Love, like bread, needs to be made and remade

My mother may not have been the best of cooks, but there was never a night or a Sunday afternoon Hand-making-of-bread-2-1307330-1599x1070 when she didn’t put a home cooked meal on the table in spite of working every day. She had some specialties, like a mean macaroni salad and an awesome salad dressing which still gets me rave reviews when I make it for family or friends. But when it came to making meatballs, she should have taken lessons from her sister, my dear Aunt Ginny.

Aunt Ginny’s meatballs were robust and tender, full of spices and homemade bread crumbs, and it seemed she always had a pot full of meatballs and sauce on the stove when my cousins and I came to visit.  On the other hand, my mother’s were small and hard and, I discovered by accident, made a loud thud if they fell on the floor.

My mom never mastered the art of making shankleesh like my Aunt JuJu and Aunt Jeanette, so I always relished the Sundays when a mound of this (mold ripened) cheese, covered with spices and drizzled with olive oil, was sitting on the kitchen table with warm Syrian bread when we came to visit after Mass. In spite of the fact that my five cousins were almost always there, along with any number of adult family members visiting from downstairs or down the street, there was always enough.

And who didn’t love when my Aunt Evelyn came to family gatherings at our house carrying a pot of stuffed grape leaves or a bowl of tabouleh? I swear I remember someone taking a good number of those stuffed rolls and hiding them in a separate container in the back of the refrigerator “for later” when most of the guests had gone home and the immediate family was left to clean up…and eat leftovers.

But I also learned from my mom how to make some of my favorite Syrian food: riz and lubee (rice and green beans), mamool (dough stuffed with chopped nuts and sugar), and pita bread.

I especially loved the days when she made bread. The anticipation of warm round loaves coming out of the oven, of pulling off a piece and spreading the inside with real butter and then having a good strong cup of tea was heavenly. But sharing it with family seemed to make everything taste better, and, certainly, the animated conversations of a house full of Syrian women, and the occasional courageous male of the family, was always memorable.

But I didn’t realize how much work went into the bread making until I went through the whole process by myself as a young married woman – the measuring the kneading, the rolling, and then the waiting. The experience was a lesson that helped me see the truth in a lovely quote by writer Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.”

In looking back, I've realized her words are a beautiful description of the most important work of a family - love ... made, shared and made new all over again.


Remembering is an Ebenezer passion and 'stone of help'

 

The ceiling of the Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church soars more than 70 feet high, supported by walls of cast stone, brownstone and brick. Stoneofhelp
Looking out across the congregation from a folding chair in front of the sanctuary steps, my eyes moved upwards across soaring stained glass windows, as if following the strains of the oboe with notes rising to fill the expanse of space above. 

There I noticed the resemblance of the ceiling trusses to the hull of a ship, symbolic, says the church history, of a vessel carrying pilgrims home safely to port.

“What perfect traveling music,” I thought, moved to tears by our oboist’s exquisite rendering of the hauntingly beautiful “Gabriel’s Oboe.”  The piece was just one of many offered by the Tim Keyes Consort as part of a service of remembrance celebrating the life of Geoffrey Ames Petersen, a consummate musician, organist, composer, teacher, and friend, say those who knew him well.

It was an experience of which I was especially grateful to be a part, for what is more meaningful than remembering and celebrating the life of another?

In looking back on more than 10 years of singing with the Consort, it seemed that this service of remembering was really part of a pattern, or more significantly, a passion of our director – a passion for remembering; remembering Christ, Mary, the Saints, the Apostles, the words of Scripture, the glory of creation, the richness and gifts of every culture, the value of each life.

In what he composes and what he calls the Consort to perform, Tim offers us, and our audiences, an opportunity to recall the glory and goodness of our loving God, an opportunity to be enriched in our faith and our musical lives.  He offers us an Ebenezer.

Most of us would probably associate the name with Dicken’s “Christmas Carol” and the miserly curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge. Perhaps there is more meaning in the name than we’ve realized.

In the Bible, in the Book of Samuel, we read about the Israelites’ losses in battle to the Philistines. The Israelites press Samuel to continue in his prayers to God on their behalf, and as he does so, God throws the Philistines into confusion and they are subdued by the Israelites.

Scripture recounts, “Samuel then took a stone and placed it between Mizpah and Jeshanah; he named it Ebenezer, explaining, ‘As far as this place the Lord has been our help.’”

The “stone of help” would serve as a reminder to the Israelites of God’s presence and assistance.

In our lives, Ebenezers may be crafted or experienced in any number of ways, but always serving to remind us of the ever-present love of God – songs, hymns, prayer, Scripture, sacramentals, liturgy, the sacraments, and, perhaps most especially, other people.

Then there is Ebenezer Scrooge.

I always wondered why Charles Dickens chose the name for his protagonist.

But I find it interesting that, after a night of remembering and foreseeing which leads to an epiphany, the man best described early on as Scrooge, becomes the true man, Ebenezer, a “stone of help,” for Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family, and, no doubt, many others. Finally, Ebenezer was able to love and to accept love.

It seems Dickens understood it is only in our remembering that we become who we are meant to be.

“I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; Surely I will remember your wonders of old.” Psalm 77:11

A column from Things My Father Taught Me. Mary may be reached at mary.wellspring@yahoo.com. Her book, “Things My Father Taught Me About Love,” can be found on Amazon Kindle. Follow her on Twitter @mreginam6.


Resurrection is the reason for our hope and joy

We all have a story.

For families, the story includes those of parents, children and the ones we love, living life intertwined, each person affected, for better or for worse, by the joys, Crossonsnowmountain
sorrows, and choices of those whose stories touch ours.

Sometimes, it is in the darkest moments of our stories that we become aware of our own capacity to love.

My epiphany came on Mother’s Day, 2015.  It was not, perhaps, an epiphany to match that of Thomas Merton, the very famous Trappist monk who had an epiphany of love on a street corner in Louisville. But it was my epiphany and all the more meaningful for me.

I was sitting in the locked-down lobby of the county jail while waiting to visit my son. I had been visiting once or twice a week for the past two months, and every time, as I sat waiting, I was thinking, “This was never part of my plan. How did we get to this place?”

My first visit was surreal … being buzzed in, the police officer checking my ID behind a protective shield, the glass window behind which my son stood when he was brought down, the phones we used to communicate, the prisoner’s uniform. It just seemed like a scene from “Law and Order” instead of one from my own family story.

I realized that, in jail, they use the more politically correct term of inmate instead of prisoner, but prisoner is what my son really was – a prisoner of opiates long before he ended up behind that glass window in that uniform. I felt sick, heart-broken, guilty and alone. Surely, looking around the lobby on that first visit, I didn’t belong here, and neither did my son. Still, here we were, at the cross.

But in one instant on Mother’s Day, in that dreary jail lobby, I realized that all of us, waiting for our turn to visit, had entered, in our own way, into the life of Christ. Like the Apostles, each of us, no matter how different and in spite of our own weaknesses, were there because we loved someone, hoping to make a difference in their life by our simple presence – and I heard the words of the powerful Taize hymn, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray.”

In the Gethsemane stories of those who sat waiting with me, I heard their unique, yet familiar, struggles – broken marriages, broken relationships, drug addiction, the death of children, bad choices, bad friends, loss of faith, loss of family, suicide, terrible financial difficulties and, sometimes, homelessness. Some stories were so heartbreaking I could barely contain my emotions, and I was grateful, and privileged, to have exchanged promises to pray for one another.

Not long after Mother’s Day, my son called to tell me he had been paroled. His time in jail had been good for him. He was drug free, though he would need continued support to stay so, and he was positive and prayerful, looking forward to a new chapter in his life. “See, I make all things new,” filled my heart.

I remember breaking down in tears. “My son is coming home,” I thought, and I wondered if God might have had a similar feeling on the day of the Resurrection. Surely, the God of Love would have felt the pain and anguish of his only beloved Son, and would have known the joy of Jesus’ coming home, the joy of new life. Certainly, Mary did.

How far we have come, my son and I, since the days when an exceptionally inquisitive toddler would find ways to escape the locked doors of our house and wander happily in his pajamas in the new winter snow in our backyard. Loving him has taken on new forms as he’s grown into a man. One of the most meaningful has been waiting with him in Gethsemane, and walking with him as he embraced his crosses. It has not been easy. After all, the hallmark of a mother is to fix everything, to take away pain and make things better. Part of the growing up process for moms is accepting that there are many things we cannot control.

For us, as Christians, Jesus’ Resurrection changes everything.  With love at its heart, the Resurrection is the reason for our greatest hope and our greatest joy. It allows us to accept the invitation to new life that is inherent in every cross, and to hold on to our faith in God’s promises.

For me, the Resurrection has become a new focus of my faith, one that as allowed me to believe, when others didn’t, that my son would experience his own resurrection through his singular faith in God.

That is reason for a very joyous, “Alleluia!”


Holding on to a storm of anger damages body, mind and spirit

For many years, I believed that being submissive to God meant accepting everything that came my way without complaint, without anger, without moaning and Darkstormgroaning. But as I grew in my understanding of the spiritual life, I realized that the very demonstrative, outspoken and loving women in my family were often more on target about the spiritual life than I was.

They embraced their emotions and expressed their feelings – embellished by a wide variety of hand gestures – seeming to know instinctively that such expressions were necessary to who we are as God’s children. My learning was reinforced by my therapist, whom I came to trust as a spiritual advisor, as well, while being treated for depression. “The best thing you could do for yourself is get angry!” she advised me one day.

She reminded me of Jesus, turning over the tables in the temple in a fit of anger, and his frequent frustration with the Apostles, which he didn’t hesitate to express – but always with a goal in mind, always with an eye toward growth and positive change.

“Getting angry is healthy and it’s real,” she said, stressing that the need to express strong emotions in appropriate, constructive ways can add years, and satisfaction, to life.

Not only is dealing with anger  an emotional exercise, it is a spiritual one, as well. When a storm of anger makes its home within us, it impedes our relationship with God and others; it destroys our bodies from inside out and holds our souls in darkness.

Learn some healthy ways to express anger,  http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/emotional-health/healthiest-ways-express-anger, and look at anger from the spiritual perspective http://www.answersforme.com/article/1297/find-answers/family/the-effects-of-anger


Refugees need the hands and hearts of Christians

A recent Facebook post featured an image of a home and its front door. In the bottom corner was a second image of Jesus. The text read, “Am I welcome in your home? Reply yes.”

More than 1 million people had clicked “like” and another 8,000 had responded “yes.” Handscross

And I wondered how many of those respondents would agree that Syrian refugees should be allowed into our country.

Being a Christian is not easy.  It requires us to think with the mind of Christ, to see with the heart of Christ.

It requires that we bring our intelligence and common sense to every situation, not just our emotions, to ensure that all people have an opportunity to live in communities of care and
safety.

Evil not only begets evil. Evil seeks to grow evil in hearts and minds.  We must be vigilant that the evil of terrorism does not fuel the evil of intolerance, prejudice, racism and a willingness to abandon those most in need.

Our human nature means that we will all be plagued by thoughts of fear and prejudice, at one time or another. Our Christian beliefs call us to push past those thoughts, ensuring that they never form a basis for our decisions.

When we allow our fear to corrupt our humanity, and embrace the result, we can no longer identify ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ, who was very clear about the greatest commandment:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Jesus' teaching is simple and clear. We are the ones who have added the limitations, the exclusions and the addendums.


Saints be praised, honored ... and buried!

I woke up this morning with a terrible thought. Starsinskywithpeople

I buried the wrong saint!

In my sleepy haze I remembered an image of St. Anthony holding the Baby Jesus and realized I had mistaken that same statue for St. Joseph and buried him in the ground in front of my Ortley Beach home.

Ordinarily I do not abide by traditions that seem more superstition than faith. I could never understand why St. Joseph would have to be buried, and why, for goodness sake, upside down, if you need to sell your home.  Why wouldn’t simple, heartfelt prayers to the saint suffice?

Well, after almost nine months on the market with no offers and the bank breathing down our neck with foreclosure, I gave in to pressure and thought, “What do I have to lose?”

I had a statue of St. Joseph, or so I thought, handed down to me after my mom died.  I took it from the shelf and asked my husband to bury it in the front lawn, upside down facing the house.  As the instructions came out of my mouth, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I rationalized it by telling myself it was my alter ego, a desperate woman grasping at straws.

Then, to realize it was the wrong saint anyway … how embarrassing.

Determined to make the best of it I apologized to St. Anthony and asked him to do what he does best ... find things and people … like a buyer for our house. I suggested he collaborate with St. Joseph, the patron saint of households, who had already heard from me many times.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that within the past three weeks since the burial, we have had three showings and a potential buyer… one that is taking his time asking lots of questions and gathering information, which is very responsible of him and nerve-wracking for me … but a truly interested possible buyer none-the-less.

I am already readying a place… I mean places … of honor for the two saints who have seemingly forgiven my silliness.  I believe they are very much aware of my true need, not just to sell the house, but to be able to detach myself emotionally from a place that holds a great deal of meaning and memories.

Surely, the saints are as numerous as the stars in the heavens, each shining their own unique light on the world. These two saints, Joseph and Anthony, were standing by when I sought direction from God, prayed and cried, and asked for wisdom to make the right decisions.

They heard my words, “… through the intercession of the saints,” and they stepped in, not as real estate agents, but as companions ... companions who are always consolers, always leading us to God and, sometimes, responsible for miracles.


We must open the gift to discover what's inside

My mother loved receiving gifts, as most of us do, but for her it seemed to be a sworn duty to IMG_0199
display as many of them as she could, and once displayed they rarely came down.  It didn’t matter if the gift was a small, wild-haired troll or a beautiful porcelain sculpture of Rapunzel, with golden locks cascading around her feet.  They all shared a place of honor in our home.

Among those gifts were a variety of painted and jeweled eggs, most often given to her by my dad. Their beauty was in the remarkable designs and craftsmanship on their shells.  So when I received an exceptionally lovely porcelain egg music box from a special friend several years ago, I assumed all the beauty was on the outside.

I placed it behind the glass doors of our hutch, for protection, but close to the front so I could see it every time I walked by. But today was different. After having a heated “discussion” with my guardian angel earlier in the morning, and not being surprised if she were to take the day off, I stopped in front of the hutch and stared at the gilded egg.  Something inside me said “open it,” and for the first time, upon closer inspection, I realized the egg was formed of two separate halves.

I pulled the halves apart and there stood an enchanting guardian angel adorned with rhinestones.  Finally, the guardian angel prayer written in gold letters beneath the egg made sense, and I wondered if it were possible for me to be any denser.

I immediately moved this very thoughtful gift to my desk, leaving the egg open so I could see the little guardian angel who brightens my day.  She also serves as a reminder of a few things: Guardian angels are very patient with our humanness, friends are a true blessing for which we should be grateful, and never be impressed solely by outside appearances.  You never know what waits on the inside.

" ... let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart ... " 1 Peter 3:4


My Mother's Lessons

Typewriter-hemingway

Sing ~ Study ~ Read books ~ Wear gloves ~ Learn to type ~ Serve muffins ~ Be kind to animals ~ Practice the piano ~ Write thank-you notes ~ Learn to be self-sufficient ~ Always carry pens and tissues ~ Never forget where you come from ~ Speak up and speak out when necessary ~ Smile and make the world more beautiful ~ You can run but you can’t hide from your mother ~ A mother's love is the source of incredible strength ~ There will never be anyone who will love you with the unconditional love of God, except your mother.


A small thank-you makes a big difference!

During my visit to North Carolina for my granddaughter’s third birthday I had the chance to sit in
the upstairs gallery of the gymnastic studio and watch this petite whirlwind and her classmates run, Handwrittennote
climb, tumble and spin their way to pure enjoyment.  

At several points during the class, when the instructor had assisted my granddaughter in some way, I heard her adorable, three-year-old voice say, “Thank you.”  Her expressions were priceless, and memorable, especially in a culture that has all but forgotten the value and meaning of gratitude.

I’m proud to say her cousins have learned the same graciousness. My sons and their wives are passing on something that was taught to them, and it is something that was certainly handed on to me by my parents, especially my mom.

I was raised during the time of Emily Post manners, which meant white gloves when you went shopping, tasteful clothes for Mass and cultivating the now lost art of the thank you note.  What I learned is that manners, and expressions of gratitude, are more than just trite social mores.  They are opportunities to express respect and appreciation of others, to build relationships, and to be reminded that we are not the center of anyone’s universe except our own. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Emily Post’s great-great-grandson, Daniel Post Senning, is carrying on Emily’s legacy. He writes, in The Costco Connection, “Good manners are about more than fulfilling bare-minimum social obligations. They are an opportunity for us to connect to the people in our lives in a meaningful way. In an increasingly informal digital world, continuing to pull out pen and paper is a way to distinguish yourself. The handwritten thank-you note speaks volumes simply as a medium and sends the message that you care enough to invest yourself personally in acknowledging another.”

In my work as a writer and columnist, one of my greatest pleasures has been the notes I’ve received from readers, some of whom have stayed in contact and who I consider as friends. I have kept all the notes I’ve received during the past 20 years and I take them out every once in awhile and re-read them. The thank-yous I've received for my writing
give me the boost of encouragement I need sometimes when my spirit is lagging. I am grateful for them and the people who wrote them.

One of my greatest regrets is losing the envelope with the return address of a reader who sent me the very meaningful gift of a dishtowel from the Sunrise Café in Ortley Beach. I tore my office, at home and at work, apart looking for it because I wanted to send a thank-you note. I actually lost sleep over it.  

Perhaps, she will read this column and know that I absolutely loved the towel and have it hanging in my kitchen. It is especially meaningful now that the café is gone, a victim of Sandy, and we are forced to sell our home in Ortley Beach.

You just never know how much a handwritten note, or seemingly small gift, will mean to someone.

"Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father ... " Ephesians 5:20

 

Image from apartmenttherapy.com where there's great article on making thank-you notes a fun activity for kids.


Taking Jesus with us on the ride of life

Children in church can be both a blessing and a challenge. And from my vantage point in the choir loft, Prayer-beads-baby-1024x549 I've seen it all. But nothing tops the Sunday when a young family with several young children in tow took a place in one of the first pews, right in front of the entire congregation, seating their most gregarious child on the end.

 

I noticed when they first walked down the aisle that this little boy, maybe five years old, was carrying rosary beads in his hands. As a mother of six sons I winced a bit, remembering even rosary beads can be an unintended weapon in the hands of a young child.

At first he was fine, running the beads in and out of his hands, as if he was actually praying. But before long, he had discovered the “rosary bead spin.” Propelled by the weight of the crucifix, the beads circled faster and faster in his rotating hand until he lept out into the aisle with what looked like a small propeller in his little fist and yelled, “Hang on Jesus, we’re going for a ride!”

A delighted laugh rolled through the congregation and even the celebrant laughed out loud.

On the way home from Mass, with a foolish grin on my face, I considered how the whole scene was like a metaphor for our daily lives. With so many ups and downs, and things often spinning out of control, any of us could be the one yelling, “Hang on, Jesus!”

The image came to mind again recently when I was visiting my son and his family in North Carolina.

My almost three-year-old granddaughter loves to climb, jump, swing, and do just about anything a nervous grandmother would hate, and my son happily obliges her.

One day, he had her by the ankles and was spinning her around and around as fast as he could turn in a circle. She was screaming and I was screaming, except she was laughing and I was hollering “Stop!” 

I was worried to death that my son’s hands would slip or he would trip over his own feet or a million other scenarios only an anxious grandmother could imagine, but all my granddaughter wanted was, “Do it again, daddy!”

“How could she want to do that again?” I thought to myself, but I realized she wasn’t afraid because she trusts him completely.

On my long drive home to New Jersey, I began to think about Mary and her unfailing trust in God.

Mary could have easily thought that her life was beginning to spin out of control when the Angel Gabriel visited her to tell her she was going to have a child, and not any child, but God’s child.

Surely, before that moment, Mary had plans for how her life was going to unfold. I don’t imagine her plans included a visit by an angel, or giving birth in a stable, or following her son to the cross, perhaps remembering Simeon’s words that the “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

How many times throughout her life did Mary have to consciously put her trust in God?

How many times in our lives do we need to do the same thing, believing God is walking with us through some loss or illness or struggle, either our own or that of someone we love or for whom we care?

Certainly, the next time I feel like my life is spinning out of control, I will remember the Rosary, both for Mary and for one little boy who is a philosopher at heart!


Spend today riding dragons into the future


Dragonon woodMy mother had a fondness for dragons, and it caused a tussle between us on more than one occasion.

You see, whenever she came to visit she would steal the little pink plastic dragon that came with my sons’ Fischer Price Play Family Castle.

One summer weekend, when I took the boys to visit my parents in Albany, I noticed the dragon sitting on the book shelf in the spare bedroom. Well, that was the last straw! We had a dragon showdown.

My mother's  excuse was that my children did not care about the dragon, and were always leaving it on the floor. My logical response, that a house full of young children, six to be exact, are likely to leave toys on the floor, fell on deaf ears.

I confiscated her ill-gotten gains, and my oldest son decided the best course of action was just to hide the dragon when Nanny came to visit. Eventually, as the boys got older, they gifted her with the little pink bit of fantasy and it moved to a prime spot in my mother's dining room hutch.

My mother never completely lost the heart of a child, and her fondness extended to fairies and unicorns and the little people of the old sod, though she had not an Irish bone in her body. She loved the romance of pirate adventures, mystical places like Brigadoon and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table.

I can imagine her delight had she been able to see her youngest grandson, now 6’ 2”, greeting customers with his heavy Scottish accent at a pub in the shire of the N. Y. Renaissance Faire, and to take a step back in time with other costumed guests to a little piece of Elizabethan England, made a bit more comfortable with flushing privies!

From my mother I caught the enchantment of myths and the romance of days gone by. From my father I learned to appreciate the endless possibilities within dreams for the future. But from the example of how they actually lived their lives, I learned to embrace the gift of the present, full of potential and the need to be God's love for others.

As Thomas Merton wrote: “Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.”