a new pair of shiny white patent leather angel shoes.

The day of the pageant arrived. Everyone was in their designated place—Mary, Joseph, the rubber baby Jesus laid in the manger, the shepherds, the three wise men, and some 5th grade boys dressed as animals. Bridgette Marie stood proudly on the ladder behind the Christmas tree. As the narrator recounted the story of the Savior’s birth and they all sang Christmas songs, Bridgette Marie stood looking down with angelic awe on the baby Jesus. But then, for an instant, she lost focus, looked up from his holy face, and saw Sister Philomena pacing back and forth in the back of the auditorium, nervously twisting the rosary beads at her waist. Bridgette Marie's knees started to shake. Her shiny new shoes began to slip on the rung of the ladder and she felt herself, as in a dream, begin to slowly dive forward into the Christmas tree. Then the Christmas angel loudly cried out, “Jesus Christ!” It wasn’t a reverent proclamation of the savior’s name. It was the cry of a 3rd grade girl with blonde ringlets, dressed in a homemade angel costume, as she and the lighted Christmas tree crushed the rubber baby Jesus laying in the manger.

Sister Philomena screamed--such an unearthly sound had never been heard coming from a nun. The audience laughed until they were full of the joy of Christmas. For some, it was the best Christmas pageant ever.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Chicken Ragu



This afternoon I went to the gym and pedaled on the recumbent bike while watching Rachael Ray cook. I finished my workout, trying to make a mental shopping list of what I needed at the grocery store to make what she cooked while I pedaled. Food I can remember; nearly everything else is a blur. So I got what I needed on my way home and cooked it. I adapted it somewhat. She was making a crostini thing as a side dish with mushrooms and spinach. I added the mushrooms to the ragu. Here’s my version--a nice dish for a cold winter night.
 

Chicken Ragu

1 pound crimini mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound pancetta, a couple thick slices, finely diced
1 ½ pound boneless chicken thighs, chopped into small bite-sized pieces
1 medium to large onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
1 carrot, peeled
2 to 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup Marsala
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes
1 pound whole-wheat or whole-grain rigatoni or other short cut pasta, cooked according to package directions
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Handful basil leaves, torn

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in sauté pan. Sauté until mushrooms are brown and set aside.

While mushrooms cook, begin chicken ragu. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Brown the pancetta 3 to 4 minutes then add chicken and brown evenly 5 to 6 minutes. Add the onions to the chicken. Grate the carrot and stir in with the rosemary, bay leaf, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and cook until vegetables are soft.

Add the Marsala to chicken and vegetables, stir and reduce a minute then add tomatoes and crush with wooden spoon. Add cooked mushrooms. Simmer a few minutes to thicken and combine flavors.

Toss the pasta with the chicken ragu and cheese. Garnish with some torn basil and serve immediately.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Variation on a theme


For a couple of years I've been baking an oatmeal cookie that's well-loved but sneaky. (Big secret here. Don't tell anyone--they have cumin and cayenne in them.) But I've been pondering variations on the oatmeal cookie theme and developed this recipe that I baked for the first time today. I like them. I may tweak the recipe some, maybe get bold and add more pepper. I thought about adding chopped crystallized ginger, but didn't do it this time. I'd love feedback if you try it--let me know what you think. I'm also without a name for these little darlings. Maybe I'll just call them Fred.

Oatmeal Date Pine Nut Cookies

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon coarse-ground black pepper
Pinch of ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup dates, chopped
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats
½ cup pine nuts
 
Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a bowl sift together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt. Add chopped dates and toss to cover dates in flour. In a large bowl beat butter and sugars with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add fresh ginger, egg, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and slowly beat until just combined well. Stir in rolled oats and pine nuts.

Drop tablespoon-size pieces of dough 2 inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 12 minutes, until light brown. Cool cookies on baking sheet for one minute and transfer to racks to cool completely. Makes 4 dozen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Requiem for a wedding dress


Yesterday, once the fog burned off, it was a glorious early winter day. Outside the sky was blue, the air was clear, and I spent the day sitting on the floor in my mother's storage unit. Yep, sat on the concrete floor in the windowless basement of her building, cleaning out the accumulated junk in her storage "cages."

My sister and I pulled out everything in the cages, sorted, and reorganized. We got rid of the marble cupid statue and the broken Christmas lights, a dozen throw pillows, and a variety of other things that once were treasures. We stuffed my car full and donated everything at the Salvation Army thrift store. I brought home my father's watch and wallet (yes, I cried). I also brought home a variety of old Bibles, missals, catechisms, and a crumbling file of my grandmother's recipes. There are some things that hold no value at the Salvation Army store, but are priceless to me.

Purging my mother's things, trying to decide what held value and what didn't, reminded me of a piece I wrote a while ago about my wedding dress.

Requiem for a Wedding Dress
 
Truth is I chose the wedding dress for her, for my mother. “Look at this one, honey, it’s so romantic,” she sighed.

It had been featured in one of those glossy bride magazines and she loved it at first sight. It was pure white embroidered organdy, with long, sheer sleeves and a train. We found it at Jelleff’s, a downtown department store, long since closed. Although I tried on many dresses over several trips to several stores, it was wasted time. I probably could have been satisfied with another dress, but I wanted my mother to be happy with my choice. So, in the spring of 1967, my mother and I chose her perfect dress.

Why we did not consider the heat and humidity of Washington summers, I have no idea. John and I were married at high noon on August 26th. We had monsoon rains for the entire week before the wedding and, just before noon on our wedding day, the sun finally came out with a vengeance. It was very hot, very humid, and I was wearing an organdy dress with long sleeves. We had the reception at my parents’ house. The house was not air-conditioned. I wilted but I was gloriously happy because I married the man I loved. My favorite picture from that day is a photograph of us dancing on my parents’ brick patio—I am beaming at him, dancing in his arms while trying to hold the train of the dress.

On the Christmas following our wedding, as a gift, my mother had the dress preserved in a special box that was supposed to slow the aging process. For over 30 years the hermetically sealed wedding dress moved with my husband and me, from apartment to apartment, then from house to house. During one of the moves, the plastic protective seal was punctured and the dress slowly began to turn from white to yellow. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the dress in the attic was deteriorating. The marriage may have appeared healthy to the outside world, but it too was deteriorating.

Thirty years after it was worn for one joyful day, the dress became the symbol of my broken life. Over those years, the young man I loved slowly crumbled and slipped away from me. Anger and depression ate away his spirit and he left the marriage, hoping that a drastic change would heal him. The marriage ended in a tangle of lawyers, legal documents, and at least one broken heart.

The divorce agreement required me to sell the house. Thirty years worth of accumulated possessions had to be pared down to fit in my small townhouse. Thirty years of serving dishes, brownie uniforms, GI Joe equipment, and useless Christmas gifts. My friend Nancy, the poster child for simplicity, said, “If you haven’t used it in the past year, get rid of it.”

But what about the wedding dress? I put it in the giveaway pile, then had second thoughts and took it out again. Could I just unceremoniously dispose of my wedding dress? I considered some sort of Druid burning ritual to release its evil spirits but feared that I could incinerate my house in the process.

I tried to get my daughter Jennifer to agree to wear the dress one day. “Face it, Mom, I’m three inches shorter than you and three sizes smaller. No offense, but it really isn’t the dress I would choose.” Besides, she might want a white dress, or even off-white, crème, beige, bisque, but not grimy yellow.

I had gone through several rounds of sorting through everything. It was the week before the move and I was taking one last trip to the Salvation Army donation site. I grabbed the box containing the wedding dress and squeezed it in the back of my truck. When I arrived at the Salvation Army site, I handed the box to the attendant and never looked back. I had no remorse, no tears; it was time to move on. I felt good, clean, determined, like an exterminator had just removed the cooties from my life.

But my mother was crushed when I told her what I had done. “How could you thrown away that beautiful dress?” she said, “I loved that dress.”

Friday, November 30, 2012

Dance, dance, dance

"If they want me to believe in their god, they'll have to sing me better songs..... I could only believe in a god who dances.”—Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche

Surely God dances. Why would he not dance? He’s God, the essence of joy, so I have to believe he dances.

I started college in September of 1965. I was at the University of Maryland, my hometown school. My family’s house was just blocks from the campus so there was no option for me to live on campus. I was just a townie and in the end I left school after my second year. I ran away from home and got married.

What do I remember most about those two years in college? I remember trudging across campus in the cold, I remember classes in huge lecture halls, and I remember going to Vietnam War protests. Nearly every day I wore desert boot and jeans and wool socks and my navy blue “poor boy” sweater. And I remember dancing.

During that time I was friends with two guys who were in the same disenfranchised caste as I was. We lived off-campus, we weren’t in the college "in" crowd, and we were scraping by financially. Fred Wilde had moved to Maryland from somewhere in Texas. John Hufnagel was from Connecticut and he had a beat-up old Karmann Ghia. (One day in December John and I decided to drive to New York for the day to see the Christmas decorations. The car broke down in Delaware. The car was towed away and we had to find a bus to take us back to College Park. We never saw Christmas in New York but it was a memorable adventure.)

Fred and John and I loved to dance. As often as we could we squeezed into John’s Karmann Ghia and went to Georgetown. We would go to places that are long since gone—places like the Crazy Horse, where they had recorded music and cheap beer. The three of us would occupy a table, nurse a couple of beers throughout the evening, and dance until we could barely walk. Because I was the designated girl, Fred and John took turns dancing with me. I never sat down. I danced.

When I got home at two o’clock in the morning I would fall into bed. And woe to me on the days when I had an early class. I flunked German I. I nearly flunked Diplomatic History of the United States. German? Useless and unnecessarily difficult language. Diplomatic History of the United States? Useless and boring. I sacrificed it all to dance. And, given the chance, I would do it again.

So this morning I’m walking outside. I’ve got my iPod cranking out my chosen work-out music. I turn right on Churchill, thinking move it, move it, pick up the pace. And right in middle of the street, where Ingleside crosses Churchill, I found my life’s calling. I was born to be a dancer. It all changed for me in an instant. I was no longer walking. It may have looked like I was walking, but I was dancing. Chuck Brown got me moving. Then zydeco music and Aretha and Junior Walker and Warren Zevon. The hell with getting a prescribed amount of daily aerobic activity to preserve my cardiovascular efficiency and my bone strength. I don’t need to focus on maintaining my body, I need to fill up my spirit with joy.

People might say it’s strange for a 65-year-old woman to suddenly decide that she’s a dancer. But I say it’s probably the most sane thing I’ve ever done.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Surrender

For days I’ve been processing it in my head and on my laptop. When I’m struggling with something I often write about it in order to clarify my thinking. Getting it down in black and white helps me to sort through and figure out what makes sense to me. I usually do a little online research or pull out a book that influenced either the question or a potential answer. But this time I’m still stuck.

A couple of weeks ago I had a very detailed dream about taking the SAT exam. Time was running out and I realized I had barely answered any of the questions. One of my daughter’s high school friends was there and she had finished well within the time limit. She was sitting there, self-satisfied, looking around the room while I stared at a blank sheet of paper. That’s how I feel now.

This past Sunday I was at worship service, singing Christmas carols with everyone else. I had missed church for two weeks and was feeling troubled and disconnected from God—admittedly through no one’s fault but my own. My prayer in the past couple of weeks has consisted of a rather begrudging plea to the Lord, “Fix it, Lord, please. Just fix it.”

What I want him to fix is the intractable grief I’ve been walking through. Maybe less walking through than standing still, standing up to my neck in a swamp of pain and doubt and confusion. I can’t understand the nature of God, I can’t understand why bad things happen to good people, and I can’t figure out how to change my attitude and what he wants me to do with my life from this point forward.

So I was singing Joy to the World, hoping that I wouldn’t start to cry. And suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere and certainly out of context with the Christmas song, one word came to me. Surrender. Why surrender? Surrender.

“Is that you, God?” I said to him inside my head. I wrote the word in my notebook. And now I’m trying to figure out what it means. It's something I've read about but I still don't really understand. What does it mean to surrender to God, what does it look like in practice?

I started at the most logical source for any Christian. Not the dictionary. I wouldn’t dare write “Merriam-Webster’s defines surrender as . . .”  Not Christianity for Dummies or The Idiot’s Guide to Christianity. Scripture. I needed to go straight to the source. But I found that the actual word surrender does not appear in the New Testament and it appears in the Old Testament only in terms of an army losing a battle. Although the word does not appear, the concept does.

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 10:39

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Jeremiah 10:23 [I love that phrase "man who walks." Perhaps I'll change my name to honor my distant Native American roots and be Woman Who Walks.]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your path. Proverbs 3:5-6
  
And what if I look to Jesus—wasn’t he the definitive example of surrender to the will of the Father?
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39
Don’t these verses give me a huge neon-sign hint about where I should place control of my life? Yes, of course. I should place control in God’s hands. But what does that mean in a practical sense? I acknowledge that I have spent most of my life trying to do it my way. That hasn’t always worked out so well. I need to turn it over to him. From the start it has all been his anyway, in his control, but I keep trying to grab the steering wheel. I can say, “Oh, Lord, I surrender my life to you—my heart, my soul, my body, everything I am and everything I have is yours.” But what does that really mean? So I've been reading and writing about this and deleting everything I write because I can't get a clear understanding of what it means. I get it theoretically but I don’t get it at a gut level.

Walking deeper into faith is such a never-ending process. The more I learn, the more I realize how ignorant I am. And this surrender thing—what is it and how do I truly surrender to God? I’m stumped.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Handle it!

My husband had just left me after 30-plus years of marriage when a falsely pious woman I used to know (I know I’m being bitchy—forgive me) handed me a laminated card that said, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tossed the card on the kitchen counter, muttered something profane, and said, “Well then God is wrong and he has grossly overestimated me because I can’t handle this.”

And how many people through the years, when they hear of some tragedy, physical or emotional turmoil have used the same trite aphorism, often prefacing it with, “The Bible says . . .”?

This is bumper-sticker theology. That refrigerator magnet won’t make it in my house. I don’t want to believe it’s true and it makes me furious. Imagine dear Maudie Simpkins who goes church every week, prays and reads scripture, and treats everyone she knows with loving kindness. Now picture God, sitting on his throne on high, looking down at Maudie, his faithful servant, and saying, “Her faith is strong so I think I’ll give her cancer, and kill everyone she loves, and while I’m at it I might set her house on fire.”

What kind of God would do that? Do you think God is sitting up there saying, “Wow, that series of hardships I just sent her nearly destroyed her, but she’s strong, I think she can take another blow. Let’s just see. Wham!”

Really—I think this saying was made up by some sappy Hallmark card writer. I did a little research to see if I could find it, even something paraphrasing it, in the Bible. The closest I found is this verse:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
In this verse from Corinthians Paul is telling us that God will help us deal with temptation. God is not analyzing our ability to withstand hardship and meting it out accordingly. He’s not punishing the strong with more trouble. I would rather believe that bad things happen, and that sometimes they happen to good people, maybe even to good people who are incredibly strong. When trouble comes, those who believe in God find their strength in him and in a community of fellow believers. They weather the storms holding on to the strength they have found in faith.

So don’t ever say to me that God only gives me as much as I can handle or I’ll bite your head off.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The queen of the neighborhood

This is a piece I wrote a while back and submitted to the New York Times for their Modern Love feature. It didn't get accepted. But I did get it published online at Texas Monthly. A friend asked me to repost it on the blog, so here it is. It's totally a true story, bless George's sweet heart.

George and the Queen of the Neighborhood

I had lived in the neighborhood only a few weeks when I first began to notice him. My house was on a short street of just five houses and George lived at the far end. For exercise he would walk slowly to the end of the street, then back again, leaning heavily on a cane. One day while I was walking the dog I stopped to talk to him. He was short and stocky with tawny skin, wisps of thinning hair slicked down on his head. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand because he had a thick eastern European accent and, I soon learned, also had been affected by a stroke.

Over weeks, in the course of many conversations, he filled in the details of his life. When I met him, George was in his 70s, widowed, and a retired physics professor from Johns Hopkins University. He was born and raised in Hungary where his father had been a renowned psychoanalyst, a contemporary and a rival of Sigmund Freud. George still lived in the house where he and his wife had lived for many years, the house where they raised their daughters. The daughters had moved to distant cities and he still missed his wife. “My life is so lonely without her,” he once told me, his eyes filling with tears. She had cancer and died just a few years before, prior to his stroke.

Because he walked so slowly, if I saw him from my kitchen window, I knew how to time his walk so I could catch him on his way back. Often I would take out the dog or go to the mailbox, just to have a chance to talk to him. This pattern continued for a couple of years. We talked about the weather, the neighbors, our families, or his health. When the weather was bad or when he traveled, I sometimes went weeks without seeing him.

Two years after moving to the house, my husband left me. When I told George, he was shocked and said, “I can’t believe it. But why?”

“Another woman,” I replied.

“But how could he? How could he leave you? You’re the queen of the neighborhood.”

Salve for a broken heart. To know that this charming man thought I was worth having somehow helped to lessen the grief, the intense pain of the loss and betrayal.

When the divorce was final, my house had to be sold. George kept telling me how the neighborhood wasn’t going to be the same without me. The day before the movers were to arrive, George left a message on my answering machine, saying he needed to talk to me before I left. From the sound of his voice, I thought something was wrong, so I quickly called him back. He said, “I want to see you. Can you come to my house this evening at 7 o’clock?”

We sat in his living room among the photos of his family. We chatted about my new place and how hard it was for me to leave the house I loved. All the while I was worried, wondering if there was something wrong with his health. Why did he need to talk to me? What was the urgency? I braced myself for bad news, but he said nothing. When it was time for me to go, he walked me to the door and hugged me. “I love you,” he said in that distinctive George voice that sounded like Henry Kissinger on sedatives.

“You’re so sweet, George,” I said, “I love you too.”

“No,” he said, “I mean it. I really love you.” I was already at the brink of intense emotion because of the move, but now this sweet old man was telling me he loved me. That was the urgent message he had for me, the thing he had to tell me before I moved away.

I searched for something to say to him, but couldn’t find the words. Now, several years later, I realize how much courage it took for him to say it and I wonder what he was thinking. If only the right words had come to me at the time. If only I had found the perfect thing to say to him. I would have told him that he was such a dear man, sadly the wrong one at the wrong time, that he warmed my broken heart, that he made me feel worthy of being loved, and that I would treasure this moment.

But I just said, “Thank you, George. I’ll miss you.”

The next day I, the queen of the neighborhood, moved away. I never saw him again and recently heard that he died. Rest in peace, George. I love you too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Soundtrack

“It’s not livin' that you’re doing if it feels like dyin'."
Ray LaMontagne in the song Old Before Your Time

No more shocking bad-news phone calls. No more dire diagnoses. No more slamming doors and empty bank accounts and husbands who don’t come home.

How many times have I pleaded with the universe (in general) and with God (in particular) that I’ve had enough heartbreak for one lifetime and please not to send me any more bad stuff? It doesn’t seem to matter, no matter how much I plead. The universe is just a jumble of chemistry and physics, organic and inorganic compounds that have no empathy. You can’t reason with a rock. And God is God—I’ve had an incalculable number of discussions with him and I must accept that his ways are not for me to understand. However, I still have trouble with the explanation that God’s will is something beyond my comprehension—not being given a plausible excuse just doesn’t fit in to my flawed construct of how life should work. I still want cause and effect, I still want the pieces of the puzzle to fit together neatly, and I still want some semblance of justice. Guess that’s just not gonna happen.

Add a soundtrack to this cosmic angst. I’m listening to Classical Gas on iTunes—not the usual Mason Williams version with all the orchestral background but a more simple acoustic version. Of course it reminds me of Mike—that one riff that he nailed every time. Damn, he was good. When I hear music he played it’s like pouring salt on the wound. It’s like he’s there in sound alone. The music brings back a sliver of him, a shadow. I want to hear it even though it makes me cry. And I tell myself, it’s gone, Donna, it’s just plain gone. That time of your life has slipped through your hands.

But my life’s soundtrack can be what I what I want it to be. I can rearrange it. I can imbue the songs with meaning. I can listen to Mike playing and celebrate who he was and how much he contributed to my music. It’s sad that he’s gone. I miss him like crazy. But I’m alive and the music, the soundtrack, belongs to me; it didn’t die with him. He would want it to be that way, and more importantly, I want it to be that way.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bulldog


"Tina was so tough, her poodle shirt had a bulldog on it." Someone sent me this card a while back. If only I still had a poodle skirt. Sometimes I wonder if I've got any tough left in me, if I can still withstand the dog fights. Sometimes I hate to think that life continually demands that we get tougher and tougher or we dissolve into puddles of useless melted blubber in the middle of the parking lot. But sometimes a card is simple genius and it's a great card.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Joe Boogie's skillet

I pulled out Joe Boogie’s cast iron skillet today. It’s a classic, vintage skillet that is virtually indestructible. Joe Boogie was my grandfather. He died over 50 years ago and he probably had the pan for 50 years before that. Now it’s mine.

My grandfather’s name was Joseph Stephen Harris. Apparently many years ago a neighbor child called him Joe Boogie and that name has stuck, even many years after his death. He was from Holyoke, Massachusetts, and as a young married man he moved to Washington during the Great Depression when he got a coveted job at the Library of Congress. He was a craftsman, a skilled bookbinder. There’s an entire set of Compton’s Picture Encyclopedias in my house that my grandfather meticulously hand bound. The set of books was printed prior to World War II, when there was only one war, called the Great World War. The maps of Africa show colonial countries that have long been gone, replaced by more modern independent nations. This set of encyclopedias has been given to my son and will be moved to his house whenever they can be hand delivered to Seattle. I don’t dare ship them and risk losing something so precious, so irreplaceable.

So all I own that belonged to my grandfather is his cast iron skillet. And I have a new cookbook—The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. I’m just a few pages into the book and when I saw the recipe for Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby (a large oven-baked pancake) in a black cast-iron skillet identical to Joe Boogie’s skillet, I had to try it. It was easy, it was warm, and it smelled great. Joe Boogie would have been pleased.

Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby

2 large eggs
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon unsulfured molasses
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Confectioners’ sugar, maple syrup, or heavy cream, to serve
 
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Place the eggs in a blender and blend until smooth and pale in color. Add the brown sugar, molasses, flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, salt, and milk and blend until smooth.
Melt the butter in a 9-inch ovenproof skillet over high heat, swirling it up the sides to evenly coat the pan. Pour the batter into the skillet and transfer to the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the pancake is puffed up. Remove from the oven and dust with sugar. Serve with maple syrup or heavy cream, if desired.
 
Source: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, p. 11

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Beef and Guinness Stew


I tried a new beef stew recipe tonight, adapted only slightly from a recipe in The Washington Post. It was in an article about making meals ahead to put in the freezer. It says this can be kept in the freezer for up to 3 months. It’s everything they promised it would be—incredibly tender meat and rich, fragrant gravy. There seems to be a lot of taking the lid on/off and changing the cooking temperature but it worked so I wouldn’t change the directions. I made it exactly as listed below but with one slight change. I wanted the gravy to be somewhat thicker so I mixed cold water and corn starch (about 2 tablespoons) and added it in the final 10 – 20 minutes.

And the bonus—I had one large bottle of Guinness Stout, more than I needed in the recipe. I didn’t want to waste it. What a dilemma!

Beef and Guinness Stew

¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus more as needed
2 ½ pounds cubed boneless chuck
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (2 cups)
2 tablespoons chili sauce
4 cups beef broth
12 ounces Guinness Stout
1 tablespoon raisins
1 teaspoon caraway seed
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
2 or 3 medium carrots, peeled and roll-cut (see NOTE)
About 3 parsnips, peeled and roll-cut into ½ -inch thick pieces
1 (8-ounce) turnip, peeled and cut into ½ -inch cubes
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Combine the flour, salt, and meat in a large resealable plastic food storage bag. Seal and shake to coat evenly.

Heat a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add half the oil and swirl to coat the bottom. Add half the meat, shaking off any excess flour back into the bag. Cook for several minutes, until the meat is browned on all sides but not cooked through, turning it as needed. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a bowl; repeat with the remaining oil and meat. Discard any excess flour.

Use a wooden spoon to dislodge any browned bits on the bottom of the pot, then add the onions and stir to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes or until just softened, then clear a spot at the center of the pot and add the chili sauce. Cook for a few minutes then stir in the broth and beer.

Return all the meat to the pot, along with the raisins, caraway seed, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture comes to a boil, cook for 50 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the carrots, parsnips, and turnip; reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover and increase the heat to medium-high; once the stew comes to a boil, cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.

NOTE: To produce roll-cut pieces on linear vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, make a cut on the diagonal, then rotate a quarter-turn before you make the next cut.

Source: Adapted from “The New Way to Cook Light” via The Washington Post.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bad girl

He was nondescript, a bland-looking man, far from young, but not old enough to be charming. He played guitar and sang, but he only was memorable in the way he played silly, borderline offensive songs. He was so bland that I didn’t even remember seeing him before that afternoon in August at the music jam in the park. What is frightening is that he remembered me. He said he had seen me before at other music events and thought maybe we could get together sometime.

Perhaps, I thought, why not? It’s fun to get together with new people and play music. Why, oh Lord, didn’t you set off an alarm? My brain was on cruise control. Too much banjo can kill those precious neurotransmitters. “Sure, that might work,” I said with nonchalance and too much naiveté for a woman my age.
 
I caught sight of one of my favorite fiddle players and wandered off to play for a while with a group of old-time musicians. Later, when I was gathering my things to leave, bland man caught up with me again. He said he had been playing with a group of beautiful women on the other side of the park. Duh. No self-respecting male musician I know would have even noticed if a woman was beautiful or not. He might covet her guitar, but beautiful is not an issue.

Still clueless, I said, “Well, how nice for you.”
 
“You’re a beautiful woman, too.” I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable, but squeaked out a feeble response, “Um, um, well, um, thanks.”

"And you’re really quite sexy.” What in heaven's name was he thinking? I am a banjo player. Banjo players are not sexy. I was too stunned to respond. “And I really want to get together with you,” he added.

Okay, I admit it. Anyone else probably would have seen it coming. Not me. Finally, I got it. He didn’t want to get together to play music. What else could there be? Oh, no, not that.

I looked at his left hand and couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a wedding band the size of Utah and I said, “You’re married, aren’t you?”
 
"Yes, I am,” he replied with not a hint of shame, “is that a problem?”

“Yes," I said, "it’s a big problem. I was married to someone who had no respect for marriage vows and I don’t want to mess with some other woman’s marriage.”

Want more proof that this is a guy who could be out-finessed by a 12-year-old boy? His next comment: “Don’t you want to be a bad girl?”

Lord, could we please replay this moment in time? Could you please just give me the chance to deliver some fabulous retort? In my stupor I lost the chance of a lifetime. The only thing I could think to say was, “Nooooooooooo.” What I meant was, “Yes, I really would love to be a bad girl with the right guy at the right time, but it will never be with you. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for hell to freeze over, why don’t I just call your WIFE and ask her if she’s a bad girl. Maybe we bad girls could get together and beat the shit out of you.”
 
So, for all the guys out there who are looking for a bad girl . . . maybe you just need to be a good boy to get a bad girl.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shaking my feeble fist at God


God and I are in the middle of a big fight. At least I’m in the middle of a big fight with him; he may not even notice. “Oh, that gnat,” I hear him say in his voice like thunder. “She’s just getting pissy again. She’ll get over it. She needs me much more than I need her.”

Yesterday evening I talked to my sister. She asked me if I went to church. “NO, I didn’t go to church,” I replied in my huffy voice. “I didn’t want to spend time in his presence. I’m so damned mad at him I could just spit.”

I have a legitimate beef with God. I think he’s being really cruel, what C.S. Lewis calls the “Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector.”* Yes, that C.S. Lewis, the one who wrote Mere Christianity.

Here’s the deal. In April 2011 my brother Mark was murdered in his own front yard, shot in the back at point-blank range by his next-door neighbor who was annoyed that my brother’s dog wandered into his yard. It was beyond horrible. And a couple of months ago my brother’s son Jasen was in a car wreck that almost killed him. Jasen had broken bones and traumatic brain injury. In the past few weeks he has regained consciousness and he is now talking. For that I am so grateful. But Jasen is asking for his father. “Where’s Pop?” he asks his mother. “Have you seen my father?” he says to the nurse. He remembers his mother, he remembers how to read, he recognizes me, and he knows where he works. He even asks if he can go outside and smoke. But he doesn’t remember that his father was murdered last year.

It’s bad enough that my brother got murdered. It’s awful that we have had the additional heartache of seeing my nephew badly injured. But Lord, have a heart—is this poor young man going to have to go through the agony of being told—again—that his father is dead? Is my sister-in-law eventually going to have to break the news to him?

Jasen is like a clone of his father Mark. He looks like him and acts like him. He and his father even worked together in a car detailing business that Mark started. They were really close and I can’t begin to imagine what Jasen went through last year when Mark died. And the thought of him going through that intense grief again is beyond comprehension.

Maybe it would be easier right now if I weren’t a believer. Now I’m a believer with an attitude. Once again I’m pushed into a corner, forced to accept that we mere mortals can’t understand God’s ways. I know that I have to give up my idea of what is fair and just. I didn't create the universe and I'm not in charge. I know that I will never understand God’s purpose. But I can’t help shaking my fist at him, shouting, “What were you thinking? Is this really what you wanted? Maybe this has some inscrutable purpose in your eyes, but where’s your sense of mercy?”

And what’s worse is that I know God will forgive me. He’ll take the high road and be all benign and flawless like he always is. He’ll understand that I may question his wisdom, I may think he is cruel, but he will forgive me for being a weak woman. I know he’s going to win, but for now I’m just so doggone mad at him.

* C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, p. 38

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Becoming my grandmother



A few days ago I was sitting in the waiting area at a medical facility with several other women. All of us were clinging to the flimsy hospital gowns that we had wrapped around our upper bodies as we waited to be called in for mammograms or bone density scans.

A woman with knee-high shiny black boots and jet black hair cut in an asymmetrical bob was fussing with her iPhone. Another woman wearing Birkenstocks and with long wild grey hair was knitting. I just sat there, observing and trying to maintain some dignity in an awkward situation. The knitting woman looked up at me and chuckled. “Isn’t it crazy what we women have to put up with?” she asked. “As we get older we just keep suffering one indignity after the other. The other day my granddaughter asked me what it felt like to be so old and I told her . . . “

Just then the mammogram technician called the knitting woman’s name. She smiled at me, grabbed her bag, and left without finishing her story. I wanted to know what she told her granddaughter.

I got no insights into aging from my grandmothers. Both of my grandmothers died before I knew enough to ask them what it felt like to be old. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer when she was only 49. As the first-born of her grandchildren I was fortunate to have known her. None of my siblings or cousins remembers her. At the age of 49 she seemed ancient to me. She was round and matronly and she wore house dresses and sensible shoes. She bought me a child-size pie pan and taught me how to bake apple pie. She was exactly what a grandmother should be and I loved her. But from my current vantage point, the age of 49 seems so young. It shocks me that I am now 65, so much older than my grandmother was when she died.

And my mother. My mother is nearly 87 now. I am watching her transition from being an active senior to being an old, old woman. She is getting shorter and shorter. She is hunched and she has trouble walking. She can hardly hear, even with hearing aids, and she is becoming increasingly confused. My father, her husband for nearly 65 years, died two years ago and her friends are dying. I talk to my mother nearly every day and often spend the day with her, taking her to doctors’ appointments or out to run errands. Occasionally she will say something about aging, but the words never seem to come out as a grain of wisdom. She just shakes her head and says she never thought she would live so long.

So I have no advice, no wisdom to pass down from the generations before me. What words will I find to answer if one of my granddaughters asks me how it feels to be old? Do I frighten her, make her afraid to grow old? Should I lie, sugar coat it by reciting some pious platitudes about aging that are a bunch of poppycock? (I’m 65 now so I’m entitled to use the word poppycock.) “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Come grow old with me, the best is yet to come.” Oh, gag me.

The knitting woman has a point—yes, we do give up things as we age. It’s hard to lose strength and stamina. It’s hard to witness your own sagging skin, diminishing vision and hearing, thinning hair, and thickening body. It’s hard to consider the fact that I’m well over halfway through my life and that I may one day be dependent on someone else for my care. And how can the dear friends from my youth be old women now?

I might tell my granddaughter that growing old is rather funny. I look at myself now and I’m shocked. And I have to laugh. It’s some sort of trick Mother Nature has played on me. Mother Nature is slowly replacing me with a version of my grandmother. Inside I have an image of myself that’s a young woman. I see myself as I looked the day I got married—just 20 years old, full of spunk, full of life and promise, rapturously happy because I was marrying the love of my life. The love of my life is gone and my body doesn’t look the same, but that 20-year-old bride is still who I am. Inside I’m a girl, a young woman. I hold all of that girl’s memories, fears, likes, and dislikes in my heart. The secret is that I look old, but I’m not. That's just plain funny.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An adventure with paint and grout

I figure I'm either a genius or a complete fool.

My kitchen was remodeled a few years ago. I loved everything about it with the exception of the grout in the backsplash--it was much too dark and created a busy look. Now I know that's a small nitpicking thing in the grand scheme of life, but it annoyed me. Because there's the Internet and basically anything you need to know is there (as well as a huge amount of disinformation and a huge amount of things no one needs to know) I did a search on changing grout color. Advice ranged from redoing the grout with grout colorant to getting a power tool that removes all the grout then regrouting the whole thing. I was not going to use a toxic oil-based material in my house and I was not going to scrape it all out and do it again.

One little thing I saw on eHow mentioned using flat water-based paint. I'm addicted to flat water-based paint--I've painted so much furniture with Annie Sloan Chalk Paint that I've lost count. So I tried it. I mixed some Old White with water then started applying the paint wash to the grout with a brush. The grout sucked in the lighter color and the paint easily washed off of the glazed tile with a wet rag.

It now looks the way it should have looked in the beginning and I love it. And it took less than an hour to do. The lighter grout shows off the beautiful texture of the hand-made tiles so much more than the dark grout. Of course, maybe I'll end up being a fool in the long run if I find the grout gets discolored or mildewed or falls out because I had the nerve to paint it.

The photo of the corner is a little hint of before and after. The other photos show some of it finished.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Money, money, money

This quote from an article in today’s Washington Post says volumes about why the Romney team lost this week’s presidential election:

“Wealthy donors were so central to Romney’s campaign that a swarm of private luxury jets caused a traffic jam at Boston’s airport Tuesday just before the nominee’s election-night party.”
(Page A27, article entitled “Spending a lot, with little effect” that begins on page A1.)

They were all dressed up with nowhere to go. The fat cats’ big gamble didn’t pay off. They didn’t get the outcome that they thought they paid for. It was possibly their worst investment ever.

Just after the primary season, when Romney won the nomination of the Republican Party I started paying attention. I really wanted to keep an open mind, to consider that he could have a plan that would move this country in the right direction. His plan was like Jell-O. He couldn’t explain it well enough to give me any sense of what he was going to do to improve my country, to make my life better.

At the same time I was looking for substance, I began seeing Romney signs all over the place. Big, obnoxious signs that dwarfed the few Obama signs out there. They posted painted elephant signs high on telephone poles. Down the street I watched as a Romney campaign worker surrounded a lonely Obama sign with a ring of bigger Romney signs so that the Obama sign was no longer visible. That was the moment that did it for me. The Romney signs became like mosquito bites and they were beginning to itch. One, two, three . . . soon too many to count.

Gradually Mitt Romney and his wife Ann started to seem like Ken and Barbie dolls. They had the place in Malibu and the cars and all those Ken clone sons. They didn’t seem like regular people. How could they understand what it’s like to lose a job or to wonder how to afford health insurance? Romney has more money than most of us can imagine and his campaign was spending much more money than we could imagine to get him elected president. The itch was getting worse.

The wealthy donors funded all sorts of anti-Obama campaigns, either directly through the Republican Party or through other more slippery funding schemes. They began to look greedy and self-serving. They thought money was the answer. They just didn’t get it.

Not for a second do I think I’m the only one who had a negative reaction to all the spending. Surely those same campaign signs and all those hours of advertising seemed excessive to other undecided voters. We did the only thing we could do—we voted for the other guy so we could send the greedy people a message that we aren’t impressed by their campaign coffers.

Romney missed one big chance to redeem himself. When megastorm Sandy hit the East Coast so hard, he could have taken the high road. He could have suspended his campaign and donated the rest of the money to be spent on storm relief efforts. To be fair, Obama’s campaign could have done it too.

The money wasted on both sides in this presidential election process makes me ill. Think about how it could have been better spent. Worried about terrorism? We could have built hospitals and schools in Afghanistan, trained teachers and doctors to lessen some of their hate for us ugly Americans. Worried about reliance on foreign oil? We could have funded research and development of alternatives to fossil fuels while creating jobs in this country. Worried about skyrocketing health care costs? We could have worked to cure cancer or diabetes or heart disease.

The people who flew to Boston in their private jets on Tuesday found out the party wasn’t going to be much fun. I wonder if the outcome of their big investment will change how they will fund the campaign four years from now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reflections on Election Day

We're electing a president today in this country. It's a daunting task, one for which we must trust that the Lord is sovereign and He will work for our good. So my mind is occupied with these worldly events. I'm an old woman and no one really cares about my opinions on politics and social happenings. But I’m writing this to try to boil down my thoughts so that I can explain myself to people who ask me to explain. I need to develop a 15-second “elevator speech” but I’m afraid it may defy condensation.

Our founding fathers set up this country with a firm conviction of separation of church and state. People who live in this country and call themselves Americans have to accept that as a given. It’s at the intersection of faith and politics that things get dicey. Look at nations that mandate Islam as the official religion of the state. These nations often have a horrible history of denying basic freedoms and imposing harsh punishment on those who don’t espouse their view of theology. We don’t want a nation like that and we can’t accept a nation like that, even if the nation uses law to enforce our understanding of God.

I’m really not “political” in the way I understand the term. I would actually prefer not to label myself either a Democrat or a Republican, but if pushed I would admit that I usually fall on the Democratic side. I’m definitely not a conservative and I consider myself more of a progressive than a liberal, but in a black-and-white, either/or situation I’d have to squeeze in with the liberals, even when “liberal” can be considered a dirty word. Okay, push came to shove and I’m calling myself a liberal Democrat. I’m walking into dangerous territory.

Now let me make a statement that may seem contradictory: I am a liberal because I am a Christian. I know that statement flies in the face of the image that Christians, especially “evangelical” Christians, hold in our popular culture. I suppose I’ve long been steeped in the tradition of Catholic social justice—all those crazy nuns working with the poor, even when they get in trouble with their pope. If we take the teachings of Jesus to heart, we see that Jesus loved and cared about those were poor and sick, those who couldn’t take care of themselves. Just read the beatitudes . . . blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst. Jesus was into radical poverty. He had no possessions other than the clothes on his back. He didn’t aspire to wealth or political power. He didn’t advocate overthrowing the government. He taught us that we show our love for God through our love for one another

And why is it presumed that faith requires Christians to hold very conservative views on some socio-political issues? Now I’m really walking into the lion’s den. Take same-sex marriage. After a lot of reflection, I now view same-sex marriage as a civil right. We’re not talking morality, no definition of sin in the eyes of God, no questions about whether God designed some people to be homosexual. They are human beings who live in our country and who are subject to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. If, by law, I am permitted to marry anyone I want, regardless of age or race or political preference or butt-ugliness, then homosexuals should be able to legally marry. Yet no church should ever be forced to accept or perform a homosexual marriage if it is against the church’s beliefs. For the record, it is against the beliefs in my church. It’s simply the fair thing to do in a free secular society. We’re not God, we’re not called to decide what is sinful—let God be the judge, thankfully not me.

Okay—now the totally incendiary topic—abortion. I absolutely, positively believe that abortion is wrong, an incredibly horrible sin. I wish I could live in a country where abortion never took place. That said, I don’t think we’ll ever realistically be able to change public policy to make it illegal again. We need to work on the hearts of the women who have abortions. We need to teach them about God's love while we help them find alternatives. And we need to work to support those babies—from conception, through childhood and into old age. We need to respect life from beginning to end.

In my little world I believe that the people of a nation should support a government that helps the neediest of its people—the unborn, the sick, the mentally disabled, and the elderly. I think that’s what Jesus taught us to do.

Luke 6: 31 and 36.   And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. . . . Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.