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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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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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Well.  It has been a long time since I last blogged.  In between has been mostly Church or family matters:  the celebration of Pascha (Easter), different church projects I was involved in, preparing for a visit to my favorite music school (my trip was cancelled at the last minute); our son began a new job as engineer on a railroad that takes him right through a neighboring town, so we’ve been spending a lot of time Waving at the Engineer, like a pair of “foamers” (railroad slang for extreme railfans).  And, as always, the daily round of housework, medical appointments (thankfully routine), and family visits.  Not a lot of time for blogging.

However, this month I have signed up for NaBloPoMo’s daily post.  Heaven alone knows if I will actually get to do it daily, but I have promised to make the attempt.  This post is a trial run focusing, at least partially, on their theme for August:  Sweetness.

One of the sweeter aspects of my life is cross stitch.  Not those wussy, cutesy little things, but fine-art cross stitch, the kind that takes up at least half a yard of fabric and involves covering every square inch of it with stitches.  Colors up the wazoo:  my current project has 120 colors, and I pared it down from 208.  In retrospect, I should have left it at 208, since paring it down does affect the detail.

But there is still plenty of detail, and the upshot is, I am actually learning about Art:  how artists perceive the interplay of colors, shapes, details as part of the overall picture – things that never struck me before.  The painting I am working on isn’t tranquil or inspiring, at least, not in the ordinary sense:  It’s a painting entitled Boyarina Morozova, by the Russian artist V. I. Surikov, and it depicts a moment in Russian history that was full of turmoil.  If you’re into the 6-6-6 thing, this event took place in 1666, which is suggestive.

A project like this takes pages – 48, in this instance.  48 pages of little tiny symbols that represent the different floss colors, and – thanks to whatever genius applied his computer-programming skills to needlework – come together in a reasonable facsimile of great art.  As I’m working on it, the same thing occurs over and over:  I work in a ten-by-ten grid of symbols, and as I’m working, I keep thinking, “What the heck am I looking at here?!  This can’t be right!”  I grab the printout of the painting and look at the area where I think I’m working:  Does it look anything like what I’ve just stitched?!  Then I look back at my work, and, given a little distance – yes, it does.  It really does.  What looked like an amorphous blob of color as I was working on it has transformed, with distance, into the face of an old man with a beard, a very lifelike face with contour and shadow.  How do artists do this?!  How do they see these contours and shadings?!  Me, I can’t even draw a straight line, and Surikov, and those like him, see an entire “snapshot” of history, thanks to an eye fine-tuned to color and its nuances.

This particular piece, as you will see if the photo ever finishes uploading – if not, you can look up Boyarina Morozova on Google – is tough to look at, tough to think about:  a noblewoman who has been tortured and starved, and is being dragged out of Moscow into exile (ultimately, she was starved to death) for bucking the powers-that-were at the time.  Why choose such a gruesome project?  Originally, I chose it because it’s a very famous painting in Russian culture, and I had hoped to donate it to the Russian Department of our local university.  I had visions of its making a Statement to those Classics weenies who share space with the Russian Department:  Enter at Your Own Risk.  I’m not sure that’s going to happen now; for some reason, the two professors who teach there aren’t talking to me anymore.

There is another reason:  As a Russian Orthodox Christian in a post-Christian era, I’m painfully aware of the persecution that Russian Christians endured during the Soviet era of Russia, and I hold my breath as, little by little, I see signs of the same thing occurring in the United States.  This painting reminds me that Faith comes with a high price tag.  This woman, Boyarina Morozova, paid it.  So did countless other Russians of the Soviet era.  I hope I can show the same courage when my turn comes.

So…what on earth is sweet about this topic?!  Admittedly, not much.  But I must say that I’m enjoying, enormously, my belated Art education.  Color, line, perspective.  Shading, detail.  After a lifetime of wondering how people actually see this stuff – I’m learning to see it, too.

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Well, so, the first day of January has come and gone.  I wonder if I can get away with posting for it at 2:00 a.m.??

However, on another plane, on another calendar — it’s still the pre-Christmas period, 20 December, to be exact.  The Russian Orthodox Church keeps to the Julian Calendar for its Church feasts — not the same Julian Calendar as the Army, in which no date is repeated, but the calendar that was in place at the time of Christ.  The beauty of this calendar is that you get all the holiday fuss and bustle out of the way, and still have thirteen days during which you can focus exclusively on the birth of the Messiah, that point in history where God Himself breaks into it to change its course forever.

But there are other times and periods, even in the pre-Christmas season, where Eternity touches the mundane, everyday world.  Other posts have noted that my husband and I lived in Germany for three years, while he was doing his military service, and at the very beginning of our marriage.  It was a magical time, during which I learned to speak fluent German and he sharpened his high school/college German, during which we both learned to get around town and the environs by bicycle, shop for groceries every day, and generally live a very different life from the average American’s.

Nobody does Christmas like Germans.  It’s a much more family-oriented time than it is in America, and most of the focus is on children.  And the kick-off for the holiday is (whether or not most Germans even remember this) a saint’s feast:  St. Nicholas was a real person, whose feast is on December 6.  And on one Feast of St. Nicholas…well, I’ll let my husband tell the story.  From a letter he wrote to an elderly relative:

Germans open the Christmas season on December 6th, the Feastof St. Nicholas, aka Sankt Nikolaus.  A tleast in our time, I think those who could went to Mass in the morning, after St. Nikolaus, sometime during the night, left Christmas cookies ineverybody’s socks.  The bigger your socks, the more cookies you got! Theoretically, anyway.

So, in the early evening of December 6th, my wife and I were out for a walk around Walldorf [the town where we lived], and we were enjoying the first signs of die Weihnachtszeit—twinkly white lights here and there on the Weihnachtsbaum inside.  Germany is where we first saw exclusively white lights used in Christmas decorations.  In fact, we eagerly embraced the custom, putting electric candles on our first tree.  Anyway, the evening was crisp and cold, but it wasn’t chilling our bones.  We had seen a few of our neighbors and some people we knew from church who were also out on foot, and we were approaching the street-level train station, on the other side of the street, when some Christmas magic happened.

An older lady was resolutely walking by the doorway to the station.  She was a bit stooped and small—she couldn’thave been more than 5 feet tall—and very bundled in her winter coat.  Suddenly, out came…St. Nikolaus!  He was a lot thinner than Santa Claus, but,with that red hat and suit and black boots, and with a cloth sack over his shoulder, on December 6th, it could not have been anyone else.

The little lady stopped in her tracks and, almost a girl again, she bowed and exclaimed, “Oh, SanktNikolaus, Guten Abend!  Good evening!”  And Sankt Nikolaus also bowed, and chuckled, and warmly wished her a good evening, too.  Then — all auf Deutsch, of course — he asked her if she had been good in the past year; and, of course, she assured him that surely she had been very good, and he nodded his approval.

St. Nikolaus shook his sack from his shoulder, held it in front of himself, and rummaged among the contents.  In a few moments, he brought some little item out.  What it was we could only guess.  But when he handed it to her, that little lady glowed with delight.  She bowed, and cooed, and—certainly demurely—even whooped, taking the gift and holding it very close to herself.

And, with that, we all moved off on our separate paths.  The lady continued to walk her way.  My wife and I walked even closer together, knowing we had just seen something we would always remember.  And Sank tNikolaus…just…disappeared.  Hmmm.  Absolute magic.

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