Tuesday, November 25, 2008

For each new morning with its light, ...

The USA holiday where we gather together to eat turkey is uniquely American, although Canada and other countries have thanksgiving holidays too. In the USA we celebrate the very beginning of the community of our nation, although of course the official documents didn't come until much later. Along the way came contention about exactly where the first thanksgiving feast was held and considerable mythology about what happened where and why. The people who attended the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts, Pilgrims and Wampanoag, celebrated a harvest and survival. They joined as a community of human beings with different ethnicities and different beliefs and different values to acknowledge their dependence and their interdependence. Independence wasn't really an issue then.

The act of expressing thanks, of acknowledging gifts, however, is not unique to any country or people. Sometimes I like to think about the lives of people who are very different from me, and often the Tarahumara of Mexico come to mind. There was a day in November, only a few years ago and just a few days before El Dia de Dar Gracias in los Estados Unidos, when a friend and I had taken the train on a spectacular trip through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to see the Copper Canyons. Near the end of our journey, we could see colorfully dressed, dark-skinned women and children selling their handmade crafts at some of the stations. A walk through a market set up by some others like them took us from the train to a lodge that was perched on the very edge of the canyons. Not only were we within walking distance of the market, but also we were within walking distance of the homes of some of the Tarahumara. Many of them live at the bottom of the canyons, but some also live in cliffside dugouts and in primitive wood cabins. One family, whose business included making violins, and whose home had animal pelts hanging from the low ceiling, invited us into the dirt-floored one-room main cabin of their home.

Among my fellow travelers there were varying reactions to what we saw. Some I felt were insulting in their judgement but in the time since I've often thought about that day and about my own reactions. Sometimes I find it difficult to choose the best lens for the perspective I need on a situation that seems so different from what I'm used to and yet so right for the ones who are in it and who may actually have chosen it. What seems clear though is that the indigenous people of the Copper Canyons are grateful for their homes and families, for food and for tourist dollars. Their gratitude may be mixed with misgivings about the introduction of new ideas and new values into a way of living that goes back for centuries, but they accept what they think will work for them and are friendly as they do so. I wonder how different they are at heart from the native Americans of the 16th and 17th centuries who must also have had misgivings about the people with whom they broke bread.

People ARE different. We are different within families, within neighborhoods, within countries. We value different things and therefore are grateful for different gifts, but the one thing we all share is that we are alive at this very time. May we all, Americans and Tarahumara and so many others, be grateful for life, the lives we have and the lives we've shared. We don't have to agree about what life is or what it should be or when it starts, but we can agree that we're glad to have it. Not ALL of us WILL agree about that of course, but the rest of us can make our gratitude and love present to those who dissent, and that will be a better grace than any we can say at a bountiful table.


For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Christmas Cookies, a Tradition!

Christmas Cookies! That's a tradition from my childhood until now. When my baby brother Sammy and I were still very small, our mother started us off as holiday bakers. Sometimes the sugar cookie dough we rolled and formed got a little grey as we overworked it and maybe weren't too concerned about hygiene, but it didn't seem to matter to any of us. Oh, how we loved the cookie press! My mother did amazing things from a completely inefficient kitchen, where there was so little room that Sammy and I were set up in the adjacent dining room, which was also tiny. And my mother also did amazing things with her WWII sugar ration and the oleo packet dye. Counter space? It was the sink draining board in my childhood kitchen, but to have a proper baking set-up was so important that when my late lovey and I bought the house I now live in, I thought, "Ah, yards of space to make and cool cookies."

Through most of the Christmases of my life, I have done some baking, but as a young wife nearly fifty years ago, I went at it with enthusiasm that could perhaps be called frenzy. First I considered my mother's recipes, but soon I found some to try on my own, and I actually still use a couple of the favorites from a very early Pillsbury Bake-off leaflet that was in the flour package. We had very little money then, so I chose carefully among recipes that called for expensive ingredients, like pecans and apricots. This was New Jersey, remember, and there were lots of maple trees and oaks, but no pecan trees. Going through every magazine and cookbook I could find, I made lists of possibilities, trying to balance cost and variety and color and flavor.

And at this time of year, I still get that urge. How can one help it? Every magazine at every grocer's check-out has cookies on the cover. So I'm already working on this year's list. The number one favorite cookie in my family, and the one that everybody expects at Christmas, is a sort of bar called "Chocolate Flip Strips." I've been asked for the recipe dozens of times, by family and by friends and by people I don't even know who claimed to love them at holiday cookie exchanges. The thing is that even though the cookies themselves are easy to make, the recipe looks long. I would imagine that only a very few people ever actually made the recipe after they looked at it. First you make a butterscotch dough and then you make a chocolate and nut filling and then you form them together into a long turnover and bake. Then you ice them, cool them, and slice them. Easy, but not a last-minute project, what with the chilling and the melting and the cooling and the firming up.

Other favorites are two-tone molasses cookies, peppermint candycane cookies, lemon squares, gingerbread men and whatever I didn't make for whatever year it is. There are so, so many I've tried over the so, so many holidays. And there will be so, so many that I consider for this year. I already bought some dates. And some chocolate chips. And some pecans from BUMMs because now I can afford what I like and anyway, they benefit a local cause and are fairly cheap, considering. I'm checking my flavorings and my decorating stuff. And I'm checking my cookie cutters too. Some of them were my mother's.

So please don't bother me while I leaf through the years of clippings and stained cards and then through magazines old and new, and then of course the basic cookbooks I learned from. I am planning for these 2008 holidays, but I'm also remembering those long past, when babies cried and pandemonium reigned. This is a quieter time in my life and that's a good thing because I am no longer used to chaos.

My mother is gone, my brother is gone, my oldest daughter and helper is gone, my late lovey and taster is gone, but I still have a grandson who loves to bake with me and an ex-husband for whom my cookies will be a welcome surprise. What the heck! It's Christmas!

And I'm doing candy this year too. Maybe even my mother's stollen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc"

"Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" happens to be the title of the second episode of the first season of "West Wing," one of my all-time favorite TV shows. No surprise there, I bet. Translated into English, the Latin phrase means "after this, therefore because of this", and so is a rather inaccurate way of explaining the relationship between two events. Cause and effect taken to a fanciful level.

Thinking about that today, my wandering mind fell on "prayer." I believe in answered prayers, and I believe that the answer is sometimes along the lines of "what you want is not in my plan". But there are those times when I pray for something and I see what I think are results. I've had a few of those lately. I try not to pray for specific outcomes, mostly sticking to the 12-Step qualification of "seeking only to know His will." My spiritual thinking, though, is that it is always within God's will for someone to relate to Him, and so I feel comfortable asking for the sick or the scared or the despairing or the bereaved to feel the companionship of a Supreme Being, especially through dark times, but really always. And since I believe that prayer is positive energy, I always pray for people while I'm in the shower because I seem to have a lot of it then. After I give thanks for an abundance of hot water and for sweet-smelling soap, I ask that someone somewhere be refreshed in the same way, and that's about sending my positive energy to wherever there's a lack. We don't know how energy travels from spirit to spirit, and whether God is directing that traffic or not, I'm sending energy. I send it at various times during the day and night, but most often when water is around me. I can't explain that, except that to me water is life-giving and life-affirming.

Today in the shower I thought of the people in Haiti who are digging, with their bare hands, for bodies. And then I thought of the people who are living under bridges in the U.S., or walking the interstates, something I've seen more of this year. And THEN, my mind went to the people whom I know are disappointed with the results of last week's election, and it focused on a particular person, whose name is Bruce. As I thought about the disappointed people, Bruce's being occurred to me because, and I have heard this only second-hand, he is beside himself with fear about what he thinks may happen to the USA with Democrats in charge.

I have met Bruce only a few times, and he doesn't live in the Lowcountry. I know him because he is engaged in a years-long affair with a young woman whom I also know. He is a physician, married, with three teen-age children, and he has many problems. That he has sought to relieve those problems in the ways he has does not endear him to me, but as I have said before, it's not my place to judge anyone. What occurred to me in the shower is that I have fallen short by only deciding not to judge him. I should also have been praying for him all this time. So I am adding his name to my prayer list here as a reminder, but when I pray for him I will also be praying for many others who are fearful or angry or whatever because that is a group that I think has grown in the past week. "Bruce" will be their proxy.

Will my prayers for anyone or anything cause an effect? I will never know for sure, but in recent times I've seen and felt some changes in some situations where I've prayed, so I'm encouraged. I know that when I joined my prayers with many others in a sort of "from our keyboards to God's ears" kind of way, there was an outcome I hoped for. But did the outcome have anything to do with the prayer, which was "Thy will be done"? It would be more arrogant even than I am to claim that. And anyway, many people were praying for something else at the same time.

But in the end, whether we know that "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" applies, "oremus". ("Let us pray" to you non-Latinists.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope? Fear?

NBC pollster Peter Hart, said last night that voters chose hope over fear in their election of Barack Obama to be the President of the United States. I agree. I have been saying to myself for days that whether or not John McCain won, part of his service to the country should be a sustained effort to erase the fear that his campaign wrote on the souls of those vulnerable to it. That's what a true hero would do.

To me, one of the major differences between Republicans and Democrats in this just-ended campaign, but also very noticeably since September 11,2001 is the use of fear to win elections. There have been strategic releases of intelligence, there have been unexplained color code alerts, there have been insinuations about people's background, associations and motives.

So when Joe Scarborough in the 6 a.m. hour of his show today says he was "offended" by suggestions such as Hart's, my posture on the couch gets a little stiffer. Also, I take note of the expressions on the other faces around the table. I saw discomfort. Then, in the 7 a.m. hour, Tom Brokaw comes along and positively quotes Hart. So there you have it. Media bias meets media bias. Or maybe personal bias meets corporate bias.

Scarborough's original point was about tolerance for views other than one's own, and to that point he just happens to have written an op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal on that very topic. He pontificates that people who hold one opinion discount the merits of other opinions and are often unfair in their characterizations of opponents. Everyone but him. In his lecture this morning, he compares the passion and commitment seen in this election, especially by African-Americans, to what he saw when evangelicals were similarly committed in an earlier election.

What I think is different is that this years crop of zealots is committed to a positive concept, that of hope. What I have seen of evangelicals is that in their politics they are committed to something less positive. The word "God-fearing" carries some revealing truth, and the politics of this group, an important part of the Republican base if you will, is very much about emphasizing fear of others. Love them, of course, but fear them. Love their sins, but fear what those sins mean for the American way of life. Love them to death if necessary, especially if they wear burkas or have a name like "Hussein." Standing on line to vote for the hope of a change that invites everyone's participation is a far cry from standing on line to vote for change that casts out imaginary demons.

So, Joe, I know that your mother in Pensacola is terrified of what is in store, but you and Senator McCain and all the other fearmongers can help her with that. Do it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

We the people.

What a great day I had yesterday! I started out early in the morning with an errand and then got to Hilton Head's Town Hall around 9:30 a.m., hoping to vote and not have to wait too long. Well, I did get to vote, but the whole process took about two hours. I am not complaining though. It was all very well organized and there were even cookies and discount coupons for a Wexford restaurant. There were chairs too. But for me the best part was the sight and company of so many people of different ages and heritages and economic classes waiting to cast their votes. I don't think it was what the Founders feared when they constructed a system that would prevent "mob rule."

Two hours is a long time, and for some it really amounts to a poll tax, as they give up time from a job, or pay a baby-sitter. However, I saw only one instance of impatience, a cranky older person who looked to me like the type of person who complains about every situation. Maybe his back was hurting, or his feet, or something. I saw children behaving well, and I saw an infant sleeping, while his/her mother schlepped the carrier and the diaper bag and whatever else. I wanted to give her my take-a-number, because I had plenty of time and I'm quite sure she didn't, but that wasn't really allowed. I saw pride in the faces of some African-Americans, and while it's a mistake to assume anything about any voter, I can imagine why they might be proud.

It might very well be true that I wouldn't have had to wait long at my usual polling place come Tuesday. However, watching orderly, well-heeled voters, overwhelmingly white, isn't usually all that interesting, and I'm glad I spent the time, and I'm grateful for the conversation I had with the white woman who waited next to me, and for the one she had with the black younger woman on her other side, which I overheard. Both confided their support for Senator Obama and talked about others they knew who felt the same. This isn't the same South Carolina it once was. That much I know for sure.

So, buoyed by my voting experience, I made some phone calls to senior voters in Western Pennsylvania, and was further uplifted. Only one person refused the call, saying "We don't need anything." Not that terrible a rejection. One woman told me about the prayer service her church is holding on election evening, before the returns come in, just thanking God for the fact that an African-American has gotten as far as Senator Obama has. Another woman told me that she didn't intend to vote at all, because of her disgust with all politicians and the state of the country and the world. So we talked a little, and I told her that I am more optimistic and that I believe that if the country pulls together we can go forward on a much more constructive path than the one we have lately followed. We ended up talking about our grandchildren and our hopes for their futures and we remembered earlier times when things have looked bleak and Americans have come through. I hope she votes, no matter for whom she votes.

And then in the evening, I was talking with my Ohio daughter and she said her neighbor was upset with her mother in Tiffin (OH) because she had decided to vote for Senator McCain on the basis of a phone call from Pat Boone. You can laugh or cry. Or you can head down to Jacksonville to help get out the vote there.