Saturday, February 28, 2009

Happiness Left Over
“‘Tis substantial happiness to eat.” - Alexander Pope

I decided to clean out my refrigerator and serve leftovers for dinner. Here is what I found:
¼ Cup chicken drippings flavored with onion and lemon
¼ Cup beef au jus, left from a pot roast
1 Cup beef stew with 3 whole new potatoes, beef, carrots sliced diagonally
1 Cup sautéed mushrooms
¼ Cup cooked ground beef, left from taco salad
¼ Cup kidney beans, left from taco salad
Carrots sticks, celery sticks, red and yellow bell peppers left from taco salad
3 olives, 4 blanched asparagus spears....lots of fresh broccoli

I heated 3 T olive oil in a big saucepan. Simultaneously I began heating water for pasta. After slicing the carrots, I chopped the celery. The peppers were already diced. When the oil was hot, I sautéed the carrots, celery and peppers.

As soon the vegetables were brightly colored, I made a roux by sprinkling 3 T of flour over the vegetables and the oil. This I browned for a few minutes and added chili powder, kosher salt and pepper.

Making a roux -equal measures oil (or melted butter or pan drippings from a roasted chicken or beef) and flour- is the key to “dressing up” leftovers like this and also to making cream soups or flavorful, lumpless gravy. For cream sauce use butter for the fat and milk for the liquid added later. Sprinkle the flour over the hot fat and mix in with a fork or a whisk until it is smooth. Then cook this – watch it bubble and gain a golden brown color. If you are using the pan after a roast, now is the time to use the whisk to scrape up the browned bits of flavor stuck to the pan. After about 5 minutes, add liquid – broth, water, or milk for a cream sauce. In this leftover situation, I added I added the chicken drippings and the beef au jus (which is just the juice left from roasting).

A nice brown gravy formed- fragrant and smooth.

The mushrooms looked beautiful in this gravy! Into this I poured the leftover beef stew, the ground beef and the kidney beans. The peppers and carrots still looked bright, so I decided to chop up a little broccoli to add some bright green.
The water started boiling and I cooked some tri-colored pasta. When it was nearly done, I added the broccoli to the “stew” and it steamed to a bright green. I chopped the asparagus and sliced the olives and added them at the last minute.
Preparation took about 20 to 25 minutes. Served over pasta, the stew was bright, colorful and delicious. My refrigerator is clean and empty of leftovers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That's Not Funny, Grannie

Among the things I admire about my daughter-in-law, Andrea, is the way that she explains things to her three-year-old. Joey is verbally quick and he understands a lot of what she says. Even if he doesn’t "get" all the subtleties, Andrea is establishing an important pattern of communication that will serve their family well in the years to come. In the meantime, the discussion and the results are a delight to me.
Recently, we were together in a store and Andrea reminded Joey that he had to take my hand or her hand because we were about to enter a public place. Joey took my hand and held tightly, staying right beside me – not his typical approach to shopping. "There’s strangers at the store," he explained in an awed whisper. "Oh," I said. "Ok. I’ll watch out for you." So we followed Andrea around the store, with Joey trotting beside me in that happy bouncing gait that only toddlers can achieve. The conversation traced his recent preoccupation– the moral fabric of real and imagined characters. "Tigers are bad; they bite. Lions bite. If I see a bad lion with teeth, I will fight him, Grannie." I thought that was a good idea and said, "Okay, I’ll help." Over her shoulder Andrea reminded Joey of an important distinction. "Tigers and lions are wild, Joey. They’re not really bad. There’s a difference between wild and bad." This thought held us captive until Andrea had gathered her supplies we came to a standstill at the register.
One of the store’s employees stood there, restocking the magazine shelves. He smiled at us in a benign way. Joey looked at me, watched me smile back and said, "Some strangers," he began, stretching out the words while he thought about it and peered quizzically at the man. "Some strangers are nice, but--" His mind worked to sort out his mother’s instructions. Andrea leaned toward me to explain her idea. "I’ve been trying to get him to see that wild animals have to be wild. They’re dangerous, but not bad. Dangerous to us." I nodded, feeling proud of her for helping her child learn to make subtle distinctions as Joey clung to my hand, moved a little closer to my leg, still studying the stranger who was really not behaving in a way that was either wild or dangerous.
Evidently Joey had been recently curious about all sorts of things. Besides his interest in the morality of people and animals, he had asked about God and Andrea had tried – as best she could to begin the life-long conversation about good and evil. He had wanted to know about war and fighting and so Andrea had explained using current events for examples. On inauguration day, his aunt had asked him if he knew we were getting a new president. "Obama," Joey said. "Is he good?" His aunt replied, "We hope so." Joey seemed to like this response, but said brightly, "Oh, but Bush is bad." His aunt reassured him, "no, that’s not it exactly. It’s just that his turn is over. We have a new president." Joey seemed satisfied with that and returned to his dinosaurs and cars.
Some short time later, when I stopped by their house for a visit, Joey greeted me with a big grin and shouted "Trash Can!" When he was one year old, this term used to crack him up and because his laugher was so free and happy, I laughed, too. So it had become kind of a thing that when he needed a certain type of attention, he would shout "Trash Can" at me and I laughed because he was so silly. (I don’t actually think "Trash Can" is all that funny). That day, Joey repeated "Trash Can" over and over his voice gaining pitch and intensity, Andrea came to my rescue explaining to him that there was nothing actually funny about that word. He looked puzzled and glanced at me. Andrea explained, very kindly, that Grannie was the only one who laughed at that and it was just because I was being nice. Or something like that. We went on to other occupations.
A week or so later, Joey brought two of his dad’s old GI Joes to my house. One was the basic American hero sort of GI Joe and the other, face covered, dressed in black was obviously a dangerous member of Cobra. Joey seemed to clearly understood who was good and who was bad. We found some more old GI Joes in the toy basket and Josh picked one to add to his team. "What should his name be?" I asked. Normally Josh names most things "Josh" consenting to use other family names like "Jack" or "Karl" only if it is really an emergency (too many toys needing names). He began "His name is Joey– no." He shook his head. "GI- Joey?" I suggested. He started to smile, then shook his head again, looking strict. "How about GI Jack?" Joey’s little mouth twitched and I saw him straighten out his smile as if he were standing in the principal’s office. "No," he said very sternly. "How about GI-Grannie?" This time he really did smile and with much difficulty recovered. "No, Grannie. It’s not funny. Sometimes you think its funny and nobody else does." Of course, I thought that was hilarious and laughed a lot.
I guess it’s true and perhaps no one else will think another of Joey's comments funny except me. His dad was putting him to bed and Joey had brought along his big plastic dinosaur named – what else? Joey-T-Rex. The conversation went like this:
"Joey-T-Rex" tects me," he informed his daddy. "Tects" means protects.
"Why do you need protecting? You’re safe here."
"No. He tects me from dangerous things."
"There’s nothing here but your toys,"
"Just dangerous things."
"Like what?" his dad asked again.
"Just Satan and Bush," Joey said.
Now I guess I’m probably the only one who thinks that’s funny, but I sure do.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Sparrow's Home

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar,
O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.
Recently someone asked me about what it felt like to be pregnant. Quickly the images flashed back upon me -- the thrill, the waves of seasickness, the sudden fullness, the heat in my body, the thoughts about what I couldn't yet see, the fears about what was to come. Why did I always say being pregnancy was an awesome and wonderful experience? But then I remembered the rest of it -- the single most important lesson in my life. It was during pregancy that I discovered that it is God is creating heaven on earth and that He loves me tenderly.

I wanted to be a good mother, but the task seemed more than daunting to me -- it seemed impossible. I didn't even know where to begin. Even before I became pregnant I had dreams about failing at motherhood. In the long swirling tales that are our nightmares, I dreamt that I had forgotten to feed the baby or that I had put him in my apron pocket for safe keeping only to shake him out when I threw the apron into the laundry! "How are you still alive?" I'd cry in the anguish of my dream, "I can't remember ever feeding you!" I was aware -- too aware of my frailty.

But as I began to pray for the child that was growing within me, I found myself whispering to God my fears, my hopes and my dreams. Strange and wonderful things began to happen to me as my belly grew and I felt the baby fluttering within. A vision formed in my mind and heart about happy family life. At first it was just a single picture. There was a table and around it sat children of different ages. They were talking, eyes twinkling with mischief and life, laughing the many-toned laughter of children and eating with elbows on the table. That's all.

But for that initial vision, my heart and spirit yearned.

And so, I worked at it, the way a painter works at his canvas, the way a gardener cultivates her flowerbed. My first thought in the morning, my last whispered prayer as I closed my eyes. God had given me a little glimpse of heaven and I wanted to see it in my own house.

How surprising to discover that "my" vision, was God's purpose. During pregnancy He seemed so attentive to my prayers and my trust in Him grew vibrant. As I brought my fears and concerns to Him, He answered with the spiritual comfort that defies description and with very real help. I clung to scriptures that spoke of God's attitude toward motherhood and babies. Oddly the book of Job brought me great comfort. Isn't it odd that in the midst of Job's suffering, God shows Job so much about Himself -- about His beauty, His creativity, His sovereignty, His strength and wisdom. The book of Job describes the ostrich's careless motherhood:

She leaves her eggs on the ground and warms them in the dust;
She forgets that a foot may crush them or that a wild beast may break them.
She treats her young harshly as thought he were not hers,
Her labor is in vain, without concern,
Because God deprived her of wisdom and did not endow her with
understanding. 39:14-17.

But I discovered that God promised to give me wisdom when I read James 1: 5 "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." I came to see that God was the source and author of my child's life and that He wanted to work hand in hand with me to bring this child to birth. He meant all along to give me the wisdom, the inspiration, the courage to bring this child forth into life. I came to understand that He was "wooing me to a spacious place" to creating the sort of home where in His presence,with His help I could mother my children.

When, in those nine months, I was weary or afraid, I remembered the story of Jacob returning home with his family and flocks. When Esau asks that they travel together, Jacob protests, claiming that he cannot drive the young mothers and babies, or those with young too hard or they will perish. Now I know Jacob was afraid of Esau for good reason and he was using the condition of his flock to keep himself comfortable, yet if it weren't true that a good shepherd would care thus for his flock, it would not have worked as a viable excuse. And it is what a good shepherd must do. But our God is the good shepherd and He will gently lead those who are caring for children. Through sickness and fear and struggle, He has gently led me to care for these children.

Not only was He creating the child within me, but the struggles and exhilarations of pregnancy were preparing me for motherhood. There was an amazing sort of inner growth that was happening as I gave myself body, heart and soul to the bearing of my child. As I endured those symptoms and coped, sometimes in dismay, with the discomfort of my distorted body something more than the baby was growing within. Born with my child was the most tender, most terribly fierce, most astonishing love ever felt. And it was there -big enough but not full grown- the moment I saw his face.

During the tough physical strain of pregnancy, while I was yearning and hoping, the wisdom God promised had been dropped deeply in me. How did I know that I must not give my newborn son formula with milk in it? I remember an inner shudder with the thought of giving Eric milk-based formula. Certainly God kept my hand -- despite mocking and pressure from people -- from giving this child dairy-based formula that we now know would have probably killed him. (Eric has a life-threatening allergy to cow's milk products as we discovered later.)

Now when I am facing difficult challenges at home or at work, in relationships or in my writing, I remember what pregnancy taught me. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that it is every Christian's lifelong task to create types of heaven on earth. How can I do this when life hurts and hell is replicated around me with a firey glee? I look back on those amazing and tender times when I came to know God's care for me, when I saw His vision for my home life. I remember what it felt like for the first time and in a certain, deliberate way to cooperate with God. I recall how we worked together to create something that He had willed and designed-- someone he had dreamed of and had loved in the most poignant and sacrificial way.
Colossians 2 reminds me that "as you received Christ Jesus, so now walk in Him." And though I probably have the theology wrong, I like to remember those intial steps in my faith, the blossoming of trust, the establishme of prayerful reliance, the first experiences of waiting on God and hoping in Him, the freedom of keeping my mind and heart open to His wisdom and inspiration. And I try again to walk in that same trusting way.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Eight Hands Around
The thought of "eight hands around" brings up lots of images. One friend suggested that it refers to my four children and though I love that idea, I had not thought of it! The name is the title of the quilt store that I wrote about in my novel Solomon's Puzzle. And like all the titles in the book, this also came from the practice of sewing quilts. Not only is it the name of a quilt block, but it also brings to mind the image of women gathering together around a quilt -- one on each side -- together to stitch the three soft layers.
My thought is to encourage a community of creativity and giving as inspired by the historic practice women helping to finish an important project. In my book, the quilt shop owner and her husband join with the members of their town "to finish" or redeem a boy who is awakening to the truth about himself. As well, the quilt shop owner has organized a kind of underground system of giving that lifts hearts in her home town, Annapolis. With a great deal of art, love and beauty the women of Eight Hands Around quietly respond to needs such as a family without heat or with illness or in despair. The project to be finished, in this use of the title, is the biblical commandment to care for the poor. In my novel then, Eight Hands Around is what in my literature class I would call a controlling image-- a motif, an idea that appears again and again in a different shades, sizes or slants, creating color, complexity, pattern and meaning.
But just as quilters like to work on many quilts, we have many projects in our hands at all times. We are creating beautiful homes, we are loving our families and hoping to create a picture of heaven in them and through them. Who can do this alone?!
I can never make a decorating decision by myself. I have to discuss my dream for the space, stand with friends and family and imagine the slant of the sunlight. It is their presence that helps me think. When my daughter in law, Andrea, called me on Friday to say she was abandoning a decorating project, her frustration was dispelled by a quick brainstorming meeting where our discussion-- with measuring tape and fabric swatches --clarified her vision. I think she has a to-do list, now.
In the past week, I've been encouraged the requests of Valerie, Andrea, Jackie, Care, Stefanie, Karlene, Heather and Jada to hear my thoughts. For me writing is compelling, but difficult. Their kindness in asking about my novel or urging me to start a blog has been like friends gathering to help me put together the bits of beauty and pattern I've created. But more so, by gathering around me, by lifting the burden of doubt from my shoulders they have made me able to drawn in good, fresh air. So, my hope is that this blog will inspire us to come together in prayer and practice.