Still Work to ……

It’s a stately old mansion, especially at Christmas. Each room is outfitted with damask and velvet, richly-colored Persian rugs, and solid wood furniture with scrolls and marble tops. The dimensions outdo any modern home, even the exquisite ones.

A fireplace in each room once kept residents toasty on cool winter nights in this country estate, just south of the Mason-Dixon line. Today the immense mantles hold collections of glistening balls in tall glass jars and lush arrangements of cream silk flowers with flowing vines. Candles and exotic porcelain vases line window sills. Gas log inserts replace real wood, but flames flicker as before and warm the spaces.

Staircases abound, but the one in the “receiving room,” with balusters and broad steps leading upward on three sides around an immense crystal chandelier, …. It is majestic! Oil paintings hang everywhere and a large window overlooks the garden.

It’s almost time for breakfast, which I ordered last night from the menu attached to the room door. What a treat it was to review the options and select my favorite, along with a choice of serving times. Would I also enjoy coffee brought to my room?

As I write and sip my early coffee, the cook is preparing fresh fruit compote and an organic omelet with tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions, plus fresh herbs grown on the property. This will be served with cranberry-orange juice, coffee, and a slice of banana nut bread warm from the oven. Guests will find small round breakfast tables in the dining room today, rather than on the terrace. White brocade table coverings reach to the floor, adorned with candles and fresh flowers.

This is a world apart—one that I step into on occasion. I feel joy here, peace, comfort, even love as I settle into a different time and leave the cares of today on the country road at the entrance.

The amazing thing is that my first visit was decades ago. As a young teen, I spent time at a place called Koinonia, near Baltimore, helping a family with young children. They had rented a cottage on the premises in order to attend a conference focused on Christian mission work. Known as the Koinonia Foundation, the organization that owned the property sought to evangelize and educate by going into undeveloped places of the world. They believed that education combats poverty and leads the way to world peace, and it all begins with literacy.

Dr. Frank C. Laubach made Koinonia his USA home-base, as he led the efforts with his “Each One Teach One” method, well-recognized in literacy training programs today. Based on pictures linked with words, his simple, common-sense model required that each learner should teach another. Laubach spent years working in remote villages of Asia and is said to have impacted millions of people.

The occasion of my one-week stay at Koinonia (now Gramercy Mansion) marked the 80th birthday of Dr. Laubach. He was present for cake, and countless guests who knew him personally or knew of his work shared in the celebration. To this day, I am honored to have been there—a young babysitter caring for two children. Little did I know that one day I would again come to the big old house where significant thinking and planning took place, where like-minded individuals pondered what they could do to advance peace and humanitarian causes.

The birthday cake was probably delicious, but what I recall most is the fellowship with young idealistic Christians from all parts of the world. There was international folk dancing in the great hall, and each encounter was a geography lesson as I met people from distant places. This surely was formative in my life, as I later pursued a language teaching career, developed exchange programs to promote cultural understanding, ….. and am still wanting to save the world in my own small way.

The breakfast at this lovely place is delicious, but the memories are second to none. The old mansion house has been repurposed, but its lofty spirit remains. I’ll go home refreshed—-ready to look at my dreams and set new goals. There is still work to be done!

Christmas Magic

The little envelop had been tucked behind my screen door. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” it said in bright red. I knew this was from the trash collectors. Each year I notice it and set it aside for a day or two. Before long, Christmas has passed with its rush of activity and I realize I have not thanked the service people who show up faithfully every week to remove my discards.
It was early this morning when I heard the truck rumble around the corner. Still in my robe, I quickly grabbed the envelope, stuffed cash into it, and darted to the curb where the blue recycling bin had just been emptied. The two men, quickly moving on to the next home behind their trash-laden truck, paused to say “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! And God bless you!” I heard the last greeting twice and it rang in my ears. Tears filled my eyes and I quickly responded with my own “And God bless you too.”

A curbside blessing at 7 AM on a bitter cold December morning. The younger man accepted the envelop with a gentle smile. Was he amused by the fact that I was wearing a big fluffy robe? He seemed to be truly grateful. The older man, all decked out with a long grey beard (almost like Santa himself), waved to me with his blessing, continuing to heave a garbage bin with the other arm. This all lasted about a minute.

I wonder how many people show appreciation to the service people in their lives. There are many possibilities, if you stop to think about it.

As a classroom teacher I enjoyed the little surprises that quietly showed up on my desk at Christmas. They included chocolate dipped pretzels with red and green sprinkles—a perfect pick-me-up for a tired teacher during the hectic days before holiday break. One year there was a lovely necklace in a box, another year a colorful Christmas tin filled with buttery hazelnut cookies, homemade. This was a treat that I took home to share. The building principal even stopped by with a gift to show appreciation for my work. There were personal cards, sometimes in German, which delighted me no end, and kind verbal greetings as the students left the classroom on the last day.

At the hair salon I see boxes of candy with bright red ribbons from appreciative customers. Sunday School teachers deserve recognition, as well as mail carriers, gas meter readers if you can catch them at their work, the plumber who comes just in time to fix a problem before guests arrive for the weekend.

If in each encounter we do or say something special to show appreciation, peace and good will could be spinning around in our communities like never before. Christmas magic that lives on and on. Now that would be a good thing!

Everyone is doing it…

 

……. whether it be drinking beer, as reported yesterday by a man who has been nominated to serve for a life-term position on the highest judicial court in the nation, or whether it be expressing sadness, anger, or disappointment over this event.

Here find my view on the hearings yesterday. My sympathies are with all parties involved.

I believe that:

#1 Not everyone is drinking beer or drinking it in excess. To give that impression is simply wrong.

#2 Questions and answers about what one recalls from the experiences of being blacked out or asleep are inconclusive. When I’m asleep, I am not aware of what I’m doing. My understanding is that being blacked out is also a state of non-awareness.

#3 The Senators should consider this question: What message is being sent to our nation, especially our young people, about responsible decision-making? If the judge is confirmed in spite of allegations and statements in his own testimony, an important message is LOST, that is, to think of consequences before you act. The belief that “everyone is doing it” does not make it right. Consuming a substance in the name of fun to the point of falling asleep or blacking out is foolish. Anything can happen. The decisions we make along the way determine our future path.

#4 The honorable judge has an opportunity now to graciously step away from the nomination, in order to protect his family and the families of his opponents from additional harm, in order to allow the president to make a fresh nomination, in order to free himself from continuing entanglement of power-seeking and pride and to free all of us from being drawn into this ugly situation, and in order to give the American people, whom he wishes to serve, a renewed trust in our government. This would be a wise decision—one of integrity and honor. It would be gracious and generous and right.

The above thoughts come from an ordinary American citizen who is a teacher, mother, grandmother, thinker. I welcome your views.

Creation

The rain began ……

… as a faint rustling, barely noticeable. It was Sunday morning, early. Gardens and fields were already saturated from the long, wet summer. It could not be raining again! Inside, the house was cozy and dry. I pulled open the sliding glass door to check the conditions and decided this was a writing moment…….

Wrapped in a warm fleece robe and sitting by the open door, the contrast was stark with cool air swirling in around my legs. The raindrops became steady and gently washed the earth and found their way into ponds and rivers, already overflowing their banks. Lucky for me, my house sits high and drainage is good. Not so for many people.

A recent hurricane brought high winds and heavy rain to coastal regions of North Carolina and neighboring states. Hundreds of people remain without electric power and still others have abandoned their homes due to dangerous floods. The natural phenomenon known as Florence will be recorded as one of the most devastating storms to land on our shores.

Meanwhile, Western Europe suffered a hot, dry summer, also a record for the history books. Wheat crops were decimated in some areas and the price of flour has already increased in a society where bread is a staple. In addition, communities are trying to assist thousands of asylum-seeking immigrants who have fled war zones in the Middle East and beyond—these folks need bread too!

Extreme heat and dry conditions have caused dangerous wild fires in our western states. Glaciers are melting, beaches are eroding, ….. Is this normal? Do we learn more about urgent natural situations today than in the past, due to the high level of info sharing? And the speed with which news travels? And the ability of meteorologists to predict weather changes? Have such extreme conditions always made appearances from time to time throughout history? Some folks believe this.

Perhaps I’ll stay here by the window for a few days, quietly observing, drinking tea, and reading. The rain will surely end and the sun will again cast bright dancing patterns onto the balcony and grass beyond. Warmth will flood my little space.

It sounds idyllic. Yes, I’ll wait patiently for the sun to reappear, and my footsteps will be lighter when it does. But also, I’ll read widely to learn from experts who study climate change and the impact of human choices on our planet. I’ll support those who want to protect the environment. I’ll try to live in a way that helps assure a beautiful and healthy world for my grandchildren and their children.

And, I will pray that God gives us the wisdom and courage to stand up for this beautiful creation He made for us. It’s time.

A Nor’easter arrived…..

…. as predicted. Fancy meteorologists with their latest equipment and unmatched hour-by-hour precision were among the most excited, next to school children! Wet snow fell furiously during the turbulent periods of the storm and changed the landscape with its heaviness on bushes and trees. During lulls in the storm,  children gathered with sleds and mittens to travel the slopes in the neighborhood. Dogs pranced around in the snow among the children and a few brave Dads stood by.

What to do on such a day? Once a teacher, always a teacher. Of course, I checked the school closings early in the morning, cup of coffee in hand.  Then I began to work in the kitchen! Homemade bread was first on the list, my grandmother’s recipe for oatmeal whole wheat bread. Yeast, just enough sugar to help the yeast rise, two kinds of flour, a pat of butter, warm water, a little mixing….and the dough was complete, rising in its safe warm place.

Next came the soup, just waiting to happen with a turkey carcass leftover from Christmas in the freezer. While the yeast dough rose in my slightly warm oven,  simmering turkey remnants, veggies, and herbs filled the house with a light, savory aroma. It was a recipe for coziness.

As the day went on, the soup broth became rich and reduced. I removed the bones and strained the broth. Additional vegetables, including diced carrots, chopped celery and onion, lima beans, and a nice sprinkling of quinoa and cute curly pasta found their way into the soup pot, along with tasty chunks of turkey  from the bones. The soup simmered on.

Back to the bread…..having risen to double in size, it was ready for the next step. I prepared the pastry cloth with ample flour and turned out the dough to be kneaded and shaped. This is a special step of bread-making for me. It’s a hands-on experience, literally; a chance to imagine; a promise of something yummy to come; and an encounter with the magic of transformation (the yeast). This time, I added chopped pecans and dried cranberries, slightly moistened in a cup of water for a few minutes. Two medium bread pans would provide the form today (one to share with a friend and one to enjoy myself). Then another time of waiting followed, aka the 2nd rising.

The beauty of bread-making is that the baker has free time between stages. The down side is that one needs to be home to get the timing right, perfect for a cold snowy day when weather gurus have said “Stay home!”  Before long, the timer went off and the bread was ready for the oven. Aromas filling the house turned to yeast and warmth and all kinds of delicious. How else does one describe freshly baked bread? Not able to resist, I sampled the treasure while still warm. It was just right!

Dusk came, the meteorologists warned of freezing slush and slippery roads, and evening cancellations scrolled across the screen. My soup and bread supper was  delightful!  The day had been somehow festive—watching the outdoor world from a warm perch inside, doing things I love to do, creating something useful and nourishing—and I was grateful.

In case you’d like to bake bread during the next Nor’easter, I share my recipe here. It comes from my grandmother’s kitchen, where she often served it with butter and fig preserves. The bread is best warm from the oven or toasted.

1 pkg yeast dissolved with 1 tsp sugar in 1/2 cup of warm (not hot) water – Let this sit for a few minutes while you complete the next step

Place in bowl: 1 cup quick oats, 2 Tbsp sugar, 2 Tbsp soft butter, 1 scant Tbsp salt

Pour over the above 2 cups hot water. Mix with electric mixer and let cool until warm. Add yeast mixture. Add 1 cup whole wheat flour and then enough white flour to make a firm dough, 3 to 4 cups. (not too sticky but soft)

Let dough rise in warm place covered with a damp clean cloth until double in size. Knead, form, and place in buttered pans or onto baking sheet. Let rise again until double and bake, starting in 450 oven for 10 minutes and then 350 oven for about 30 minutes. I test bread for doneness by tapping. If it sounds hollow and crust is nicely browned it’s ready to remove from oven, cool a few minutes, and turn onto a rack. Enjoy!!!

Evening in Advent

Invitations had been sent for a little soiree after the Christmas concert, to be held at my house. Musicians always like to relax together after a performance. “What a great audience! Did you see the little boy in the elf costume? Santa was especially talkative this year.”

Wassail punch would be warm and festive on a cold December night, along with assorted sandwiches, my usual Polynesian crab dip, and the gorgeous chocolate cake I had been eyeing for months at the local bakery. It would serve at least twenty people, so this was the right occasion. I had never dared to purchase it before, but trusted it to taste delicious.

The house was ready: tree glistening by the fireplace, five stockings hanging from the mantel, and candles in place. Menu items were prepared and arranged on Christmas platters and bowls, with tiny labels on the dining room table to mark where each would be placed.

Then the snow began, just a dusting at first. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed watching birds at the feeder by the kitchen. Performance clothes were laid out and a hot bath waiting, when the email message arrived. “Concert CANCELLED due to inclement weather.”

Of course, this was a good decision for the sake of safety, as two children’s choirs were performing with the orchestra and many people would be driving on treacherous roads. As for the soiree, my house was ready, food in place, and Wassail punch fully prepared, just waiting to be warmed. A final to-do list lay on the kitchen counter—just three simple items. The beautiful chocolate cake sat on a silver platter anticipating hungry guests.

The evening turned out to be quiet and reflective, actually quite enjoyable. I was tired after all that work, and the snow continued to fall in its peaceful loveliness. I decided that getting ready for the post-concert gathering had been a meaningful process. And then it came to mind.

Preparing for a party is like Advent—anticipation of something very special, a time to prepare our hearts to receive the gift of the Christ Child. God’s own son would enter our lives, be a guest at our table, enjoy our company and the humble offerings we have for Him, and turn our lives around. He would impact the world as none other has done.

Fortunately, there was no cancellation of His birth so many years ago. Regardless of weather conditions and over-booking at the inns in Bethlehem, the Baby Jesus arrived safely. And the musicians performed. “Suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men.’ ” (Luke 2:14)  Now that was a celebration, and it has been going on for more than two thousand years.

On that recent snowy night, one dear friend braved the weather and came by. We made a dinner out of the holiday party foods and cut two slivers from the scrumptious-looking chocolate cake. It was a perfect Advent evening!

Precious Seeds

The sunflower is looking better. This is no ordinary plant. It grew from the seeds my mother gave me one bright summer day a few weeks before she died. She moved precariously that day, but with the stability of a walker we navigated safely through the large automatic door of her nursing village. We both squinted in the bright sunlight. And then began a tour of her outdoor world: raised bed gardens that residents could reach, bird houses and feeders gathered near large windows, neatly mulched beds by the porch filled with colorful zinnias and all kinds of hosta. Bright white-painted rocking chairs moved in the breeze. A pretty wooden bench beckoned to us, so we sat and rested a bit. I loved those times with my mother.
Then we moved along further and found the sunflowers. It was already late summer and several of the plate-like bursts of color had faded and presented seeds. She ceremoniously reached out to pluck off a few and gave them to me. “Here. You take these. You can plant them in your garden.” She was reaching right into my heart but only later did I fully understand. You see, my mother and I shared a love of gardens, beautiful flowers and herbs, and the practice of cultivating something lovely.
I have never forgotten that day. With time, sadness came as she became ill and eventually left us. But I kept those seeds in a little baggie, a few brown pods that she had gently pressed into my hand from hers, for the day when I would plant them. The time came; the seeds found their way into my little “Secret Garden” and one robust leafy sunflower plant emerged weeks later. Before long it produced tiny buds that grew and grew.
Then one morning as I visited the garden the buds were missing! A deer from the woods nearby had likely smelled the scent of those luscious young morsels and had himself a delicious dinner during the night. My first order of the day was a stop at the garden shop. Before long, a fine spray to safely deter deer and other critters became part of the daily garden routine.
Thankfully, the precious plant has produced more buds. This lovely reminder of my dear mother speaks to me of her courage and resilience, her beauty and strength. The sunflower will live on, along with the memories, and I will guard it with greatest affection. She too lives on in her Heavenly home, where she is surely enveloped in the brilliance of a magnificent field of sunflowers.