Monday, March 28, 2011

A Thankful of Joys

Pearl's sunroom

Firstly, I'm thankful for Jody who encouraged me today to think about what I am thankful for. It's a perspective I need on a day when my prayers are all tending toward the "Lord, help!" sort and my mind is going along the lines of forty tangents. Because tomorrow I'm getting up at 4:00 a.m. to make my way toward the airport and fly to Maryland for a spell.

I'm thankful for
*family who want to have me with them
*resources physical and financial to make the trip
*a husband who is willing to do without me for the ten days

Today I'll be flitting about trying to decide whether to pack the blue or brown skirt, making a batch of pasta with pesto for B. to comfort himself with in my absence, doing the last load of laundry, trying to get the house a little less pigpenny, and carefully loading my backpack for the travel, with the perfect selection of books, notebooks, snacks -- well, maybe it won't be perfect -- and anyway, I might want to just sit in silence and be thankful for my own little private spot, jammed in next to a fellow human who is suffering the squeeze right there.

In my psyche I have been feeling the tearing away from home and church, and the homesickness that I always fall prey to before leaving home. But when I remember that every event has God in it, offering the grace of Himself in whatever work is before us, there is Joy for the taking.

Pearl in her yard 2 years ago
Today is the first day in a long while that I've had the whole day to be home and do my work -- and so far it's been mostly a slow labor of the mind and heart.  Maybe that's one reason I've been able to process some of the truths and encouraging words I've been hearing, and put it all together so that I see my way clear. And it is clearly joyful!

I'm going to stay at Pearl's, and spend time with four of the grandchildren, and see Kate and cherry blossoms. I'm taking snowball bush cuttings, books, and embroidery floss, among other gifts. We'll go for hilly walks when it's not raining, and I understand that I am to bake cupcakes with Littlest Granddaughter Maggie. Maybe we'll watch the movie "Babies" that I love.

Once I arrive, it won't feel like work, but there will be grace and peace. And I won't be homesick again until the time comes that I have to leave them and come home. Isn't it wonderful to have people to love?

Thursday, March 24, 2011


by Mikhail Nesterov

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of 
the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes 
the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces 
the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry 
to the Theotokos:
"Rejoice, O Full of Grace, 
the Lord is with you!" 

The announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Christ, the Son of God, is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the church year in Orthodoxy, and is celebrated exactly nine months before the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, on March 25th. The words above are from a hymn that we sing on this feast.

Not long ago I read The Presence of Mary, a booklet by Fr. Alexander Schmemann in the St. Athanasius Study Series, published by Conciliar Press © 1988. In 26 pages the author discusses in depth the role of Christ's mother in our salvation history, and sets it against "...the fundamental spiritual disease of our time [that] must be termed anthropological heresy."

That last clause piqued my interest, too! I've been wanting to take the time to read the booklet again and write a real review about the truths that Fr. Schmemann helps to clarify, but that time is not now. However, the present moment and celebration does seem to be right for at least posting a quote from the book, as we contemplate her who is "blessed among women." (I have underlined the words that were in italics in the original.)

It is clear that an abstract and impersonal study of man posits a self-evident conclusion: man as total dependence. An equally abstract exaltation of man posits its a priori premise: man as total freedom. But both are revealed in the unique personal experience of Mary, an experience given to the Church and made into her experience, as one and the same truth about man.

In Mary, the very notions of "dependence" and "freedom" cease to be opposed to one another as mutually exclusive. We are inclined to think that where there is dependence there can be no freedom, where there is freedom there can be no dependence. Mary, however, accepts, she obeys, she humbles herself before the living Truth itself, a Presence, a Beauty, a Life, a Call so overwhelmingly evident that it makes the notion of "dependence" an empty one -- or rather identical and coextensive with that of freedom. For as long as freedom is nothing but the other side of dependence -- a protest, a rebellion against dependence -- as long as freedom itself depends on dependence for its meaning, it is also an empty notion. Each time freedom chooses and accepts, it ceases to be freedom. Here, however, in the unique experience of Mary, freedom becomes the very content of dependence, the one eternally fulfilling itself in the other as life, joy, knowledge, communion, and fulness.
Admittedly these are poor, inadequate, and clumsy human words about an experience, a vision, a reality which transcends all human words. But, having read them, look again at that woman who eternally stands at the very heart of the Church filling our hearts with a mysterious yet ineffable joy, making us repeat eternally that same salutation which she heard in the depth of her heart on the day of Annunciation: Rejoice!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Birthday Reflection

St. Nikolai

Yes, it's my birthday today! Another day to thank God for all His wonderful gifts.

This spring I've been enjoying The Prologue of Ohrid by St.Nikolai Velimirovic. I splurged on this two-volume set of readings for every day of the year when our church bookstore offered it at a discount. I was the one who had to write down information about the book for a list of sale items, and that was the first time I'd actually looked inside. Something about the name along with its size had made me disregard it, but in the Preface I learned that the name Ohrid is "solely to distinguish it from the ancient Slavonic Prologue which -- regrettably, because of its language -- has become inaccessible to the Slavic people of our time."

I'd heard and read many of St. Nikolai's Prayers by the Lake, which are heartfelt and inspiring poems, so it is not surprising that his devotionals of three or four pages are also beneficial. They include stories of two or more saints commemorated that day, a Reflection, a Contemplation, a Homily of a few paragraphs, and often a Hymn of Praise. I'm happy to know that the whole thing is also available online, so I won't need to carry my book across the continent later this month.

Today's Reflection is a good one for Lent.

Even in His pain on the Cross, the Lord Jesus did not condemn sinners but offered up pardon for their sins to His Father, saying, They know not what they do (Luke 23:34)! Let us not judge anyone so that we will not be judged. For no one is certain that, before his death, he will not commit the same sin by which he condemns his brother. St. Anastasius of Sinai teaches: "Even if you see someone sinning, do not judge him, for you do not know what the end of his life will be like. The thief who was crucified with Christ was a murderer, while Judas was an apostle of Jesus, but the thief entered into the Kingdom, and the apostle went to perdition. Even if you see someone sinning, bear in mind that you do not know his good works. For many have sinned openly and repented in secret; we see their sins, but we do not know their repentance. Therefore, brethren, let us not judge anyone so that we will not be judged."
St. Anastasius by Rembrandt

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Happened at the Symphony

I was moved to tears by the experience of attending the symphony yesterday. As I have little musical training beyond being challenged by the Tonette in third grade, I'm not the one to give a knowledgeable critic's review. Other than one music appreciation course in college, most of my music listening has been with three-quarters of my brain elsewhere.

Our son's Japanese violin teacher assured us that even if we dozed during concerts we all would benefit by hearing the music played well, so I have comforted myself with the image of beautiful sounds soaking irresistibly into the consciousness. After my marriage, our house was often full of live music, what with five children and a husband playing guitars, flute, violin and piano. But I was normally in another room stirring the soup or folding laundry.

And concerts were typically not in the budget, though I have to admit that many of the children's recitals filled me with joy at the expertise of the students, especially toward the end of the lineup when those most advanced at their instruments showed us their stuff. The boys were also able to play in beginning or amateur orchestras. It makes me very happy these days even to hear over the radio one of those pieces from the Suzuki violin repertoire, or a Nocturne that a daughter played. I can't seem to enjoy classical music the first time I hear a piece, but after it has become familiar I love it dearly.

That's why I cared so much about going to the symphony last weekend, to hear Brahms; in college when I owned only a few LP's, a thrift-store album of Brahms symphonies was one of them. We've never acquired an updated recording, but I was eager to hear a live rendition of his music.

I also wanted to sit there in the concert hall and listen to whatever was on the program, familiar or not, for the greater chance for participation that it affords. Even when the compositions being performed are not to my liking, the visual component helps to keep me on the edge of my seat. Because I'm not much of an auditory learner, if the sensory input is limited to hearing, as in a recording, it's really hard for me to assess or even pay close attention to the music, and the fact that I've never learned to play an instrument is another hole in my readiness.
Elina Vähälä

But with the orchestra arrayed before me I'm greatly helped to appreciate the amazing work that's being done. It's all to the glory of God at the very outset, Who formed each individual in the womb with incredible gifts of intelligence and physical coordination. From there every artist has a unique story about how he struggled to bring his fingers and/or lips into submission to the requirements of the instrument and to the demands of  the musical score.

Speaking of fingers, the conductor had the longest fingers I've ever seen. His whole body was long and thin and so flexibly energetic, he threatened to bounce into the floodlights or melt into the sound waves. The timpanist looked like my high school chemistry teacher -- well, who knows, perhaps he is a high school teacher. One balding cellist with a bushy ponytail stood out because he jerked his head so emphatically with his bowing, and the flutist who played a solo part exquisitely -- thank God for her!

The two Brahms pieces were the 4th Symphony, and the Violin Concerto Opus 77. Though she is famous in the classical music world, Mr. Glad and I hadn't heard of the violin soloist Elina Vähälä, so we read a little about her online beforehand and even listened to a clip of her playing. Of course, the live performance was thrilling. Certainly I've never heard anything more sublime than the sounds from that "Antonio Stradivari violin, built in 1678 and generously loaned by the Finnish Cultural Foundation," which she played lovingly. She's a beautiful woman and we were privileged to be there with her in her radiance.

After her performance, Ms. Vähälä came up into the balcony not far from where we sat, to join the audience in enjoyment of the 4th Symphony. I so admire all those regular members of the orchestra and the way they submit their art and skill to the group, and to the composer. They gather in ranks and in humble monochrome to work their magic, making the music emerge and shine in all its brightness, lifting our spirits. Even Brahms and his talent, the story of his life and how God worked in it to bless the world, are in the background.

It all makes me think of lying dreamily in a meadow in springtime. Your mind is filled with contentment and excitement all at once, for the multitude of pleasant sounds and feelings all mixed up and coming in. Gradually and intermittently, you notice individual players, like a particular bird's song or the scent of the grasses. The sky is blue overhead; clouds with interesting shapes pass by. And yes, you might even sleep. But in the end, you are a richer person for having been there. And you don't even know how it happened.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quote of the Week - Imagination vs. Heart

Men often take their imagination for their heart; and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.    
                                              --Blaise Pascal

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pacific in Pacific Grove

Seaside paintbrush

Counting my dear sons' wives, which I very thankfully do, I now have five daughters. It's sad to think how I spent several years complaining that I didn't birth more children; during that time I never anticipated the familial wealth that in-laws can bring.

Point Lobos (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

In an effort to enjoy our family friendships we women spent a few months planning our first mother-daughter holiday. When continents stretch between, the grandchildren have pressing needs, and the young women pressing schedules, it's a tribute to our devotion that we even tried. In the end, only half of us, two daughters and I, were able to get together recently, on California's Central Coast.

Seaside daisy
Pacific Grove was our home base. Every morning I woke with the feel of long-ago visits to my Aunt Margaret, whom I knew mostly in my teens. She lived in Carmel in a cream-colored house with white carpets, under a sky that was often white with fog or overcast, and the mood was so quiet. The sort of quiet that is filled with the sound of surf and the cry of sea gulls.

 Our gathering of last week was a quiet group, too, in spite of our much talking, which I imagine was still on the low end of charts that might be made of all-women excursions, as we often stood in silent wonderment over our surroundings.

In our Keen boots -- really, no one one had coordinated our foot attire, contrary to all appearances -- we walked a lot, up and down the hills of Pacific Grove and Monterey and Carmel-by-the-Sea. And we looked at flowers and trees and birds and tried to identify them all.

Flower is California hedge nettle
ceanothus in Pacific Grove

On Point Lobos especially the sweet smell of ceanothus blooms was filling the air, along with the buzzing of bees who were crazy over it. We liked the challenge of photographing busy bees. They liked how the pollen was offering itself to them on vast fields of stamens.

Carrying great loads of pollen

Protea behind Cannery Row
Lucky for us that Mrs. Bread showed us a Protea in her garden our first afternoon, so that we could guess their identities when we kept seeing them everywhere from then on. The genus includes a huge variety of forms that are really striking. I came home to find that our bottlebrush tree is not a Protea, however. Proteas seem to have come originally from the southern hemisphere, but they definitely like growing on this patch of the globe.

Behind Cannery Row murals have been painted along the bike path, evoking the culture and history that John Steinbeck depicted in his books. I liked browsing this lane better than the touristy shops which carry, as Doll pointed out, all the same stuff from China that touristy shops all over the nation carry. 

Oh, except maybe the otter dolls. I was expending so much mental energy drumming up buyer's resistance that I didn't even think about how I could have taken a picture of one. There were three stuffed toy versions of the captivating creatures that we watched lolling and playing in Monterey Bay, and I can't find one online that is as cute, to post here.

fava plant in bloom

While in Monterey it was quite fun to revisit the Cooper-Molera House so soon after our last visit, but long enough that the plants were further along in spring, as this fava bean plant with its black-and-white blossoms. There were even little bean pods forming lower on the plant.

Another Protea

Pacific Grove is called Butterfly Town, because of the Monarch butterflies that migrate there every year. I've long had a vicarious and romantic attachment to the place thanks to the book by Leo Politi, and now it has become a direct relationship with the same feelings.
Updated adobe cottage in Pacific Grove

The weather we experienced was surprisingly mild in spite of frequent short showers of drizzle or light rain -- but I might find it difficult to stay long where the sun doesn't show itself often enough to keep the spirits up.

Flowers seem to glow more vividly under grey skies, though, and that makes up for the drear a little bit. People paint their houses in cheerful colors. And peace and quiet count for a lot. 

The Pacific Ocean is not always peaceful, but it was fairly calm this week. The tsunami from Japan didn't make a big wave here. You can't see them, but two otters are playing in this picture. And peace and serenity and love were all playing some quiet music in our hearts.

Friday, March 4, 2011

How to Get Light instead of Fog

St. Isaac of Syria

Thanks to Christ is in our Midst for this posting appropriate to the beginning of Lent. To me it is a helpful elaboration on C.S. Lewis's statement that "Virtue -- even attempted virtue -- brings light; indulgence brings fog."

…If you cannot be still within your heart, then at least make still your tongue. If you cannot give right ordering to your thoughts, at least give right ordering to your senses. If you cannot be solitary in your mind, at least be solitary in body. If you cannot labor with your body, at least be afflicted in mind. If you cannot keep your vigil standing, keep vigil sitting on your pallet, or lying down. If you cannot fast for two days at a time, at least fast till evening. And if you cannot fast until evening, then at least keep yourself from satiety. If you are not holy in your heart, at least be holy in body. If you do not mourn in your heart, at least cover your face with mourning. If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner. If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot be assiduous, at least consider yourself lazy. If you are not victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.

Know that if fire goes forth from you and consumes other men, God will demand from your hands the souls which your fire has burned. And if you yourself do not put forth the fire, but are in agreement with him who does, and are pleased by it, in the judgment you will be reckoned as his accomplice. If you love gentleness, be peaceful, if you are deemed worthy of peace, you will rejoice at all time. Seek understanding, not gold. Clothe yourself with humility, not fine linen. Gain peace, not a kingdom.

~St. Isaac of Syria

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Buttery Week with Cats

Springtime, and the cats are caterwauling. Jim has a cute little girlfriend. Last week they were sporting together on the patio as we ate dinner, but this week he ran away when she came to eat the food I put out for him. She was stalking him at the dish today, so I went to get my camera. When I came back it appeared he was sharing his food with her. How sweet!

I was cooking while they were eating. For Orthodox this is the week before Lent proper, and we start the Great Fast on Monday. But as we like to ease into things, we already are fasting from meat as of last Monday. Some call this Butter Week, and some say it is a fun time. Perhaps I've always been on a trip or otherwise distracted before, during Cheese-fare Week; this is the first year I have enjoyed it this much. But anytime you highlight butter, for me that is fun.

Oh! Jim lifted his head, and it wasn't Jim at all. It looks like Girlfriend's sister....maybe Jim has two girlfriends! I wonder if he ran away from fright or just to be gentlemanly. B. doesn't really want me feeding all the cats in the neighborhood, so after I took their picture I brought the food inside until Jim comes back. It was the second time today I tried to feed only Jim and he got chased off.

My husband is o.k. with butter, and even cookies. He just told me that if a cookie is really good, he will even eat two in one day. This moderation on his part doesn't jive very well with my own Cookie Monsterish behavior and the fact that there are only the two of us here now. So I rarely bake cookies.

But, two of my friends revealed their Freezer Cookie Ball method. I thought it would be the perfect solution to the alternate problems of me eating up all the cookies before B. could get to them, or the cookies going stale on him. I can bake one sheet full, and freeze the rest of the dough for baking later.

I forgot that I also like to eat the dough. I'm a little shy about admitting it to the world, because my husband thinks it is the most base behavior, something like eating cat food, maybe, only more repulsive.

My sisters and I ate cookie dough as children, but I consumed the most ever in one summer between college semesters, when all three of the girls in my apartment agreed on our favorite cookie: mint chocolate chip. And we all liked to eat half the batch before it went into the oven or was even dropped on the cookie sheet.

I know that in modern times, we are cautioned against this because of the raw egg in cookie dough, but as this is nearly the only risky behavior I indulge in, and that rarely, I hope you will allow me.

So I confess that just freezing the dough doesn't ensure that B. will have a cookie when he needs it. Luckily I also had the bright idea of freezing already-baked cookies, one to a waxed paper bag, so when he is so inclined he can defrost one in a jiffy.

Butter Week is still here for now, so I made a fresh batch of these cookies. I baked nine and crowded the rest onto a sheet to quick-freeze. It's an adaptation of the Oatmeal Scotchies on the Nestle butterscotch chips package. I think it might be improved by doubling the recipe except for the butterscotch chips. Even though I left out half the sugar, the cookies are plenty sweet because of the high density of chips.

Buttery Week Cookies
(Oatmeal Butterscotch)
1 1/2 cups spelt flour, white and/or whole-grain (if you use wheat, use only 1 1/4 cups, because wheat flour absorbs more moisture.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 sticks salted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar (I just left out the white sugar)
1 large or extra-large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups regular rolled oats
1 2/3 cups (1 package) butterscotch-flavored chips
about 1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix as usual for cookies, adding nuts and chips at the last. Bake about 10 minutes at 375°F.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Marketing


The only task I was determined to complete today was a shopping trip to a grocery store in the next town. The establishment is combination of neighborhood grocery, natural food store, and international market, and the kind of store I go into with a list of five items (like today) and after exploring and discovering up and down the aisles I leave with two big bags full of good finds. Oh, they also have a gift shop in one corner! I could spend an hour right there, browsing for the gift I wish I'd been diligent to make myself.

As I wheeled my cart in the door I was already fairly elated, having just encountered the budding vine outside -- and that was after I had brilliantly noticed the jewelry store next door and got my watch battery replaced. I'd been carrying it around in my purse for a couple of months -- surprising how much lighter I felt, getting it back on my wrist instead.

Maybe I was so smart, and elated, partly because of all the caffeine I'd been imbibing on my morning off from the gym. Besides the shopping trip, I did have in the back of my mind the idea of thoroughly vacuuming several rooms in the house. The day's not over, so who can tell....

My favorite place to shop carries items that I can't get any longer at Trader Joe's (Ezekiel 4:9 bread) or other grocery stores (Roastaroma tea) and some standard items at great discount (obscure brands of olive oil). And, I admit, some just plain weird things.

I often get bogged down in the kitchen aisle, looking at cute European utensils including my downfall, knives. This time I paid $2 for the tea strainer to replace our old one that is all mangled and rusty.

I had even been sharp enough to remember to bring in my reusable shopping bags. It does seem to me that the checkers at this store are a little less warm when I don't. It all comes of living in the kind of place where people take their Wine Country Vacations.

Another thing I like about my market is that they never have tacky holiday displays. Today I didn't notice the window until I had loaded my bags and was back in my car. So I got out again to mark the advent of spring behind the cigarettes. Happy March!