Thursday, August 26, 2010

Animal, Vegetable, Weed

When my husband saw the sizable box of books I had packed for this trip to my daughter's house, he wondered why I would need so many. My answer, "Because my brain is so tired right now, I can't imagine wanting to read any of them, so I can't know what my appetite will be when it returns, and I want to be prepared."

I came prepared for the journey, too, with The Message Bible on CD, My Antonia, Miles Gone By, and the latest Mars Hill Audio Journal on CD's to choose from. I started out with the Mars Hill disk, because it's usually very relaxing for me to stretch my brain, gentle as the exercise is when one is only eavesdropping on other people's conversations.

This edition had a lot of discussions on the topic of beauty, the host said in the introduction, and in a small panic, I hit the button to eject. No, I wasn't up for that--it sounded too difficult to even follow along with. What would be easier? How about, Tell Me a Story, and one I am already familiar with. My Antonia was a good choice, as it turned out, very soul-nourishing in the story and the lovely writing. And it was Beauty--not discussed, but the reality.

The last few days I've been living in the reality of beauty and a lot of other things that people, including me, like to theorize and philosophize about. I haven't picked up any of those books that I thought I might read or think about or write thoughtful reviews of. I've been chasing around a ten-month-old who is a major explorer of his world, and maybe it is in two ways keeping me in the Grammar phase of my stunted version of classical education. You know, where you learn the facts and language and data that you will work with later.

It's always a blessing to have little children around who are discovering everything for the first time, as it makes me notice the details of my surroundings freshly. Today I gave this guy, whom I will nickname Scout, a piece of used waxed paper that wasn't really dirty, and after he fiddled with it a minute or two it tore in two. He had been looking at one piece of paper, and suddenly there were two pieces, and he was obviously surprised to see the smaller piece move in his hand far away from the original.

Babies aren't wondering philosophers. They are scientists without even a theory, in the research stage, gathering information. I've been able to do some of that kind of mental work this week, as in learning the names of oak trees. I also took a picture in the forest of a bush with pink flowers, and when I went looking for oaks in the shrub and tree guide there was a picture of it, and I have now memorized it--well, at least for this week--Douglas spiraea.

Douglas spiraea
When Scout was exploring the back yard he came upon a weed (spurge) that I knew I should know the name of, so I looked it up in Weeds of the West, a marvelous tome that I am very pleased is now in Pippin's collection. It's a book several of us in the family had our eye on for a long time before someone actually took the plunge to invest in such an unappealing title.

I looked quickly through the whole book yesterday, and learned quite a few facts that have no relevance to any philosophical book review I might write, but they were so pleasing to me! My objective was to make a list of all the weeds that I already knew by sight, which surprised me by how long it was. A whole series of Weeds blogposts could be written on the links to childhood memories and events.

Then I was surprised to find in the weed book a flower that is also always in the mountain wildflower guides I've been consulting for years, Corn Lily or False Hellebore. It was about then I suspect I was moving into the Logic Stage, making connections and comparing one word with another, drawing conclusions using my data.

This plant is deadly and noxious, for a fact (Here's a historical bit about that from Wikipedia: "The plant was used by some [Native American] tribes to elect a new leader. All the candidates would eat the root, and the last to start vomiting would become the new leader."), but some of the things I thought I knew about it aren't true, and in the middle of writing this blog I am realizing that I still don't have the facts straight enough to tell any more about it.

About other weeds, I learned that what I thought was Black Mustard was actually Radish; these are cousins someone got mixed up and taught me wrong. Nutsedge is a cute name for an ugly weed in my own garden. I'll be content to study the most broad Grammar of Plants for the rest of my stay here on earth.

Which brings me to the second reason hanging out with children keeps me at their level: time. When I am scurrying about during naptimes to do little pieces of chores, just keeping up with the physical bare necessities, my mind is flitting about and not in the mood for a certain kind of thinking, which I hesitate to call "higher."

I don't seem to be able to settle in, under deadlines, and tackle a question of theology or philosophy in such a way that I can write about it. I'm using all my mental resources doing philosophy and theology on a fundamental level that is more in keeping with my stage in life, when my body demands more sleep, and my brain loses thoughts instead of holding them. When I wake up from a nap, or when Scout goes down for a nap, the names of the flowers are still there in the nature guide, the trees and clouds are still handy for contemplating right outside the door.

Play--what Scout does--is when you do things with no immediate goal in mind. I can't have an agenda or a syllabus when I am minding Scout while he experiments. So I try to look around and pay attention at least as well as he is doing. I'm glad I've arrived at a place in life where the order and complexity of the universe are certainties to me, and every flower and rock is a gift from the Creator with the potential to draw me to Himself. It might even be an advantage to have a tired brain when enjoying that kind of Beauty.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

War and Architecture - Part 2

My recent posting about how cities memorialize their history in the buildings they renovate or build from scratch generated comments that added a great deal to the discussion going on in my own mind.

Emily at Back Bay View is "suspicious of postmodernists like Libeskind who want to make their patrons uncomfortable and to force them to think. Granted, trying to recreate the past too precisely sometimes results in a sentimental/themepark like effect. But, on the other hand, for how many years can you exist in/with a building that is a criticism of the human person? At some point, I would think, the discomfort will fade and the intended self-conscious effect won't take place.

"Wouldn't it be more healing to build structures that promote healing, rather than criticism? Couldn't you say that the old building doesn't represent a severe authoritarian past, so much as an orderly past, a past that preceded the Nazis by centuries, and an attempt to restore order is an act of hope? Whereas the architect who intends to break self-delusions promotes a discomfort with the self that leads not to hope but to melancholy?"

Frances informed me that Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-5 is about the bombing of Dresden, and also shared her experience of living and traveling in Germany: "I'll always remember Freiburg, which was heavily bombed during WWII. When they rebuilt it, they used the original, medieval plans, so that it was exactly the same as before."

Emily's comments sent me back to the review I wrote of Architecture of Happiness, and I figured out that one basic reason I couldn't like the new military museum was its failure to abide by the first principle of good architecture laid down in that philosophical book:
     "Order. But not over-simplified. We like to see complex elements arranged in a regular pattern. What the author calls the 'perverse dogma' from the Romantic Period, that all edifices must be of original design, led to chaos in the landscape. 'Architecture should have the confidence and the kindness to be a little boring.'
     "I was wondering if perhaps a museum might get away with such a brash statement, where being made to think isn't a bad thing, but you are probably right, the statement will lose its effect. (I hope in the meantime it squelches those Neo-Nazis a bit)...and yes, the jarring buildings fail to offer hope or show harmony. But without reference to or undergirding by the Christian gospel, an artist is unlikely to find those elements, and will drift from melancholy right on to nihilism."

We have to ask, as Jody did, "If you were to rebuild Dresden and not look back, but forward, how would you go about it? I agree that "onward and forward" is the best, but would there not be little bits of the past that one would want to honor, I wonder? (not the ugly, of course)"

Emily also "...went to the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, VA, which has a very similar slanted pyramid design which is supposed to recall the photo of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. (and a statue is right in front of the museum so that reference isn't missed). But in the case of the MCM, the glass pyramid doesn't interrupt another building like Libeskind's design, since it's located outside the city and rises above the treeline and catches the sunshine. So a very similar design in a different context has a completely different effect.

"Likewise, I couldn't help thinking of another glass pyramid, the one designed by IM Pei as an additional entrance to the Louvre. I don't know the philosophy behind it, but it just strikes me as out of context and so a little silly, like a non sequitur comment. Maybe there is some reason for its being, but it was lost on me, your average tourist."

Kari hopes that "we can find a way to heal the past without forgetting, and to go forward in peace, love, harmony. The Holocaust brings us face to face with forgiveness and with how to forgive in the face of the unforgivable."

I wanted to share this discussion with anyone who might have been interested in the topic but who didn't get in on the ensuing and improving thoughts. Since I wrote the original post we had the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which got me thinking about further aspects.The Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse page now has an article on the subject, wherein the author points out links to the whole Allied strategy. Consequentialism is a word that was new to me, discussed here on the Witherspoon page and on Touchstone's Mere Comments. The Ochlophobist questions our utilitarian mindset that can't tolerate the absolute moral principle.

I'm in over my head as usual, but it's obvious that some of my readers are good at this kind of swimming. I hope I am learning something from them as I flail about.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wooded and Worded Wonderland

I'm back up at Pippin's place as of last night, and this morning took Baby C. for a walk in his jogger. It was an hour's walk, but that doesn't translate to much exercise when you figure in all the stops for gawking and picture-taking. On my drive up I listened to most of My Antonia and was struck by the evocative descriptions of the prairie; here the meadows are in their late summer glory of gold tones, with runnels of pale green. My photos don't serve nearly as well as Willa Cather's prose in conveying a scene. In this case there were jays scraping the air with their calls, and smells of drying grass and a dozen trees coming at me in the breeze. C. hummed as we bumped along. The air was crisp at first, but the little currents of warm spread out to fill the morning so that it soon felt like an August day.

I couldn't precisely identify any of those aromas; it made me envy the animals with their good noses --but when I do get to know a plant, I can also have the word for it, and that makes me happy. Fact is, I don't know the word for very many of the thousands of lovely things around me. Like this tiny flower that I spied on the roadside, and a while later in Pippin's tomato garden, volunteering along with mullein and ferns.

In the meadow I saw a place where the grass was all mashed down. Maybe the deer had rested there, maybe even the one I saw munching on tree branches by the side of the road. She gave me one look, and then refused to pay any more attention to me, even though I kept asking her to look at the camera.

I slept through the woodland noise last night, of Mama Bear tearing down bird feeders to spread the seed on the patio for her two cubs. It's the second time this week, which pretty much means the end of watching birds close by the kitchen window. That's about the only way I can seem to notice them, as I did last May when I took this picture. Birds are more fun to watch than bears, for many reasons, one being that you don't have to be wakened at midnight in order to see them.

Certainly one of the warm smells on our walk was of oak trees. Oak was likely one of my first nature words, as I lived most of my childhood under a giant oak in the Central Valley. I think it was a Valley Oak. There are only nineteen Quercus native to California, I just this minute read in a tree guide, so perhaps it wouldn't be impossible, as I have previously thought, for me to learn which are which. This one I photographed today is certainly not a Scrub, Live, Leather, Muller or Blue Oak...perhaps it is a California Black Oak. Hello, Mr. Oak; I hope to get to know you better.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Wedding

Soldier Son has married his true love, Doll. I am still too tired to think of anything philosophical or deep to write, except for Thank You, Lord! My son was a gift to us his parents when he came into the world, and he himself was gifted with a heart towards God, and many other graces.

His Heavenly Father has given him a woman for whom the word pure is fitting, and as a consequence our whole family, and indeed the world, is the richer for their coming together in the fear of God and under many prayers. I'm very aware at the moment that life, and His Life, is all a gift.

The setting was amazing, on a hill five miles from the Pacific, surrounded by beautiful and rustic plantings and with a long view of layered valleys and slopes. 

A week before the wedding we visited the site and I took pictures of the flowers close up, but that day was too foggy for me to get views like the one above, which gives an idea of the looks of the place.

The weather is often drizzly and cool so close to the North Coast, but the sun was shining for the ceremony and during the reception, which featured not cake but -- ta da! -- homemade pie! Pearl and I even collaborated the day before and managed to contribute two berry pies from our family.

It was a joy to have all our children in one place, something that hasn't happened in perhaps five years, and a bunch of us stayed up late after the wedding, sitting around the table enjoying our time together, doing nothing.

Just being thankful family. And now we are increased, glory to His Name, and feeling His love shed even more broadly in our hearts.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We Need Food of All Kinds

Soldier's wedding will take place in a few days.  B. and I are just trying to get ourselves and the house and my father-in-law ready for the Joyous Event--and trying at the same time to get over our summer colds. I was pleased to pick the first lemon cucumber and add it with our arugula and the multi-colored cherry tomatoes to some lettuce last night, to fortify us for the work, and for the happy busyness ahead.

This morning I was well enough and eager to get back to church, where we remembered the life of St. Lawrence of Rome. God has filled my cup with delights like this--how many parishes are able to celebrate on a Tuesday morning?

St. Lawrence was a deacon serving with Pope Sixtus in the third century; his life and martyrdom are peppered with several encouraging stories. He seems to have had a good sense of humor, and among the various groups who call him patron are comedians.

G. K. Chesterton said it is the test of a good religion, whether you can joke about it. I'm sure he didn't mean anything like mocking God or His salvation. But being able to laugh at oneself is a sign of humility, and I think it might be a collective form of this humor he is talking about. The whole subject of humor is something mysterious to me, and I would do well to study Chesterton's other writings about it. For now I will change the subject after my favorite pertinent quote, also from him: "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly."

I came home from the feast and noticed the hyssop flowers having grown taller and taller. Bees were drinking nectar from the blooms, but bees are hard to photograph--one has to take time and a couple dozen pictures in hopes of getting one without a blur of bee, and I have lots of housework yet to do.

My life is like my garden. It's full of beautiful and colorful things and events, ever changing, and I notice so few of them. Fewer still can I pick and show anyone else. My sociable or communicative side I find is always writing script in my mind, for how to tell other people about my discoveries and joys. But when the foliage and flowers grow so fast, events tumbling and intertwining with each other like a jungle, the feeling of not keeping up has been a gift in itself. From a feeling of helplessness, God has given me grace to just stop that scriptwriting for a few minutes at a time and direct my noticing and my thanks only to Him. Let me be like the bee, blurry if need be, but doing my job of imbibing the sweetness.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Berry Pies

It's traditional for B. to have homemade blackberry pie for his birthday, which arrives at the peak of the wild blackberry season here in Northern California. As a young couple we did our first picking up near the Eel River when we were just making hopeful forays northward, thinking about where to move to when our college days were done.

Later we had the bushes growing like weeds in our back yard and neighborhood, and the children could bring in plenty, so much that there were many more berries than I could bake into pies.  I developed a recipe for blackberry syrup to process in jars so that year by year we had it to pour on pancakes.

Twenty years ago we moved to a less rural part of the county and now have to make more of an effort to collect our pie ingredients. In the last few years it has twice happened that one or two of the children made heroic efforts against busy schedules and blazing heat to collect buckets full enough for me to bake the customary pie or two.

One year I carted one of these pies up the mountain for our Yosemite family camp experience, and forgot the birthday candle. Someone carved a sort of long matchstick from a twig to use instead, but it was pretty much a failure.

At left is the time I baked a blackberry pie at the high mountain cabin where I like to go for solitary retreats or for family gatherings where cooking is appreciated.

This busy-busy summer, there was hardly time for a spark of thought about going berry-picking, so I picked up two bags of mixed frozen berries at Costco with plans to make four pies for the big party that the children were giving B.

I'd used this berry mix once before, to make my usual blackberry pie recipe, the result being a kind of gummy candy wrapped in pastry. As the berries are individually quick-frozen, I speculated that they lose a lot of moisture in the process and must need less thickening than what I'd automatically put in the bowl.

So this time around, I used less than half the amount of tapioca granules called for in the original Joy of Cooking recipe. A little runny would be better than globby. And the pies were a little runny, so if I do it again I'll use exactly half the thickening.

Getting the edge of the crust to look nice is not the easiest part of pie-making. It took me quite a few failed attempts in my youth before someone showed me to hold the top and bottom layers of crust together as one, while you fold them under, against the edge of the plate. Now you are all ready to flute the edge, if you want. My pinching technique is shown at right in a photo I had B. snap for me. Click on it if you want to see it large.

It seems hard to bake a berry pie without the blue showing through the top crust. Two of the pies I put an egg wash on, and two not. Two had a little less butter in the crust. But they all came out looking about the same.

What was really different was baking them in a convection oven. With the first two pies, I experimented and used the foil collar on one and not on the other, and they baked equally, beautifully brown. So I may not use foil collars ever again!

The flavor was excellent, a composite of blackberries (Marionberries, to be precise),  blueberries, and raspberries, with butter seeping in from the crust, and a bit of cinnamon with the fruit. I go lightly on the sugar so that the sweetness doesn't overwhelm the taste buds.

It was a wonderful party the children had for their beloved father, and he was very pleased not to have to go without his pie.

Friday, August 6, 2010


You were transfigured on the mountain, 
O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples 
as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us.... 
On this feast day it was good to go back and read my ruminations about Fr Arseny on the date last year. This year, unfortunately, I'm missing the services at church, but I have the troparion (above) playing in my mind.

Also another chorus from long ago, one that I don't think is popular currently in the Protestant world, that goes like this:
The Lord is my light and my salvation,
Whom then shall I fear? Whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life,
The Lord is the strength of my life.
Of whom then shall I be afraid?

At least, that is how it plays in my memory.

This icon I found on the Orthodox Church in America site, where its source was not given. Does anyone know?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Cherry Tomatoes Then and Now

Today I had a hankering for soup, so it was lucky that I found in the freezer a quart of the Cherry Tomato Soup I concocted last summer, or fall, to be exact. It seemed to want to go with the quart of Ham and Bean Soup that I also found in there, and after that, it was only natural to throw in the leftover green beans that had a smearing of pesto on them. Yum.

Here is what last year's soup looked like before freezing. When I went back to find the post to link to, I noticed Anita's tale of how her curried tomato soup happened, and it sounds like something I'd like to try this year, if my eight plants produce. But--I'm afraid they might have blight!

Here's the biggest picking of tomatoes I've made so far. The green one is a Green Grape. It looks more like the Green Cherry I had last year, compared with the red one there, a plain Grape. The dark ones are Black Cherry, and the yellow are Yellow Cherry.

Thank God for cherry tomatoes, which ripen fairly quickly. Even they are three weeks late, and we are still waiting on the big tomatoes.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bread with Sorghum

I made some more bread this week. The bread pans and dough hook were still in hiding, but I enjoyed the kneading, and the free-form loaves do look more rustic, even if they are a bit problematic for B. when making his lunch in the mornings.

This time I used a lot less oil and sugar, and for flour I added some oat and sorghum to the mix. Sorghum? I picked up a small bag of the stuff somewhere, sometime, toward the goal of always-increasing variety in the diet. I didn't really know where sorghum comes from, but while the dough was rising I read on the bag that it is a grain. This morning I read more about it online and find that it has been used for a long time by humans, more in other parts of the world than here in the U.S., but is gaining popularity here, too.

When it was time to put the loaves into the oven I quickly tried to think of what styles of decorative cuttings I'd seen on commercial artisan breads, but it was too late to do a good job of being creative in that department. So far, my experiment shows that the simple and traditional architecture is nicer.

I have a dear friend N. who is about my age. Neither of us gets to make bread the way we used to 20 or 30 years ago, when The Tassajara Bread Book was one of our bread bibles. Tonight I talked with her on the phone and told her about making bread twice in one week. She was surprised, and said, "You must be avoiding something you should be doing instead."

That's one way of seeing it, and how wonderful to have a friend who understands me! Another aspect of the phenomenon is that breadmaking is a relatively small and particular task that I know how to do. None of the little decisions about how closely to follow the recipe comes with very many options, and if the whole batch is ruined for some reason it wouldn't have much consequence. Baking a loaf or two of bread takes only a few hours, and makes me feel homey, useful, and accomplished.

The tasks I am "avoiding," on the other hand, consist of three whole rooms, each of which will require at least a day's worth of work, consisting of one hard decision after another about whether to keep one item or who among my friends, or among thrift shops, might want  another one. If I keep it, how will I store it so I can find it? Etc. Everyone knows how that works.

Now how did I end up talking about sorting junk when I started with homemade bread? The subject is like the clutter itself, creeping in when you are busy doing doing good work. This next week is my chance to tackle one of those rooms, where I hope to lodge a wedding guest if I can clear off the bed. And this afternoon I found both my dough hook and my loaf pans, so it's even possible I might be inspired to make bread again, too.

Responding to Unpleasantness

Posted on The Morning Offering, this from St. Symeon the New Theologian:

"Faith in Christ is... a good and patient disposition of the soul in enduring all temptations, whether griefs, sorrows or unpleasant happenings, until God's favour looks down upon us; thus we would imitate David who says: 'I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry' (Ps. 40:1)."

Unpleasant happenings are my excuse for many kinds of sins, from overeating to speaking quickly and unkindly. If I would, at the first notice of unpleasantness, direct my soul to wait on God, wait to speak, wait to eat, etc., I would be enduring temptation. It appears that not all temptations are of the type from which one can flee, or that can be actively resisted. But in any circumstance we can rest in Christ. I don't write from much experience.

On the other hand, St. Symeon did. He was abbot of a monastery when the monks attacked and nearly killed him. Don't be confused by his title; his theology was not new, but he was younger than another man by the same name, hence the clarifier.

The Orthodox Church has given only three saints the title of Theologian. I love that the quote above hearkens back to old theology, that of a man whose tradition was of the school My Soul Follows Hard After Thee.