Saturday, December 15, 2012

Maintaining a Vigil

I don't know where to put the great sadness that settles so suffocatingly after yesterday's events in Newton, Connecticut.  At the time of such horrific happenings, many of us were going on about our day, perhaps working, meeting with friends, preparing for a joyful holiday.  Wouldn't you think that there would be sudden rush of energy that would suck life from you, that you would know without being told?  My husband came in from running errands and as I was ready to tell him some small thing, he asked, "Did you hear the news?  A school in Connecticut? " and he choked on words as he tried and failed to tell me.  I had to go look it up.

We have experienced that feeling of not knowing if a child was safe - the incredible terror, and imagining the worst.  It is easy to feel with these families;  and then to know the gasping gratitude when your worst fears are not realized.  It is almost unbearable to try to imagine the feelings of the families who have lost their dear ones.

I'm not sure what kind of actions will be of use, beyond prayer; I read a blog by Peter Niedbala this morning that at least said something that felt right - that we need to avoid being desensitized by such events.

One way to do that might be to resist the temptation to bury these emotions, and instead, to stay with this community in our hearts throughout the days ahead.  Practicing a periodic vigil, balancing the activities of our own day with thoughtful intentions for these families will ensure that they are not forgotten.  As more information comes to light, perhaps we will see ways that we can exercise our  own part toward healing in a broken world.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Retreat to Refuel

Someone recently posed the question: "What do you all do to stay sane this time of year?"  I've heard comments in stores and  coffee shops in the last few weeks like, "I can't wait till this season is over!"   "There's too much pressure to buy, it's just a grand opportunity for marketing!", etc.  And I find it sad that so many people feel helplessly overwhelmed, that they become bitter about this time of year with all that it has to offer us, visually, mentally, spiritually.

In the last ten years I've been involved in selling my paintings;  I market to shops and sell directly online and at shows.  I don't see myself as a very material person, so I feel a little strange about putting more"stuff" out into the universe.   But of course, I'm delighted when people buy my work because they think it will bring pleasure to someone;  I try not to make my friends feel like they have to support me in this venture.

While I attempt to limit my commitments as I go into this busiest season, things come up that add to my "to do" list.  I've been known to get grumpy.

In the past few weeks I've balanced myself by attending two retreats at Holy Cross Monastery.  Thanksgiving weekend I attended one by Carolyn Bluemle, using yoga to express gratitude and practice presence.  And then this last week I was fortunate to go to another one with John Philip Newell.  This retreat also focused on presence; I bought a CD of chant and prayers that he developed with Suzanne Butler and some wonderful musicians.  I play it in my car and in my studio.  I find myself singing it throughout the day.  And I find both Carolyn and John Philip in my head periodically - my breathing slows down, my mind clears and settles, and I remember the things that I believe to be most important in my days.

Today I did my last craft show for the year.  I'm ready to prepare for Christmas.  I'd like to do a little baking, to write some cards, to buy or make a few simple thoughtful gifts, and to reflect with gratitude on this period of waiting, making ready.

Tell me about your preparations.  Are you able to experience joy  in this period of shortened days, holiday anticipation?  I hope so!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Loving the Questions

People who can ask good questions are  a very special breed.  

When I was younger, questions seemed like tests.  Did I know the answers, had I done what I was supposed to,  did I think the right way, make the proper connections?  I did not appreciate questions.  And I did not develop the skill to ask them.

When I was in my 30's a woman came into my life whom I recognized as someone with this skill.  Patty could ask something that provoked deeper thinking, challenged assumptions, but rarely made others feel inadequate.  There was a freedom to examine thoughts, to work out what you did think, related to your own experiences, what you really knew.  Much later, when I read about Socratic dialogue, I realized that her approach was related to this technique.  Perhaps many people learned about this in school.  I had an unusual education, so I don't know if this was just something I missed or if it isn't an ordinary teaching.

My own questions of others often feel stiff, coming out of my own reluctance to be "offensive".  I think I come across as preachy, awkward.  And yet, on occasion I've stumbled on one that has worked well.

One week in Sunday School, we were working on a project and a child was blowing it off.  He was being disruptive, trying to distract others who were quite happily engaged.  I'm very fond of him and yet was annoyed with his behavior.  Instead of trying to reason with him, to get him to go along, it occurred to me to ask him "Is this the best that you can do?"  He just stopped and looked at me, then shook his head, "no".  He settled down and finished the rest of the project, seemingly satisfied with his new effort.

My children and grandchildren can attest to the fact that I'm not well practiced in this art.  I think, sometimes, they must shake their heads to themselves at my clumsiness.  I do have a few friends who are really good at asking the questions.   I make a point of paying attention to how they do this.  How do you have meaningful conversation with people who have different views from yours?  How do you find out how someone came to their position without inferring that they're wrong?  How do we use this tool for transformation in ourselves and for the world we'd like to see?  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Reflections

I love Thanksgiving  Day.   I love holidays where the usual rhythms are interrupted, where the whole day can become a meditation.

My daughter had an online teacher last year who wrote to her students something like "Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate the theft of lands from the native inhabitants."  It was an inflammatory way to raise awareness of or object to a situation that was, indeed, painful, and destructive in our history.

The only way I know to address such wounds is to practice awareness, gratitude, and compassion.

This is not to say I'm very good at it.  And this is why I am happy to have days like this where I can spend a little time with my thoughts, aided by the wisdom of others.

Early this morning, reading some short pieces from John Philip Newell's blog was a good way to start the day.  It set a tone for opening, deepening.  I will do some painting when I finish this writing.  Exploring a bit about the subjects before I start pulls me into another world.  You know, how one thing leads to another ?  Sometimes, when you're doing renovations, for example, it feels like a burden!  But when you're doing research, it can be fascinating.  Children are great for starting you off on this kind of discovery.  I love their questions.  When you have time to really listen and follow up,  it's amazing the things you can learn, the connections that become apparent.

Later, I'll bake some Monkey Bread to take to my daughter's for dinner.  Thinking about the bread offers a whole other area for meditating - how many years have I been doing this?  Who helps make it possible?  How am I connected to all those who have engaged in this work for thousands of years?

Being with family and friends is a joy; remembering those who are alone, ill, imprisoned suffering, reminds us of our limitations.

I've been slowly reading In the Sanctuary of Women by Jan Richardson, and I leave you with one of her blessings:

"On this day and all days,
may you go in the company
of the God who makes
a way for you."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Our Mothers Who Lead the Way: A Window of Tribute

copyright 2012 Becky Nielsen
A few years ago we decided to start replacing the windows in our house.  They were the originals from about 1923 when  our house was built, and we loved them.  But when the weather turned cold, we could feel the air pouring through the edges, wasting our heat.  We decided we had to get more efficient ones.

Not wanting to just have them go off to the dump, I decided I'd paint on them.  They made such great "frames" for certain kinds of paintings.  I've completed six so far.  I thought I'd share the process for the most recent one.

Some of the windows have four long vertical panels that make them ideal for series work - the
Apostles,  Muses, Seasons,  directions, any thing that could be grouped in fours.
I'd been thinking of combining several  African American women whose lives were inspirational for their courage and leadership.  And in this instance, I specifically chose  them because of their relationship to God.  They each felt that they had a calling.

Sojourner Truth (1797 to 1883) was the first one I thought of because of her history here in the Hudson Valley.   Next, I chose Harriet Tubman (1820 to 1913).  She also has connections to this area, through the Underground Railroad, and eventually settled in Auburn, NY.  The third woman I chose was Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 to 1977).  Born in rural Mississippi,  she is less well known by many of us, but worked tirelessly, exposing herself to great danger, for civil rights, especially the right to vote.  And the fourth woman I chose for this window was Thea Bowman (1937 to 1990).  Although she started life in a Protestant family in Mississippi, she gravitated toward the Catholic Church, becoming a Franciscan Sister in an all white community.  She described herself as a bridge over troubled waters, working to unite people of various backgrounds, encouraging women to preach even though the church didn't allow women to preach there.  Google each one of these for more of their inspirational stories.  And you can find youtube videos of Thea Bowman singing and speaking with such great spirit!

To complete these paintings, I first drew  "cartoons" of each woman on paper that I could tape to the back of the window.  Then I painted in the outlines, using acrylic paint.  I find that painting on glass, I have to use many layers to get the paint to stick solidly.  Even at that, if the windows are held up against the light, you can see where the layers are thinner.  Finally, I add the details.

The windows are then wired for hanging.  They are not meant to be hung against another window; the continued strong light might make the paint fade.  And they actually look great against a solid wall, with shadows occurring behind them when the light comes from different directions.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

sandbagging the Ice House Restaurant
I have to write while it is still fresh.

All week we have been hearing the need to prepare for the coming hurricane, with the predictions that this would have a huge impact on our corner of the world.  The grocery stores were busy selling water, milk, essentials.  Home Depot ran out of D batteries, and had a run on flashlights and generators.  Most people were taking the warnings seriously.

Of course you never know what you're going to get.  Even Sunday evening there were people in vulnerable areas declaring they'd stick it out rather than evacuate.

We prepared as much as we could - battened down things that could go flying, got the flashlights out and stationed around the house, made sure we had supplies.  And waited.  And waited.

Waryas Park, Poughkeepsie, NY
We ended up being very lucky.  There were power outages around town and throughout the county.  The river flooded its banks but fortunately most homes and businesses are on higher ground.  There weren't even a lot of trees that came down.

We lost power off and on through Monday afternoon and night.  At 1:30 am I wakened to power saws and chippers.  A tree down the block had apparently lost some limbs in such a way that the crews decided they'd top the whole tree.  I went out on the porch to see what they were doing and it was eerily warm and still, the high winds we'd had earlier had subsided, and the rain had stopped.  I couldn't help but think of all the people who were out and awake, either through worry or work, to send prayers for their safety and in gratitude for their efforts.

In the morning our power was on and we could get online to see what was happening elsewhere.  The damage was horrendous further south, in the city and NJ.  One of my friends sent a letter asking for prayers for her brother who is unwell who had had to evacuate finally, slept in his car, and was out of contact.  We still don't know his whereabouts or how he is.

One of the bright and moving things was reading a post by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes on facebook first thing this morning.  She starts: Dear Brave Souls: I am here and awake, holding vigil for all souls in the path of floods and fires, darkness, toppled structures...  You can find the rest of this on her Facebook site.  I was moved to tears to think that people far away were keeping vigil.  What a lovely, supportive thing to do!

In the end, this is what we can offer:  to acknowledge our interconnectedness, to practice gratitude, to pray, and to act when there are things we can do.  

I hope this finds you and your loved ones safe and well.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

All Saints and All Souls Day Banner Project

In the Christian Church there is a special day, November 1st, that is set aside to celebrate all the saints, known and unknown to us.  This is a major feast day.  The next day is All Souls Day when we honor those who have died.  Of course the distinction between those two groups is unclear.  There are officially recognized saints, but no one would say that that list can possibly cover all those who would/could be described as saints - so many are known to God alone.  Certainly, the Christian church doesn't have a corner on the market in saints - they have existed in all cultures and faith communities, maybe by other names.

This year  at my church (Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie, NY) we decided to help our children learn the origins of Halloween - which got its name from All Hallows Eve, by coming up with a  project that raised the children's awareness of those who have gone before them.  A set of banners was planned.   We used the image of stars - that those who have died continue to share their light with us and guide us as long as we remember them.  The children had spent the Sunday before this one cutting and decorating paper stars that would be put out at coffee hour and they then invited people to write names of loved ones who had died on them.  Besides friends and relatives, there may have been special saints or people who were inspirational to them.  A few of the children included names of beloved pets.

We made three 6' by 3' banners of felt, attaching them to dowels for hanging.  And then everyone started writing out names.  The stars were attached with double stick tape.  We ran out of over 200 stars and will be making more this week so other names can be added.  Our church hosts a number of different groups, like AA, and it would be great to offer these guests the chance to include names if they'd like.

The idea is simple, easily completed with minimal expense.  And the community involvement is priceless.  Feel free to use it, ammend it, or share your own ideas.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Debate

Along with millions of other people, I watched the debate between President Obama and Governor Romney the other evening.  And it was as disheartening as I always find these things.  I have realized that I don't like debate.  I don't find the process to be a good vehicle for  enlightenment.  I didn't come away with any clearer ideas of what each candidate was offering.  I felt great mistrust throughout.   Even though the tone was basically civil, political debates feel like a dog fight.  People put a lot of stock in debates as a way to sway people to their position.  I just don't get it.

I have never studied debate.  I have friends who have loved it, have taught it, know many of the finer points for judging winner and loser.   It wasn't until recently when I was reading Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that it dawned on me why debate makes me so uncomfortable.   She brings up suggestions for how we should talk to one another; she explains Socratic dialogue; and I realized that what I'd really love to see is candidates exercising their positions using these methods.  "You entered into a Socratic dialogue in order to change; the object of this exercise was to create a new, more authentic self."  If there were a place for that in our system, wouldn't that be something?

The vitriol that follows debates is even more dismaying.  At least the candidates maintain some civility.  That's more than you can say about many of the comments that follow over the social media.  I see people saying the most outrageous things about members of the opposite party.  My husband and I rarely agree on who we are voting for.  Sometimes I've been almost in tears as he sticks to his position, and I think it's so wrong.  And yet, I know him to be a kind, compassionate man.  I know that he would like to see many improvements in our society.  We just have very different ways of looking at the solutions.  I cringe at the thought that people are so ready to denigrate others so readily.

I'll be glad when November 6th comes and goes.  And I hope my candidates win!

Fannie Lou Hamer

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pancakes to the Rescue!

When the grandchildren come over unexpectedly and I don't have anything in the house to feed them that they especially like, I can always fall back on pancakes.  One of the pieces of kitchen equipment that  makes this really easy is a cross burner griddle.  I can churn out a lot of pancakes pretty quickly to satisfy their sudden starvation.

I have lots of different recipes, many with hidden ingredients that boost their nutritional value:  pumpkin pancakes, cottage cheese pancakes, whole grain pancakes.  Fortunately, the kids are not picky about that.  And I often have a mix on hand for a really quick meal.

More important to them than the recipe I use is the shapes we'll make.  Lately, it's been sea creatures.  This last week I ended up pouring out sharks of various varieties; Marcus is really into sharks.  We'll be driving somewhere and he'll say, "Let's name as many sharks as we can.  You go first."  And we'll come up with a growing list.  Even Ethan is identifying the generic shark, with great glee.  I also made some whales , a few octupi, seahorses, even a couple of mola mola.

Since my favorite part of a pancake is the crispy edges, making things that have more convoluted shapes seems to increase my enjoyment, too!

And then there are the toppings!  Oh my!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Vacation Work

Doesn't this sound like an oxymoron?  When I go on vacation, I always pack some art supplies .  I know other artists who do this, too.  But there's a limit to what we can take.   A larger issue is that we may be inspired to do very different kinds of work.  I don't like to impose an agenda on this time - I like to see what develops.  So I don't always know what to choose to bring along.

Al and I go back to the same place every year.  We know where we're staying, where we'll pick up food, what the options are for  recreation and entertainment.  But, of course, the experience is totally different from year to year.  The weather is a huge variable.  New people enter our lives.  New creatures leave their imprints on our hearts.

Even though I have a good sense of where I'll set up my "studio", I don't know until I get there what is going to spark the creative juices.

So this year I arrived with some watercolors and acrylics, brushes, paper, sketching materials.  And I waited a couple of days.  Nothing.  It was gorgeous weather.  The view from the deck of our cabin was glorious.  We savored the delicious fresh fish, lovely organic vegetables.  We took wonderful walks, picking berries, gathering stones, nourishing ourselves with the scenery, revelling in the relaxed rhythms.

Then the full moon rose over the Bay of Fundy.  It was so magnificent!  And I knew what my project would be.  I got some preliminary work painting done, and have a lot of work still to do at home before it will be completed.  But it was so engaging.  And it felt right for that time and place.  It actually enhanced my appreciation of being there.  We tend to think of work as taking away from our play time, our pleasure.  But in the best of worlds it deepens our experiences, satisfies us in a way that superficial "fun" would not.  It is a practice in patience to to wait for the creativity to emerge.  And it is a matter of trust.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Eggplant Cheese Pie with Zucchini Crust

Abundance!  That's what I'm feeling with the eggplants this year!  Oh, my goodness - they're so gorgeous, voluptuous, seductive.
But tomatoes are not plentiful - local organic ones, anyway.  There's been a late blight that attacked the tomatoes at the farm, so while we have nice cherry tomatoes, there are few large ones to combine with the eggplants for the usual things like rattatouille, or caponata, my go to recipes to use up eggplant.

But one of my all time favorite cookbook authors is Jane Brody.  And this is a great recipe from her Good Food Book.

1 1/2 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/2" chunks
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. oregano
3/4 tsp. dried basil - but I used a handful of fresh basil
dash of cayenne to taste
1 small zucchini, unpeeled, sliced
2/3 c. (one small can) evaporated skim milk
1 egg
8 ounces part skim mozzarella, grated

Saute onion, garlic, and eggplant for a few minutes.  Cover skillet and continue cooking for about 5 minutes till eggplant is soft.  Add salt, oregano, basil and cayenne and stir well.

Line bottom and sides of a greased 10" pie plate with zucchini slices.  Carefully spoon eggplant mixture over them.

In a bowl combine milk, egg, and cheese.  Pour over the vegetables.

Bake at 375 for 30 minutes.

I've fiddled with this - as you're welcome to do.  Today I had fresh basil rather than dried.  I had cheddar cheese, but no mozzarella. I doubled the recipe because I know we will want more of it and I had plenty of the ingredients.  I had jalapeno and Hungarian wax peppers so topped the pie with those for flavor and color.  It just came out of the oven and I can't wait to dig into it!

Bon appetit!  Thank you, Jane!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Startled By Blessings

At the end of a recent Sunday service at church, the part where we hear the blessings that send us out into a new week, I suddenly perked up.  I like the services.  It's not that I sleep through them.  Traditional words and prayers are meaningful for me.  Our priest does a great job with his sermons.    Our church is known for its wonderful music.  But I do sometimes find by the blessing that my mind is heading to the next thing - gathering the grandchildren, who has to go where, etc.  But this time, instead of hearing something familiar, like "Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the spirit." , there were new words, startling words.

     May God bless you
                 with discomfort at easy answers,
                 half-truths, and superficial relationships,
                 so that we may live deep within our hearts.   Amen

     May God bless you
                 with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation,
                 so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.   Amen

     May God bless you
                  with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain,
                  rejection, starvation, and war,
                  so that we may reach out our hand to comfort,
                  and turn pain into joy.     Amen

     May God bless you
                 with enough foolishness to believe
                 that we can make a difference in the world
                 so that we may do what others claim cannot be done.  Amen

I believe it's really important that whatever our faith path is, it should lead us to mindfulness and compassion.  There is enough work in the world to keep us all busy for the rest of our lives!  I thought these blessings were well written charges.

They were found in a program for the Integrity Eucharist, tweaked a bit by  FatherBlake Rider for the Christ Episcopal Church bulletin in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Celebration of Two

Today my little grandson Ethan turns two.  What a wonderful time of life!  Though this age has a reputation for being "terrible", I think it is only because children at this age are absolutely boundless in their energy and curiosity - and it's hard for most of us to keep up and keep them out of trouble.

Ethan loves to eat everything.  I mean everything.  I think he's tried bugs.  He puts puts his face in the grass and comes up with a clump of it.  I took little bits of stone out of his mouth the other day.  His mom was cooking last week and he grabbed a handful of mushrooms and onions and popped them in his mouth - Ummmm, good!  he pronounced.

He loves to climb and get places that are not readily accessible.

He loves to see how things are put together.

He really loves to run.

Anything that someone else is doing becomes immediately attractive - he wants to use the same equipment or tools - vacuums, brooms, lawn mowers, rakes, washing machine, art supplies.

He wants to wear the same clothes.  Shoes have lately become the big deal.

So much of what they want to do is potentially hazardous, so we have to intervene;  I find that modifying the activity and allowing some safe exploration makes for happier days - but it also makes for tiring days.  I sometimes come home and take a nap.

But I am loving this age.  I am in awe of the enthusiasm and energy, the ability of children at this age to soak up knowledge.  I think as I grow older I appreciate it more and more.

Happy Birthday, Ethan!  Hats off to all who share in the adventures of  the two year olds in their lives!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tea Eggs - a Great Picnic Food

Today  members of my Hudson Valley Etsy Team gathered for a picnic at the Beacon Waterfront.  We planned a no fuss event where each person could bring their own plates, beverages, etc. and a dish to share.  It made it easy for everyone, including those folks who weren't sure until the last minute.

Some people had posted what they planned to bring - there was a nice array of salads and a couple of desserts.  I decided to bring tea eggs, for their protein and their drama.

This is a  recipe I found 40 years ago in a Time Life cookbook: Chinese Cooking.  I've been making it ever since.  The first time I made them and put them on a buffet table I noticed no one was taking any.  I'd put them in a crystal bowl and when I asked a guest if they'd tried them they said they didn't realize they were to eat.  They thought they were marble - a decoration.

When my husband I  backpacked  we routinely made these for our trips.  They carry so much flavor and are easy; no shells to clean up and pack out, no need to carry salt and pepper, and good nourishment.

So here's how to make them in case you want to add them to your repertoire: the basic recipe is small - I usually double or even quadruple it.

6 eggs
1 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Whole star anise or 8 sections
2 tsp. black tea (2 tea bags)

Hard boil the eggs in water.   Drain.  Let cool.  When they can be handled, tap them all over with the back of a spoon till shells are cracked.  Return gently to a saucepan and then add 2 cups of cold water and the salt, soy sauce, star anise, and tea.  Make sure the eggs are covered - so if you need a little more water, that's ok.   Cover the pan and bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer for 2 to 3 hours.  Check periodically and add more water to cover them if  needed.  Turn off the heat and leave the eggs in the liquid at room temperature for at least 8 hours.  You can then refrigerate them if you're not going to use them for another day or so.

Just before serving remove the shells carefully.  You can serve them whole or cut in halves or quarters.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Arrugula and Free Bees

An acquaintance once offered us a "wild" arrugula they had growing in their garden.  "But be careful, " she said, "it will grow everywhere!"
We love arrugula - how could you ever have too much?  And while Al does his battles with it in the  flower beds, I'm often saying "But wait, we might need that clump!"  Our neighbor comes over to pick it and barters off some of his tomatoes or kale.  I put it in our salads almost every evening from May to November.

This variety doesn't look much like the kind you buy in the store.  The leaves are thin, deeply cut.  Toward fall, they get smaller and smaller.  But they have a sharp peppery bite to them, a little sturdier texture.  They're great in sandwiches.  One of my favorite lunches is a pita pocket with some hummus, arrugula, and crisp cucumber slices.

And now we are loaded with bees!  I'm thrilled!  The reports of dwindling honey bees in the last few years has been upsetting.  But you couldn't prove that by how many hang around the pretty little yellow blossoms of the arrugula.

The plants reseed themselves and come back every year.  The only maintenance is removing them when they're not wanted.  They make me smile - a treat that shows up for the taking - for us, for our neighbors, and the bees !

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Amaranth - A New Favorite

Fresh Amaranth - Isn't it gorgeous?
When we gave up our vegetable garden a few years ago to join a local CSA, we discovered that one of the joys of belonging to the farm is that we get exposed to such a large variety of vegetables that we couldn't grow on our own.  My husband picked up our share the other evening and when I walked into the kitchen to see what my cooking options were going to be over the next few days, I saw a bunch of reddish leaves on the counter that I didn't recognize.  He proudly announced that it was amaranth.

I always thought of that as a grain - but on googling it, found there are over 60 varieties of this plant and some are used more for the leafy part.  He dutifully reported, "they said to just cook it like any other green."  The raw leaves were a little tough and the stems tasted earthy - so not good in salads.  I decided to saute it with some garlic, ginger, and the handful of okra that Al had also brought home.  At the end, I added a little rice wine vinegar, a bit of salt and pepper.

ginger, garlic, okra sauteed before adding amaranth
I decided to cook up a bunch of fresh garden vegetable ravioli that I'd bought and added that to the amaranth in a deep wide dish, serving the whole thing at room temperature for a warm summer evening supper.  I didn't get a picture of that, unfortunately.  The ravioli took on a rosy glow from the amaranth, and the dish was delicious.  By the time I remembered my camera, it was almost gone.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Summer Memories

Alice with Mia and Marcus
We just got back from a long weekend trip to the Adirondacks where we stayed with friends on Raquette Lake.  Back in February our church held a silent auction as a fundraiser and a stay at this cabin was on the list of items available for bidding.  We decided it would be a great experience for a couple of the grandchildren and were able to get it.
The appeal was multifold - a cabin on the lake, with swimming, boating, and hiking options;  also, we liked the idea that there was limited electricity (infrequent dependence on a generator), which meant the kids would have to rely on "old fashioned" forms of entertainment - stories, art, singing,  a campfire, hanging out together.
The weather was perfect - warm enough to swim a couple of times a day, cool enough to enjoy sleeping at night.

pitcher plant
We arrived by boat.  We had directions  to reach the parking lot, where to find the rowboat, and how to get to the cabin.  Our hosts, Alice and Fred Bunnell, were so welcoming that we felt at home right away.  They were eager to show the children some of the highlights that such an environment offers, guiding us through the woods, pointing out the special qualities of this kind of forest.  Alice is a retired science teacher and has been coming to this area for over 40 years, so we all learned a lot about the plants and animals that live there.

We went out in the canoe, Marcus learned to"row" one afternoon, Mia entertained us with handwritten stories and pictures in the evenings, we toured the lake in their motor boat as we learned some of the stories of the great camps and historic families who vacationed there.  And we sometimes went for ice cream - a special treat when you can't just go to the fridge and pull it out.  At meals there were wonderful discussions.  The kids listened and participated in a way that they don't often have time to do at home.

We were so thrilled to give them this experience; it was a very special time that only comes once in a while - a brief but meaningful episode that they can revisit in their memories for the rest of their lives.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Damien, Shawn, Alex - buddies
Yesterday my 17 year old grandson, Shawn, left for Georgia to live with his father , planning to go to school there in the fall.  It's the first time he's gone away like this on his own for this long.  He and his mother moved to Florida when he was 5 but came back after a year, much to my relief.
When we send our young people off, I'm sure we all feel a certain amount of trepidation.  Whether they're going to school, into the military, off to live with the other parent, or even to a job, we become anxious.  There are so many scenarios of trouble that we can imagine for them, especially if we don't know the area where they're going.
Will they make good friends?  Will they be lonely, homesick?  Will anyone watch over them like I do? Will they be safe?  That is always the biggest question.

I was trying to put some perspective on this for myself yesterday, and thinking about the "Hero's Journey", that staple of almost all fairy tales and myths.  There comes a time in each of our lives when we must make our way in the world.  There is a quest to pursue - the key that will unlock a door that takes us forward.  Along the way there will be mentors and guides who may offer us their wisdom or tools that will help.  And there will be challenges and obstacles, opportunities for choices.  There ARE real dangers out there.  That is the scarey part.  As parents and grandparents, we know them, too well.    But there are also treasures, in terms of people and experiences, that are worth the journey and the risk.

To hold back our children, to try to keep them nested, is impossible.  And would not be good for them.  And it's a fiction that we can ever keep anyone safe.

So we hope that what we've taught them will serve them.  We send them care packages.  And we keep them in our prayers.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Summer Cakes

This past weekend my daughter and son in law hosted a going away party for my grandson Shawn.    When I asked what I could bring, my daughter said they had things pretty well covered but cake would be appreciated.  It was going to be a larger group, the weather was going to be hot,  and Shawn's favorite cake is lemon.  I decided to make two: one a luscious lemonade cake from My, and then an old quick recipe from my grandmother dating back to the late 60's or so.  I haven't made this one in years.  But it is a nice summer cake using mixes, takes 10 minutes to put together, and carries well.  People really liked it, so I submit the recipe here.  I sometimes add more lemon juice to the glaze.
1 package lemon cake mix
1 instant lemon pudding mix
3/4 cup oil
3/4 cup cold water
4 eggs
Place above in bowl, beat at medium speed for 5 to 10 minutes.  Pour batter into greased 9x13 pan.  Bake 45 minutes or till done.

While cake is baking prepare glaze:
1/3 cup orange juice
2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons of oil
When cake is done, prick all over with a fork and pour glaze over warm hot cake.  Let cool.

Easy peasy!  And pretty good, too!

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Legacy

Years ago my husband and I used to vacation on Vinalhaven, an island off the coast from Rockland, Maine.  There we had the pleasure to meet a man, Floyd Robertson, who had grown up on the island and then moved back when he retired from psychiatry.
Al was walking one morning and saw a yard totally taken up with daylillies of every color, shape and size.  Floyd was out deadheading so Al stopped to comment  on the gorgeous flowers.   Floyd, with the dry humor we came to appreciate said "Well, at least you know what they are!" and invited him to come to the back to see the rest.   Al said he'd be right back, that he knew I'd want to see them, too.  And our friendship began.
For the next seven or eight years of Floyd's life we visited him when we were on Vinalhaven.  I loved going over in the mornings to help him deadhead - we'd often fill a couple of five gallon buckets with spent blossoms, chatting all the while.  
He started our collection - carefully packaging about 15 different types to send home with us.  The instructions were very explicit about how to plant them and care for them, what to do if we wanted to experiment with hybridizing them.  Gradually he added to our collection.  He knew the names of every flower he had, often remembering where he'd gotten the variety and what he'd paid for it.  We have not been good about remembering all of this and that would disappoint him.
But we look forward to their blooming every summer.  Al works to discourage the deer from nibbling them as they look forward to them, too.
We are not alone in delighting in Floyd's flowers.  He sold and gave away thousands over the years.  They are probably everywhere up and down the east coast - and maybe farther.  I suspect that all of the beneficiaries think of him often as they put the plants to bed in the fall and wait eagerly for the blooms through the spring.

Thank you, Floyd, for the joy you've added to our lives.  Rest in Peace!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Small Fascinations

Recently out for a morning walk, I noticed my neighbor's bushes filled with spider webs.  The unusual construction caught my eye, backlit by the rising sun.  I hurried on past, but on my way home later, I stopped to examine them more closely.

They looked like little upside down parachutes, including the first chute you pull to slow things down a little before pulling the main chute.  and underneath the bigger chute I could see a small spider on each one.

I went home to retrieve my camera, and after getting a few pictures, headed for my computer to see if I could find out what this little creature was.  Rather quickly I came across "bowl and doily" spiders - and they looked just like what I'd found.

So often things catch my eye or ear and it may register briefly, but I'm too busy with what I'm doing to stop and investigate.  I don't look up words I come across, just figuring I get the gist of it from the context.  I don't go look for the little moth in my book to see who's sharing our garden.  I don't follow through to see what kind of work an artist has done when I hear their name for the first time.  In this day of information overload, there's just too much to take it all in!

But when I do step aside and look more closely, I feel richer.  I feel more connected.  I don't have to go looking for learning opportunities.  They are coming at me every day.  How about you?  What has caught your eye lately?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

peacocks, salamanders, and grandkids

Al and I took Marcus and Landen to the Catskills for three days this week.  We found a little motel near Belleayre Lake where there's a nice beach and anticipated some fun days in the sun swimming and looking for tadpoles and salamanders.  But right off, plans had to change since the first day there were heavy thunderstorms forecast.  We decided to take our time getting over to Pine Hill and stopped at the Forsythe Nature Center in Kingston on the way.

Perhaps we should have taken a clue from the loud boisterous cry of the peacocks on arrival.  The birds  went into full display - the boys were fascinated.  They also loved the beautiful turtles and tortoises, the baby ducks, the rabbits and the pot bellied pig.  But it was peacock behavior that seemed to predominate over our time away.

Once we settled into our motel and they had a chance to explore their environs they delighted in the grounds and set up camp in the screen house in back.  But they also quickly started competitions that lasted the whole trip: who gets the lawn chair near nana, who gets more green m&ms on their cookie, who can get to the bathroom first, etc. We got through the first day in pretty good shape.

 But the next day deteriorated.  The weather was miserable.  It was rainy, drizzly and chilly.  Couldn't go swimming.  And it wasn't really inviting to go hiking since they'd just get cold and wet and there was no way to dry out all the clothes and shoes.  We hadn't expected ALL the rain - so we didn't take boots and other rain gear.  But we did have nets and containers so decided to go to one pond where we've always had good luck finding salamanders and tadpoles.  We figured we'd get wet, but then come home and dry out.  We lasted about half an hour there - I was only able to catch one salamander for them.  Which they fought over. Most of the day was spent in the motel, playing video games and looking up salamanders, newts, and dinosaurs on my Ipad.
Eastern Salamander

The third day dawned with gorgeous sunny skies - still too chilly for swimming so we decided to pack up and hike a trail that leads to some beautiful little water falls.  The boys were enthusiastic and hoped to find some salamanders along the trail.  But they jockeyed to be the leader, took some tumbles, and couldn't stop vying for favored status in their own peculiar little ways.  Perhaps they were a little homesick, but while they usually get along really well, this trip, they just couldn't stop bickering.  Their sweeter sides were as hidden as the salamanders they so wanted to find.

There were some tender moments - a time when Landen said he wanted to sit next to Marcus because he loved him; a time when Marcus, when asked what the best part of the trip was, said "just all of us being together".

The pictures will show a wonderful time was had by all.  And while I won't romanticize it and say it was all rosy, I hope that what will remain in memory are those funny and tender moments when we really were just happy to be together.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Small Peace Offering

This past weekend I was invited to demonstrate painting rocks for a sweet event at Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie.  The gardens had been opened for their Secrets in the Garden event.  Twenty two artists had fashioned the most charming little fairy houses which were hidden in bowers and around the grounds.  A storyteller set the mood, families were given a sheet of clues, and then went off to find the houses and leave little offerings for the "residents".

I painted little fairy pins, pendants, and pocket stones, along with pieces for a garden themed chess set I was working on.  Kids connect with rock painting.  They recognize it as something they can do.  One little boy wanted to play chess with me, but the pieces weren't finished yet.  Some children wanted to paint - but the event was not set up for that activity.  Others wanted their parents to buy a piece for them - and there were items for sale.  But often the parents were not ready to purchase one more thing, especially if they felt the child might not take care of it, would throw it in a drawer and go on to the next "must have".  Or perhaps it just wasn't in the budget for that day.  There were a few disappointed children, a couple who had to be pulled away in tears.

It was easy to understand both the childrens' and parents' points of view:  the ones who are so attracted to the colors, the small little treasures that they want for their very own; the others who are often juggling just how often they can give in to the desires that seem never ending.

I was dismayed at being a cause for family disharmony and felt I needed to come up with something that would make the next day go more smoothly for everyone.

I decided to make up little cards:  One Way to Paint a Fairy.  At first I thought I'd show a step by step procedure, but trusting that less is more when it comes to stimulating creativity, I decided to stick with the bare bones.  And then I brought a little basket of rocks.  When the children came to watch I could offer them a choice of a stone and a card so that they could paint their own treasure.  It seemed to work.  Peace reigned in the garden.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Baked Tofu for Summer Salads

We had a spate of HOT HUMID weather recently, the kind that zaps your energy and makes putting supper together a challenge.  Ice cream would be perfect - but that's not an option for us, so we often resort to salads this time of year.  I gather whatever veggies we have, and may add beans, hard boiled eggs, cold shrimp, leftover chicken, or cheeses.  But the other day I decided to make Helen's Baked Tofu from the Barrett Art Center cookbook, and to cut that up for the protein in our salad.  I marinated it early in the day, then baked it later, chilled and cut it up - and it was a hit!  I love this stuff and it's really quick and easy.  Here's the recipe:

1 # firm tofu
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2Tbsp. olive oil
1Tbsp. tamari soy sauce
2 Tbsp. fresh herbs, or less dry ones - I used rosemary, Thai basil, and dill
pepper to taste

Slice tofu into 8 slices, place in shallow baking dish.  Mix marinade and pour over tofu.  Marinate for an hour, or longer.  Bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

In the winter I like to make this and serve with rice for a hot meal. 

Happy summer cooking!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Power of Words

I've had two important experiences with words in less than a week.

The first one was when I was trying to explain the story line of a book I recently read and liked.  It was Ann Patchet's Run, and tells a complex story about three families whose lives intersect in powerful ways through adoption.  In trying to describe it to a few friends I used the terms birth mother, adoptive parents, adopted children, etc.  But these are issues I am not in the practice of discussing, so I fumbled at one point and used the term "real" to distinguish the biological child.  Of course, I didn't mean that the other children were not "real" or that the relationships were determined by biology.  One of the women in the group has an adopted child - and she was on me fast!  I felt lousy for the rest of the afternoon and tried to shake it off.  As someone who tries to be sensitive to other people's feelings, I felt badly that I had messed up here - that someone's feelings could have been hurt by my careless use of words.  That was the unpleasant example of how important the words are that we use - a place where I need to work harder.

The delightful experience was today when my husband told me a little story about our grandson.  Landen is approaching 4 and is particularly observant.  He was visiting the other day and Al was getting him a snack.  When Al gave him a spoon, Landen handed it back to him and said, "No, I want a gold one.  Becky gives Marcus and me the gold spoons because she says we're special boys."  I'm thrilled that he carries this message inside that he is special.  Such a simple statement made one afternoon that I don't even remember - but it made an impression on him, and helps to confirm his place in the world as one very precious child.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memory

Memorial Day as we know it  began after the Civil War when various communities organized to honor those who had died in prison camps and battles.  It wasn't until the 1960's that the 4th Monday in May was established as the national holiday and the three day weekend was assured.  By this time it had grown to not only pay attention to those who had died in military service, but also to thank those who were currently serving.

I've seen a number of postings on Facebook in the past couple of days that remind people that this is a holiday that should be taken seriously.  One showed a young woman stretched out on the ground over the grave of a loved one;  another was a poster that said something like "This is not National Barbecue Day."

Because it has become a three day event, and the beginning of the summer season when pools open, decks are cleaned up, tomatoes get planted - the weekend does offer plenty of time for fun and celebration.  And I think that's fine.

Hopefully, most people can use this opportunity to also spend a little time in reflection on the meaning of the day.  That will vary for all of us.  For my aunt, it means going to the cemetary to put fresh flowers on my uncle's grave.  He did serve in Europe in WWII and came home safely, living a long life of serving in other ways as a civilian.  For my father in law and his sister, it will mean remembering their brother who went down on a ship in the Mediterranean.  My dad will remember comrades who were lost in the Pacific.  For many of us we will remember friends from school who died in the Viet Nam War, or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And we will think of all those who have given up time from their families, sacrificed safety and comfort, missed out on all the little ordinary things we take for granted to answer to the duty that calls them.    And we offer our sincere and humble gratitude.

Today what I was also thinking about was how we choose to use the freedom and life that we've been given.  I remember men and women who did not go into the military; their way of serving was different, based on their strong belief that war is something to be resisted with all the strength, creativity, and courage they could gather. I think of Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Day, and others for whom working for peace was their life's work, sometimes leading to their deaths. That is also a path of great sacrifice.  For me, I give thanks for the witness of these brave people this day, too.

I don't know which path is "right".  I'd like to believe strongly enough in the way of peace that I could say definitively that we should not have to have people in the military.  But that doesn't feel realistic.  So for now, I contemplate the lives of those who have sacrificed so much, and figure out what small part I might play in contributing to a world that will be better for my grandchildren and all our children.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What We Wear

This morning clothes are on my mind. 

I just got back from a family visit in Seattle - my parents and brother and sister in law, and  their boys are all there.  My aunt flew in to join us. I have spent time today going through mail, and unpacking my suitcase.  As I put things away I was thinking about whether the choices I'd made before I went worked, what notes would be helpful on my packing list for the next trip.  I pulled on some old shorts and a comfortable shirt to start my chores and was conscious that I would never wear these things there.  In fact, I was acutely aware, the whole time away, that my clothes didn't really measure up.

I'm not accustomed to paying so much attention to what I wear.  I go for comfort, practicality, and color. I spend much of my time doing messy things - painting, playing with and caring for  little ones.  When I go out I may go through my wardrobe, choosing what feels fun - reminiscent of what I loved doing when I was seven and played dressup with an old box of my mother's and grandmother's castoffs.  The operative word is "feels" - I only have a couple of small mirrors in my house, so I don't really see what I look like.

But visiting my family is another story.  Part of the problem is that they have lots of BIG mirrors in their homes.  You can't help but catch sight of yourself.  My sister in law, Lori, is petite and beautiful, and has a style that is well suited to her active life.  My brother has a job that requires a very professional look.  My parents, both in their late 80's and looking much younger, always dress nicely;  my mother, in particular, pays considerable attention to her looks, and could easily model for the "woman of a certain age" in her tailored fashions.  So I find my haphazard method of dressing doesn't really feel comfortable there.  I become self conscious.

That makes me think about why we dress the way we do.  The basic needs are for protection and modesty.
And then there's style.  We say a lot through our clothes.  While I am not often a mindful dresser, I do love Project Runway for the creativity involved.  One of the pieces of mail I opened this morning is from the Metropolitan Museum announcing the opening of the show on Prada and Schiaparelli - which I'll go see.  There's the art of clothing design that intrigues me, and I'm fascinated by the motivation behind people's choices of apparel. 

So how has your style developed?  What messages do your clothes convey?  How much of your time is given over to what you wear - in shopping, making, dressing, caring for clothing?  I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Artist Date

One of the important pieces of advice that I gleaned from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way is the importance of making artist dates with myself.  And yesterday I did just that.

My husband gives me a membership every year to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Over the past few years I've taken advantage of that to spend some time immersing myself in various collections.  Sometimes I have company, but more often I go by myself, so that I can wander without worrying that someone is waiting for me or has something else they want to do.

A few months ago I read Claire and Mr. Tiffany, a novel based on some historical facts.  Louis Comfort Tiffany's was the only art glass house that used women for more than secretarial services in that era - he gave them positions in design, cutting, and assembling, something that wasn't always appreciated by the men who worked for him.  The book's descriptions of the processes were so intriguing that I promised myself I'd go look at some examples the next time I could get to the museum.  What a treat that was.  Before, I would have just breezed by thinking,  "Oh, isn't that pretty?" - but I wouldn't have stopped to examine how they were able to achieve the look.  The purposeful distortion of glass fragments for petals and textures, the building of layers to achieve depth and color took such forethought.

The other thing I wanted to look at was the Steins' collections which have been brought together from the various museums around the world.  In the early 20th century Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and her sister in law, Sarah, hosted salons in Paris and used whatever discretionary monies they had to buy art from new artists.  As their pieces grew in value, their needs and tastes changed, they bought, sold, traded until they probably had the largest private collections that were available for viewing anywhere.  The curation of this show is phenomenal - how the Met tracked down the amount of work that they did and managed to get museums to loan them these paintings is probaby a story in itself.  Matisse and Picasso were represented the most frequently, but there were many pieces by Mary Cassatt, Juan Gris, Renoir, Toulouse leTrec, and  others.

I came home feeling emotionally energized - as though I'd been away on an exotic vacation.