Thursday, November 26, 2009

giving thanks.

I hope that today was a beautiful day for you, wherever you were, whomever you spent the day with, whatever variation on the national theme you ate for your Thanksgiving dinner. I had a lovely day of celebration back home. It wasn't hard to enjoy the day -- I'm quite the fan of any event that gives cause for the gathering of family and friends and the preparing and eating of good food.

And I am glad for the reminder to be thankful, as there is so much to be thankful for...

I am thankful for people: this wonderful family of mine, my beautiful community in GR and the friends that scattered but remain so dear.

I am thankful for these last few months of confusion and complication and lack of direction and for all that they taught me. I am thankful that God is larger and greater than I imagine and his plan more complex and difficult and better than mine could ever be.

And oh heavens, I am thankful for a job, for a job that pays the bills, a job that, on most days, I like! May I never forget to be thankful for this.

And I am thankful also for coffee and poetry, for words and correct punctuation and photographs, for resale shops and community gardens, for farmers markets and a warm winter coat, for ovens that function and chimneys that stay put, for art and music and those that create them, for food and friends to eat with, for a great big beautiful world and people who want to make it better and a God who lets us be part of the change.

Oh yes, I am so thankful. May the same be true of you, today and always. Happy Thanksgiving, dear ones.

i thank you God for most this amazing
e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

My contribution to the feast: Fruit and nut stuffed acorn squash

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

thankfulness can be hard.

At my present job at Crossroad Bible Institute, I have my very own office. This office houses a big wooden desk, a computer, a phone with its own extension, several drawers for my very own use, a comfortable chair, another chair for visitors and even a (fake) plant. I also have an email address. This is all very new for me. In my nonprofit experiences and internship days, there was nothing like this. I am no longer perched at a desk-like table in the midst of other people’s offices. I am no longer using the organization’s oldest computer and oldest desk, made of cheap and flimsy plastic. I am no longer sharing an office with another person. Nor am I sharing an office with two other people, people that have jobs requiring a great deal of phone communication. I no longer have to make do with just one little file drawer. I no longer have to use my g-mail account for work correspondence, nor do I have to tote my laptop to the office each day. I no longer have to borrow my coworkers’ phones to make calls.

I should be thankful.

Especially since tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

And I am! I really am. Very thankful, even.


I really wish I had a window.

Monday, November 23, 2009

late fall in chicago: community, place, getting dirty, drinking deep

I traveled to Chicago this past weekend with Sarah, Lindsay and Taylor to visit our very dear friends Laura and Jer who married and began settling into a new home in Westmont early this fall.


(Note: Sarah wrote about our travels more promptly than I, so for our shared readership, please forgive the inevitable repetition!) It was wonderful to see Laura and Jer -- we miss them so much back here in GR -- and to establish an accurate image of their new city and apartment in my mind. The six of us wandered together, cooked together and laughed together. Because of shared values, loves and experiences, comfort in this community runs deep, and that is a very beautiful thing. Community itself is a very beautiful thing. Yes, it is hard to establish and to maintain, and it really is kind of a crazy endeavor, but oh! how good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Then, on Sunday, Sarah, Lindsay, Taylor and I journeyed to the Rogers Park neighborhood to visit a wonderful community coffee shop called The Common Cup.

We loved it. Clearly.

As we drove through the city towards the coffee shop in North Chicago, past row houses and old architectural beauty, rundown neighborhoods brightened by community gardens and people on sidewalks under buildings market by graffiti, I was overcome by a desire to go and, once there, to stay, to invest in a place, sinking my feet in deep and being part of it, cultivating hope and making things more beautiful. I hungered for adventure and change and envelopment in something bigger and more powerful than I am. I was drawn not to any specific street in Rogers Park or to any particular place at all, really, but rather to the act of jumping into life completely and without abandon or fear or hesitation, immersing myself fully its enormity and overwhelming complexity.

And as I felt all of this, I wondered where it all came from, these firm beliefs about and desires for community and city and place and intentionality that course so deep and so fiercely within me now.

And then I wondered what to do with all of it.

I was somewhat overwhelmed, to be honest. I want so much from life, and I hadn't realized this before. I want so many experiences; I want such depth of feeling and passion. I want complexity and difficulty and unpredictability, because that is what is real. I want to get dirty, to run as fast as I can straight into the mess of humanity and its intersections with space and environment and God and to live right in the middle of all of it, forever, until I die. I want to reach out with hands cupped together tightly, to fill them with water and to drink deep of life, renegade drops splashing my eyes and soaking the front of my shirt.

But though I want so much, I am so small. It is hard some days to fit my dreams within a world that necessitates money and health insurance, a world of broken structures that complicate the path. And yet, I am hopeful, because although I remain unsure of what my very near future holds, I realize that whatever comes will be beautiful. Staying would be beautiful. Leaving would be beautiful also. Wherever I am and whatever I am doing, I can and will drink deep of life and settle right into its tangled center.

This weekend refreshed my spirit and renewed my vision for life. And if that wasn't enough, there was Ethiopian food, a trip to Trader Joe's, innovation and the casting of dreams, relational problem solving, seeking ways to change the world and giving thanks for grace.

In closing, a reminder to do your part to save the world: recyle.
Ahem... pardon, recycle. Thanks, Sarah.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

happiness. yes.

Today, I am happy.

In this season of my life, I am happy.

And it is really good to be happy.

But I am realizing, more and more all the time, that happiness does not result from today being what it is or from this season of my life being what it is or from any one influence in my life. Happiness comes when I choose it, when I look for reasons to be happy and wrap my fingers tightly around them, when I pull them up and lift them high above my head, when I open my hand so that the light falls on them and no one, not me or anyone else, can deny their existence.

This is nothing profound or new, not at all. But it's what I am learning in this coursing, continuous life, the one unmarked by exams and due dates and semester breaks, the one in which I make choices for significant periods of time and consider jobs that have no date of completion... you know, my great-big-real-world adult life. I want it to be a happy life, and I am learning that it can be happy, regardless of the good and the bad and the otherwise of what happens within it.

I could choose to look at the frustrations, at the confusion of the moment or the uncertainty of the future or that fact that life is kind of ridiculous. Because, of course, it is not all rosy here: I spent a recent afternoon hour in tears on the telephone with my mother because I am so confused about my next steps. I really miss my sister and brother-in-law and all of my friends that have moved away. I will need to find a new place to live and go about the awful business of moving once again come January, whether I stay in GR or go elsewhere. I cannot seem to catch all of the genius mice that live here in my flat, the mice that keep on reproducing their genes of brilliance, increasing the population of really intelligent, not-fooled-by-traps-of-any-sort mice and causing me to fear that one day the ceiling will break open and the whole colony of thousands and thousands of genius mice will run squeaking through my home, like that scene in Ratatouille where the rats pour out of the old woman's ceiling and she shoots them with her rifle (though, of course, I wouldn't reenact that part).

Now, I do see those things, the frustrations and the sadness and the confusion. I would be being dishonest with myself if I ignored them. But then I look deeper. Instead of dwelling on these things or basing my happiness on life turning out ever-shiny and bright and easy, I am looking for the reasons for happiness, reasons that are always there, regardless of the state of my life in any one moment.

And yes, things have been relatively calm for the last several weeks and far less tumultuousness resides in my mind and heart today than did two months ago. I do have a quiet flat for the weekend, void of roommates, in which I can turn up George Winston's December album (too soon for Christmas? no. never. more on that later.), sink into my chair by the window, drink my strong black coffee and rest and think. This month did bring -- finally! -- routine in my job and an income that pays the bills and possibilities for the future. And I do have particularly wonderful friends and family and live in a particularly lovely city.

But I could choose to see or ignore all of that. And I could choose to see or ignore the wonder of a campfire on the beach in mid-November... the beauty of the many kinds of squash on display at the farmers' market... the humor in my dad's insistance on converting every moment of my visit home last weekend into celebration of his birthday... the simple joy in making fresh-from-the-bog-cranberry salad and cranberry bread with my mom in her bright, clean kitchen while home... the tremendous peace and truth that seep into my soul whenever I am with my dear friend Nicole, one of the most incredible and wise women I know... the wholesomeness of the food she and I ate together at Gaia this afternoon...

And I choose to see.

Nothing new, nothing complex, nothing I haven't talked about here before. But today, I am filled with joy and peace, and I didn't want to keep it to myself.

Welcome Morning
by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,
dies young.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

tranquility, friendship and banana bread

A few Saturdays ago, desiring a bit of tranquility and peace, Sarah, Nick, Taylor and I made plans to gather that evening at Nick and Taylor's house to sink into the couches in the front room of the house with glasses of red wine in our hands, reading and writing by the glow of candles and the dim light of a lamp, classical music swirling about us and brisk fall winds blowing on the other side of the windows.

It really was a fabulous idea.

The only thing that could make the evening more lovely, I felt, would be some kind of baked good. But not just any old baked good. Banana bread. With dark chocolate and bits of crystallized ginger.

I had long ago discovered this recipe both on Molly Wizenberg's blog and in her book, and it seemed it would be a fitting addition to the evening... a bread made dense and sweet with ripe bananas, slivers of chocolate melting in each bite and spicy undertones of ginger throughout. Yes, this would be perfect indeed.

I always have this desire to bake for gatherings with friends. A key element of my food philosophy (more on this another day) is the idea of nourishment. I love preparing food for others because it is an incredibly basic way of showing them I care for them by investing time and energy into something that nourishes their bodies and souls... enabling life to continue. For whatever reason, I find this sense of caring for others through food particularly strong when baking, maybe because we knead bread with our hands or because dessert is an "unnecessary" luxury or because of Christmas cookies and homemade bread with soup on cold days and freshly baked cookies as only mothers make them.

But whatever the reason, I wanted to bake banana bread.

I whipped up the batter for the bread at home, borrowed a pan from those gracious men as I so often do, slid the borrowed pan into the borrowed oven and joined my friends in the living room, pulling a blanket around my toes and writing away in my journal.

An hour later, when our quiet reading/writing endeavors had transitioned into conversation about the environment and saving the world (as per the usual) and the house had filled with the sweet aroma of the baking bread, Taylor and I ventured into the kitchen.

I pulled the bread out of the oven. It looked lovely, the top lightly browned and cracked. I placed it on the stovetop to cool for a few minutes as Taylor and I talked. As we had no cooling rack (and I don't judge; we don't have a cooling rack in my kitchen either!), we decided to tip it out onto those metal grates over the burners on the stovetop instead. Still talking cheerily with Taylor, I tipped the bread.

Although what happened next is still a blur, I do know for certain that it was not pretty nor graceful.

The bottom of the loaf stayed firmly attached to the pan. The middle was goop and oozed around the more solid pieces that had broken off, seeping out of the pan and between the grates of the stovetop.

Remember what I said about nourishment and caring for others through baking? In that moment, my heart dropped. The symbol of my affection for my friends was spreading across the stovetop in a sticky, oozing mess.

I stood frozen, holding the hot pan in its halfway-tipped position and making various noises of helplessness and distress. Taylor was the first to move, and I quickly emerged from my paralysis to join him in awkwardly attempting to salvage the part of the loaf that remained in one piece, to return the goop and solid bits of bread to the pan, to clean the stovetop, to do something. After several unsuccessful attempts at preservation, Taylor grabbed a spoon from the counter.

I stood in front of the oven, mournfully staring at the situation before me. My bread was ruined. And ugly. My friends' stovetop was a mess. I was an awful nourish-er.

And then I noticed that Taylor, done trying to salvage or clean, had begun eating the gooey insides of the bread off of the stovetop with his spoon. He was grinning. I paused for just a moment. Then, laughing, I reached for a spoon and joined him.

We piled the broken and soft pieces of bread back into the pan and returned to the living room with a stack of spoons. Sitting around the low coffee table on our knees, the four of us and David, another of Nick and Taylor's housemates, polished off the entire loaf of bread, the hot, melted chocolate dribbling from our spoons.

Nick told me confidently that it was better this way than it could have possibly been otherwise.

It could have been a disaster. If I had been alone in my house, making something to take with me to a dinner gathering or a party, I would have been depressed and disappointed. But instead, the moment of panic was brief, and as soon as I saw Taylor with spoon in hand, I knew it would be fine. More than fine.

You see, my friends, this is part of the purpose that community serves, to take an event that might otherwise be construed as disaster and make it into beauty.

And my love is messy anyway. This misshapen and unattractive loaf of bread probably offered a more true metaphor than any perfectly textured scone or delicately arched cake ever could.

I knew immediately that I wanted to share this story and this recipe with you here, but I also wanted to attain more conventional success with the recipe before posting it. Various factors may have contributed to the outcome of that first attempt: a very thick pan, the particular combination of flours I used or the amount of time I waited before removing the bread from the pan. In my second attempt, I used a slightly different version of the recipe, a thinner pan and a simpler combination of flours, and I waited a good 10-15 minutes before attempting removal from the pan.

This second attempt produced a (more traditionally) beautiful and equally (?) delicious loaf of bread. Cut into thick slices, seven of us shared it, moaning at its goodness (yet exercising enough restraint this time to even leave a good-sized piece for me to enjoy the following day). But if I'm being completely honest, I may have enjoyed it most in its half-solid, half-gooey form, eaten with spoons and joy in disaster converted...

Either way, this is incredible bread. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table (Note: My first attempt more closely followed Molly's earlier version of the recipe, posted here on her blog, Orangette.)

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups flour (I used white whole wheat)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 - 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (or chopped up bar of chocolate)
1/3 cup or more chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (about three large) mashed ripe bananas
1/4 cup plain yogurt (despite a warning in the recipe, I used nonfat, and it worked just fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease 9- by 5-inch loaf pan.

Microwave the butter until just melted and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. Add the chocolate and ginger; mix well to combine. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, butter and vanilla and mix well. Pour this wet mixture into the dry one, stirring gently with a spatula until just combined. Make sure all flour is incorporated, but don't worry if the batter is lumpy and thick. Pour the batter into the greased pan.

Bake 50 minutes - 1 hour. The bread should be a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. If loaf is browning too quickly, tent it with tin foil.

Cool the bread in the pan for 5 minutes (or longer, all things considered). Tip it out (preferably onto a wire rack, but make do as necessary). Let it cool, but not for too long, as this bread is wonderful warm!

Bring your friends around, eat and enjoy. And if your bread falls apart or isn't quite done, don't worry. Just get the spoons.

Yield: about 8 servings (that is, if you exercise self-control...)