Monday, April 30, 2007

This Above All. . .to Thine Own Self

One of the most often memorized speeches from a Shakespeare play is Polonius' speech in Hamlet, when he is sending his son, Laertes, off to college. In Act I, scene 3, he has a long speech (as are many of Polonius' speeches) which ends thus:

Many have quoted those lines, preceding them with "As Shakespeare says. . ." English major that I am, I want to say (and sometimes do)--well, actually Shakespeare puts that speech in the mouth of Polonius who happens to be an inflated self-important windbag, who is usually wrong. Conversation stopper, that!

The subject of this blog is ADVICE. Hence, the reference to and use of Polonius. Advice stays with us, if it is sound and comes from someone we respect. I offer two of the best pieces of advice I ever got. And, as you read, perhaps you can reflect on the best advice you have ever gotten.


One time, my father and I were talking--this conversation occurred in the basement of the parsonage at the Cleona (Pennsylvania) Church my dad happened to be pastor of at the time. I don't know what exactly prompted it, but I suspect it was my impending marriage. My father said that he believes the secret to a happy marriage is that each partner is always giving 51% in the marriage, while the other partner is giving 49%. Now, think about that. If each is giving 51% they are both giving more than half to make the marriage successful. He didn't just give that advice--he must have lived it as well. When my mother died 17 years ago, they had been happily married for 48 and a half years. In fact, my dad rued the fact that they did not reach their 50th anniversary. (My dad has since remarried, and can continue to put into practice his secret of a happy marriage.)


When I graduated from college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a degree in English Literature, but no specific thought in mind as to career. So, I did what any thinking college graduate does who doesn't have a clue about the future--I went to grad school. While I was there, I wrote a letter to one of my all-time favorite profs at my alma mater and said "if there is anything I can do to repay you for being such a great professor, let me know." Imagine my surprise (and delight) when he wrote back to say--we have an opening in the English department; one of the professors is going on sabbatical. Can you fill in for a year? Could I ever! That year turned into 8 years of college teaching.

Before I began teaching, I asked him what advice he would give a new teacher. He said--never be afraid to talk above your students' knowledge level and never be afraid to say "I don't know." Each of those little tidbits sounds so simple. Talking over students' heads? Almost counter-intuitive. But, he went on to explain that if you only ever teach to the level a student has already mastered, the student never grows. So teaching above them (occasionally) forces them to stretch and grow academically. And the advice to say "I don't know" was also counter-intuitive. Aren't professors supposed to know EVERYTHING. Well, I was quite relieved, because as a really new teacher and someone who just a year before had been a student myself, I knew I didn't know a whole lot.

A few years after I had stopped teaching at that college, I got a letter from a former student. She was full of praise remembering my teaching. One thing, she said, really stood out for her--that I would acknowledge that I didn't know everything, and that I was willing to see a point a student made by saying "I never thought of it that way." She remarked how refreshing it was to have a professor who allowed as how students could be the source of wisdom.

Well, enough of my meandering. What good advice have you received along your way?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saturday Soup 9

Since I am featuring soups that have all been made over almost 20 years for a special Bistro our church has, I have eaten almost all the soups I feature, and have made a fair number of the recipes. I can't claim to have made them all, but in an earlier post I noted that the recipes have been "vetted" by one of our church members who is a professional chef. The notes at the end of the recipes are hers--including the note today about "wet" sundried tomatoes.

I remember almost all the soups I have tasted, but the one today I do not remember at all. I say that with a bit of personal mystery. This recipe features two of my favorite foods--mushrooms and sundried tomatoes. So, how can I not remember it?

The absolute simplicity of this recipe also mystified me. For several years, I chaired the Bistro, so I have many of these recipes in word documents in my computer. But when I am uncertain of a recipe, I go to the soup cookbook which we assembled in honor of the 15th Bistro. Sure enough, after checking the recipe, it is correct.

A word about ingredients--last week's soup feature BUTTER and HEAVY CREAM. I know some of you try to limit your intake of such high fat foods--I think you could substitute whole or 2% milk. Of course, you will lose some of the flavor that way. Personally, I subscribe to the Julia Child school of cooking. She said: "I don't eat so much butter and cream -- just enough! And no snacking. That's very important." There are times when butter or cream are the absolutely essential ingredients!


Serves 12

2 lbs. sliced fresh mushrooms (any type)
2 stalks celery, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
3 qts. Vegetable broth or stock
¼ lb. wet sundried tomatoes* chopped coarsely
1 qt. half and half

In large stock pot, combine celery, onions and vegetable stock. Cook until vegetables just become soft. Add sundried tomatoes and mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are softened (about 10 minutes).

Stir in half and half and remove from heat.

*"Wet" sundried tomatoes are those that are sealed in a package rather than loose (and dry) in a bin or in plastic bags. They are available in the produce sections of most grocery stores, usually near the fresh tomatoes.

One final note: our chef suggests using leftover mushroom soup with sundried tomatoes as an entrée served over whole wheat pasta and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

TERRIFIC READS--The Master Butchers Singing Club

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog about a terrific read--The Life of Pi. At the time, I didn't title my blog TERRIFIC READS, but since I read alot and love reading, and since I am frequently asked for book recommendations, I have decided to write the occasional blog about a TERRIFIC READ. (I suspect that writing blogs on TERRIFIC READS will outlast blogs on Saturday Soups!)

Two days ago, I finished reading Louise Erdrich's novel The Master Butchers Singing Club. Yes, this book is a terrific read. This is exactly the kind of book I would choose to use in a literature class. It is packed with wonderful characters, a sense of history, an episodic but compelling plot, and a wonderful narrative voice. If you want a bit more of a description of the novel, here's a handy reading guide site.

I had not previously read a Louise Erdrich novel. I knew her work as a poet, and when I saw novel titles of books she had written, I thought I'd give one of her works a try. She is known as a writer in the Native American Renaissance school, although I wouldn't want to limit her work to that view alone. Her biography is summarized here.

Among the many things about Louise Erdrich's life that endears her to me is the fact that she owns a bookstore in Minneapolis--bookstores are great places to spend the hours.

So, if you haven't read The Master Butchers Singing Club, and if you want a terrific read for now (or for the summer), I heartily recommend this novel. I enjoyed this book so much I am ordering her newest The Painted Drum. Maybe a future blog will deal with it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Culture of Violence

Given the events of a week ago, when a deeply troubled student who had purchased guns and ammunition, went first to a dorm, and then to classrooms killing people, many people have written about the propensity toward violent action in our country. For example, see here. Like these writers, I too have pondered—why? Why does someone feel there is no other course than to wreak such havoc on fellow humans and then take his own life? Why does someone so completely fall through the various nets in the system which are meant to catch and assist such people? Why, why, why? The list to which we can pose the question of why is endless.

I have long reflected on what we could do to reduce the level of violence in this country. I have no magic answer, and certainly have no plans to run for office—so bear with this rant, and take it for what it is—a blogger puzzling her way through what is essentially a senseless event.

I grew up in an Anabaptist church tradition. One of the hallmarks of Anabaptists is that they began as people who resisted the government intrusion into their lives by using non-resistance—or passive resistance. This history became very clear to me when our family went on a trip some years ago, going to my husband’s European ancestral home. As nearly as anyone has been able to trace, his family came from Switzerland, and from the area of Germany called the Bernese Oberland. They were Anabaptists who eventually traveled up the Rhine, ending up in the Netherlands. From there they sailed to the New World, America, settling in Lancaster County, PA, which looks remarkably like the rolling hills of some parts of Switzerland and Germany (without the Alps, of course!)

One day on the trip, we visited a farm with a cave that had a waterfall spilling over the opening of the cave (
Täuferhöhle). This site was known to have been a worship place for these Anabaptists—a perfect setting: hidden, sound muted by the waterfall, and high enough to allow some advance warning of encroaching authorities. What did these Anabaptists have to fear? Well, they were hunted by both Catholic and Protestant authorities. That area of Switzerland is where the cantonments divide between those with historically Catholic government and those with Protestant. In the 17th and 18th century, the state and the church in Europe complemented each other. Absent governmental systems to keep track of population—births, marriages, and deaths—the state relied on the church to do that work. So, babies were born, baptized and registered in the churches. People got married in the church, and the event was recorded. People died, and the church kept the records.

The Anabaptists had a central tenet of theology that argued for adult baptisms. Along with other Protestant reformers, they searched the Scriptures to guide them. But on one issue they parted with other Protestant reformers. Nowhere could they find convincing support for infant baptism. They found several examples of adult baptism, so they staked their theology on adult baptism. The result was—no registration of birth and baptism: a clear challenge to the state/church agreement. So Calvin and his reformers in Geneva went after the Anabaptists, and the Catholic Church also went after them as reformers. The Anabaptist way was to not conform, to resist but not by force.

Why do I recount all this history? Because deeply ingrained in me, even though I am now a Presbyterian (heir to Calvin!) I very much hold with a personal philosophy of non-violence. And that brings me back to the events of last week.

There are things that I think could be done to bring down the level of violence in our country. The first step would be to reduce our infatuation with personal ownership of handguns. The statistics speak for themselves.

In 2004 (the most recent year with
full data available) there were 29,569 gun deaths in the U.S:
--16,750 suicides (56% of all U.S gun deaths),
--11,624 homicides (40% of all U.S gun deaths),
--649 unintentional shootings, 311 from legal intervention and 235 from undetermined intent (4% of all U.S gun deaths combined).

Note that the number of suicides by gun exceeds the number of homicides.

Writing in the Journal of Trauma, A. Kellerman noted that : “A gun in the home is 4 times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, 7 times more likely to be used to commit a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used to attempt or commit suicide than to be used in self-defense.” (I added the italicized emphasis.)

Now compare us to other industrialized countries. Below are the homicide by gun rates for several other countries. The last year that comparative data was available was 1998: Killed by homicide by guns were
--373 people in Germany
--151 people in Canada
--57 people in Australia
--19 people in Japan
--54 people in the United Kingdom and
--11,789 people in the United States.

I am enough of a researcher to know that you really should do an incidence comparison, that is how many homicides by gun per 100,000 population. So, here’s another way of looking at gun deaths: in the U.S. for every 100,000 people there are 4 homicides and 6 suicides; that compares to .5 homicides and 2.6 suicides in Canada; .25 homicides and .5 suicides in the UK; and .04 homicides and .04 suicides in Japan in which guns are the cause of death.

The second thing we could do is reduce the emphasis on violence all around us. Our children are raised with so much violence that they really become desensitized to it. The American Academy of Pediatrics has addressed this problem and gives a great overview of the exposure from television here.

I was probably a very quirky mom when it came to raising our children with as little exposure to violence as possible. My husband and I did not want our children to play with guns when they were small. So we forbade toy guns as gifts. I remember being infuriated with my mother-in-law when she presented our son with a small cap pistol one Christmas. I could barely speak, but she said—oh, it’s only a little play gun. Yeah, I muttered inside my head, but it’s a gun. Thankfully, our son fired it a couple times, then discovered that it was much cooler to take the caps out and explode them on the sidewalk with a hammer.

Our daughter had very little exposure to toy guns except for one day when she and some of the neighbor kids were playing. I found them with a toy gun of some sort, and marched out and demanded that she stop playing with it. No doubt she was mortified at my temerity to interrupt their play. I recall that I launched into one of my “love is stronger than guns” speeches. I think the kids all rolled their eyes and probably said—whatever.

This post is already way too long, but there are so many other ways we could reduce the violence we experience. We really do live with a culture of violence, certainly in our country, and of course to an extent in the whole world. I don’t know if humans are hard-wired to be violent, as some researchers have argued. But I do believe that we can intentionally determine that we will be more civil, that we will take less confrontational approaches to daily conflicts, that we will in every way possible eschew violence as the first or only course of action.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Saturday Soup 8

When I first started posting soup recipes on Saturday, I promised to try to follow a kind of rotation. I quickly realized that I would need to keep track of which recipes I had posted. Whew! I've made more work for myself on these blogs than I intended--but, being an organized person, I made a list that I add to each week, and save. So come Saturday, I check the list, make sure I haven't already posted the particular recipe, or make sure my soup choice isn't too close to last week's.

I see that I have not yet posted a recipe with fish as the main ingredient. This soup, Salmon Potato Chowder, is just plain yummy. It features an unusual ingredient--one that I had not used ever before making the soup--fennel bulbs.

On the The World's Healthiest Foods website, the description of fennel is most interesting. Here is a small portion:

Fennel is a versatile vegetable that plays an important role in the food culture of many European nations, especially in France and Italy. Its esteemed reputation dates back to the earliest times and is reflected in its mythological traditions. Greek myths state that fennel was not only closely associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of food and wine, but that a fennel stalk carried the coal that passed down knowledge from the gods to men.

Fennel is composed of a white or pale green bulb from which closely superimposed stalks are arranged. The stalks are topped with feathery green leaves near which flowers grow and produce fennel seeds. The bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are all edible. Fennel belongs to the Umbellifereae family and is therefore closely related to parsley, carrots, dill and coriander.

Fennel's aromatic taste is unique, strikingly reminiscent of licorice and anise, so much so that fennel is often mistakenly referred to as anise in the marketplace. Fennel's texture is similar to that of celery, having a crunchy and striated texture.


Serves 12

2 Tbsp. butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 fresh fennel bulb, chopped
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1 tsp. fennel seeds
2 bay leaves
6 medium red-skinned potatoes cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups vegetable stock or clam juice
1 cup tomato juice or V-8
2 lbs. fresh salmon fillet, skinned and cut into 1-inch cubes
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon

Melt butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and fennel and sweat 4 minutes, until tender.

Add thyme, fennel seeds, bay leaves, and stir to coat the vegetables.

Add potatoes, stock and tomato juice and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove bay leaves from pot.

Add salmon. Remove pot from heat as we do not want to overcook salmon. It will start to cook as soon as it hits the hot soup mixture.

Stir in heavy cream and fresh tarragon.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Happy Birthday, Zimbabwe

Almost two months ago, I wrote a blog celebrating the independence of Ghana. That occasion of saying "Happy Birthday" was joyful as Ghanaians continue to move forward resolutely, mostly unmarred by the vagaries that plague some newly independent African countries.

Today, I say in muted tones "Happy Birthday to Zimbabwe." While Rhodesia (the country's name before it became Zimbabwe) declared its independence from the UK in 1965, that action was taken by the minority white government led by then Prime Minister Ian Smith. He used to say of this unilateral declaration of independence that only two countries had ever broken away from Britain: the United States and Rhodesia. You can read more about the ensuing history. Eventually, Rhodesia fell into a civil war with mult-factions vying for power. When the dust settled, the new country of Zimbabwe came into existence April 18, 1980.

Once seen as a leading light in sub-Saharan Africa, in recent years, Zimbabwe has suffered mightily under the megalomaniacal rule of its president Robert Mugabe. Today's BBC News features some of the present woes of this once lovely country.

Photo of the Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe, taken by my nephew Nevin.

So, rather than shout loud celebrations for the 30th anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence, today say a soft prayer for the long suffering people there.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Dilemma of Bushmeat

When I teach English 101, the reading text we use has a photograph that shows a young man in an outdoor market somewhere in Asia. He is holding up a puppy, looking at it critically. It is clear in this photo that he is not thinking future pet—he is thinking dinner. I ask students for their reactions. Frequently the first thing they say is---ewwwww! So, I ask them why, and they say—it’s just not right to eat dog. So I ask them why—and they are stumped.

Of course, I try to get them to explore the cultural ramifications of what we eat. Why do we eat cows, pigs, sheep, various fowl—and not dogs or cats? The discussion can go many directions—being vegan, eating meat during travels that one does not traditionally eat, having religious restrictions on what meats we eat.

I had sort of settled this question of the cultural influence on what meats we eat in my own mind until a recent post by Julie Zickefoose on
agoutis got me thinking again. While you can read her post for yourself, one of the things she points out is that she had not seen an agouti in the wild because of the “edible–animal syndrome: anything big enough to roast on a spit is pretty much extirpated wherever people live.” So that’s what got me to thinking. Is there anything wrong with eating bushmeat? If you say yes—what? If you say no—why?

I struggle with the implications for survival of species if humans have no limit on killing bushmeat for food. While I was growing up in Rhodesia, Africa, we occasionally killed local animals. Mostly our meat supply came from livestock on the mission station, such as cattle or pigs, but there were also various antelope such as kudus that missionaries killed. Such meat was never a staple, but the meat could be eaten and was used. That was the extent of my exposure to bushmeat in Africa.

Bushmeat now means something altogether different. One of the websites dedicated to education about this issue states baldly that “In Africa, the unsustainable bushmeat trade is wiping out wildlife including gorillas, chimpanzees, antelopes and many other species.” (
Bushmeat Crisis Task Force) It is the permanent loss of species that haunts me. The dilemma is how do we balance the needs of humans against the existence of other animals?

For desperate people in some parts of the world, Africa for example, eating bushmeat is the one available means to stave off starvation.
Here is a thought-provoking piece on the role of bushmeat in Africa.

photo from

Of course, this practice is as old as humanity. Before humans domesticated animals, they killed game—this term is a far less objectionable one than bushmeat. Obviously, I am not opposed to humans killing and eating game that is plentiful. But I really shudder at some of the types of bushmeat that is now being sold in some African markets—for example, gorillas. The one photo that I include here is of an African porcupine being sold as bushmeat. There are far more graphic photos on the Internet of bushmeat for sale—particularly chilling are gorilla heads. The great apes are virtually our cousins, so how can we possibly eat them?

So, I wrestle with the problem—how can we humans co-exist with other animals on this earth. Humans eating other animals and in so doing possibly wiping out species is not the only way we threaten animals. There are so many ways that humans and animals clash. Another thoughtful blogger addressed one of these problems—humans encroaching more and more on habitat that displaces animals. Then when those animals come around where we live, we take action that sometimes harms them. See Natural Notes 3 thoughtful post on Birds or Bears.

We humans have to accept that we are part of all creation, that the destruction of habitat affects us, that the loss of species affects us, that the great web of creation sustains and supports us. Destroy it and we destroy ourselves.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Saturday Soup 7

As I write this post, I am in Louisville, Kentucky, attending an advisory committee meeting for the Presbyterian Church. I serve on the disaster assistance advisory committee which sets the direction for how the PCUSA will respond to disasters both national and international.

No doubt there is some Kentucky soup I could feature, but I don't know what. Yesterday in our meeting we were learning about the impact of hunger around the world, focusing particularly on Haiti and Democratic Republic of Congo. Two projects that are underway in those countries are to grow the moringa tree. This tree, which can grow in even the worst of soil, has edible leaves, roots and pods. It is a source of vitamins, of iron and of calcium. Its leaves can be eaten like green vegetables, or dried and ground into flour that can be mixed into porridge or made into cookies!

Well, I have no moringa soup recipe, but many parts of the world depend on sweet potatoes for food, so how about some sweet potato soup?

Serves 12

4 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped celery
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2-1/2 Tablespoons grated fresh ginger root
1 Tablespoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
5 bay leaves
1 Tablespoon salt
8 cups of water or homemade vegetable stock
10 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange peel
1/4 cup dark rum
2-1/2 cups pineapple juice
Two 14-oz. cans reduced-fat coconut milk
1/4 cup fresh lime juice

In a large soup pot, sauté the onions and celery in the oil until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Cover the pot and stir often to prevent sticking.

Add the ginger, curry, nutmeg, bay leaves, and salt and sauté for another minute, stirring constantly. Add the water or stock, sweet potatoes, grated orange peel, and rum. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

Remove and discard the bay leaves. Pour the pineapple juice and the coconut milk into the soup pot. Puree the soup in a blender in batches until smooth. Stir in the lime juice.
If desired, garnish with cilantro or scallions and/or toasted coconut.

This is an adaptation of a Moosewood recipe.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Last night I stayed up a bit late to finish reading The Life of Pi. This book has absolutely consumed me and I want to write a bit about it before the spell wears off. The premise of the book is unique: can an Indian boy and a full grown Bengal tiger co-exist on a lifeboat together? The back story, to get the two on the lifeboat, tells about the life of Piscine Patel, who lives in Pondicherry, India, and whose father runs a zoo. In the course of time, Pi's father decides that the family should emigrate to Canada.

So some of the zoo animals are sold, and the rest are crated up and loaded on to a Japanese freighter that Pi and his family--his father, mother and brother--are all sailing on across the Pacific. Along the way, the freighter meets with a mishap and sinks quickly. Pi only has time to leap into a lifeboat. The tiger, who has somehow gotten free from his crate, swims to the lifeboat and climbs aboard. At the outset, there are several other animals on the boat, but they meet their untimely ends. I will not tell you more of the plot. Just read the book.

What the novel explores is the nature of reality, the possibilites of humans and animals co-existing, the place of animals in our lives, the nature of religion. Whew--all that while telling a terrific tale of heart-stopping survival. The story has a happy ending, I think. I am still thinking.

And I think I will be thinking for a long time about this book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Unauthorized Stories

In the blogosphere, there are stories and then there are unauthorized stories. A little while back my daughter brought to my attention that she and her brother discussed my telling of unauthorized stories. I had to chuckle at that, but at the same time take to heart the concern of family members that I not spill everything. Oh, I wouldn't do that.

But last Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning News did a story that reminded me of one of these unauthorized stories. CBS did a lovely segment on a Polish priest named Piotr Nawrot who went into the jungles of Bolivia to find lost Baroque music. If that description piques your interest, you can follow the link here to watch the whole story.

Every mother hopes to raise her children with a minimum of psychological trauma to their young minds. I certainly did. But something I did when they were in their early teens, or maybe younger, apparently seared them--at least they tell it that way. My children are now past their childhoods, my son in his 30s and my daughter in her 20s, and I believe they emerged from their childhoods unscathed--mostly.

You see, I love, make that LOVE, the movie "The Mission." This movie, starring a whole host of top notch actors including Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro, tells the story Jesuits missionaries in South America. Intent on spreading Christianity, and also part of the Spanish colonial outreach, the Jesuits went into the heart of South America, straddling what are today parts of the countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and set up 30 missions. The story of these missions is in itself fascinating, but to follow it I would wander away from the intent of this blog. You can follow the link to learn more.

I loved the movie so much that I thought it was a "must see" for my children. Since it came out in 1986, I likely had my son watch with me either the first or second time I saw it. He was in his teens then, so that timing fits. I was so ecstatic about the movie, I probably paid little attention to his reaction. I don't recall that he expressed any opinion about the movie, during or after watching it.

Since I had the movie on VHS, I could watch it again and again. When my daughter was somewhere in her teens, I said--you HAVE to see this movie "The Mission." And proceeded to persuade her to sit down with me one night to watch it. Later, she was talking with her brother. Now, I don't know exactly how that conversation went, so I won't recreate it. But apparently at some point, perhaps she said something to him about the movie. And her brother laughed and said--oh, did Mom make you watch the movie, too. A knowing shared moment between my children--the trauma that their mother put them through. Haarruummmpppphhhhh. I do not inflict trauma on my children--I introduce them to. . . culture.

Oh well, so they don't share my love for this marvelous movie. I will hasten to point out, the movie is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. The final scene is absolutely wrenching. In history, the Jesuits over-stepped their bounds. They were frequently doing that, and to slap down their influence, the Pope agreed that some of the territory where the missions were located had to be handed over from Spanish colonial control to Portuguese colonial control. The process was not pretty.

Now, what is the unauthorized part of this post? Well, telling this story of course. But, I contend that these are not just stories about my children. They are my stories too, even when the punchline is on me. So, how can they possibly be unauthorized?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

First Easter

Since I grew up as a child with a father who was a minister, and with parents who were missionaries, I have had a long exposure to the Bible. I absorbed a great deal more than I realized—so much so that when I went to a college that at the time required all students to take a Bible course, I tested out of the entry level course. That meant that I got to pick what Bible course I wanted to take!

I took more than one such course in my college career. Eventually, in my senior year, I took a course on the Gospels. We studied the synoptic Gospels together—that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. Synoptic derives from two Greek words meaning “seeing” and “together.” These three Gospels tend to tell the same stories. Then we studied the Gospel of John alone.

For the first time, I learned that in the oldest documents that Biblical scholars have (since there is no extant original Bible) the Gospel of Mark, which is widely accepted as the first gospel recorded, ends abruptly in chapter 16, at verse 8. The closing words are: ‘. . .and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Later translators, aware of the unresolved aspect of that closing, added the remaining verses out of other textual traditions. The great Catholic theologian Raymond E. Brown argues, in his work The Birth of the Messiah, that the construction of the Gospels likely began with disciples assembling the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection accounts. That makes sense—when someone we love dies we gather around and reminisce about how he died. Then, like the disciples, we move on to the remembrances of the person’s life. Brown says that the birth stories were probably collected last.

Reflecting on the abrupt ending of Mark, several years ago, I wrote a poem about that first Easter. I offer it here, as a reflection on the meaning of resurrection for us today on Easter.


Mark was always breathless in the telling of the story
Too rushed to even be bothered
To let us know how Jesus was born
Jumping right in to “the beginning of the Gospel”
Crying make way, make way.

Too hurried to attend to mundane details like babies
Crying in the night or shepherds shivering on the hillside.
And so it comes as no surprise that Mark dispenses
With details yet again. Right to after Sabbath sunrise
He leads the two Marys coming to complete the burial.

Almost an idle chatting, who will roll the stone, they ask.
Then looking up they see an open tomb. And Mark tells
Us they were amazed. Who wouldn’t be?
Angelic assurances aside, we’d be amazed to learn
That Christ has risen.

Is it any wonder that Mark ends abruptly the telling
That he began without fanfare or flourish. What is
There to say in the face of such wonder? Addenda
Are extraneous. And we can even forgive those early
Believers their silence and their fear.

By Donna F. W.
© 2003

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Saturday Soup 6

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate resurrection and renewal. Of course, there is no soup that I identify with Easter, but I thought that a soup with a Biblical name, albeit Old Testament, might be appropriate.

Serves 12

3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup pearl barley
1-1/2 cups brown lentils, rinsed, drained, and picked over
2 leeks, white part only, finely diced
10 cups vegetable stock
20 large fresh mint leaves, finely chopped, or 1 Tablespoon dried, crushed mint leaves
1 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)

1) Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes.

2) Add the garlic, barley, and lentils. Cook, while stirring, until the barley turns golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the leeks and stock.

3) Cover and cook, until the barley is tender, 30 to 35 minutes.

4) Add the mint, season with pepper, and serve immediately.

This recipe was adapted from an original recipe in A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land by Kitty Morse.
May God's peace be with you today and always.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Tie a Poem to a Chair

(April is national poetry month--this post celebrates that event.)

I have many favorite dead poets, but one of my favorite living poets is Billy Collins. Billy Collins has a wonderful poem called Introduction to Poetry, in which he uses the line “tie a poem to a chair with a rope/and torture a confession out of it.” I love that line. While it really applies to the interpretation of poetry, arguing that you can just appreciate poetry without always explicating all its meaning, I would also apply it to the process of creating poetry.

As a young woman, fresh out of graduate school (which I attended immediately after college), I had the great good fortune to teach at my alma mater. I ended up teaching literature and writing there for 8 years. Since, at that time, the college was relatively small, I got to teach a whole array of literature and writing courses, including creative writing. Oh, what fun!

When we came to the poetry portion of the course, I had a most difficult time with students. It seems that when someone has a deep emotional experience, and puts that experience down on paper, the writer believes she (or he) has become a poet. I had the sad task of telling many an eager student that “just because you have felt deeply and have put those feelings on paper does not mean you have written a poem.” I also had the unhappy task of then looking into many a sad face.

So, what does make a poem? When I teach creative writing, or literature, I begin with prose. It is the most approachable form, in my opinion, because humans are born story tellers. If we were to be able to transport ourselves back in time, to the dawn of humanity, we would likely find a camp fire somewhere with a group of humans sitting around it at night wiling away the long hours by telling stories. If you think of some of the earliest great works of literature—the Odyssey, for example—what you really have there is a marvelous story, or really a series of events strung together into a story.

From prose, I move to poetry. I begin by asking students what the difference is between prose and poetry. And, inevitably, someone eventually says—they look different. And usually they do. Occasionally, you find a poem that is purposefully put into prose form just to challenge the reader and see it you can tell what makes a poem a poem. But usually you can tell it’s a poem just by looking at it.

Understandably, because of the kind of poetry students have been exposed to, I usually have someone say poetry rhymes. And I say, some poetry does, but not all. A particularly astute student might say, poetry has rhythm and meter. This is truer than poetry rhyming, in part because words have rhythm and meter. Some poetry arranges words purposefully so the rhythm is accented and repeated. The most common rhythm and meter—iambic pentameter (code for unstressed, stressed, repeated 5 times= da DA, da DA, da DA, da Da, da DA). That is the meter Shakespeare preferred.

Does an iamb confuse you? Think “Whose woods these are I think I know.” That is four iambs long. Oh well, getting too too technical.

After students have exhausted themselves trying to figure out what I might be asking them, here’s what I point out about prose and poetry:

o Prose speaks ABOUT something through the words; poetry MAKES something through words.
o Poetry IS what it creates.

Of course, the class goes on longer than that! But to achieve those two attributes what poetry does is select every word as though it were a gem. The word has to be just right, sparkling and packed with meaning. A poet can’t afford to waste words. You will find no (or maybe hardly any) modern poet who goes on and on the way Dickens does in one of his novels. Since he is writing prose, he can be profligate with his words.

Poets have to be parsimonious, sparing of words.

So, let’s find a poem to tie to a chair. How about
Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.”

Let the light of late afternoon shine
through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Isn’t that wonderful? Look at some of the words and phrases that just sparkle: “chinks in the barn”; “cricket. . .chafing” compared to a woman with her knitting—but she doesn’t say knitting; she say “takes up her needles and her yarn.”

Or “moon disclose her silver horn.” And “fox go back to its sandy den”—not just “den” but “sandy den.”

And of course the repeated refrain of “let evening come” which holds the poem all together.

Well, untie the poem, let it shake itself loose from our temporary bonds. Now, just read it for pleasure.

Here endeth the lesson. Maybe another some day.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Green Green Grass of Home

There is always a day in late March or early April when the grass suddenly greens. Whether the winter has been harsh or mild, the grass goes dormant and browns. Then comes spring and--a little bit of rain, a little bit of sun--poof: green grass.

With a rush of memory, I recall my first conscious impression of America--it was GREEN. When my parents returned to the United States in the mid-1950s, we sailed into New York City harbor, and then rode with my grandparents back to Harrisburg, PA. With no interstates yet, our journey took us through wonderful country side, over rolling hills, past farmland and lots and lots of green green grass. That was my first impression. Greenness everywhere.

I am sure part of why I was so susceptible to all the green was that it stood in stark contrast to the colors of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in southern Africa. There, the landscape is dominated by browns. There are flashes of brilliance, such as after the heavy rains of the rainy season, when cacti bloom sending up gorgeous poker flowers that are red. Or there are the flame lilies everywhere (I have a necklace that features a flame lily). And there are the grey lichen covered rocks of the Matobo Hills. But there is nowhere then that you would see the ordinary green of a mowed lawn.

Now, I realize there are many places in the U.S. that should NOT have green lawns and do. And I know how water wasteful lawns can be. One of my main summertime gripes is the recalcitrant neighbor who insists on watering during a drought. No, no, NO--I want to scream as I walk past his house.

But in my child's experience, the green was breathtaking. When I returned to Africa, and saw my school mates, they asked--what is America like? My answer--it is green. This remark would get me in trouble later on, when I was being disciplined before the dormitory council, the student leaders mockingly said--so, how is GREEN America?

Perhaps the visual difference between a country I had just left and the one I was seeing now magnified the displacement I felt. But it took some getting used to all the green.

I previously wrote about being a third culture kid (TCK) which essentially describes growing up in a culture other than your birth culture, and then finding yourself in between the two. So you "make" a hybrid or third culture. That way you avoid the displacement that can occur as you go back and forth between two cultures--the third culture is always with you.

The sense of displacement is something other members of my family have examined--partly, trying to answer the question of where is home? My brother has written about returning to see the country of his birth, here and here. My nephew has written about various places he has lived and how it feels to go from place to place.

I have lived in Harrisburg now for almost 40 years. So I feel no displacement at all as an adult. But the green grass of spring did zip me back to that first experience of America, the green.

Photo credits--except for the ones of the green grass and of the flame lily necklace,
the photos come from my brother or my nephew.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Thoughts on a Palm Sunday

For Christians, Holy Week is the pinnacle of the church calendar. We left Ordinary Time as we entered Lent, and now with Palm Sunday, we move into Holy Week. This is always a week that whipsaws your thoughts--Palm Sunday, a high point. We all get palms at church, children love them--waving them back and forth. On many years, the choir and ministers process with children and their waving palms. These palms can be woven into crosses, or sometimes they are burned to provide the ashes for the coming year's Ash Wednesday. We saw many woven palms, hanging over doors, last year when we were in Spain.

Then we come to Maundy Thursday, a low point, "with maundy being an old English word referring to Jesus’ mandate for us to love one another" (explanation by my pastor). Our church always has a service where we worship with a sister Presbyterian church in town. On Good Friday, another low point, (which was originally God's Friday that morphed into good), we go to their church for a Tenebrae service. During this service, the events of Holy Week as recorded in the Gospels are read, and after each passage is read, lights are slowly turned out until the entire church is in darkness. It is an eerie unsettling experience.

Holy Week, of course, culminates with the highest point Easter--with all its wonderful significance. The popular symbols connected with Easter--bunnies & eggs, for example--derive more from pre-Christian celebrations of spring. These are not symbols I want to associate with Easter--Easter for me is about life, death, belief, renewal and resurrection.

But right now, on Palm Sunday, my mind is more on death. Two days ago, early on Friday morning, our church's Director of Music died suddenly. Now, he was not a young man, in fact he was 77, but with the possible exception of Christmas, there is no time that music figures more prominently in our worship than Easter. It has become a tradition that the postlude on Easter Sunday is Widor's Toccato from his 5th Symphony. And our music director raised the roof on the church every year as he pulled out all the stops on the organ. Not this year.

As I sat in church this morning, I listened to one of the Scripture lessons, and then wrote this poem. I occasionally write poems based on a particular passage of Scripture--writing serves as a kind of discipline for me. And I frequently find that my poems focus on how odd people then must have found the events that we have heard read so often we think them normal.


The Unridden Colt
Luke 19:29-34

You just have to stop and consider the implications of the command
Jesus telling some disciples to steal—if only for a day—
A colt, a colt that has never been ridden. If you were hearing this—
Be honest with yourself—wouldn’t you have said
If only inside your head—well, now he’s finally lost it?

After everything we’ve done—walked the entire length of Palestine
Even those forays in Samaria. Wearing out our sandals.
Battling the crowds, all those great unwashed sickly needy people
And the fishing! Always the fishing—by day and night.
Even going to sea in a storm. And now this!

Stealing colts! What are we to say if the owner protests?
The Master has need of it. Really? You think that’s going to cut it?
So we just walk away with it, paying no money—
What about the authorities, why can’t someone else do this?
What will he come up with next?

By Donna F. W.
© 2007