In the beginning...

The week between Christmas and New Year's is always a little strange for me.  A little sad, perhaps, because all of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas is over (it already feels like ages ago) but there's still the expectancy of the New Year's celebration, though much smaller in comparison.  This week marks the end of something and the beginning of something else (namely, the year).  But will 2012 really be so different from 2011?  What exactly happens between December 31 and January 1?  We are caught in a cycle of years, regardless of how we mark them, so what's the big deal?  I guess maybe it's not so much the big deal as it is just the deal:  our lives are marked by rhythms, ends and beginnings.  Sunrise becomes sunset.  Sunday leads to Monday.  January moves into February.  Life, eventually and inevitably, becomes death.  I'm thankful for these rhythms, these patterns that dot our lives.  Some days, it's all I can do to make it to sunset, ever grateful that tomorrow is a new day.  And other days, weeks,  or months, are filled with such joy (like Christmas) that it is only the end of that thing that helps me retain my joy (just think if Christmas was forever - what would our joy be like then?).  

I am not one for resolutions in the classic sense - they can sound so much like rules, expectations begging to be broken and disappointments waiting to drop in.  There is too much unexpected "life" that can happen in a year for a hard and fast decision or rule to be made about it within the early stages.  But the spirit of resolutions I can appreciate - longing for something better, fuller, healthier in life, imagining that things could be different and implementing change, a fresh start, a new beginning...  

My "resolutions" look a little different, more like "hopes."  Sometimes they are fairly realistic and attainable, like taking a multivitamin.  Other times, they are less specific, like my wish to be a better listener.  So, in anticipation of this weekend's events, I dug out my journal from last year and read over my list of "Hopes for 2011." Here are a select few:

-Travel: visit Sam in Alaska (check! see September post Into the Wild)
-Don't buy unnecessary "things" and get rid of useless crap (still in progress...)
-Sell or giveaway some artwork (I sold a painting this year to some Aussie mates, gave several away, and have recently been commissioned for a large painting)
-Volunteer at Missionaries of Charity (I spent the first part of this year jobless, so I found my way back to the Sisters of M.C. here in Chicago, who have taught me the essence of humility.  I haven't been back for months but recently have been hanging out at our local food pantry.)
-Make more homemade things (My mom and I ventured a bit of laundry detergent and household cleaner, and I continue to bake breads but I have visions of much more!)
-Plant vegetables (my vegetables consisted of herbs, time and space is not in my favor)
-Learn to play the guitar (hmm...well, this one is a bummer)
-Write something: start a blog, memoir (check!!!)
-Eat vegetarian (well, fish is still in my diet, but I'm reading a book right now that is challenging even my moderate fish-eating)

I discovered a couple other notes from the end of 2010.  One documenting the news of a dear friend's miscarriage.  She had written to me, "The Lord gives and takes away, still my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name."  Their daughter, Hazel, was born just before Christmas.  I had also scrawled a note on "the theology of place - what about this idea of praying towards a place in the kingdom, and a peace in that place, rather than a job or a school, etc."  I find myself thinking much the same as we enter a new year, and I can't help but wonder what I've been doing these last 365 days, wishing I'd been more attentive.  Last January I was also meeting regularly with a group of friends who decided we each needed to pick a "word for the year."  The last page of my journal bears "My word for the year:  holy longing?  small wonder?", a friend's address, the name of a song I liked, a recipe for Sweet Potato Souffle, and this quote from writer Molly Wizenburg:

"Well, there you go.  This is what you write about.  Exactly what's happening."

That is, essentially, what I've been doing, writing about what's happening.  I'm only sorry I've missed some of the living in between, or may have "lived" at the expense of others. Which is why I'm grateful that we can begin again.  

I'm working on this year's "hopes", with maybe a few dreams and reflections in addition. But I like to give myself the first bit of January to determine these things - we need time to think, reflect, and hope outside the confines of a holiday or the pretense of a season. I'll keep you posted.  In the mean time, enjoy these last moments of a year of plenty.


Joy in being

I've been mulling over this phrase throughout the advent season: Oh for joy.  It seems we have a tendency to attach "joy" (or is it happiness?) to certain seasons, things, events, even people.  Which is great - I think we should find joy in all of those things.  But I think there's also something to be said for the joy  that moves beyond our understanding, that joy which sits much deeper in our being.

We all have moments of discontentedness, suddenly somehow all that we have isn't quite enough.  The world has taught us that our jobs, our family, our relationships, and our treasures will never be enough.  And the world is right.  It never will  be enough.  That's not where a deep-seated joy lies.  And if all I see is down at my feet, at the little plot of ground I walk on, I can miss it.  Which is perhaps why all of creation must repeat the sounding joy.

All this joy has got me thinking about loss.  It has been a year of losses for many people. And this advent season may be harder than ever.  Yet I find freedom in the realization that all of creation resounds about a joy that is abiding.  There is a joy in this final week of advent, in the fulfillment of a promise, the hope of a nation, and the light in a world of darkness that transcends a year of loss or a year of plenty.

So, whether we lie in wait or wanting, in abundance or in blessing, in feast or famine - there is a great joy.  A joy without condition.  Beyond circumstance or situation.  And it is at hand.

There's a man who is a window washer for several local business near the patisserie I work at.  He comes early in the morning to do the windows, before the businesses he is serving are open, so he pops in the bakery for some water.  He came in this week, and chatted with another customer while I filled his bucket.  I have no idea all that they spoke of, but he left with a cup of coffee and a pound cake thanks to her kindness.  I couldn't help but smile at the exchange of joy.  The window washer called the shop later to let us know he was eating the lemon blueberry poundcake right then and it was amazing.  

Such a small, seemingly insignificant act - yet potentially an immeasurable gift of compassion.  I think of compassion as being with someone.  The Lady of Kindness at the patisserie was with the Window Washer, offering him coffee and a bit of bread.  In essence, offering him the eucharist - the bread and the cup of a table of grace.  Like Emmanuel - God with us.

PS - I discovered a lovely rendition of the Christmas story this week.  I love it for the simplicity, tenderness, and the party at the end.


The "First" Tree of Christmas

Fact #1:  I have never had a REAL tree for Christmas.  I am 25 years old and I've never had the thrill of picking out the perfect fir or filling a room with the scent of pine (my parents claim we had a 13' tree in our house in California, but I was 2 and have no memory of such a sight....therefore, this does not count).  For as long as I can remember, we unpacked and assembled our synthetic tree every year - which was fine by me, I didn't really know any other kind of Christmas tree.  But as I've grown older (and wiser), I've longed for the experience of a real tree.  If there's one word I could choose for my generation it is this:  authenticity.  This goes for trees, churches, and presidents alike. My fellow 20-somethings are all for that which is authentic, myself included.  

This brings me to Fact #2:  we have a REAL tree this year.  Something magical happened in my family this year and hearts have been transformed for the better.  And is it ever glorious!  So lovely, old-fashioned, and authentic.  

Cost has always been a factor in the whole real-tree-debacle, but with the help of a little thing called Groupon, we frequented the local tree lot this week and picked the perfect tree.  The tree man was rather incredulous to discover this was my first real tree, and for all the depravity of my childhood, he gave me a little Charlie Brown tree too.

I happened to catch the classic Charlie Brown Christmas on TV this week.  My favorite scene is when Linus gives his monologue, sharing the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke 2 by heart, concluding: 

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

It takes a Linus to remind us of our blessings.  I was at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry last night, volunteering for the distribution shift.  I sat at one of the registration tables, checking IDs and taking down info from the 164 clients who passed through, each one with a different story.  Many of them spoke of the "hard times" everyone is in with the loss of jobs and homes and everything in between.  There was really nothing I could say or do to make it better.  I have a home and a job and I have never been forced to visit a food pantry to make ends meet.  

It made me reflect on our lives that intersected for a moment one night.  I often wonder just what the purpose is behind these times, how it might be transforming us for something better.  I daresay things may never be back to "how it used to be", and maybe that's okay, maybe our Creator knows what he's doing - teaching us to live simple, grateful and interwoven lives.  I don't think he wants to see 164 families and individuals without access to a grocery store, a home, or a job any more than I do.  But maybe he's teaching me (us) something about how I (we) should be living, and how our small adjustments to how we live just might mean life and a blessing to our hard-times-neighbors.  Maybe he's making something grand out of something seemingly small, broken, and imperfect - much like Charlie Brown's little Christmas tree.


With thanks and anticipation

For weeks before Thanksgiving we scour magazines and cookbooks and newspapers for the perfect recipes.  Our kitchen table looked a little like when I wrote that 25 page research paper....books and papers scattered everywhere.  Thanksgiving was a small affair at my parent's home this year, so we could cook anything we wanted!  No green bean casserole assignments or cans of jello-ed cranberries.  My mom and I cooked until 10 o'clock the night before, wrestling with the freshest dead turkey I've ever seen, and we were up again by 8am, rolling out brioche and snapping beans with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade playing in the background.  

When at last we squeezed in around the table to eat at 3pm, it was a feast to behold.  An abundance of food and blessings, with as much love and as much life as you could ask or imagine.

I found this Thanksgiving Prayer earlier in the week by Walter Rauschenbusch:
For the wide sky and the blessed sun,
For the salt sea and the running water,
For the everlasting hills
And the never-resting winds,
For trees and the common grass underfoot.
We thank you for our senses
By which we hear the songs of birds,
And see the splendor of the summer fields,
And taste of the autumn fruits,
And rejoice in the feel of the snow,
And smell the breath of the spring.
Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty;
And save our souls from being so blind
That we pass unseeing
When even the common thornbush
Is aflame with your glory,
O God our creator,
Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
It's strange to me how quickly Thanksgiving is here and gone again.  Seemingly just a "stop" on the way to Christmas.  So I've been holding this prayer of gratitude in my heart as we begin the Advent season - a season of hope, anticipation, and expectancy.  These four weeks of Advent are fittingly the start of the church calendar.  I look forward to the lighting of a candle each Sunday leading up to Christmas.  This is, amazingly, when God begins the fulfillment of his plan of redemption.  I met someone a few weeks ago who I haven't forgotten after learning the baby she carries in her womb is dying.  She will carry and deliver her baby to term, knowing death is imminent (apart from a miracle).  I keep thinking of this woman and how uniquely she will experience Advent this year, praying the Master of the Universe would protect her from despair and offer her hope.

So with this in mind, as we move into Advent - a time of anticipation, gratitude, abundance, hope, redemption, and celebration - there are two things I hold in my heart. First, a question:
How do we encourage a sense of wholeness in all people?

And second, something my dad has reminded me of lately:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.


The Beckoning of Lovely

Last Friday was, as you know, 11.11.11 - just another Friday for many, but for Amy Krouse Rosenthal, it marked the final movement of her much anticipated project The Beckoning of Lovely - a film and collective mission described as "an interactive love letter to the universe."  Amy Krouse Rosenthal is an artist, New York Times bestselling author, and NPR contributor who likes to make things and encourages others to do the same, in hopes of changing the world for the better.

It all started on 08.08.08, where Amy invited all of her readers/followers/anyone to join her at the Bean for the first movement of The Beckoning of Lovely and the beginning of this grand gesture of love.  The Beckoning of Lovely gatherings continued on 09.09.09 and 10.10.10, each time gaining followers and intrigue.  Amy decided that the 11.11.11 gathering at the Bean would be the conclusion to her project (or rather, the beginning...), challenging all of us to continue the movement in our own way.

I had forgotten about Amy's 11.11.11 gathering until just last week and decided this was definitely something I wanted to be a part of.  So at 11:11am last Friday, a couple hundred of us gathered at the Bean, awaiting that first glimpse of Amy KR and her now famous yellow umbrella.

I won't bore you with a play-by-play of our hour-long gathering, but it was indeed lovely. If I've successfully peaked your interest, you can read the entire script here (video footage of the day coming soon).  But just to give you a sense of our collective love letter, here are a few things we "made" together:

Amy's friend Jackson Froelich kicked it off with some pretty awesome back flips.

And so together we pledged,

I pledge allegiance
to a life zig and zagged
and to our united mates of miracles
and to this great public
together we stand
What a sensation
a wee bit odd
may it be
wondrous for all.

We sang "Happy Birthday" to all the 11.11.11 birthday celebrators out there, including a special boy turning 11 years old on 11.11.11.  And then we did a little synchronized texting, all sending a text saying "I Love You" to someone we love at the same moment.

Artist and musician Nick Gage performed a song he composed for the project called "Dream" (because we're all really just a bunch of dreamers with our heads in the clouds...did you know the real name for the Bean is Cloudgate?).

We had a lot of fun together.  And we "made" some pretty cool stuff.  The complete Beckoning of Lovely film is posted on YouTube in five movements.  You can find it here

I would like to thank Amy Krouse Rosenthal and all the other "makers" out there for recognizing the potential of the human connection and for acting on the conviction to make something lovely, together.  


Bread for Barter

I picked up the latest copy of Food and Wine magazine today, sucked in by the recipes for Apricot-Tarragon and Chocolate-Cayenne Cocktail Cookies, and only the best Thanksgiving tips and recipes.  I didn't realize that tucked away in this November gem would be an article about a girl after my own heart - she bakes bread and trades it for stuff.  Ah, seriously?!  I love this.  I have been baking homemade bread for about a year now (and by homemade I mean handmade, no bread machine, totally kneaded and baked by hand).  In the process I have made and thrown out one sourdough starter, made and kept alive one new sourdough starter, broken a bread stone (yep, it literally cracked in two while baking bread), and given away maybe a dozen loaves.  Typically when I bake a batch of bread, it makes 2-4 loaves, which is 1-3 loaves too many for the three people who live in my household.  So I often give it away, occasionally stowing away a loaf in the freezer for the bread emergency that can arise, as it is a time-consuming labor of love and takes a backseat to my full-time job at the patisserie.  I am still trying to figure out how to get my oven temp up to 500 degrees F (not to mention those new, fabulous bread proofing oven settings) and finally have a proofing basket for those really wet doughs.

Recently, I've been thinking how great it would be to make an exchange - bread for barter.  Little did I know that there was someone by the name of Malin Elmlid already doing this in Berlin.  The November issue of Food and Wine featured an article about Miss Elmlid's Bread Exchange.  She started the Bread Exchange in 2009 and now has 1000 traders.  She sticks to the basics:  white flour sourdough bread, made and baked by hand. Elmlid began perfecting her sourdough loaf a few years ago, even studying under renowned sourdough bread bakers.  The Bread Exchange grew out of her own dispersal of loaves to friends and family, who somewhat naturally, began to give things to her in exchange.  Today, Elmlid posts via Twitter or Facebook when she has loaves open for exchange, and her website lists a manifesto of what might make "a good trade":  jam, eggs, home-grown herbs, unique things from unique places, a guitar lesson, a good book, a bike repair.

People have been doing this for ages.  Food for trade is not a new concept - it is, essentially, how things started.  I think it's high time we got back to it.  It allows us to learn and benefit from something that other people are better at or have access to. Elmlid says she doesn't do the Bread Exchange to meet new people but to discover new things.  And, in my opinion, she is creating lasting relationships in turn.  I remember reading about this in Barbara Kingsolver's fantastic book Animal Vegetable Miracle.  She and her family commit to eating locally grown and raised foods for a year, knowing that they can't grow and raise it all - so, they exchange some of their produce and fresh eggs for their neighbor's harvest.  

So, how 'bout it?  My brioche for a bag of flour?  A good haircut?  The last of the summer's preserves?  My bread doesn't compare to Malin Elmlid's (I've yet to study under the greats), but I'm making my way, and I know the value of a good loaf.  It doesn't have to be just bread or just food, but I think that's a great place to start.  Bread is one of the most elemental foods, eaten and recognized in different forms all over the world.  And food is globally known, universally essential, and completely priceless.


7 billion

I woke up this morning to NPR and the first piece of information I heard was that the world had officially reached a population of 7 billion. 


Wow.  I have a hard time imagining what 7 billion looks like.  I can't really think of anything I've seen or eaten or experienced 7 billion times.  Really, I have no idea what that means, 7 billion.  I have a hard enough time comprehending that I live in a city of 3 million.

So while I was running today, I started thinking about my 699,999,999 neighbors and what they were all up to at that moment.  My friends in Rio were probably on the bus, or waiting for the bus.  The people of India were sleeping, hopefully, or trying to sleep for all the noise outside.  My mates in Europe and South Africa were maybe checking email, cleaning up dishes, getting ready for bed and another day in the world of 7 billion.  All those folks going about their days, with next to no awareness of one another's existence. And we can't possibly know 7 billion people - too many names to remember.

But there's something quite compelling about all that collective energy.  Just imagine how creative we'd be if we could put all of our heads together.  I know it's unrealistic to hope that 7 billion people would get together to create something - some are old, some are young, some are rich, some are poor, and we all live kind of far from each other.  But so far the only things we're "creating" together are waste, debt, and a larger population. There are plenty of strikes against a global movement of creativity.  Enough to make you do, well, nothing, together.

But if you do nothing, nothing ever happens.  What if you divide that 7,000,000,000 into groups of 1,000.  That's not so bad.  I bet you know 1,000 people.  There were about that many in my high school graduating class.  I'm more comfortable with something like 7 people, but hey.  Wouldn't that be something?  Imagine the innovation.  Not only could we come up with something like the iPad and hybrid cars, but maybe we could put a stop to all the debt and the waste we're contributing to.  Maybe we could all sign a virtual treaty to be better citizens of the earth, to work harder together for the sake of the next 7 billion, if only for the next 1.  Imagine how differently we would live with a greater awareness of how our actions are influencing the lives of the next generation.  Lately, many of my friends and family are having babies.  That's what happens when you're 25, everyone you know begins multiplying.  It's great, though, because it's made me think more about how what I say or do may or may not impact their beautiful lives (and mine). I want their lives to be full, radiant, and imaginative.  I hope that's enough for my 699,999,999,999 mates to want to live better, more thoughtful lives too.  


All things squash

I can remember roasting my first squash when I was living in Cape Town.  We use to go to Fruit and Veg - this great market where you can get all sorts of fresh produce for cheap - and we'd buy a whole butternut squash, toss it in the oven with some butter and brown sugar, everyone flocking to the kitchen for that glorious smell that is squash roasting.  Ah! I love it.  

Last week I had a total of five squash sitting on the counter at one time.  This is a problem.  You'd understand if you knew how small our counter-space is.  So I just started roasting away and made three batches of butternut squash bisque, each time getting better and better.  I've tried different butternut soup recipes, this time settling on the simplest, less sweet and a little spicy.  I just read this article in the paper on what seems to be a "back-to-basics" food movement - highlighting the natural and pure flavors of whatever you're cooking.  Essentially, cooking squash so that it tastes just like the magnificent squash that it is.  

I ate the first batch of bisque almost entirely by myself.  Then I made a big pot to bring to my brother and sister's on the most blustery night Chicago's seen in a while.  Then my friend Tricia brought me a butternut squash she had - so, feeling generous, I made her some soup, and of course, some crusty sourdough bread to go with it.  And the house has never smelled better!

(Adapted from Claire Robinson's recipe on the Food Network)

1-2 butternut squash, depending on size
olive oil
salt and pepper
2-4 sprigs fresh rosemary (optional)
2 shallots, chopped
1 quart vegetable stock
1-2 tsp curry powder
fresh sage (optional)
1/2 c. heavy cream

Cut squash in half and drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  I like to stick a sprig of rosemary under each squash half too - it just adds to the flavor.  Roast at 375 degrees cut side down until very soft, about an hour.  Turn the halves over and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Scoop out the flesh and discard the skin of the squash.

In a large stock pot, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the shallots and cook on medium heat until soft.  Add the vegetable stock, squash, curry powder, and chopped sage.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and let cook until the squash is broken down - about 10 min.

Turn the heat off and let cool for a few minutes before blending.  I use an immersion blender because it is easier and safer (hot soup!).  But you could also put the soup through a regular blender.  Puree until smooth.  Season with salt and peper to taste.  Return to heat just to bring all the flavors together and stir in the heavy cream last (do not over cook soup with cream or it will have a funny texture).  Serve immediately with a bit of good, crusty bread.


On earth as it is in heaven

At our church gathering this weekend we were talking about judgment and mercy and the life of love we have been called to.  We were remembering the story of Les Miserables - Jean Valjean being the quintessential misfit who is suddenly shown mercy and finds himself swirling in a sea of redemption.  A convict on the run, Valjean finds himself at the home of a bishop who takes pity on him.  In exchange for the bishop's compassion, Valjean takes off in the middle of the night with all the bishop's valuables only to be caught and dragged back.  The bishop meets him, crying, "Here you are!  How could you leave without the silver candlesticks I gave you?"  Astonished by his mercy, Valjean is released.

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice: --
"Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money to become an honest man...
Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."

I love the imploring tone of hope in the bishop's words.  The bishop was able to look deep beyond the physicality of a man's dishonesty to see a broken soul who needed but the faith and trust of another to reveal truth.  He saw a man who was his brother and called him good.  It was in this moment that the bishop traded the cynicism of the world for hope.  

Artist and musician Derek Webb said something along these lines Sunday night at his show with wife and fellow musician Sandra McCracken.  I am always amazed at their honesty and warmth.  I walked away, reminded that it is the role of the artist to tell you what I see.

I've noticed there is this saddening resistance to hope - as if it is too trusting, too positive, and idealistic.  People would rather hold on to their cynicism because it is easier, doesn't require so much  faith.  After a while, the world becomes wearisome, we become disenchanted with what is and doubt the dream of what could be.  We identify each other by the things we hate, by what we are against.

Derek Webb reminds us of our hope, that "this too shall be made right."  

So if cynicism is the enemy of hope, then I'm holding my breath, knowing that it is with this test of faith that we find perseverance, which must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1).

We live in the in-between.  Caught it in this beautiful, awful struggle between heaven and earth where all things are being redeemed but not yet made new.  We walk around with are feet fixed to the ground and our eyes in the sky.

Did you ever notice that the sky is all the way to the ground?

There is this epic conclusion to David Crowder Band's record "A Collision or (3+4=7)" where Crowder is talking about this great crash of heaven and earth, where we dwell and the hope we can offer one another as we come closer to "not lacking anything."  

"Did you ever notice that the sky is all the way to the ground?  We're walking around in it. We're in the sky.  There is sky and there is ground and we're somewhere in between. That is where we live.  And sometimes some of us take wing and when they do, when their feet leave the ground, even for a second, they pull the rest of us with them.  And then we rise, and then we rise, and then we notice that the sky has been around us all along .  We have been walking into it.  It has been this constant collision.  Divinity and depravity. And we rise and we rise and we rise..." (The Lark Ascending)

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven", Scott Erickson, from Feedback, in collaboration with Derek Webb



On the Sabbath - you ask, "What feeds my soul?" And you do that.

I recently read this description of the Sabbath day and it has got me thinking about how I spend my days of "rest."  This is not necessarily a new concept for me but I love the simplicity of that question:  What feeds my soul?   It is important to think about "sabbath" not only as a specific day but also in terms of a broader concept of rest - a day, a moment, a state of being.  In contemporary society, the Sabbath - whether that is Sunday or any other day set aside for "rest" - has become either a day like any other or a day in which we check off our attendance at church for the week.

The church that I grew up in recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.  We have been reflecting, remembering, and re-imagining church together.  Though my church is fairly unconventional to begin with, I think there is always room for dreaming.  I think we must, both individually and collectively, ask what feeds our soul and seek a sabbath that does just that.  When we gather for what we call "church", is it a time of worship, community, breaking bread, and servanthood that feeds our souls?  Or is it a time of presentation, traditionalism, and ritual where we wonder why we are even there?  I believe that ritual and tradition have the ability to feed our souls too, we must simply remember why we do what we do and find purpose and meaning in such practices. Repetition is good.  Habit can be helpful.  When we do certain things again and again, in particular patterns or regular practices, our bodies and our minds begin to do these things naturally, they become a part of who we are and what we do.  We must simply always go back to the beginning and remember why.

So I wonder if we might re-imagine the Sabbath together.

My dearest family and friends all gathered together around a feast of good, wholesome food.  Beautiful music.  A time of praise, of worship, of honoring the One who created us. A time of quiet, meditation, prayer, or reflection so that we might examen our souls and consider how we have been created.  

Or maybe a time of solitude and silence.  A good book.  Rest.  Maybe a walk.  Spending time outside.  Reflecting on the heavens.  Creating, dreaming, and marveling.

Or maybe it's giving of ourselves - our resources, our skills or abilities, our time.  Offering something of what we have to a fellow soul.  Cheering each other on.  Coming together to pass the peace, offer a blessing.

Yesterday was a sabbath day where I spent the day with my family at the Chicago marathon, cheering on my dad as he ran the 26.2 miles for Africa - raising money for Worldvision, a charity that brings hope and aid to communities in need all over Africa. The day was far from restful.  But when you spend it cheering on 35,000 runners among 1.7 million other fans, many of them running for a particular cause or mission, something magical happens.  And the soul is fed.


Mercy > Judgment

In the fishbowl that is my workplace, you can see almost everything happening outside the shop, for better or for worse.  Being located near the end of the Green Line, we have our fair share of interesting characters who frequent the streets, but generally, it's pretty quiet.  Last week though, things picked up a bit and I witnessed a startling incident of aggression and discrimination.

It involved a black man and a white man.  One who had the appearance of homelessness. The other a man of financial security.

It doesn't really matter what happened - I'm sure you can imagine it.  What began as an accident quickly escalated into an episode of judgment, racial profiling, and unnecessary violence.  As in most cases, both parties are at fault, because when we are threatened we think of protecting ourselves and what is ours, even at the cost of all sense of decency and respect.  We got involved, the police got involved, and eventually things were settled.  

The man who was victimized later returned to the shop to thank us for our intervention and support.  He very honestly stated that things could have gone a very different way for him had we not backed his story and offered our help.  Think about it:  a black man, who appears to be homeless, in a fight with a middle-class white man.  Who do you suppose has more weight in this story?  And who is automatically the subject of profiling?

I grew up in a home that always rooted for the underdog.  So my instinct is to question the obvious, seeking truth and justice first and foremost.  In the aftermath of last week's incident, I couldn't help but wonder how far we've come in the over 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement.  Laws have changed, standards have changed, and the general mindset of the people has changed.  But racial profiling is still very much an issue, and this man's story is not unlike many others'.  

I've been reading in the book of James over the past few weeks, mulling over these verses in chapter two of James' letter:  

"Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment."

This means I am to show mercy to the black man and the white man alike.  It means that when I or what I consider rightfully mine is threatened by someone or something, my instinct should be to show mercy.  Herein lies the root of true transformation and justice. 

Mercy triumphs over judgment.  I wonder how our world would change if we began to live this way.


It's soup season

Autumn.  It's my absolute favorite.  I love everything about it.  Every year I find myself begging Autumn to stick around for a while.  I missed fall altogether last year.  I was sweltering in the stagnant heat of Rio de Janeiro, trying to imagine what jeans and a sweater felt like.  My mom sent me a package of fall-scented candles, a journal, and a collection of fall leaves that had consequently molded en route from Chi-town to Rio.  So this year autumn is that much sweeter.

Sometimes autumn catches me by surprise, and I wonder what happened to summer. Then suddenly we are talking about "the holidays."  Stop.  The holidays will be here before you know it so just let live and enjoy all that is October.

I had my first pumpkin spice latte (don't judge me or my addiction) with my dear friend Sam while visiting in Alaska.  And I am taking full advantage of all the lovely fall produce at our farmer's market.  Already indulged in a jug of cider, honeycrisp apples, and there's an acorn squash on the counter begging to be roasted with a sprig of rosemary.

I love autumn harvest.  It is the simple, earthy, and unsophisticated food that is my favorite.  I have begun to live and eat much more in tune with the seasons, and therefore, have learned to love fruits and vegetables within their natural season of growth.  Eating and living this way will change the way you think about food and that first July tomato will be sweeter than ever.  

I went up to my sister's last week on my day off - to catch up and cook together.  We settled on a lovely little French Onion Soup recipe I found in the newspaper that is simple, hearty, and the perfect dish for a crisp fall evening.  We used sweet yellow onions and a Sam Adams Octoberfest beer to deglaze the pan - the beer gives your onions such amazing flavor. Also, we settled on vegetable stock over beef (vegetarian) and it was delicious, but I'm sure beef stock would have even more flavor.  We used a blend of cheeses - a sharp white cheddar and Asiago.  This recipe is easily adaptable for any number of people but beware, once you start caramelizing those onions, your neighbors will come calling!

Makes 1 gallon

3 pounds onions, thinly sliced
2 ounces butter
12 ounces dark beer
1 gallon beef or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Toasted baguette slices
1 1/4 pounds Gruyere or Asiago cheese, grated

In a large stock pot, sweat onions in butter over medium-low heat until they turn golden brown, watching so they don't burn.  This will take some time, but don't rush it, otherwise the onions will be bitter (he's right, it takes some time - don't underestimate the power of properly caramelized onions and allow plenty of time for the onions to do their thing). While your onions are sweating, slice and toast your baguette in the oven for a few minutes.

Deglaze pan with beer, turn up heat and cook until beer is reduced by half.  Add stock, bring soup to simmer and cook until onions are tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper (remember your cheese can be quite salty so easy on the salt).  

Portion soup out into ramekins or other oven-safe bowls.  Garnish each portion with toasted baguette slices.  Top generously with cheese and brown under a broiler.


This Pig Wants to Party

This week I heard a magical interview with Maurice Sendak on NPR's Fresh Air.  You might recognize his name from Where the Wild Things Are, the author's most famous book.  The host of Fresh Air, Terry Gross, interviewed Maurice Sendak on his latest book, Bumble-ardy, about an orphaned pig who wants to party.  

A program that began as an interview about the author's latest work became a tender and intimate exchange, as Maurice Sendak reflected on his 83 years of life - all the death and sadness, the blessings and joys, the creativity and hard work of an artist.

Sendak was caring for his friend and partner of 50 years when he wrote Bumble-ardy, an experience which I think is reflected in the depth and humor of this pig's story.

"When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," he says.  "Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy.  I did Bumble-ardy to save myself.  I did not want to die with him.  I wanted to live as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house. ... Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own.  And it took a long time.  It took a very long time."

The honesty and intimacy of Sendak's words brought me to tears.  He spoke of a life well-lived, of great fullness and satisfaction.  But he also spoke of loneliness and death with such depth as I've never heard before.  There was something in his voice, in his words, that tugged at the spirit deep within me.  It called out to the artist and personhood in me to live and create just as fully.  I wish there were more people like Maurice Sendak in the world, not more lonely 83 year-old men, just more writers, artists, honest thinking and living people who could speak of their life's work and their relationships in such profound gratitude and sincerity.  I only hope that at 83 years old, by the grace of God, I will be able to speak of life and death with the same integrity of spirit and greatness of soul.  

In turn, I offer you, Mr. Sendak, all the hope that is in me, the confidence with which I believe in a life beyond this one.  A world of wholeness, divine peace, and redemption.  I thank you for your honesty and your wisdom, your dedication to the creative act, for writing whatever came to you - whether it be a poem about a nose or the story of a pig who wants nothing but a party.  I beseech you to embrace all the grace, hope and splendor of this world of wonder as you live out your life.

Now, if you haven't already paused to hear it, go and listen to Maurice Sendak's words:  This Pig Wants to Party: Maurice Sendak's Latest.

"Live your life, live your life, live your life."


Into the wild

It's been a while.  I did not intend to follow my post on the battle to write with an extended absence.  But I like to think that all this living I've been doing will inform my writing.  This past week has been filled with nothing but work and recovering from work. Our patisserie hosted a booth at Oak Park's Oaktoberfest this weekend, featuring Bavarian style pretzels and cream puffs with Bavarian cream.  It was a good time.  The weather was perfect - just the right amount of autumn crispness in the air.  Our pretzels and puffs were a hit, and by the end of it we were all sort of stumbling around in an exhaustion-induced stupor. 

Before that, I was away, frolicking around the wild Alaskan frontier.  A good friend of mine lives in Fairbanks, AK and my visit was long overdue.  I left Chicago and after much ado arrived in Fairbanks, a day and a half later, to some of the most beautiful views I've ever seen.  We drove down to Valdez for a few days of camping and fishing.  I couldn't read on our drive down for fear I'd miss a mountain, much less a moose or bear.  Autumn has fully arrived in Alaska, all the tree tops have been doused in shades of gold.  Is it possible to have too many photos of mountains?  Valdez is just how I imagined Alaska - a tiny little fishing village along the coast of Southeast Alaska with the mountains at its back. Fisherman flock to the local bakery for a morning coffee and everyone schlepps around in their Xtra Tufs, the chosen boot of Southeast Alaska.  We braved the cold and constant rain for a few solid hours of salmon fishing - all the salmon are headed up stream to spawn and die.  I caught my first salmon, saw my first moose and imagined what it would be like to hole up in a cabin somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, one of the toughest and most extreme landscapes I've seen.  En route to Denali National Park we stopped at Stampede Road, and I remembered Chris McCandless' own despairing fate in wild Alaska.  It is a place of great glory, yet far from glamour.

The view from where I sit is rather plain in comparison.  There's not much to be said for mountains in Chicago.  There is no wildlife on my walk to work.  And if I want to fish, I must go to Montrose Harbor, with Lake Michigan as a small stand in for the ocean.  But all my travels have helped me realize the great purpose with which we have been created and placed.  I find joy in knowing that I am where I am for a purpose.  I believe that God desires us to embrace the place in which we find ourselves - whether it be Chicago or the Alaskan frontier.  The amazing thing about this wild ride is that we are like those streams of salmon, ever on the move and working towards a greater realization of our purpose.  

I think a lot about transformation and renewal.  The change of seasons always brings me back to the thought that we are living beings, surrounded by other living things.  We do not grow and grow and grow until we reach a peak where we remain.  Our lives, our bodies, our minds and spirits are forever in motion, caught in this graceful rhythm of life and death. We must simply be awake enough to see it and to embrace it, otherwise like my journey to Valdez, we could finally get "there" (wherever or whatever "there" is) only to have missed all the beauty in our wanderings.


Doing what you love

I have been struggling with my writing lately, not knowing how to organize my thoughts or how to pull together my mess of stories and thoughts into something coherent and readable.  When I don't write, I miss it.  But sometimes when I finally sit down to write, I hardly know where to begin.  I love composing a new post.  I love knowing that people read it.  I love having a collection of writings, a testimony to the life I live.  I am wondering, yet, how it will all come together - if it will come together.  I am encouraged by the work of creative nonficition writers like Molly Wizenburg, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott who somehow manage to make their lives, their stories, into a beautifully cohesive assemblage that so delightfully encapsulates who they are as a writer and a person.  That's what I'm going for.

I am encouraged by Molly Wizenburg's recent blog post on writing and How we do what we do.  I too love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, her book of instructions on writing and life.  It has been an invaluable tool in my journey as an artist and writer.  I think what I love most about that book is the title.  She tells the story of her 10-year old brother sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by books, brooding over a book report on birds.  Their father so tenderly advises him, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."

Right.  Bird by bird.  I had forgotten.

The enormity of my task, my dream, had gotten the better of me.  The subtitle of Anne Lamott's book is Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  They go together those two, writing and life.  A writer's work will forever be influenced by her life.  And consequently, the life of a writer will swirl around the unending task of writing.  Anne Lamott talks about carrying index cards around wherever she goes so that if a thought, a verse, or an idea comes to mind she can write it down for later.  She tells a story of a particularly hellish time in her writing life when she goes to see her pastor for a bit of guidance.

     "We talked for a while...  I said that I was all over the place, up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity.  'The world can't give that serenity,' he said.  'The world can't give us peace.  We can only find it in our hearts.'
     'I hate that,' I said.
     'I know.  But the good news is that by the same token, the world can't take it away.' "

I need to remember that.  I implore you to do the same.  Discover what it is that you love and do that.  And don't ever let it go.  Seek all the peace and serenity your soul has to offer.  And remember to take it bird by bird.