Friday, January 15, 2016

Butternut squash stew

Hard to believe, but I have been cooking. Last night I made a chicken chili with poblano and sweet red peppers, hominy, and other things. It was very good. I didn’t write it down. Tonight I made a vegetable stew for the second time and it is positively yummy. If it weren’t for the Parmesan cheese, it would be vegan, but I think the Parmesan is what makes it particularly fabulous. Bonus—it’s really quite easy to make.
Source: In a Vegetarian Kitchen, by Jack Bishop
Butternut Squash with White Beans Stew with Rosemary and Tomatoes
Makes 4 main dish servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
½ teaspoon salt
3 medium garlic cloves, minced (divided)
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (or use beans cooked from scratch)
1 small butternut squash (about 1 ½ pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch dice (about 3 1/2 cups)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 Parmesan cheese rind (I used about ½ cup large chunks of Parmesan)
3 cups water
1 tablespoon freshly minced rosemary
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until soft and golden, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the beans, squash, tomatoes, Parmesan rind, and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the squash is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the cover and continue simmering until the stew thickens, about 15 minutes.
While the stew is simmering, combine the minced rosemary, the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.
Once the stew has reduced down, stir in the rosemary mixture and cook an additional 5 minutes. Adjust the seasonings with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, to taste.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

In which I call on George to make me smile

The post that you see just below this, entitled The Blonde Deceit, is a piece of trash. I'm leaving it up to remind myself that my whining is really dumb. It's a humbling experience. I only felt that way for a brief time . . . "Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody." It is what it is. I'm generally quite happy in my single state and would be hard pressed to give up my immense independence for any man. Seeing couples together, cooing and feeding one another grapes, just gets under my skin occasionally and I get an ugly shade of green. Smack me upside the head if you catch me complaining again.

To counteract that lapse in judgment, I am repeating a post as a sort of antidote. This is a piece that I wrote and submitted to the Modern Love column at the New York Times. Aim high and get shot down. It was rejected by the New York Times but it did get in the online edition of Texas Monthly. Every word is true. And it reminds me that love comes in many forms. I'm grateful for George and he still makes me smile.

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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The blonde deceit

Don’t believe it. Don’t go down that road, peroxide bottle in hand and hope in your heart. I’ve been blonde for less than a week and I can tell you it’s not true—blondes do not have more fun.
Perhaps I was expecting my life to change overnight. I got my hair cut early last week. My stylist loved the haircut and asked me to be a “model” for a new hair color that they were going to use at the salon. I got seduced by the lure of being able to say I was a model. Her salon colleague would make my hair platinum blonde to accentuate the new edgy haircut and I wouldn’t have to pay for it because he was demonstrating the color techniques to the other stylists. Why not, I thought. Just do me.
The deed was done. I’m a blonde, not exactly platinum but more of a brassy, orangey blonde, like one of those little rubber troll dolls with the long synthetic hair. Sadly, it’s not synthetic—it’s attached to my head. And it's almost buzz-cut short, but actually I like the simplicity of the buzz-cut short. It used to be my hair. I feel like an alien is inhabiting my body—a blonde alien who looks like an aged Annie Lennox in one of those animated Internet ads that shows what aging does to a woman. I’m the one who makes you shudder, the ridiculous one who should be using the anti-aging product.
I’ll live with it. Really, some very kind people have said they like it. I said I’d rather be edgy than be a total nerd. It may have been a mistake to say that aloud. I’ll live with it as long as it takes my roots to grow and then it’s back to nerdy old me, but with a very short edgy haircut.
But here’s the thing: while I’m trying to adjust to my abnormal hair color, feeling like I’ve gone to Poland for the winter while some trashy blonde inhabits my body, I’m experiencing an intense loneliness. It seems like everyone in the known universe is paired up with someone else; everyone has someone to hold them on a cold night when the wind is howling. Everyone but me. The drastic hair change did not change my life one iota—if anything, it became worse.
Yes, this is my attempt to be wacky and overly dramatic, exaggerating a silly hair situation that is not important in the grand scheme of things. The hair will grow out and I’ll be comfortable in my own saggy skin again. But, most likely, I will still be lonely. I have been praying about this and feeling guilty. Shouldn’t God be enough for me? Am I failing Him because I can’t easily slip past this human longing? I should be so filled with the Lord that I don’t need it. Is it a weakness? I don’t know. I want to say that God is enough, that His grace is sufficient for me. I feel like I am betraying Him because all that He has given me—life, salvation, the comfort of His unending presence—sometimes doesn’t seem like enough.
This blonde is having a hard time. And this would probably be happening to me, blonde or not blonde. It’s not much fun.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Talking trash

Photo by Matt McClain, The Washington Post
A couple of months ago I read an article that has been stuck in my brain, intriguing me, and making me feel guilty ever since. It was so striking that I just did a search for the article to make sure that I remembered the details correctly. Yes, I did. The mere fact that I remembered it and think of it often is a bit startling.
The article appeared in The Washington Post on October 29, 2015. (You can find it here: It was written by a post-doctoral science and technology fellow at the University of Michigan.
This scientist challenged himself to live trash and recycling free for one year, and eventually he extended the experiment after the initial year. He writes that the average American produces four pounds of trash per day, for a total of 1500 pounds of trash per year for each person. He produced little more than seven pounds of trash and recycling in the first year of his experiment.
He composted food waste and did not count the waste he produced in his laboratory work. But he had to get quite radical to reduce his waste so dramatically from the norm. Apparently much waste is from food packaging so he devised ways to avoid that source of waste. For example, he carried a fork, spoon, and plate with him all the time so that if he ate out he did not dispose of any food packaging. He shopped at a co-op grocery where he didn’t have to buy packaged food. He didn’t use toilet paper. (I’m sorry, but that one is beyond my comprehension—he’ll have to explain himself to you—I’m bowing out on that detail.)
It is truly commendable that he treats the Earth with such respect. It makes me feel guilty that I have so much to contribute to our earthly garbage heap. Although I recycle as much as I can, I still have a lot of trash. How much of the meltdown of the polar ice cap is totally attributable to me? Am I making the poor polar bears live on a tiny iceberg? Am I displacing indigenous people all over the Earth? Since I read about his experiment and his measly seven pounds of trash a year, I am struggling with a huge guilt trip every week on trash collection day. And rightfully so.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A message for 2016

This year, rather than writing every post on this blog, I am going to share with you some things I have read that I find especially touching or filled with wisdom. Maybe even things that are funny. I don't know yet, let's see what crosses my path.

This is a New Year's greeting from Rev. Bill Haley who is director of Corhaven, a spiritual retreat center in the Shenandoah Valley that I have attended. I also receive counseling from a spiritual director who is associated with Corhaven. This is the message that Bill Haley sent to bless us in 2016:

In this new year, in 2016:

May you know the love of God for you, at another and a new level, and deeper dive into this Truth that changes everything…

May your hands and your heart extend the Kingdom of God a bit further in this world, a bit further in the world God has given you…

May your eyes behold even more clearly the beauty of our beloved Jesus, the Glorious One…

May you know the loving Presence of God when you encounter pain and hardship, for you will…

May you know the strange Peace that comes from knowing God, come what may…

May your eyes behold a greater number of the countless blessings God has given you, from love…

May your heart expand to hold even more of it – the wonder, the hope, the sorrow, the pain, the joy, what is Real…

May you see God writing his lines through your life, the little pencil in his hand…

May you be given the gift of faith when the path is dark, a deeper knowing than the unknown...

May you know with all the more joyful confidence that your work matters to God,  whatever the work he has given you to do this year…

May your heart be newly broken by the news, and your response be newly emboldened by the Scripture…

May you know times of quiet and deep stillness, when the breath of God can be felt on your cheek…

May you go deeper into prayer, into intimacy, living deeper the communion that is ours with him…

May you be surprised by how God is working in you, and through you…

May you have experiences of God that leave you full of questions, and longing...

May you find your sails filled with the Wind, with prayer the only way to keep up…

May you find sustenance and strength in the Eucharist…

May you Love and Be Loved…

And the blessing of God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–be upon you this day, the first day of this new year, and every day in 2016.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Coming out

Pema Chödrön
Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Depression. All of these over a long period of time. My condition has gotten worse and I’m tired of trying to hide it, tired of all the time and energy wasted trying to hide my shame. So in an effort to declare myself free of this nuisance, I’m coming out.
Here’s my ugly secret: I’m losing my hair, so much that I can no longer conceal it. I have been to numerous doctors and had medical tests. I have tried everything the doctors have recommended with no success. There is a name for this condition—alopecia. (It is loosely related to psoriasis.) Some people get bald patches on their heads while some lose all the hair on their bodies, including eyebrows and eyelashes. At this point I have skimpy eyebrows and eyelashes but I have zero hair on my arms and legs. The hair on my head was always rather thin, but then I started losing patches on the crown of my head, then in the front, now big bare patches on the sides and the back of my head.
In my obsession I used to wash my hair in the bathtub, gather the hairs that fell out, and count them, trying to see if I could figure out on a real quantitative basis whether it was getting worse. There have been times when I thought the rate of loss had slowed, only to have it gain momentum again.
There is no cure for this condition and no likelihood of a cure on the horizon. Along with a vast array of snake-oil remedies, current useless treatments include lasers and prescriptions for hormones. Do I want to take hormones intended for men with side effects including breast enlargement, bleeding uterine lesions, and hair growth on random body parts? No. It’s not worth jeopardizing my general health for the sake of my hair. It’s just hair.
It’s just hair, I say. But I look at women with beautiful thick hair and that ugly wave of envy climbs into my gut, works its way to my throat, and starts seeping out of my eyes. Beautiful silky hair is the hallmark of femininity.
For weeks I think about femininity and what it really means. (No, I’m not giving you the Webster’s definition—it’s irrelevant—what is important is how I see it. End of sentence.) I’ve come to the conclusion that femininity is the light stuff, the marshmallow cream of womanhood. I just want to be the best woman I can be and hair does not make me a woman. It’s more important to feel strong, centered, proud. I can be that without hair.
I have an appointment with Annette, my hair stylist, early next week. It’s a regularly scheduled appointment, set up long ago. I’m going to tell Annette my thoughts, that maybe it’s time to give up the fight. Maybe a buzzcut? I love Annette—she’s edgy in her own individuality and one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. She’ll tell me the truth. That’s why I love her.
It is just hair, but it’s my hair. But if maintaining a semblance of hair is keeping me living in a cage, then maybe I just don’t need it holding me back any longer.
I recently met a man who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. He is no less a man, no less a human being without legs. Maybe he's grown in stature, become more noble because he hasn't let the loss diminish him. I know people who are suffering from cancer now. Some are dying. I have seen people permanently, horribly scarred by fire. (I had a bad burn on my leg once and I still remember the pain. I can’t even imagine. . . ) Walking around with a bald head is nothing in comparison. Nothing.
For a long time I refused to pray about the hair situation. I felt it was trivial, that there were much more weighty topics to discuss with God. And just recently I decided that nothing is too trivial, that God is my creator, that He has a boundless love for me, and I could bring it to Him. So I asked Him what I should do. I didn’t expect a response right away, no voice of God saying, “Call 1-800-GET-HAIR for Dr. Giangelo’s Hair Restoration Clinic. Guaranteed results or your money back.” Nope, no voice of God, no phone number. But a couple of days later, I was sitting in silent meditation and—out of nowhere—the face of Pema Chödrön popped up in my head. She is an American Buddhist nun who has written some wonderful books. I have read a couple of her books, never met her in person, but remembered her photo from the book jackets. The image in my head was of her with her buzz-cut hair and her glowing smile.
“Lord,” I said, “where did that come from?” And I knew. It’s okay. It’s okay not to have hair. It’s okay to be a woman without the usual fluff expected to be considered feminine. I can just be me. Even without hair I know that I will be beautiful in His sight.