Thursday, December 22, 2016

Ramblings from the couch

There I sat on the living room sofa, staring into space. I looked at the Christmas greenery on the mantle. It was slightly asymmetrical—why hadn’t I noticed that before?—but I didn’t get up to fix it. I was glued to the sofa for an hour, or 45 minutes, whichever came first. I had set the kitchen timer just to make sure I didn’t underestimate my time spent sitting. Waiting.

You see, my doctor had prescribed for me a very low dose of some kind of prescription medication for my slightly underactive thyroid. The instructions from the pharmacy said to wait one hour after taking the medication before eating. The instructions enclosed with the medication said to wait 45 minutes. These things are important. Why can’t they agree on what could be a matter of life or death?

I dutifully took the medication and sat on the couch. The instructions did not say to take the medication and unload the dishwasher or do a load of laundry or check my email. They simply said WAIT. I used to work for a foundation associated with the pharmaceutical industry, and specifically worked on a project involving medication noncompliance in the elderly population. I knew the dangers of noncompliance. I took the medication, sat on the couch, and waited while I thought about what I was going to eat when my sentence was complete.

The phone rang. Luckily, I had it on the coffee table in front of me so I didn’t have to get up off the sofa. Caller ID read SACRAMENTO, CA. I know no one in Sacramento so I didn’t answer. And I wasn’t sure if taking a call would make me noncompliant. Rarely do I get a call from someone I know—usually it says UNAVAILABLE or OXACHACHACHOBEE, FL. I realized that I could find things to be grateful for while sitting on the sofa, my stomach screaming for food. I’m grateful, incredibly grateful, for Caller ID. Whoever invented it should be given a Nobel Peace Prize. (I just hope it wasn’t Verizon. Verizon has been a thorn in my side for lo these many years.) In the winter I’m grateful for central heat and in the summer I regularly thank the Lord for Mr. Carrier, the inventor of central air conditioning.
Phone communication in general is a miracle. When I grew up (you know I walked to school in the snow with no shoes) we had a party line in our house. We shared the line with all our neighbors. You could pick up the phone and hear Mrs. Fowler complaining to Mrs. Wiggins about how Mr. Fowler came home smelling of liquor again. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Now Russian cyber-spies are doing that for us. And soon people will have communication devices permanently implanted in their ears and they won’t ever have to actually dial a phone. Thought waves will connect one person’s ear device with another person’s ear device.

Soon enough the kitchen buzzer sounded and I got up off the sofa. I forgot what I was going to do so I went back and sat on the sofa a little longer.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The beetle

This bizarre image keeps coming back to me. I see a large beetle attached to my left leg. It’s a lobster-like creature, fiercely biting and holding on to me. I am unable to escape its grip. Its body is shiny black and it has iridescent red eyes, its gaze emptiness. It’s the beetle seen under a microscope, with pincers and a powerful jaw, hairy barbed protuberances all over its body. Except it’s not microscopic—it’s over three feet long. Sometimes it’s just attached to my leg but at times it creeps up the left side of my chest, grabs my heart, and wraps its claws around my neck.

know it is unforgiveness.
I pray to the Lord to remove it from me because I am powerless, unable to do it on my own. Surely God, who can raise people from the dead, can remove a beetle from my leg, can remove the bitterness from my heart. Jesus pulls it off gently, stops it when it tries to regain its grasp, and puts it into the sea. He continues to walk beside me, on my left side, to protect me.

It has been there so long I wonder what I’ll do without it. Who will I be? How will I act when I can walk freely? There’s this unsettling sense that I will miss it, miss the pain, the excuse for not living in freedom.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Boycott AARP

Hell, no, I won’t go.
 AARP has been harassing me. I once had a membership in the organization, thought it rather amusing when I was a mere 50 years old. But a number of years ago, I got fed up with them. (“Them” being those organizational wonks at AARP. Is it possible that the staff at AARP consists of a bunch of 20- year-old aggressive recent college graduates? You know the type—they live in group apartments on Capitol Hill and create instant crowds at all the trendy local restaurants. They are one paycheck away from moving back in with their parents.)
I quit AARP and never regretted the decision. I don’t want an AARP card that I can flash for a 10 percent discount at the Motel 6 in Coral Springs, Florida. I don’t want a free ice cream sundae on my birthday or a whopping 15 percent discount at Denny’s. Imagine how reasonable it would be if I moved into a Motel 6 in Coral Springs and ate all my meals at Denny’s! Let me calculate that—10 percent + 15 percent = I save 25 percent on meals and lodgings every day. (Yes, my math concepts are a bit unusual.) I really don’t like Florida and I can’t recall ever eating at Denny’s but it sounds like one of the rings of hell.
But AARP doesn’t take no for an answer from me. They keep writing, sending birthday cards and little reminders of what I’m missing. I don’t miss the stupid magazine with a picture of Harrison Ford on the cover and large-print Sudoku puzzles. They aren’t luring me to rejoin with offers of tote bags or an inflatable travel pillow embellished with a bright red AARP logo. I’ve noticed that the cost of membership renewal keeps going down. Next time I fully expect them to send me a check for more than the price of renewal, if I’ll only come back.
In the early days, I was in the amusement phase—when I thought it was rather fun to be a member of an organization for seniors. That was when I would flash the card for 10 percent off the rental car and the smiling clerk would say, “Aw heck, ma'am, you’re kidding me. You can’t be old enough for AARP. My grandma belongs to AARP.” They don’t say that anymore. They automatically give me a senior discount without my asking. Damn. I hate that.
Now I’m in the rebellious phase—I don’t want to be pigeonholed into a category. I’m a child of the 60s. I might have a Che Guevera poster somewhere. I still flash peace signs at people and might participate in a sit-in somewhere. Sometime. If it’s not too hot or too cold and it’s in a nice location. I don’t want to demand a discount just because I’m old(ish).
Global warming is melting the polar ice. I once imagined that when I got old enough and unproductive, I would be put on an iceberg and would float away into non-existence. I’d better hurry before there are no icebergs.
And I do not, under any circumstance, want an AARP card. Leave me alone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chesapeake Oyster Stuffing

Oyster stuffing

Direct from the source . . . I've made oyster stuffing, haven't tried this recipe yet, but I will. It's supposed to be the best and you can show your gratitude by making a contribution to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Chesapeake Oyster Stuffing

CBF's Director of Fisheries Bill Goldsborough swears by this tried-and-true oyster stuffing recipe inspired by Gourmet magazine. Enjoy! 
  • 2 loaves Italian or French bread (1 lb total), cut into 3/4-inch cubes (12 cups)
  • 1/2 lb sliced bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil (if needed)
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped celery
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried sage, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
  • 24 oysters, shucked, drained, and chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 2 cups turkey giblet stock or low-sodium chicken broth
Preheat oven to 325°F. Spread bread cubes in two shallow baking pans and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of pans halfway through baking, until golden, 25 to 30 minutes total. Cool bread in pans on racks, then transfer to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain, reserving fat in skillet.
If bacon renders less than 1/4 cup fat, add enough oil to skillet to total 1/4 cup fat. Cook onions, celery, thyme, sage, garlic, salt, and pepper in fat in skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl with bread cubes, then stir in bacon, parsley, butter, and oysters. Drizzle with stock, then season with salt and pepper and toss well.
Transfer stuffing to a buttered 3- to 3 1/2-quart shallow baking dish. Bake, covered, in middle of oven 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until browned, about 30 minutes more. Allow two hours all together to prepare and cook.

Please Support the Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Chapter 1

I don't know what I was waiting for. Perhaps I believed a huge flood of inspiration, a fully formed, perfectly grammatical book was going to spring out of my computer. I waited. I waited some more. I've had some cryptic notes, some unconnected snippets (100 pages of it!) that have been languishing in MS Word for a long time. So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start chipping away. I'm still not sure how the organization is going to work out or, truthfully, or where it's going in general. Just some flimsy ideas, 100 pages of gunk, and a first chapter. It's fiction in the voice of my alter ego. Here's the first chapter:


by Donna Xander

Chapter 1: The Girl and her mama

            “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

That was the voice of my mother. It was in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson, singing “I’m a little brown girl in a little grass skirt in a little grass hut,” when a Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. Stunned, scraped, and bruised, I managed to get up, counted my body parts, and checked for missing teeth. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

            I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

            The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me. Everyone in Breezy knew she meant me too, though usually when she referred to me outside of our little family, she just called me “the girl.”

            Breezy is the town where I grew up. Actually, you won’t find it on any map listed as Breezy. Its official name is Breezy Point. It’s in Calvert County, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The houses in Breezy don’t have much in common except they are all rather squished into the town, some on the shore, others high up on the hill, or back in the pine trees. Most of them were built by the people who live in them. And some of the builders were more skilled than others. Every house had some version of a screened porch as a defense against flocks of mosquitos in summer. Every house had a propane tank or two. The pretty houses were freshly painted and had hydrangea bushes in the yard and black-eyed Susans—the official Maryland flower. The not-so-pretty houses had rusty, inoperable cars, trucks, lawn mowers, and swing sets in the yards and their paint was peeling.

My mother was named Mary Magdalena Zimmerman, but everyone called her Maggie. She was more than a little eccentric—in some ways like a rabid butterfly, flitting around, changing to suit her whims, but in other ways she was as immutable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

One of her most obvious whims was her hair obsession. On alternate weeks, she changed her hair color. It could be magenta, burnt umber, platinum, or a combination or any of the above. These were never hair colors never seen in nature. She had an entire collection of falls and wiglets and little chignons that she attached to her hair with no regard for trying to match the color of the fake hair to her hair color du jour. Once she cut tresses out of one of her hairpieces and glued them to her scalp with industrial strength glue. She thought it looked great for the first day and she believed she was on to something, that she had discovered a great new beauty tip and she began brewing a plan to market her discovery. Then the glued-in pieces started falling out along with large chunks of her natural hair. She didn’t miss a beat though and she didn’t fret about the big bald spots on her skull. It gave her an opportunity to get some new hair pieces until her hair grew back. And it gave her a chance to be philosophical, to impart a little of her wisdom to me, saying, “What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, Grover. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

Mama liked to quote Scripture. She always repeated it for emphasis.

Glamour was Mama’s passion and she figured out how to support us by making glamour her business. She sold Avon for 35 years and eventually worked her way up to regional manager. People in Breezy used to say, “Ding dong” almost any time they saw her. She loved Avon and her customers loved her.

Then there was Mama’s redecorating obsession, limited only to the living room. The dining room never changed; it was wallpapered with lords and ladies dancing the minuet and cluttered with stacks of boxes of Avon products, a gallery of paint-by-number oil paintings, portraits of saints, and Mama’s extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth coronation china. Other than the coming and going of Avon products, nothing in the dining room ever got moved.

We ate our meals on TV trays in Mama’s bedroom, sitting on the pink chenille bedspread while watching whatever grainy show was on the television, one show nearly indistinguishable from the next. In the corner of her bedroom was a statue that Aunt Eloise had shipped from Mexico. I think it was supposed to be the Blessed Mother but the Blessed Mother was dressed in a tacky satin wedding dress and bridal veil and she was wearing a wild black wig. The weirdest thing about the Blessed Mother Bride was her size—she was not the standard-size statue that could be put on a mantle or dresser. She wasn’t life-size either. She was the size of a young child, dressed in a satin wedding dress. Why couldn’t we have had a nice smiling blue-eyed blonde Blessed Mother statue like Mary Margaret McCarthy had? No, we had to have the pygmy bride of Frankenstein version of the BVM. She creeped me out. Whenever I was sick, burning with fever, Mama would say, “Come and sleep in my bed, Richard, so I can keep an eye on you.” No way! I’d always lie and tell her I was fine, but to tell the truth, I feared having delirious nightmares featuring the fiend in the corner more than I feared any illness.

While the décor in most of the house never changed, the living room got painted once a month, whether it needed it or not. Mama bought the paint at yard sales, liberated it from the neighbors’ trash, or borrowed it from her sister Eloise. I don’t know how she intended to return the borrowed paint once it had been applied to the walls. She often mixed paint to create her own “special blend” of colors. On more than one occasion she mixed in hair color in an attempt to make the living room match her. Mercifully, these colors could not be replicated. Mama’s plan was to make the living room her little oasis of elegance. Accessories included cherub lamps and American eagles and ashtrays with swan wings. There were framed photographs in the living room but she bought the picture frames with photos already in them, never photos of anyone we knew. Mama called me Marie Antoinette once when she overheard me telling Barbie Grant that the handsome young man in one of the framed photos was my cousin Pierre from France and that he was going to send me a French poodle and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday. Although Mama’s own interpretation of truth could be a little wobbly at times, she held me to a higher standard.

Although the dining room furniture was threadbare and held together with duct tape and twine, Mama regularly redid the living room furniture in an endless variety of themes. We went through several versions of Polynesia, although she once corrected me to clarify that it was Bora Bora and not Polynesia. We had 1880s New Orleans for a while. One summer she did a “North to Alaska” theme because she thought it would be cooling in the absence of air conditioning. But she reliably returned to some version of Gay Paree. She sewed window swags and pillows and reupholstered chairs with fabric she got dirt-cheap from her best friend Darla who was the manager of Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. (Darla also was into competitive ballroom dancing so she always wore high heels because she said she had to keep her feet in training. Darla was married to Vince, a telephone repairman. Vince was a competitive body builder, he shaved his chest, and used Mantan because he wanted to look like a bronze god. Once Vince was doing some telephone repair work in a house when no one was home. Seems it was a hot day and Vince decided to take a shower. Imagine the surprise when the lady of the house came home and found the telephone man in her shower. Vince got fired and began selling World Book encyclopedias. He couldn’t read that well himself but the ladies liked him.) But I digress.

And there was like a revolving door of pets coming into and out of our house. Mama’s friend Blanche was the pusher, keeping Mama supplied like some sort of dope fiend who was a sucker for a furry or feathered face. Blanche worked at the county animal shelter and Mama was always willing to take in another cat, dog, bird, or a pet in the “other” category. But the animals usually didn’t stay for more than a week or two. When the new pet seemed to be AWOL and I asked her where it was she always said, “Guess it must have run away. You know that God created all the wild animals according to their kinds, Louie, and He saw that it was good. Yes, He saw that it was good.”

Seems most of them ran away because they objected to being house-broken. One time Blanche sent from the shelter a lovely yellow and green parakeet. I named it Chiffon, but pronounced it “Chee-fawhn” with a heavy French accent that seemed appropriate for our décor. I didn’t know any French but I thought it might be the French translation of the word chiffon. I might be right—I never looked it up. The bird stayed for about a month but it got mites and gave them to me. Soon after the mites appeared, Chiffon just up and disappeared too. When I asked Mama where the bird was, she said, “Guess it must have run away.”

“If it left, it probably flew away,” I muttered. “And when it flew away it took its cage with it.” The sarcasm was lost on her.

Just before Easter one year, Mama came home from the feed store with a baby duck. I named it Elmer. Elmer had the run of the house, waddling free, quacking and pooping. Apparently it’s difficult to house train a duck. I tried but I could find little guidance on duck training, even at the country library. I tried to shampoo him too, but he would have none of it. As if the duck poop wasn’t enough of an issue, Elmer developed a serious limp. Mama decided that the limp was a sign that the duck was terminally ill and the humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. So she turned the gas on in the oven without lighting it and put Elmer in the oven. As we were getting asphyxiated on the gas fumes, Mama kept checking the oven, expecting to see the poor little duckling’s limp body. Every time she opened the oven door, he just quacked and looked at her. Fearing we all would die in a house-leveling explosion, she finally turned off the gas and took him out of the oven. Elmer was fine. Actually, he was cured—he stopped limping and eventually he went to live with the other ducks in the pond at Gate of Heaven cemetery. For all I know, he’s still there, quacking and pooping.

So there were the things in our household that were always changing, like Mama’s hair, and our home décor, and passing parade of animal shelter refugees. Then there were the things about Mama that were immutable.

For example, she had these little food obsessions. Every day, without variation she ate exactly the same thing for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was two of the big shredded wheat biscuits, warm milk, one teaspoon of sugar with a cup of black Sanka. Lunch was a sliced hard-boiled egg with mustard on Wonder Bread. There were slight variations for dinner because I made dinner—pancakes on Sunday, spaghetti on Monday, tuna noodle casserole on Tuesday, hamburger surprise on Wednesday, scrambled eggs on Thursday, and fish sticks on Friday. On Saturday we went out to Lula’s for hamburgers. On the first Sunday of every month we had cream chipped beef on toast and peas—it was our way to celebrate.

Mama was obsessed with bugs, especially flying bugs. She was convinced that mosquitoes were responsible for all manner of illness including chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy, acne, and diarrhea. She sprayed me with insect repellant every time I left the house. She’d check the outside thermometer—if the temperature was above 20 degrees F, I’d get sprayed. To this day, the smell of insect repellant and wet paint reminds me of home. I wonder how many of my brain cells were destroyed by the insect repellant.

Mama never wavered from Catholicism either. She had memorized both the Baltimore Catechism #1 and the Baltimore Catechism #2 and could point out the fine points of all the differences between the two. She did novenas and First Fridays and knew the patron saints of everything, even obscure things—like St. Lucy the patron saint of electrical contractors. (She said special prayers to St. Lucy every time Bert Wojcik came to fix the fuse box—she didn’t quite trust Bert on his own merits.) And she went to confession every Saturday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Church, whether she needed it or not. She didn’t have many sinful habits. She didn’t exceed the speed limit, or curse, or drink alcohol. (Once Doc Betz, the druggist, told her to try a little glass of wine to help her sleep. So she poured herself a shot glass of wine, climbed into bed, drank the wine, and immediately lay down.) I think she went to confession in lieu of going to therapy. Father Mahoney could have set his watch every Saturday when Maggie Zimmerman appeared on the other side of the confessional screen. The only thing she probably had to confess was that she lied so frequently about the disappearance of the pets.

But here’s the ultimate proof that Mama’s tenacity never stopped at the border. When I was 12, Mama had been married to Daddy for 20 years. But it had been 10 years since Daddy walked out of the house to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. No word from him, no explanation, simply gone. Mama still considered herself married. Occasionally I’d get up the nerve to ask her about him. She’d say something like, “Well, I’m not sure where he is, but I do believe he’ll be home by Thanksgiving. He just loves a good turkey.”

She baked him a birthday cake every year on his birthday. (On one of Daddy’s no-show birthdays we had a new dog. It was a big, black dog who drooled and smelled bad. The dog ate most of Daddy’s birthday cake. The following day the dog “ran away.” Mama said the dog favored Daddy and just wanted to be with him.) And every year she bought my missing father an anniversary card, signed it “with all my love, Maggie” and put it on the living room mantle. The cards were always those really mushy cards with poems about how their love had grown over the years.

And my father the disciplinarian, though absent in fact, was ever-present in her mind. When I misbehaved, she would say, “When your father gets home, you’ll have your day of reckoning, Homer, you’ll have your day of reckoning.” Wherever he was, perhaps he was more powerful in his absence than if he had been there.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Feeling it

For weeks I have confined myself to the house, shades drawn, to escape the heat and humidity. Occasionally daring to leave the house, I hurry to the car and crank up the air conditioning. Now that it’s almost September, I realized that I have barely been outside all summer. So with incredible courage (drama queen!) tonight I turned out the lights and sat outside in the dark, simply breathing and looking at the night sky.

I had nearly forgotten what a summer night feels like. I grew up without air conditioning. How could I have forgotten the feel of summer? Tonight I let my bare arms and legs be sacrificial lambs to the over-abundant mosquito population, without moving or swatting them away. The planet in the western sky (Jupiter? Venus?) was the only light in the muggy sky. Street lights were encased in a soft mist. Crickets sang. I wish I had seen the bats that I usually see at sunset but they were hidden in the darkness.

I just breathed and soaked in what a night in late August feels like. Like this. And I looked at the sky and silently said, “Lord, help me to accept what is. Give me the strength to be present. When I need comfort and support, when I need to trust you in the hard times, please be there. When I rejoice in the good times, let me remember to be grateful. No matter what, let me walk through life with my eyes—and my heart—wide open.”

If tomorrow morning I am covered in mosquito bites, I may consider myself a fool. But for now, I am glad I had the opportunity to feel a summer night.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Vidalia onion doughnuts

I’m losing my mind. It’s a combination of heat stroke, cabin fever, and carbohydrate craving all rolled into one ugly ball. There is no food in my house. By food, I mean doughnuts. Barbeque potato chips sometimes work as a substitute, but in this heat the only thing I want is a doughnut. At about 4 in the afternoon—the carb crazy witching hour—I started prowling through my pantry. There was nothing there worth eating. Then I began looking in the drawers in the living room where I sometimes hide pieces of chocolate or Strawberry Twizzlers so I won’t find them. If there was anything hidden, I didn’t find it. Well done, Miss Hider.
For nearly two weeks the outside temperature has hovered around 100 degrees. I say this with clenched teeth, trying not to curse about the appalling heat index that the meteorologists use just to further annoy me. It would be ridiculous to leave my air-conditioned house and get into my car that is so hot the seats would render lard into liquid fat. For even longer than two weeks, I have had a migraine nearly every day. I don’t usually get migraines. Except I am in a bad phase. Don’t blame me, it’s organic brain disease.

So. In my addled condition, I start thinking there must be some way I could garner all my culinary creativity and make doughnuts with the few ingredients I have on hand. Here are my choices: canned tomatoes, frozen veggie burgers, panko, one egg, some Parmesan cheese rinds, a vanilla protein drink, and a package of exotic lasagna noodles. There also is a jar of hatch chile salsa in my pantry, but that just seems wrong. I've got a lovely basket of organic Vidalia onions that shouldn't go to waste. Is that just too weird? I want a simple cake doughnut with crunchy sugar on top. I'd have to use the old brick-hard dregs of a package of brown sugar for the topping. Stevia won't do. But the dough? Can I put the exotic lasagna noodles in the food processor with the panko? It might look like flour if I grind it enough. My lovely stainless steel Kitchen-Aid stand mixer is supposed to perform miracles. I can add the egg, pray that I have some baking powder or soda, and throw in some of the protein drink to get the dough consistency right. Do you think it will work?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

In awe

If only I could bring you here, let you inhabit my body and mind, for just a few minutes, you would have absolutely no doubt about the existence of God. I so wish that you could experience what I experienced just this morning. God is so real, He hears my pleas, and when He answers instantly, with startling directness, I am in awe of His presence.

I sat down to pray, saying something like this: “Lord, please help me. I feel myself slipping into depression and I fear the oncoming darkness. I am so grateful for your presence. This life of contemplative prayer, of relative silence and solitude is so fulfilling. Yet, sometimes—like now—I feel that it is just one step away from isolation and depression. Please, Lord, help me. As I sit here, hoping for some direction from you, I pray that you guide me in your wisdom and show me how to grow in relationship with you and not sink into darkness.”

So I opened my little daily devotional for today and read the following, written by Jennifer Benson Schuldt:

He Understands

Some young children have trouble falling asleep at night. While there may be many reasons for this, my daughter explained one of them as I turned to leave her bedroom one evening. “I’m afraid of the dark,” she said. I tried to relieve her fear, but I left a nightlight on so she could be sure that her room was monster-free.

I didn’t think much more about my daughter’s fear until a few weeks later when my husband went on an overnight business trip. After I settled into bed, the dark seemed to press in around me. I heard a tiny noise and jumped up to investigate. It turned out to be nothing, but I finally understood my daughter’s fear when I experienced it myself.

Jesus understands our fears and problems because He lived on the earth as a human and endured the same types of trouble we face. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3). When we describe our struggles to Him, He doesn’t brush us aside, minimize our feelings, or tell us to snap out of it—He relates to our distress. Somehow, knowing that He understands can dispel the loneliness that often accompanies suffering. In our darkest times, He is our light and our salvation.

Dear Jesus, I believe that You hear my prayers and that You understand my situation. You are the One who lights my darkness. 

 This was followed by today’s Bible reading: Psalm 27:1-8

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
    be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When everything is going wrong

I'm sharing this list of eight things to remember when everything goes wrong, written by Marc and Angel (at, the authors of 1000 Little Things Happy Successful People Do Differently. I have highlighted portions that shouted truth to me. And, you know me--I'd add "with the help of the Lord" to every one of these.
“Today, I’m sitting in my hospital bed waiting to have both my breasts removed. But in a strange way I feel like the lucky one. Up until now I have had no health problems. I’m a 69-year-old woman in the last room at the end of the hall before the pediatric division of the hospital begins. Over the past few hours I have watched dozens of cancer patients being wheeled by in wheelchairs and rolling beds. None of these patients could be a day older than 17.”
That’s an entry from my grandmother’s journal, dated 9/16/1977. I photocopied it and pinned it to my bulletin board about a decade ago. It’s still there today, and it continues to remind me that there is always, always, always something to be thankful for. And that no matter how good or bad I have it, I must wake up each day thankful for my life, because someone somewhere else is desperately fighting for theirs.
Truth be told, happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them. Imagine all the wondrous things your mind might embrace if it weren’t wrapped so tightly around your struggles. Always look at what you have, instead of what you have lost. Because it’s not what the world takes away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.
Here are a few reminders to help motivate you when you need it most:
#1. Pain is part of growing. Sometimes life closes doors because it’s time to move forward. And that’s a good thing because we often won’t move unless circumstances force us to. When times are tough, remind yourself that no pain comes without a purpose. Move on from what hurt you, but never forget what it taught you. Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing. Every great success requires some type of worthy struggle to get there. Good things take time. Stay patient and stay positive. Everything is going to come together; maybe not immediately, but eventually.
Remember that there are two kinds of pain: pain that hurts and pain that changes you. When you roll with life, instead of resisting it, both kinds help you grow.
#2. Everything in life is temporary. Every time it rains, it stops raining. Every time you get hurt, you heal. After darkness there is always light – you are reminded of this every morning, but still you often forget, and instead choose to believe that the night will last forever. It won’t. Nothing lasts forever.

So if things are good right now, enjoy it. It won’t last forever. If things are bad, don’t worry because it won’t last forever either. Just because life isn’t easy at the moment, doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. Just because something is bothering you, doesn’t mean you can’t smile. Every moment gives you a new beginning and a new ending. You get a second chance, every second. You just have to take it and make the best of it. (Read The Last Lecture.)
#3. Worrying and complaining changes nothing. Those who complain the most, accomplish the least. It’s always better to attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed. It’s not over if you’ve lost; it’s over when you do nothing but complain about it. If you believe in something, keep trying. Don’t let the shadows of the past darken the doorstep of your future. Spending today complaining about yesterday won’t make tomorrow any brighter. Take action instead. Let what you’ve learned improve how you live. Make a change and never look back.
And regardless of what happens in the long run, remember that true happiness begins to arrive only when you stop complaining about your problems and you start being grateful for all the problems you don’t have.
#4. Your scars are symbols of your strength. Don’t ever be ashamed of the scars life has left you with. A scar means the hurt is over and the wound is closed. It means you conquered the pain, learned a lesson, grew stronger, and moved forward. A scar is the tattoo of a triumph to be proud of. Don’t allow your scars to hold you hostage. Don’t allow them to make you live your life in fear. You can’t make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain.
Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most powerful characters in this great world are seared with scars. See your scars as a sign of “YES! I MADE IT! I survived and I have my scars to prove it! And now I have a chance to grow even stronger.”
#5. Every little struggle is a step forward. In life, patience is not about waiting; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard on your dreams, knowing that the work is worth it. So if you’re going to try, put in the time and go all the way. Otherwise, there’s no point in starting. This could mean losing stability and comfort for a while, and maybe even your mind on occasion. It could mean not eating what, or sleeping where, you’re used to, for weeks on end. It could mean stretching your comfort zone so thin it gives you a nonstop case of the chills. It could mean sacrificing relationships and all that’s familiar. It could mean accepting ridicule from your peers. It could mean lots of time alone in solitude. Solitude, though, is the gift that makes great things possible. It gives you the space you need. Everything else is a test of your determination, of how much you really want it.
And if you want it, you’ll do it, despite failure and rejection and the odds. And every step will feel better than anything else you can imagine. You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path. And it’s worth it. So if you’re going to try, go all the way. There’s no better feeling in the world… there’s no better feeling than knowing what it means to be alive.
#6. Other people’s negativity is not your problem. Be positive when negativity surrounds you. Smile when others try to bring you down. It’s an easy way to maintain your enthusiasm and focus. When other people treat you poorly, keep being you. Don’t ever let someone else’s bitterness change the person you are. You can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of you. They do things because of them.
Above all, don’t ever change just to impress someone who says you’re not good enough. Change because it makes you a better person and leads you to a brighter future. People are going to talk regardless of what you do or how well you do it. So worry about yourself before you worry about what others think. If you believe strongly in something, don’t be afraid to fight for it. Great strength comes from overcoming what others think is impossible.
All jokes aside, your life only comes around once. This is IT. So do what makes you happy and be with whoever makes you smile, often.
#7. What’s meant to be will eventually, BE. True strength comes when you have so much to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and appreciate your life instead. There are blessings hidden in every struggle you face, but you have to be willing to open your heart and mind to see them. You can’t force things to happen. You can only drive yourself crazy trying. At some point you have to let go and let what’s meant to be, BE.
In the end, loving your life is about trusting your intuition, taking chances, losing and finding happiness, cherishing the memories, and learning through experience. It’s a long-term journey. You have to stop worrying, wondering, and doubting every step of the way. Laugh at the confusion, live consciously in the moment, and enjoy your life as it unfolds. You might not end up exactly where you intended to go, but you will eventually arrive precisely where you need to be. (Read A New Earth.)
#8. The best thing you can do is to keep going. Don’t be afraid to get back up – to try again, to love again, to live again, and to dream again. Don’t let a hard lesson harden your heart. Life’s best lessons are often learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes. There will be times when it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong. And you might feel like you will be stuck in this rut forever, but you won’t. When you feel like quitting, remember that sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right. Sometimes you have to go through the worst, to arrive at your best.
Yes, life is tough, but you are tougher. Find the strength to laugh every day. Find the courage to feel different, yet beautiful. Find it in your heart to make others smile too. Don’t stress over things you can’t change. Live simply. Love generously. Speak truthfully. Work diligently. And even if you fall short, keep going. Keep growing.
My very favorite part of this is the quote from Rumi, worth repeating: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

God is the cause of loving God

Reading notes on a book I read over a year ago, I am once again astounded by the truth of this. It refers to the work of Bernard of Clairvaux, a French Cisterian Abbott in the 12th century.

Even though our heart longs for God, it seems almost audacious to think that God wants us just as much, or even more, than we yearn for him. God is the initiator, always, of our longing. But more, Bernard tells us that

God is the cause of loving God . . . He himself creates the longing. He himself fulfills the desire. He himself causes himself to be such that he should be loved. He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love him in vain. His love both prepares and rewards ours. Kindly, he leads the way. He repays us justly. He is our sweet hope. He is riches to all who call upon him. There is nothing better than himself. He gives himself.
That has been a great wonder for all lovers of God. They have consistently asserted its truth. Because of God’s compassion—of what God is (see John 4:8)—he comes to us. He comes to us faster than we ever wish to come to him. It is said that for every single step we take toward God, he takes a dozen toward us. It’s a fact that never stops astounding us.

Quoted from “You Can Know God: Christian Spirituality for Daily Living,” by Marilyn Gustin. Her book contains the passage from “Bernard of Clairvaux,” translated by G.R. Evans.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Creating space for the Father to work

The search continues, the lessons keep coming, my advanced age notwithstanding. A gnarly issue has been coming on for a while, but it has come to a head. The specific issue and person involved are not important to the story—what is important is that I learn new ways of dealing with common frustrations.

In a nutshell: I came home last night from an event and I was steaming angry. There was a person at the event (hereafter referred to as “the person”) who has been a thorn in my side for a variety of reasons. I could enumerate the specifics, but that would only be my attempt for validation, to gain allies. I don’t need allies; I need God to sort it out for me. So I came home and prayed. But I was still too angry to make real progress.

So this morning, I got up, skipped church, and spent the morning sitting in my garden reading Scripture, praying, and sitting in silence listening for God to show me the way.

It’s Father’s Day. I deeply miss my earthly father, but I’m keeping my heavenly Father busy, relying on Him for fatherly advice. I am still amazed that the same God who created the universe and raised Jesus from the dead is my Father. It's personal. He is in me and I am in Him. He guides me with more wisdom than the wisest person I could ever imagine. So when I get churned up with these petty earthly “people” issues, I only need to look to Him, cling tightly to Him, and push the pettiness away to focus on Him. The distractions are just Satan’s attempts to distract me. “Don’t go down that road,” I tell myself over and over again. Don’t go down that road paved with self-centered pride. Don’t get caught up in envy, don’t make comparisons, don’t get churned up about the things of this world that aren’t important. Focus on what is good, look to Him, not to appear more spiritual or more holy in the eyes of others, but to do what is good and true between the Lord and me.

My knee-jerk reaction is to tell someone about the person’s behavior, to get allies, to do something in retribution. This is the way I have usually behaved. But after so many years, I’m beginning to realize it is not a productive reaction. I’m not making a big drama out of it as I usually would. But what I am doing is bringing it to Him, my Father. I’m putting it at the foot of the cross and leaving it for Him to fix the situation or to fix me. In this process I skip over the middle man/woman and take it straight to the top.

So on this beautiful morning I read Scripture (the Song of Solomon for some strange reason) and spent a lot of time just sitting on my patio, sipping coffee, and listening for fatherly advice. The phrase came to me: “Move this person to the side. Come to me.” I knew that I needed to keep my focus on communion with the Lord and not let anything or anyone come between us, not steal one second of my time with Him. I move the junk out of the way and make room in my life for a much deeper, much more meaningful relationship with the Lord. And when there is room, when the jar is empty of rancor and pettiness, then there is space for God to work miracles.

Thank you, Lord, thank you. You are so incredibly real to me, so present. My prayer has been answered, not on a specific “solve this problem” level, but on a much deeper level that reminds me where to focus. That is a priceless lesson and it brings me such peace.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Nose to the sunrise

The tally says I have played 12,567 games of FreeCell, give or take a few. I’m not bragging—this brings me nothing but shame. Yet still I play, mindlessly staring at the computer screen, numbing my brain. It’s a really stupid game, even though I’ve become rather good at it. Wouldn’t you if you had played 12,567 games, give or take a few?
I’m writing about this because of the hope that confession is good for the soul. It’s not the computer game that I’m confessing—that is just a symptom. It’s depression. There, I said it. I hate the word, I hate discussing it, I hate being caught in its talons. Trouble is when I’m there, I can’t muster the energy to do much else. I sleep as much as I can, I eat whatever is within reach, and I curse the darkness. All the things I do only pull me deeper into the darkness, but I can’t seem to stop the whirlpool that sucks me down. I feel powerless.
Yes, I have taken antidepressants. I think they work. But I thought I could power through without them, gradually tapered off, and here I am. I know—I’ve already started taking them again. But, damn, it makes me feel like such a failure to need them.
And, yes, I have prayed and continue to pray. I trust the Lord will bring me through this once again and I will find joy after the darkness subsides. It doesn’t change my view of God; it only intensifies my total reliance on Him. Although I feel I'm a failure, I know He doesn't see me that way.
Today I read a quote from one of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series. Reepicheep, the tenacious little mouse, is trying to reach the lion Aslan (symbol of Jesus) in the utter East. Reepicheep says:
"While I may, I sail East in Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I row East in my coracle. When that sinks, I shall paddle East with my four paws. Then, when I can swim no longer, if I have not yet reached Aslan’s Country, there shall I sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
And so, like the tough little mouse, I may sink, but still I seek Him, my nose to the sunrise.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Cook me a fish

Photo credit:
In worship service yesterday, at the end of the sermon, our pastor lead an amazing guided meditation on a passage in Scripture. He recounted the story told in John 21. It is during the period of time after Jesus's death and resurrection. Some of the disciples were fishing when, from the boat, they saw and had a conversation with a man on the shore. It was pre-dawn and the man on the beach was tending a fire, preparing to cook breakfast. The disciples soon realized the man was Jesus. The pastor invited us to enter the scene, to look into Jesus’s face and to hear our conversation.

And today I repeated the exercise at home. I read the passage in John 21 and sat in silence, my eyes closed, waiting to go deeper, to encounter Him.
His face was radiant, glowing in the firelight as the sun began to peek over the horizon. And He was glowing because it had all come to pass and He had conquered death, just as He promised. There was a tender, gentle glow of satisfaction, of knowing that God’s word had been fulfilled, His work was done. Everything, even the suffering and death, was worth it. I just looked at Him and He looked at and into me, knowing everything. And He said to me: “I will be with you until the end of the ages.”
So I just sat with Him, not wanting to leave, afraid that if I opened my eyes He would be gone. And I said to Him, “Lord, would you cook me a fish?”
It was such a profound, deep experience that I hesitate to try to describe it, that it will somehow sully the experience or reduce it to something unexceptional. But I want to share the reality that—whether it’s this passage for you or something else—it is possible to enter a very deep communion with God. I am not doing anything extraordinary, just opening the door and asking Him to be with me. And maybe cook me a fish.