Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Wild and Precious Life...a New Year

Today, a friend reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day", which closes with these lines:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

With what better words and thoughts can we begin a new year? with the reminders of the beauty and wonder of the natural world of which we are a part (though far too often we set ourselves apart from it); reminders of the fragility of life; reminders about the importance of living that life to the fullest.

As I am a person of words, I could write many more of them, confront you with many more thoughts, but I prefer, on this brink of a new year, to permit Nature  to speak for itself, astounding us with the amazing world in which we live and with the incredible gift of life itself. And with these photos, I am wishing you a very Happy New Year, a year of decision and determination as you answer the poet's question:
  What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Weather- or Not...

Indoors, my house still looks like this...full Christmas regalia, with the mantle graced by my many Santas and Santa pillows on every chair. And so it will stay for the Twelve Days of Christmas, in spite of neighbors hastening to remove their Christmas trees which will soon be lining the curbs in the streets all around my home, while I prolong this holiday which I so dearly love, the reminder of Love taking flesh and dwelling among and in us as at no other time of the year.

The outdoors, however, tell a different story, as in my front garden, daffodils are about 6 inches tall, cherry trees are in flower here and there in the neighborhood, and irises are a-bloom on Main Street. No sign of winter fact, these more-than-a-few hints of springtime are the result of our schizophrenic December temperatures here in the Piedmont of NC, with many days in the upper 60s and a hard freeze yet to happen. Trees everywhere are budding as Nature seems to be under the impression that springtime is approaching, only to be fooled and foiled if and when wintery weather actually happens.

Kind of reminds me of human life in general, though. We go along easily, everything copacetic and seemingly on an even keel, lulling us into a false sense of security, the perpetual springtime. And when we least expect it or are unprepared for it, we are knocked off our feet by a "happening" which nips our complacency in the bud, reminding us that life is not all springtime, not all moonlight and roses, but wintery and dark and filled with plenty of thorns.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not a pessimist, just waiting for the hard things to happen. I am simply a realist who has lived long enough to know how easy it is to be lulled into a false sense of security and simplicity about life, only to be drawn up short when the other shoe falls. (Full of metaphors this morning, aren't I?) But Nature can teach us a valuable lesson here. When the worst happens in the natural world, when unexpected frosts or storms hit, when the usual patterns of life are disrupted, Nature goes on, relying on all of the resources developed over eons of time, certain that new life, new growth, new blooms will come again, in spite of the setbacks, in spite of the disruptions, in spite of the fact that life is not unfolding as planned.

And so, on this almost-wintery-feeling morning (I actually had to scrape my windshield) I am wishing for you a day filled with resiliance and the ability to adapt to whatever comes your way. I am wishing for you the wisdom and strength to deal with whatever life holds in store and unfolds before you this day. I am wishing for you eyes wide open and arms wide open and a heart wide open to welcome and receive the gift of these next twenty-four hours of living, knowing always that you are loved. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

One Friday in December...

I love to ride the train, and it was with great pleasure that, on a  recent nippy Friday December morning,  I boarded the Amtrak train at the station in High Point for the 75-minute ride to Charlotte. Our beautifully-restored depot is a delight to the eye and offers waiting room comfort to passengers, and the coaches are both clean and comfortable. No, I am not being paid by Amtrak; I have loved train travel since I was a child and find it both relaxing and pleasurable,
both of which driving to Charlotte has ceased to be. I read, relaxed, and enjoyed the scenery, with no worries about traffic or parking or any of the annoyances which all too often mark any automobile trip these days. After arriving in Charlotte, I crossed Tryon Street where I very quickly was able to board a bus into the uptown, for the amazing price of 85 cents when I produced my Medicare card.

Since I was meeting friends for lunch and I was early, I headed for the Belk building and Founders Hall, where I knew I would find both a bookstore and a Caribou Coffee shop in order to while away the time pleasurably. Finding nothing new of interest in the bookstore, I headed to the coffee shop for a Soy Chai Latte and found myself a quite corner table behind the fireplace where I proceeded to make the following entry in my pocket journal:

In Charlotte, people-watching in the Belk Building at Caribou front of me is a man in a brown chair doing Sudoku... another opposite reading on a Kindle, sunglasses atop his head, coffee on the table before him. In the corner, a young man (a student, perhaps) is working on his laptop, as all the while his head is bobbing to the music coming through his headphones. On the other side of the fireplace, two twenty-something women are conversing, sharing frequent laughter. Christmas muzak sounds in the background as people ascend and descend distant escalators while others stream steadily by down the corridor in front of me. Lots of moms with little ones in strollers pass by, as well as an occasional dad bearing a toddler in his arms. Is this place always so busy, I wonder or is the traffic a sign of the season? And are the people lingering here in the coffee shop out of work or night shift workers or among the idle rich?

A lovely elderly black woman walks by, leaning on a cane, her face wreathed in white curls...what is her story, I wonder- for each of these people has a story to tell, each as unique as a fingerprint, as distinctive as an ear whorl. How I want to ask, to enter- just for a moment or two- into the lives of these people I see, to create an intersection between their lives and mine, in recognition of our shared humanity, our all-too-often-unacknowledged connectedness.

An Asian woman in a beautiful red coat passes, the reading man leaves, and I am aware that it is almost time to meet my friends for lunch... I am eager to reconnect with them, even as I rue opportunities lost, contacts life goes on in our busy, impersonal world, decorated in Christmas finery...and I try hard to find the Babe in the manger in the faces around me. 


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holiday Greetings...from My Heart to Yours

dear friends and family, far and near. As the year draws to a close, as the natural world here in North Carolina prepares itself for winter’s restorative rest, as the days grow shorter and the path of the sun moves to the southern sky, I am thinking of each and all of you with much love and warm memories.

A five-week journey to East Africa accompanied by my dear friend, Mae Miner, working with the founder of The Nyanya Project, Mary Martin Niepold, in behalf of African grandmothers, was the high point of my year…a different kind of ministry.
Daily life has been filled with the joy of spending time with my children and the grands (Lindsay, 23; Felicia, 15; Jack & Jamie, 12; Callie, 10; Nickolis, 9; Mattie, 7; Jannie, 6; and Rollin, 3); lunching with friends or entertaining friends here (I still LOVE to cook for company); being part of a wonderful monthly women’s discussion group, Fresh Bread; serving The Arbor Lutheran Church as interim pastor; practicing yoga in a Prayerful Yoga class weekly; keeping up with my blog, ; and reading, reading, reading (80 books so far this year).

And recently, out of the blue, a new job came my way, Chaplain at the Lutheran Home in Winston-Salem, NC, caring for both residents and staff for twenty hours each week…God calling me in new directions, opening new doors, challenging me to take a risk and step out in faith.

As I look toward 2012 and my seventieth birthday (I know, I have a hard time believing it, too), I am increasingly thankful for good health, the continual blessing of a sharp intellect, un-waning curiosity, and an ever-widening faith perspective.

May your holiday be filled with peace & joy. May your new year be graced with wisdom & courage. May you know the blessing of family & friends & faith. And may you know that you are loved.

Love, Linda

thin places
“Thin places”, according to the Celts,
are where the world of here & now
rubs close to the eternal…where
visible & invisible worlds come into
near proximity…thresholds to
      divinity in our human world.
Christmas celebrates
the thin place that is
                the Christ…
     the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth
     as the conduit for the Spirit
      of the Divine to become manifest
      fully & completely-
inviting each & all of us to become
     thin places for one another…
God fleshed out again & again &
      yet again in us…
divinity shining through
humanity, manifest in
     who & how we are to one another…
                                  to our planet…
                                  to the least of these,
     as we kneel at the manger…
     as we live in our world.

EXTREME Baking...

"Be prepared for 'EXTREME Baking' ", my cousin, Cheryl, warned me when I suggested, back in September, that I come up for a weekend to learn to make nut rolls with her mom, and invited her to be part of the baking party.

Nut rolls are a German- or perhaps Austrian or Hungarian delicacy, usually made only at Christmas since the preparation is labor-intensive...dozens of walnuts ground for the filling which is mixed by hand...the five-step mixing of the pastry layer, followed by a first rising, rolling, filling, and a second rising. Only then are the lovely, fat rolls ready for baking. Oh, and did I mention brushing the tops with beaten egg mixed with a bit of sugar, to create a shiny glaze?

I have no idea where the recipe originated...I don't know that anyone does. But in the small, ethnic steel-town where I spent my childhood in Pennsylvania, all of the women baked them at the holidays: Germans, Austrians, Croatians, Serbians, Hungarians...but you get the picture. And I spent many a happy hour with my maternal grandmother, Mom-mom, in the church kitchen where a crew of wonderful German omas baked nut rolls to sell in the community to raise money for their German Lutheran church. How I remember the redolent odors of that kitchen...the women in their print house-dresses and aprons and sensible black shoes...the laughter and cameraderie among them and their kindness to the little blond girl who watched with wide eyes, knowing that she would soon be given a taste of the heavenly pastry.

Is it any wonder, then, that I decided that I needed to learn to make this delicacy? Though both my grandmother and my mother had always baked them, though I had assisted both of them with other baking throughout the years, I had never been part of the "nut roll experience", perhaps because they thought I wouldn't be careful enough, precise enough- and both Mom and Mom-mom were nothing if not perfectionists about their nut rolls, making them precisely the same size, rolling them just so. And so I had come to the advanced age of sixty-nine without acquiring the skill- as skill it indeed is- of preparing nut rolls for Christmas. Hence, the EXTREME Baking enterprise.

On the day after Thanksgiving, I headed north to stay with my Aunt Jean, the nut roll maven in our family. She had done much of the preparation ahead of time: grinding the walnuts, measuring the flour into plastic bags (we were going to bake four triple batches, you see!), acquiring the pounds of butter (did I mention that nut rolls are not lo-cal?), and in general, having all in readiness for the baking. And so, on Friday evening, following Jean's instructions, I mixed up the filling-by hand-in two batches in her huge stainless steel bowl: walnuts, evaporated milk, beaten egg whites, sugar, and honey (yes, both...the honey helps keep the filling moist as well as adding see what I mean about the confection not being no-cal). We ended up with pounds and pounds of filling, and after setting out the butter and eggs for the pastry to come to room temperature for the morning, it was off to bed. (Might I add that all of this mixing,etc. followed an eight-hour drive for me and tired was a gross understatement.)

Saturday morning we both slept in a bit and I was downstairs, ready to work, wearing my EXTREME Baking red apron, by 8a.m. A phone call from my cousin informed us that she would be a bit late but that she would surely arrive by nine or so, and in anticipation of that, Jean resumed her instructions, this time talking me step-by-step through the dough-making process. Using her commercial-grade electric mixer, I proceeded to mix four batches of yeast dough, the pungent yeasty odor making the kitchen fragrant and filling my mind with memories of Christmases long-past. The mixing of each batch was followed by hand-kneading to be sure all the flour was well-mixed into the dough, forming that batch into 8 balls and placing them in Jean's large baking pans, covering them with kitchen towel and placing them near the warm over to rise.

By that time, Cheryl had arrived and we set up two pastry board for the rolling, one on the counter and the other on the kitche table. Yes, indeed...this WAS baking in the extreme. Jean showed me how to take one ball of dough and shape it a bit by hand, heavily flour the board, and roll the ball into a rectangle; then spread the filling over the entire surface and carefully, with the flat surface of my fingers, roll the entire thing into a long roll and, wriggling my fingers under it, place it in another of Jean's special pans. Six rolls later, the pan was covered with a cloth and again permitted to rise. Only then were the prepared pans placed in the oven for baking.

Now, I realize I have probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about making nut rolls...but I wanted you to understand the labor-intensity of this endeavor, as well as the deeply special experience it was for me to be doing something the women in my family had done for generations. And after the baking and the cooling, Aunt Jean, placing each roll on a specially-cut cardboard base, wrapped it in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil, and sealed it with a sticker (printed out earlier that week) which indicated "Nut Roll" and the date. (These confections freeze beautifully and last for a long, long time in the freezer, if wrapped correctly.)

Deep breath...sigh, sigh...can I sit down now? Late in the afternoon, my other cousin, Sandy, came over and we all sat down to cups of tea and slices of nut roll...after all, we had to make sure they tasted okay, didn't we? I had been on my feet for nearly seven hours by this time and wasn't sure if I would be able to get up from the chair again...but there they were, on the table in all their golden-brown glory: sixty- yes, you heard me right- SIXTY beautiful, fragrant nut rolls, to be shared with family and friends as gifts this holiday season. EXTREMELY satisfying, I can assure you, and a lovely way to merge holidays past and present in my mind and heart. Thank you, Jean. Thank you, Cheryl. Shall we do it again next year?

Aunt Jean and her apprentice

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ending November...Beginning December

And suddenly it's December, the last month of the year. In 31 all-too-short days, 2011 will draw to a close, the calendar page will turn, and we will be teetering on the brink of a new year, 2012.

I remember well being in my teens and wondering if I would still be alive at the turn of the century. After all, I would be the advanced age of fifty-eight when that happened. Yet, here I am, happily chugging along toward seventy, and doing quite well, thank you very much. My teen-aged self would undoubtedly be quite surprised.

Returned yesterday afternoon from a six-day trip to Pennsylvania, to reconnect with family and friends there: 2 days with my Aunt Jean in Steelton for "extreme baking" (more about this later), along with my cousin, Cheryl, and including a trip to Schmidts' butchershop for their amazing German sausage; an afternoon, evening, and overnight with my oldest friend, Diane, and her husband, Bob, in Hummelstown. (She is actually two years my junior but I have known her since she was born...guess I should say we share my longest friendship.) Then it was off to York, my birthplace and home for most of my first thirty-eight years, for a whirlwind of base-touching: lunch with Lyn, whom I met about 38 years ago when we were both in nursing at Memorial Hospital; dinner and the evening with Becky and Bob, Becky being my friend since we met in eighth grade at Central High School; and on Tuesday, a long lunch with my cousin, Harry, and his dear wife, Julie. (Pant, pant, pant- deep breath.)

Add in a quick early-evening jaunt to Mack's ice cream in Hellam, seeing there a huge rainbow when the setting sun shone through briefly in the midst of a heavy downpour, a brief stop at BAM (Books-a-Million's new logo), and the return to my motel room was most welcome. Early to bed, early to rise, in order to beat the Route 30 traffic out of York, 'round the squares in Abbottstown, New Oxford, and Gettysburg (all beautifully dressed in their holiday finery), to pick up I-81 in Chambersburg. Then south, south, south, and a bit west through Maryland, the tip of West Virginia, and Virginia. (Actually saw gas for $2.99 at one place south of Winchester! Too bad I had already gassed up earlier.)

As I traveled south, through the winter-barren but still-beautiful countryside of Virginia and North Carolina, my heart was filled to overflowing with the glory of the world around me, with my ability to travel on my own, with the wonders of books-on-CD, with the joy of simple things like stopping for coffee and watching the changing clouds and seeing snow on the distant mountaintops.

And now I am safely home, where I reveled in my own bed last night (nothing else feels quite like one's own bed, does it?) and slept late this morning. Much, much, much to do today as I plunge into December with all it holds- but I am pausing to take a deep breath and send it out to all of you with my wishes for a glorious new day, new month, waning old year. Walk softly, slowly, gently on this December 1st...hold gratitude in your heart...and know you are loved. love, linda