Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mountain Retreat

I'm off to the mountains again this week. Two years ago I made my first solitary retreat in this remote destination, with some fear at the outset about being alone where there is no phone, and few people around. But the fear was gone the moment I walked through the cabin door and the reality of God's presence came freshly on me. Why had I been talking about being alone up there, when it was really God and I together for a few days? And it did end up being best kind of retreat and rejuvenation of the spirit, by the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps this time I will spend more time at night looking at the stars. That other outing it was late September and almost too cold for it at that high elevation. There are none of men's lights to interfere; I'll put on my glasses and lie on my back on the deck. I remember how the sight of those uncountable stars filled me with awe for God, and with God Himself, so much that I couldn't bear it for long.
Maybe I was unconsciously "thinking" ahead when I posted that poem and thoughts about night recently. I've been looking forward to the time for reading and prayer, and now that I start writing I'm reminded to anticipate the joy of the dark and starry night as well.
Our civilization has fallen out of touch with night. With lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it. Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars?
--Henry Beston
But back to the bookish part of the opportunity. The process of preparing for the trip by choosing my reading material (and even the food to bring, I might add) is a sort of pre-retreat. I know I won't be able to fully mine any of the treasure-troves that this list represents, but if I left one at home, it would surely be the one I'd want to dip into, right? In addition to a couple of the history or literature books from on my sidebar list, I'm taking these spiritually meaty ones.
Books for a Mountain Getaway:
Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Michael Pomazansky
The Inner Kingdom by Kallistos Ware
Little Russian Philokalia Vol. 1 by St. Seraphim
Courage to Pray by Anthony Bloom
On Prayer by Archimandrite Sophrony
Well, I'm going on my adventure, and pray God will bring me home to tell about it. If not, you'll all know that it really was unbearably glorious!
(I don't know what is with Blogger today--it either makes me have no space between paragraphs, or too much space. It's not my fault!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jello and Hospitality

In the Good Old Days, as they appear now to be, I never thought to make the kind of meal one might eat at a restaurant. We had soup and bread several nights a week, interspersed with stews made from whatever came from the vegetable garden, cooked with some eggs. If company came for dinner, I would add dessert, and set the table more carefully, but soup and muffins were still as likely as not the main event.

I was thinking about this the other night when our son-in-law was in town and I invited him to dinner late in the day. I didn't want to try to put together something really fancy because I didn't have a couple of hours to spend on it, so I concocted a quite decent dinner with what was in the refrigerator. Three leftover items, some ham from the freezer (I love the microwave!) and a green salad, and we were all quite happy with the result.

Jello wasn't on the table that night, but I am working on incorporating it into the menus more, being inspired from two directions. Gelatin salads are making a comeback in the culinary world; renowned chefs now create gelatin dishes that are gourmet. (Or am I behind-the-times again, and they are through that phase?) They aren't likely to have the Jello brand name in their titles, and all the artificial flavors or colors that we have become accustomed to, but that's all for the better.

My friend L.K. wrote to me about her grandmother recently, and Jello figures in the story, which I share with her permission:

I remember my grandmother always in the kitchen cooking for her visitors and family. She would wake up before everyone and start baking sweet treats for the day. There was always a cake, pie or cookies freshly baked. Then she would make breakfast which always consisted of pancakes or waffles along with the eggs, bacon, sausage and canned fruit.

After breakfast dishes were cleaned up she often times would start canning fruit or peeling apples to make into applesauce. At 9 in the morning she would go to the donut store across from her house and have a lively conversation with neighbors. In the afternoons she would walk to town or go to her sewing club, Canasta club, or help out at the hospital. For a short time she went to bridge club but she stopped going being they didn’t break from cards and have a time to eat and enjoy each other’s company.

Every evening my grandmother made a huge meal for whoever was around. She often invited people she met during the day to come over and enjoy a meal. She loved people and would talk with anyone. When I was very young I would be nudged by my grandmother’s foot to quit staring at the guests. After dinner when I was helping with the dishes she would be explaining to me that it wasn’t nice to stare and that the person just had a drinking problem and had a big nose or that they slurred words because they couldn’t afford teeth, were dressed differently because they couldn’t afford clothes.

In my grandmother’s eyes everyone deserved to be loved and accepted right where they were at in life. Often times she would not give me an explanation, but would say they are an “odd duck” and that they just need to be loved. Her house was so different than my home. My parents guarded their privacy and even built a fence around the perimeter of our land to insure that privacy. Sometimes people would come to our house and ring the intercom and my mother would ignore them hoping they would drive away quickly. “Don’t talk to people you don’t know,” was often the message I heard growing up. When we had people over it was after my mom had fretted and planned for days what she would make for a meal or how she would cope with the guests.

I have a couple of memories swirling in my head as I write this. My mother stating that, “I wish your dad wouldn’t invite so many people from work.” Then I have another memory of my grandmother in her kitchen exclaiming ,”I love Jello, you can make a quick dessert and it is so cheap and feeds so many!”

My grandmother thought Jello could add to almost any meal. I am surprised she didn’t incorporate it into breakfast. When she was around 90 years of age and moving to a retirement home she gave me all of her recipe books and tin boxes of recipes. In one tin box there were over 50 Jello recipes. Almost any ingredient I find in my refrigerator I can use in one of my grandmother’s recipes. She has used cottage cheese, sour cream, whipping cream, lettuce, grapes, pineapple, cucumbers, onions, cranberries, nuts and even kale, just to name a few. She had Jello molds hanging on her kitchen walls. She also had a special glass dish to show off her layered Jello recipes.

I am fortunate to have had many days in my grandmother’s kitchen. I don’t have quite the joy she had when she talked about Jello. My girls and I have tried many of her Jello recipes over the years. They don’t remember their great-grandmother ever cooking. They remember drinking root beer and eating store-bought cookies in her retirement home. So, I have the tin of recipes sitting on a shelf. I read them once in awhile when I want to feel close to my grandmother.

I don't remember eating Jello at my own grandmother's house, but I did inherit her recipe box that included quite a few recipes for gelatin dishes. My mother-in-law got me started serving a Jello "salad" at Thanksgiving and I continued the tradition for a long time because we all found it a welcome contrast to the heavy foods on our plates. Nowadays we try to have a couple of real vegetable salads on the sideboard at such feasts, but Jello is so much fun, I hate to abandon it entirely. I even made the rainbow jello pictured above for Christmas dinner one year. As my refrigerator is not level, it made for a wobbly rainbow that did not want to stand erect, but it is so pretty, I might even try it again now that several years have passed.

Grapefruit juice and fresh oranges went into the best concoction I made, and no artificial colors, but I haven't perfected that recipe, so I am going to give you one that comes down through my husband's German relatives. I don't care for it myself, but as I wanted this post to be about hospitality, it's only right that I give this example of something I made many times for my husband's sake, and for his birthday, actually.

Beet Salad

Heat in pan 1 cup water, 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar. Boil 5 minutes with the following seasoning: 3/4 teaspoon salt and 3 or 4 shakes allspice.

In a bowl put 1 package lemon or lime Jello. Add the hot liquid (above) and dissolve Jello completely. Add 1/2 cup beet juice drained from a #2 can (about a 20 oz. can) of beets, to make 2 cups of liquid, and the drained cubed or julienne beets from that #2 can. Put in a pan and refrigerate until firm.

Serve with a dressing made of 3 boiled eggs that have been cut up and mixed with mayonnaise and a bit of salt.

Whether you serve your guests Jello or gelatin or something else more elaborate or healthfully balanced, I hope it is a project that doesn't stress you out and keep you from putting your guests at ease, as the food is the least part of being truly hospitable.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What is Spot's Name?

B. has determined that Spot is a girl, and he doesn't like calling her Spot. Even if she never fully becomes our cat, I also would like her to have a good name. Any ideas? She is not cuddly. She is lean and energetic, confident about sneaking in and using our litter box (which Gus spurns) and stealing our toys. But she doesn't like to be picked up, and growls when we try to hold her. The Classic Bengal has gold eyes, I just read today. So she's something other than classic. Her blue eyes are the most beautiful thing about her, I think.

I'm not a natural at naming. I need to get on with my quilt project. So if one of you out there has any suggestions, I'd welcome any and all!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More Opposite #15

After getting less sleep than was needed last night, I wasn't feeling perky tonight, so what did I do? Eat too much ice cream. Then I read this excerpt from Richard Wilbur's More Opposites. So apropos.


The opposite of less is more.

What’s better? Which one are you for?

My question may seem simple, but

The catch is—more or less of what?

“Let’s have more of everything!” you cry.

Well, after we have had more pie,

More pickles, and more layer cake,

I think we’ll want less stomach-ache.

The best thing’s to avoid excess.

Try to be temperate, more or less.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love you, tomorrow.... I will be more temperate, not less.

To Walk in Spaciousness

On the Feast of the Transfiguration I was standing in church listening to the prayers a few minutes before the main service was to begin, when our rector handed me the Psalter and asked me to go outside and ring this bell. I was to ring it once by means of the foot pedal, read aloud a passage from the Psalter which was penciled off, push the pedal once more, read the next passage, and so on until another parishioner came to relieve me.
It was the first time I had ever rung that big bell. As I began chanting, I was praying the Psalm and at the same time reflecting on how I’d never known, when standing inside the church I heard those slow peals, that the bell-ringer’s voice was ringing out there along with the bell.
After a few stanzas, the words, “I walk in spaciousness, because I search Your commandments,” came out of my mouth and piqued my consciousness, as I did not remember reading that word spaciousness in the Bible before. Before I knew it, the skilled bell-ringer had come to my side and was gathering the ropes for all the other bells, getting ready to ring the full and celebratory announcement that accompanies the priest’s “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” and I went back in. I hadn’t noticed which Psalm it was that I was reading, partly because the number was in Roman numerals, and those don’t register without my actively working them out as a puzzle, however speedily.
So it was days later that I found out it was Psalm 119 (or 118 in the Septuagint, which we use) and verse 45. Before that, I’d searched all the Bible translations and discovered that spaciousness is not in them. It is in the lectionary of the Orthodox Church in America. The other translations do use similar language, such as “I'll stride freely through wide open spaces as I look for your truth and your wisdom.” (The Message) or “I will walk at liberty and at ease, for I have sought and inquired for [and desperately required] Your precepts.” (Amplified)
Just the week before, I’d been thinking about the negative and positive meanings of freedom and liberty. We can be free from something, or free for something. Even some of our positive freedom can be used to enslave, as T.S. Eliot put it: “Hell is where everyone must do what he wants.” That would be confinement, and not liberty.
This experience of true spaciousness can only be of God’s presence, or His energies, as the theologians explain it. And I like that Amplified phrasing, “I have sought and inquired for and desperately required Your precepts.” As Deuteronomy 4:29 explains, we find Him when we seek with our whole heart and soul.
Our whole heart and soul? I know that I have rarely felt that kind of wholeness. I am too scattered, distracted, agitated, muddled—even when I am not downright uninterested and double-minded. But occasionally I catch glimpses, of that spaciousness that is my Lord, the Holy Trinity in my heart. Breezes blow from those wide open spaces, and I know I am there for Now. And you can’t be in Now if you are wondering how long it will last.
This morning my dear friend at Bread on the Water sent me the whole of George MacDonald’s poem A Book of Strife in the Form of The Diary of an Old Soul, and I immediately looked, naturally, at the section titled “August,” which begins with this fitting stanza:

SO shall abundant entrance me be given
Into the truth, my life's inheritance.
Lo! as the sun shoots straight from out his tomb,
God-floated, casting round a lordly glance
Into the corners of his endless room,
So, through the rent which thou, O Christ, hast riven,
I enter liberty's divine expanse.

Now, I expect we will have plenty of full-sunny days for another month, which will remind me to contemplate the divine expanse of His endless room, and strive to enter into His spaciousness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I prefer to call "it" Spot, because Bengal Boy assumes too much. This gorgeous animal has been hanging out in our yard nearly every day, and tries to get Gus to play with him/her. It stole one cat toy already and nearly got away with a second.

What parents of such an expensive and exotic creature would let it roam the neighborhood? Is she really homeless? Is he just lonely? I'm halfway hoping our foster-parenting might lead to outright adoption. But for now, we just admire the beauty.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Things That Won't Stay

The Night Will Never Stay

The night will never stay,
The night will still go by,
Though with a million stars
You pin it to the sky;
Though you bind it with the blowing wind
And buckle it with the moon,
The night will slip away
Like sorrow or a tune.

-Eleanor Farjeon

Maybe this poem popped into my head in the shower this morning because I was thinking about the passing of Summer. Some people are ambivalent about Summer or plain dislike it, as they love another season so much more. But it doesn't last.

Even though we Christians are "children of the day," night does not belong to evildoers. My friend Tim taught me to consider the darkness of Deep Heaven (C.S. Lewis' preferred term for space) or the night sky not as empty, but rather, full of angels.

In the days before electric lights the night was long, especially in winter. It was common for people to spend many hours on their beds, but not sleeping all that time. In the middle of the night they would have the opposite of a nap, a period of being wide awake. During this time they would think or pray, during what the Psalmist refers to as the night watches.

Of course there is much physical beauty in the stars and moon, the smells and sounds of the night. There is nothing like sleeping outside on high mountains--especially if you can have your night and summer at the same time--and contemplating the glory of God in those uncountable stars. It's hard not to pray then.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What Am I About?

When a man is in earnest and knows what he is about, his work is half done.

My trouble is, I don't know what I am about. Or as we moderns would say, I lack focus. Some days the thousand details to be seen to, the hundred or so projects unfinished, don't bother me. But today is another matter.

Maybe I am in transition from a heavy thinking period into a time when I need to attend more to housework and at least a couple of those tangible projects. The philosophical questions, and the writing projects--I assure you, just cranking out a few good paragraphs for this blog is a Project-- can wait. It occurred to me that I should shut just down the computer for a spell, but then I remembered that if I write even a few words on the subject, it will help me come to grips with my "problem." And in the process, I'll share a few things from my week, somewhat haphazardly.

I recently started a new project, just to make things more difficult. A baby quilt for which there is a deadline, of course. Deadlines are just a facet of time, and time is not a bad thing. Christ sanctified time, if that were needed--and I don't want to start thinking too much here!--when He entered it. So time, and deadlines, are all part of being human, and I mean that in a good way, as Christ was The Human. He had a deadline, the cross, but He never hurried or fretted.

This photo is one of two baby quilts I've made, both more than twenty years ago! I don't want to show you the fabric for the current one yet, because I want it to be at least partly a surprise.

The photo of melon and blueberries is a beautiful image, yes? Those two just seemed to belong together. But it was an idea based solely on the visual sense, and failed completely when tested by the tongue. The honeydew was SO yummy by itself, and the blueberries were perfectly sweet and distincti
ve in that flavor that blueberries have. But together they clashed, or rather, the honeydew completely ruined the blueberries, and you wouldn't know by that bowlful of color that blueberries were anything but flat and sour at the same time.

The fruit bowl surprise ties in to another somewhat philosophical point--about our western emphasis of the visual-- that will have to wait. If I ever get back to that part of what I am about I'll post the picture again. It's pretty enough for a repeat.

There are two types of basil at left. The green one is growing in my garden, and the purple-tinged bunch was given to me by K.

I washed it and spun it dry and did make pesto, though she wasn't sure the flavor would be right. "Everyone" has a pesto recipe so I am not going to post mine. I got it about 30 years ago from a weekly very small-town newspaper, a recipe from a local woman who used sunflower seeds instead of nuts. Since then I have adapted and changed the recipe and switched to walnuts and then pine nuts and back again.

Pesto is infinitely variable. Depending on what you are going to do with it you might want to use more olive oil--or butter, as an Italian lady I knew used to do--to make it more runny. You might like to add some parsley or use toasted almonds as the last recipe I looked at did.

This time I was putting it on toast. We thought the flavor was outstanding. And just for good measure, I'll show you the pan of zucchini I served that night.

I've lately noticed a phenomenon repeated from the past: one spends so much time cultivating the vegetables that it's hard to get back in the house to cook them into the dinner. B. used to come out in the garden looking for me, asking if there was a plan for dinner that night?

Today I knew what I was about when I did my gardening in the morning! Tonight I will be ready.

I watered the vegetables and made a second picking of Blue Lake beans--wait! Do those look like Blue Lakes? You're right, most of them certainly do not. A few, from last year's seeds, are true to type, but my packet was mislabeled. The beans I am getting are mostly sticky, coarse and with a flat profile. They will probably have a bean-y taste, if they resemble Romanos across the board.

Hmm...another surprise in life. If you can't get what you like, you have to like what you get. I'll just slather them with pesto and everyone will love them.

Anyway, the green bean tower-tepee looks pretty, especially with that Celtic cross my friend H. gave me in the background.

This last picture is of my favorite flowers this summer, some nasturtiums and lobelia in a big pot that was a bargain at Food Maxx of all places. Year after year I try to get new varieties of nasturtiums to grown from seeds or plants in many places all over the garden, but they never take. Instead, the standard variety keeps growing in the cracks in the concrete around the pool pump where no one sees it.
So this year I put two healthy starts in a pot, and with more TLC they are thriving. I'm wondering if I should place the pot over against the fence and encourage some seeds to self-sow in the ground...
Now for a closing thought, before I leave you to attend to the other kind of work--or toil:
Toil is man's allotment; toil of brain, or toil of hands, or a grief that's more than either, the grief and sin of idleness. --Herman Melville

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Too Many Big Books

Returning books to the library unread always gives me a feeling of sadness. I hated to send these back without a farewell, and perhaps an honorable mention here by way of a photo. They didn't go completely neglected, either--I skimmed and read bits here and there.

When I had put several volumes on hold during snatches of time away from my couch last month I didn't take the time to notice how many pages were there waiting to be tackled. Today when I hauled them from the car to the deposit slot my elbow nearly popped out of its socket from the weight.

But I did keep one by Coetzee, one on Hawaii, and one on Africa, with hopes of reading on a retreat this month. And now that I can gaze long at food blogs again I don't need a whole book on risotto, do I? The top two items are sets of tapes I thought we might listen to in the car on trips, but that didn't happen.

There are many thoughts stewing, to be written about the books I actually did read during that intensive period. But this nearly empty communication is far easier to accomplish.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Recalling Pies and Martyrs

This week's pies probably aren't anything you will want to imitate, but I couldn't miss the chance to add a post to the Pie category.

First there was the Lenten Pie Challenge. For myself, I would not bother baking or eating a pie made without butter, or at least eggs, and would wait until after a church fast to eat the real thing. But today at church we were commemorating Saint Lawrence of Rome, patron saint of our rector, who loves pies. We are in the middle of a short period of fasting, so if we want to show our appreciation by baking pies for him, they need to be vegan.

Let me interject a story about today's saint, who lived in the third century, and an icon that is painted on a door in our church. It shows St. Lawrence and also the first martyr Stephen. Click on it to see more detail, and their names.

The Jewels of St Lawrence

After the death of Sixtus, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church. Ambrose is the earliest source for the tale that Lawrence asked for three days to gather together the wealth. Lawrence worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect, "The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor." This act of defiance led directly to his martyrdom.

Last year for this celebration I made some apricot pies with lots of walnuts. They would have looked much like the picture below but for the walnut meal on top of the pies that didn't get photographed. This year I decided to try something with coconut and pineapple. I used canned pineapple, shredded dried coconut, coconut milk, and some other things. The challenge was mostly knowing how much thickening to include. I made two, and they were well-received at the brunch following church, but I'd like to improve the recipe before I pass it on. It's unlikely, at any rate, that many of my readers are holding their breath waiting for vegan pie recipes.

It didn't feel right, making pies to take to church when my dear laboring husband was not there to partake--even though he did assure me that my weird pie did not appeal. So I made him a cherry pie today that he and his father could share.

On rare occasions I have been given fresh pie cherries and without a doubt they make the best pies. But the menfolk around here are perfectly pleased with the results that come from using canned pie filling, so I often settle for that. There's no recipe to share, except to say that for one 9" or 10" pie you must buy two cans of filling at a price that is likely outrageous these days. I recommend finding a generous friend with a cherry tree.

Still, the pie is homey-looking and you can almost smell the butter. In my past pie-posts I forgot to tell you that when I bake a pie that needs to be in the oven for the better part of an hour I put some foil collars around the fluted edge of the crust, to keep it from getting too brown. Many people don't eat this part, but for the sake of us who do, I want to keep it edible and beautiful. A pie doesn't seem too appetizing to me if its crust is approaching the color of the bottom of my oven. This task takes a few extra minutes, because one has to be careful not to smash the dough with the foil. You might decide that it's not worth the trouble.

You have to watch the pie in the oven and decide whether to take the collar off a few minutes before the pie will be coming out. It can happen that if your pie dough recipe doesn't have sugar or milk in it, the crust will not brown as much as you want if you leave the protective collar on until the end of baking. This pastry recipe uses sugar, which is probably why the crust browned nicely even with the foil reflecting some of the heat. I didn't remove the guard until the pie came out of the oven.

This cherry pie might have kept a sharper fluted edge if I'd stuck it in the fridge for a while, but I was too impatient. And I don't mind the relaxed look.