Happy Birthday

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Five years ago and about a month or so before today, I got a phone call. It was from my friend and he was in Chinatown in San Francisco with his friend and her brother. Her brother has some developmental issues – I don’t know the extent or what type, but really that doesn’t matter. Today, he traveled from the group home he lived in to San Francisco to meet his sister and her friend. He did part of this journey by himself, following their directions because the initial ride to pick him up fell through. After they met him, they traveled by public transport. I think they took him to the Castro and the pier/waterfront, but I’m not sure if I’m remembering it correctly from this particular visit.

It was Chinese New Year in Chinatown in San Francisco. This would have been a big deal for anyone, let alone someone who wasn’t familiar with crowds and noise, the tastes, and the other things happening that was both new and strange and in the end, hopefully wonderful.

And it was.

I know because I received a phone call, asking me to call the brother and congratulate him on all he’d done that day. It was a social media request to their mutual friends, but at the time, no one had called, so I was asked to stand in and give him the sound of a voice.

I was extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t know the brother and I had had my problems with the sister, but the cause was honorable, and important, and everyone should hear when they’ve done good; when they’ve done what others had deemed the impossible.

Congratulations were definitely in order.

I called. I spoke to him, and he was just as excited as he should have been. His accomplishment was huge. We talked for a minute or two and then he handed the phone to my friend. We said hello and goodbye and then the phone calls were coming in to wish E the best.

I can only imagine that the accolades were equal to the accomplishment in E’s mind. He did the impossible.

Happy Birthday to Brittany, his sister who would have been thirty-two today. I still pray for you every day, and when my lilac tree blooms in the spring, I think of you. I think of you often.

50-4 – Kitchen Zest

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In recent months and recenter days my monthly writing workshop has given prompts that refer to the kitchen. Well, let me correct that. The November prompt was about the kitchen and how it was different and/or similar to the one we had growing up. The March prompt was zest, which I took to mean the kitchen item, so for me the two prompts were about the kitchen. By way of this introduction, I hope that I succeed in blending the two into a competent essay (is there another word for essay – that sounds very middle school-y. Also article makes it sound dull and informative. Everything around me speaks to my writing, my words and the use of them. Including this whatever it is about kitchens.)

My kitchen growing up was already pretty modern albeit with the avocado and mustard colors of the seventies. I. understand that these are coming back in a retro look. One word: why? Lord, please no. Not that my current black and white cow kitchen is all that special, but seriously, just no.

In our house, we complained constantly about loading and emptying the dishwasher. We don’t have a dishwasher. I would love a dishwasher even if my husband does do most of the dishes.

My parents always had a coffee maker. My Dad drank coffee every day, throughout the day. He would often make a full pot as if company were coming and still go out to the local deli for a Styrofoam cup there too. In my house now, we only recently got a coffee maker because my son asked for it as a Christmas present for his father with the half wink that he wouldn’t mind using it as well. I know for a fact that if I was a coffee drinker we’d have one of those machines that does everything from grinding the beans to foaming the milk. I’m a tea drinker. The most complicated device for making my tea is the loose tea strainer that must be emptied and rinsed. It is the only thing I wash immediately upon finishing its use.

In my parents’ house, we had a clear glass pot. It must have had a lid at some point, but I never remember it. We never had a kettle. This was the pot we’d boil water in for tea or hot chocolate. More often than not, I’d boil eggs for my father for him to enjoy hard-boiled eggs. Ironically that along with not drinking coffee, hard-boiled eggs repulse me. My grandmother had one of those metal percolators. To me that will always be the three-dimensional puzzle that I played with on her kitchen floor. Fitting all the pieces together in the right way was how I spent much of my toddlerhood and preschool life.

Our kitchen looks modern with an electric stove and a microwave that is twenty-one years old, but doesn’t look a day over ten. Our counters are Formica or some other kind of plastic, very similar to my family’s old kitchen table. The sink leaks although we’ve changed out the faucet and now it’s much better. The fridge is a testament to American craftsmanship, and hopefully will continue on until we have the money to replace it, millions of years in the future.

The one thing my kitchen has that my house didn’t is a window over the sink that looks out over the backyard. I actually enjoy doing the dishes if I can look out of a window to the world outside. Depression killed that small pleasure.

My mother had a toaster and a toaster oven. We have both in one appliance. It was a gift from my brother and it is probably the most useful thing that we have in our kitchen. Also the most used.

I have about a thousand spices more than my mother’s kitchen. She had four – black pepper, garlic powder, paprika, and onion powder. Salt didn’t count as a spice but she had that as well. Morton’s, of course. When I was married and moved into my first apartment, my mother gave us a container of Morton’s salt (it’s a Jewish tradition to give bread and salt for a new house, although I’m sure it’s not limited to only that culture). We had that same original container of salt when we moved, had our first child and moved again.  My spices come from Penzeys or the Spanish section in my local supermarket. My friend also sent me spice samples from California – one month Indian, one Asian, one Hispanic, and soon I was hooked into playing around in the kitchen with a variety of tastes and flavors, mixing cultures and flavors and loving it.

My mother was not much of a cook. She had one or two things that she did and she did them really well. The smell of meatloaf baking or a roast beef just come out of the oven take me back to the couple of the things my family actually cooked. My mother made roasts all the time – regular roast beef from an eye round or top round, and pot roast in a Ziploc oven bag from a bottom round. I was the meatball and meatloaf maker and mixer. My Dad loved it and so it was my job to make it every couple of weeks. My kids finally like the meatloaf, so it will become a staple in our kitchen again. Instead of ketchup, try it with some HP Sauce. Check the international aisle – it’s from Great Britain and it’s fantastic.

For a long time during my childhood, my grandmother (or her sister, my aunt) lived with us, practically the whole time, so she did all the cooking since my parents both worked. Nothing really stands out which is sad. I’m sure she must have made some good meals. What’s really sad is that I would probably remember them more if they were terrible. After she went into a nursing home, it fell to my parents. I was often asked by my father to make those meatballs or a meatloaf or even to boil the eggs for him. We never ate chicken unless it was fried chicken from a take-out place. Best. Fried. Chicken. Ever. My mother had a real aversion to raw chicken.

When I got married and started cooking real food, I cooked everything. I called it “from scratch” but I didn’t bake bread or mix my own icing or anything like that. I’d buy the boneless chicken, put a sauce on it, bake it and make the rice and some kind of frozen vegetable boiled on the stove top. At least I stopped eating canned except for green bean casserole or what cans we get generously from the church. I actually never used my microwave except as a timer that first year and probably not even until after my son was born. As I mentioned above, we still use that same microwave today. Popcorn, leftovers, frozen burritos.

The reason I’m reminded of this is that simple word, the prompt – zest. I had no idea what it was, what it meant. There was a soap called Zest; somewhat reminiscent or similar to Irish Spring, but putting that in an ingredient for cake didn’t make much sense at all. Even to a novice in the kitchen like me.

Having quite the Tupperware collection, I definitely had a zester; it was one of those freebies you got for attending a party or playing a game. I still didn’t know what it did.

Was the zest the same as the rind? What was the rind anyway? Do you mean the skin off the lemon? Orange? Limes? People use limes?Why? Do they mean the part that gets peeled off and thrown away? The garbage? You want to put the garbage in the cake or the pie or the syrup? I just don’t understand.

And I wouldn’t for many years. If it called for zest or rind, I left it out or added a tiny bit more extra juice – same thing, right?

Finally, a close friend took pity on me. He taught me how to bake bread over the phone. Caramel, too. And how to zest an orange. Or a lemon. It’s pretty much universal, I think. He is why I have a small jar of dried orange peels in my refrigerator at this very moment.

I still don’t understand what difference it makes.

All I know is that my children will never know this intellectual emptiness of wondering and being embarrassed with their lack of zesty intelligentsia. Fortunately for them, when I’m cooking or baking or experimenting in the kitchen I have my trusty tablet, one screen opened to my cookbook, one opened to the Google home page for any questions that might arise. like that loaf of fresh bread under the tea towel. Why they’re called tea towels is another mystery to my pre-cooking self; one that will undoubtedly be rehashed here in future days.

Lenten Almsgiving

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While the use of the word Almsgiving has fallen out of the modern vernacular, it is still to be found in religious language and one of the three tenets to be acknowledged during Lent along with fasting and prayer. Many of us give money to our churches and temples and a variety of other charitable organizations, but how many of us specifically give alms to the poor?

In the nearby city, there are several soup kitchens, homeless shelters, a city mission, and poor boxes in a variety of church denominations. Unless we are involved int he day to day lives of the poor, we do not always see the needs.  We leave it to our friends and neighbors. Much of this is without thought. Whenever I pass someone asking for money on the road, my first inclination is to roll down my window and give something to them.

Unfortunately, in this electronic world of debit cards, I rarely have any cash in my pocket.

One of the groups that is organized out of my church (and out of many churches across the country) is the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Even before I was a member of my parish, they helped me many times, including with money for a much needed hot water heater. When I went to them it was for advice, perhaps they had a suggestion of a reliable company to use or one that offered the group a discount. I had not expected money towards the heater even though we desperately needed financial assistance. We’re one of hundreds of families who request and are given help throughout the year with both money, food, and resources. Contact your local society or go through your local Diocese’s website for ways to reach them and contribute, not just money, but time as well.

Every year, despite our own monetary shortcomings, I try to give back a. little bit towards them.

Also at the top of my list is our local volunteer fire department. This is not necessarily an alms in the traditional sense of the word, used for the poor, but our local firefighters do not get paid and they come out to help with fires and medical emergencies whenever they are called, no matter the weather or time of day (or night).

Places where I try to send my money when I have it follow below. Please add your own suggestions and charities in the comments to make us aware of what opportunities are out there for us to donate to.

Don’t forget – you can donate more than money. Many charities are looking for clothes, household items, baby items, school supplies, and your time and talent. As the organization before you drop things off so you can make sure that they need what you’d like to give them. Items should definitely be in good, working order and be clean. Imagine if you were receiving this item.

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Almshouses in Llanrwst, North Wales built by Sir John Wynn in 1610 as seen from the entrance at Ancaster Square

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View of the alley of Almshouses in Llanrwst, North Wales as viewed from St. Gwrst Parish Church and the Afon Conwy

Random Acts
 
American Red Cross

The Trevor Project

Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation

Human Rights Campaign

Lenten Prayer

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Prayer is one of those things that sounds like an easy fix, but it is far from that. It is also not rocket science. Prayer is one of those things that is very individual to each person doing it. There is no right way or wrong way to pray. As long as it’s meaningful to you,  you’re doing it right.

It took me a long time to figure that out. While I’ve always believed in G-d and had conversations with him, I had always found formal prayer to be out of my reach.

There are many opportunities during the Lenten season to pray a little extra each day and to spend some of that time in contemplation of those things for Lent: fasting, abstinence, penance, almsgiving and prayer itself.

One suggestion that was just offered at a recent retreat is that upon waking up in the morning, sit up in bed with your eyes closed and breathe slowly. No special counting or breathing necessary, just try and clear your mind. No thinking, no listmaking, no complaining. Think about what you’re grateful for, thank G-d for all that He’s given you, all that you have and get ready to start your day.

Think about the ways you can be better, can do better. Last Lent I tried to pray the rosary every day. This Lent, I’m trying to be a little quieter in my thoughts and writing a bit more and looking inward.

When I first began to attend the daily masses at my church, I never knew what to pray for during the prayer of the faithful. It was easy to pray for the sick and the dead – that’s right there in the big print. I had people who were sick, including myself; I had people who had died, but what were my silent intentions? I felt that I needed something tangible to think about in order to pray for it. If I had nothing more tangible to pray for, I had started praying for patience, courage and strength. Sometimes it was a bit more – patience with my kids, courage with my therapist and the like, but it couldn’t hurt and it still felt respectful.

At that recent retreat, I was reminded of an interview Mother Theresa gave on television where she was asked what she spoke to G-d about during her prayers. Her answer was, “Nothing, I just listen.” And while she’s listening, what was it that G-d was saying to her? Her answer to the reporter was, nothing. He just listens.”

Sometimes the silence is enough for our prayers to reach G-d. It’s taken me quite some time to find that place in my prayer. I can now sit in silence during a Mass without looking around, not sure if I’m doing it the right way. What I discovered is that my way is the right way for me. And we will all find our way.

That is one of the things I really love about The Little books. I’m currently reading The Little Black Book for Lent. On the left page is usually some kind of historical reference. On the right side is a portion of the day’s Gospel and a meditation. At the very bottom of the right hand page is the suggestion to “spend some quiet time with the Lord.”

Quiet time, contemplation, meditation, prayer.

Don’t let the focus rest on you. Focus on the joy of the season. Lent isn’t about you or me or the sin we might be running away from. It’s focus should remain on G-d. Every step on this journey should be moving us towards G-d. Lent gives us the opportunity to slow that journey down and look deeper into ourselves and our relationship with G-d.

At a recent Lenten reflection, the director told us to look at who we are and offer ourselves during this time. Lent gives us the time for reflection, for prayer, for thoughtful communion with G-d.

Lenten Fasting

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There are three major things that we are repetitively reminded are a main focus of Lent: fasting, prayer, almsgiving. I don’t believe they are sacraments, but instead are traditions followed. Please correct me if I’m wrong. In my writings, I’ve often replaced fasting with penance. Both are important and often fasting leads to both prayer and penance at various times during our Lenten journeys.

Fasting.

When I was first going through the RCIA program, I was taught about Lent and the fasting that takes place on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in addition to abstinence from meat on Fridays. I had grown up with many changes in my friends Catholic lives- no meat at all, no meat on Friday, etc. Growing up Jewish, I thought that I knew all about fasting. We fast one day out of the. year, the Day of Atonement; Yom Kippur.

It’s very simple. After age 13, barring any medical reason, you fast. No food or drink for about twenty-four hours, from sunset to sunset. Traditionally, the fast is broken with breakfast food, but I would often make a roast beef with potatoes and challah bread, very similar to what my mother in law makes at Christmas.

Lenten fast is a little bit different. And not quite as simple.

From 7 years old until the age of 59, we are expected to fast. In this case, fasting means one normal size meal with two smaller meals and no in between meal snacks. You may drink water as far as I know. The fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On the Fridays of Lent, we are expected to abstain from meat. For our family, who have only two fish eaters and no cookers in the house, that usually means cheese pizza. Our church does a fish fry, which we try to attend at least once. Other good fish options in our area are Wendy’s Cod Sandwich (which is the best fast food fish sandwich I’ve tried) and Cracker Barrel who have a Fish fry every Friday even when it’s not Lent. Red Robin’s fish sandwich or plate are also good alternative options. We also have a local pizza place that has a fish fry during Lent.

So many rules for one simple thing – don’t eat.

I tend to follow the rules of Yom Kippur for the most part during the Lenten fast days although I do eat dinner as my solitary meal.

On both fast days, my church has either Mass or a prayer service so much of my day is taken up with prayer. Ash Wednesday has three options for receiving ashes. Good Friday has a prayer service, Stations of the Cross in the afternoon and then the Lord’s Passion in the evening.
I spend the rest of the day reading from my missal and The Little Black Book that I’ve mentioned before.I think. I meditate. I write.

As many of you have already seen, my writing is a part of each facet of my life, including, and especially, my spiritual life.

Fasting is one aspect of moving closer to G-d during this contemplative season.


Tomorrow: Prayer