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Archive for August, 2012

“What candy did you eat once that you wish you could get again?” is the prompt from NaBloPoMo, and in the meantime, WordPress’s Daily Post has issued a challenge:  Going from Mundane to Meaningful.  Goodness, two tasks.

As strange as it sounds to me – I can’t think of a single candy I would wish to eat again.  Not even the handmade chocolate bunnies that my mother used to buy at Easter, from a candy shop owned by an in-law of her father’s.  I’m sure it was excellent candy, but like pearls cast before swine, we little piglets just wolfed it down (so to speak), and I can’t even remember what it tasted like anymore.

Not even the fruit bonbons that my grandmother kept in a dish on her coffee table, desirably mainly because if we had touched them, we would probably have lost a hand – my mother somehow had this idea that Other People’s Candy was out for show only.  Maybe it was.  But over the decades, the appeal of hardened sugar water, or whatever candy consists of, has waned.

No, wait a minute.  Come to think of it…I actually do have a good candidate.  The year I was fifteen, my grandfather came to New Hampshire to visit his son, and I was spending the summer with that same son, who happened to be my godfather.  My grandfather, a great lover of walks, invited me for a walk with him, and as I also loved a good long walk (before arthritis caught up with me, anyway), I accepted gladly.  We ambled down Central Avenue together until we came to a candy shop – not one of those places where they sold candy like Snickers and Three Musketeers, but the kind of place just like where my mother used to get those Easter bunnies.  All their candy was home-made.  He bought a couple of pounds of good milk chocolate, then said to me, “How about some white barque?”  I expressed my ignorance on the subject, and was I surprised to learn that it was white chocolate.  White chocolate?!  Who ever heard of such a thing?  But he bought a pound, and I had a sample, and – yeah, I was hooked.  It was really good.  It had almonds in it, and even though it was high summer, that chocolate hardly melted at all.

For years and years afterward, I lusted after the memory of that chocolate.  Shortly after that visit, the candy shop closed for good; it’s now a bar.  How things change…I mean, the juxtaposition of the innocence of candy versus the kinds of things that go on in bars just seems to smack me in the face, as I’m thinking about it.  And to top it all off, the Food Police have us all convinced that Candy is Bad, and they’re strangely silent on the subject of booze.  The FPI – Food Police Investigators – do give a grudging nod to dark chocolate for its reputed Health Benefits, but I think they’d be just as happy if it too disappeared off the planet.  People tend to feel too darn good after chocolate.

Recently, I’ve discovered that there are producers of candy who offer white chocolate.  These tend to be either smaller manufacturers of “organic chocolate,” or manufacturers of high-end chocolates, like Lindt; in any case, the chocolate is mass-produced, and it doesn’t include almonds (from what I can tell, nuts are what set barque apart from plain ol’ white chocolate).  I’ve tried it; it’s good.  But it’s not homemade.

And it’s not the gift of a grandfather who wasn’t all that affectionate and not at all good with words, but who understood very well what children, even teenagers, like.

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Back to the prompts.  Thank goodness – I’ve had enough of Depth for one week, anyway.

“What was the first candy you ever tried?”

Now that takes some mental exercise.  After all, we’re talking over sixty years of candy-sampling.  But I think I’ve got it.

As I know I have mentioned more than once, my mother was widowed very young – I was two – but as it turned out, she met her life partner at a cousin’s wedding, a month before my father was killed in a car crash.  He must have started coming around almost as soon as my father died, and because, to be frank, my mother had already begun to regret her first choice for a husband, and because she had a young child to support, she didn’t discourage the attentions of this second suitor.  In fact, they were married less than a year after my own father’s death, and that marriage lasted just over fifty years, ending with my mother’s death.

Dad – my stepfather – was nothing if not conservative and traditional, as most working-class folks are.  Flowers and candy were a de rigeur component of this courtship, and the candy came in boxes, with each piece wrapped in its own individual little piece of paper.  Each piece was chocolate, but each piece came with a different-flavor filling – I know there were caramels, and I suspect that a few of them were filled with brandy or another liqueur, because I was forbidden to touch the box on my own – my mother shared her candy willingly, but she got to choose which pieces I got to eat.  On rare occasion, she would give me my favorite:  chocolate-covered cherries, filled with a cherry liqueur.

In those days, before the Nanny State, it was perfectly permissible for children and alcohol to interact, to a limited extent.  At the numerous gatherings of my stepfather’s large Polish family, kids were always cadging “sips” of beer from the adults.  However, it was incumbent on the adults present to keep a close watch on who was giving in to the cadging, so I never actually got drunk, nor did my cousins.  Nor, for that matter, did the adults; although they might have gotten pleasantly snockered, I never once in my childhood saw an adult who was, as we used to say, “falling-down drunk.”  (That’s not to say there weren’t any, as I learned in adulthood, just to say that most of the family was careful not to let the children see them in that state.)  The purpose of a beer, on a hot summer afternoon, was to cool off, not to get drunk.  And although there was hard liquor, it wasn’t in plentiful supply; it was kept for special occasions, like toasting the announcement of an impending new baby.  (“Let’s drink to the baby.  Let’s drink to the crib.  Let’s drink to the carriage.  Let’s drink to the high chair.”  Etc.  Sometimes I think about that research relating adult drinking to fetal-alcohol syndrome, and I wonder if any of those researchers was remotely Slavic.  I’m betting not.)

Back to the candy.  I really loved those cherry-flavored candies, but usually got stuck – in more ways than one – with the caramels.  Hey, candy is candy.  My next-favorite part of the candy box, though, was bizarre, to say the least:  When all the candy had been eaten, I got the empty box of little papers.  I have no idea why the papers were returned to the box as the candy was eaten, but at the end of a week or so, I had a box full of empty papers, and I would shake it to listen to the rustle.  I called it my “pigeons.”  For some reason, a lot of men in post-war Brooklyn and Queens kept pigeons, Dad and his friend Steve among them, so from the time my mother began dating my stepfather, I was familiar with the rustle of caged pigeons in the back yard.  I should add that my mother hated the pigeons – in the early years, she and my stepfather had more arguments about those pigeons than about anything else – but Dad kept his pigeons until I was a teenager.  And when I was a very little girl, it was understood that those empty boxes of candy were my turf, a little girl’s “pigeons.”  It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re poor.

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A blog that I’ve recently begun following makes an interesting point here:

http://jimjohnmarks.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/be-careful-what-you-wish-for/

to the effect that “…the last thing you want is certainty about the reality of the Cosmos. Please allow me to assure you that it will destroy your life. At least your life as you now know it.”  In another blog I follow, one written by an Orthodox priest, the point is made many times that “God didn’t come to earth to make bad men good.  He came to make dead men live.”  The blog address, not for the quote but for the priest, is http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com.

I write about this because, as I noted yesterday, I’ve picked up a couple of new readers, for the time being, at least, which involves my reciprocating and reading their blogs.  One of them writes with a painful anger about her upbringing as a Southern Baptist.  Actually, I can relate to this, as I’m still working through my own upbringing as a Roman Catholic.  As different as both forms of Christianity are, both of them emphasize Morality, a morality of Bad and Good.  Bad people go to hell.  Good people go to heaven.  And I keep thinking of a line from Billy Joel’s song, “Only the Good Die Young”:  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; sinners have more fun.”

I actually understand that, too.  Being Good is a rather grim prospect for today’s pleasure-oriented young people (as it was forty years ago, when the song was popular!):  no smokin’, no drinkin’, no dancin’, and no foolin’ around, and often entails looking down one’s nose at Bad people.  And anyway, what’s wrong with a good time?!

Well, nothing.  There’s that scene in the Bible (surely uncomfortable for teetotaling Christians) where Christ and His disciples are kicking back at a wedding, enjoying a glass or two, or several, of fermented grape (wine, to the rest of us non-teetotalers), without a care in the world – till the happy couple runs out of the sauce, and Christ’s mother, who has also been invited, tells Him, “They have no more wine.”  His response, roughly translated into today’s idiom, is, “And?  This is My problem, How?”  As a commentator once wrote, maybe she was only suggesting that He pass the word to His cronies disciples that they should turn down the next round of drinks.  Instead, He performs His first public miracle of turning water into a wine of such good quality that the party organizer makes note of it to the host:  “Why did you keep the good stuff back till now?!”

So having a good time isn’t the problem.  It’s what the good times can lead to; do they lead to death, or to an enhanced life?  Not just enhanced in the short-term, in the next fifteen minutes, nor even in the next fifteen days, but over the next fifteen years.  And then, twice and three times that.  Do your good times lead you to love that lasts a lifetime and beyond, or to dissipation, dissolution, and/or the conclusion that Life is meaningless, so why not end it anyway?

As painful as seriously examining life can be, it’s at least graspable; that is, you can get your head around it, to some extent.  But there is nothing, nothing on earth like the moment the first blog refers to, the moment when belief in God passes away in the certain knowledge, not just of His existence, but of His relevance in one’s own life, of His limitless, intimate love for each atom of His creation.  As that author assures us, “It will destroy your life.  At least your life as you now know it.”

I know my own first reaction to that statement was, “How can God destroy life?!”  And then I thought of the title of one of my son’s favorite songs, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  They sang that at his high-school graduation, and I realized, Yes, this is the end of the world that all these young people have known, as they step out into a wider world, on to college or blue-collar jobs or the military.  The end of one world, but the beginning of a whole new dimension of existence.  As birth is the end of the only world a baby has ever known, as it exits the womb into a world of bright light and color and unmodified sound:  Yikes!  But then it hears a voice it has always known, its mother’s voice, and Life becomes manageable again.

Once God whispers in your ear, “Follow Me” – however He does it, for it is as unique as each one of us – the life you have really is destroyed.  You lose all control over it.  The scariest part is that once you do surrender control, it becomes more wonderful, more adventurous, more challenging, and infinitely more joyous than you could possibly have imagined.  Never once did I plan to become a wife and mother – I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.  Yet, having made the choice, having surrendered control, I have led a life more adventurous and satisfying than I would ever have thought possible.

So, if you seriously want “proof” of God’s existence, it’s there for the asking.  But be careful what you ask for:  You may get it.

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NaBloPoMo doesn’t have prompts on weekends, leaving them available for “free-writing.”  Not a good thing for me, as I usually either blow off posting entirely or go on a world-class Rant.  I promise to try to behave myself today, though.

Thanks to NaBloPoMo, I’ve picked up a couple of new readers – temporarily, anyway – so I thought I’d bring up something about my life, and the way I try to live it.  I am well into my sixth decade of life, married with two grown children (whom I sometimes refer to as “groan” children – you never stop worrying about your children), one of whom has two sons and one of whom is unmarried.  (Yes, the one with the two sons is married.  I can’t believe I just wrote that qualifier.  Nor can I believe that it should even need to be spelled out.  O tempora, O mores….)  I am a retired secretary with a degree in accounting, which I acquired too late in life to do anything useful with, and I currently spend my days on housework and “fine-art cross-stitch” – that’s when you find a pattern that reproduces, in symbols, a piece of fine art, and you work it.  It’s a little like paint-by-number, only with thread.

And I am an Orthodox Christian.  Not an orthodox Christian.  There’s a world of difference between the two.  If you are an orthodox Christian, you go to church on Sunday, you read your Bible, you do good works.  If you are a mainstream orthodox Christian, you do all of that, but you are also heavily active in political causes of the left-wing variety, engaging in protests and voicing support for behaviors that used to be considered highly unChristian.  You do this in the name of Inclusiveness, and you sincerely believe that this activity presents a God Who loves all humankind, just as they are.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, you may – or may not – have some kind of ethnic qualifier in front of that, such as Greek or Russian or Romanian.  People are always asking me what the difference is, and I tell them, “Language.”  Such a thing is only possible in places to which people from Orthodox countries have immigrated.  In all cases, the beliefs are exactly the same, and an Orthodox Christian can attend Liturgy in any of them and feel reasonably at home – language can still be a barrier, though.

If you are an Orthodox Christian, you attend church, but not just on Sundays – there is a whole raft of feastdays that fall at various points of the year, and while attendance at Liturgy is not mandatory (as it would be in the Catholic Church), an Orthodox Christian who takes his faith seriously will make an effort to attend at least some of them.  Some Orthodox Christians read their Bible, some don’t, feeling that the Bible presented in church on Sundays and feastdays gives them plenty to ponder on during the week.  One former Protestant pastor, on becoming Orthodox, counted up the number of Bible verses in an average Sunday service and came up with 104.  There’s a lot to think about in 104 verses.

Your good works tend to be of the quiet variety, and almost never involve public protests.  You might indulge briefly in a bit of juicy gossip about an “errant” member of the congregation, but will find that the conversation is swiftly, and deftly, turned aside to something much more innocuous; the following Sunday, the priest will probably preach a sermon about the importance of examining one’s own spiritual life.

And this is where Orthodox Christianity gets unorthodox.  Nearly everyone who knows anything about Christianity believes that Christianity is a religion of peace, love, and brotherhood.  Or they trumpet George Carlin’s famous (and inaccurate) observation that “more wars have been fought in the name of religion than over anything else.”  (Examine history.  Wars have almost always been fought over territory.  Territory equals economic power.)  What is true is that the end result of being a Christian should be acquiring a spirit of peace – but that peace is obtained by relentless spiritual warfare, battle with oneself, battle with those aspects of one’s personality that are at odds with the Gospel – or, as one priest once put it, “battle with God.”  In this warfare, failure is not only an option, it’s practically a requirement – and failure is a good thing, because it always brings you up against your own shortcomings.

We do tend to try to avoid politics, since worshipping God shouldn’t depend on one’s political leanings.  We don’t tell people that God hates them, since hatred is so alien to God’s nature anyway.  We do try to live simply, always within our means, so that we have money to give where it’s needed; we do try to treat the environment with responsibility, but without becoming nuisances about it.  Some people who become Orthodox see the Church as some kind of Christian-hippie movement, but it isn’t; a lot of business people (shhhh – Republicans, even) are Orthodox Christians, and yes, they do live simply and environmentally responsibly, within their means.  Some Orthodox Christians have quite large families; they are frequently upbraided for being a “drain” on the environment, but considering the number of people in this modern world who have chosen not to reproduce at all, it’s a little hard to take that claim seriously.

In short, being an Orthodox Christian is about as counter-cultural as it gets.  One lady thought her husband had joined a cult, when he became Orthodox; she subsequently learned enough about the Orthodox Church that she joined him.  People do tend to go overboard when they first become Orthodox; it’s a lot like being in love, when the person you love is all you can think about or talk about.  A good priest can help you dial it back, so that you settle into being a person whom others can live with – just with an added dimension.  An…unexpected…unorthodox dimension.

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Really, when you look at the strange twists and turns that life takes, I don’t know how people can conclude that there is no God.  If, for example, my godfather and uncle hadn’t met and married a woman from New Hampshire when they were both in the Army, my family would never have dreamed of visiting them here.  I would never have concluded that New Hampshire was an infinitely better place to raise a family than New York City, where my family is from.  If my husband and I hadn’t moved here, I would never have gotten a job at one of those firms that develops and scores standardized educational exams.  And neither would my daughter.  And if she hadn’t worked there, she would never have met the man who became her husband, and they would never have had their two sons.  Two people now exist in this world who would never have come into being, if my uncle had not met and married this woman – who subsequently divorced him, anyway.  I have no idea why; I only know my family’s side of the story.

That’s about to change, I think.  This past April, my uncle’s son killed himself.  We weren’t close, but since he was family, I went to his wake, and there met his mother, whom I have not seen in over fifty years, this same native New Hampshirite whose brief marriage to my uncle brought us all here.  She was ecstatic, after so many years – and to be honest, I was happy to see her at last, too.  I really, really liked her when I knew her, and always grieved for the breakup.

Today, I took myself out to lunch.  I take myself out to lunch as often as I can, actually, mostly because I really hate making lunch.  I mean, once you’ve exhausted cold cuts, tuna salad, and peanut-butter-and-jelly (which I can’t eat anyway – I’m allergic to peanuts), what else is there?!  Not last night’s leftovers, not with my husband home all day and routinely saying, “What happened to…?”

(We once had a conversation about my odd lunch-out habit.  When he learned that I had always eaten lunch out, he was floored:  “Didn’t you ever pack a lunch?”  I thought about that for a bit – it isn’t as if my family was as rich as, say, the Kennedys, but then, who is – before I realized why:  Anything I had brought into the house to pack for lunch the next day would have disappeared overnight, down the gullets of any or all of my three younger brothers.  Nothing was safe in that house.)

So, I take myself out to lunch as often as I can.  I bring a book, and enjoy my own company and somebody else’s sandwich-making skills.  I had just sat myself down and was reaching for my book, when an older woman came up to my table and addressed me by my first name.  Now, not too many people in this town know me by my first name, which I loathe; many more know me by my middle name, and that’s how I like it.  So there was only one way a woman of a Certain Age could have known me by my first name.

It was her, my long-lost aunt.  I probably would have invited her to have lunch with me, but she was already engaged with one of her daughters, so she contented herself with giving me her telephone number and exclamations of Let’s-get-together-soon.  I said we would – I really would like to – she went back to her daughter, and I returned to my book.

And then I went to pay my check.

And the waitress told me that the Ladies Behind Me had paid it for me.

“What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” is today’s prompt.  I know I covered this in the post I wrote this morning, but – that was yesterday.  This is today.  I am still floored, that getting together with me means so much to this woman.  After all, she’s from here, she has family here and a long, long history in this town.  She could have lunch with any one of a couple dozen people.  But she has just ensured that I will be getting together with her.

Don’t tell me there is no God.  He keeps breaking into my life in the most unexpected ways.

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Well, that didn’t last long – my resolve to post every day, that is.  In fairness, I was gone for most of yesterday, and also, yesterday’s prompt – ” What is the sweetest thing someone said to you today?” – wasn’t the most inspiring.  People aren’t given to saying sweet things to people my age.  However, today’s prompt –  What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” – actually works.  For yesterday.  Today is still too new for me to address anything besides breakfast, which I have yet to eat.

My mother was unimpressed by words.  “Actions speak louder than words” was her motto, so when you’d say, “Mommy, I love you,” she’d snap back, “Deeds, not words,” which meant, basically, “So get off your duff and do something around the house, if you love me so much.”  The trouble was, in a household the size of ours – five kids – there was always so much to do, that no matter what you did, it didn’t make all that much of a difference.  Eventually, I was able to take on the mending, so at least that helped a bit; I was hopeless at ironing.  I always managed to iron creases into shirts.

Anyway, back to the present.  The weather has been very hot and humid lately, so any housework that needs to get done, needs to get done no later than 9:00 a.m., or it’s a lost cause for the day.  (Laundry excepted.  Cold rinses always work on a hot day.)  Yesterday, I got all my housework done by 9:00 a.m., except for an errand to the post office, and I was planning to do that by car, on my way to somewhere else.  My husband, knowing that I had a long drive ahead of me, stepped up to the plate, and offered to walk my parcels down to the post office for me.

Big deal?  Yes, actually, it was.  The parcels in question really mattered to me, but only to me, not to him; and he had his own plans for the day, which included a good bit of gardening, shopping for groceries, and an afternoon swim at a lake about twenty miles from where we live.  In other words, his day was already all planned in his mind.  But to those plans, he added my errand, which meant that I was able to take off for my “church gig” unencumbered by more chores.  (“Church gig” = a drive of 40 miles/75 km, one way, to hang out with a group of senior citizens at one of the two churches I attend regularly.  I do this once a week.  The old ladies are a pip – I can always count on them for a good laugh and a lot of good stories.)

As Mommie Dearest used to say, “Deeds, not words.”  In the case of my husband, I get both.  I am truly blessed.

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Prompt for the day:  “Name something sweet you ate today.”

To be honest, I find this a little, umm, “desperate,” somewhat in the category of scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Is that all they could come up with?!  A one-word sentence would suffice for an answer!  On the other hand, I’m using prompts generated by a writer’s group – how desperate is that?!  So I will just shut up and write to prompt.

Fortunately, this one is easy for me:  Breakfast.  In my old age, my breakfast rarely varies.  I’ve found a formula that works for me, something I can throw together in my sleep, at this point, which I think most folks would agree has its charms at oh-dark-thirty in the morning.  (It’s not that bad.  With no kids and a retired husband, I’m usually up by 6:30.  That’s still too early for many folks I know.)

Breakfast, when I prepare it at home, consists of the same basic ingredient:  oatmeal.  It’s how you prepare the oatmeal that makes all the difference.  When I lived in Germany, I learned that most people I knew didn’t cook their rolled oats; they ate them uncooked, with fruit, nuts, and milk.  Sounds gross?  Try it sometime.  In the summertime, that’s how I always eat my oatmeal:  1/2 cup of Old-Fashioned Quaker Oats, uncooked.  Add to this 1/2 cup of frozen blueberries (frozen is very important), 2 tablespoons of mixed chopped almonds and hazelnuts, 2 tablespoons of raisins.  Mix everything together in the bowl, and add enough milk to cover it all.  The frozen blueberries put a real chill on a hot summer morning, and set you up to face the dog days.

Once the weather cools down, the recipe changes slightly.  I heat the milk first (a full cup of milk), and add the oats and blueberries to that, once it gets hot.  I don’t add nuts, but I do put in a tablespoon or so of maple syrup.  It has to be the real stuff, if you can get it; where I live, fake maple syrup is considered an act of treason.  Cook the oatmeal according to package directions, and eat when it’s done.  (Oh, OK, I do add a tablespoon of coffee creamer both to cool it down a bit and to add a little extra “kick” to the taste.)

One other thing.  For reasons I won’t go into – my friends know what they are – I do eat vegan for about half the year, and because of that, I’ve gotten away from cow’s milk.  I use almond milk, which adds to the overall sweetness of this dish and has the added benefit of being lower both in calories and carbs than cow’s milk.  It also has at least as much calcium as cow’s milk; a couple of name brands have more calcium than cow’s milk.  Give it a shot!  I also add a cut-up banana, summer or winter; the potassium is good for you on several levels.

Life is bitter enough at times; I feel we owe it to ourselves to sweeten it up as much as we can.  And there’s no better time than breakfast.

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