Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I shall not be moved

I shall not, I shall not be moved.
I shall not, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

Jesus is my captain, I shall not be moved.
King Jesus is my captain, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

Sanctified and holy, I shall not be moved.
Sanctified and holy, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

I am living holy, I shall not be moved.
I am living holy, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

I shall not, I shall not be moved.
I shall not, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

On my way to Heaven, I shall not be moved.
On my way to Heaven, I shall not be moved.
Just like a tree planted by the water,
I shall not be moved.

These are the lyrics of an old African American spiritual song. I learned it many years ago and once sang it in a class with the late American blues singer and guitarist John Jackson. As long as I have any memory, that moment and that song will hold a special place in my heart.

We’ve been cleaning up from a huge storm here in Northern Virginia. For days, the wind was roaring and rain pouring. One of my favorite places, only about 10 miles from my house, is Great Falls Park on the Potomac River. I often go there to walk and think and breathe. I knew I needed to get to the park as soon as I could after the storm to see the river. This morning trees and power lines were still down and roads were closed. I needed to figure out a rather circuitous route, but I know all the back roads so I got there. And the falls were more incredible than I imagined—so much water pouring through the river gorge that it filled the deep canyon usually visible in the river.

It was an especially great day to take photos. The photo above is one that took today. I was fascinated by the scrawny little tree. Not only was it growing out of what appears to be solid rock, but it is now on an island, surrounded by fierce churning water. And I began singing to myself, “I shall not, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved.”

I want that tree to stand firm. I want it to stay on its rock. I feel like I'm that tree, roots dug in, hanging on for dear life, surrounded by chaos and trouble. It’s not a pretty tree but it’s beautiful in its strength, in its ability to survive. Oh, Lord, help me, keep me firm. I shall not be moved.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weathering the storm

Curled into a ball in my bed, under three layers of blankets, even my head was buried under the covers. My heart was pounding hard and I pressed my chest against a heated flax pillow. Although it defied common sense, I thought I could still my heart, keep it in my chest by putting pressure against it.

I had spent the evening in Maryland, having dinner with family members. I drove home listening to the radio, dire predictions about the storm they are calling Frankenstorm—the “perfect storm”—a combination hurricane and classic nor’easter that could bring historic and catastrophic rain, winds, and flooding to our area of the country. The radio announcers went through lists of essentials that local residents need to survive the storm—batteries and water and first aid kits and tape for windows—especially since they foretold extensive power outages that may last for days after the storm.

There used to be a plastic bin in my utility room full of a variety of batteries, neatly labeled “Batteries” on the side of the bin. In theory a great idea, exemplary organization. When I got home I went looking for the bin and it was just not there. I vaguely remembered that perhaps the batteries had expired and maybe I reused the bin for something. Vaguely—maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. No batteries. So just before midnight I went to the grocery store with all the other panicky locals preparing for the storm of the century. No batteries in the store. I got a few cans of cat food and some peanut butter and left. Now that I didn’t have batteries and couldn’t find batteries and it was already midnight, was I going to descend into freak-out mode?

Earlier that day I had attended a church women’s retreat. One part of the teaching centered on the first part of the book of Genesis—God creating man and woman and Adam and Eve’s temptation and fall. We heard about God’s design for a woman’s fruitfulness. And that while woman is a helper, man was created to labor and to protect her. I sat there, holding a Styrofoam cup with almost-cold coffee and I became both sad and angry. Not because I thought that God intended for a woman’s role to be subservient, but that the man I chose to be my husband failed to protect me. He not only failed to protect me, but I needed protection from him. I thought I did my part to fulfill my role in God’s plan and the man who was the other side of the equation checked out.

I don’t know why this marriage failure situation occasionally cycles around and affects me so much, especially when I’ve had years to absorb it. What it boils down to is that I’m alone. I have to make all the major decisions in my life on my own. When I’m sick, I’m alone. When the car breaks down, I’m alone. When my father dies, I’m alone. When the storm of the century is bearing down on the mid-Atlantic, I’m alone. Most of the time I’m alone and sometimes I feel really vulnerable.

So I’ve got no batteries, no man to protect me, and the storm is coming. I crawl into my bed under the covers with my heart pounding and I wonder if God really exists. Is this whole God thing a fantasy story, a fable that human beings use to explain something they can’t understand? I say aloud to the God I’m not sure exists, “I need you to be. Help me in my unbelief. Please exist.”

And I think about what life would be without God. My arrogant self-sufficient brain tells me it’s probably a fairy tale. But my heart aches for God. “I don’t know what to say to you,” I mumble under the covers while I hold my pounding heart. “I have no words. How do I pray to you when I’m not sure you exist? I feel alone and afraid and I don’t know if you’re there. What do I say to you?”

One thought comes to me, one little glimmer of hope. If He exists, He loves me no matter what. He loves me even when I doubt his existence. He loves me and forgives me my weakness. So maybe He and I can just weather the storm together and I won’t be afraid.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My house

I spent the day disassembling the door knobs in my house, spray painting them 3 ½ times and reassembling them. It was one of those details I’ve been meaning to get to for years and today was the day I finally did it. (I took 45-year-old cheap pseudo-brass knobs and made them look like wrought iron. Spray them with white primer, then with black spray that has a slightly textured finish, then finish with a coat of flat black spray paint. When dry, go back and touch up where needed. It takes a bit of nerve but the results are great.)

There’s no way I can deny that I’m a house nut. When my mind wanders, I’m usually thinking about how I could move walls, or change the layout of my furniture, or how I would build another house. And houses are a constant theme in my dreams, even in my nightmares. There are few things as horrific to me as the thought of seeing my house destroyed. A few years ago, in real life, my roof cracked and water was pouring into my house on all three levels. The water was pouring in and I was working as fast as I could to stop it. The water won. It was a real-life nightmare.

I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. When I was married we redid as much of our first house as we could on a tight budget. Then we moved from Maryland to Virginia. We stayed in the first Virginia house only a couple of years, then another house, and another house.

The final house was a dream project—a boring rambler on a nice piece of land. I started sketching, found an architect to develop the plans, and worked with contractors to renovate it. It was beautiful. But a nightmare was taking place in the house of my dreams—soon after the house was finished my marriage fell apart. The house was sold and I bought a little townhouse. That was 13 years ago and I thought I’d never get over having to give up the house of my dreams.   

Fast forward 13 years. It took time. I couldn’t even drive by the old house without getting thrown into deep despair. I coveted the house. I hated the man who bought it and then resold it for $1 million more than he paid us for it. What can I say?—we sold it at the bottom of the real estate market and he sold it on a huge market upswing.

Now the leaves are changing, it’s a beautiful day, and I have new-looking door knobs. I love my little house. I’ve worked on every inch of it, re-created both the house and the yard. And today I realized that I love this little house more than I loved the big old house. I never thought I could say this, but I’m over it. This little house has no divorce cooties, no bad memories, and it’s all mine.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Just another loser's chili

The annual Portico chili cook-off was today. Of course I entered. I have entered every year so far and have lost every year so far. But I'll pick myself up, brush off my wounded culinary pride, and start working on something for next year. "Winning isn't everything," she says in a weak voice accompanied by the slightest sniffle. I adapted this recipe from several others, with added input from Cook's Illustrated Best Recipes on technique. It's a rather traditional chili with a fairly complex taste--lots of subtle undertones--and it's spicy but not unreasonably spicy. It may be a loser, but it's good. Several people asked me for the recipe, so here it is. It needs a better name but this is what it's called today.

Mother Philomena’s Dragon Breath Good Karma Chili


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound beef sirloin, cubed
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon coriander
1 (14 ½ ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 can dark beer
1 cup strong coffee (or 1 tablespoon instant espresso)
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
1 can beef broth
¼ cup brown sugar
3 ½ tablespoons chili sauce
4 dried guajillo peppers (Penzey’s)
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (Penzey’s)
1 teaspoon dried jalapeno pepper (Penzey’s)
1 16 ounce package Rancho Gordo tepary beans, precooked.
Salt to taste


Heat oil in large sauté pan.

Cook onions, garlic, and bell pepper until onions are translucent. Add cumin, cocoa, oregano, cayenne, and coriander and cook about 2 minutes then put mixture into crockpot.

Add ground beef to sauté pan (add more oil if necessary) and cook until brown. Add to crockpot.

Add steak cubes to sauté pan (add more oil if necessary) and cook until brown. Add to crockpot.

Add tomatoes, beer, coffee, tomato paste, beef broth, brown sugar, and chili sauce to crockpot.

Chop stems off and remove seeds from guajillo chilies, tear them into pieces and put in food processor with about 1 cup of the liquid from the chili. Process until relatively smooth and add to crockpot.

Add Aleppo pepper and jalapeno to crockpot.

Simmer on low for about 4 hours.

Let rest in refrigerator overnight.

Add precooked beans and cook on low another 4 hours. (I used about ½ of the precooked 1 pound of beans—add as much as you like. The entire package would not be too much.)

Adjust seasonings and add salt to taste.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mama Said: Glued-in hair

Hair. My mother is obsessed with hair. She is continually commenting on other people’s hair and she’s continually changing her own hair. During one of her phases, she decided she needed to do something about the thin spot on top of her head. So she cut up a little synthetic hairpiece and attached hunks of hair to the top of her head with super glue. She called me to tell me what a wonderful improvement it was, that I should try it, and she didn’t know why no one had thought of it before. In a couple of days the glued-in synthetic hair pieces started coming out, taking with them chunks of her actual hair.

(The photo is mamacita getting a poor woman's painless facelift performed by my sister.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kinda Chinese Chicken

Had a productive day in a very low-key nerdy way. I washed all my bed linens, and dried them outside on the clothes line. (I think it's against the neighborhood covenants, but just let them put me in jail for drying my laundry on the clothes line. Martha Stewart went to prison so I can do it too.) And I made another version of this recipe and decided to post it. I found it at Mel's Kitchen Cafe and have cooked it a couple of times. I'm very fond of it and love it even more now that I've spiced it up a bit. For me, it's much easier (and much less oil) than stir-frying in a wok. Trust me, it's really good. And when the sauce starts cooking, the vinegary spicy thing makes your eyes water--that's a good sign.

Kinda Chinese Chicken


6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1 ½ pounds)
Salt and pepper
1 cup cornstarch
2 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil


1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup chili sauce
¾ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, chopped
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ cup peanuts

 Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

 Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. While the oil is heating, cut the chicken breasts into 1-inch pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Place the cornstarch in a gallon-sized ziploc bag. Put the chicken into the bag with the cornstarch and seal, tossing to coat the chicken. Whisk the eggs together in a shallow pie plate. Dip the cornstarch-coated chicken pieces in the egg and place them carefully in a single layer in the hot skillet. Cook for 1-2 minutes and then flip each piece over to cook on the other side until nicely golden but not all the way cooked through. Place in a single layer in a baking dish. Make sure the pieces don't overlap.

Mix the sauce ingredients together in a medium bowl and pour over the chicken in the baking dish. Bake for one hour, turning the chicken several times in the last ½ hour to coat evenly with sauce. You want the sauce to be a sticky coating on the chicken, not watery.
Serve over hot, steamed rice.

Serves 4 – 6.

Adapted from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe at

Monday, October 8, 2012

I won't let you down

I’m having a bad missing Mike day. I’m stressed because of all the hard stuff pressing on my family. And I’m sick with some pneumonia-like illness. I just want to talk to Mike. But of course I can’t. So I went into the archives of my e-mail, reading some exchanges between us, both before and after he got sick. In a sense it’s as if he is writing to me now. It both breaks my heart and comforts me because, even though he has died, I feel like he’s here saying these things to me. And they’re still relevant. I'm a bit reluctant to let the entire world see a private exchange between us. But there is so much heartfelt emotion here in the face of life's most difficult times. Here is one exchange.

On Mon, Aug 15, 2011 my e-mail to him:

Mike--I can't sleep (that's no news bulletin) and I'm thinking about you. In a sense I feel guilty because I've been in Colorado and am soon leaving for Seattle. It seems strange that I'm flying about, seeing my kids, doing ordinary things when you're doing extraordinary things. Extraordinary things in the sense that you're going through such extreme medical treatment to try to save your life. I wish I could do something for you—I feel so helpless, so useless.

While it was good for me to escape reality for a while (and I'll escape again for a few days), reality waits for me when I'm gone. There is no real escape. I worry about you. I grieve for my brother and dread the emotional trauma of the upcoming trial. There are other things I probably should be worrying about—like is the economy crashing and what will I do to support myself if I lose my investment money? I can't even pay my mortgage on Social Security. Should I start looking for a real job? Should I sell my house while the market here is decent?

I just hate being surrounded by sadness and worry. I hate seeing the butt end of life so much. And I worry that I just can't handle any more bad news. But then I'm trying to focus on standing firm, what Pastor Mark has been preaching on the past few weeks. Just standing firm in faith, finding some sense of peace in the midst of the turmoil. I have nothing to offer God, no barter. I'm just standing before Him, broken. But maybe if I do just stand in front of Him, admitting my helplessness, that stripping bare will open me to his strength and peace. I like the thought that I don't have to do battle, that just standing firm is enough. So I'll stand firm and pray—it's  all I can do. How can I pray for you? Please let me know—it’s at least one tangible thing I can do for you.

Love, Donna

Mike’s response:

First, listen to Mark. (DX note--Mark Campbell is my pastor, Portico Church Arlington.) You seem to have found a home there. I think using Portico as your base can give you strength.

Don't feel guilty about Colorado or Seattle. With everything else going on, you do need to focus on yourself too. Family and friends are helping me get thru this and your trips with family and friends can only help you.

A few months ago, you told me "I won't let you down". Hearing from you, talking to you, seeing you and hopefully seeing you in the near future always lifts me up. My focus is on many details right now. I am the only one who can do this. You are far from useless. You have been there for me every step of the way with support. I can't thank you enough.

I know your big challenge will be the upcoming trial. I wish there was something I could do for you. It is scary, I pray justice is done!

Please take care of yourself first and then help others as you always have.



Sunday, October 7, 2012

Shopping under the influence

Why has no one ever warned me of the dangers of shopping under the influence? Okay, I’m coming clean here. I took Ambien for over two years. I had a perfectly good reason—I couldn’t sleep without it. Actually I wasn’t always sleeping normally even with the Ambien. Case in point. See this typeset sign about love and trusting God and being kind? It’s mine now, just arrived yesterday, all sturdily packed with my name on it. It seems I bought it under the influence.

Sometimes when I took an Ambien and still couldn’t sleep I’d get up and have a cup of warm milk and a piece of toast. At least once I got up and had a beer and a whole bag of tortilla chips. I only knew about the late-night eating because I found the evidence in the morning. Kath’s friend Edie took an Ambien, got up in the night and fell down the stairs. She crawled to the sofa and didn’t know she had broken her shoulder until morning.

A few weeks ago my doctor said enough, that Ambien can be dangerous, that no one knows the effects of long-term use, and she took me off of it. Cold turkey.

I was sitting at the hospital with my mother yesterday and we saw a slew of Dr. Phil shows. In every single show he was talking to addicts and their families about the horrible damage that addiction causes. (I know—I did my graduate internship in addiction treatment when I got my master’s degree in Counseling Psychology.) Technically Ambien is not addictive. Not a single one of the addicts on the Dr. Phil show was on Ambien—they all used cocaine and heroin and prescription pain killers. But I swear if one of them had said they used Ambien and loved how they could sleep with it, it would have started the craving for me. I could have stolen my mother’s purse and walked behind the hospital dumpster looking for someone selling black market Ambien.

So last week I got an e-mail message saying my order was being shipped. What order? It seems I ordered this typeset framed poster in an altered state. Hmmm . . . I remember seeing it at some point and I do like it but I didn’t know I had ordered it. It’s a final sale item. AMBIEN!!! Damn you, you satanic drug. I can’t sleep without you and apparently I shop online under the influence. I’m surprised I didn’t order a $400 pair of shoes or a huge chunk of turquoise and silver Indian bracelet. At least it was just shopping. I heard about a woman who got a tattoo under the influence of Ambien and reportedly some people make telephone calls and have sex without knowing about it. Can you imagine?

I want to stick another line to this poster: Don’t use Ambien and shop.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Just pray!

I don’t even know how to write about this, what to say. Am I hearing a beeping sound? Has that Mack truck backed up and hit the accelerator to crush this family yet again? Surely I have tread marks across my back.

Two days ago my nephew Jasen was badly hurt in a car crash. He was in the passenger seat of a car that plowed into a tree on a dark, curvy country road. Jasen was pinned in the car and it took rescue workers two hours to get him out. They rushed him to the Maryland Shock-Trauma Center in Baltimore. Two days later, he’s still in a coma and he has a broken shoulder and a broken leg and he’s on a ventilator. My sister-in-law is sitting at Jasen’s side in the intensive care unit without her husband. Jasen’s father, my brother Mark, was murdered by his next-door neighbor a little over a year ago.
I’m in catastrophe overload. Honestly, I need the support of my friends and people at my church, but in a sense I don’t want to tell anyone any more of my bad news. I want to cover my ears and hide under the bed when the phone rings. I’ve experienced so much misfortune in the past two years that it’s almost embarrassing, as if there’s some sort of black cloud, a voodoo curse, a swirling vortex of muck surrounding me. This is not really my life, is it? My father died, my brother was murdered, my dear friend Mike got mesothelioma and died. We had to go through the murder trial. Last week my mother fell and spent two days in the hospital and now we’ve been told she has a “mass” in her lung/liver area that has to have a biopsy. And now Jasen is clinging to life in intensive care.

I’m already on my knees from the sheer shock of all of this so I might as well stay there and pray. I pray kneeling and standing and leaning against the wall and driving the car and sitting on the basement floor while I paint furniture. It’s really the only useful thing I can do. I pray.