Monday, December 22, 2014

Poetry Monday: "Homemade Eggnog"

Long ago, when I was in undergraduate school, I spent a lot of time yearning for a kitchen.  I missed baking bread.  When the holidays approached, I missed baking cookies.

Luckily, I had a friend, an older guy, who had had his college career interrupted by the war in Vietnam.  He returned to school to finish up, and our paths crossed in 1984.

He had a small house that he inherited when his mother died.  So a group of us would go over periodically.  We'd play Trivial Pursuit and watch old movies on TV.  At Christmas, he offered his kitchen.  We made cookies and homemade eggnog.  We helped decorate his tree.

I've lost touch with him.  I've lost touch with so many people.

I try to remember that I've stayed in touch or recovered connections with lots of people too.  And there are new people to walk beside.  Tomorrow, I'll have a group of friends from church over in the middle of the day.  And in the evening, I'll go out to look at lights with another friend.

Thirty years from now, will I be missing those people too?  Or will we still be getting together on Dec. 23, a tradition started long ago?

Twelve or thirteen years ago, I was thinking about lost friends and homemade eggnog, and I wrote the poem below. 

Now I'm tempted to write a different version.  When I wrote the poem below, I had yet to rediscover so many friends through Facebook.  The ways we might have betrayed each other seem much less dramatic than the ways we are betrayed now.  I might write a poem about how we should cherish the homemade eggnog while we still can, since we're not sure of when our last Christmas might be.

Or maybe I grow tired of these melodramatic endings.  Maybe I could just write a simple poem that proclaims the joys of butterfat.

But I won't revise right now.  Below is the poem as I wrote it, years before Facebook, years before anyone had cancer.

Homemade Eggnog

Back before we knew the fat grams of every food,
back before we worried about salmonella and other exotic
sounding creatures lurking in food, waiting to poison
us, back when eggs were the perfect food, not
cholesterol time bombs. Back in those innocent
days, we make homemade eggnog.

We do not cook the eggs. We separate
yolk from white, just as we are apart
from our families. We beat sugar into yolks
the color of sunshine, some sweetness
into the darkness of solstice days.

We whip air into the whites, we beat
them into a frenzy, the way that exams have stirred
us up, the way that school plots of our own devising
pump us full of the air of our own self-importance.

I pour cream into the mixture, cream clotted
with the richness of butterfat. In later years, I will create
cooked eggnog with skim milk, a pitiful
affair, thin and runny, not worth remembering.

We blend the fluffed whites into the sugary concoction.
Carefully, we fold until the separate ingredients
cannot be teased apart again. We dip out cups
for everyone and toast our eternal friendship.
I feel nourishment seep into every cell
as I fix the faces of my friends into my brain.

I cannot imagine a time when I will forsake
eggnog as too fatty, when I will be too busy
to create from scratch. I cannot dream
that I will lose touch with these friends, cannot fathom
the many ways in which we will betray each other.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Seeing the Christmas Narrative with Fresh Eyes

On Thursday morning, my spouse told me that he dreamed that I was pregnant.  I said, "That would be a Christmas miracle indeed."  I'm 49.5 years old, after all. 

My spouse did an imitation of Abraham/Zachariah, those men in the Bible with wives who conceive long after the time it's possible:  "What do you mean?  My wife is old . . ."  (imagine this said in a Yiddish accent).

I had spent the morning writing about Joseph and the Virgin Mary, so I was startled when he channeled Zachariah, not Joseph.  A bit sobered, I said, "So, we're different characters in the Advent story now?  Are we that old?"  Yes.  Yes we are.
I've spent the days since thinking about this incident and wondering how often we return to a Bible story to find that different characters resonate.

The Advent/Christmas narrative is probably the most resistant of our texts to an approach with fresh eyes.  Even if we haven't spent every Christmas Eve at church, it's a story that's know by almost everyone in our culture, except for the newest arrivals from non-Christian countries.  Those of us who grew up in churches likely spent many an Advent participating in the story in the form of Christmas pageants.

I've been Mary and I've been in the angel choir, but I've never played the part of Elizabeth--it's not a role that's woven into most Christmas pageants.

It's interesting to reflect that I am now of the age where I would doubt not only the late-in-life pregnancy narrative, but I also find myself having a harder time believing in the basic miracle of the body.  Once it seemed that the body could recover from almost any injury.  In these past few years, recovery can seem miraculous indeed.

This year, I will hold fast to the story of Elizabeth having a child, even though she's long past child-bearing years.  I have friends who could use that kind of miracle--not a late-in-fertility baby, but a renewal of the all-too-human flesh.  I will light my Advent candles and remember that with God, all can be possible.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Zen/Lutheran Kristin Tries to Stay in the Christmas/Advent Moment

I find myself fighting back the blues this time of year.  It should be the happiest time of the year, as the Christmas season is my favorite time.  I should be honest--it's the time leading up to Christmas that I like best.  But already, I'm thinking of all I will be missing in January.  And I'm haunted by Christmases Yet to Come, when loved ones won't be here.

I summon my best Zen Kristin, trying to live in the present moment and not get swamped by the past or sunk by the future.  I am not talented at being Zen Kristin.

This year, when I feel pangs ("Oh no, by this time two weeks from now, all the Christmas lights will be gone!"), I use those feelings as a reminder to appreciate Christmas elements now, while they're here.

So, I've been making a concentrated effort to go out on a walk every night.  We choose a different street and go out to enjoy the lights. 

Instead of trying to bake every Christmas treat I've ever loved, I've relished the Christmas cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the bet I lost.  Will I make more before the season is over?  Maybe.  But if I don't, that's OK.  I can always make them in March, for an out-of-season treat.

I've accepted that I won't play every Christmas CD that we own.  That's OK.  It will be a future Christmas season before we know it, and I'll play them then.  I've been trying to remember to play them when we're home.

We don't really have space for a big tree, so this year, I bought several smaller trees.  Wherever I turn, a tree twinkles at me.  The lights are what I like best.

However, last year I really missed seeing our collection of ornaments.  So this year, they're displayed in a different way.  I have a big bowl of glass ornaments.  I have some ornaments that my grandmother made out of yarn and plastic canvas--I put them on the ledge of the non-functioning aquarium that's built into a wall.  For a time, I tried to buy a Christmas ornament during every trip.  Now I've hung them over knobs and put them on shelves.  Every time I turn around, I see evidence of a good life, both mine and others.

When it's time to put these things away, I'll miss them--but part of what makes them so special is that they're not on display year round. 

And because I'm a Lutheran, I try to stay cognizant of the fact that we're actually in the season of Advent, while I'm enjoying the Christmas elements.  And so, we light the Advent wreath and keep it on display in the center of the dining room table to remind us that we're in the season of Advent.  I read the Advent texts, which keeps me centered.  I light the candles to watch for the Messiah--or in my case, I plug in the lights for the little Christmas trees that I have while singing an Advent song.

In a few days, it will be time to shift into high gear in terms of Christmas season.  And when it's over, I'll try to come down gently.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One Week Until Christmas, Thinking About Joseph

 I have done some thinking of Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season.  He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant.  This behavior is our first indication of his character.  Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, he follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan.  He could have turned away.  He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!"  He could have said, "No thanks.  I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned towards Mary and accepted God's vision.  He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt.  He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple.  We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

When I was a teenager, our discussions of Joseph, if they happened at all, revolved around how it must have felt to have raised a child that wasn't his.  As I look back, I think about how many of the fathers around us were doing just that, as it was the 1970's and early 80's, that time when so many families split apart and reconfigured into different families.  But none of us grew up saying, "I hope I'm a really good stepparent some day."

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures.  Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the Good News to the ancient world by going out in pairs. 

But Joseph shows us a different reality.  It's quite enough to be a good parent.  It's quite enough to have an ordinary job.  It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details.  When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge, people who gave money.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing, as he helped Jesus become a man.  I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons.  I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work.  Let us praise the support teams that make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, December 21, 2014:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Today we get to one of the more familiar Advent stories, one of the ones we expect to be hearing. We may say, “Thank goodness! I’m tired of John the Baptist. I can relate to Mary.”

Can we relate to Mary? Two thousand years of Church tradition tend to paint her in terms that serve whatever purpose society needed at the time. So in some decades we see Mary a perfect woman, sinless and blameless, the kind of woman who transcends humanity and gives birth to the Lord. Some decades write Mary out of the picture once the work in the stable is done, while other decades depict her as an interfering mother—the first helicopter parent!

We’ve heard the story of Mary so many times that we forget how remarkable it really is. We forget how bizarre the story told by the angel Gabriel must seem. A young girl growing God in her womb? A post-menopausal woman conceiving? It’s all too much to fathom.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

It’s important, too, to notice that God’s glorious vision doesn’t always match the way we would expect God to act. We see a history of God choosing the lowly, the meek, the outcast. Moses the stutterer, David the cheater, Peter the doubter. What business school would endorse this approach to brand building?

But our Scriptures remind us again and again that God works in mystical ways that our rational brains can’t always comprehend. If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a barren woman, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, tax collectors and fisherman, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources.

Of course, first we have to hear that message, that invitation from God. It’s hard for this message to make its way through all the fear-based messages beamed to us from our culture. The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that is a message we need to hear. Don't dance with your dread. Don't keep company with your fears, your worst case scenarios. Dream big. Think of the world God promises (read further in Luke): God will fill the hungry with good things. The one who is mighty does great things for the lowly.

 We have much to fear, but we’re not that different from past cultures. The ancient prophets move me to tears with the promise of the building up of the ancient ruins, the raising up the former devastations, the repair the ruined cities (last week’s Isaiah reading) and the establishment of a throne established forever for a God who wants to dwell with us (this week’s reading from 2 Samuel).

Our culture gives us stories of terrorists and falling currencies and agents of the government who torture in all sorts of ways. Our Scriptures tell us of a God that breaks into our normal lives to remind us that God is redeeming creation even if we aren’t aware of that process. Our prophets remind us that ruin doesn’t have to last forever. Gabriel gives the promise that nothing is impossible with God.

Now, that is Good News indeed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Main Dish Recipe for Busy December Days

Perhaps you are like me, a tad exhausted from all the grading you've been doing at the same time you've been fighting off a cold at the same time you've had an uptick in delightful activities.

Perhaps you have an event to attend, a potluck, and you know that everyone will be bringing cookies and someone should bring something with nutritive value.  Maybe your household needs something for dinner with nutritive value, something that will provide sturdy leftovers to take with you for lunch the next day.

But maybe you don't feel like cooking--yet you also don't feel like having one more restaurant meal or one more assemblage of take out food or one more chicken from the deli.  You need a recipe that doesn't involve much more effort than opening jars and packages and dumping them together.

I have just the recipe.  I first discovered it in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu Cookbook, which my mom and dad gave me for Christmas in 1988 or 1989.  It's infinitely adaptable:   if you have a different size jar, that will work; if you don't have an ingredient, no problem; if you only have 12 oz. of pasta or if you don't have time to marinate, that's cool.

Pasta with Marinated Vegetables

Feel free to adapt the following list to your own tastes and what you can find/afford.  Combine the following in a bowl and marinate several hours or overnight or not at all:

1-2 jars or cans of artichoke hearts
1 pound of sliced mushrooms
1-2 packages of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced if large
1-2 jars of roasted red peppers (or roast your own, if you have time)
1 C. (or more or less) sliced black olives (any type works, from gourmet to regular)
1 tsp. (or more or less) of the following:  oregano, basil,
several cloves minced garlic or a sprinkle of garlic powder/salt
1/3 C. olive oil
2-4 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar

When you're ready to assemble, boil a pound of pasta, something smallish, like shells or penne.  Drain when done and mix with the veggies.  You can top with grated parmesan cheese if you wish and if you're serving hot.

Tastes great at room temperature and straight out of the refrigerator.  In terms of food safety, it's perfectly safe to leave it on a buffet table for hours at a time or to take it for lunch and to leave it at room temperature for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Prayers for the Broken

On Friday night, on the way back from the Broward Chorale concert, my spouse rolled down his window to talk to one of the homeless men with a cardboard sign asking for money at an intersection.  He said, "I don't have any cash.  But if you tell me your name, I'll pray for you."

The homeless man said, "Really?  You would do that?"

My spouse said yes, the man gave his name, and then the light changed.  We've prayed for that man, and the woman and her kids about to lose their house that my spouse met at a different intersection, all week-end.

I wish I could do more to change the social structures that lead to homelessness, more than just supporting Habitat for Humanity. I wish I could magically provide more mental health counseling and job training and cheaper housing--where did I put that magic wand?

Of course, I don't have a magic wand.  And prayer is not a magic wand, not in the way I'd like it to be:  wave it and problems disappear.

So, I make contributions to Habitat and donations of other things and I pray and I watch and I make eye contact and I give granola bars to the people on the street corners. And I pray some more.

Our Advent messages remind us to stay alert.  The texts from Isaiah give us the prophet's vision of a world where the brokenhearted will be healed, where the crooked pathways will be made straight.  It's a prophecy that seems especially visionary in the dark days of December.