Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The view from here

When one has had the opportunity to live a significant number of years, the overview of life becomes different than it was in younger years. This my 68th year on this planet. How can that be? And how will I see things in another 10 or 20 years, if I am still hanging on to this spinning hunk of rock?

From this vantage point, at age 67 years and 8 months, these are some of my observations:

(1) I can now begin to see the fruits of my life’s work and it’s a glorious thing. My children are adults. Out of my body sprung two amazing people. They weren’t the size they are now when they were born. For that alone I am so grateful. They grew up and had children of their own. I sometimes have this image of those nesting Russian wooden dolls with a big doll that contains a smaller doll, and inside the smaller doll, another doll . . . me, my kids, their kids . . . a seemingly simple yet incredibly complex story of the perpetuation of the human race. And I see that I not only created a family, but I also forged life-long friendships. I created things with my own hands, I gained knowledge and skills. So, looking down from the hilltop, I see that some things worked, some things didn’t work, and that some things may endure beyond my lifetime. But I know that my existence mattered; I have left an imprint, however small it may be.

(2) From this vantage point I see the unending horrors of life. The hate and pain inflicted by some people on others never stops. It morphs and grows—different people in different places and new, hideous means of inflicting harm—but the human race seems incapable of living in peace. It seems we’ve been praying for peace since the beginning of recorded time and we never get one step closer.

(3) The enduring love of God has become so much clearer to me as I grow older. I see how he has blessed me by sometimes not giving me the things I wanted. Just looking back at prayers not answered gives me a small glimpse of His plan. His plan is so much better than any plan of mine. He has such incredible surprises for me, things I never could have imagined. I really am beginning to see that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. Seeing that love from this vantage point has given me an almost giddy joy. It makes me want to sink deeper and deeper into that peaceful surrender that only comes from a total trust in God. Sometimes being old has its advantages.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Just like Scout

A few nights ago a dear friend called me just to chat and catch up on life. He said he had been watching the film To Kill a Mockingbird and he paused the film to call me. He said that it suddenly struck him how much Scout, the girl who is a major character in the film, reminded him of me, what he imagined I was like when I was a kid. He said she looked somewhat like me, but that it was her personality that seemed so much like me. I do believe this is the nicest compliment I’ve ever gotten from anyone.

The fluky thing about his comment is that when I’m writing fiction I often write in the voice of a 12-year-old girl living in the mid-20th century in a small town on the Chesapeake Bay. And I realized that this girl who occupies my brain is much like Scout Finch. So when I write I do look like her, I act like her, and I write in her voice. I never had put two and two together before.

I posted this piece of quickie little piece of fiction on this blog once before, quite some time ago. This is an example of something I have written in the voice of my alter ego, that 12-year-old girl who could be Scout.

Sammy and Angela were sitting on the front porch of the store when I walked by. They had obviously stopped talking when I got near enough to hear. I walked past them, let the screen door slam, grabbed an RC Cola out of the ice chest, and dumped an orange juice can full of pennies on the counter. Miss Dixon always tolerated me. She just chuckled and counted the pennies.
She said, “Well, you’ve got 24 cents extra. How about I throw in a penny and give you five nickels in trade? You want to play the slots?"
Of course I wanted to play—I’m a preteen slot machine junkie. Ever since the time I hit the big jackpot down at the amusement park, I’ve been expecting to hit it big again. I figure I’m just lucky.
So I walked over to the nickel slot machine by the front door. First nickel, nothing. Second nickel, nothing. Third nickel, I got straight cherries and nickels started pouring out of the machine. 
Miss Dixon said, “Girl, if you just aren’t the luckiest kid I’ve ever seen. You must have been born under a rainbow.”
She handed me a paper bag and I sat on the floor by the door putting all my loot in the bag. I could hear Angela crying on the front porch.
“Sammy,” she said, “I just can’t understand why you won’t believe me. I don’t care who told you and I don’t care what they said. I did not kiss Bo Maltby, I swear. Some of the girls think he’s cute, but not me. Tell me who told you. Tell me!”
Geesh, Angela was such a liar. I saw her kissing Bo Maltby just a couple of days ago, out behind the tobacco barn on the road to the store. I’m like a cat, just walk around with no shoes, not making a sound. I see all kinds of things I’m not supposed to see. Like the time I took the shortcut home and saw Mr. Morris sitting in the sun on his lounge chair wearing only what God gave him. Well, he was wearing sunglasses—I suppose God didn’t give him the sunglasses. He was all smeared in oil and had some big aluminum foil contraption all wrapped around him. And if you want to know the truth, I really did see his wiener. I’ve only seen one before, but that was my brother’s and that hardly counts because he was a baby. Mary Francis told me that her uncle showed her his wiener and it was ugly and hairy. So now I’ve seen one too and I don’t hardly care to ever see another one again.
I did see Angela kissing Bo Maltby, but I didn’t tell a soul, and she was flat-out lying to Sammy out there in front of the store. Sammy just shook his head, got up, put his hands in his pockets and walked away, leaving Angela crying. I grabbed my bag of nickels and sat on the front porch to drink my RC.
Angela sniffled, looked at me, and said, "You heard that, didn't you?"
I just drank my soda. 
She said, “You are evil. Everyone thinks you’re just a goofy, harmless little kid but I know about you. I’ll bet you’re the one who told Sammy about Bo and me, aren’t you? I’m going to get back at you for this, just you wait.”
Her dark eyes glittered at me, but I wasn’t afraid.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sassy oatmeal cookies

By request, I'm posting this recipe. I put the recipe in my book (unpublished) but didn't realize I hadn't posted them on the blog. Quite interesting . . .

Love, love, love these cookies. No one can figure out what’s in them, where the kick is coming from. These are not old-lady oatmeal cookies!
Sassy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
a pinch ground cloves
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups old-fashioned or quick-cooking rolled oats
1 cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

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

Drop tablespoon-size pieces of dough 2 inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake 10 to 11 minutes, until light brown. Cool cookies on baking sheet for one minute and transfer to racks to cool completely. Makes 4 dozen.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Abandon hope. Or not.

Today at church our pastor was preaching on hope, a hope that the author of the letter to the Hebrews calls “an anchor for the soul.”

I have read several of the books written by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, including her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, which I have read more than once. The book has been helpful to me as I try to develop an attitude of detachment about life’s trials. And when our pastor was preaching today about hope, I recalled what Pema Chödrön had to say about hope. She’s not a fan of hope. Yes, it seems strange, but her reasoning is that we should be living in the present and having hope is a way of not accepting what we have, longing for something more. She writes:

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something lacking in our world.”

Although I think some of aspects of Buddhism are noble and unselfish, I am grateful that I am a Christian and I can have hope, that I have that “anchor for the soul” and a promise for the heart that holds on in faith. In 1 Peter, Scripture describes for us the reason for our hope:

“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” 1 Peter 1:3-5 (The Message)
It is the hope of eternal life with God that keeps us going, through whatever life hurls at us. And even now, our lives are better because we have that hope, that blessed assurance that binds us to Him and gives us purpose. I’d make a terrible Buddhist if it meant I would have to abandon hope. That longing, that promise that I will one day be with God makes it bearable. I love what C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Till We Have Faces:

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

That sounds like hope to me.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Loneliness, solitude, and Thomas Merton

When I am deep in prayer, feeling connected to God, not doubting His existence, basking in the glow of the Holy Spirit, often I cry. But those prayerful tears are not an everyday experience. They only come out of a profound sense of connection.

Lately I have had discussions with friends about the complexities of living with someone, presumably a spouse. And the question always comes up about whether I would ever get married again. In the early days after my divorce I would have answered differently—yes, I feel that I am hard wired to be in relationship and I want to get married again. But years went by and it didn’t happen. By default I have lived alone now for many years. It wasn’t my choice but it has become familiar.

And for so long, that aloneness seemed a curse, an emptiness. I cried out to God, asking him whether He really intended me to be so lonely. There came no earth-shattering response, no voice from heaven telling me to wait because He had great things in store for me. Just day after day, year after year, and I was still alone, still achingly lonely. But with time there came an answer. The loneliness became solitude. It changed from sorrow to joy. When life is hectic, now I return to solitude with a joyful yearning for peace and quiet. I come back to the simplicity of quiet time with God, with my projects, my music, my books. So God answered my prayers, He heard my cries in the dark loneliness, not by changing my situation, but by allowing me to appreciate the solitude.

Thomas Merton’s name has been popping up frequently lately. It is an intriguing intrusion. For example, I am reading a book by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who refers to his association with Merton. And today, I found a prayer, attributed to Thomas Merton, that I had folded and slipped into my Bible. This prayer has a strong resonance with how I am feeling, what I am thinking. I don’t think any of this is a coincidence. It is God’s way of getting my attention.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. – Thomas Merton

Saturday, February 28, 2015


This morning, as I was ironing pillowcases, it suddenly occurred to me that for all of my adult life I have been missing the one home appliance that symbolizes true womanhood—a mangle. A mangle is a large ironing appliance that has a heated roller contraption. It is especially useful for ironing large flat items like tablecloths and sheets and it occupied a considerable amount of space in our basement laundry room.

When I was growing up my mother operated the mangle like an artist. It was a thing of beauty to watch her. She ironed sheets and handkerchiefs, of course, but she also was able to iron my father’s cotton boxer shorts—surely a lost art. She taught me how to use the machine. I sat before it, pushing the various levers with my legs and feeding in the fabric with my hands and smelled that glorious aroma of a hot iron on freshly laundered linens.

So today, as I iron my pillowcases with a simple iron and ironing board, I feel a bit of nostalgia. I miss our phone with the party line. I miss the old powdered Spic n Span that would take the paint off your car. I miss Teen Twists at the Mighty Mo. And I miss my mother’s mangle.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The nonsense of tidying up: A book review

The thrill is gone. The New York Times Best Seller List no longer impresses me. How low can American readers sink? Apparently quite low is the answer. This is my review of a book that has sold millions of copies and is highly ranked on Amazon—where currently it is ranked the #1 best seller in the Motivational/Self-Help category. I have read about half of the book and re-read sections just to make sure I wasn’t missing something. It is perhaps the most inane book I have ever read. Just to prove my point and to keep you from wasting money on this nonsense, here are tidbits of the author’s “revolutionary” and “life-changing” discoveries.

From The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo

Permit me to illustrate the author’s strange inclinations, even in her childhood:

  • “I started reading home and lifestyle magazines when I was five . . .”
  • “At school, while other kids were playing dodgeball or skipping, I’d slip away to rearrange the bookshelves in our classroom, or check the contents of the mop cupboard, all the while muttering about the poor storage methods.”
  • “The subject of tidying first caught my attention when I was in junior high school. . .” after reading a book entitled The Art of Discarding.
The author describes the stress and frustration in her youth as she tried to get rid of as much as possible. She even extended her decluttering efforts to her siblings’ rooms and the communal storage lockers at school—without asking the others if she could discard their things. She writes: “Far from apologizing for discarding their things without permission, I would retort, ‘I threw it out for you because you weren’t capable of doing it yourself.’” I only can imagine what would have happened in my home if I had thrown out my brothers’ possessions.

She had trouble deciding what to keep and what to discard. She became so stressed with her failed efforts that she heard a voice telling her, “Look more closely at what is there.” Then she fell asleep on her cluttered floor. That was the moment of her great epiphany. “Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to  choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.”

At that point, with this moment of clarity when she understood that possessions must “spark joy,” her decluttering system evolved and became her theory, the practice that resulted in a successful business and spawned this best-selling book. Some of the techniques that she insists her clients use (with the air of a demented prison matron) include:

  • When sorting through clothing, you should throw every item of clothing on the floor in one big pile.
  • If you decide an item does not bring you joy, you should gently touch each item and thank it for a job well done before discarding it.
  • She is not in favor of hanging most clothing. She recommends folding. “When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes. Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the materials stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies.”
And then she tells us, those of us who are among the uncouth, disgusting sock rollers, about the client who left her “speechless.” That client rolled her socks into balls, not allowing them a chance to rest. “The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest. But if they are folded over, balled up, or tied, they are always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled. They roll about and bump into each other every time the drawer is opened and closed. Any socks and stockings unfortunate enough to get pushed to the back of the drawer are often forgotten for so long that their elastic is stretched beyond recovery. When the owner finally discovers them and puts them on, it will be too late and they will be relegated to the garbage. What treatment could be worse than this?”

What treatment could be worse than this? I feel like I’m being accused of tying puppies to a tree and leaving them in a blizzard with no shelter. Rolling socks and letting them bump into others in the sock drawer is the equivalent of genocide. I don’t feel guilty about the socks. I don’t regret not cleaning out other people’s lockers in junior high school. And I really don’t feel the need to caress my clothing and express my appreciation to that dingy old t-shirt before I throw it in pile for the thrift store.

So in my indignant little snit I close the book at page 92. Throwing the book in the trash might spark joy. My only regret is that I paid good money for this nonsense and I added one more sale to keep this ridiculous book on the New York Times Best Seller List.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The foot of a buffoon

Lord, I am weak. I am a buffoon, a fool. I open my mouth and insert my foot, my calf, and at least half of my kneecap, like some sort of wicked ashtanga pose that no one else does nearly so well. If I knew myself (which, of course, I don’t—apparently no insight at all) I really wouldn’t like the old woman I am. Before attending a social gathering I might look at the guest list. If my name was on the list I would find any excuse to avoid the event.

I’m practicing my excuses:

“I’ve got a wicked hangnail. Sorry, can’t possibly make it on Friday night.”

“Oh, wait. Did I say I could come? How could I have forgotten that I’m supposed to be in Shanghai next week to negotiate the release of those pesky hostages? Sorry, I have to decline your lovely invitation.”

“I think I’m coming down with Ebola. Should be avoiding crowds, especially that miserable woman I can’t stand, so I must decline.”

“To be brutally honest, I won’t be in the same room with her. Disinvite her and I’ll come. So will everyone else.”

It gets complicated. How do I avoid my own idiocy? I stay at home, possibly in bed under the covers. I become a hermit, my house a cave, no iPhone (wait—already did that), no television (that’s already done too), turn off the phone (that’s easy), and remove myself from polite society.

Or the alternate view is that I turn it over to God. Trust Him. Turn over to Him all of my faults, all of my foolishness, frailties, my tendency to see the darkness instead of the light. Remind me once again, Lord, that I have been made in your image and that you did not create me a fool. You forgive my unending failures. Let me see your light in the darkness. Let me live in joy, let my spirit soar in the presence of your unending love.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sin upon sin upon sin

In which I confess a near occasion of sin. I’m having a conversation with a friend. She asks me if I can still remember the seven deadly sins.

JS: Do you remember the seven deadly sins?

Me: Yes, I do. I went to Catholic school. Surely we memorized them along with Baltimore Catechism #2.

JS: Of course you remember them. Tell me what they are. (She’s calling my bluff. I know them.)

Me: Okay.

            (1) Avarice. That’s #1.
            (2) Sloth. See, I told you I remember them.
            (3) Lust. (I’m beginning to slow down.)
            (4) Fortitude.
            (5) Unsportsmanlike behavior.
            (6) Clumsiness. (I’m biting bits of skin off my chapped lips.)
            (7) Failure to comply.

My snide companion smirks. She smiles knowingly, ever the smarty pants.

JS: You’re wrong, of course. Lust is not one of the seven deadly sins.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Beef Bourguignon Soup

Proving my point . . . yes, I am cooking. A house guest is arriving chez moi tomorrow and I need to have food around. For as long as I can remember I've wanted to have incredible food readily available in my kitchen. I want to open the refrigerator, look in the pantry and say, "Oh my, we probably need to eat something. Let me see what I can find. Oh, voila!" It should look effortless and only I will know how I worked to achieve this seemingly effortless and totally delicious food. It's like creating the equivalent of ramen noodles that Julia Child would make.
So I tried yet another soup recipe, this one from a blog I follow called Café Sucré Farine. The blog is in French but I quite adeptly translated it for you. (Lies! Such an intriguing name but the blog is in English and it's really a great blog, full of reliable and delicious recipes.) You can find a link to the blog on the right in my list of favorites.
This recipe was a bit tedious--all that chopping of beef and vegetables into 1/2 inch dice. I'm lazy but I did it. And it was worth it. I cooked the soup exactly according to the recipe and it's fabulous. Not as heavy as traditional Beef Bourguignon but intensely flavored. The beef is so tender, so loveable that it could appear effortless. Only you and I will know.
All credit to the Café Sucré Farine for the recipe and the photo.

Beef Bourguignon Soup
3-4 thick cut slices applewood smoked bacon, approximately 4 ounces
2 tablespoons flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds stew beef meat, cut in ½-inch dice
1 medium onion, chopped in ¼-inch dice
3 medium cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups good quality dry red wine, a little more than ½ of a 750ml bottle
6 cups beef stock
4 medium fresh thyme sprigs
1 large bay leaf
4 tablespoons pesto, prepared or homemade
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 stalks celery, diced into ½-inch pieces
8 medium carrots, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Cook bacon over medium low heat until golden brown and crisp, but not hard. Do not overcook. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Remove half of the bacon drippings and set aside.
Combine flour, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add beef and toss with your hands to coat.
In a large Dutch oven or heavy duty pot, heat bacon fat over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add ½ of the beef and spread out to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook, undisturbed until the beef is golden brown on the underside, about 5-7 minutes. With a large metal spatula, flip beef to uncooked side and cook until second side is golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a clean plate. Add the rest of the bacon fat to pot. Heat until hot, add remaining beef and repeat cooking process as directed above.
Once second batch of beef is browned, return first half of beef to pan. Add onion and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add tomato paste and 1 of cup wine. Bring to a boil then lower heat to maintain a low simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally to loosen brown bits from bottom of pan. (I like to use a thin bladed metal spatula for this.) Simmer until most of the wine is absorbed, about 20 minutes then add the remainder of the wine and simmer until almost completely absorbed .
Add the beef stock, thyme, bay leaf, pesto and brown sugar and return to a boil. Reduce to a low constant simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour or until beef is tender. Remove bay leaf and thyme sprigs.
Add celery, carrots and potatoes, cover loosely and cook till tender, about 20-25 more minutes.
While vegetables are cooking, melt butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. When butter is bubbly, add mushrooms and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally until mushrooms are golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. Add mushrooms and bacon to soup and stir. If soup is too thick add a bit more stock or water. Taste and add salt and freshly ground black pepper, if needed.