Friday, November 30, 2012

St. Andrew and His Cross

Where we sang this morning

Happy St. Andrew's Day! I had the honor and joy of celebrating the feast in church this morning. Added to the usual liturgy and communion were prayers and song lifting up one of our dear elderly parishioners who died in the Lord early today. Now the memory of his repose will always be tied to this feast.

Andrew was the first of Jesus's disciples, and centuries ago became the patron saint of Scotland and other countries. I wore my tartan plaid skirt as I always do on November 30th, and this year I had a new purple Celtic scarf to wear, recently brought from Scotland by Pearl.
Some of you might remember that I wrote about this years ago; I'm sorry to say that while trying to repost those thoughts this morning I deleted them instead. Ah, well, it turns out to be a blessing, because the accident caused me to find that just today John Sanidopoulos has written a thorough history of how it happened that the Scots chose this saint for their patron, and his cross for their official national flag.

This form of cross is called a saltire and is linked to St. Andrew because he was crucified on a diagonal cross in the first century. I learned that the first use of the X-shaped symbol was on medieval soldiers' clothing, probably a white image on a black background. And today there are many Scottish nationalistic garments and items that hearken back to this design, like this belt buckle.

It was only in the last decade that Scotland made St. Andrew's Day an official bank holiday. The nation also has another flag you might be more familiar with, the Lion Rampant, the unofficial national flag that belongs to the kings and queens of Scottish history. And there is the Union Flag of the entire U.K. Time was, Scotland could not legally fly its official satire on its national holiday of St. Andrew, but that sorry situation has been rectified of late.

These national days and flags have been part of the cultural consciousness since the 14th century, a consciousness that naturally changes from generation to generation. The original and deeper meanings of this cross are probably lost in the background fog of the mind of the nation.  It is encouraging to think that even if they have largely forgotten him and their Christian heritage, St. Andrew continues to pray for the people of Scotland.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

From Earthsea to Alexander

To prepare for a recent road trip, I visited the public library looking for a book on CD. I ended up with a whole stack of boxes to take along in the car later that morning and was very pleased with a few of them.

My car was also loaded down with a Thanksgiving turkey, baking pans and tablecloths and some already cooked food, things to contribute to a feast at Pippin's house. I was taking myself early to help prepare, and Mr. Glad would follow later.

Ray Bradbury
Two slim library cases held one disk each of an introduction to a book in the Big Read program of the National Endowment for the Arts. I was only vaguely familiar with the list and the program, not having any family member that I know of participating. But of the offerings I browsed I was interested in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin because of recent recommendations from someone, I can't remember who. And Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was a book my reading group discussed a decade or so ago. The recordings were about 30 minutes each.

When I slid the Wizard introduction into the player and the narrator's voice came into my car, it took me a few seconds to realize that it was Dana Gioia, my favorite book reviewer, poetry critic, and literature teacher. His voice was recognizable, but his intonation was all jazzed up, brighter and more dramatic, I suppose to keep the average somewhat reluctant American reader listening.

His commentary was in brief snatches, and mostly introductory to several other authors who talked about the book, including LeGuin herself, and to short passages read from the text. None of the comments or readings was longer than a minute or so, and most were much briefer than that, which made it easy for me to pay attention; I'm sure this feature was also designed for listeners of diverse ages who are used to having their short attention spans catered to.

The Big Read program is intended to reverse or at least slow the decline in the number of readers in our nation, and I haven't heard if it is working. But this recording was a wonderful introduction to LeGuin. I enjoyed myself thoroughly while listening to what seemed like a sort of CliffsNotes in audio technicolor. There is music in the background that also adds to the drama.

CliffsNotes (Yes, they do squish the name together like that nowadays) seems to have some videos out, and digital flashcards, but for literature I think these NEA audio files would be much preferable, being a better bridge to visual and private reading activity than listening to a talking head, as I assume the CliffsNotes videos are.

The general plot and themes of the novel were discussed, and the particular skills of that writer. LeGuin talked about her background as a reader and writer and how she developed into the writer she is. Her childhood was spent in an intellectually rich household in Berkeley, where her father founded the anthropology department at the university and her mother wrote a book on Ishi.

There were many refugees from Europe in town then, such that "everyone had an accent." It seems that her exposure to many cultures nourished her imagination to create new worlds and people groups. The Earthsea books do sound appealing to me now, and if I keep looking at that cover illustration I pasted here I'll be bound to buy the first one soon.

But the first CD I took out of the box from my library stash was not from the NEA; it was a 2-disk collection of Popular Poetry, Popular Verse, Volume II from Naxos AudioBooks, a broad offering of everything from Shakespeare and Longfellow to Donne and Robert Herrick. It's not surprising that I didn't remember hearing most of the poems before  -- but I'd like to listen again. The many love poems made me miss my husband whom I had only seen a couple of hours before.

Quite a bit of music was interspersed between groupings of poems. I skipped most of this because I was impatient to hear more poems, and I had no idea how long I might have to wait through the instrumental portions. The poems were read by Tony and Jasper Britton, and by Emma Fielding, all of whose voices and reading were not over-dramatic or annoying in any way. Here are some of the rich words that fell upon my ears:

Prayer (I) 
By George Herbert

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
     God's breath in man returning to his birth,
     The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
     Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
     The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
    Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
    Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
    Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
    The land of spices; something understood.

Out of the 5+ hours I was on the road on the way up the state, there were only 10 minutes or so that I didn't need my windshield wipers. The rain was often drenching, so when I had to stop for refueling and resting I was back in the car lickety-split and pushing the Play button again.

I tried a speech by author David McCullough, his Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities from 2003, but he was very dry, in content and delivery. I have found from Mars Hill Audio Journals that some writers of the most fascinating books are not good at speaking even in interviews.
The last thing I was listening to when I arrived home again the day after Thanksgiving was Alexander the Great and His Time by Agnes Savill. It is nine CD's and I only heard three of them, but it was the most detail I've ever read on Alexander, who is certainly a fascinating ancient man. The descriptions of battles sometimes were hard for me to follow, but overall it was an easy "read" and I'm trying to figure out when I might finish it.

I kept thinking about the great contrast between my comfortable life -- just sitting in my heated car snacking on food that I had easily bought at the store -- and that of the high-achieving, fighting, indomitable but gracious man who slogged all over his world under the harshest conditions and must have had comparatively little ease in his relatively short life.

Alexander in The Battle of Issus

And the other Big Read disk? That was my favorite of the two I tried, because I still remembered Fahrenheit 451. It was wonderful to hear the author tell how he and his brother would run, not walk, to the library, and spend hours there every week. He started writing stories as a young child, and never stopped.

Here's a list of books in the Big Read program. I'm planning to listen to more of the introductory recordings, which are lots of fun even if I never get around to reading the actual book.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A sleeping place is blessed.

When our rector went to a nearby cemetery to bless a section designated for new gravesites, I was eager to go along and be among those praying and singing. A small group of us gathered at noon after a morning of rain. The light changed often as the clouds came between us and the thin autumn sunshine. The trees cast shadows in the middle of the day, and I never took off my fleece jacket.

Not long into the service three words, "quickly flowing life," pressed on my mind, referring to our earthly existence. It seemed the perfect time of year for this opportunity to turn our minds to death and corruption; I could see the vineyard across the street all in gold, and apples had fallen from trees all around the awning that had been set up for us.

Strangely enough, my husband was in another town not far away, attending the funeral of a Christian man. His body was put into the grave at about the time we were hearing the Gospel reading, about how Joseph of Arimathea took Christ's dead body and cared for it. Here is the account from the Gospel of John:
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and when at death our souls are separated from our bodies it is right that they be laid in the earth to await the resurrection. Fr. Alexander Schmemann (in an article that is worth reading in its entirety) makes clear what is Christian faith as regards this event: is with faith or unbelief, not simply in the “immortality of the soul,” but precisely in the Resurrection of Christ and in our “universal resurrection” at the end of time that all of Christianity “stands or falls,” as they say. If Christ did not rise, then the Gospel is the most horrible fraud of all. But if Christ did rise, then not only do all our pre-Christian representations and beliefs in the “immortality of the soul” change radically, but they simply fall away. 
He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. “The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…” Christ in risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: “And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures.”
The soul won't be separated from the body forever, but for a time the body will be as asleep, while we anticipate our rising, when we will sing with joy at the final defeat of death. Until then, this spot on the earth would be as good as any for waiting.

When the service was over, we were invited to pick as many apples as we wanted from the trees, which I think were Golden Delicious. It didn't take me long to finish my apple. The service was less than an hour. In a couple of months there won't be any leaves left on the vines or the apple trees, and the years of each of us are quickly flowing.

Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

I rescue cookies.

At the beginning of November I had a cookie craving, and it occurred to me that I might as well make one of our favorite kinds of Christmas cookies; I could eat a few and freeze most of them, and be ahead of the to-do list. Our family's holiday traditions include platters piled with various kinds of cookies, most of which won't be seen again until the next Christmas. For this first session of baking I chose the soft Ginger Spice Cookies that feature an intoxicating combination of spices and diced candied ginger as well.

Something went wrong, or maybe a few things. I had made a note on the recipe card suggesting that I cut the sugar back another 1/4 cup from the previous alteration, because, "they are plenty sweet." I am reminded of the story about the farmer who discovered he could add some sawdust to his horse's feed and save money that way. He kept adding more and more sawdust and the horse seemed to do fine with it, until one day it died.

The recipe must have been just about perfect before I changed it just a little, and then the cookies came out terrible. Was it only the lack of sweetness that made them taste strongly of baking soda with pockets of overwhelming clove flavor? Or perhaps I hadn't mixed the dough enough? I thought I would have to throw them out.

But wait - couldn't they be used for something? If I dried them in the oven, and ground them finely in the food processor, I could use them as the basis for different I tried just that. To the fine crumbs I added a cube of butter, an egg, and extra sugar and flour. A little more ground ginger and a tiny bit of cardamom. Then instead of dropping the dough by teaspoonfuls I chilled and rolled it, into trees. Now we have crisp gingerbread cookies that surprise the eater with an occasional tiny piece of candied ginger, and that warm your mouth with an even more complex and winning flavor. Alas, never to be duplicated.

This made me brave enough to tackle the other failed cookie product that had been sitting in the freezer for awhile, since the time I made some Russian Tea Cakes but only put in half as much flour as they needed. The buttery, pecan-studded cookie crumbs I had stuck in a jar in the freezer, being unwilling at the time to give up on them.

Now I dug them out and experimented in a similar way, adding an egg, sugar, flour, baking powder and lemon zest. I tried to roll this dough, too, but it would not hold together, so I shaped disks and stuck a pecan half on each one. Behold! Another new and non-repeatable Glad Christmas cookie, which the man of the house has tasted and approved. I do hope nonetheless that I can avoid making a yearly tradition of the Cookie Rescue.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Every morning, so far.

"When I lay prostrate in despair, Thou hast raised me to keep the morning watch." That is a line from morning prayers in our prayer book, the first clause of which used to seem a little over-dramatic. No more. I've been realizing that it is my default setting, to wake up with a sort of dread, wondering how I will meet the needs of the day, Little Me?

Step by step, that's how. First, get out of bed, because nothing will get better, nothing will be accomplished if I don't take that first step. Although lately it seems the first step has been moved back to a moment before, with a confession to myself, "You, GJ, are lying prostrate in despair, but God is about to raise you up to keep the morning watch." Then comes the stepping out on to the floor.

Maybe this poem, in spite of its mention of spiritual patience, is not really about any of this, but the "every morning" heartens me.

by Mary Oliver

Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn't it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I'm alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Every season feeds upon the past. -Gioia

Veterans’ Cemetery

The ceremonies of the day have ceased,
Abandoned to the ragged crow’s parade.
The flags unravel in the caterpillar’s feast.
The wreaths collapse onto the stones they shade.

How quietly doves gather by the gate
Like souls who have no heaven and no hell.
The patient grass reclaims its lost estate
Where one stone angel stands as sentinel.

The voices whispering in the burning leaves,
Faint and inhuman, what can they desire
When every season feeds upon the past,
And summer’s green ignites the autumn’s fire?

The afternoon’s a single thread of light
Sewn through the tatters of a leafless willow,
As one by one the branches fade from sight,
And time curls up like paper turning yellow.

-- Dana Gioia

Golden Gate National Cemetery

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

If you need a vegan pie crust...

Pineapple-Coconut Pie

In the course of telling about various pies over the years, I've mentioned this versatile pie crust recipe which can easily be made vegan, and is mixed up right in the pie plate.

I thought I had never given the recipe for it, but just today I saw that it was featured in the second post I ever wrote, in which I report on my experiment with sweet potato pie. I've now put it conveniently where it ought to have been all along, on the page titled "Recipes and Vague Instructions."

In the Orthodox Church we have a good many days all throughout the year when we fast from dairy and eggs, those go-to ingredients for many desserts, so I've made use of this recipe on special occasions that also happen to be fast days.

Sweet Potato Pie with Black Bean Crust
An example is the pineapple-coconut pie which I mention on a rambling post that offers vague instructions indeed. But the crust recipe comes originally from the Amish, who aren't known for fasting or eating vegan, and it's a wonderfully quick shell to throw together even for a rich pie, like the colorful first one I ever blogged upon.

Since my last detailed pie recipe here, I have acquired a convection oven, and I want you to know that I no longer have to do the foil collar thing to keep my crusts from over-browning. Now it is easier (what?) than ever to whip up a pie, any day of the year.

As the Nativity Fast is soon upon us, any pie I make will likely be a vegan one using this recipe, which I am giving in the original Amish version with my notes. Finally, what you've all been waiting for... back for a second appearance... TA DA!

Pat-in-Pan Pie Crust
Single-crust 8-9” pie
Quick, crisp, but tender
(can’t be rolled)

1 ½ cups plus 3 tablespoons flour (does not have to be wheat)
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil (you might even try a little butter!)
3 tablespoons cold milk (dairy, soy, nut, etc.)

Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a pie pan and mix with your fingers until blended. In a measuring cup beat the oil and milk with a fork until creamy. Pour liquid all at once over the flour mixture. Mix with the fork until completely moistened. Pat the dough with your fingers, first up the sides of the plate, then across the bottom. Flute the edges.

Shell is now ready to be filled. If you are preparing a shell to fill later, or your recipe requires a pre-baked crust, preheat oven to 425°. Prick the surface of the pastry with a fork and bake 15 minutes, checking often, and pricking more if needed.

For a 10” shell I used:
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup oil
3 tablespoons milk