Thursday, December 30, 2010

Feasting in Time and Timelessness

Seeing as how I was determined to bask restfully in the light of Christmas for another week or so, attending the local monastery for a midweek communion service seemed the perfect sort of activity. The Body and Blood of the Savior is the best food, one of the limitless Holy Mysteries God has given for our life and salvation.

At the monastery they are on the Old Calendar, so the Nativity Feast is still more than a week in the future. But our parish church, to which they are attached, is New Calendar, and we are all used to the differing dates for these feasts and commemorations. The nuns are happy to greet us general parish folk with "Christ is born!" even though they are waiting a bit longer to say it among themselves. And we are happy to step back thirteen days and be with them in the Lord who is timeless.

My godmother sent me an online Advent calendar, which I opened on December 24th or so. She said the Nativity is timeless. And I got that feeling during my visit among the mixed calendarists. As Father Stephen says here, "He is the Feast of Feasts," and the substance of our faith, no matter what age we live in. I'm glad I happened to see Fr. Stephen's blog before publishing my little report on the monastery visit, because he says so many things clearly that I barely grasp with my mind, but am experiencing in the Church.

Like this:
To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” [the Resurrection and the Second Coming] is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.
Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.
          ....
In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith.
In the Eucharist we all were partaking of Him Who is our Faith, and were experiencing in Him the Nativity, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Second Coming -- our whole salvation history -- even as we know that at the level of earthly time, the Second Coming is still ahead. That is definitely a Mystery.

After the service many of us pilgrims stayed for a lenten lunch. I remarked about some bright orange squash on the sideboard and the nuns told me how it volunteered itself in service to them last summer. Ordinarily they like to have a big garden, but not many young women live there and it is increasingly hard for the community to do the physical work; this year they didn't get much planted, though they have plenty of space.

Behold, a squash plant sprouted and spread its vines vast and wide, bearing several giant fruits, which we agreed look like a cross between a Hubbard and a Butternut. For the meal they cooked part of one, and then split another open to send pieces home with several of us. I started this blog post mostly to tell about the amazing squash, but I got carried away as is common.

Last week Baby made a wonderful Curried Butternut Squash Bisque the day after she flew in for the holidays. I might cook it again with this blessed squash -- it was very tasty served plain -- and if I do, I'll post the recipe.

Christ is born!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clean Money

My grandmother had grown up on a farm where she was probably comfortable with animals and "good clean dirt." But when we knew her she had lived in the city for a long time (not The City of San Francisco, though) and was comfortable with us washing our hands quite frequently, especially if we had handled "dirty money," i.e., all money. She wore gloves quite a bit, for different purposes. It's very easy for me to pull up the image of her holding her soft leather driving gloves that she had just removed, which kept the fragrance of her warm and soft hands.

When my sisters and I visited her from our farm in the Central Valley she would take us across The Bay Bridge to The City. We dressed up in our finest and made a day of it, though I have no memory of just what we did there. Today I was made to wonder if she took us to the Saint Francis Hotel for lunch, because she would have liked the fact that they keep their money clean.

As a proper housewife I appreciate the use of soap and water and the impulse to keep things fresh and sanitary for the health of my family. Probably even the saint for whom the hotel is named wouldn't have turned down a gift of soap. Or money, whether clean or dirty.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More than a week left...

More than a week remains of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and am I glad!  The days leading up to and including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flew by in such a flurry of church and family that I am fairly flattened. Today is the first of my restful days and I'm in happy R&R from wonderfully happy times.

Here is a hodgepodge of photos and memories from the last two weeks, probably not in precisely chronological order.

Of course, there were the doll clothes I sewed on for a couple of weeks, and did manage to mail to Littlest Granddaughter (working on a nickname for that one) on the 15th. An entire blog post will have to be dedicated to the small garments, later. I hear that the lucky dolly donned them immediately.

 Then K. and I went to San Francisco again with little T. who is now 5. We did the usual cable car, Chinatown, and riding the elevator to the 31st floor of the Saint Francis Hotel to look over the city broadly and straight down at Union Square and the ice rink (photo).

We rode up and down several times and there was never a doorman to tell us, as he told poor Babar, "This is not a toy, Mr. Elephant."


The gingerbread house in the lobby at the Fairmont Hotel was even more glorious this year, being two stories high. We were favored by meeting a baker who was doing maintenance on the candy that had already been nibbled by children.

Last year there were signs asking people not to eat the house, but not this year. So evidently some have felt more liberty to partake, at least of parts that were protruding a bit; I didn't notice any chunks missing from the gingerbread bricks. The baker repairman gave T. a chocolate Santa.



Not to be outdone, the Saint Francis Hotel had a giant sugar castle in the lobby there.







After the San Francisco trip I mostly cleaned and cleared rooms to make places for six soon-arriving family members to sleep. We didn't get our tree up until the day before Baby flew in, so she helped us decorate.

One of my favorite ornaments is this doll who came from the Czech Republic just as the gifter had: our friend Tylda had sneaked across the border to Austria about the time I was born, when Czech was still joined to Slovakia.

The little man is about 35 years old, the last remaining salt dough ornament of which B. and I painted and baked a whole set with which to decorate one of our first Christmas trees. He is looking a bit crumbly, as though his flesh is gradually vanishing into the atmosphere.




Pippin and her family left the snow to come and be with us. "My" deer looked like this when she snapped their photo before driving down.


Seventh Grandson Scout was way livelier than last year and entertained us all. We managed to keep him from falling down the stairs, and he was heard exhorting himself, "No, no..." not to bother the Christmas tree. His aunt gave him the perfect hat!


Newlyweds Soldier and Doll were with us, too, for several days. Oldest daughter Pearl sent them darling Mr. and Mrs. Snowman ornaments that she made.

 
And I got my own striking couple, crazy-eyed marionettes brought from India last year by Baby.

The married couples returned to their homes already, and as I write, we are nearing the departure of the last child and the return of Quieter Nest. But I plan to enjoy all the remaining days of Christmas, with meditations on the Nativity, and wait a while before I get out the After-Christmas to-do list I made a while back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Within Our Reach

At Christmastime my thoughts keep turning to all my friends and family whom I will not be with for the feast, and I want to pick up the phone to talk to each one, to tell all that I miss them, tell them that if I were with them I'd hug them tight. The Father's gift of Love, of His only-begotten Son, is the quality of love that is expansive and overflowing in its essence. It -- He --fills the universe, and will fill us to the degree that we are empty of self. I guess just thinking of it makes me feel more like sharing.

Sometimes I cry because I miss these people whom I can't touch and look in the eye; mostly the tears are out of gratefulness for having so many people in my life to love. Following fast on the heels of that thought is the chance to soak up that Love myself in the moment of grace. I notice, though, that this kind of quietness is hard to hold on to as the busyness factor multiplies now, and there's definitely no time to be chatting on the phone with all my beloveds.

This poem that Maria posted to set December's mood on her excellent Poem a Day is what I would like to say to everyone, every creature made in God's image. And also, "God is with us!"
 
LETTER TO A FRIEND 

I salute you. There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give you, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today:
Take heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present:
Take peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy:
Take joy.
And so at this Christmas time I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

~ Fra Giovanni Giocondo (1435?-1515), Italian Franciscan friar and scholar

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Trees Relate

The only thing I don't like about the modern Christmas tree custom is paying a lot of money for the tree. If it weren't for that, I'd want one in every room of the house. One time I did have two trees; I put a tiny one that my sister sent me in the kitchen and hung only bird and pine cone ornaments on it.

What follows about Christmas trees in Orthodox tradition comes from the St. Tikhon's Seminary bulletin, I understand, but I read it on Svetlana's blog. I added paragraphs to make it more readable online. The theology in this short article demonstrates how in Orthodox thinking and practice everything is related to everything else in God's creation. Thank you, God, for Christmas trees!



“I suspect that the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas time is not simply a custom which came to us from the West and which we should replace with other more Orthodox customs. To be sure, I have not gone into the history of the Christmas tree and where it originated, but I think that it is connected with the Christmas feast and its true meaning.



"First, it is not unrelated to the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah:
 ‘There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots’ (Is. 11:1). St. Cosmas the poet had this prophecy in mind when he wrote of Christ as the blossom which rose up out of the Virgin stem from the stump of Jesse. The root is Jesse, David’s father, the rod is King David, the flower which came from the root and the rod is Theotokos. And the fruit which came forth from the flower of the Panagia is Christ. Holy Scripture presents this wonderfully.

"Thus the Christmas tree can remind us of the genealogical tree of Christ as Man, the love of God, but also the successive purifications of the Forefathers of Christ. At the top is the star which is the God-Man (Theanthropos) Christ.

Then, the Christmas tree reminds us of the tree of knowledge as well as the tree of life, but especially the latter. It underlines clearly the truth that Christ is the tree of life and that we cannot live or fulfill the purpose of our existence unless we taste of this tree, ‘the producer of life’.

"Christmas cannot be conceived without Holy Communion. And of course as for Holy Communion it is not possible to partake of deification in Christ without having conquered the devil when we found ourselves faced with temptation relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where our freedom is tried. 

We rejoice and celebrate, because ‘the tree of life blossomed from the Virgin in the cave’.

”

Excerpt from: “The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the 12 Feasts and Orthodox Christology” by Metropolitan of Nafpatkos Hierotheos Vlachos – November 1993
.

Monday, December 13, 2010

St. Herman of Alaska


"O blessed Father Herman of Alaska, North star of Christ's holy Church, the light of your holy life and great deeds guides those who follow the Orthodox way. Together we lift high the Holy Cross you planted firmly in America. Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ, singing his holy Resurrection." 
-Troparion for the feast

Today we celebrated Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion) in honor of St. Herman of Alaska, a monk missionary sent from Russia in the late 18th century. He was known to feed animals such as ermine and bears, as in this icon.

The saint lived many years on Spruce Island, near Kodiak Island in the Aleutian group. Just hearing and thinking about the setting for his life and labors makes me shiver. I am such a lover of comfort! While I like to warm a rice bag in the microwave to put under piles of blankets at the foot of my bed, when the temperature outdoors is well above freezing, Father Herman would warm a board on the stove and use it for his only covering. Not cozy. But then, monks are known for seeking warmth not for their bodies, but in their souls, and they use their beds as reminders of the grave.

Father Herman was beloved of the people of Alaska for his intercessions before the civil authorities on behalf of the Aleuts who were often mistreated and enslaved. He prayed to God and he served those thankful people for over 40 years.

The icon is by L. Kintsurahvili of the Republic of Georgia.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Homey December Images

The most frequent vision before my eyes in the last days has been this little doll coat on which I am sewing a length of braid. Notice the word length. How can a little coat have such a long braid? I did not sew it by machine for very good reasons, too complicated to write about right now. The deadline for mailing the doll's wardrobe is fast approaching so there is no time for philosophizing either.





I have been seeing the cats come by more frequently with the rainy and sunless weather.  New Cat pictured here is friendlier than Jim, the black cat who's still eating at my step, going on a year now.






 This morning I built a fire in the stove just so I could take a picture of my new semi-antique and only partly worn out Persian rug (yes, it's from Iran!) to advantage. From now on the image of our family/dining room will be brighter even without a log fire.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Advent Retreat in San Francisco

The skies were gray above, the asphalt and sidewalks dark and wet below, but colors jumped out at me as we were leaving Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco this afternoon.

 Two of us had traveled to attend lectures by Father Alexander Golitzin on "The Advent of the Christ." Father Alexander is Professor of Patristics at Marquette University, and the lectures were rich with references to ancient Judaic texts, little-known Persian Christians in the 4th Century, the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament scriptures and the beloved liturgical hymns that tie our salvation history together into a whole.





My heart and mind didn't want Fr. Alexander to stop, even though I had the feeling as of a voice saying, "Whoa -- that is a bit much to feed me all at once." I left the cathedral worn out and happy, holding my notebook full of scrawls that I hope to meditate on further.

The flowers, though....they must be part of the large family of metaphors that tell about God taking on human flesh, entering our world as an infant at a particular point in history. Something about beauty and color and brightness breaking into the winter.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How Fasting Works

The fasting periods that the Church gives us are hard to write about on a personal level, so I appreciate it greatly when someone does a good job of it, like Svetlana on her blog My Sears Catalog Life. A blog name like that always makes me want to know more about the host, which is how I came upon her site.

What do I have to say about fasting? God, help!

Monday, November 29, 2010

First Doll Rebecca

I've begun sewing doll clothes for a Christmas present, and my sewing room is starting to get messy again, with all the scraps and pattern pieces swirling about like my creative juices. This doll and her clothes were waiting on the bed in that room, and as they have already been lost in the house several times in the last years, I thought I better take their pictures right away and add to my blog sewing archives the first successful doll clothes I ever made.

Oh, I sewed some other ones by hand when I was ten years-old or so, for my Barbie. But I didn't have a pattern, just laid the doll on some scraps, cut out what looked to me like the shape the garment should take, and when I sewed the pieces together I was always surprised at how ill-fitting the clothes were. I can almost see the very shirts and dresses in my mind, though I threw them away pretty early.

Rebecca was the first doll given to my first daughter Pearl. She was hard and small and her limbs didn't move, but I thought she was good enough to be The Doll, and I discouraged relatives from giving Pearl any more because "She has a doll already." I was different then.

Sewing for a doll like that is challenging; knitted clothes are a bit easier to get on when the dolly insists on holding her arms stiffly by her side. I wasn't an experienced knitter but I found some patterns for much larger doll clothes at the thrift store and managed to adjust them for this little mite. This gives me hope that in the future I might be able to at least knit a dishcloth that I like.

The pictures show most of the wardrobe I made for Rebecca 30-plus years ago. Nowadays I like to use velcro fasteners; I don't know if we didn't have it back then or if I just liked the old-fashioned and time-consuming snaps or button loops that the little girl almost certainly couldn't do up for her own doll. As I recall, the young children are good at ripping off the dolls' clothes and then they come to Mama to help them dress up the dolls again. If Mama is busy there can be a lot of naked dollies lying around.

Pearl did eventually get some other dolls, the My Friend Dolls made by Fisher-Price, and I sewed for them a little. I never thought to take photos of the clothes, but I plan to, next time I see Mandy, Becky and Jenny.

For the granddaughters' dolls, so far I've only made the clothes for Maxi-Muffin shown here. Now I'm working on an American Girl type of doll clothes, for which many patterns are available. With luck I'll have some photos of these creations within the month.

Because -- Christmas is COMING!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Into the Ocean


"As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God."

--St. Isaac The Syrian

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Around the Internet World

More odds and ends from the virtual library or discovery museum out there in digital space. Some of these I found a couple of months ago and then forgot to tell about. My collection has grown to such a size....I better pass these along NOW:

**I probably already told you about the The Poem Farm, which blogger Amy says "...is my poem-playground, a place to share teaching and writing ideas, and a cozy spot to highlight poetry in classrooms. If you are a teacher or a student, please consider sharing here on an upcoming Poetry Friday." A recent Poetry Friday post is at right.

**Yay! Vindication for my wooden cutting board. Since my wedding I have been using the lovely one my brother made in high school wood shop, and our family always seemed to be healthier than many, so I wasn't worried. I didn't dream, though, that wood is actually safer than plastic.

**A performance of Beautiful Bach was the kind of pleasant surprise one gets on Facebook sometimes. I understand the performer made a foot pedal for the chromatic button on his harmonica in order to play as he does here.

**Who couldn't use help on keeping the family car looking better? I was charmed and inspired by the practical and literally refreshing ideas Sobe Organized gives in these Steps toward a cleaner car.

** The Candy Professor shows us what a variety of real food ingredients was in candy in 1926, compared to what she calls our current "over-chocolated" world.

**Wayside Wanderer posted a thought-provoking sermon excerpt on what makes a truly Strong Woman.

**One of my favorite learning resources that I have mentioned many times in individual blog posts is The Mars Hill Audio Journal. It just occurred to me that I have failed to pass on to my readers an easy and free way to get a taste of what is available through this audio magazine. Though they don't provide bonus CD tracks any longer on the bimonthly journals, the old listenable tracks are online and ready for anyone to hear at the click of a mouse. Some of my favorite authors and thinkers are on this list, discussing everything from Ents, Mozart, and Hawthorne to Ritalin, reality TV, and Wendell Berry. Maybe someone reading this will get sparked into a discussion after listening to one of these short interviews. Tell me if you do!

Probably no one has time now with holiday or holy-day preparations going on,  to actually look at these pages, but they will keep.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Demigods and Monsters

Hermes was really the one who thought of the Internet. I just learned that fact, which should have been a no-brainer, from the book I'm reading, one of a series that Philosopher grandson recommended to me. He finished all five books before he even told me about this new interest, and that he'd moved on from The Magic Tree House and The Cats (Warriors), so I have to get busy and read at least one book or he'll be on to something else and I'll be left too far behind to have good talks about the story.

The series is Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The only one on the shelf at my local library was The Sea of Monsters, so I took it home and found that it has been read enough times that it will stay propped open on the bookledge that my treadmill at the gym provides. Three times I've been so engrossed that 45 minutes passed almost painlessly.

Ric Riordan wrote these stories, which are a marvel of creativity and imagination. In the world he has created, Greek gods still live and procreate with humans, "siring" a slew of Half-Bloods who face numerous challenges of two kinds. They have to navigate everyday life in middle school while keeping their ancestry secret, even though their senses clue them in to the real identities and purposes of some of their classmates. The bullies from out of town who cause a brawl in the gym, for example: most people don't realize that they were actually Laistrygonian giants bent on destroying our hero, a son of Poseidon.
 
The second type of challenge is fighting the wars and solving the problems that are caused by their parents' shenanigans. It's good that the special kids have a camp just for their kind, where everyone understands the true reality of things and they can learn what they need to know about the players in this game they didn't ask to join. But the campers and directors are as prone to bicker and fight as those in the more traditional tales we might be familiar with.

Or we might not be familiar with them. No doubt very few middle-schoolers these days have parents who know the Greek myths well enough to teach this part of the canon of Western Civilization, if they had time for that sort of thing. I can say this with confidence because even I, a homeschooling mother with great motivation to teach the classics, had to let some things slip through the cracks, and mostly for reasons beyond my control.

Speaking of control, one of the hard parts of being a child is that so many of the things that make you suffer are not in your power to change. How many children have absentee fathers, or parents who generally don't take responsibility for their actions and leave the children feeling abandoned? Such children could relate to our tribe of half-bloods, many of whom also suffer from dyslexia, by the way. This fact I suspect was thrown into the story to encourage readers who are victims of whatever complex of modern phenomena causes that difficulty. But then I wonder, would dyslexics read books like this for fun? Maybe the author just wants to teach us not to dismiss those who are challenged by traditional school.

I can think of quite a few popular books with similar themes of children solving mysteries or just getting along when parents and sometimes all adults are absent. The Boxcar Children is the most elementary in every way, one of the first "chapter books" that my children read, about young children who manage to take care of each other and feed themselves, living in a boxcar. 

The Railway Children is more advanced, and though its protagonists don't find themselves with both parents literally absent, wartime circumstances force them to be on their own most of the time and even help solve their parents' problems. Harry Potter doesn't have parents who can help him navigate the magical world he has been born into.

Barely halfway through Sea of Monsters I was prodded to start looking further into stories of the Olympians, as the characters are packed into the book pretty cleverly in their modern forms. The Grey Sisters drive Percy wildly through the streets of New York City while fighting over who gets their one eye, which falls on the floor. Percy has befriended the school "weird guy" who turns out to be an infant Cyclops and very endearing--so far.

Old-style Hermes
Hermes gets several pages' worth of contemporary fleshing-out. When Percy is sitting on the beach and lamenting his latest predicament, Hermes approaches as a jogger saying, "I haven't sat down in ages." His cell phone is constantly ringing, with urgent calls about many things, and as Percy listens he realizes who the jogger is. His phone antenna is actually his caduceus staff in a shrunken form, with the snakes as small as worms. They chatter incessantly, like a duo of phone operators, until Hermes threatens to put them on vibrate.

When a satyr who is a captive of the Cyclops Polyphemus sends a dream to Percy, we see the monster's cave with its sheep-themed decor, including a sheepskin-covered recliner and sheep action figures added to the piles of sheep bones one might expect. And on another battlefront, when slime from an exploded hydra sprays on her, the heroine is put off her game long enough to cry, "Gross!", reminding us that she is only a 7th-grader after all.

These just-for-fun elements are easier to tell about than the interrelated analogies and symbols I find on every page, threatening to make me sprout philosophical blog posts like so many hydra heads. If I read more in this series will I be able to resist?

I can't resist telling you that it is the fault of multiplying monster "life force" that franchise stores proliferate. For the purpose of trapping our heroes, a Monster Donut shop has appeared in the middle of a marshy woods. The heroine warns Percy as she asks if he hasn't wondered himself at the phenomenon: "One day there's nothing and then the next day -- boom, there's a new burger place or a coffee shop or whatever? First a single store, then two, then four -- exact replicas spreading across the country?"

My ideas sprouting
It's becoming clear that Mount Olympus stands for Western Civilization. And in the case of these half-bloods, it's their family heritage. One argues: "Thalia got angry with her dad sometimes. So do you. Would you turn against Olympus because of that?"

Last spring Philosopher was dreading an Easter vacation trip to the Bahamas, because the planned route had the family flying through the Bermuda Triangle. I wondered at the time how he even knew about this area that is the subject of dispute as to whether mysterious things really do happen more often there. But now  I have read in Sea of Monsters this explanation: "Look, Percy, the Sea of Monsters is the sea all heroes sail through on their adventures. It used to be in the Mediterranean, yes. But like everything else, it shifts location as the West's center of power shifts." It is now The Bermuda Triangle.

There we have a hint as to the popularity of this type of story in its many re-tellings. Adolescence is a sea of adventures, for sure. Reading books like these might help kids keep their boats afloat, by means of encouragement or just diversion, getting away from the daily strain of here-and-now. Philosopher is fast approaching the shore of this swirling ocean, and I thank the gods God he has two responsible parents who in no way have abandoned him. As for the Bermuda Triangle, it was during that portion of the flight that he was delivered from trouble by a magical sleep.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Matthew VI, 28 FF. - Richard Wilbur


November 15 was the beginning of our Orthodox Nativity fast, known also as Advent or St. Philip's Fast. There doesn't seem to be anything clearly on my mind to write about it, which isn't surprising, seeing as fasting always reveals a pervasive disorderedness.

But last year I posted this poem that seemed appropriate, and here it is again, worth further consideration, I think.

A blessed Advent to all who come here!

Matthew VI, 28 FF.

Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions.
Love, as you call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.

We have deep faith in prosperity.
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross product, the practice of charity
Is palpably inessential.

It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.

We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If you cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather you shoved off.

--Richard Wilbur

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Page -- and Looking Ahead

Whew! It took me hours, but I finally got the Books and Reviews page updated. It is linked from the sidebar at left in the list of Pages on This Blog, along with the Recipes. So far I have only those two extra pages, but I hope to add a couple more eventually. Today was a chore because after I searched through two years' worth of blogs to find what reviews might exist, and created the links, the whole mess disappeared. Tonight after dinner, while B. was figuring out his new cell phone, I did it all over again and managed not to lose it.

It appears that 2009 was a better year for reading and reviewing. That isn't surprising, as I've had so much else going on this year to keep my mind and attention in other places. I wonder what 2011 will bring?

Just this week I've been meditating on the benefits of using up the food I have in the cupboards and freezer while I resist the impulse to stock up, a practice that isn't necessary or even helpful for our shrunken family. While I was plotting how to simplify this way in the kitchen, I read a discussion among avid readers about the advantages of re-reading good books. No doubt there would be a lot of nourishment for my mind and heart in doing that, and I'm looking at the shelves with the renewing of old literary friendships in mind.

There is no excuse for me complaining that I don't get to read enough -- just look at all the fun I've been having just in the last two years. I should go to my paper records and put more titles from the last decade into digital form just for the joy of remembering all the book food I've tasted and loved.

Anyone who has a book collection and a garden 
wants for nothing.
~Cicero

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Around the Net

When Joanne at  Seasonal Hearth  was in the Netherlands she and her family rode bicycles a lot, and they took so many pictures of bicycles of all sorts everywhere, it adds up to give a feeling for the country where the population of bikes is greater than that of people.

On this blog about Words, I learned that I possess philoprogenitiveness, and it has been one of the greatest stories of my life! I don't always read these posts, but they come daily...Now that I've been so encouraged by this one, I might check in more often. If I had known the word amphibology it would have come in handy when I was grousing about grammar recently.

Some people can drink milk their whole lives seemingly without  any problem (though my husband's chiropractor thinks it's the worst thing for anyone) while others can't digest it. Via Touchstone I ran into this article about population migrations and where the gene for lactose tolerance came from. I'd like to read more about it.

My favorite prize from recent web wandering is a daily posting of poems from the George Hail Library in Rhode Island, each one accompanied by a picture and brief introductory notes. It's more reliable than the online poem-a-day I used to read, and the blog host has some pleasing parameters for the sort of poetry she likes to share. Here is a recent one that I love. If you click on the title you can see the photo and comments as well:


THE PATIENCE OF ORDINARY THINGS

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?

~ Pat Schneider, American poet and writer

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Grousing About Grammar - Bad Sentence

One thing I didn't tell you in my recent review of Wordstruck by Robert MacNeil is how he gave an admonition that made me wonder if I am the right kind of influence on people:

"If you love the language, the greatest thing you can do to ensure its survival is not to complain about bad usage but to pass your enthusiasm to a child. Find a child and read to it often the things you admire, not being afraid to read the classics."

MacNeil quotes a man named Hugh Kenner, who said of some people that they "took note of language only when it annoyed them." In the days when I frequently read to my children, especially when they were older, I must say in my defense that I do remember stopping at least occasionally to point out particularly well-written sentences. But when the bad sentences force you to stumble or pause or halt completely as you try to figure out what is going on, you can't help but be annoyed and take note of them, too.

This happened to me just today, and once again I will reveal myself in full nitpickerliness. The sentence that held me up fails in more than one way, so it's very useful. I'm not going to tell you where it came from, but the author has a (recent) doctoral degree in Intellectual History. I'm not sure why I think that should mean something pertinent to my complaint...but let's just get on with the beginning of his article:

F.M. [abbreviation mine] lived his life as a poet, a playwright, a novelist, a journalist, and a Roman Catholic. Born in Bordeaux during the year 1885 to a bourgeois family, M.'s mother tenaciously held to her religiosity. His father's side of the family, on the other hand, sported Voltairean, republican, and anticlerical sentiments.

You can probably guess what happened to me as I was reading briskly along in the first sentence, then cruising through the stop sign period and on to the comma in the second sentence, fulling expecting that M. would be there after the pause -- Oh! M's mother is here, how odd...that must mean the author was talking about the mother's birth in Bordeaux...strange that he would start out telling us about M., and then in the very next sentence start in on the mother...and there is his father in the following sentence...hmm...I don't know much about M., but I don't actually think he is recent enough that his mother could have been born that late...the author must be talking about M.'s birth, then. Too bad, now I have stopped thinking about M. and his mother and am all focused on this writer, poor boy, who spent so much effort in school and can't get his lovely article off to a decent start.

Before moving on to find out more about M., I had to skip to the end and read the blurb on the author... next I began a rewrite of his problematic beginning in my head -- so many times I have done this for myself and five children, trying out different arrangements of words and clauses so that you say what you mean and your reader can read you as effortlessly as possible.

What happened here is called a dangling participle or dangling participial clause. The "Born in Bordeaux" clause actually has no subject (it's dangling there unattached), but we naturally expect the subject to be close by, so we try to attach the clause to M.'s mother, but it doesn't really belong to her. The Wikipedia article to which I linked tells it all very clearly, along with other examples that are often funny.

One way that this particular beginning could have been rescued would be to make it slightly longer. Sometimes it just gets awkward, trying to pack too much into a sentence, and the best thing is to make one or two more sentence so you don't muddle things. To put his birth and his mother's religious attitude into one sentence seems to be hurrying along too fast, as though the author were just stringing his notes together.

And don't try to be too clever in switching the order of your clauses and phrases. That's partly how this writer got into trouble. It's only the second sentence of your whole article, so certainly you can afford another sentence with the direct and simple subject-verb order.

To say that M. was born "during the year 1885"....It must just be a careless wordiness, because "in 1885" would do nicely, and during gives the impression of an ongoing activity. The time of birth is a date, not a duration.

How about this re-do of the second and third sentences, putting the mother into the father's sentence, and we don't even have to add lines. Taking out some commas makes it a  little cleaner, too:

He was born to a bourgeois family in Bordeaux in 1885. M.'s mother tenaciously held to her religiosity, while his father's side of the family sported Voltairean, republican, and anticlerical sentiments.
Now that I've got that settled, I can go to bed. I'll take the article along and hope I can keep my mind on M. this time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Journal of October Trip South

As we were getting ready to go on a weekend trip, I was more calm than usual, because we'd only be gone one night, then home again. And it appeared to be the last trip I would make for months to come. The occasion was a gathering with my sisters and brother, in a countryside place spread with orange groves. One brother and sister live within a couple of miles of each other, but with mailing addresses in different towns, and neither of them close to even a village. We drove south, instead of my more frequent northward to Pippin's, but about the same distance, 5+ hours.

B. and I stayed overnight with my brother, who lives in the house my dad built over 50 years ago, where I mostly grew up. This morning I got up early and sat in a big stuffed chair in the living room, tucking my feet under me the way I used to as a girl. The house feels so quietly solid. It's a wood-frame stucco house on a concrete slab, and you never hear any creaks walking around the ranch-style layout. A big picture window looks out on the foothills that are dotted with oaks, and behind them shady layers of taller and taller mountains forming the Sierra Nevada. Curving grids of trees like dark green pom poms hug the lower slopes nearby. The first time I went home after living in Northern California for a while, I was struck with how short all the orange trees were, not even as tall as nut trees or peach trees, but certainly dwarfed by the Coast Redwoods and other tall trees we have up here where the rainfall is doubled.

The net effect is of a lush but flattish scene, house and orchards keeping close to the earth. The sky is bigger therefore. This October we got quite a bit of rain; all the autumn landscapes were more beautiful having been washed by the rains, making every tree and bush stand out brightly against the background of greening fields. I had my usual thrill of watching the cloud performances all the way down and up the center of the state. We saw black cattle grazing in a pasture, and in the middle of the herd, a white egret standing at attention.

Over a big dinner, we siblings talked about our mountain cabin and how to manage things as the new owners since our father passed it to us just over a year ago. We hadn't all been together for more than a year, and we aren't big phone or e-mail users, so we had a good time catching up. We always have to hear as well the news of our mutual old school and neighborhood friends, and the goings-on of the farming community there.

Some citrus crops are being picked already, by crews of Mexican farm workers. And olives are at the peak of harvest in the same general area. Cell phones have created changes in the way the picking crews operate. You might say they have created some degree of anarchy, or at least free-lance options that didn't exist before. My sister Farmer Woman told us about how some growers were having difficulties getting enough pickers for the oranges, because they could make more money in olive-picking, at least until the frost cuts off that opportunity.

Because of the shortage, a crew was enlisted one day to drive down from the county to the north, in several cars. At least one car-full never arrived, because on the way someone got a call on his cell phone with a tip from a friend, that a different grower was paying $1 more per box, so they detoured that way. This sort of thing happens all the time now.


Dinner was over, and we were sitting lazily around a big table when Farmer Woman's cell phone rang. The screen said it was her nephew, our Soldier, who was calling. As she talked to him it became apparent that he and Doll were in the area, too, having been to a wedding nearby. Neither of us had told the other that we were making a trip down there this weekend, so it was a pleasant surprise for everyone when they were able to join us for breakfast this morning, and a bigger family get-together than they had hoped for.

After that, they took off northwesterly, and we more to the north, but evidently we both wandered around the next city of over 100,000 population for a while, getting fueled up or something, because when we were leaving town, there we were driving alongside one another. Twenty minutes later, merging on to the interstate, we were right behind them. It was the kind of happenstance that would make a child happy, and it did me, too.

On the way home I read the Forward, the Introduction, and the Preface to a book by Leon Kass that I plan to write about at length later on. It's philosophy, and as I had nothing much else to do, I could put the book down every few minutes and chew on the ideas. I read it two years ago and might need to read the whole thing again before I'll be able to know and express why I love it so much.

Then I dozed for a while, and when I woke up B. was playing parts of his IPod collection. I asked again, for the fortieth time, "Who is singing that song?" It was Police. So I worked on a mnemonic that would make me learn this fact for once and forever. They were singing, "There's a lttle black spot on the sun today," so I imagined that the black spot was a black Police car driving around. I watched them in my mind for a few minutes, and then on the IPod they were singing a different song, "Every little thing she does is magic," very ardently, so I amplified my image so that the Police car driving over the sun's surface was full of Policemen who were loudly singing these very words about a magical woman. I can't lose it now.

Getting closer to home, I was more and more excited about the beauty of the world. Rows of eucalyptus trees form windbreaks here and there, and beneath them the colors of a dahlia farm don't seem to have faded in the rains.  On the slopes in our county it's the vineyards that catch your eye, and they are starting to turn gold and orange. Flocks of starlings were swooping like fluttered polka dots. I understand that they are eating insects as they do their dances. That reminded me of my book, which is about eating, nature, our souls, the unity of reality. There is a wholeness to life, because God in His Holy Spirit fills all things.

I guess that's the reason I'm content to write about our trip without trying to find a theme for it. The entire weekend seems of a piece, a large piece of joy.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A Chesterton Blog

I've recently been browsing on this helpful blog, The Hebdomadal Chesterton, the purpose of which is to provide us with longer portions of G.K. Chesterton's writings than the thousands of one-line quotes one can find online. The host takes passages from many different books by Chesterton.  I just read "Too Liberal to Be Likely," which is still quite current, though written in 1925. It consists of a paragraph from The Everlasting Man, a book that got my head spinning delightfully God-ward many years ago when I read it the first time.

Hebdomadal, I learned, means "appearing weekly," which the posts seemingly fail to do, as I look at the dates on the archives. But that's not much of a problem, when G.K.C.'s ideas are so richly provoking, and keep the mind busy for much longer than a week at a time. And if one is hungry for more, there are several links to other places where similar nourishment can be found.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stories of English - Wordstruck

A friend gave me a used paperback copy of Wordstruck, a memoir by Robert MacNeil, of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that he hosted in different formats from 1975-1995 on TV. I had heard his name during those years, but our family didn't watch television, so we didn't pay attention until he co-authored the book The Story of English in 1986. It was quickly made into a TV series that we watched on our video player at home some time later.

I have often thought of renting the films again, because they were so fascinating in our fairly brief viewing. Now I find that Netflix doesn't have them, and they are out of my price range to buy. There are some excerpts on YouTube.

Wordstruck chronicles MacNeil's life up until the time he wrote the book in 1989, focusing on his love for the English language, including an account of the early influences that he thinks may have encouraged it. On the first page he describes an evening in chilly Nova Scotia when he was still a little boy, his mother reading to him while he snuggled in his pajamas on the sofa. She is reading the Robert Louis Stevenson poem "Windy Nights" that I read year after year to my own children -- so I knew from the beginning that I would enjoy considering the author's family life.
 
His parents loved books, and books were the main diversion of their life as "members of the large, scraping middle classes." Mrs. MacNeil's voice "was multi-hued, like glass fused of many bottles in a fire, with wisps of Lowland Scots and Highland Gaelic, Irish, Hanoverian German, Acadian French, and the many flavours of English deposited by generations of British soldiers and sailors," and "She sounded enthralled, as full of wonder and close-rivetted attention as I was."

And for MacNeil's father, "Whatever he was doing, his books were a constant; even when he was short of cash for anything else, like paying bills, books appeared. In fact, he used books to hide the bills he couldn't pay. Occasionally I found little nests of them when I pulled out a book. My mother said scornfully that was Irish--dealing with unpleasant reality by putting it away somewhere, out of mind. She never knew which books to look behind. It made her both furious with him and tender."

"He always wrote on the flyleaf of each new book the date and where he was, so I can follow him: reading Chesterton just after they were married in November 1929, Scottish poets the following spring, Conrad through the early thirties, and Proust at sea in wartime...." Ah, what a life people lived before television!

MacNeil the Shakespearean actor explains how the words and rhythms and story of a poem like "Windy Nights" were so effective at training his mind to appreciate poetry without him being aware of anything except that he didn't want his mother to stop reading. His grandmother loved that one, too, and made him memorize it on walks through the public gardens.

Stories of Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan; authors like Kipling and Dickens--they all contributed to a rich mental landscape, as words and word patterns populate the mind:
 "They accumulate in layers, and as the layers thicken they govern all use and appreciation of language thenceforth. Like music, the patterns of melody, rhythm, and quality of voice become templates against which we judge the sweetness and justness of new patterns and rhythms; and the patterns laid down in our memories create expectations and hungers for fulfillment again. It is the same for the bookish person and for the illiterate. Each has a mind programmed with language--from prayers, hymns, verses, jokes, patriotic texts, proverbs, folk sayings, clich├ęs, stories, movies, radio, and television.

"I picture each of those layers of experience and language gradually accumulating and thickening to form a kind of living matrix, nourishing like a placenta, serving as a mini-thesaurus or dictionary of quotations, yet more retrievable and interactive and richer because it is so one's own, steeped in emotional colour and personal associations."

Obviously MacNeil's mind has a very thick matrix, and the book is full of his sharing various experiences of his life in all its cultural wealth, riches I think are made more valuable by being able to speak and write articulately about them from a broad knowledge background.

So far I've just drawn from the introductory chapters, but there are a few incidents later on that I want to mention. During WWII when he was still a boy, MacNeil paid ten cents for a tour of a captured German fighter plane, and while he sat in the cockpit the inspection of the inside "convinced me that Germans were real people, human beings....The few instruments had German labels and the realisation that the man who flew this had to be able to read the words which I could not made him intelligent, alive--a real person with a name. So were the Germans who had designed and built this beautiful machine, even if it was no match for our Spitfires, of course."

From singing in the choir in the Anglican Church:
"There was poured into the porches of this child's mind a rich echoing soup of sound which made literal sense only when recollected years later. If scientists could examine my brain, as they do the contents of murder victims' stomachs, they would find that I had gorged myself when young on plum puddings and fruitcakes of this seventeenth-century prose; each word simple in itself, the combination rich and fruity, loved for the taste on the tongue, through years in the digesting; words for their own sake. That was particularly true of the often-repeated passages from the Book of Common Prayer, paraphrases of biblical verses that constitute English worship since the sixteenth century."

"All this exposure to the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymns seasoned me with the words and the forms that had launched British navies and armies into battle and imperial civil servants on their missions; the words that had christened the babies, married the daughters, and buried the dead of the Empire....It was like the tannin of English tea staining our souls for life. You do not lose it ever."

God willing, His words have not stopped their work on the soul of this man who loves them so dearly as mere words, and not for His meaning that they carry. MacNeil tells us also about many of his favorite non-church words, like reek, and how they came to be and to change over time. He says of Old English: "The words are usually small, like nuts, with strong vowel sounds for flavor and a hard shell of consonants."

In school the author was good at public speaking and reciting poems, and acting in plays. Then at seventeen, he fell in love--with Shakespeare. "On a winter afternoon in 1948....I didn't find God but I found William Shakespeare, a piece of God's work so extraordinary that he comes close to divinity itself."

"The ironic cast of Shakespeare's words released me a little from the prison of my self-absorption, and hooked me into a wider, grander scheme of things. They made me larger, freer."

Of course, it is the language and literature of Shakespeare that MacNeil loves -- but he also loves every other variety of English from limericks to slang. Being the author of The Story of English, he's not afraid to acknowledge that language is always changing, and quotes Otto Jespersen, who wrote in 1905, "The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself."

There are some changes that do concern MacNeil: he wonders if we are losing our ear for the language because we have consigned good English to the printed page, and also started to depend on computers to choose our syntax and vocabulary. This makes us "more remote from the sound of our language, and therefore from a feeling for the weight of words."

"There must be some living connection between the weight of words and truth....Today, it seems, words increasingly mean nothing to the person using them....The public words of public men seem to be used increasingly like aerosol room fresheners, to make nice smells."

It was a very agreeable acquaintance to make, of Robert MacNeil and his love for the English language. I do like him, and spending time with him I was reminded of my own efforts to give my children a rich literary diet in their youth. I certainly did love to read to them; I even made them memorize poetry. But I know I haven't loved the language as much as this man.

I'm impressed with his writing skill and glad to meet someone who rejoices in so many aspects of his humanity, but it is the Creator of us humans who ultimately deserves our adulation and love. For a fact, Shakespeare and even Robert MacNeil are examples of God's handiwork and make us know something of the divine, because they are made in God's image. I can't revel in the language very long before I start to praise the God who gave us the gift of language and speech. 

Just thinking about speech and language brings Psalm 19 to mind. I pray that the literature of the Psalter is a powerful part of the matrix of my own children's minds and hearts -- now I feel that we didn't read from it enough. Here is part of that particular psalm to help me bring my review to an end:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
....Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Not to Use the Vernacular

In those long-ago days when new cars had built-in cassette players and we were a large homeschooling family, I invested in a set of tapes of the New Testament, narrated by Alexander Scourby. Those were the only straight readings of the Bible I heard until last week, when I popped The Message into my CD player.

Eugene Petersen is a man whom I admire and respect. The first I ever heard his name was as the author of a book with a compelling title, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. To hear him speak, as I have recently on the Mars Hill Audio publications, is to know that he has received a goodly share of grace and wisdom from God. In introductions to the recordings he explains that his motives for writing The Message paraphrase of the Bible were to make it accessible to the everyday English speaker as a "reading Bible," to introduce them to God's words and God's ways, with prayers that they would go on to read a study Bible, and learn to participate in the life of God.

A couple of years ago I read a few passages in the printed version of his translation, as he loosely calls it, and was neither impressed nor offended. But I'm past the stage of needing an introduction, so I didn't pay much attention. I bought the recording because it was the least expensive experiment I could make in a newer format, and I didn't imagine that the experience would be so far removed from listening to Alexander Scourby.

It was only a year ago that Scourby read the entire gospel of Matthew to me while I was driving to the mountains and back in my old car. It was a flood of God's blessing to hear that much of the earthly life of my Lord -- His words, His being the Word -- in one sitting, and I thought my heart would burst with the overflow. The several hours' drive was over before I knew it.

But the narrator of The Message series makes me remember why we always chant or sing the Scripture in the Orthodox Church. The first portion I listened to was Matthew's gospel, in which John the Baptist and Jesus appear early on, and the narrator gives them the voice and intonation of an actor over-dramatizing his role. In tone, it is so not the vernacular, unless you are a football coach at half-time when your team is losing, or a political talk-show host on a rant. To have the words of Christ spoken that way is to make Him out to be a cheerleader or an ad-man. Even the most Pentecostal preachers I have heard do not speak with such urgency through their whole sermon.

If only Eugene Peterson had been the one to read aloud his rendition of the Bible. He would not have been capable of such a style, nor would he have thought it necessary. He knows that the words of God do not need hepping up. Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay. But he speaks more slowly even than Scourby, whose pace sacrifices speed to dignity.

I had to dig out our old cassettes to check who the narrator was, and then I googled his name. Wikipedia says, "Although Scourby made voice recordings of over 500 different books, he considered the Bible to be his most important," saying " '...it is the one book that has the power to inspire, encourage, comfort and change the life of the person who hears it.' "

The Orthodox believe that worship services should be in the language of the people, the vernacular, so priests and missionaries through history made great efforts and sacrifices to translate the Bible and prayer books. St. Innocent is one I have heard the most about; he traveled by kayak all over the frozen north to minister to the native peoples of Alaska, and learned several languages besides his native Russian.

But we do not read the Scriptures aloud in church in the tones of our everyday speech, even though the words are in our respective languages. If you do that, it is nearly impossible not to emphasize one word over another and lend changeable meaning to the sentences depending on who you are and what assumptions and personality, not to say errors and misunderstandings, you bring with you. The only way to let the words speak for themselves is to chant or sing them without emphasizing one over another.

Scourby was Greek and baptized Orthodox. I wonder if he had a sense of how to read the Bible from hearing it chanted or sung in his youth. His reading resembles the way many ministers in Protestant and even Evangelical churches used to read, and I'm sure some still do, not with a lot of expression, but clearly and reverently.

And why did someone decide to intersperse jaunty electronic quiz-show music in between some tracks? Is that supposed to be the vernacular as well? Petersen says that he wants people to become familiar with "the way God speaks," and he wants us to be mindful that God in the Incarnation did not take "the role of a sophisticated intellectual." The style of The Message's narrator may not be sophisticated, but it is affected and distracting. 

Not that I would give anyone even Alexander Scourby's Bible readings with the thought that they could know from them alone what Petersen calls "God's grand rule of love and justice." God has spoken through His Son, the Word, and the words of the Bible testify that it is the Church, not the scriptures, that is "the fullness of Him who fills all in all." (Ephesians 1:23) The Church is the only context in which one can learn and live the full meaning of Holy Scripture.

The Scourby readings were, it seems until recently, available for listening for free online. They have been replaced with readings by another man; I haven't tried them yet.  Audio-Bible provides those new readings online and sells recordings of Alexander Scourby's Bible in various modern formats. I can see making that investment at a future date. And for the present, I have a portable cassette player for playing my valuable antiques.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Essential Aromas


When Debbie at Artful Aspirations posted about her sweet-smelling bush, I suspected a near relation, perhaps even a twin, to my Osmanthus fragrans. She said she bought her plant because of its common name Tea Olive; I had only known mine as Sweet Olive.

Not many days later M.K. at Through a Glass, Darkly, who was not a follower of Debbie's blog, posted photos of her "holly bush," with descriptions of its "heady and rich" scent reminiscent of gardenia.

The challenge of describing various scents is always of interest to me. I wonder if an individual flower is easier to pin down than a whole rain forest. We usually have to say that any given smell is something like another. Having grown up in an orange grove, I didn't confuse osmanthus with orange blossoms, but upon my first encounter I did envision some woman along the route of our neighborhood stroll setting an apricot pie to cool by the window.

Surely osmanthus is its own heady aroma that nothing else is quite like. Last year, at the end of a post about how various other scents link to my grandmother, I tried to describe its effect on me.

One website that sells many essential oils for their aromatherapy benefits describes Osmanthus fragrans as "Friendly, lively, intriguing, what's new, what's next, early morning excitement, setting out on a whole new journey."

Peet's has blended a black tea with osmanthus blossoms, which might add some extra excitement to those mornings when I choose it over plain black or green.They say "its pleasant aroma could be described as a combination of apricot, chamomile, and orange flower." They don't make it all year long; stocking up would be necessary if you want to be assured of having it when you want.

After she heard about osmanthus, M.K. began to wonder if her hollies might actually be Tea Olives. In the meantime I had been reading about fragrant holly bushes and found that there are hundreds of types of holly, and some of them do look a bit like osmanthus. One osmanthus looks so much like holly that its common name is False Holly. Wikipedia mentions that osmanthus flowers can be various colors, even dark orange, and that in China it is traditional to mix some osmanthus jam into millet gruel.

You can see on that page a photo of an orange-flowered osmanthus taken in Japan. All of the photos here on my blog were taken just this week in my yard.  B. and I planted the bush about 20 years ago on the advice of  horticulturist friend. If we had known how big they get, we'd have started it out farther from the house.

Wikimedia also has this whole page of related photos.

Some of my other favorite botanical scents are lemongrass and rose geranium. I have a big bush of the geranium in a pot on the patio, and in my cupboard some essential oil of lemongrass to add by drops to hand soap. So far I've only enjoyed my osmanthus when it happens to fill the air with its essence, and that occasion always takes me by surprise and humbles me by the extravagant gift. "The osmanthus is blooming!"  I will announce, if someone is around. This happens at least twice a year; do I really need the oil extraction at other times?

The people on the planet of Perelandra in C.S. Lewis's novel by that name had an admirable way of making the most of every experience. They considered an actual event in time to be only the smallest part of anything that they did or that happened to them. The anticipation was also to be enjoyed for all it was worth, and the memory of the incident or act would be savored into the future. In this way even the most lovely and desirable events were completely satisfying whether or not they took place more than once in a lifetime.

When one comes upon a strong aroma, say, walking into a house where bread is baking, or walking out one's front door to the scent of osmanthus, if the stimulus continues for a time the olfactory receptors get desensitized or something; in any case, you stop noticing, until you go out and come back again. So I don't know, if I had only smelled osmanthus once, if I could have made much of the experience. I'm not too good at paying attention, if that's what's necessary.

But I've had decades of being enveloped by the sweetness and the love that the Sweet Olive aroma signifies to me. I think I'll just try to bask in it for a few seconds longer next time I pass by, or sit on the step and drink it in as long as my nose will keep sending the message to my brain. And if we move to a colder climate I'm sure I'll be busy enough sniffing the air in that place without trying to import gifts that belong to the memorable past.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Owls, Lepers, and More Around the Net

In just two days' tootling around some of my favorite places on the Internet I have found items worth sharing in several categories: humor, animal photos, Bible study, a recipe and a quilt -- just a sampling of this week's surprises in that wide world.

Gumbo Lily shows photos of the darling owls in her own back yard. She often encounters wildlife to capture with her camera, illustrating the ranch life she captures with her pen (um...keyboard).

Angie got me laughing again, this time about Internet spam, of all things. Spam with a Scottish twist.

M.K.'s recent post To Touch a Leper, got me thinking on the wonderful and mysterious fact of Christ's life and how it is health and cleanness.

A quilter-blogger Who Loves Baby Quilts and doesn't own a sewing machine made a sweet mini quilt she refers to as a mug rug. Now I know what to call my own treasured little rug given to me some time ago. I'm showing both sides, which I have tried to keep pretty by not using it when my mug contains cocoa.

Last, a simple and simply yummy-sounding Greek dessert that requires not much more than opening a container of good yogurt.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Metaphor and a Journal - C.S. Lewis

 
Because I was helped on my journey to Orthodoxy by Touchstone Magazine, and certainly also by C.S. Lewis, my eye was caught this morning by word of a debate on the extent and meaning of Lewis's metaphor of a house with rooms, in his book Mere Christianity. The subtitle of Touchstone is A Journal of Mere Christianity, so it is understandable that the editors would have an interest in keeping true to a proper understanding of the author. By the way, the current issue of the journal features an article on how the new Narnia films "Subvert Lewis's Hierarchical World," and another article reviewing a book that treats the development of the author's view of women. Those are both available for reading on the website.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chocolate & Pumpkin & Spice

Everyone, it seems, is talking and writing about every variety of pumpkin bread possible, which they have baked and posted recipes for, and the (pumpkin?) seed sprouted in my mind and bore fruit last night, when I put all these ideas together and came up with my own batch that was pretty much perfect. My thanks to all of you who made my mouth water and my imagination start working.

Pumpkin & Chocolate Chip Muffins
This made 30 smallish muffins and two mini-loaves

3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 29-oz can pumpkin (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/3 cup white sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup olive oil
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 cups Ghirardelli 60% cacao chocolate chips
3 cups toasted walnuts, chopped

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice in a medium bowl; whisk to blend. Using electric mixer, beat pumpkin and sugars until blended. Gradually beat in eggs, vanilla, oil and ginger. Stir in dry ingredients in 4 additions alternately in 3 additions. Stir in nuts and chips last.

Fill lined muffin cups 3/4 full with batter; likewise mini loaf pans that have been greased or lined with parchment.

Bake muffins 30-45 minutes depending on size of cup and whether your oven is convection, until a toothpick comes out clean -- though it can be hard to tell with all that chocolate in there! Bake the mini loaves about an hour. Cool in pans.

Upon eating the first muffin I thought I hadn't put in enough spice to suit, but today they were the perfect combination of tender and moist, with lots of soft dark chocolate not quite melted in, and dreamy flavor, probably just the right amount of spice. I wouldn't mind if they had still less sugar, but I'll be cautious about changing that ingredient too much and maybe not liking the resulting change in the crumb texture.

I took this recipe at epicurious.com for my jumping-off place, after reading all the reviews that told the many ways people changed the original. I mostly combined many of their changes to customize mine; and I was in such a hurry to get my loaves and muffins done before my bedtime, I forgot to take a picture. This tiger does have something to do with the recipe, because he was carved from a pumpkin by Pippin some years ago.

After B. and I enjoyed my creations with breakfast, most of the remainder went into the freezer to bring out when there are more people around to enjoy them. I hope that will be soon, but I've had my fix, which I think will keep me for a while.