The Magic of Comfort Food

 

 

 

Just last night, I cleared off a space on my sage green corian countertop for a new-to-me Cuisinart CBK-100 bread maker. I found it on Facebook Marketplace after watching a video on which Zooey Deschanel described the making of store bought bread, and a friend who lives very wholistically posted about the bread she had just baked. After a short FB convo in which I described how I used to bake bread but can’t anymore due to a shoulder injury and arthritis in my hands, she sought out some whole grain bread maker recipes and sent me the links. Well, of course that necessitated a bread machine.

So there she is. I think I will name her Wilma. As in Flintstone.

This weekend I baked my first loaf, using organic flours and local honey, and I have decided to keep unsalted butter softening on the counter always, just in case I want to nosh on a slice of bread.

Reading bread recipes started me thinking about comfort foods, all those delicious tasty treats that I turn to when my soul is feeling in need of a little TLC. Macaroni and cheese, Brach’s orange slices, a big pot of pinto beans simmered for twelve hours with a slab of salted pork and a little pickle brine…yum. Yum, yum, yum.

I had two really amazing grandmothers. One’s homemaking gift was sewing. The other’s was cooking. Whenever my brothers and I went for a visit, we’d wake up on the first morning to the scent of boiling chicken. Once the chicken cooled, Grandma June de-boned it and put all the little pieces back in her big, heavy stock pot, all the while pretending she didn’t see us snatching little bites of chicken off the cutting board. Then she rolled out the dough for dumplings, letting us sprinkle flour atop the dough to prevent it sticking to the rolling pin. She cut the dumplings into strips with a knife and dropped their floury goodness into the pot of simmering broth and chicken. If memory serves, there were little bits of celery and a good amount of salt and pepper. She served it with an iceberg tossed salad, which I skipped so that I could have seconds of her wonderful chicken and dumplings. I have never, ever found their equal.

And her snickerdoodles? They had just the right amount of density, and she rolled the dough balls in cinnamon sugar to coat them all the way around, every bit of the cookie had sweet coating. I have not had one since 1982. I thought I would never, ever find one as good, until last fall, when a friend from the Renaissance festival where I work brought a batch in. They were just like my grandma’s. I actually teared up when I tasted them. So perfect.

Hamburger Helper

My own mom wasn’t much for cooking, so we tended to eat a lot of Hamburger Helper. I could even make this for the family on my own, once I got to be about ten years old. Potato Stroganoff went over well, I was always fascinated by the texture of the dehydrated spud slices. I tried to eat one once, thinking it might be similar to a potato chip. It wasn’t. Sometimes we used Tuna Helper instead. It was okay. But the best? The very best variety? Hands down: Cheeseburger Macaroni. Oh, the heaven of that bright orange powdered cheese! I loved to watch it dissolve in grease and water as I stirred, becoming a cheesy gravy over broken up bits of ground beef and softening noodles. I confess that I fed this to my own children when I became a mom. The bulk of my motherhood years, especially the years when they were little, predate my awareness of preservatives and starches in prepackaged food. My kids loved it, and a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef were within my tight budget. No regrets. Not one.

Pancho

When it came to eating out in my childhood, there were really just three places: Whataburger, Furr’s Cafeteria, and my favorite, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Texans, especially Dallasites, will recognize those spots. At Pancho’s, you walked the line like a cafeteria, and once you ordered your size of plate, the server used tongs to slide an exceedingly hot metal dish into a color coded plastic trivet (the colors told the servers how many items you could have and the cashier how much money to charge). I watched, salivating, as servers filled my tray with cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and fried tortilla chips. Later, as an adult, I added sauteed calabacita (squash), but when I was a kid? Carbs and cheeses all the way. My dad loved the chile rellenos.

Each table had a little Mexican flag (sans coat-of-arms) on a tiny flagpole, and when you needed a refill on your drink, you raised the flag and an attendant came to pour tea or fetch soda.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the sopapillas. If you are not familiar with sopapillas, they are pockets of friend dough that you pour honey into. Some other Tex-Mex places serve them with cinnamon sugar on top, and that’s okay, but the best thing was to bite into the corner of the sopapilla and then use your hand to squeeze until the hole you’d made was just the right size to pour honey in. I remember when my dad showed me, then my little brother, then my baby brother how to do it. The sopapillas came in a basket, with free refills. Again, free refills. It was not unheard of to finish a meal with three of them. And a little tummy ache.

When I was about ten, the middle child, Lance, and I decided to play with our baby brother, Chad, and we convinced him that a tiny little man in a sombrero was running under all the tables, magically filling honey bottles and sopapilla baskets unseen. I remember watching Chad climbing over and under the booth seats and table, trying to catch the little man. Lance and I kept straight faces, somehow, until Chad shed frustrated tears and Daddy set everything right.

Halloween, 2003, at Panchos!

As an adult, I took my own kids there. Our last visit was on Halloween of 2003, and we took the younger two (aged twelve and nine) who had just finished trick or treating in our neighborhood. The youngest was still dressed in the kimono I’d sewn for her, and they took photos with the mascot, Pancho, on what ended up being the last night we took our kids trick or treating together. After that, they were just grown out of it.

1988_6

When I was newly married and about to host my in-laws, daddy, and grandmother for Thanksgiving in our student housing apartment, I panicked. I didn’t have any idea how to make a Thanksgiving dinner! I ran to my Aunt Molly’s house, and she spent a day teaching me about green bean casseroles and mashed potatoes, turkey basting and yeast rolls. But the best gift she gave me that day was her recipe for cornbread dressing, which has become the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Her recipe came from her mother-in-law, Reba, and I have never tasted its equal: mushrooms and almond slivers sauteed in butter, sage sausage, and savory spices make this recipe unique, and our hands-down favorite. That, and the tortilla soup we make on Christmas Eve, are my own family’s two collective comfort foods, the dishes that serve as the accompaniment to our holiday gatherings.

I have spent my entire adult life in a love/hate relationship with food. Trying to be skinny, skipping meals, depriving, then rebelling by eating too much of the things that my body didn’t gain nourishment from.

I am on a new journey now, though, one that is allowing a feeling of joy and peace to return to my spirit: learning that food is actually powerful, and can work magic in a beautiful way. The closer I can get to the foods that nature Herself created, the better for my body and spirit. But sometimes, just sometimes, a generous helping of gooey cheese sauce or sugary candy just hit the spot. Bon Appetit!

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Here’s the recipe I used for my honey whole wheat bread:

https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/bread-machine-wheat-bread/

And I use honey from https://www.facebook.com/queenbeehoneyremedies/

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Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

049a

There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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Simplify

Kim 1967- 6 months
The author as a little one

Last night, I went shopping with my daughter, who is expecting her first child (my first grandchild), and watched as she fought off the panic that comes when you’re trying to prepare for a new situation, specifically a baby, and there have been many voices telling you what you need to cover on your baby registry:

car seat, stroller, carrier, mattress, crib, crib sheets, onesies, mittens, diaper bag, changing table, pack and play, organic wipes, ecologically friendly diapers, crib mobile, breast pumps, butt cream, pacifiers, bottles, nipples, tiny socks, and, well, the list goes on.

One particular dilemma that was plaguing her even after we got home was whether to get a baby monitor that would allow her to monitor her infant’s heartbeat by smartphone from wherever she happened to be.

Playtime, Abilene 1995_3
The author’s daughter, she who is expecting her own wee one.

At first thought, this seemed to be a good idea. Then I paused, and really visualized it: if she happened to have an outing with her guy, or maybe a friend, she might just sit, constantly glancing at the app on her phone, not really present with others, not really taking in her surroundings, not really living her life, except in a state of worry.

Perhaps there are times when simplicity is better. So her dad and I spoke of baskets for baby to sleep in, clothing to keep baby warm, car seat to keep baby safe, milk to keep baby fed, and diapers to keep baby dry. And a whole lot of love.

That’s really all you need.

I have been on a mission to simplify my own life, too.

Many of us have seen the book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  It’s got a couple of things I already like, right there in the title: magic, and cleaning up. The author’s method is, in summation, to make physical contact with each item in your home. If it brings you joy, keep it. If not, send it away.

I do not like clutter. I might have gone through a phase in the early years of our marriage where gathering belongings gave me a sense of security. If I had stuff, it was evidence that I was doing okay. Then I visited a relative’s home, a four bedroom house with only two people living in it, where every closet was full to the brim, every bed had stuff stashed under it, every room had twice as much furniture as could be maneuvered around, and each surface of that furniture was covered in tchotchkes. I felt claustrophobic. I saw my future. And I reverted back to my true nature, the nature that had kept my childhood rooms neat as pins, with only decorations that had meaning and gave me joy.

Now, if something is in my home, it’s because I love it, it’s beautiful, it makes my heart sing. I don’t keep anything in my house because I feel a duty to do so. My own kids taught me the power of this, they say no if I offer something or other from my house that they don’t want. This was a hard thing to set boundaries against- the passing down of stuff you don’t want, the acceptance of the stuff  just to avoid setting new limits. We had to learn. I am even going through all the boxes of family keepsakes: letters, sepia toned photos, letter jackets, etc. All that stuff is being passed through the same litmus test: Does it encourage love? Does it fill my family’s world with beauty? Is it a part of our family’s story, or the story I am creating of my own life? Does it sing a melody in my soul?

I have been reading the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother when they were courting, and then married, in the 1930s; and simultaneously reading the letters between my own sweetheart and me when we were courting, and then married, in the 1980s. What I am learning is that lovers are pretty much the same. Both couples simply recounted days spent at boring jobs while waiting for the chance to see and hold each other again. My granddad called my grandmother “Hun” a lot. My own guy spent a lot of ink describing each part of my body that he had fallen for. All those letters, representing two generations of married love, are staying with me, sorted into two-gallon Ziploc baggies with cedar balls tossed in for freshness, labeled with Sharpie markers, packed in the same box as the old photos that tell the tale of our two families.

Story is, to me, so magical and precious, it requires a corner of the attic and a corner of my heart.

But my house isn’t the only thing that’s being streamlined; I am working on the whole big picture, too.

Distillation. The dictionary defines it as “the purification or concentration of a substance, the obtaining of the essence or volatile properties contained in it, or the separation of one substance from another, by such a process.”

I am all about it. Distilling relationships, life goals, commitments, hobbies. It’s all going through a metaphorical sieve.

Here’s where I am landing, in these early days of my fiftieth decade:

Quiet is good.

Only friends whose hearts operate in kindness get in close.

Those trusted friends can challenge me to be a better human being.

Sometimes, even family requires careful boundary setting and protective shielding.

Routine is wonderful for a peaceful existence.

Spontaneity is essential for keeping routine from becoming mindless rut.

Travel, travel, travel.

Drink the wine.

Hit the yoga mat. Meditate. Get outside.

Get rid of the scale.

Reduce Facebook time. Read more worthy, nourishing stuff.

Only engage in hobbies that engender joy.

It’s okay to walk away.

My days used to be so full of activity, they were really a whirlwind. I was “The Flight of the Bumblebee” personified. I lapped it up like honey when people said to me, “I don’t know how you do it all. I am so impressed by you!” I didn’t realize, then, that I was burning out. My wings were failing to hold me. I was sustaining myself on a diet of anxiety.

No more. Life is gorgeous when it’s simple; like a magic potion, distilled down to its vital ingredients: love, grace, and reflection.

And also sweet new grandbabies.

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Let’s Go To Camp!

Pettijohn 1

Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.

The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.

The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.

We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.

The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:

“Get your elbows off the table, David H!

Get your elbows off the table, David H!

We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,

Get your elbows off the table, David H!”

Camp Pettijohn
Molly, Angela, Chellie, the author, and Jill get ready to board the bus to Pettijohn!

It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.

I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.

Pettijohn 2

There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.

The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.

I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.

As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River;  while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.

It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.

The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.

I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:

“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”

“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”

“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”

“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”

“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”

There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.

Summer-Camp-image

My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.

What’s your camp story?

Enough

Right now, it seems like a constant stream of photos of little ones standing in chain link enclosures, sleeping on cement floors, or crying as they are pulled from their parents.

Social media and the news are, rightly, responding to the crisis with unrelenting coverage. I don’t remember this sort of head-on, non-stop coverage of a subject since the days of 9/11.

Over and over, I see memes:

Care for homeless veterans, not immigrants.

Care for American children, not foreign ones.

We can do both. I have said it over and over in Facebook conversations: we are wealthy enough to do both. We have the resources to take care of immigrants, to let them in, to help them transition. They are coming from hellish circumstances that we white American folks have never, ever had to encounter. Ever.

Many policy pundits say it is American policies in Central and South America that have created the very hellish circumstances from which desperate families now flee. We need to own that. We need to fix it. If our policy is to send them home, we are sending them back to the burning building that we helped torch.

We have enough. We have enough. I say it again and again: we have enough.

When you have enough, you share. You don’t hoard.

My life’s purpose has become to foster joy, to recognize how magical life is, to help others see and feel their own magic, and so I keep trying to walk in light. But this situation just hurts. Putting on a happy face feels disingenuous.

I have always had a mother’s heart. It’s the very core of me- this need to mother and love. I cannot watch these families be separated, I cannot hear the frightened wails of these children, and turn away. I will not harden my heart. And I will not stay quiet just so people feel comfortable. Rise up.

These are the two organizations that I have donated to:

http://www.teajf.org/donate/Families-in-Crisis.aspx

https://togetherrising.org/give/

Let’s Go Swimmin’!

Texas has beautiful lakes, and Lake Brownwood in central Texas was where I spent countless hours, swimming like a tadpole. I swam a lot in pools, too. I remember swimming in the pool in the apartment complex where we lived when I was eight and my dad taught me how to blow out under water and how to dive off the edge of the pool; when we moved to Grand Prairie, the heavily chlorinated community pools were regular destinations. My mom signed me up for summer swim lessons at Cottonwood Park, and this, along with sports practices and games, were the only things she could be reliably depended on to take me to as her depression and addiction worsened.

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The head swim teacher was named Miss June, and she was magnificent! She was tall and athletic, loud and bossy, with spiky strawberry blonde hair and a slightly crooked front tooth; she ruled the pool with an iron fist, a shrill whistle, and a sharp eye. Forty years later I can hear her voice as clearly as my own: ordering flutter kicks, holding up tummies so our backs stayed straight, and teaching us how to cup our hands to get good water resistance. Over the course of several summers I moved from beginner swimmer up through the ranks to advanced, swimming 60 to 75 laps a session under her watchful eye. She taught me the jackknife dive, and she tried, summer after summer, to get me to dive headfirst off the high diving board. I would walk right to the edge of the board, toes gripping the end, breathe deeply and visualize a smooth easy fall… but I could never do it. I could never take that plunge. Fear was too much, like I said, I have ever been cautious. She wanted me to swim on a team or certify to be a lifeguard, but I didn’t quite have the resources to make that happen. Later, when I was thirty-one and offered the chance to certify as a river front life guard for the church camp my husband worked, I jumped at the chance. I got into the pool with all the teenagers and swam the laps, drug the weights off the floor of the deep end, and earned a bright red swimsuit and my very own whistle. That was a dream come true, and every time I grabbed my float and climbed the ladder to the lifeguard stand, I swelled my chest just a little and sent a thank you to Miss June.

2000_22Even better than the pool at Cottonwood Park was the lake. I have a very favorite place in the world: my grandparents’ lake house in Brownwood, Texas, a cedar shake cabin surrounded by live oaks and marked by a mailbox set in an antique milk can. My love affair with this place began when I visited it for the first time as an awkward twelve year-old, lost in the morass of junior high hell, wearing a polyester red gym suit and having my bra strap popped by idiot boys. Mornings began on the porch swing, my grandmother June drinking coffee while I had orange juice. She loved to watch for birds. My brothers and I caught tiny frogs and kept them in plastic margarine bowls provided by my grandmother and we spent the afternoons taking running leaps off the top of the boat dock. One time, my brother Lance grabbed my hand for a pellmell vault into the brown water, and my foot caught on a nail. The nail embedded itself in the fleshy ball of my foot and I just sort of rooted myself to the spot. Lance kept pulling me, exhorting me not to be a chicken, until he realized my silent misery. Seeing my wound, he helped me to the house for first aid and loved on me the rest of the day. He had a sweet heart. There were three life jackets for all the cousins to share: blue, red, and yellow. Big to small, we all graduated through the color-coded sizes until we were grown. I slept on bunk beds covered by quilts that my ancestors had stitched.

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As I matured, I began to see the paneled walls, blue kitchen cabinets, colored striped carpets and brightly hued quilts and displays of art glass as the very safest and most love filled place on earth. After my grandmother died of breast cancer in 1982, this cabin became the living embodiment of her compassion and joy, and of the love she and my grandfather shared. My grandparents spent the first months of their marriage living in a tent near the dam on Lake Brownwood while my Pop recuperated from TB. That lake was a place of love and romance for them. To honor that, I wanted to get married there, but the logistics of planning a wedding somewhere far away from where I was in school were so daunting, I changed my mind. I have always regretted that. I believe now that we must acknowledge and pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, no matter how seemingly impossible.

2001 #4_7I took my kids there every summer. We have many, many pictures of them jumping on the trampoline or riding the inner tubes, wearing the very same red, yellow, or blue life jackets that I, their uncles, and their second cousins had worn. Their childhoods can be traced at the lake, like growth marks on a doorway. We had Hilary’s seventh and Travis Austin’s third birthdays there, and Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations that revolved not around the water, but around the card table. Lake Brownwood is where I spent time with my dear cousins, aunts, and uncles.

I dream of the house often. Always surrounded by water, sometimes Pop is there, sometimes my aunts and uncles, sometimes my cousins. The new owners have replaced the old dock and blue kitchen cabinets, much to my dismay, but the spirit of my grandparents lives on.

Today, my home is filled with little lake touches. My grandmother’s glass collection is on a shelf in my kitchen, the quilt that was on my grandparents’ bed hangs on a rod in my living room, and I painted my kitchen cabinets blue. I keep geraniums because my Pop did, though to my chagrin I can’t seem to get house plants to flourish like Grandma did.

I never stopped loving water.

img_0006As a forty-eight year-old lady, I got to own my first swimming pool. We built a tiny little pool, the smallest a contractor would do, with a spa in the corner, a sun shelf, a turquoise painted wooden deck, and enough room for me to do water aerobics or just float in a chair that had a cup holder for wine.

I loved to go out in the back yard at night, strip to nothing, and float on a pool noodle under the moonlight. I could spend hours floating. When it was too cold to swim, I would relieve work stress just by sitting near the water and letting its drift and shimmer soothe my spirit.

 

I don’t have that house or pool now, but I am counting pennies to get one at our new house. I still crave water. My spirit needs it.

If I could be the architect of my perfect Afterlife, it would be a slate blue boat dock with a swing and an eight-foot roof from which I can take endless joyful flights into the refreshing water.

This selection is an excerpt from Dandelion Wishes: The Magic of a Quiet Spirit in a Noisy World,  a work hopefully coming soon!

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Modesty, Shame, and a Korean Spa

For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.

I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.

I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.

Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.

Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.

Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.

This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.

And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:

I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.

But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.

Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.

My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.

I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.

Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.

Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.

On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…

and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.

Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.

 

As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.

 

When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.

I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.

So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.

And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

How Do I Love Thee?

Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

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