Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Going Home"

Don't be so sure that "you can never go home again."

It's very true that some memories are better left alone--as they stand, vivid and as in technicolor as the day they occurred, untouched by the ages.

On a recent trip "back home" I erred in a wish to revisit a time and place of my past, the site of an early childhood remembrance.

The setting was a small Catholic Church in southern California. The "event" was my dad's design and creation of an outdoor shrine for his community to pray at, or to light a candle at in memory of a loved one.

The tiny church in Atwood, a "barrio" of Orange County, still stands in 2013, but the question had to be asked: Is this really the place I remember?

In my mind, St. Teresita was a quaint study in worship--a tiny building suffused with the character of the time, the mid-fifties. I recall golden sunlight beaming through leaded windows here, heavy pews of mahogany, and a humble altar that my dad sometimes knelt at in special prayer before mass started. I remember that my dad served as usher for the masses, a prized position that he held proudly.

If I'm really honest, I would have to say that the years have played tricks on me. I have to confess to thinking this church was made from stone, possibly brick--either one a fantasy material for the dream material of the home I'll never (?) live in.

It's not crafted of stone. It's made of wood, and dark stained wood at that. This is so far from my memory that I have to wonder if the original structure began to crumble, and was somehow re-fashioned with this sturdy, practical material.

The rudest of awakenings with this played out in the courtyard adjacent to the church. There WAS no courtyard. Only a narrow strip of concrete walkway with a modest overhang in tones of the same stained wood, bordering a dusty field that housed an ancient oil "horse," a relic I do happen to remember.

What happened to the HAVEN imprinted in my mind? Where did all the flowering shrubs and trees go? What about the stone floor and the primitive tables lined up to conduct catechism lessons at? Most importantly, where was my dad's carefully built, much-used shrine?

I was with him when he worked on that shrine. I witnessed the gentle heart he put into it, and I played as a seven-year-old girl does when she tags along with her dad. I know that beautiful setting existed, and not just from my memory, thankfully. Twenty-something years previously I had taken a picture with my children in front of it....but do you think I can FIND it??? (No, still looking...)

Of course I'd prefer not to have this new image of St. Teresita infringe on the much more precious one I have held dear for so long.
But I think it won't, because I WANT to remember the favored image and so the favored one it shall be.

So what is it that makes me feel I DID go home again, anyway and despite this experience? It was the PEOPLE, of course. My mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Yes, we're all changing, every year. Time has taken its toll on the numbers, but not when you realize that young families are growing, too.

With living, breathing human beings you can always go home again. You can talk about the old times, and you can catch up on all that's new. You have ties that bind; you're as comfortable with each other as the last day you talked--even if was ages ago. As for AGE itself--who cares how old we are? We've just lived more, have more stories to tell, and have absolute intentions to make more stories to tell!

Diverse interests and even beliefs aside, we are connected by shared history. To be sure, the history is not all perfect. Like a churchyard image, we can purposefully elect to recall the good instead of the flawed, and to our dying days extract the best of all that was meant to be. We can "choose happiness" to the best of our ability. And we can allow that, when needed, it is often the ones we share history with who can point this out to us.

END NOTE: For some reason the site will not let me post an image today! If I could have posted a picture to this entry, it would have been of a "molcajete" (a Mexican mortar and pestle). WHY you ask? Well, first because I can't find the photo of my children in front of the shrine, and second because on my recent California trip, a sister (Judy) presented me with this "tangible" prize of our family history. It is a "tool of the trade" for good Mexican salsa, and today my kitchen is sending out the heady fragrances of my mother's kitchen. It is the unit, my mother said, that belonged to my Grandma Ramona's GREAT-grandmother.....now that's old! AND that's "going home" again! (And no Judy, you can't have it back!)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Summer Platters and all That Matters

 
The task of dreaming up appealing summer meals this season has me especially appreciative of my mother's own long-ago ideas.

Mom is nearly ninety now, and hardly cooks at all anymore. For different reasons our conversations lately are not prolonged, and this is a loss to me not easily remedied. With almost 2000 miles between us and the advancing years, it is a challenge to keep the talk flowing.

The realization of this loss has somehow borne a connectedness for me with my mother. With each phone call, I try to relate this to her, and I am hoping it is a connectedness she "gets."

Of course, it's not all about the food, but much of it seems to stem from food--as in Mom, home, and apple pie.  I don't know that Mom ever did anything but BUY ready-made apple pies, because lemon meringue was her specialty. And so in our household lemon pie it was.

That tangy dessert was a winner in all our eyes, but it was her savory offerings for summertime that have me in "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" mode today. All this hot summer I have been making the meals my mom made in the summers of my growing-up years. By sharing them often with our grown daughter and her young ones, I am thinking Mom's ideas will "carry on, carry on."

Mom's tried and true favorites? Most were as simple as the apple pie she never made, and so, so good. Except for one, they were downright ordinary; common foods all--except that her trademark "platter" effect took each thing up to a definite next level.

Whatever Mom made, she assembled things onto platters or big plates with colorful, artistic flair. If it was pan-grilled burgers, a big plate was assembled meant to flatter those humble burgers into remarkable. Crisp lettuce leaves (no wimps allowed), thick and crunchy red onion slices, wavy dill pickle rounds, and the most vibrant of tomato slices.

The routine was to mosey our way almost food-line fashion to build our own burgers, add cheese if we liked, plus mayo, mustard and ketchup. I remember the fresh garnishes as snappy-crisp with so little "give" all of our sandwiches were a mile high and completely problematic to eating gracefully.

Mom had a curious tradition when it came to corn on the cob in season. It's one that wouldn't fly with my own family now but sailed true for my mom, and if I could get away with this today I would surely try.

This involved a simple plunging of field-fresh and shucked corn into boiling water, about two dozen ears in a huge stockpot. A deep immersion and a short boil, then a lifting of the cobs onto a platter for a generous buttering and salting. A smaller plate next to offered chunky sticks of longhorn cheddar, as many as we could manage between our gobbling attacks at the corn. That was it--supper. We ate our fill and we enjoyed every bite.

Another silk purse Mom could make out of a sow's ear was in her easy-way-out meal of a "cold-cut" platter, and yes, you would be right if you guessed this to be a glorified lunch meat supper. But Mom chose meats we liked, and added all kinds of things we loved, like sour pickles and olives and cheeses and vegetable sticks and salty seasoned crackers. With a tall glass of icy lemonade, we never minded this meal.

When Mom made cold sandwiches like tuna, chicken or egg salad (mostly for lunch) she cut soft bread diagonally and arranged the halves into a pyramid of loveliness on--you guessed it again--a big platter. Her seasonings and added crunch (where she believed in the added crunch of pickle and celery) were never sweet, but mostly creamy and decidedly flavorsome. Her recipes for her cold sandwiches were so simple but so good I ran a lunchroom café for nearly fourteen years on almost their appeal alone.

A more adventurous favorite of Mom's was not even a variation of a mainstream recipe. Acting on her creative side, she conjured up a wonderful summer salad that fast became her signature dish. I still marvel at her imagination in mixing up spicy pickled vegetables, lettuces and sea-salty abalone chunks. When most salads of the day involved iceberg lettuce and tomato, or maybe Jello and marshmallows, our Mom's salad ingenuity seems amazing. I'd LOVE to make that salad today, but where in Wisconsin could I ever find abalone chunks?

Probably my mom's greatest cooking achievements did not center on the overly simple of the warm-weather meals mindset. She was (still is) a renowned good cook of her Mexican heritage; she excelled at many dishes of a more complicated nature. She enjoyed cooking and like a lot of mothers it was at times her best way to express her nurturing side.

I understand from a sister, who is essentially Mom's greatest caregiver, that these days it isn't at all easy to get our mother animated or enthusiastic. I have discovered my best shot at getting Mom to talk is to extract from her the talent she still owns about nurturing through food. This nourishment is about much more than the food itself, and this is the thing I hope she "gets."

To be on the safe side, I made an "impulse" call today. I phoned my mother, and I essentially imparted to her the "good news" of this blog entry.

I remember all the good food you made, Mom. I know what went into all those good meals because I do the same for my family now, and it's about so much more than the food. And not so strangely enough, most of it is all the good dishes you didn't even try to teach me.

You didn't have to. It was the lesson imparted, unspoken--a natural passing of the baton, and to more than one child.

Immeasurable. Thank you.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Grandma Ramona

Grandma Ramona was never a squeaky wheel in the world of attention-getting grandmas.

She was pretty near to perfect, and maybe because she never riled anyone up she rarely got the more positive fuss she deserved.

Grandma Ramona didn't have vast acreage and multiple havens like our other Grandma (Rosa) did. She didn't drive a car and couldn't take you anywhere you might want to go, and she didn't even have the nature to easily let a grandchild out of her sight for more than a few unaccountable minutes.

Grandma was one to thoughtfully measure her words, and always say them kindly. I don't know that she ever uttered a mean-spirited statement, or that any of us ever heard her raise her voice--I know I didn't.

When you were with Grandma, you were WITH Grandma. A widow for all the years I remember, she hosted the occasional grandchild with a nurturing focus, but not obtrusively. She enjoyed your company and you knew it, but she also carried on with her usual routines so that the natural thing to do was tag along and help her if you could.

When Grandma tended her flowers, you learned a little something about how to get the "rosiest" rosebushes and what bugs should not see the light of the next day. When she cooked, you learned to brown your rice in a little oil before adding liquid, and that you can boost flavors by not having that liquid just be water.

Grandma was one little bundle of ethnic diversity. A curious blood-mix coursed through her veins; she remained true to many customs of her native Mexico but gravitated toward achieving American "milestones" in her very simple life. She learned to speak English as well as almost any American, and although she most often prepared the essential meals of a traditional Mexican household, she owned and often referred to her copy of "The American Woman's Cook Book."

Putting meals on her table that she was not accustomed to was pure adventurism, not traitorous and maybe even a little patriotic toward her new homeland. She tried many of the book's recipes and some became customary. From this I know at least one of her daughters (my mother) could prepare as good a meat loaf as she could a pan of enchiladas. And her (my mother's) daughters after that!

When that cookbook made its way into my own mother's possession, I was a budding cook myself. I remember using the book often and being amused at Grandma's markings on a few of the pages--especially that she highlighted  a recipe for "croquettes." Although the dish made use of leftovers, it was putzy and a little ambitious, with a French connotation at that. I've often wondered: did she really try to make croquettes?
I like to think of myself as a venturesome cook (somewhat) but I've never tried making a croquette.

Grandma tended a small courtyard of roses and geraniums outside the front door of her bungalow. I can still conjure up the sensation of the freshness there--the morning mist (or Grandma's watering) buzzing the foliage and urging away bursts of fragrance that filled the morning air. Her watering ritual always ended with a far-reaching and final tug on the hose to more flowers at a backyard arbor, a trellis-y adornment that separated her yard from one belonging to my aunt and uncle and cousins.

The cousins didn't wander over to Grandma's much during my sleepovers, but I'm sure they were good company to her on a regular basis. I remember that she mentioned them often and that I always peered through the arbor wondering if they were home.

All my cousins, siblings and myself were "represented" in Grandma's little cottage in a sweet and unique way. Near a corner of her sofa an end table with a top shelf held a collection of small porcelain angels--each cherub in its own pose bearing near its bottom the name of one of her grandchildren. Every time I visited her I would look for the angel with my name on it, as I suspect each grandchild often did. When I recall that dear collection of hers I marvel at such a precious idea and tradition. Few grandchildren that I have, it inspires me to go out and find three porcelain cherubs today! And I wonder why I haven't done it sooner.

According to many a modern woman's view, our Grandma Ramona lived a very "small" life. If she didn't drive she couldn't get out much, but somewhere along the line she walked into a popular, higher-end department store (the Broadway) and got herself hired as a gift wrapper. When you think of my other Grandma (Rosa) who stubbornly never learned to speak English but somehow stubbornly learned to drive and then own a car, you have to give Grandma Ramona her due credit for landing herself an English-speaking job and (I believe) walking herself to it on a routine basis. She also once traveled all the way from California to Colorado on a bus, to visit my husband and I when we first made a home there.

But Grandmas are not meant for comparing, and I remember both mine for different traits and talents. My Grandma Ramona spent her later years creating beautiful handmade gifts for all the people she loved, and Grandma Rosa's legacy is probably best thought to be (with her other family members) the establishment of a successful, family-operated Mexican restaurant. My two grandmothers couldn't have been more different from each other, but both made lasting impressions that I treasure and remember again and again.

My Grandma Rosa's "vast" acreage (and her willingness to let us roam) may have furnished a little more on the side of adventure, and her own "nature", shall we say, drew more attention. But neither Grandma ever strived to do anything but live their American lives as happily and best they could. Both lived true immigrant experiences that dramatically helped to smooth the path for their very appreciative descendants.

Thank you, Grandma Rosa and Grandma Ramona!
                                              Grandma Ramona's dress for my daughter                

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Sunday Drive

It might have been any day of the week, but I remember it as a Sunday--the kind that spurs you to just get into a car and start driving.

Or riding. My Grandma Rosa was doing the driving, and my cousin Ralph and I were her passengers. Just a while earlier we had hopped into her 1950's gray-blue sedan, following her mysterious "Get in the car, we're going for a ride" order.

Ralph lived with Grandma, and at about ten years old he understood her better than anyone--both in the Spanish-only language she spoke and in the somewhat "trying" personality she was known for.

Depending on the source, Grandma could be cold and insensitive, unreasonable and unyielding, even insulting and mean. Somehow "warm and fuzzy" adjectives never quite made it as words of description for Grandma, but about this I have to say I sometimes puzzled.

Each time I stayed a night with Grandma, I was ready to soon stay another. I can't say she elicited every opposite of the adjectives she was always accused of, but the vibes between us were pretty darn good. She watched out for me, made sure I knew where the extra blankets were and always welcomed me warmly to the food in her cupboards.

She sometimes even ran a bubble bath for me in her big old-fashioned bathtub, and a really special image between just the two of us is of the time she parked in front of an ice cream parlor and coaxed me across its threshold.

You wouldn't think I would need to be lured into the place, but if I spoke all-English and Grandma spoke all-Spanish--and she didn't usually indulge in Americana like this--I guess I needed a little convincing that Grandma knew what she was doing.

Her smile told me she knew exactly what she was doing. We settled at a table and were presented with a menu, and Grandma motioned to me that I should order for the both of us.  I was about seven years old at the time, and I gotta say the word "parfait" was new to me, too. But the menu photos gave me the gist of things and so I shyly ordered one for each of us.

It literally couldn't have gone sweeter, or better. Grandma was like the proverbial child in a candy (or ice cream) shoppe over that parfait. We savored every creamy layer of our treat and saved the cherry for last, and even in my little girl-ness it wasn't at all hard to imagine the little girl my grandma used to be.

My grandma had her pensive moments, and on the day of our Sunday drive I caught that vibe also. I didn't suspect we were driving to an ice cream parlor at all, and soon enough saw this was a much more serious mission. Peering out the back seat window of the cavernous sedan, I saw that we were threading our way through a hilly neighborhood of newer homes, but that Grandma wasn't intrigued with the houses at all. Instead she pulled over at the rise of an as-yet open field, not filled with housing but taken up in use as a cemetery, one overgrown and neglected.

Stopping the car, Grandma said a few words to Ralph. The two exited and I followed, no questions asked. The three of us walked up the hill, with my grandma beginning an evident search through high weeds and straw-like grass, and dozens of grave-sites abandoned and weathering. Ralph stayed close to her, and I in my puzzlement looked about and wandered nearby, wondering what the search was about.

After a few moments Ralph approached me and said quietly, "She said she had another boy and that he died when he was a baby. He was buried here." (My dad was her only son, as far as we had known) "She thinks they're going to use this spot for more houses, and she wants to see his grave again."

With a little understanding now, I searched also, but even Grandma wasn't sure what to look for. She had become a widow when my dad was just five years old, and this child had evidently had a pauper's burial. There were few stones in this cemetery, and all the wooden crosses and markings had deteriorated beyond  recognition.

I don't know what my grandmother hoped for from that visit, but I remember the excursion almost as if it were yesterday. Did she think she could do anything to preserve the memory and the remains of this lost child? It seems bizarre to me now that she did not, as she seemed willing to do for other matters, seek the help of her grown daughters and son.

So there we were, this odd trio, and when we wrapped up the search Grandma hadn't found anything she was certain of. What did seem certain was that she had completed her mission and that whatever happened now was best left alone. I imagine her thoughts might have been along the lines of other pioneers who went to foreign lands and felt they had to leave some things up to the graces of God.

These remembrances were brought to mind recently when, for a sister's birthday, I posted a favorite story from our childhood on social media. Most of our siblings were not a direct part of my particular story, but they loved it because it gave new history and insight to our family dynamics. Their reactions to that and others family stories in this blog made me realize: we all have stories that were unique to our own experience. My cousin Ralph is gone now, but I feel certain he would remember our visit to the graveyard, and would even have more to say....how many more true stories and perspectives are there out there, untold and destined to a graveyard of their own? Stories untold are like stories unlived--if you have them, tell them!! With discretion, of course!

Note: I've told several stories about my dad's mother and his side of the family in this blog, and I realize also there are untold stories about my Grandma Ramona. Grandma ROSA was for some reason the "squeaky wheel that always got the grease" but Grandma RAMONA was amazing too, in her own way and for reasons related to her own unique life experience. She deserves a turn, next!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"Don't Leave the Good Stuff Out"

"It's all good...."
Out of the mouths of cooking babes, I can't believe a soup recipe I recently read.
No, it isn't over-the-top exotic, or too ingredient-intensive. It isn't memorable for sounding so luscious I have to try making it, or so weird I'd have to bypass it.

It's memorable for--and I don't know how to say this otherwise--being stupid.

A rich soup, it calls for many good things simmered in chicken stock. Presumably you're going to have the real deal juices for this, because one of the first steps is to cook real chicken pieces in water, thereby creating a sumptuous broth for the most genuine of soups.

Wherein comes these directions: the cook should lift the pieces of chicken out of the soup to cool on a plate,  then promptly discard the whole kettle of liquid into the kitchen drain.

Really? Why?

Because, the author says, her dad always did this. He didn't like the cloudiness and "stuff" that marred the purity of what he wanted for his soup, so down the drain it went. To get the "look" he wanted, he then refilled the pot with fresh water and store-bought chicken "paste,"  plus added vegetables and the now skinned and cut-up chicken pieces.

Oh my goodness........you don't HAVE to visit the sins of your father (or mother) in your kitchen today.

If you don't like the unclear, fat-rich reality of honest chicken stock, there are simple, easy steps to remedy things here. You can pour the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer back into the stockpot, for heaven's sake. That's why it's called a stockpot. It's not a pot just to simmer water in. If you want to take out some of the fat, you can chill this strained broth to spoon some off once it has set up in the fridge.

And why anyone wants to take out ALL the fat is beyond me. Like anything else natural that God has put on this earth, our bodies are meant to assimilate most foods in moderation and with our everyday mobility ( a little exercise). God has GIVEN us these things and as long as our bodies and our doctors don't say "zero, zilch, nada" about any one thing, we can probably in measure enjoy most anything we like.

We've all read that artificial foods meant to reduce the fats and sugars we consume have been found to be more harmful that the natural foods themselves. When you read labels that sound like an inventory list for a chemical lab, can you really wonder why?

The beauty of any recipe lies in the eye of the beholder, but however good it sounds and however easy it is to prepare, there's madness to the method it you take all the good stuff out.

Something a whole lot of people agree on is that when something tastes very good it is probably very bad for you. It's like the guilt that comes with anything that feels "too fun." Enjoy something too much or too often and it somehow ends up feeling "wrong," hence adjectives like "sinful" and "decadent" often preceding the name of a rich chocolate dessert.

Another thing a lot of people agree on is that if something tastes bad, it's probably good for you. "Unreal" foods that are hyped to be tasty and better for us fit this bill really often--they taste mostly bad but their laundry list of strange-sounding components can't possibly be good for us.

Throwing your good chicken soup down the drain is obviously like throwing that very lovely baby out with the bathwater. If you for some reason can't have the goodness or the richness of something, there are still good answers out there. What is the point of putting forth effort toward something that in the end borders on  inauthentic or just flat out isn't worth it? You might as well open up a can of something already geared to save you the trouble.

On the converse end of what seems stupid about some cookbook recipes, you shouldn't try to be too smart about things, either. Another cookbook (author) I just read will not give a recipe unless it is preceded by way too many details of his test-kitchen experiences. Fairly scientific and fully belabored, by the time you get to the good stuff (the recipe) you're exhausted on behalf of his efforts and wondering, "Is it really that hard to come up with a good result on this?"

In cooking, you don't want every single why and wherefore. Like artistry of any sort, a lot of what happens in the kitchen occurs naturally, or with a tolerable modicum of trial and error. If it comes too hard, you just might think there are other easier ways to get food on the table........and there are.

But hey--before I exit this entry I would be without proper humility if I did not acknowledge that these cookbook authors I'm criticizing have been published, and I haven't. I get that, thank you very much--and I still have to maintain: Don't leave the good stuff out, and don't make it so hard on yourself you don't even want to get started.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Enough is Enough"

Even the natives are restless in Wisconsin. Sure, the home folks know a thing or two about an old-fashioned  winter, but the last few have been teasingly mild. We are having the longest, drawn-out winter since the 1950's, statistics say. Except for the die-hard ice fisher-people and the snow-mobilers, I don't think it's a stretch to say the rest of us are aching for spring.

In fact, the calendar SAYS it's spring. Last year this time, the calendar held up its end of the bargain and gave us plentiful days in the seventies and even eighties. Budding and blossoming occurred early and bumper crops of everything seemed likely.

Oh, what a feeling to rise and shine on mornings like those.....every bird delirious with song, every hour filled with the promise of something to do, something to see, a mountain to climb, a day to seize.

THIS March I am looking out my front room window to a trio of yard-long icicles, and not even dripping ones at that. They are frigid and non-yielding, jagged and brutal looking, having long lost their early season charm.

You can only amuse the grandchildren a few times per season with an icicle. Your own fascination at the daggers faded with your own childhood, along with sledding, igloo and snow family building. Winter is a fact of life here; partake of whatever outdoor activities you still enjoy in the cold, but face the fact that much of what you can REALLY enjoy is going to flat-out have to take place inside.

Flat-out being inside doesn't bother me the way it bothers a lot of people, but it's a tough sell to sound convincing about this. When most of your Facebook family resides in California and their posts include repeated images of living life to the fullest at beaches, desert resorts (like Palm Springs) and all manner of sidewalk cafe, it's kind of hard to make repeated images of a cozy night by the fireside seem preferable.

There's a sled buried in here
This life is just another kind of planet life, and they're just not going to buy it.

The California lifestyle is in my rear-view mirror, and I gotta admit a year-round warmer climate would be nice about this st(age)of life. But there's a thing or two this Wisconsin kind of climate has over a West Coast kind of climate: you can't possibly appreciate the change of seasons until you experience the extremes, and these extremes really do bring the seasons in four clear distinctions. There's no blurring (well, maybe this year there is, in a not-good way) between the seasons. When you're in summer you know it and when you're in winter you know it, no doubts and no wardrobe-waffling. Each season is fleeting, and you gotta live in the moment. If you feel like doing something that depends on the weather you don't just hope the weather will hold--it won't for long and you better just get a move on it.

I'll have my opportunity to post enviable outdoor activity pictures soon, scenes that don't just revolve around a wood-fired stove. It'll be awhile, especially around our house, where the woods and a valley fight the sun all day. But when spring finally hits her stride, the colors, sounds and smells will seem more vivid and vibrant than they ever have, all because we know: we gotta appreciate each season fully in its turn. And you can bet that proverbial bottom dollar we do.

So take your turn, Spring! Just a couple of weeks ago I made my best effort to stack up against the likes of gorgeous sunsets over the ocean and tropical happy-hours on sandy beaches. For weeks I'd been thinking that where awesome images were concerned, "I got nuthin'. "  I'd just entered the realm of Facebook after my family and friends have been on it for years, and I had NOTHING. Lamely I offered shots of pretty snow showers, home decorating ideas, the beautiful grandchildren (not so lame) and the new elliptical machine I had to buy after too many lazy days by the cozy fireside.
Not walking in these woods anytime soon!
Then one morning I was presented with a gift. A truly amazing gift--right outside my computer window. Through the glass and across our rural field, a picturesque collection of deer were waking from their sleep in a snow-covered hill-swell of our woods. They had settled in the night there, because after all, what can any natural creature do but curl up and try to be toasty in this too-long lingering snow and cold?
They're staying with us, waiting it out...

The picture speaks for itself, and it brings us all another day closer to spring. So will a hot mocha and an hour at a fireside cafe with my good pal in town...so will holding cooking classes for the locals at (my) little neighborhood shop, so will crafting stitcheries for my Etsy store.........all this kind of stuff will get ME there, I hope, just as anyone's hopeful ventures will get THEM out of these snowy woods and full-tilt into SPRING.

Mmmm--Can't you just about smell the apple blossoms?


Last year this time, nearly
Note: After a break, I'm now building on my Etsy store, "Sterbuck Farm." Check it out!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Life, Simply

Is it cynical to be a fatalist?

I hear a lot of  "if it's meant to be, it will be." Or, "It didn't go as I hoped; it wasn't meant to be."  There isn't usually negativity in these statements. Resignation yes, but not resignation tantamount to defeat so much as healthy acceptance--a rolling with the punches kind of acceptance.

Many times and by many sources we are told to get up and try again, to not be bitter or hold resentment, to try a new approach or even turn towards a new direction. Adversity is known not just to be a good teacher; the handling of it will always bring a lasting result, for good or for bad.

I've always admired people of humble expectations--people who truly find that less (than what some others have) is plenty; they don't just "settle" but relish what they have with gusto.  Are you familiar with the portrait "Grace" by Eric Enstrom? The old gentleman in this image is in a pose of thankfulness over a simple bowl of soup and a loaf of bread, and one gets the feeling that a five course meal would just be too much for this guy. He would be appalled by the excess, he'd turn it down flat and consider the bearer of the offer just plain greedy.
Bread and Soup--it's plenty in the eye of the beholder
                                                           
I love the earnestness of this kind of contentment. I think that it's real, and that despite our material world there are still many on this planet who live happily with modest expectations that are yet very fulfilling.

Think about it. In many a remote island or other corner of this earth, people still call a hut home. They don't worry about a mortgage or a fire policy because if anything happens to the hut it's cheaper to throw another one together than it is to pay an insurance policy on it until kingdom comes. They forage and fish and barter, and their appreciation for simple native foods means that gourmand hankerings are few if any. Fashion in home decor and clothing is minimalist, and translates to more equality in the neighborhood.

Things that we in the more material world can't imagine life without cannot in their world be imagined WITH.
And although it is probably too simplistic to say that what one doesn't know one can't miss, it does seem a curious twist of fate that we who live in developed countries at times suffer real angst because of things we know we NEED but cannot afford to have.

A hut dweller, I'm pretty sure, doesn't worry about the high cost of healthcare. I'm sure hut dwellers have anxiety about health issues (as do all people) but their options on how much they can do about it are few. OUR options appear to be many, but really?? Of every person that I know, "losing everything" over a health crisis is a big concern in day-to-day stresses.

A strange thing happened as I began writing this entry, all the way to the end of the previous sentence. I wrote from my own musings, honestly, and then a sister's recent comment on Facebook about a Sidney Poitier film festival reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading his memoir some years ago. I pulled it off my bookshelf and started rereading it, and as often happens, knew immediately why I loved it so much but was equally impressed by how many of the details I had forgotten.

My musings mirrored Poitier's own take on the benefits of a (primitive) island life, and in actuality occurred years prior to my reading his memoir, in a column for a regional newspaper. The truth stands though, that if you want to hear from a source who knows firsthand, you must read "The Measure of a Man." Poitier lived as a child on a tiny, remote island of the Bahamas,"Cat" island, and his first chapter so fondly recalls life there he named the whole entry, "The Idyll."

Poitier describes his growing-up years as void of worldly (modern) conveniences, even for that time. No one on Cat Island had electricity or inside plumbing, owned a television or a car, and it was really only family, community members and the natural world that provided influences for growing children.

Nurturing occurred without distraction from outside forces, and all the small diversions Poitier enjoyed added up to some pretty joyful memories, because, as he observed in his writings, poverty on this island was not all-depressing or soul-destroying as it can be under other conditions.

The man (as a boy) truly lived in a thatch-roofed dwelling, a hut, if you will. It wasn't until years later when Poitier hit the streets of New York City that he saw firsthand the "other" conditions that "other" people lived in. He experienced the rudest of awakenings about race, but forged ahead to make a grand name for himself in the higher echelons of the acting community.

And what a name it is. The amazing thing (to me) about the iconic, vastly successful life of Sidney Poitier is that he didn't ask or pray for it. From his own words, it seems true that he had limitless expectations, but although he discourses beautifully from his spiritual side, it is clear he does not credit his introspective insights to a leaning on any traditional religion or belief system.

In other words, he didn't (apparently) appeal as many of us do to the distinct God so many of us believe in. He did seem to feel a destiny, and told a story of how this destiny was predicted through the visions of an island woman at the very questionable start (premature birth) of his life. Reading about his fulfilled destiny brought forth another conundrum for me: does God answer prayers that are not consciously asked for, by persons who are not seeking favor from Him?

Fate, according to the dictionary, refers to events prescribed by an ultimate power--and depending on  the believer in fate, the description of that ultimate power can vary. I know what it means for ME, you know what it means for YOU. Is it cynical or is it spiritually uplifting to believe that a prescribed fate we would rather not experience is still in need of acceptance?

And this brings us (or maybe just me) to the final conundrum of this entry: if I believe in one God, the Almighty Father, Creator of heaven and earth, do I believe His decisions are all-wise, all-planned, and all destined to be carried out according to His will--the seemingly good and the seemingly bad alike? Or do I believe that prayer and attitude can change everything?

According to Pastor Joel Osteen, we need to think bigger in order to "get" bigger (returns) in life. Osteen recently told a story I loved, of his teenage son, whenever in a steakhouse with his dad, confidently and happily ordering the bigger steak on the menu. The son doesn't ask permission from his dad; he just knows who is father is and that his father wants him to enjoy the bigger steak.

Osteen likens this to our Father the Creator, who wants to bestow upon His children bigger and better. Osteen is big on encouraging us to have expectations that bigger and better is around the corner, just waiting for our faith to kick things in gear.

At times I hang onto every word of Osteen's encouragements, most often in the throes of his very vital sermons, if you will. At other times I believe in "Thy will be done." That whatever our wishes, it is HIS will that takes precedence.Can these two seemingly contrasting thought trains about our fate be one and the same?

Easily I could end this the way I began and still voice wonder whether it is cynical to be a fatalist. I suspect though, that the real wonder of it all is that in the end, all of God's will WILL feel like the prayers we SHOULD have prayed all along were the ones He ultimately answered.