Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam and the death penalty

I see lots of people who oppose the death penalty being very silent about the hanging of Saddam Hussein. Why is that?

A Prayer Request for The Velveteen Rabbi

Many of us have enjoyed reading the blog of Rachel, The Velveteen Rabbi. Some of us have had the joy of meeting this extraordinary woman. She has recently come through a stroke and has posted about it. She is very young for this to happen, and it appears to be her second stroke. All of this is described publicly on her own blog. She is a dear person, and I ask you to join me in saying prayers for her health. You can even let her know you are doing so on her blog, if you wish.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

whoooooof..I need a break

Phone call last night from a friend I call "my brother" ..whoops, he cannot join us tonight. His husband, M, has pneumonia, and he himself can barely breathe from asthma and bronchitis. OK. Scale down the plans a bit.

I curled up last night for "just a minute" -- Big Mistake. I woke up at 4 am and told myself -- "It's OK, you need the rest." I can convince myself of anything at 4am. At 8 am I woke up and sprang into work mode, glugging down cold coffee as I put lights in my front window on the branches I bought yesterday. They have some glitter on them, which is now on me. The poinsettias are wilting. Watered them. (Pink and Red).

Am I going to make the cheesecake? Yeah, I promised I would. I have almost no usable counter space in my galley kitchen on a good day. This morning it is completely impossible. The cheesecake is now in the oven, but I had to work like a contortionist to make it. It is the old fashioned Polish kind -- with a shortbread crust, and a filling with cream cheese, cottage cheese and farmers cheese with a layer of pineapple filling between the cheesy stuff and the crust.

Ginger mentioned Finnish borscht -- recipe please? Here is now I make the vegetarian Christmas Eve borscht. Normally I would use a beef stock.For this meal I also make pickled beets, for which I use canned beets. I save the juice from the 2 cans to toss into the borscht, but it would be OK without it.

6 big beets, peeled and cut up
a handful or so of immaculately cleaned beet stems
3 big onions, chunked up
1 huge handful each of dill, chopped and parsley,chopped.
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (more to taste - can balance with sugar if overdone)
6-8 peppercorns
Place in soup kettle with salt to taste.

Boil. Then reduce to simmer for several hours. When beets are done, and soup is cooled, I use a Braun MultiPractik (you might use a blender, but don't overdo) to make a rough soup -- in that I do not 100% liquefy the beets -- there is still some substance to the broth. Warm up the broth and adjust the seasonings. It should taste beety but you should be able to discern a snap of vinegar and a sweetness of dill. Serve hot with a dollop - a big dollop - of sour cream.

OK so what is left in the next 9 hrs -- I have to get stuff into serving plates, finish cooking the cheesecake, make a salad, make the bed, gut the kitchen and clean it, set the table, shower and change -- try to look perky.

Perky s'gonna be tough :)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Report from the beet herder

My hands are about to turn beet-purple because I observe the Polish traditions that Polish families have been observing for over a thousand years. Christmas Eve is called "Wielia" or "Wigilia" (depending upon what part of Poland you are from). It means "Vigil". That evening the family gathers for a "fasting feast" in that there is no meat served. Dished are made that only get made once a year. There are a minimum of 12 courses (one for each apostle.) The table is covered with a white tablecloth that has hay under it (to remind us of the manger). There is an empty place setting set. The legend has it that on Christmas Eve, God walks the streets in the guise of a stranger. Should he knock on *Your* door, He will find a place already set in welcome.

The meal begins with the breaking of a special wafer called an oplatek. Everyone breaks a bit of it with everyone else and wishes them health and love for the new year. Prayers are said. In my home, as I will host non-Christians and non-believers as well, I refer to this as our time to share our fondest wishes, one for our self and one for the world. This has been a profound moment, as we all take it very seriously. Then the head of the house lights a candle and from that light everyone lights their own candle which will burn thru the meal.

The meal...that is what I have been cooking and shopping for for days. There will be vegetarian borscht served hot with sour cream...cabbage and sauerkraut and wild mushroom soup....two kinds of pierogi (like Polish ravioli) one is cheese, the other is sauerkraut and mushroom. Then a plate with hard cooked eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and small cold fish meatballs called "galki" -- our version of gefilte fish, I guess. They take forever to make, and are my favorite item. They are served with a warm sauce made from egg, mustard, sour cream and horseradish. There will be mashed potatoes, a salad with cucumbers, lettuce and onion, a beet salad, baked salmon, almond crusted cod, tilapia fillet with lemon. There will be two kinds of rye bread and Polish Babka (a big puffy bread with almond flavors). Dessert is cold fruit compote made from 8 kinds of dried fruit cooked in fruit juice and served iced cold. And Chrust (bow knots) which are bits of light fried dough drenched in powdered sugar. There are also chocolate covered prunes, and I will make a cheesecake Polish-style which is with a shortbread crust covered with pineapple pie filling into which is poured a sweet cheese mixture of cream, cottage and farmers cheeses,and then baked. Coffee, wines, tea whatever..and then collapse. I will be cooking until late tonight and then more tomorrow. The table gets decked out on Sunday and then the guests arrive.

After the meal, I may go to Midnight mass.

I am done making the sauerkraut soup, the mashed taters(into which has been mashed sour cream, cream cheese and butter -- saints forgive me), and the fruit soup. I bought pierogis from 2 Polish gals who make them to sell. The only baked good I have to bake is the cheesecake (tomorrow). I will get the borscht done tonight and the galki tomorrow. So I am in the midst of it all. It is horrific work and I love it.

I love all the sweat and the worry and the planning and the shopping and lugging and all of it. Why? Because I feel connected to all that has gone before me. I feel connected to millions of Poles, to my heritage, to eons of hope. It's harder at 56 than it was at 36. Now it is cook, take a break -- cook, take a break. But it will all get done.

Well it is time to turn my fingers purple peeling beets (remedy - wash hands in lemon juice and salt to remove color).

I'll keep ya all posted. In the meantime, here are a couple of 14th century Polish Christmas Carols.

This one is a Lullaby for Jesus, my Mom's favorite Click here and then on "melody".

This one, In A Quiet Night was always one of my favorites.

Help, the sugarplums got me!

OK so here I am getting last minute cooking items in the grocery store, which is crammed cheek to jowl with shoppers. The lines are long. The tempers are shorter.

Let me point out that something magical happens to me in moments like this, or in heavy traffic. I have learned how to surrender. I cannot change my circumstances. It is going to take longer than I like, and I can either make it long and miserable or just long. It's all up to me. OK so this is one stress thing I do well. There are plenty others that I am lousy at. But this one, I get. So after a few moments I am serene, and waiting for a woman who seems obsessed with celery. She is in the way of my reaching the Boston lettuce, so I just wait.

She is now shaking a stalk of celery. The auto-mister in the vegetable section must have just spritzed it.

"It's wet," she said.

I nod my head affirmatively. "Yep. Seems so."

"I don't LIKE wet celery. It doesn't keep as long."

"You could dry it at home," I suggest.

"I shouldn't have to," she snaps at me. She pauses. "I mean doesn't that piss you off, too?"

At this point I feel a little like the ghost of Holier Than Thou bit my leg. But I said, smiling, "You know, I was watching a show about world hunger last night. I think millions of dying children would be happy to have that celery. So, I just figure we are pretty damned lucky, all things considered, you know"?

She looked at me as though I had hit her with a wet fish, and stomped off. I don't blame her. I was a little, as my Mom would say, "high falootin'". I had a point to make, but I pretty much broadsided the woman with self-righteousness. Mea culpa for real.

I finished my shopping and got in line. The lines kind of wrapped around each other and it was occasionally hard to tell who was behind whom. I played conductor in a kidding type of way, and got all the ladies in my line to know who was in front of whom. We were all smiling by now.

Then a rich, white-haired lady in a fur jacket and expensive jewelry came up to me. (Why me??) She said "I have had enough! I am leaving! They do not have enough cashiers at these registers!"

I called out in a happy tone, "We'll miss you when you go! Please stay!............ Cling to hope!" People around me chuckled. I looked at the line behind me and said -- "We just can't let this get to us, you know? Life is just tooooo important, too short. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah everyone!"

People greeted me back, smiled, started chatting with each other. The cashier grinned at me. It was a good moment. I walked away whistling.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Family Barrage

OOOooooOOOooooofffff!! I feel as though I have been used as a tackling dummy whenever I watch television over the holidays. Can it be that I am the only living soul without a perfectly intact, multi-generational family that may have had it rough but always, always, always find a a happy resolution so they can have a wonderful holiday together? Who has that kind of family? I am delighted if they do, but deeply skeptical.

I want a holiday special from Hallmark about families that are hurt or broken or imperfect in some major way that nonetheless find a way to move forward in love without necessarily SOLVING anything. I want TV specials about people with nothing under their tree, and no one to put it there. I want us to wake up as a nation and pay attention to the lost among us, the broken, those torn from home, from family.

I want our media to help us see ourselves, to help us see others.

I get an e-zine (which will remain nameless) that has a desire to have readers contribute content -- so they asked "What was the worst Christmas gift you ever got?", and what followed was a list of emails of people complaining about various gifts that had been tasteless, or purchased from a tag sale, or useless. I found myself getting more and more steamed and wrote this note to the editor. If I get a reply I will let you know.

Dear Editor:
I know it is all in fun, but something kind of bothers me about this topic. OK there are husbands who have yet to understand gift-giving choices, or crazy mother-in-laws who have odd taste. But in both cases, someone has loved the recipient enough to give them a gift that they picked out. Have we become so materialistic that we cannot just understand the love behind a gift and move on? Some people have a hard time selecting gifts, some are just better at it than others.
But this Christmas, as every Christmas, there will be people with no gifts, with no one who loves them -- people who would be thankful for a crummy tie or a funny dish. They would just be glad to have someone in the world who thinks about them.
Perhaps if those of us who are of the Christian tradition just focussed more on the reason for this season, what people did or did not buy us would become less important.
Thanks for listening.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Salutations to My Jewish Friends!

Tonight is the 1st night of Hanukkah -- an occasion also called the Festival of Lights. If you do not know much about Hanukkah, I refer you to the link above for a full explanation of this wonderful holiday which celebrates a miracle -- part of the story is that in the midst of war and terrible strife, the lamp in the Temple (which was to never be extinguished) burned for 8 nights on the only oil that remained -- on only enough oil for one night.

To me, one of the beautiful parts of this holiday is that this is so symbolic of the tenacious survival of the Jewish Community in the face of generations upon generations that have sought its death. It is a faith that burns on, bringing its persistant and unquenchable light in the midst of a darkness that threatens again and again to overwhelm it.

May the Light and Blessings of Hanukkah shine on through eternity.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Heifer.Org and Bees and Trees and Ducks and Geese and Llamas and and and

A Midwestern farmer named Dan West was ladling out rations of milk to hungry children during the Spanish Civil War when it hit him.

“These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.”

West, who was serving as a Church of the Brethren relief worker, was forced to decide who would receive the limited rations and who would’t – literally, who would live and who would die. This kind of aid, he knew, would never be enough.

So West returned home to form Heifers for Relief, dedicated to ending hunger permanently by providing families with livestock and training so that they “could be spared the indignity of depending on others to feed their children.”

So are the words found on the Heifer.Org site. Here is how this amazing charity works.

You can buy a cow, or an ox or a hive of bees or a flock of ducks, or a pig, or geese, or a water buffalo, or any number of animals. Some gifts are as low as $20.

Let's say you bought a sheep. Heifer.Org would send it to a qualifying family in dire need, with the following provisions -- that they would allow Heifer.Org to teach them how to care for the animal, and that when the animal had its first child, that child would be given by the owner to some other needy family in the village, along with instructions about its care -- and the same deal -- pass on the first offspring.

In the meantime, the sheep provides wool, milk, and fertilizer. And the family, once struggling to survive, is now in business and helping others.

Many of you may have heard of Heifer.Org -- for some it will be news. It is a great way for families to teach giving to their children, and a great project for a church. I even gave animals away as business gifts one year to people who already had all the business gifts they could ever use.

I am sure that you all give something somewhere. I just love the ideas behind this charity, and I welcome replies from you about other charities you feel really "hit the mark" when it comes to meaningful actions.

So maybe you have a list of charities that you are happy with...Great! But, ...if you are looking for a charity to warm your heart, this might be one to think about. There are so many. I just wanted to hold this one up. Enjoy giving wherever and whenever you do. And please tell me what charities make you feel the best .....

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Advent Journey

Advent has always felt like a 'summing up' time for me. For many years I wrote an Advent letter to a friend who was a pastor of a small church who would use my letter as a Christmas Eve sermon. As she is no longer serving a congregation, I will post this year's Advent Missive here.

--- There is No Map to Bethlehem ---

If I were to imagine this year as a long walk to Bethlehem, I would have to say that it has been full of twists and turns that I had not imagined. I began this year three weeks after the death of my father. He was my last living relative. I have even researched our family name, and I appear to be the last person in the world carrying it (as my middle name, followed by my ex-husband's name). I have become the last leaf in the entire world on my family's once verdant bough.

It is odd. It is a bit like waking up in an empty house that used to be furnished. It is certainly fraught with moments when I try to make sense of the impossible. I suspect I will be trying to make sense of this for a long time.

Once, walking with me on this life journey to Bethlehem were scores of aunts and uncles and cousins and parents and in-laws. The annual symbolic journey was full of laughter and quibbles, outright arguments, times of deep joy, partings of the way, tearful reunions and pledges of love. Some family members were lovely folk, pleasures to know and meet -- some were difficult people, full of scorn and derision. It was a motley tribe. But it was my tribe.

My friends are the remainder of the tribe. So there we are, there on the horizon, all hunkered down in the night wind, a group getting smaller and smaller. There we are, near Bethlehem this year with all the other nomads, seeking what will pass as a home, a place to belong -- if only for a while.

I have spent time this year looking for a house to buy in my little old home town in Massachusetts. I will be going into business with a childhood friend. And I am doing what anyone lost in a desert does if they can -- I am trying to find home.

Home without family is a radical redefinition of tribe. One of the first things I felt when my final relative died was homeless.

I then picked up the paper and read about global homelessness, and saw articles about Darfur. I read about how Katerina survivors still are largely homeless. That is real homelessness. Not my trivial navel-gazing. In America and western Europe we can insulate ourselves from the reality of an agonized world.

So here we all are in this Advent, looking back through time as the shepherds get the news that there is great joy awaiting them beneath the star, if only they will walk to it. The mists of time and memory swirl as we look at them herding their sheep together, deciding who will stay and who will go onward -- being a tribe and shouldering all the responsibilities that tribes do.

And in Darfur, babies are dying while you read this, their precious lives going out like stars suddenly vanishing from the sky. And in Bethlehem there is the sound of gunfire. And Baghdad is awash in blood. In New Orleans the wreckage still stands, and families still are lost, becoming nomads because no one sees them as part of their tribe. One third of Africa is HIV positive. Millions of women a year are still victims of genital mutilation.

Would those angels dare crease the skies with song today? Would they dare speak of tidings of great joy? Would they have the sheer audacity to call anyone forward to a journey?

I think they are calling.

I think they call from the faces of dying babies and starving people. They call from the faces of the imprisoned and persecuted. They call us this year from the face of the elderly woman who is alone, and frightened and hungry. They call us from the war torn sands, the dying rain forest, the disenfranchised and marginalized, the diminished glaciers.

They call us away from our trivial worry, into the huge gaping vortex of global need and suffering. They call us to find our way to the manger, to the Holy Family, to the center of our Holy Tribe so that we may understand what it is that we must do - so that we see in the depths of the Infant's eyes, the suffering of the world that we are called to comfort. It is there that we are given the gift of being able to see beyond ourselves into the needs of others.

It is there, beneath the rough hewn beams, on a chilly night in the middle of a desert, that the Star of Bethlehem burns bright, burns in the hope that we will find our way to the Holy Family, OUR family, the family that transcends blood family and is the Sacred Tribe to which we all belong. It is there we will find the call to go out, and the hope that we can matter, that we can make a difference.

My wish for us all this year is an expanded idea of our tribes, a broader view of whom it is for which we are responsible in this world. Let the divisive parts of the borders of family and nation, religion and politics collapse.

We know, as we look into the eyes of the Holy Infant that we are called to this place of Infinite Loving and Compassion. We are called out from what troubles us in life into the command to love. Look up from His eyes and look around you. There we all are. I am standing next to you. The world stands there, not as strangers, not all as believers, but all as family. What someone feels about the Christ child is not what makes them family. That God loves us all is what makes us family. There is, after all, nothing in this world as strong as love. Not even death.

Let us be bold in our loving, hopeful, steadfast and triumphant. Let us sing with the angels into the darkest corners of the globe that we bring tidings of joy, and hope and peace. That we will not tolerate war, persecution, hunger and poverty and disease,and that the final word, the only word, is His word to us --- "Love".

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The 4 Faces of God

Baylor University (with Gallup, the noted polling organization) has completed a study called "American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights into the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the United States" in which they examined how people percieved God. A fascinating article about that can be found here.

They categorized the four views of God (according to the above source) as:
— Authoritarian God: Individuals who follow this model feel God is highly involved in their personal lives and world affairs, they give the Deity credit for their decision-making, and they feel God is angry and meting out punishment to the wicked.

— Benevolent God: These believers also think God is very active in their daily life, just not as wrathful. They believe Benevolent God is mostly a force for positive influence in the world, and reluctant to condemn individuals.

— Critical God: The faithful of this subset believe God is not meddling in world affairs but is nonetheless looking on in disapproval. These people tend to believe that God's displeasure will be felt in another life, and that divine justice is not of this world.

— Distant God: Individuals in this group think that Distant God is not active in humanities affairs, and is not especially angry, either. Believers consider the Deity more of a cosmic force who sets the laws of nature into motion.

Although this study was broader than just Christians, it is easy to see why Christian liberals and Christian conservatives cross swords. They may in fact believe in entirely different images of God. Christianity Today also has an interesting summary of the results, for example "About 20 percent of Americans have read one of the 12 Left Behind novels or megachurch pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. Nearly 50 percent have seen Mel Gibson's feature film, The Passion of the Christ. About 40 percent say that born-again or Bible-believing best describes their religious identity."

This study will also be done in 2007 so that comparisons can be made.

The different natures of God are not nuanced, they are dramatic. It has me despairing that we will ever be able to find a way to meaningful dialogue. Still, miracles happen.

Commentary from Baylor: bottom of page links to a pdf of the report

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

House Hunting and Circuses

I have been a busy gal. The local realtor in Mass. has given me access to the computer Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for properties within my geographic and price preferences. This means that whenever I want I can access a site that has full descriptions and pictures of houses that might meet my needs, and I can delete any that do not -- thereby keeping a kind of "running interest list" that I can return to over and again and obsess about. I have already made mincemeat of my first list. I went to Massachusetts and did a 'drive-by' for about 10 places and ruled out most on the list. It seems that when a real estate agent is photographing a property, they do not photograph any 'warts'.

For example, there was a charming converted country brick schoolhouse, tons of floorspace, open plan, great views, added second floor, fenced yard, fireplace, solar assisted heat, hardwood floors -- dreamy by all estimates. Of course the exterior photo failed to show an abandoned mill factory on the immediate left and rundown -- almost slum-like -- old mill houses on the immediate right. And, the place was almost ON the noisy road with very little frontage lawn.

Or the home that looked lovely from the outside, but inside was dark and dreary even though the day was sunny and bright. It just felt depressing and dreary.

So it is an adventure, and a new one for me as a first time home-owner-to-be. My new list of places to check out is ample enough now to mean a few more 'drive-by' sessions are in order. And I have called the realtor to schedule some in-home look-sees.

This entire process is almost dream-like. I find myself envisioning the kind of life I want, and looking for a home to wrap around it. There is a sense of unreality and a sense of hightened reality all at the same time.

I find that I am absolute in wanting a dining room. There is an urge to entertain dinner guests more often - to have that wider "tribal" sense possible in my new home - and I find I am absolute about wanting 3 bedrooms -- one for me, one for an office and one for guests. This house is already destined in my head to be full of people coming and going --- which suits me wonderfully, and which is what I miss in my current space. I also yearn for an eat-in cozy kitchen so that friends can stop by for coffee on their way here or there. It is a small New England town, where that kind of life is actual.

And of course a fenced yard for the inevitable pooch is a must.

I am having to find the courage to imagine my life and live my way toward it. But, I haven't been praying much about it -- almost like being a tiny child having some secret project that you do not want to show Mommy until it is well-along. What a doofus I am. My guess is He has already figured me out -- ya think?

In fact, it sometimes feels that I am in His Divine Circus -- "Watch The Lady Shot From the Holy Cannon" -- about to be flung into my own future. "Step Right Up. Getcher Tickets Here!"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tribes, changing

Well, since the holidays are upon us with the full onslaught of media and decorated cities, towns, and hamlets, it cannot help but bring family to the forefront. Every TV movie I watch or click through is about families, uniting, reuniting, celebrating traditions, overcoming obstacles, redefining themselves only to end up whole.

S'nice work if you can get it.

Most of the families I know, however loving they might be, have some pretty major rips in the familial ozone layer somewhere. That is why we all have friends. And pets. And some of us even build families of our own.

My own family (and if you have been reading my blog for more than a day or so you know that my whole family is dead and that I am divorced without children) anyway, my own family was full of fractures and fissures, yet around the holiday time I look back and selectively pluck a bit from here and a bit from there and an armload from somewhere else, and manage to reconstruct in my imagination a family where every holiday meal was a picture of affection and serenity. Then of course I get to feel bad because that isn't around anymore.

Well, DUH.

We need more than family in our lives. We need a whole tribe. The family carries the history entire, the legacy material, the stories that will be told again and again, the memories of us before we had language, the sense of an "US" moving through time into eternity. Families are the wellspring of immortality.

Then there are friends, who see us outside of that continuum as uniquely ourselves, unbound by familial expectation, defined by our own limitations. Friends, who can hear our worst stories without having to connect them to blame or responsibility. They are the other "US" moving through time, the satellites revolving around each other and others.

Friends and family = tribe. And whenever a part of that goes missing a unique wailing issues forth. A keening for what was lost.

I have felt very self-centered, and have castigated myself for being very unappreciative that I would dare to feel alone when I have so many friends who are so dear and loving. I bless them daily. But their part in the Tribe is different than the role family had.

I can accept my own grief when I see it as grief for a big shift in the overall Tribe. That helps me see more what I need to do, more where the needs are that I want to fill. And I don't feel like I am insulting my friends by feeling that part of me really is alone now.

It has been hard to hear people say "Oh, but you have friends!" as though facing the absence of family is in some way a denigration of the friendships in my life. I might point out that the people who say that have abundant families and would probably not give me one of their children, or give up a parent so I could have one, you know? I am in a unique spot. I'll fumble my way through it, and will do the grief work I need to get to the other side of it, but accepting the legitimacy of my own position is a big start.

Of course, weaving through all of this is the fact that I have had the company of God in this -- who reminds me that although it is not simple, it is a blip on my life's oscilloscope, and that there is abundance here and at the other side of it as well. God, who never lets me forget the world is full, and that any painful fantasy about emptiness is my own doing, and neither His will nor my reality.

And so I plod on with abundant hope through this holiday slog, figuring it out as I go along, me and my Tribe.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I Love Irony

I was watching a TV show the other day on which an American married couple was interviewed. They were also lesbians. One of them had been a man before they met. They live in a state that does not recognize gay marriage. Their state is also so hostile to transgendered people that the state defines a person's sex as whatever sex they were born with. So the state considers them male and female and could not deny them a full marriage and all the rights thereto, despite the fact that they are a gay couple. I love stories like this. Stories that show no matter how many pieces of duct tape you slap over the place where the fresh air is getting in, that fresh air prevails.
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