Tuesday, January 31, 2006

breakfast cookies and care

Last week I had a small catering gig for a gathering of the In-Care students for the Southeast Area of the Mass. Conference of the UCC. In-care students are our seminarians. Various congregations take them "in-care," which means we provide support and encouragement. If you are going to support and encourage people, you gotta feed 'em. Last year the job fell my way because we had to have it at our house at the last minute and I ended up being the cook. This year they hired me on purpose.

They wanted some sort of pick up food for breakfast, along with coffee and fruit. I made the World's Easiest Monkey Bread, but was also on the lookout for something with a little more flair. Thanks to Cookin' in the 'Cuse, a great food blog I found through my connection to Real Live Preacher, I found a recipe for Breakfast Cookies, which I adapted a bit for my purposes. (You can read her recipe here.)

For lunch I made an Israeli couscous dish, a winter salad, pumpkin apple soup, and this lentil vegetable soup.

While I cooked and cleaned, they met. I could not hear specifics from the room, but I could pick up a vibe. What I loved most was, as the day wore on, the level of laughter increased.


Monday, January 30, 2006

this is me in grade nine, baby

My friend, Mia, responded to my post, "re-member, then" with this comment and quote:

Your post made me think of a James Hillman quote - "our lives my be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods".
James Hillman is a new name to me, but he's on to something.

Mia and I were a part of a group of folks who spent time growing up in Nairobi, Kenya and all attending Nairobi International School (now International School of Kenya). All of us are what they call "third culture kids": people born in one culture, raised in another, and belonging to neither. Two years ago, thanks to the tenacity of our friend Martha, we all got back together after not seeing each other for thirty years. The reunion was full of healing for us all. I think it was one of the few times any of us had been in a room where everyone understood us. We are getting back together again this summer.

The over arching self-image of my adolescence that lives in my memory is I was a short, fat kid. Now, as an almost-fifty-year-old who struggles with my weight, I have often viewed my battle of the bulge as a life long war because I've always been chubby. I grew six inches taller in college, but I never got over feeling fat.

After we got back from our gathering, Martha sent my a picture she took of me in ninth grade. I remember her taking the picture. I am sitting in an armchair with one leg crossed over the other. I have on a sports coat, a pink shirt, a turquoise patterned tie that's about nine inches wide across the bottom, and red socks.

Here's the thing: I'm not fat in the picture.

It's right there in all it's Polaroid reality. I was a normal sized kid. I was short, but I wasn't fat. Yet, somehow, the way I learned to imagine my childhood led me to grow up with a different picture in my brain.

In tenth grade, my family was on leave from the mission field and we lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I went to Paschal High School, my sixth school in ten years. My youth minister at University Baptist Church was a guy named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: athletic, tall, handsome, together. I was (felt) short, fat, and completely out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed at 3362 Cordone, looking in the mirror, and wishing I could be anyone else but me.

One day after school, I went by the church to see Steve. He called me "Flash." He suggested we go out and shoot some baskets on the church parking lot. I am the world's worst basketball player, but I went with him. One of my lame two-handed set shots missed everything and the ball rolled across the parking lot.

"You get it," I said disgustedly.

I can still see him walking across, picking up the ball, and walking back toward me with the ball on his hip. He put his arm around me and we turned to go back to his office.

"Flash," he said, "One day Trish and I are going to have a kid and I hope he turns out exactly like you.

That day, Steve gave me a way to imagine myself that helped me live through high school.

One of the images of my childhood that is hardest for me to shake is that love is earned. Feeling worthy of love has never come easily for me. As I have said before, one of my deepest fears is that I don't belong. In both my head and heart, I can hear the voices of those, from Ginger on down the line, who love me deeply. I know I am loved and the imaginings of my childhood that Hillman points to tell me it's all conditional because I haven't done enough.

Then someone else left another e.e. cummings poem in the comments:
out of the lie of no
rises the truth of yes
I wonder sometimes what might have happened if Steve had not said that to me. But he did. In that brief moment on the parking lot the truth of yes found a foothold and hung on for my dear life, giving me a chance to grow into a different image of grace, love, and hope.

This past weekend marked seventeen years since Ginger and I met. I have been with her longer than I lived in Africa. I know most of what I know of grace and love because of the way she incarnates it to me. If life was about getting what you earned, I would not be lying next to her at night. She continues to give me new eyes with which to see myself.

And I need her to keep doing it because, Polaroid or no, the fat kid just won't go away.


Friday, January 27, 2006

building a mystery

One of my memories of teenage trips to Six Flags Over Texas was bridge made of barrels across some fabricated pond. The barrels meant each step had its own tilt: the walk was not straight or easy, but at least you had ropes along the sides to hang on to.

The last couple of weeks have felt like that barrel bridge for both Ginger and me, each day tilting a different direction than the one before, though the side ropes have not been as apparent. Most of the reason for the random pitch has been my life: there’s a lot going on. We are not deathly ill or facing a major life crisis. I have not felt significantly depressed in some time now, thank God. But the day in, day out, who’s in the hospital, what needs to get done, I have three meetings tonight circumstances of our existence, it all adds up.

On top of all that, instead of a New England winter we have been dealing with a bizarre progression of days where one is 40 to 50 degrees warmer (or colder) than the one before. It’s just hard to keep balanced.

In the midst of all the tossing about, I feel these are very pregnant days, if I might change metaphors. We’ve been busy before. We’ve had weeks with more on our plates than we know how to eat; this is not that. As Bill said to Ted (or the other way round), “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Something is happening. Something is growing. Something is about to be born.

That’s about the best I can do.

I am walking in the dark, but a different kind of dark -- not the bottomless pit, but the unfathomable mystery.

My spiritual director, Ken, offered me this e. e. cummings poem this week during our time together:

(no time ago)

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus) my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed (as

close as i'm to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

One of Ginger’s favorite quotes is from Nietzsche: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” (If he’s right, we’re about to give birth to a whole freaking galaxy!) I do love the sentiment. When life swirls around us, we can see it – or perhaps we can decide to see it – as a destructive force or as creative energy waiting to take form.

Five years ago next week was when my depression first ambushed me in a way I could name. Actually, my English Dept. Director at Winchester named it first. I lost 150 essays and she pulled me into her office and said, “We need to talk about what we are going to do about your depression.”

I am ever grateful for her courageous act of friendship.

Five years later, January feels different: energetic, chaotic, hopeful. Things are changing. The plates are shifting. The Spirit is stirring the waters.

I can’t name it much more than that. For now, I’m content to tumble along in the swirl of the mystery, keeping me eye out, of course, for any red shoes along the way.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

re-member, then

When I was growing up, Saturdays meant Taco Salad for lunch.

My mother made this wonderful mixture of beef, beans, lettuce, cheese, and Fritos that may have mostly consisted of opening cans and packages, but tasted like home. We never got tired of Saturday lunches. It is still one of my favorite meals. I don't make it every week (more like every couple of months), but even for Ginger and I it connects to something beyond the ingredients in the bowl.

But what?

My mother is the other cook in my family of origin. We still swap recipes and remind each other of meals gone by. How she re-members those Saturdays (how she puts the pieces of our family back together) is not the same as my re-membrance. For her, a bowl of Taco Salad recreates the memory of a family once closely knit and now scattered to the winds. I recall a family that ate and laughed together but one who did not know much how to really tell each other who we were.

Let me rephrase: I did not know how to tell them who I was.

Saturday lunch bounced back into my consciousness because I've been reading Suffer the Little Voices, a new book of poems by my friend, Nathan Brown, published by Greystone Press. (Read a review of his first book of poetry here.) This morning at breakfast, I read "Soul Savers":

I gaze back at the pain and
disdain we felt for "the lost"
in covert planning sessions
we called Bible studies. Then

I turn my head away with a jerk
from the sight of my old church
in a weak and strained attempt
to push down the past stupidity ---

a stupidity constructed through
millenniums of bad dogma,
which was "not busy livin' . . .
just busy dyin'," as Bob Dylan,

a theologian of different cut,
tried to tell us in the years
we couldn't look past his
prophetic, soul-felt addictions.

My sighs and shaking head
signify the inevitable departure
from that, from them, not Jesus
[still my favorite hippie socialist

and, yes, Son of God].
But, I do realize, I'm afraid,
that in the nouns and verbs
I now choose to express myself,

I've certainly lost them,
the "they" I once was.
And I'm struck with the fear
that now. . . it's me they're after.
Like Nathan, I grew up Southern Baptist. After years of watching the denomination implode and finding my faith community elsewhere, I am surprised how often I go back to those days to re-member them with something other than anger or disdain. I put back together the memories that helped shape me and taught me how to live in the grace of God, much like I go back for another helping of Taco Salad. Though it is not a place I could stay, it is where I am from.

The choice, it seems, is between re-membering my life -- putting the pieces together in some meaningful fashion -- and dis-membering it -- cutting off the sections that aren't comfortable, I'm not proud of, or embarrass me. But I don't want to live as an emotional or spiritual amputee. I need all of my days stacked up to help me remember who I am.

In my weaker moments, I look back on my family days and think, "They didn't understand I was not like them." Yet, I am "them." To say so doesn't mean buying into an idealized memory of what family was; we were not perfect, but we did make memories that marked each other. We are family.

I have the recipes to prove it.


PS -- If you would like to get a hold of Nathan's books, you can contact him at nub@ou.edu. Tell him I sent you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

how was your day?

My friend Patty sent me a link to an article in the Boston Globe which began:

"Last year around this time, a Cardiff University psychologist named Dr. Cliff Arnall scored some publicity with his declaration that January 24 is the most depressing day of the year."
Alex Beam's wonderful column went on to describe the mathematical formula this guy had configured to deduce today was going to be The Suckiest Day of the Year. Beam had an alternate formula designed to bring a different result: read the Globe, ditch work, watch rerun of the Daily Show and the last half of the Law & Order rerun, take a nap and eat at Anna's Taqueria.

Our local NPR station annouced this morning the Globe was taking a chain saw to their staff and gutting the paper to try and save money. I hope Alex springs for the grande burrito.

Today was a good day for me because I got to go back to my iconography class after a long break of six months. My teacher, Christopher Gosey, lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, so I had a bit of a drive. We met in the basement of the Russian Orthodox church. I am trying to finish an icon of St. Nicholas for a friend. Chris was playing a CD of an Orthodox liturgy as he guided me through the process of laying down the layers of paint that will make up the shading on the face. This particular step always freaks me out a bit because the first couple of applications make the face look a lot like Tammy Faye Bakker. Yet, somehow, with each application of the colors, a face begins to emerge and the icon takes on personality.

I drove back for staff meeting and then met Ginger at the home of some folks in her church where the deacons were meeting for a fellowship dinner. Once again, church folks around a table together; I knew it would be good. Jim and Nancy, our hosts, served Spaghetti Pie -- good comfort food. And a good time was had by all.

Law & Order:SVU just came on and The Daily Show will follow, but the formula for my day was head north, write icons, take a quick nap with the schnauzers, and have dinner with friends.

January 24 turned out pretty well.


Monday, January 23, 2006

malcolm and noah go shopping

Years ago I wrote a children's story called Malcolm and Noah Go Shopping, based on an old Far Side cartoon. I sent it to a couple of publishers and got one response that said my story was not publishable because the snakes did not act consistent with their species. In the story, the snakes end up making friends with a hamster. This week, BBC News ran this story about a snake in the Tokyo Zoo who befriended his "snack hamster."

In light of this new information, I offer my story


Friday, January 20, 2006

goodbye, my friend

When we were in seminary, my housemate, Burt, and I lived on very little. We were school bus drivers when we weren't in class, which paid about $400 a month in the late seventies. We each budgeted $10 a week for food, which meant we bought our bread at the Mrs. Baird's Thrift Shop (day old) and counted out slices of the world's cheapest lunch meat to make our sandwiches. Whoever got to the kitchen first got to make the lunches -- and got to write a note to Miss Landers (Beaver Cleaver's teacher) on the outside of the bag. Here's one example I remember (Burt's work):

Dear Miss Landers,
I'm sorry for the incident with little Milton on the playground yesterday. I hope none of the children is psychologically scared.
June Cleaver.

We cracked ourselves up.

We needed all the help we could get. We felt like outsiders in the restrictive world that was (is?) Southwestern Seminary, and our humor was one of the ways we stayed sane. Another way was looking for voices that fed us. One of those voices was John Claypool.

I found out last night he died in September. I didn't know. His death is not news, but my grief is fresh. You can read a wonderful tribute here.

I met him a couple of times. He was a contemporary of my parents. I never really talked to him, but he felt like a friend because of his writings. The book I remember best was Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, which told the story of the death of his young daughter. In a time when most Baptist preachers were telling everyone to get right or get left, Claypool was talking about how his faith intersected his life. His resonance with my struggle to live out my faith was profound for me.

One day I told one of my professors how much Claypool fed me. He responded, "The only people John Claypool speaks to are the walking wounded and those in adolescent rebellion."

"Is there anyone else?" I asked.

And I thought, to myself, if I could reach those people I would be doing pretty well.

One of the joys of the Communion table for me is I am sitting down to the meal with all those who have come before and all who will come after. It is an eternal moment where time is of no consequence. I'm sad John's voice is no longer speaking in our time. I'm grateful for the legacy he left and that we still share a Meal together now and then.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

guinness for strength

Of all the wonderful things there are to eat and drink in this world, I must put Guinness at the top of my list. A well poured pint (and there is an art to the pouring) is a tasty pleasure that is difficult to match. A reasonably close second on my list is ice cream. Imagine my delight when I found this recipe here:

Makes 1 quart

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup Guinness stout (I guess that means you get to drink the rest!)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons molasses
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a medium saucepan, scrape in the vanilla bean seeds. Add the pod, milk, and cream. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the flavors infuse for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, whisk together the stout and molasses. Bring to a boil and turn off heat.

3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract. Whisk in a few tablespoons of the hot cream mixture, then slowly whisk in another 1/4 cup of the cream. Add the remaining cream in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan.

4. Stir the beer mixture into the cream mixture. Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for 6 to 8 minutes or until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

5. Strain the mixture into a bowl and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Process the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

I know the combination is a little hard to imagine. My guess is the ice cream has a strong molasses flavor. What I love about the recipe is someone was willing to take a risk and see how two things they loved (I love?) would go together, thus creating room for possibilities.

We gathered for our church meeting last night, almost fifty of us, unsure of what the nix would bring. Our area minister was the selected mediator for the meeting and he did an amazing job calibrating the feelings and challenging us to speak the truth in love. And there were a lot of feelings, some hopeful, some bitter, and others all along the continuum in between. We sat together for two and a half hours talking through the hurt and misunderstanding. Much of what was expressed was old stuff, which would have been less hurtful and damaging if it had been addressed in the moment. The value of the meeting, to me, was we got a pretty clear picture of who we are and how we communicate with each other.

The challenge now is in what we do with what we learned.

By the time it was over, the level of anger and hurt had lowered somewhat. One meeting will not heal stuff people have been carrying around for weeks, or even years. What did happen that was significant is the group ended up less “us and them” and a little more “us,” which, as in any church, means a rather odd mixture of flavors, not unlike the ice cream.

Being church together is not work for the faint of heart. Living out our faith in concert means there are no unilateral decisions, no room for sniper fire. We can’t think of ourselves individually without thinking of each other; we can’t think of our local church without thinking about the world around us.

One of the things we say each Sunday in our church is “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” A couple of folks repeated that statement last night and I heard it with different ears. I have mostly thought of those words as aimed at people new to our congregation; last night I realized we need to be saying it over and over to those with whom we share the journey week after week, mile after mile.

I sat next to one person last night who has hurt mostly in silence through this ordeal. A couple of weeks ago, he talked to the senior pastor to say he and his wife felt they needed to leave the church, not out of anger but because they could not take the stand the church was taking on a particular issue. At the end of the meeting I turned to him and said, “I know these are hard days. I want you to know I miss you, I pray for you, and I love you. Whatever choices you feel you need to make, that will not change.”

His eyes filled with tears and he hugged me: “Thank you.”

No matter who we are or where we are, we all belong in the recipe for church, however odd the mix of flavors.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

i don't have the stomach for this

One of my morning rituals is to listen to The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, which plays at the end of Morning Edition on WGBH, one of our local NPR stations. Each day, he makes note of significant birthdays in the literary world and then reads a poem. He closes each segment by saying, "Be well, do good work, and stay in touch."

Today's poem was one by Robert Frost:

A Time to Talk

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, 'What is it?'
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Tonight at church we face a different kind of time to talk. This is the night of the big meeting with the mediator. The phone and email chatter has grown quiet over the last several days; I'm not sure anyone knows quite what to expect.

Normally, I do not know of an emotion that does not make me want to eat. If I'm elated, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a meal. If I'm depressed, I can bang my way through a bag of Cape Cod Sea Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips without even blinking. This week has been different. Whatever I have eaten seems determined to work it's way out of my body as though it was competing for a medal.

I am finding little comfort in food.

One of the working theories of my life is we could work most anything out if we could sit down and discuss it over a meal. If you need to ask someone to pass the potatoes, you're going to have to figure out a way to talk about other stuff as well. Therefore, I'm a bit weary of a meeting that makes it difficult for me to even think about eating. How are we going to break down the walls that need to be broken down so we can create a time to talk -- and listen?

I wish I had an answer to that question going into the meeting tonight.

How I hope we could get to the end of the time tonight and have found enough healing for someone to say, "You want to grab a bite to eat?"


PS -- As you can see from the format change, I'm trying to learn a bit more about HTML and setting up the blog the way I want it to look. Since Ginger and I live in Green Harbor, just 600 feet from Cape Cod Bay, this template seemed appropriate.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

pearls in the pantry

I don’t even think I knew what couscous was until about ten years ago.

One of my first encounters was hearing a three-year old’s answer to his mother’s question of what he wanted for dinner: “Couscous.” Next thing I knew, she had pulled out this container of microscopic grains, poured boiling water over them, let them soak up the water, fluffed them a bit, and handed them to her kid.

What I have since learned about couscous is it originates from Morocco and is made from semolina flour (or a mixture of semolina and durum), which is what is used to make pasta. Making couscous from scratch is hard and arduous work; I don’t know anyone who does it. One article I read said even in North Africa only the poorest people still make it by hand. Thanks to the French occupation of North Africa, the dish traveled across Europe and into Palestine and Israel.

About two years ago, I was in Whole Foods and found “Israeli couscous,” which is a much larger size, though also a pasta. It is also called pearl couscous. I like that name: I'm keeping pearls in my pantry. The pearls are much more versatile and easier to handle. It has become an important part of my diet on the what-do-I-want-to-eat-that-won’t-take-long- and-is-good-for-me days.

Like today. My lunch looked something like this:

3/4 c water, brought to a boil
1/4 c craisins (dried cranberries) added to cold water before boiling
1/2 c Israeli couscous, added to boiling water

Cover, lower to a simmer, and let cook for about five minutes, or until most of water is gone; turn off heat and let sit for another five minutes. While it’s resting, dig through your fridge and figure out what you want to add. Today that was:

a handful of fresh spinach leaves, torn
some diced pieces of leftover pork tenderloin
some mandarin orange segments
some Gorgonzola cheese crumbles

I put the couscous in a mixing bowl, stirred in the spinach leaves to let them wilt a bit, and then added the rest of the stuff when the couscous had cooled a little.

It tastes even better when you share a few of the pork chunks with your favorite schnauzers.

Who knows what any Israelis might think of what I did with my bowl of little pearls, but it tasted like manna to me.


Monday, January 16, 2006

you will get your due

I got my last Christmas present Saturday night. It was the best one.

Over the past few years, Ginger has given me gifts that are to be experienced rather than collected. Two years ago, she gave me an icon painting class, which led to my friendship with Christopher Gosey, as well as bringing new layers to both my artistic and spiritual journeys. Last year, it was a mosaic class. In early December, she told me she couldn’t find any good classes this year and she was going to have to think of something else.

She did – and she gave me one of the best gifts ever: tickets to a house concert to hear Diane Zeigler.

In 1995, Diane released The Sting of the Honeybee, an album (OK, a CD) I picked up at Tower records because she covered “Millworker” by James Taylor. I had no idea what a gem I had found, and how fortunate I was the music had found me.

In 1995, we were living in Charlestown, an urban neighborhood of Boston. I was teaching English at Charlestown High School. I loved the kids, but the bureaucracy and the burned out lifers in the system were taking their toll on me. In those days, I described how it felt in these words: everyday, while I was in the building, part of me died; when I came home, I had until the following morning to bring myself back to life, but not all of me was revived. I was also struggling because I had been saying for a long time I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t finding – or making – much time to write. In those days, I was co-writing songs with my friend, Billy Crockett, but we were half a country apart, so I couldn’t give myself fully to that either. Knowing what I know now about my depression, I can look back on those days and see I was sinking and did not know it. I was a man with dreams that felt as if they were mostly on life support. And then, on this wonderful record, I found this song:

(diane zeigler)

there's a man that I don't know well
but I've seen the way he cast his spell
straight across a room until the people had to listen
he was singing from a quiet place
and you could only hear the faintest trace
that he wonders if he'll ever taste the kiss of recognition

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it's not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I want to call him friend
because I love the way he works that pen
and spinning stories seems to be his true devotion
but he says he's gonna pack it in
because he doesn't see it rolling in
he thinks that ship is somewhere lost out on the ocean

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it's not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I know you want to leave it behind
but it's all there in your mind
and you can no more stop the songs
than stop your breathing
I can't tell you how it's gonna end
I know the lucky ones sometimes win
but not before they've paid a price
for all their dreaming

but you will get your due
you will get your due
believe that there is so much more
even if it's not right here at your door
and you will get your due.

I don’t know how many times I have listened to her sing those words, or I have sung them myself. A decade later, I’m working two jobs, still working on being a writer, and am somewhat of a survivor of my own Great Depression. So when a random mailing came from Diane, based on a list I signed at a concert about seven years ago, Ginger did some very cool detective work and gave me an amazing gift of love: an evening of hope and healing.

I had never been to a house concert before. Laura and Neal, who run Fox Run House Concerts, basically tore apart their home and put it back together again where forty or so people can gather and share an evening of music together. We all brought snacks and stood around in the kitchen and dining room until it was time to be the audience. Seated on couches and dining room chairs, we listened, laughed, and sang along. After the show I even had a chance to tell Diane how her song had accompanied me. She, Ginger, and I talked for a long time and found a resonance that went well beyond a decade-old recording.

One of the most insidious lies depression tells is no one understands and no one is really listening: you are all alone, so there’s no point in speaking up.

I touched the truth Saturday night, hearing Diane sing the song in a living room full of people who came to be reminded that we are not by ourselves. The real gift for me was more than being at the concert. It was being there sitting next to the woman who has told me to believe there is so much more everyday I have known her and who incarnates Love to me more than anyone I know.

It was a great Christmas.


P.S. Dave Crossland opened for Diane. He's got some great stuff!

Friday, January 13, 2006

the souper bowl of caring

Fridays and Saturdays are my long days at the Inn. I've get twelve hours of cooking ahead of me today, so I decided to use my time to point to some folks who are doing good stuff: The Souper Bowl of Caring.

Here is how they describe their history:

A simple prayer: "Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those who are without a bowl of soup to eat" is inspiring a youth-led movement to help hungry and hurting people around the world.

This prayer, delivered by Brad Smith, then a seminary intern serving at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, gave birth to an idea. Why not ask parishioners to give one dollar each for the needy as they leave worship on Super Bowl Sunday? Young people could receive the donations then send every dollar DIRECTLY to the charity of their choice. Participants would only be asked to report their results so that the totals could be determined.

The senior high youth of Spring Valley Presbyterian liked the idea so much they decided to invite other area churches to join the team. Twenty-two Columbia churches participated that first year, sending $5,700 to area ministries that help needy people. That was 1990. The effort went statewide in 1991 and national in 1993.

In 1997, youth groups in congregations across the country broke the million-dollar barrier, generating $1.1 million that year. Later that year an ecumenical Board was formed to take over the guidance and governance of the Souper Bowl. At the end of 2001, the Souper Bowl of Caring achieved another milestone when the Council of Stewards hired Brad Smith as the first full-time person devoted to fostering the growth of this grassroots movement of God's love.

Since the Souper Bowl's inception, ordinary young people have, with God's help, generated an extraordinary aggregate of $28 million for soup kitchens, food banks and other charities in communities across the country. In addition, tens of thousands of youth have learned that God can use them to make a difference in the lives of others.

In 2005, people around the country raised over $4 million dollars through the Souper Bowl. This is great stuff. And you still have time to get involved.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

where two or three are gathered

I'm working two jobs right now: one as a cook at the Red Lion Inn and the other as part-time associate pastor at a UCC church in a nearby town. Together, the two jobs take up most of my evenings. In the past few days I have been a part of gatherings related to both my vocations, and both gatherings related to church life.

Monday night our church cabinet -- about twenty-five folks -- met to go over the budget for the coming year, but what erupted through the budget discussion was the ongoing hurt and anger that is swirling through our congregation -- or parts of it -- right now. The flashpoint is that some members are withholding their pledges for the coming year because things aren't going the way they want, which has created a $45,000 gap between pledges and what we need to spend next year to be the church we want to be. The gap makes all of us edgy; the meeting moved from finances to frustration. Though the angry folks are in the minority, their venom is viral: the whole room was infected. I don't think anyone slept well Monday night.

Our UCC area minister is coming to mediate a meeting next week to help us figure out where to go from here.

Last night, I got to be the chef for a "Cooking Class" for the women's association of another UCC church in another nearby town. About twenty-five women gathered at one home, I cooked and talked about what I was cooking, and they -- OK, we -- ate and drank and told stories. When I told Robert, the chef I work for, I was doing the class he cautioned me that only about a third of the folks who come to such an evening are coming to learn; most come to eat and hang out with their friends. He's right.

I had put together a menu I was proud of:

Winter Salad
Curried Squash Soup
Molasses Marinated Pork Tenderloin
Three Potato au Gratin
Maple Glazed Brussel Sprouts
Sheet Apple Pie with White Pepper Ice Cream

I also made recipe booklets for each of the participants. They brought the wine and the stories.

Most of them listened as I introduced the evening and put the salad together. Most were still listening while I put the soup together. By then, the house was full of good smells and good conversation; by the time we got to the entree they wanted to eat and be together. I had fun just watching the friendship swirl around me. I filled my plate and sat down to listen to them tell me where the meal took them.

In two nights I got to see church at its best and its most difficult. It makes me wish we were having a pot-luck dinner next Wednesday. At least it would start to tear down the walls. When you start to think about an upcoming meeting and you can't eat because of the feelings, you know you're in trouble.

Other than the food, the fundamental difference between the two gatherings was in the first meeting people kept talking about "not being heard"; in the second, people were mostly interested in listening. Therein lies the difference between community and catastrophe.

Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo speak and he said, "You have two choices in any relationship: you can respond in power or in love." As simple as it sounds, his statement has held up in my experience. We either do what we do to get our way, or feed our fear; or we create the possibility of deeper relationship by trusting one another.

Faith is a team sport (even though there is an "i" in faith). There are always two or three gathered when it comes to figuring out how to be the people of God. We are called together to love and be loved.

Like Andrew Peterson sings,

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison

There is love, love, love, love
There is love, love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans of love and love again
We'll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we'll look back on these tears as old tales

I trust the anger of Monday night's meeting is not the last word.
I believe with all my heart that the joy of last night's meeting is the best word.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

i wanted to think of that

My friend Gordon has taught me most of what I know about blogging.

He's taught me a bunch of other stuff, too.

He has a blog called Real Live Preacher, which has some great stuff, not the least of which is a recent posting entitled, "Unmade Children and Never Written Words," and it's one of those ideas I hoped I would think of one day, even though it hasn't really crossed my mind so far.

Go read it.


food for thought

I'm ten or twelve posts into this blog and I'm staring at the screen this morning in a bit of a crisis: I don't have a recipe.

The crisis is self-induced, I suppose. After looking at a number of food blogs, I've let myself feel the pressure of falling into their pattern. My posts can't just be about what I have to say; I have to have a recipe. Well, I'm writing this morning to talk myself out of that perspective. The primary point of creating this blog -- fro me -- was to write. Writing about the way food, faith, friends, and family wind in and out of each other in our day-to-day existence is what fascinates me. When, along the way, I come across a recipe that is worth bringing to the table, I'll pass it along, but I am feeding another appetite here.

The last week in our lives here on the South Shore of Massachusetts has left me keenly aware of difficult life is. Several people we know are in deep pain: one is in the hospital dealing with heart problems; another is at the end of her rope after a year and a half of undiagnosed illness; another is in a fierce custody battle over her two boys; and several have been bitterly hurt by the way some things have played out at the church I serve. None of the situations can be solved by a kind word and a box of cookies, regardless of how good the recipe is, and yet, "how can I help?" seems like an important question -- even if I can't answer it well.

Whether the pain attacks us or is self-inflicted, it's still pain. Like Michael Stipe sings, everybody hurts. That's stating the obvious. The struggle deepens when the wounds are open and the nerves are exposed. Too often, we recoil into isolation, which only makes things hurt worse. I'm hurting from some things said to me last night, and from watching the way people beat up on each other in a church meeting that didn't have to be such a train wreck. And I know I'm not the only one.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions about Communion to the church at Corinth, he told them not to come to the table until they had forgiven those with whom they would share the meal and asked for forgiveness. What he knew was you can't be filled with bitterness and expect to make room for grace. One of them has got to go.

We take Communion the first Sunday of every month, which means I have some work to do between now and February 5, which actually brings me back to plates of cookies and banana bread. The best peace offerings travel best with food as a companion.

When I figure out what I'm making, I'll share the recipe.


Monday, January 09, 2006

bring the family

We started a new menu at the Red Lion Inn this weekend, the centerpiece of which is family style dining. You get a choice of lobster corn chowder, Caesar salad, or Red Lion fondue to begin; a choice of pork tenderloin, chicken, or London broil for entree; and a choice of creme brulee, Bailey's cheesecake, or lemon tart for dessert -- all for $14.95. Everyone at the table can order what they want, but if they do order together, then it gets fun. Instead of individual plates the food comes out on wonderful platters for everyone to share. Robert, our Head Chef, is great at making the food both taste good and look good, so when the platters went out, people gasped.

Now that's what meal time should be.

But "family style" is becoming an anachronistic term -- at least, when we use it to describe the kind of meal where people actually sit down to eat. Today, as people rush to games, practices, play dates, and whatever else is on the schedule, family style eating means driving through some fast food joint and eating in the car. It's not about the meal, it's about survival.

When I was growing up, meal time meant we sat down at the table and ate together, whether we were eating pork tenderloin or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother always made a point of putting things in bowls, rather than putting the jars on the table. We were sitting down to do more than eat; we were eating together.

One of my favorite novels is Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Ezra, who grows up in a family that leaves him with little idea of what family is, opens a restaurant in order to create a feeling of home for those who come in, even though he knows little of what home really feels like. That image is part of what attracts me to restaurant work and a great deal of what attracts me to cooking and making meals. When I sit down at the table with friends I have a shot at feeling at home. When we send out the beautiful platters to the folks at the Red Lion, we are offering them a moment to really be together. I like that.

Beats the hell out of pulling up to the drive through window.

My contribution to the table was getting to make the stuffing to go with the pork. Robert said he wanted some sort of cranberry-apple stuffing and left the rest up to me. I cubed some of the baguettes we had; sauteed some chopped bacon, onion, and celery; added chopped apples, dried cranberries, chopped fresh sage, salt & pepper, melted butter, white wine, and enough water to make it moist, and then baked it until it was firm. (When I can be more specific about amounts, I'll post it on the recipe page.) It went along with the pork, and mashed butternut squash. I got hungry every time one of the platters went out.

It's funny, sometimes, making meals for people we never see. We send the platters out to people we do not know, hoping to make a meal happen for them: that they don't just fill up on food, but they find a way to be together, to make a memory, or have time to tell a couple of stories. Sometimes we hear a few things: they loved the food, they were very impressed. Occasionally, the server will say, "They won't leave; they're still sitting and talking."

That's my favorite.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

a taste of something fine

Wednesday nights are usually a work night for me at The Inn. I like the place, I like the people I work with, but between the cooking gig and my church gig, I’m out of the house six nights a week, which means my wife, Ginger and I, don’t get to eat supper together very often.

Last night we did. The chef called to say he didn’t need me to work and all of a sudden Ginger and I had a dinner date.

Though I do love food, meals are what matters most. It’s not about the tastes as much as it is the experience: the chance to stop and share a meal with someone you love – and, of course, cooking what they love. I asked what she wanted as she headed out to work.

“Polenta!” she exclaimed.

Ginger had to work fairly late, so as the sun set on an already grey day, I poured myself a glass of wine, put Jackson Browne’s Saturate Before Using in the CD player, and began to work on dinner as he sang:

The papers lie there helplessly in a pile outside the door
I've tried and tried, but I just can't remember what they're for
The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve
Ah, that's much too old a story to believe
Polenta at our house means I make it (adding lemon juice, green chiles, and cheddar cheese), pour it into a 9-inch square Pyrex pan and let it cool, and then slice it and sauté it. I also pounded out a couple of chicken breasts, marinated them in Dijon mustard, rolled them in Ritz cracker crumbs, and then sautéed them as well. Ginger asked for green beans, but I had different plans for myself. A friend mentioned to me the other day he had been served asparagus with proscuitto and fresh cranberries, so I thought I would see if I could make that happen. I cut the proscuitto into thin strips and cut the asparagus into 1-inch pieces. I put the proscuitto in first; when it was starting to crisp I added the asparagus and the cranberries and sautéed all of them until the berries began to pop. It was excellent.
And you know that it's taken its share of me
Even though you take such good care of me
Now you say "Morocco" and that makes me smile
I haven't seen Morocco in a long, long while
The dreams are rolling down across the places in my mind
And I've just had a taste of something fine
Every meal is a memory, a chance to lean into all that it means to be together and savor what it feels like to belong. When we reduce it to feeding, we miss the stuff that matters, the chance to be truly nurtured. I realized how badly I need the connection as we ate. I miss being at home for dinner.

When I was growing up, my family sat down to dinner together every night. The conversations around the table were informative, though not always deep, but in the years that followed when distance developed between my parents and me, the memory of those meals kept me from walking away. I had a place at that table. So did they.

I don’t belong anywhere in the world more than I belong with Ginger. And I remember that best when we sit down to dinner together.
And you know that I'm looking back carefully
”Cause I know that there's still something there for me
But you said "Morocco" and you made me smile
And it hasn't been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

food for friends

First thing: the soup came out great!

Second thing: in my continuing journey through blogdom, I decided to set up another blog with just the recipes, rather than trying to make them fit into the narratives. You will find them at don't eat alone: the recipes (creative, huh?).

There's no such thing a good soup recipe for one because soup tastes better when it's shared. Any food does, for that matter.

I have a big container of pumpkin apple soup (Check the link; I tweaked it a bit) just waiting for someone besides me to enjoy it. And I know exactly who needs it today. There's a couple in our church who have been lifelong members and who have both been sick over the holidays. They, like many of us, don't receive help easily, yet, somehow, they will receive it from me. It's like that scene in The Breakfast Club where Molly Ringwald's character is putting make up on Ally Sheedy's character.

"Why are you doing this," Ally Sheedy asks.

"Because you're letting me," answers Molly Ringwald.

The husband loves the lemon bars I make, so I just took a batch out of the oven to go along with the soup. When they cool, I will be off to make my delivery. That's what friends do.

Food heals when it comes from the hands of a friend.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

a good day for soup

We are in a the middle of a stretch of gray days where it is not so apparent that the sun has even risen. The lights are on, the schnauzers are snoozing, and I'm in the mood for soup -- but not for going to the grocery store. A quick glance in both the pantry (I have several cans of pumpkin) and the fridge (apples! and one more sweet potato), as well as a Google search for soup recipes, has brought me to my project for the day, bouncing off of some recipes I found here:

Pumpkin Apple Soup

1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1/2 lb bacon
2 cup water
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 can of pumpkin
2 cups apple cider
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 apples, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1/3 cup crystallized ginger
1/2 t cumin
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t tumeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper

I'm going to saute the onion and bacon in olive oil, add the water and potato until it cooks, and then throw in the rest of the stuff and let it simmer for an hour or so. I'm going back and forth about whether or not to add any curry powder to the mixture. Finally, I'm going to puree it all with my Braun stand mixer (my current favorite appliance). I'll let you know how it turns out.

I think it's going to be great. However it tastes, it'll make the house smell warm and hopeful. And I can snooze a little with the schnauzers while I'm waiting for my late lunch.


Monday, January 02, 2006

first meal

Every few years, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day both fall on Sunday, which means we have church services on days we not normally do so. Yesterday, for me, it meant, other than my cup of coffee on the way to church, my first meal of the day and the new year was Communion.

In the United Church of Christ, we don’t have a set way Communion has to be served. The most common method is to pass trays of bread down each pew, followed by trays of small glasses of wine (or grape juice), so we all serve the meal to one another. Yesterday, we served by intinction, which means everyone came forward, tore off a piece of bread from a common loaf, dipped it in the common cup and then took both elements together. Either way, we always end up with leftovers.

On the one hand, the fact that we have all eaten and there is still more is a helpful metaphor for the expansiveness of the love of God in Christ: regardless of how much we need, there is always more. Yet, I watched as folks came through the line yesterday and they tore of pieces of bread so tiny that they could not dip them in the cup without getting their fingers wet. Why do we come the Table of God for the Ultimate Meal and nibble at our food like kids being forced to eat broccoli for the first time?

Several summers ago, when I saw how much we had leftovers after we had passed the food around, I sent the elements out a second time, and said then much of what I have said here. We still had more on the plates than ended up in anyone’s stomachs. I wished I had kept passing the stuff around until we finished it, until we settled in and really ate together. The focus on reverence in the meal in most churches has made us more aware of the precision of the plate passers than the power of the meal. I wish we felt the freedom to talk as we passed the elements, calling each other by name, telling stories of our faith, forgiving one another, and remembering why we gather together as the people of God. What I noticed most yesterday as people came through the line was the look in their eyes: am I dong this right?

Who can eat under that kind of pressure?

Springsteen says, “Everybody has a hungry heart.” He’s right. His words remind me of the last verse of Thomas Webber’s hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate”:

Here see the Bread of Life; waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the Feast of Love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

How can we come so hungry and yet feel that we are not worthy to take what we need to be filled?

One day, I want to share a Communion meal where each person has plenty of bread and we drink wine from large glasses that can be refilled so we can talk late into the night, telling stories of how Love has found us.

I’ll bake the bread; you bring the wine.


Sunday, January 01, 2006

starting off right

I love the way our home feels when it's filled with people sharing food, drink, and conversation.

Twenty-or-so people made their ways to our open house this afternoon. We never really know how many folks are coming. We aren't very good at the formal invitation thing; we just tell the people we see along the way and wait to see who shows up. If you've been once, we expect that you know we are going to do it again next year and the invitation still stands. Part of what that means is we never quite know what the collection of people who gather is going to look like, which means the afternoon is always filled with wonderful surprises.

Some of the best recipes happen that way as well.

As I was putting things together for this afternoon, I found I had a sweet potato left over from Christmas, some cranberry chutney I made a couple weeks back, a bag of mini marshmallows, and a pack of wonton wrappers. I boiled the potato and pureed it with some maple syrup, cinnamon, and nutmeg and then put a teaspoonful of the mix with a spoonful of the chutney and a marshmallow in the wonton wrapper, folded it over and fried it. Good stuff, Maynard.

Whatever designs I have on 2006, I can rest assured that things are not going to go as I expect them to, unless I expect the recipe for the year to require much the same improvisation as the wontons. I have some ideas about what I hope will be on the menu for the year ahead, but I don't yet know what ingredients I will be working with.

Here's what I do know: we started it off right with a house filled of friends and a table filled of food.