Okay, so some people just HATE tofu. T, who grew up with it from childhood, LOATHED it until at some point in her twenties when… she got over it. It’s … just like any other ingredient, in that it’s a Thing to which you add Other Things and then it has flavor. Of course, meat allegedly has its own flavors even without additions, but that’s the blood, and we’re ignoring that. Meat (sans sangre) is flavorless, just as tofu is flavorless. As an ingredient, tofu is fine, and, even better, is lacking weird stringy bits and wobbly things you don’t want to identify. It’s a perfectly reasonable food, you just have to season it.
We realized that, like most people, we’d fallen into a meal rut, with winter casseroles and heavy, savory things like beans. Our attempt at something piquant and unique was this dish, which is both crunchy and tangy. It turned out surprisingly well, it was (mostly) easy and quick to prepare, and a good use of odds and ends for side dishes and whatnot. And, if you love someone vegan or vegetarian? It’s well worth preparing during this ridiculous Hallmark holiday… celebrating the tang of lemon as an antidote to the saccharine of the holiday. *cough* Or something.
The marinade calls for two lemons, zest and juice; three cloves of garlic, agave, water, salt, and pepper. T left out the agave, and added a tablespoon of tapenade leftover from something, far more garlic than called for, and then she microwaved the lemons, which made them delightfully juicy. (And messy.) (She also did a frankly terrible job of zesting the lemons, because though frozen lemons preserve their great skin, after defrosting, the lemons are too juicy to work with, and the skin on Meyers especially is too thin and delicate, so, a word to the wise: zest the frozen lemons before defrosting, or better yet, before you freeze them…) It’s said that the tofu can marinate for up to three days in this blend, but we find that if we remove the water its packed in, tofu doesn’t need more than a half hour to marinate. We laid out our tofu chunks on a cookie sheet, stacked the sheets, and weighed them down with a cast-iron skillet. After an hour, we poured off all the water, unstacked the pans, and poured on our marinade. After about twenty minutes, we put the tofu in a series of zip-top bags, all of which proceeded to leak. (ANNOYING.)
We’d forgotten how much of a chore the multi-step dredging food in flour and panko can be… since we’d not made anything which required these steps in about a year and a half, the last time we made faux crab cakes (squeeze-dried shredded zucchini, panko, Old Bay – tasty). Fortunately, after all the plate-of-flour-and-seasonings, plate-of-wet-binding, messy-sticky-hands thing, we discovered that this tofu dish works nicely baked – and there’s less a chance that your chef will get bored and forget she has something on the stove. Ahem.
It’s easy to leave dish as vegan, as is, or, if you’re feeling particularly beleaguered that you’re ACTUALLY EATING TOFU and it’s NOT EVEN IN AN ASIAN DISH, you can use an egg whipped with water to make the recipe safely animal-product-y. The flour dredging is a place to layer in the flavors, to give your tofu the taste you prefer. We entirely forgot the nutritional yeast in the breading, but added pretty much everything else, including random herbs not called for, old packets of Parmesan from pizzerias, a sprinkle of Old Bay, even more garlic (because since when is three cloves enough????), and ground cayenne (because: we add it to EVERYTHING). Each time we ran short of the dredging blend, we remade it differently, and T didn’t follow any measurements at all. (It’s a wonder anything she makes ever turns out.) We did a test run of this dish after making something else, just in case, but it’s good enough to serve as a main dish with a couple of sides. The lemon shines through, and the exterior crunch is a nice contrast to the soft tofu insides. (It’s not as soft as it would have been, as firm tofu gets even MORE firm when you’ve a.) frozen it and b.) pressed out all of the water. If you dislike tofu for texture reasons, you might try that.) The recipe inventor finishes this with parsley and sliced lemons, but tonight, we’re going to make a buttery lemon sauce, which will really bring out that lovely tang. Pair this with steamed veg like green beans or asparagus, a lemon-infused rice, or lemon pasta, or savory roasted sprouts.
This was a surprisingly delicious meal, and perfect for the suddenly chilly evening. Here’s to home cooking, and the attractive nuisance that is a bored person in a kitchen.
Years ago, when we lived in Santa Rosa, late January-February was when we cut back the rosemary to stumps, in preparation for it to begin to grow again in April and May. We usually cut the rose back then, too. It’s funny how we try and use one calendar anchor to apply to everywhere. Saturday was a balmy 70°F/21°C, while Sunday was a nippy 55°F/12°C. It’s hard to know when to prune anything anymore. With the weather all over the place, our internal calendars are a total mess.
Still, there are signs of the season – from the itching of our ears to the earlier rising of the sun. We watch the trees change like stop-motion photographs, each morning as we step out for our brief, brisk walk through the waking neighborhood. As the sun is normally barely an idea yet during our walks, we don’t often see the shift in full color, but we got a late start for our weekend walk, and enjoyed seeing the nests, buds, and blooms in full color.
It’s been an all over the place sort of weekend. Inasmuch as the weather appears unsure what time of year this is, we’re fairly confident that it’s Spring from the amount of dust that’s drifted in, and the way our houseplants have overgrown their pots. One of the nicer things about our little house is its big, deep tub in the master bath, and the the deep garden windows in the kitchen. Both of these things, however, are absolutely an annoyance to clean. The window, especially, into which we put new screens just last summer, is a single pane, and the window is made of unfinished marble. It tends to let in dust, immigrating spiders, and it collects water stains like a pro. After removing all the plant clutter, we washed all of the windows and tried to put a shine on the marble. T. is grateful to D for taking on the body origami which made this tidying up possible.
There are always some chores which seem to be reserved for “spring” cleaning. (Question: why do there seems to be no specified clean-outs for the other seasons? Perhaps in spring, there is the assumption that one has to clean out all the things it wasn’t possible to clean out or dispose of during winter – and so come Spring, detritus was burned, graves were dug, linens washed and houses were turned out, and those weren’t such issues during summer or autumn, maybe? Possibly? Sounds legit, no?) While we normally are annoyed with windows which are speckled and spotty when the sun shines, the heavy fog hasn’t allowed for much to look at before this past week, so we’ve let that chore slide. We caught up this weekend. Additionally, though we generally sharpen knives as needed, we discovered that in the last while, they all seem to have gone dull, so that was another chore for the morning. As always, when one begins thinking of specific things one ought to do, the list multiplies…! The bird bath! The hummingbird feeder! And on and on and on…
Few people have a specific time of year to re-pot plants, but with the way our Saintpaulia (the scientific name of what some people call “African” violets, though they’re more specifically Tanzanian violets, as they don’t grow all over Africa, but people are generally lazy or else don’t know Africa isn’t one country) has responded to being in the little garden window, it’s already been necessary once in the seven months since we’ve moved closer to the Bay. T is always gratified with how well her little violets grow, because she once thought they were the most finicky, easy to kill plant she’d ever had — and as they succumbed, D kept getting them for her (!!!). She realized why about two years ago during a rare trip to D’s parent’s house in Southern Cal, watching D’s mother prune her two dozen or so Saintpaulia plants. Now, we say “prune” but what we mean is “take a chef’s knife and violently cleave a plant in half while making desultory small talk.”
It was some next-level, mafiosi-style intimidation, if that’s what his mother intended. As the cleaver came down T took a GIANT step back and asked weakly, “Um, what are you doing?” (“Um,” because, even after twenty-plus years of marriage, neither T nor D know have found comfortable names to call their inlaws. In the rare conversation, “Um” so far has worked.) “Oh, this is how you cut them back,” D’s mother said blithely. “You can start a whole new plant from a single leaf, just like this!”
Well, okay, then!
At our house, T prefers to hand D a TINY knife, because she’s still sure she’s going to kill the plants every time she has to divide them, but so far, so good… and so far, the mafiosi hasn’t dropped by, so that’s a plus as well.
Sunday afternoon, we attended a community sing, sponsored by our chamber group, which was dedicated to love songs. It occurred to us that we hadn’t really done anything like this since we’d returned from Glasgow, where groups getting together for a “sing-song and a cuppa” is much more common. While there was no tea this time, there were quite a number of people out and about, in the historical tiny town-within-a-town of Niles. As this had been advertised throughout the community, we expected a lot of at least choir folk, but were amused to see one of D’s bosses there, as well.
The program was held in the historic Niles church, historic, because there has apparently been an operating church in that location since 1889, before Niles was incorporated as part of Fremont in 1956. For all its historical nature, the church is quite modern inside, a small, tidy space with soaring ceilings, which lent itself well to the music of the grand piano mid-stage.
The program was a combination of goofy and endearing, as the songs ranged from all the verses of “You Are My Sunshine” (none of which, regrettably, was the verse we learned at summer camp about the pig) to Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” (or, as most people said, “No, that’s a Monkees song!” Yeah, yeah, but Neil wrote it), then to a melancholy Queen song which few people knew (and which no one could sing, because, it was pitched for tenors who never pitch things for the average person). In the single hour we we sang rounds, then two, and four-part rounds; ooold oldies from generations back (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine) and even older ooold “olde” English folk songs (“I Gave My Love A Cherry”). We then ended with a newly composed, four part song from the Justice Choir Songbook called We Choose Love, written by a Colorado composer and musician who was inspired last summer by peaceful civic protests in her area. As the chamber will be performing in a May concert titled “And Justice for All,” we fully expect that song will be seen again.
After such a fun community-oriented afternoon, the wind came up and blew the temperature into the low forties, and we gladly bundled into a hot bath and into bed. We hope all of your planning this weekend – and your cleaning and organizing – lead to a fruitful and well-prepared you this week – or at least some semblance thereof of an organized, better you. Ciao!
Sometimes, you’re just not ready for the holidays when everyone else is… if you hated Christmas last year, this might be for you.
A friend a few weeks ago was talking about how hard it had been for her to recover from the death of her father. She’d thrown herself into finishing graduate school and getting a good job, ignoring the loss of any real meaningfulness to these activities. “I was working as hard as I could to ‘make it,’ but it wasn’t making sense to me,” she said. “This ‘brightside’ culture we live in wouldn’t allow me to admit that I’d hit a downward spiral when my father died, and I’d never recovered.”
I’d never heard of the phrase, “bright-side culture,” but my friend was using it to describe not only American culture, but the faith community in which she grew up. Predicated on the idea that Christians are a joyful people, ‘bright-side culture’ exists to keep us on the sunny side. If you are not particularly sunny, worse, if you are actively unhappy, or in any way deviating from that joyful #blessed life, you are saying somehow that God is at fault, or not enough for you… and for Christians, that’s anathema. No one wants to admit that something within might be broken.
We might assume that only within Christian religious circles do people have this overwhelming pressure of happiness, but it’s rising all around us. Google hired a “Chief Happiness Officer.” Yep, seriously – and Google’s not the only one. Yale University’s ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ saw 1200 students enrolling this past autumn, because it’s billed as a twice weekly course on “how to be happy.” Gallup polls suggest that this is true not just of undergrads – but of most Americans. Though we have more than we’ve ever had before, the buoyant, ebullient, stereotypical American optimism is failing. We are – as a culture – not happy.
It’s a strange time in American history.
It might a good time in American history to stop avoiding our truths, however.
We were really thoughtful this past holiday, reading write-ups of area churches doing Blue Christmas services. Especially when there’s so much enforced cheer to go around during the holidays, which plunges so many into unanticipated depression, Blue Christmas services essentially provide a place to weep and be unapologetically morose without the pressure of being greeted with “Happy Holidays!” or the gaudy brightness of bows and colored lights. A choir-mate this year lost her husband after our second concert, and we thought of her on Christmas day, wretchedly trying to make the season bright for her children. Sometimes, it’s pointless to pretend. We need to identify and affirm that we are, at times, deeply unhappy.
The original Christmas story remembers darkness – the magi were watching dark skies for portents when they saw the natal star. “The people that walked in darkness” are the same people who eventually see “a great light,” but not everyone walks at the same pace. The light comes to everyone different times.
This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, however.
We have often found the light after the worst of times – when we really think, “Okay, this is some CRAP, and we’re done.” Sometimes we find that light simply by watching the skies, and waiting; breathing through the distress. Other times, we find that light by doing something for others which reignites our own flame. The writer Omid Safi suggests doing a good turn for someone, stating, “Even more, there is something about a righteous deed that is virtuous in itself: It is faith in the loveliness of a simple act of kindness — apart from whether it will be reciprocated, whether we will live long enough to see its fruits. Acts of beauty are redemptive in and of themselves. So let us, friends, keep planting.” (If you need a little brightening, read his whole brief essay on planting and the hope it genders on the days we’re sure the world won’t be around long enough for us to see a seed grow.)
As we’re dragging ourselves along – some newly ill, others rebounding through variation 430,959,806 of whatever this cough-fever-chills thing is; some slogging through work, others on the endless interview rotation, and fearing they’ll never find a job, remember that hope is not mere optimism. Optimism is based on …optics, how we see the world. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Hope is a refusal to surrender, so keep walking, keep planting, and keep going.
You Are What You… Ah, Californians. We are known for our obsessive obeisance to our bodies. The derisive label of ‘fruits and nuts’ expanded to ‘crunchy granola’ as we became known for vegetarianism, macrobiotics, yoga, gluten-free everything, veganism… and alkaline, “live” and raw water, which appears to be the latest (completely made-up for marketing to the giardia unwary) thing. Our state has become synonymous with free range, grass-fed, organic everything, and the gospel of California Wellville dovetails beautifully with the pinched ideals of traditional American Puritanism, that of perfection, rigidity, guilt, and blame: if you’re sick, it’s really your own failings. You should have done better; you could have saved yourself. After all, I TOLD YOU HOW. Don’t you know, you are what you eat???
If you feel this is gross exaggeration, just talk to anyone who has had cancer, or has a child who struggles with attention deficits or hyperactivity or, worse, falls anywhere along the autism spectrum. Each of them will have a story of some earnest and well-meaning soul who suggested alfalfa pills, acupuncture, or Atkins, chided them for not adhering to a plant-based diet, or insisted that it was all of the dyes / carbs / caffeine/ vaccinations which was to blame. Those folk generally leave the people they mean to help feeling defensive, defeated, battered, and dismayed. Truth is, we all just want to feel better, to help each other feel better. Too often, though, we attach a moral price tag to our health choices, and we embrace our beliefs like they are a true religion.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth… We’re less susceptible to the lure of the quick cure, as we do make a huge effort to read up on research and keep current with medical stuff, as we’re required to do by the doctor we’ve seen for the last five years. Since December, we’ve been seeing a myo-kinesthesiologist twice a month, and going through some (fairly brutal) body corrective exercises, stretches, and adjustments to help T deal with the diminished mobility due to her autoimmune disorder, and with issues surrounding D’s degenerated disc – two things which are annoying, but just a feature of our lives. In consequence, some months ago had a conversation with an acquaintance on topics of health wherein she insisted that diabetes could be cured with exercise and a vegan diet, and that we could be pharmaceutical-free if we’d only change our diet. When D pushed back, she reminded him that his body was a temple, that he was what he ate, and that, in essence, if he failed to follow her prescribed way of living, subsequent illness was his own fault. It’s always awkward when someone asking how you’re doing is a pit trap lined with sharpened sticks, isn’t it? Predictably (as those who know him will agree) the next day D said, “Let’s visit a cannabis dispensary!” This suggestion was also, equally predictably, followed by a “WHAT!?” and a very long wrangling discussion indeed.
Take It With A Pinch Of… Despite both of us having the knowledge that a prescription opiate drug user is morally no better than a cannabinoid user, and that both drugs have legal medical uses (though only one is quite as open to fatal abuse and overdose), the idea of cannabis was still hard for T. to get her head around. The moral price tag placed on drug use in this society is real, especially for those of us raised in conservative faiths, or in those faiths which observe dietary strictures. (It’s double-jeopardy for Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, and some Orthodox Christians.) Then, there remains the historic stigma surrounding people of color and cannabis use, to the extent that when T mentioned D’s desire to an acquaintance, their first response was to ask if she’d next be knitting Rastafarian caps… not moving to Haight Street with the hippies or attending the Coachella festival, both places typically known for their majority white cannabis users, but knitting Rastafarians caps, referencing black Jamaicans who use cannabis as part of a poorly regarded sociopolitical/religious movement. It wasn’t any wonder that once the decision was made, T. still elected to stay in the car.
For those now alarmed about our ethics, it may be important to note that first, the human body actually has an endocannabinoid system, through which it produces its own cannabinoids (which is responsible for chocolate euphoria, natch), and, second, that cannabis derived cannabidiol (CBD) is similar to the THC found in marijuana, except it’s non-psychoactive, and does not produce a euphoric high, containing, as it does, insufficient THC to do so. (Though cannabis is highly cultivated and hybridized, of the three main types, only one has that euphoric ingredient; the other is used to make industrial-use hemp rope and contains the pain-relieving CBD, while the third simply makes a mediocre ground cover, apparently.) Animal studies of cannabinoid topicals show reduced pain in animals with inflammation or neuropathic pain. Topical creams containing CBD have been proven effective pain-relievers in humans, too (though the joint 2017 study by The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine doesn’t have as much information on how and why and for how long as one might want). Finally, history reveals that the criminalization of cannabis use, and the sweeping generalizations about its effects on certain populations were purposeful — a targeted, deliberate second step extending the incarceral state of African Americans begun with the Atlantic slave trade… all this to say, some of our reflexive prejudices surrounding cannabis use have been highly manipulated, but for now, we’ll put our sociologist’s hats aside and get on with the story.
It’s a Piece of Cake…Despite the current legality of cannabis for medical and recreational use, and despite the hundreds of apparently legal products on the market for the last several years, it was clear that many of the people sidling up to the nondescript metal door just past the corner of Apple Street still also viewed their visit as a wildly transgressive act. T observed with wry amusement that there were quite a few car-sitters with her, with several other people standing across the street and surveying the other customers, or waiting outside for a friend to arrive before going in. Some scuttled in, guiltily, while the bros swaggered and wink-nudged one another like ninnies. The range of humanity from 21 – 80+ was vast, though the majority was older middle and college-aged. Affluently dressed, or in tracksuits, there was a steady stream of business. Inside, the set-up was like an old fashioned pharmacy, with a long, high counter from behind which the workers stood to help customers individually. Items pointed to and described were brought from behind the counter, while customers lingered to ask anxious questions (How much should I take? What will happen?); some eyeing the guards (who were checking ID at the door and loitering with intent, every five feet) nervously.
As we pulled away with our purchase (a topical cream), T. read the ingredients, which proudly claimed to be “all natural.” (Yes, well.) With the exception of CBD, the ingredients could have been found in any high-end massage cream – sweet almond oil, plant and nut extracts, emu oil(!), menthol, Vitamin E, aloe, Shea butter, arnica, and essential oils were hardly surprising. The label listed the preparation as good for back pain, and so, after showering in preparation for bed, we applied the cream to a limited area on D’s back, and on T’s neck, with the expectation that we would wait an hour to try another spot, or see if we needed to reapply.
In A Nutshell… CBD works by increasing the body’s natural endocannabinoids, decreasing its inflammatory response, and desensitizing its pain receptors. We didn’t know what to expect, having read very mixed reviews for the myriad creams on the market (we used the Sacramento lab affiliated, and more expensive Carter’s Aromatherapy Cream). For D’s back, the pain relief was jaw-droppingly near-instantaneous. Because T had massaged it in, he hadn’t been sure (when you’re putting pressure on a painful area, it’s hard to notice when it quits hurting) of this, so he simply dabbed, then smoothed the cream into T’s neck. Within minutes, the pain there was also simply erased. We experimented on other areas, and found that for use in smaller joints (fingers, wrists) the topical cream was very responsive. For larger joints (hips) there was minimal pain interruption (we didn’t have knee pain, so depending on joint size and issue, that may vary). CBD only penetrates to work within the first centimeter of skin – if the inflicted area is close to surface, all well and good, but if it’s surrounded by bone or many ligaments, an Advil might better do the trick.
The faintest indication of pain returned almost five hours later in D’s back, and roughly about the same time for T’s neck, though both experienced a much more reduced intensity of pain, an effect which lasted over twelve hours before the pain ramped up to resume to its normal pitch.
So now for the first time since being born here, T feels very Californian, having used her first cannabis-derived, wholistic, all-natural, yadda, yadda, yadda. We entered into this… excursion, mainly as an exercise in opposition (not gonna lie, some of us are still defiant adolescents at heart sometimes), but were made hopeful for the applications of science to use these compounds to alleviate die-ease – not just in terms of neuromuscular pain, but there are applications for cystic acne and widespread eczema (apparently CBD is an antioxidant), chemotherapy-related nausea and digestive issues, as well as anxiety disorders, too. As our particular issues continue to be a part of our lives, we’re grateful for treatment that doesn’t unduly disrupt the body more than necessary. For now, “You are what you eat” is true enough that it can be extended to a necessary caution toward what we take, too. Right now, we’d rather throw in our hand with CBD than heavier painkillers, and avoid joining the statistics of those succumbing to opiate addiction.
Here’s to doing all we can, in the land of crunchy granola folk, to continue to be well.
We’ve been challenged by a friend, based on a blog post she ran across,” to blog more and “FaceTwitterGram less,” which for us is easily “challenge accepted!” We appreciate Chris O’Donnell’s insights, especially his comment on how social media is an algorithm-run machine which targets you with specific things to provoke you to react (clickbait!) or engage or respond in a particular way. We believe that what the rest of the world is focused on (the color of that blue dress? Or is it gold?!) isn’t necessarily… um… germane, and that if we interrogate our own thinking more deeply — in actual essay form with longer sentences than just 40+ characters or an image – we’ll be talking about what we’ve decided is important to us, making that our focus. Finding our own food for thought seems a better option than simply eating from the common trough, as it were.
Wildlife Notes: We’ve enjoyed living so close to the Bay these last six months, and have loads of little brown birds of indeterminate species scratching through the composting leaves beneath our fruit trees. Our Phoebe friends looked at the millet spray we tied in the leafless skeleton of the fig tree on New Year’s Day with patient disinterest… and we eventually remembered that Phoebes are flycatchers, and will even sometimes eat tiny frogs and fish. Oh. Not vegetarians, then. Duh.
The long drought really decimated the frog population, and with last season and this month’s recent days of rain, it’s been a treat to hear, walking in the evening, the small trilling, croaky voices of competing amphibians… and having one leap over one’s foot whilst one is on a morning walk, while catastrophic to one’s upright mobility, is also a treat. Really. It seems more of a treat when you’ve caught your balance, though… We’ve been enjoying the wildlife enjoying the rain, although the two GINORMOUS possums were a little… terrifying, especially the one we misidentified as a bird, in the gloom, which subsequently froze and gave us a pretty wicked side-eye. Why was one following us, walking along the top of a wall in step with us? WHAT DID IT WANT????? Inquiring minds…
nb: This post references being part of a faith community, and may not appeal to everyone.
I was glad, when… the day was done, the shoes were off, the bra removed; an itchy mosquito bite was medicated. A sense of relief, a heaved sigh, a sense of rest. Indeed, I was glad. The famous 1902 English hymn by Hubert Parry reflects the words of Psalm 122, I was glad when they said unto me, let us go to the house of the Lord. Ironically, that’s the “glad” that is hardest to be, and perhaps, by personality, a glad that many of us introverts have never really been. When we were small, we were glad to see many of our friends, despite having seen them exactly twelve hours previously, at school. As teens, we were perhaps glad to be able to go for some retreat weekend or outing (again, not so much this introvert, unless there were places to disappear once we’d arrived). For adults, church is meant to be a gathering of like-minded individuals, but more and more, it is difficult to find, in this society, a group of people who is like-minded about …anything. (The color of the sky is still up for debate.) Where the word “Christian” once meant some basic Christ-ian beliefs, it is now being forcibly stretched to include politicians whose lip-service to even basic decency is dubious, and, far, far on the other end of the spectrum, survivalists whose fervent weapons stockpiling mingles politically influenced ethnocentricism with eschatology.
To be clear, this is not going to be a diatribe on “whatever happened to the good old days of old-time religion, X, Y, and Z” (seeing as the alleged “good” days always include on-the-books legal racism, common sexism and xenophobia which is still not behind us), nor is this about how we suddenly hate church or something or have outgrown God (that will never happen). It will not be taken from Ann Landers, or quoting insufferably smug church signs note that score cards are provided so people can tally the number of hypocrites in attendance. — whatever, we’re all hypocrites and annoying people, and our problem isn’t the faith community in that respect. That’s not the point. The point is the basic, real question: what did the old-school Psalmist have that we don’t? Why was he so glad to go into the house of the Lord – and why aren’t we?
We all know that we’re hyper-shopppers in our society, and always read up on brands and research “content” in order to get the best for our buck, or for our attention-value. We realize you don’t treat church that way, it’s not a TV channel you change, it’s a community. But, especially for those of us who are introverted or independent, it’s often hard to relax into the rhythm of a community which values external focuses on service and discipleship. Service and proselytizing have their place – especially service – but the problem seems to be the proselytizing, especially. It creates communities focused on “y’all come join us!” and mostly ignore issues of practical application of meaning when the “y’all” has come and joined. It also ignores the struggles of identity for the “y’all,” seeing the singular individual and various diversities as less important than the whole identifiable denominational body, and for those who have been part of the “y’all” for years, and are struggling with identity, there seems to be no thought given at all.
The struggle, as they say, is real. The pollution of politics, for many, is largely responsible for feelings of uneasiness and disconnection. For some, it was problematic from-the-pulpit politics within the last election cycle; for others, little to no acknowledgement by religious groups, whose baseline ethos is meant to be love, of racial and ethic communities being hated, being hurt both systematically, legally, and physically, and the LGBTQ community being outright ignored, or silenced. We hear from so many friends in all denominations about being at a crossroads with their church attendance and with their faith. Everyone, from our Jehovah’s Witness to our Episcopal to our United Church of Christ friends are trying to find their feet in murky water. While in many ways that’s simply reflecting the time we live in, the reality is that it is really hard, and painful.
For ourselves, we’ve decided to start simply in answering our questions, and trying to turn our focus to what has made us glad – truly glad – to be part of our faith communities in the past. Sometimes we realize that we default to the thing which brings the least amount of annoyance… and that’s not really living. What makes us glad? For us, it’s always been music, and we’ve been exploring strategies for incorporating that more into our lives throughout the new year.
What is it for you? What gives you joy? What has made you glad? We wish you a rediscovery of that gladness as you launch into a new year.
I never learned to tell one from another—
swamp, field, song, vesper—all scraps
of drab: rust, dun, buff, tan. Some streaky-breasted,
some not. We hear the flutter of wings, look up,
then yawn, ho hum, a sparrow. No rush
for binoculars. Like the poor, they are always with us.
Look at them flick and flit in this dry meadow of foxtail,
switchgrass, goldenrod; every leaf, stem, and seedhead
burnished in the dying light. Maybe they are
the only angels we get in this life. But the very hairs
on our head are numbered, and the father knows them all
by name. Each sparrow, too, has a song—no flashy
cardinal selling cheer, no sky-blue jay’s ironic
squawk, no eponymous chicka-dee-dee-dee. Just us,
the unnoticed, gleaning what others have left behind,
and singing for all we’re worth, teetering on a bit
of bracken at the edge of a wild field.
It was the Mozart solo she’d had her heart set on. A simple kyrie, appropriate for ten-year-olds, but the rising descant over the chorus made her feel unnameable things, and she wanted to sing it with all her heart.
In parochial schools in those days, there wasn’t much else to do but participate in the arts. There was no prom king or queen, no dances, no competitive sports. Instead, the boys took piano, and the girls played the flute – or, at least it seemed like everyone in her grade did. Twenty-some girls on flutes, and not a one of them with the courage to do something original, like learn the French horn. But, it was what it was – middle school in the 80’s.
The Kyrie was the first real classical music they’d ever done, so out of the mundane realm of kids’ songs they’d done before. Everyone was aware that they were in the presence of Grown-up Music, and acted accordingly. Desire to show themselves as grown up – and sing that descant – was intense. Her choir teacher knew she wanted that solo, knew she was a soprano who could consistently hit the right notes, but, weighing his choice by scales she could not read said, “Well, sweetie, we’ll give this solo to X. We’ll save a nice, juicy Spiritual for you.”
But, she didn’t want the Spiritual. She wanted the Mozart.
♦ ♦ ♦
In college, she was to remember this moment when visiting home on a weekend to sing with an ensemble. The rehearsal was early – the music was lackluster, and the director was getting desperate as the singers’ yawns increased.
“Sing it more black,” the director urged her, finally finding both scapegoat and fix.
She stopped singing altogether, bewildered. “What? What does that even mean?”
“Well… you know,” the director gestured vaguely. “More black.”
She vanished behind a brittle smile. “You mean, with more of a swing? With more of a backbeat? With more syncopation? What?”
She kept her voice even, because she had learned it did no good to scream.
♦ ♦ ♦
Fast forward to a progressive party in San Francisco, where, armed with cameras, teams of teens and twentysomethings were on a scavenger hunt. One of the requirements was for participants to take a picture of themselves on or near a stage. Half the group pressed to simply go to Max’s Opera Cafe and take a group shot with a singing waiter. Another vocal male found a jazz bar on one of the piers, and insisted she go inside, take the mic, and ‘scat.’
“Scat?” she echoed, for a moment setting aside the breath-stealing idiocy and horror of making an unsolicited performance in a private club.
“Yeah, scat,” he said, “Like Ella Fitzgerald. You know…scat!”
This time, embarrassment came mingled with shame, as the entire group began to wheedle. “No, you guys. Really…no.“
♦ ♦ ♦
Fast forward even further, to singing with a quartet, in which two of the members – white males – donned sunglasses and capered to the spiritual style hymn in the style of the Blues Brothers. Fleeing during a break, she called her sisters, asking them what to do, how to act. They stood and listened while she laughed, tears streaming, face so hot they evaporated. “But, why am I embarrassed?” she kept asking. “They’re behaving like jackasses, and I’m embarrassed? I feel like they’re making fun of me, and it’s humiliating, but why am I the one who is feeling …stupid?
The shame didn’t make sense, but by then she had learned that few things did, when casual racism was added to the mix did. Musically, it meant that people assumed she wanted – always – to sing gospel music, even though she did other music well. It meant that people assumed she could break into Janet Jackson improvised choreography, that she could imitate the vocal rhythms of Bobby McFerrin on a whim. It meant that instead of who was in front of them, someone whose eclectic tastes ran from the weird to the classical with many stops in between, all they saw was myriad aspects of Other combined into a single person, on whom they could glue myriad of labels, none of which were hers.
It was sometimes exhausting.
♦ ♦ ♦
We fast forward one last time, but our time machine is about out of steam. Now see it has limped to a stop at chamber rehearsal, where a gleeful last-minute addition means another entry into the program, another song to be learned. “Oh, it’ll be quick,” the director encourages the panicky singers. “It’s just two parts, in Swahili. Uh, just read the pronunciation as is — I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.” A startling phrase, after the lengthy lectures about pronouncing German as to not “sound like hillbillies.” Unexpected, after the long-winded arguments about “church Latin” vs. classical Latin pronunciations. Shocking, that an entire language is mischaracterized (the people are Swahili; the language, Kiswahili) and shrugged off as “nothing to worry about.” As the translation was cooed over, in ways the translations of European languages were not (“Ooh, how sweet!”), she found herself, once again… conflicted.
The composer’s name was American, and a thorough search uncovered no African translator. Deeper research revealed that the composer’s translation didn’t match a word-for-word translation of Kiswahili words, that the tune was from a Nigerian harvest song. There was no citation as to where the words came from, no African educator or musician listed. She feared that they were singing an imaginary lullaby, with imaginary text, the rocking 6/4 tempo convenient but false. This was music selected by an intentional community made up of good people, people whose stated goals were to bring parity, inclusiveness, and justice to the world – yet they easily diminuitized the importance of a tribal people and its language as “cute,” but ultimately too insignificant to merit concern or further study.
Perhaps, as was implied, it wasn’t that important, in a world where wrongs of greater significance loomed large. Perhaps it was merely good enough for an American winter festival – not exactly religious, Christmas, not exactly non-religious, Solstice. Not exactly meaningless… and not exactly meaningful.
Or, perhaps it was as infuriating and confusing as everything else she had ever encountered.
Edited to Add: Readers will be gratified to know that speaking up helps. The director phoned a friend in Kenya, determined that the text is maybe Nigerian and not at all Kiswahili, and promised to do due diligence to find out what he could, and add his findings – or lack of such – to the program notes. Intentional communities such as choirs and churches must be intersectional in their inclusivity, and must think through the many ways we as people can belong to various communities, and do our best to respect them all. It’s tricky sometimes, but if we draw each other back to the road when we wander off, it can be done.
There are banks of giant Maxfield Parrish clouds blowing up just now, while we have a pause in the rain. Like most Californians, we are doubly grateful for the precipitation which clear away the last of the smoke. The fires were ghastly and not just for those who lost loved ones and property. For those of us breathing the smoke hours away, it produced some of the same anxious restlessness as the oppressive heat wave; trapped indoors, we checked the news upon waking each morning, hoping for some change, and for news from dear friends in the North Bay. (Everyone is well – even those for whom the fire damage stopped seventy-five feet away from their front door, which is miraculous when so many lost so much.)
To make an anxious situation more fraught, T was diagnosed that week with multiple overlapping autoimmune disorders. What was thought to be a wildly early onset of osteoarthritis turned out to be something we’d never even heard of – too many consonants, most of them with the same -myositis suffixes. The symptoms list was long and horrible. For a while, the smoke in the sky seemed to match the smoke in our minds, as we struggled to see past the moment. But, smoke clears, as it always does.
The premise of the fairly stupid but beautifully named Silver Linings Playbook (it was a novel, and then a film, and apologies if it’s your adored favorite) was that a man who had come away from a stint in a mental institution was going to focus himself on the positives in the world, in order to avoid a relapse. Adjacent to the secondary and tertiary plotline nonsense, this seems like a reasonable goal – to accentuate the positive. It actually becomes easier when one does this on purpose. T remembers working as program co-director for a Youth Director at summer camp, and always having on hand during campfire programs wads of the horrible Bazooka Joe bubble gum, so she could handily unwrap a piece and insert the cement-hard, sugary sweetness between his teeth, to remind him inaudibly to keep his jaws clenched if he couldn’t say anything nice. The bad jokes and cartoons in the wrappers are still a favorite of hers to this day.
Deliberate, mindful silver-lining seeking.
The stairs in this new house are a bit steep, with risers a crucial three-quarters-inch higher than the US standard 7 inches vertical. Both T and D remarked on how dire that extra lift could be, when one is tired or in a hurry, but both quickly became accustomed to the extra lift, and even fond of the clatter of uncarpeted stairs. While racing isn’t possible every day, it is now an automatic mindfulness to be thankful on the trips when it doesn’t hurt.
Sometimes it takes a lot to remember to be grateful for everything.
While there is nothing to cure autoimmune disorders, there is management. Several of the drugs under consideration are immune suppressants – possibly some of the same ones T’s sister is on after her kidney transplant at eighteen. Some of the drugs have mind-boggling side effects, and we are struck with extra compassion for our little sister, who is making the best of a bad lot of medications. We have more options than she does – including the option to delay medication altogether until there’s proof of irreparable harm – and so see our increased empathy as a silver lining, too. The girl is a trooper.
And finally, probably the funniest silver lining is that with these various autoimmune diseases, the body produces copious amounts of …collagen, that building-block protein of connective tissue which is prominent in skin and bones. It’s also what gives us hair and nails… and right now, T, whose horrible nails have always split and peeled, and which she has kept short her entire life – right now, she has the longest, hardest nails she’s ever had. Mind you, she can’t pick things up reliably – she’s as graceful with them as an 8th grader wearing ’80’s era Lee Press-On nails, but she’s delighting in buying ridiculous nail polish and tarting herself up each week like a dance hall floozy. Polka dots! Stripes! Questionable color combinations! She’s looking forward to amazing hair next – of course, Prednisone, one of the drug options, also makes it fall out… but we’ll enjoy it while we can.
Silver linings, friends. Silver linings edging the clouds in these dark days. Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, was timely this week. May we all remember light triumphs over darkness, every time.
Most of us studied, if only briefly, the poetry of Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts. Born 1830, we know she wrote poetry in the imported-from-England-and-Isaac-Watts hymn meter; we know that any of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas or the theme to Gilligan’s Island, because hymn meter is a constant, rhythmic form. We know Emily Dickinson was sent to Mt. Holyoke Seminary, a very respectable, very religious ladies college. We know that Mt. Holyoke was all the organized education she ever received.
What we aren’t told in school is that, despite the Dickinson’s Puritan background and Emily’s lifelong habit of writing poetry that was spiritual in nature, her time at Mt. Holyoke didn’t “take.” She was categorized as a “no-hoper” at the school. At Mt. Holyoke, during the Second Great Awakening religious revival in American history, when Emily attended, the women were counseled,then categorized. They were divided up into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” of becoming so, and those who were “without hope.” They were met with continually for counsel, and Emily could find no objection — nor any interest, either, in joining a church. Emily Dickinson worried about this a great deal, but finished her first year in the “without hope” category, and never went back to school.
Our society is never very kind to those whose decisions take them out of step with the majority. Emily Dickinson chose not to marry, so she was isolated. She could not believe as others did, so chose not to join a church, limiting the already narrow circle of 19th century women’s interactions within her community to her parent’s home, where she helped her father after her mother’s nervous breakdown. And yet, she wrote:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
There is a sort of ease to her words, even as she sat out Sunday mornings, alone in the woods, while miles away, her brothers, sister, and father sat in the family pew, seeing and being seen. She’s not in step with the world, but she’s finding what she needs where she is. Being raised in faith, and attending church frequently, and having our community be largely church-y, possibly as church-y as the Dickinson’s lives in the 19th century, I can imagine that taking a step… away from all of that made Emily a different, different person. And yet, she was no rogue godless rebel, but a person who found her spirit fed by other means.
Our poetry group played with hymn meter this past week, and I won’t bore everyone with iambic tetrameter discussions (if you’re actually interested, they’re on the project post), but just for fun, I’m sharing a tribute to Emily’s 236:
Keeping Emily’s Sabbath
cathedral light abounds
through old growth canopy
as crows produce a raucous sound, as fog’s damp surges all around
and we breathe Autumn’s ease, in redwood panoply.
(no sermon, no sexton. birdsong, from every direction
the quail’s quiet sageness is truth for the ages, and never is service too long)
leaf-fall means death. Rejoice
in every dying tree
for Autumn leads to Winter’s choice. Then, ending, Winter gives Spring voice
and brings the honeybee, renewal’s guarantee.
(no chalice, no cantor: listen to the blue jay’s banter
the woodpecker’s rapping, its beats overlapping, and never is service too long)
scythe down, like Autumn’s weeds
what binds you to the pew
no dome nor chorister a need, that “all are loved,” be that the creed
which Sabbath-hearts pursue; may Light be found in you.
No vestments, no hymn book. Take to the woods. Change your outlook.
Your body will thank you – the dogma will keep – and the sermon won’t put you to sleep.
Bonus fact: you can sing this to the tune of one of Isaac Watts’ (I shan’t tell you which – guess) hymns, too. Because it’s a modified short meter, however, with an added refrain, it doesn’t work with The Yellow Rose of Texas OR that other earworm song which shall not be mentioned. This, I count a victory.
May you find yourself, if not in the woods, by an estuary, near a reservoir, around a stand of willows — somewhere that there’s no internet connection, you can turn off the news, and try to recenter. There is good in the world, kind hearts and truth… but you won’t find it via newscasters and talking heads on TV. Get out.