Lesson 182 – I Will Be Still an Instant and Go Home

Part 1  Undoing the Way We See Things Now

LESSON 182 I will be still an instant and go home.

  1. This world you seem to live in is not home to you.  And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true.  A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what is it the voice reminds you of.  Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown.  Nothing so definite that you could say with certainty you are an exile here.  Just a persistent feeling, sometimes not more than a tiny throb, at other times hardly remembered, actively dismissed, but surely to return to mind again.
  2. No one but knows whereof we speak.  Yet some try to put by their suffering in games they play to occupy their time and keep their sadness from them.  Others will deny that they are sad, and do not recognize their tears at all.  Still others will maintain that what we speak of is illusion, not to be considered more than but dream.  Yet who, in simple honesty, without defensiveness and self-deception, would deny he understands the words we speak?
  3. We speak today for everyone who walks this world, for he is not at home.  He goes uncertainty about in endless search, seeking in darkness what he cannot find; not recognizing what it is he seeks.  A thousand homes he makes, yet none contents his restless mind.  He does not understand he builds in vain.  The home he seeks can not be made by him.  There is no substitute for Heaven.  All he ever made was hell.
  4. Perhaps you think it is your childhood home that you would find again.  The childhood of your body, and its place of shelter, are a memory now so distorted that you merely hold a picture of a past that never happened.  Yet there is a Child in you Who seeks His Father’s house and knows that He is alien here.  This childhood is eternal, with an innocence that will endure forever.  Where this Child shall go is holy ground.  It is His holiness that lights up Heaven, and that brings to earth the pure reflection of the light above, wherein are earth and Heaven joined as one.
  5. It is this Child in you your Father knows as His Own Son.  It is this Child Who knows His Father.  He desires to go home so deeply, so unceasingly, His voice cries unto you to let Him rest a while.  He does not ask for more than just a few instants of respite; just an interval in which He can return to breathe again the holy air that fills His Father’s house.  You are His home as well.  He will return.  But give Him just a little time to be Himself, within the peace that is His home, resting in silence and in peace and love. 
  6. This Child needs your protection.  He is far from home.  He is so little that He seems so easily shut out, His tiny voice so readily obscured.  His call for help almost unheard amid the grating sounds and harsh and rasping noises of the world.  Yet does He know that in you still abides His sure protection.  You will fail Him not.  He will go home, and you along with Him.
  7. This Child is your defenselessness; your strength.  He trusts in you.  He came because He knew you would not fail.  He whispers of His home unceasingly to you.  For He would bring you back with Him, that He Himself might stay, and not return where He does not belong, and where He lives an outcast in a world of alien thoughts.  His patience has no limits.  He will wait until you hear His gentle Voice within you, calling you to let Him go in peace, along with you, to where He is at home and you with Him.
  8. When you are still an instant, when the world recedes from you, when valueless ideas ceases to have value in your restless mind, then will you hear His Voice.  So poignantly He calls to you that you will not resist Him longer.  In that instant He will take you to His home, and you will stay with Him in perfect stillness, silent and at peace, beyond all words, untouched by fear and doubt, sublimely certain that you are at home.
  9. Rest with Him frequently today.  For He was willing to become a little Child that you might learn of Him how strong is he who comes without defenses, offering only love’s messages to those who think he is their enemy.  He holds the might of Heaven in His hand and calls them friend, and gives His strength to them, that they may see He would be Friend to them.  He asks that they protect Him, for His home is far away, and He will not return to it alone.
  10. Christ is reborn as but a little Child each time a wanderer would leave his home.  For he must learn that what he would protect is but this Child, Who comes defenseless and Who is protected by defenselessness.  Go home with Him from time to time today.  You are as much an alien here as He.
  11. Take time today to lay aside your shield which profits nothing and lay down the spear and sword you raised against an enemy without existence.  Christ has called you friend and brother.  He has even come to ask your help in letting Him go home today, completed and completely.  He has come as does a little child, who must beseech his father for protection and for love.  He rules the universe, and yet He asks unceasingly that you return with Him and take illusions as your gods no more.
  12. You have not lost your innocence.  It is for this you yearn.  This is your heart’s desire.  This is the voice you hear, and this the call which cannot be denied.  The holy Child remains with you.  His home is yours.  Today He gives you His defenselessness, and you accept it in exchange for all the toys of battle you have made.  And now the way is open, and the journey has an end in sight at last.  Be still an instant and go home with Him and be at peace a while.

Personal Notes and Application:   I nosed about on Facebook and got my feelings hurt and feel the alien and the outcast with my extended family.  And now I suffer self-doubts and questionings, loneliness, and a deep sense of despair.  Yet I know that this is a lie.  They are not my salvation and never have been!  I have tried to make them my salvation with special relationships, which filled me with a keener sense of alienation the harder I worked to make them special and have meaning.  I know that I did it in the wrong way and that instead of loving them, I wanted them to love me and prefer me.  I know that it was an unholy competition that did us in; we forgot who we were and what we were about.  We despised each other instead of loving one another.  Our interactions motivated by jealousy, resentment, and hostility – we passed back and forth between each other and called “love.”

I experiencing this feeling of utter loneliness as if a door has been slammed in my face.  I am experiencing this on the one level and on the other hand, I know that they are not my real family and that it is all lesson material and that the stories that I am telling myself are the ego’s version according to the Course.  That none of this has really happened!  I think of all the mean and unloving things that were said and done on both sides of the coin, and I can tell myself that it never happened, and here’s the thing:  I know that it did happen.  It may be in the past, but the past happened.  And the past keeps biting me trying to recreate itself in my future by its stamp upon my memories.  And I love the holy instant, the practice of it, and just giving up the past.  Letting it all go and denying it.  Giving it no place in my mind because it was an unloving past and things were said and done that were not from love and always had a big price tag with the word SACRIFICE stamped upon it, and this is what makes it not real.  I do not have to accept it as real because it is in the past, and because it was not love and therefore it cannot last except in time where the memories grow old and shabby like everything else – a boring, trite grudge that kills and sucks the joy out of things. 

Oh, this is what it means.  Jesus isn’t saying that it didn’t happen.  All kinds of things “happen” in time – things without number – they just don’t mean anything, and they don’t last forever, and so I can free myself from them and deny they ever happened because they are in the sea of the past which never “was” in an eternal sense.  I don’t have to activate it; in fact, I am told not to activate it.  Not to even look at it or try to figure it out because there is no figuring out the chaos of the separated mind, which is the ego.  It is fear-based and not love-based.  I lived a fear-based, temporal existence and no longer live there and I cannot give it any credence at all by thinking about it, talking about it, or delving into it and discussing it – not now and not ever.  I didn’t know who I was, and now I am getting to know who I am, and it has nothing at all to do with anything in the past. 

Can I accept this as my identity?  Can I look upon them all with abstract love and not get personal?  It is the personal, individualized impersonation of love that gets people into trouble – the “special” relationships that Jesus speaks of in the Course.  He looked upon his mother and his brothers and sisters and said that they were not his family.  If Jesus said that, then why am I boohooing about people who never brought me any happiness or joy or ongoing meaning without sacrifice and ego demands that were becoming increasingly hard to bear? I ask for my true identity, my true family, and I the Holy Spirit to fill my mind and show me the truth of this matter in such a way that I am all in, and do not look back. 

In living the present moment, in not activating the past – then I free myself from it.  Holy Spirit doesn’t do it for me.  Jesus doesn’t do it for me.  I must do it.  I must, just like a spirit set free from the body, give it up myself.  Just lay it down.  Live as if I am already free of the body and all its false connections with the ego-based world.  Thus I am set free. 

The Day Before I Turn Sixty

It’s been, so far, such an interesting life.  My heart is full of gratitude for the six decades of my life.  I am happy for parents who loved me, who fed me and clothed me, and not only did their best to keep me safe and warm, but who had fun with me, and honestly seemed to enjoy spending time with me and making my childhood fun.  There were things that happened that were not right, and I had a long and terrible struggle to make sense of all that, to understand it, to name it, to talk about it, to bring it to the surface and to the light.  At sixty, I am going to say goodbye to that struggle, to forgive the wrongdoing, to forget it – not talk about it or think about it anymore.

First of all, I enjoyed being a female.  It was a lovely life, being a girl and getting to love boys and have babies and wear pretty dresses and have long hair and go through all the stages of life that brought me to who I am today.  Of course I got to have periods and cramps and bloat.  I endured the agony of childbirth.  I loved the wrong boys, and blundered through my teens and early adulthood in a blur of longing for that which I could not name.  I had babies that I didn’t plan for and stood in line for free blocks of the hardest cheese imaginable.  I waited tables, sold gas, typed memos, recruited foster parents, taught English, wrote a novel,  gave Safe Touch lessons, and cleaned houses for a living.  I loved.  I hated.  I plotted and connived.  I gave and I took.

I am thankful to be a wife.  I was born to be married.  I was born to be married to James.  I would have loved for James to be the father of my children and the first and only man that I ever loved or had sex with, but that is not the way my story goes.  It is not the way his story goes, but this is the way our story goes now, and I am more in love today than I was 21 years ago when we got married at 37 and 43.  James loves me in the way I need to be loved, he cherishes me.  He supports me.  With James I can be all that I was meant to be – a published writer, a college graduate, a teacher with a master’s degree.  Without him, I am a thwarted, lackluster, slaphappy version of myself.

I am happy to be born an American.  Being white and being born in America I have privileges that personally I did not earn but privileges that I am happy to have anyway.  I have all sorts of privileges that I have not necessarily earned, such as intelligence, good looks, crooked teeth, and lumpy thighs – and I am still grateful.

I am happy to be a mother – and a grandmother.  If I found fulfillment in being a wife, triple and quadruple that many times over in being a mother and grandmother.  There’s nothing compares to the memory of holding my firstborn for the first time, overlooking his cone head and crabby countenance and sighing with rapture over his perfection.   The joy of breastfeeding my babies and hanging clean diapers out on the clothesline in a long, straight row, and reading Golden Books cuddled up together in our flannel pajamas.  The joy of the grown son and daughters, who turned out to be such great parents and interesting individuals.  People I would choose to have for my friends, even if they weren’t our kids.  The joy of the grandchildren growing up right before our eyes.  The joy of family game nights and country walks and Sunday drives.  Getting invited to play cards at the grown grandson’s place!  The kidding around and the crying on each other’s shoulders.

I am happy for family and friends. I am blessed with two brothers and a sister, dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles, and friends from all over the world.  We have our ups and downs, our times when we draw close, and our times when we don’t talk much at all.  Although I am going through a time of solitude and isolation to honor my need to be alone and quiet, I am thankful to have people to love and care for, to have fun with, to share memories.

I am happy to have traveled.  My parents were not afraid to get in the car and go places.  So we visited, we vacationed, we went here and we went there.  After my dad died, my mother heeded her voices and things got a bit bizarre.  We went all over the place – even got on the Queen II and sailed to Southampton, England and ended up in South Wales, a magical place that still calls me today with its fanciful hills and valleys.   I never knew where we were going to go next or what was going to happen next.  A psychologist once told me that this has effectually splintered my personality – all that trauma of moving and never knowing.  But things continued that way throughout every decade of my life – whether it was moving to get away from something or moving toward something, going on cruises with well-off boyfriends or going on camping vacations with not-so-well-off ones, and even after I met the love of my life and got married it was like that – moving from state to state, to Asia, to Canada, to France, well not to France after all.  I saw and continue to see a lot of the world.  Not as much as some, but still an awful lot for someone who loves to curl up at home.

I am happy to have the gift of reading.  This year I decided to re-read every book I own, just for the fun of it, just to help me remember why I held on to the story, and to write about it and let other people know what I thought was so special about the story, how it touched me, what I remembered from the first time I read it and what is coming back to me now.  I have read so many books, and the thought of only reading what I have already read, deflated me – there are so many wonderful books in the world, so many wonderful stories, and how could I limit myself to only the ones that I have already read?   I love them all – the kind that make me afraid to turn off the lights at night, the kind that make me happy to be in love, the kind of books that thrill me, the books that inspire me, the stories that remind me why it is such a privilege to grow old.

I am happy that I wrote a book.  Luella’s Calling showed me that I could do it, I could make up an entire cast of characters and give them an interesting life and put it all together in a book and get it published and have people tell me that it was the best thing that they ever read.  Now that brings me joy and meaning.

There are so many things that I am grateful for this day before I turn sixty and enter into my young old age.  My husband took me out to dinner tonight, because he said, it was so close to my sixtieth birthday and I shouldn’t even have to think about cooking, but here’s the thing: I love to cook!  There are those who remember when I didn’t know a thing about it and made each meal an ordeal of dread – had to bribe the kids into eating what I put on the table, no kidding.  But that has all changed.  I still have an occasional flop, but I have turned into such a great cook.  I love being in my kitchen and now since I have the new one, big and roomy and beautifully appointed, I can hardly stay out of it.  So that’s another thing I am thankful for – that I have mastered cooking and make nearly every meal we have a joy and pleasure.

I will end this blog post because soon it will not be the day before I turn sixty anymore.   My hope and prayer is that the rest of my days will be even more joyous and full of love, life, and laughter as the first sixty years of my life.  I hope to spend each day with a heart full of wonder, gratitude, and awe and continue to find a way to deal with this experience of the world with the strong, stout spirit that has guided me thus far.

Domestic Bliss

It feels a bit odd at times when I am standing up in front of a classroom of kids or adults,  introducing myself as someone who works for a crisis agency for victims of domestic violence.  We have programs for people to raise awareness about the issues surrounding domestic violence and we have programs for all ages about healthy relationships, and I love to present programs and share ideas and have discussions.

However, what really makes my heart sing is the idea of domestic bliss.  That is what I long to teach, and share, and model to others.  Growing up in a home where I experienced both domestic bliss and domestic violence, I did not realize until mid-life that I could choose what kind of home that I had, what kind of relationships that I could have, that I could move more toward domestic bliss and away, completely from, domestic violence.  It often strikes me, surely there is a way to talk to people more about domestic bliss than domestic violence!  Surely there is a way to paint a picture of that heavenly feeling that strikes me each evening, sometimes as soon as I pull in the driveway and know that I am home.

So I started talking to people about it.  I started asking kids in our program – “How many of you cannot wait to get home at the end of the day?”  And the hands go up, most hands, at least.  Then we discuss what it is about home that we are so eager to get there.  Some say it is the food, the couch, the pillows, the bed, the television, computer, and games, but almost to a student, it is mom and/or dad, sometimes grandma or grandpa, some beloved adult who is waiting there with warmth and hugs and lit up eyes upon seeing them.  We talk about that for some time because I want to establish that this is what we aim for – that wonderful feeling of being home.

And I talk about the feeling I get at the end of my work day – pulling in the driveway and seeing the chickens run up to the fence to greet me.  And then my husband, who gives me a big hug and kiss and sometimes has a cup of coffee and a snack waiting for me or may have already warmed up the grill to make me a big cheeseburger.  How I love to kick off my shoes and get into something comfortable to wear around the house and sink into my recliner and put my feet up.  The feeling when the cat hops up into my lap and curls up and starts to purr – I share that.  How wonderful it is to have someone there who really cares when I talk about my day – the ups and downs of office life, the funny things that the students may have said, the little dramas that are going on with my coworkers.  How nice it is to have someone that you love to share good meals with and binge watch episode after episode of some Netflix show.  And this is what I realized – we have to talk about these things to each other.  We have to paint those pictures in one another’s minds if we want to establish domestic bliss.  In this way we give each other something to move toward, even as we are giving them something to move away from.

So often we take that part of our life for granted and only give credence and attention to what hurts.  The mean things that sometimes comes out of our mouths when we are tired, angry, or stressed, the times we lose our tempers and blame the other for things that we are really guilty of ourselves, the times when our homes enslave us with its constant demand for attention, repair, and maintenance.

My husband and I were not a young couple together – we met in midlife and so we didn’t face, together, the struggles that young couples go through learning to manage money, learning to prioritize, having small children, getting along with in-laws, maturing together emotionally, building friendships, and finding our place in the community.  Both of us came from troubled backgrounds – there was domestic violence and traumatic events.  For those of you who know what the ACE studies are, my score is a 6 and my husband’s score is a 7.  Our relationships, before we met, could be characterized as train wrecks.  We were both looking for love, not necessarily in the wrong places, but in the wrong way!

Thankfully by the time we met, we both realized that something was the matter – not with other people as much as with ourselves, and being with someone who wants to do the work to create not only a healthy relationship but domestic bliss with you is a wonderful thing.  So I talk about that, too.  The other day I read a little quote from a Forbes article, and the message struck me in a profound way:  Tell your story or someone else will.

And so I begin to tell my story in hopes that I can find the words and the word images to convey the deep and profound ways in which establishing domestic bliss as a goal and developing the objectives that move us in that direction has restored our souls, enriched our lives, and given us a taste of paradise.

Happy New Year!

There are two New Year’s Day traditions in our house. James must have his black-eyed peas and I must have pork and sauerkraut. Ever since 1997, we have been enjoying both the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Southern dishes on New Year’s Day, and it is something that we both look forward to with a great deal of happiness.

So this morning, as soon as we had our morning coffee and polished off the delicious fried grits and fluffy cheese omelets that James served up, we got busy with the holiday meals. James rinsed off the peas he had soaking and got them cooking in the electric kettle. I pulled out the zip lock bags that held our garden-grown, home made sauerkraut and poured the contents into our biggest crockpot.

Usually we have pork with the sauerkraut and the leftover ham bone from Christmas for the peas, but today all we had was a whole ham that Colette and I had never cooked for Christmas, determining that the twenty-something pound turkey was plenty for the twelve of us. James took one side of the ham for his peas, and he cut off a generous bit for sandwiches and supper steaks and then gave me the other end for the sauerkraut.

We cut up our ham and put it in our dishes and it was the easiest meal ever. All James did was add some jalapeno and salt and pepper to the peas and they cooked all morning and then got put in the cast iron kettle on top of the woodstove to keep warm for the rest of the day. I added nothing else to the sauerkraut, not even pepper and that cooked in the crockpot into the afternoon and then I put the crock on top of the woodstove as well to stay warm.

Meanwhile I made several batches of bread dough. I froze three batches and kept two out for the rolls that go with the dishes. The dough was rising so fast, so the oven got turned up as high as it could go and 20 rolls were balled up and patted and poked and buttered and baked. It didn’t take long until they were nice and brown on top.

The red potatoes were diced and placed, soaking in lightly salted water, to cook later for mashed potatoes. Yesterday Jared was put in charge of dessert, so no need to bake a pie or make applesauce. However I did cook a dish of whole cranberry sauce because every single bit of it was gone from Christmas and it is everybody’s favorite. The sugar syrup was almost gone, so more of that was made for the iced tea.

Meanwhile, James gathered the eggs and fed the chickens and ducks. Today’s offering was over a dozen beautiful brown eggs. He stoked the woodstove, and burned the trash. Then he started working on our new bookshelf.

We have this extra room off our current bedroom that leads to the new construction. It was my idea to take the wall where the French doors used to be and make a primitive style bookcase out of the cavity – just leave the existing two by four frame and put some more two by fours up to hold all my paperbacks that do not fit into the glass-cased bookshelves in my office. It was James’ idea to use two by sixes for the “shelves,” and it was his expertise with the saw, level, and hammer to make it happen. We started it last night and he said that he would finish it today. I resisted his efforts to beautify it. I love primitive rustic things – taking something old and worn out and getting a second use from it – and in this case, he put aside his own preferences and made me the style of bookcase I wanted. I could not be more thrilled.

A reading nook.

While the dishes were cooking themselves in their separate electric pots, I was busy toting my paperbacks over from the old part of the house where they had been stashed all these long months. When the case was finished, James sat down and had a cold beer, while I cleaned up the splinters and shavings and wiped the boards down and put all my beloved books on the shelf. “Are you going to put them in any kind of order?” he asked. I said no.

Just touching them and reading the covers of my ragged collection brought me such joy! Books have always been my best friends. Sinking into a book is one of my biggest pleasures. My dream is to have a house with walls made out of bookshelves. And here was a wall and my paperbacks. There were shelves for the kids’ Golden Books. As broke as we were, every time I went to the grocery, I bought Golden Books for Jared and Manda. The books have stayed with me.  Memories of sitting up in bed with them, one on each side, brought tears to my eyes. And now the grandkids get the same stories read to them! We would love to be around for the great grandkids and do it again. Wouldn’t that be lovely? But we don’t want to rush things.

So all the books fit and even James had to agree with me, it looked nice. I sat down in my new black leather swivel chair (a surprise Christmas present from my darling) and instead of reading, I just looked at them all. It was a reunion with old chums.

Jared had gone snowboarding with friends; Lisa had taken the two youngest grandsons to see “Night in the Museum 2,” and David had worked at McDonald’s. They weren’t getting here until 6:00 or so, and so there was plenty of time to get a little reading in. I could not settle myself down to read though, so I folded laundry and we tucked into the sauerkraut and beans for a light lunch. I made James a buttered roll and he said they were delicious – all yeasty and warm and just the right texture.

Later, the Curry’s got here at different times. Jared and David showed up first and we sat around the table and chatted and drank iced tea and talked about New Year’s resolutions. Lisa and Jonathan and Zachary came later. We served ourselves plates of food whenever we felt like eating and it was casual and fun. Everybody admired my new bookshelf. “It looks like you,” said Jared. “It looks like your house,” said Jonathan. “It fits.”

Zachary and Jonathan and Lisa tried out my new chair. It was not Zachary and Jonathan’s first time, but it was Lisa’s first time. She did not seem anxious to move once she got in it. You would have to sit in it to see why. She showed me her new tattoo. A lovely blue flower on the top of her foot. She said how much it hurt when she got it. I can only imagine. David showed me his tattoo – it says Tai Kwan Do in Korean. (They both have their black belts.) Jared showed me his new tattoo – a frightening  face on the side of his original one on his upper arm. Although I personally would never get a tattoo, I admired theirs.

We had plans to watch a movie or play games, but everyone was tired and some of us have to get up and go to work tomorrow! So we called it a night and bid each other farewell. It was a really nice day – there was a Denzel Washington movie to watch but I got sleepy and so I kissed my darling goodnight and came upstairs to go to bed.

The house still smells of ham and sauerkraut, black-eyed peas and fresh baked yeasty buns.

What a nice way to spend the first day of the New Year.

Daily Prompt

Middle Seat
It turns out that your neighbor on the plane/bus/train (or the person sitting at the next table at the coffee shop) is a very, very chatty tourist. Do you try to switch seats, go for a non-committal brief small talk, or make this person your new best friend?

In 2000, I was on my way to join my husband in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t want to talk to anybody on the flight. It was such a terrible time for me that even to write about it, makes my eyes water and my throat close up. Still – it’s good to get it down. Because I was so hoping that miracle of miracles, I would have an empty seat next to me. Knowing that this probably would not happen, I hoped that whomever took the seat next to me was a small person who did not overlap the seat and touch me. I did not want to be crammed into a window seat all the way to Albuquerque with someone crowding up against me.

So I wasn’t altogether thrilled when my seat mate turned out to be an extremely obese woman who smelled like she had not had a shower that morning. She sat down and immediately her midsection spilled over into my space. I turned my face to the window in despair. It seemed in my misery that having to share my already cramped space was too much for me to bear.

Still I have come to think that perhaps she was an angel in disguise, or if not an angel, at least someone sent by the angels, because it turned out that with no prompting at all on my part, she told her story. And her story gave me such hope, giving me a respite from the despair and utter sorrow that was eating me alive. She had no way of knowing that I had just lost my daughter – how her father and I had made the agonizing decision to take her off of life support after she had survived a car accident and been in a coma – the doctors had said there was no hope for her, her brain had hemorrhaged, had imploded they said, and she would surely die as her organs failed one right after the other. At the time we had said it would be for the best – she would not suffer, her organs could be donated as she had indicated her wish for this on her driver’s license. However now a month later I was tortured with the thought that perhaps she would have survived. Perhaps she would have recovered against all the doctors predictions, and now she was gone forever. I was worried that I had not expressed my love to her enough while she was in a coma. I was worried that by letting all her friends and other family members in to see her, and putting on such a brave front, that perhaps in her final hours she did not know how her accident, her suffering, and her eventual death were breaking my heart. All these things were weighing upon my heart and my mind, torturing me and causing me such mental anguish that I did not want to live anymore. I was no longer interested in anything – and the only thing that was keeping me going was this sense of obligation to my husband and love for my son.

And so I was on this plane and here was this woman beside me telling me about a car accident she had just recovered from. She had been in a coma, she said for three days. While she was in the coma she saw her mother and two of her aunts – they had come to visit with her and they had had a wonderful time together in a beautiful country cottage setting. She had never experienced such happiness and fellowship and sense of well-being. Gone were any hard feelings or resentments, any family rivalries, jealousies, or old wounds that had existed on this plane. For three days they visited in this place. They ate delicious meals and drank tea. They took walks and played in the stream. They held hands and ran through the tall grass. Then on the third day, they told her that she had to come back. She cried and begged not to come back here. But it was not their decision. They had to go back as well. When they left she felt lost and alone and wept bitter tears and came out of her coma on this side.

She told me that she had been aware of her mother’s death and the one aunt who had died, but the other aunt had been estranged from the family and nobody had talked to her for years. My seat mate had not been informed of her death. And yet when she was recovered enough to check – she discovered that this aunt had recently passed away. She said that what happened to her while she was in the coma was more meaningful than what happens here. She told me that she is convinced that it was real, and that she was sent back for a reason, even though she could no longer perform her duties as a nurse, and her husband had abandoned her when he learned that she was in a debilitated condition.

I told her about my worries and concerns. I poured out my heart to her in a way that I could not pour my heart out to my best friend or my sister, not my mother or my husband, or even my son who had so much grief and sorrow of his own. I felt as if this woman with the greasy hair and the body odor, crammed so uncomfortably into the seat next to mine, had been sent by God to assure me that Manda was okay: that my daughter was in good hands; that she was loved and being taken care of and that she knew how much I loved her. My unlikely angel held my hand and gave me tissues and assured me with a voice that knew personally of such things, that my daughter had not suffered while she was in a coma, and that our decision to take her off of life support once her brain had imploded was the right one. She would not have wanted to come back here, after that, the woman told me. She told me to quit beating myself up; to quit worrying over it. There is a reason for everything. It was all clear to me there, but as soon as I came back, it was taken from me – I was in the dark again, she said.

Since then I am no longer able to look at people the same way, judging them by their physical bodies or their bathing habits. Instead I see a possible encounter, there may be something they need to hear from me, or I need to hear from them. We are all in this together and the more we share and build bridges, the closer we are to escaping this hellish realm of not knowing and not loving.

When Gumbo Calls My Name

I never heard of gumbo or even okra for that matter before visiting New Orleans back in the early 90’s. I was there with a friend and while he attended conferences, I met a fun-loving woman from Connecticut whose husband was attending the same conferences. Although I forget her last name, I will forever be indebted to Cheryl because she had done her research, and in my rental car and with her directions (this was before we had the GPS, mind you) we traversed New Orleans and the surrounding countryside touring mansions, plantations, swamps, and graveyards, all the while scarfing down native dishes and alcoholic beverages. Amid all that flurry of fun and food and fast friendship, I had a taste of gumbo, and I liked it. However, back in Pennsylvania raising Jared and Manda, attending night classes, working as an executive assistant – a time in life where meatloaf, tacos, enchiladas, and pizza were our mainstays, I promptly forgot any impact that the dish made upon my taste buds.

Then in the late 90’s, I met the man of my dreams, got married, and together we cultivated and celebrated a shared passion for good food. James did not mind my initial disasters in the kitchen; he encouraged me to take a devil-may-care approach and have fun with it. Giving me that kind of leeway eventually led to an absolute passion for cooking.

Fast forward to the year 2001. We were living in Shanghai and friends with a self-professed Cajun who was vastly impressed with the fact that I was growing okra in pots on our patio there at W-9 Tomson Golf Villa. Why was I growing okra? Because fried okra was one of James’s favorite dishes and I set out to grow our own. It makes me happy to grow things, and the weather – hot, sunny, a bit on the humid side – was perfect for growing just about anything we wanted.

Licking his chops over my okra, Bubba said he would teach me how to make gumbo. Now James and I were already belting out our favorite Jimmy Buffet song called I Will Play for Gumbo; our favorite line being – it’s a little like religion and a lot like sex, you should never know when you’re going to get it next. But all I recollected about the legendary dish was a vague memory of something rich and savory in a bowl from some obscure roadside diner in or around New Orleans with Cheryl from Connecticut.

Since I am game for trying anything new, I went on several shopping trips to the Metro, Carrefour, and the Chinese market and purchased the many ingredients from the list that Bubba gave me. Crab, shrimp, chicken, Andouille sausage, celery, onions, green peppers, garlic, cayenne, thyme, paprika, flour, butter – I still have that list scribbled on a back of an envelope. Anybody living in Shanghai in 2001 will appreciate my efforts to find Andouille sausage! We sent out word that there was going to be gumbo at W-9, and that Saturday morning Bubba shows up with his cigarettes and a bottle of rum, and we set to work.

First there was the roux. I did not know a thing about roux. An indeterminate amount of butter and flour went into the big super-size pot over medium heat. Then there was a good two hours of near constant stirring. We took turns until it was the color of a penny. Meanwhile we gave each other cigarette breaks. I have never been a big smoker, but that day in the spirit of camaraderie, I smoked Bubba’s cigarettes on our back porch, flicking my ash in a little jar lid, and we made each other rum and cokes to drink. Such a deal, as Bubba was fond of saying.

While one of us stirred the roux, the other one chopped the onions, celery, peppers, parsley, and garlic. The roux finally took on the deep inviting color of copper and filled W-9 with a most wonderful nutty, caramel aroma. We added the chopped veggies and let them spatter in the hot, bubbling mass of butter and flour meld. It sizzled and popped and there were a few hot spots on my arm, but no worries because our gumbo was finally coming together. We had a big pile of sausage and chicken to throw in the pot along with the seasonings – paprika, salt and pepper, a bit of cumin, a bay leaf.

I was trying to take notes as we went, but finally gave up and just went with the flow. During the last ten minutes we added the fresh shrimp, crab legs, and okra. At the very end we threw in chopped fresh parsley and a generous sprinkle of file powder. By this time it was early afternoon. We had pots and pots of it. We had about a dozen loaves of French bread to sop it up. The rice cooker was put to good use. I made a few big pans of orange marmalade bread pudding for dessert, and that night we had a party. Everybody raved about the gumbo. There were some Chinese guests who ladled their gumbo over the bread pudding; the rest of us had it over white rice and sopped up the broth with warm French bread.

My first experience with making gumbo filled me with a sense of happy accomplishment. Since then I have made some changes each time we put it together. For instance I skip the crab legs. James and I agreed that as much as we enjoy eating crab legs, we like using a spoon, not our fingers when it comes to gumbo. I also use peeled and deveined shrimp for the same reason. And, if I cannot find Andouille sausage, I don’t sweat it. I substitute a good smoked pork kielbasa and add a few extra pinches of paprika. If I am short of one ingredient, I add a bit more of something else. As of yet, no complaints.

We have okra growing in our garden right now, and so the other night, after looking at pictures of our times in Shanghai, a craving for gumbo began to stir. James’s eyes lit up when I mentioned it and so, I harvested a meager five pods of okra from the garden and began to make it.

Yes, I know, five pods of okra are not enough to make a reasonable amount of gumbo. And why would anybody go to all that trouble for a small pot of gumbo? So I substituted minced baby zucchini for the rest of the okra, and it turned out delicious. I made a big pot of grits for my southern guy, and we ate that with the gumbo rather than rice. I shared a quart with my cousin Bonnie and her husband PD. James had the next to last bowl for his lunch today.

While I was stirring the roux, I thought of different times I have made gumbo since that first time with Bubba. There was the time I made it for our Mardi Gras party a few years ago, and our friends the Appleman’s brought jambalaya and our friend Becky brought the most delicious French bread and a variety of herbed butter. My sister brought one of her specialty salads. What a celebration. There was the time I made it for my friends and coworkers at Northumberland County Head Start. What fun that was to enjoy each other’s cooking on our lunch hour! My friend Ann took some home for her husband, so he could get a taste. Last fall, when Colette and Coltin were staying with us I made it for the family – and all four of the grandsons, including the little fellow gobbled it up and wanted more. Talk about gratifying!

While I was washing and slicing the five freshly picked okra, Jesus came to mind and how he fed the five thousand on two fishes and five loaves of bread. Now would that not be something – to have that miraculous ability to multiply food. We would not have to wait for the rest of the pods to spring forth – we could have gumbo any time we pleased! No making do with minced baby zucchini. My mind circled around this would be happy scenario. However, it did not take me long to realize that as enjoyable as gathering all the fine fixings, chopping, mincing, crushing, and stirring can be, the joy of these culinary rituals would be lost on a daily, or even weekly basis. I want to make gumbo when the mood strikes me, when the memories begin to tease my taste buds and gumbo calls my name. Jimmy Buffet is right. It is a little like religion and a lot like sex; you should never know when you’re gonna get it next.

Sausage Egg and Cheese Minis

The first Sunday we attended the Mooresburg Presbyterian Church, there was a delicious fellowship brunch after the church service, and for some reason I had the impression that they did this every Sunday. I was enamored with the idea of breaking bread together on a regular basis, and the next week I prepared food to contribute, and since we live a little over a mile away, I kept it at home, intending to go back to the house and get it.

A good thing, because come to find out, it was only the last Sunday of the month that they hosted the fellowship brunch. One of the few times that I prevented showing my ignorance of people and their customs, we shared them with our son and his family, and we breakfasted on minis for the rest of the week – they were wonderful wrapped in a paper towel and warmed in the microwave for 25 seconds.

In any case, we continue to attend the church. We grew to love the pastor and his wife; we enjoy the people who are welcoming and friendly. While we both agreed that if we ever join a church, it would certainly be this one, in the end, we decided to hold on to our autonomy as non-denominational Christians and be friends of the church. This, thankfully, did not seem to pose a problem to the majority, and we continue to enjoy fellowship (and the fellowship brunches) at Mooresburg Presbyterian. It took me a while to get used to their style since I was raised Pentecostal. There are times I want to clap my hands and throw my arms up in the air and wave them around, but I save that for my private devotions! I joined the choir and help out with Vacation Bible School, and I like to think that this approach is helping me to develop a healthier and more realistic approach to Christianity.

I love to make bread and any recipe that involves dough is always a joy for me to make. So I have cultivated the habit of taking what I call, Egg Sausage and Cheese Minis as our contribution to the brunch. (My friend Beckie Bourbeau calls them sliders, which is also a cool name.) The Presbyterians seem to enjoy them as much as I like making them, so I would be loath to take anything else. I have been asked on a number of occasions for the recipe, so I thought I would include it on my blog.

Sausage Egg & Cheese Minis

For dough:
3 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 T. sugar
1 T. yeast

Mix 3 cups of the flour, and the rest of the above ingredients together, then add at the same time:

1 ½ – 2 T. oil (I use olive oil)
1 cup warm water

Add the warm water and oil liquid to the dry ingredients and mix together. You can do this by using your hands (well-greased) or a food processor or a dough hook of a mixer. I use a food processor and pour the water into the processor slowly while the machine is on.

The dough should eventually form a ball and pull away from the sides of the bowl. When this happens, gather the dough together and place on a floured surface. (Use the other ½ cup of flour to flour your surface and hands). Knead the dough by hand for several minutes until smooth and a bit shiny. Place in a greased bowl and cover with a piece of plastic and a damp t-towel. Place it in a warm (not hot) place. Let it rise until nearly double in size. Then punch it down and let it rise again.

If you are making more than one batch of dough, make only one batch at a time. For multiple batches, I use oiled gallon-size zip-lock bags and put my dough in there to either freeze for later use or to let rise. This way it is easier to punch it down and let it rise for the second time.

For the filling:

1 pound of loose sausage
1 pound of shredded mild cheddar cheese
Six large eggs

Fry sausage in a lightly greased pan over medium heat. Break the sausage up into little pieces. The sausage will make its own grease. You can choose to let this in or drain it. I usually let at least a little bit of the fat in because it adds flavor. After the sausage is no longer pink (but not brown) add six eggs and scramble lightly. Do not cook the eggs completely. While they are still a bit moist, add the cheese and incorporate it thoroughly throughout the mixture. Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 450°. Line a baking pan with parchment paper and grease and lightly flour.

When your dough has risen for the second time, divide it into 16 equal size pieces. Roll out each piece on a floured surface and add a generous spoon of the meat and egg and cheese mixture to the middle. Then gather up the sides of the dough like a money bag and twist. Or you can roll the dough up like a pinwheel. Whatever works for you. Just make sure the dough is sealed so that the filling cannot get out during the baking. Put the seam side down on the parchment paper. When all the pieces of dough are filled and ready to bake, prick the top of each mini with a fork and spray lightly with oil or rub a little butter or oil on the top of each one. Cover with plastic wrap and a warm, damp towel and let rise again for about 10 minutes. Take off the plastic wrap and the towel and place in the warm oven. Bake for about 12 minutes or until tops are golden brown and have a hollow sound when you tap the top.

Some notes:

I usually make up several batches of dough ahead of time and keep them in the freezer. I get them out the night before I need the dough and let them thaw in the zip lock bags over night in some dark and slightly warm place. For the church fellowship, I use two batches of dough and double the meat and egg and cheese mixture.

I also use this dough for dinner rolls, pizza, sticky buns, and all sorts of other applications. It’s fun and easy, and I use whatever is on hand for the filling.

Under the weather

Whenever I am under the weather the only thing that sounds the least bit appetizing to me is applesauce.

Incredibly easy to make, applesauce is a dish that I love to keep on hand. While it is a lovely stand alone snack, it is also a tasty accompaniment to yogurt and cottage cheese, a perfect side dish for any kind of meat, and it can be used in place of oil for baking cakes.

Today I was under the weather. We can’t figure out what caused it – my husband is feeling fine. We eat the same foods and go the same places – but something I ingested did not agree with my system. So all last night and about all day today I spewed forth foul stuff from both ends. Not a pretty sight. I had fever and chills. I had terrible pain in my stomach. It was no fun. No fun at all.

It was probably little surprise to James, when he asked me what I wanted to eat after such an ordeal, that I said applesauce. He was calling from town and though it would have been easier to just pick up a jar of Musselman’s, being the kind of fellow he is, he offered to make it. We have all those good Fuji apples from the market after all. So he came home and gave me a glass of Sprite, then set to work.

I heard a lot of chopping coming from the kitchen, however I usually forgo all that chopping. Here is how I make it:

Wash the apples in a weak vinegar solution, rinse them, quarter them and take out the core. Leave the peels on.
Cut the quarters in half and put them in the electric kettle on low. Add a generous amount of cinnamon. Give them a good stir every once in a while. Let them cook until they become soft and mushy, about an hour on low. (You can speed things up and crank up the heat and stir more often if you are in a hurry.) Run the hand-held blender through them until desired consistency. If you don’t have a hand-held blender – get one! They are one of the most useful kitchen tools ever.

(My son told me that applesauce does not need added sugar. So I tried it without sugar and it not only tastes better but is healthier.)

I was on the phone with my aunt when James brought me a steaming dish. I took a tiny bite. It was delicious. And easy to digest. On the road to recovery!