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how do we appreciate?

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Any time we have a discussion about a meal at church and the discussion turns to how we are going to pay for it before we talk about why we are having the meal or what we are going to have, I’m afraid the folks in the room know what I’m going to say because, at least on this point, I’m rather predictable. I have a rather well-rehearsed rant that goes something like:

If we’re going to fix a meal, then let’s do it right. We don’t have to spend a lot of money to prepare nice food, and to make people feel as though we mean what we are doing. If we don’t intend to do the best we can, why do it? Do we want people to think church dinners are always substandard meals?

OK — that’s the abbreviated version, but you get the idea.

I got to make the speech again a couple of weeks ago as we planned for our annual Teacher appreciation Dinner. The quality of the meal speaks to the quality of our gratitude. For a number of years, the church paid for everyone to go to a local Chinese restaurant, which meant we had a nice meal and no one was stuck with the dishes. A couple of years ago, we convinced ourselves that kind of gratitude was too extravagant and decided the Christian Education Committee would prepare the meal in our Parish Hall. (Insert the above speech here.) Yesterday afternoon, committee members met to prepare the food and set up the room.

The woman who decorated the hall did a great job. Undecorated, the room looks a lot like an unfinished roller rink. By pulling the room dividers and using some red-checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wine bottles, she turned it into a cozy little cafe. Our cooking team went to work as well. We served Open Chicken Marsala Ravioli and Oreo Ice Cream Pie (not my recipe, but I’ll get it). The whole event cost about a hundred dollars and we served thirty people. After dinner, people sat at the tables and talked for almost an hour. Some of us still had to do dishes, but it was worth it. We did a good job saying thank you.

Up until my grandmother died, she had a framed thank you note I wrote her when I was ten or eleven, which said, “I’m writing to say thanks for the Christmas present because Mom said if I didn’t write a thank you note I wouldn’t get any more presents.” Cute for a kid, maybe, but a lousy thank you. And yet, I’m afraid it is the kind of appreciation we too often offer one another. Acting as though a thrown-together Ragu Reward is going to make someone feel appreciated is fooling ourselves but not fooling them. True thanks ought to cost us something. When we come across as though we a just throwing a bone so we can check it off our list, the alleged gratitude is hollow and condescending.

I love to cook, so good food is a good way for me to say thanks, but it’s not the only way. Good gratitude starts by asking, “What do I have most to give and what do they most need to receive?”

It doesn’t have to be open ravioli, but it does need to be open-hearted.

Peace,
Milton

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food and poetry: part two

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Today I’m cooking for a Teacher Appreciation Dinner at church and I’m making fresh pasta (report and recipes tomorrow), which brings me to pass on another poem shared with me by another friend. She found it through the Writer’s Almanac. The poet is Kate Scott, from her book Stitches.

Pasta

In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair.

She sits the fat belly on the table.
She pokes it with one finger, it dimples.

Stroked with flour, her rolling pin
works roundness to flatness,
teases out a thin cream sheet.

She picks up the sheet with a nimble pinch,
feeds it into the teeth of the steel machine.

She turns the handle, smiling at me
Though I know she is tired, not very happy.
She hangs the frail strips on chairs, on doors.

As the dampness lifts they start to flutter.
She hangs them lightly over her arm, padding to the stove.

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.
Everything feels suddenly invited.

Dinner is at 7:00 in the Parish Hall. We’ll save you a seat.

Peace,
Milton

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food and poetry

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This poem was passed along by a friend from long ago: Sarah McManus Bickle. Her first email did not say who wrote it. When I inquired, i found out she did! Sarah is an ESL teacher at Jasper High School in Dallas, Texas.

Great work, Sarah!

How Black Bean Tacos Saved My Life

In the beginning there was Seven Meat Gumbo,
a thick mess of something my cousins had brought home
-my big cousins with their guns, Coors hats, and waders –
I don’t remember how it tasted, but it was the pageantry,
the story-telling men and the bread-baking women
all laughing in the kitchen,
the delicious chaos that impressed me the most.

Next, I guess, was Christmas fudge,
a more orderly endeavor wherein Grandma was commandant.
Glasses perched low, she directed us:
Grandpa and Dad cracked (and ate) the pecans,
Mom kept the baby, and I studiously stirred and licked my fingers.

Then came the nineties, and the suburbs,
and it was grilled chicken and rice for the entire decade,
punctuation coming in form of canned green beans, peas,
perhaps a green salad.
It was a sad time.

In college, I wasted away on a diet of
soft serve ice cream and tuna fish sandwiches
until I could bear it no longer.
I ventured into our low-rent neighborhood’s corner grocery store,
where women with long black braids carried fat babies from aisle to aisle.
I followed them, watching their actions like Columbus’s men
must have watched the Tainos, incredulous that the Indians
survived the suspicious tomato.

I went home with cilantro, jalapenos, cumin, black beans, limes,
and a dollar fifty dozen of fresh tortillas.
My kitchen sang. Ancient aunts, country cousins, and my grandmother
rose up in the steam from my skillet, though their accents had changed a bit.

So in this way a talent came to me like sourdough starter or live coals,
the gift of nourishment. Fat roots reached up from the kitchen floor to claim me.

Here’s to being claimed in the kitchen.

Peace,
Milton

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breakfast cookies and care

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Last week I had a small catering gig for a gathering of the In-Care students for the Southeast Area of the Mass. Conference of the UCC. In-care students are our seminarians. Various congregations take them “in-care,” which means we provide support and encouragement. If you are going to support and encourage people, you gotta feed ’em. Last year the job fell my way because we had to have it at our house at the last minute and I ended up being the cook. This year they hired me on purpose.

They wanted some sort of pick up food for breakfast, along with coffee and fruit. I made the World’s Easiest Monkey Bread, but was also on the lookout for something with a little more flair. Thanks to Cookin’ in the ‘Cuse, a great food blog I found through my connection to Real Live Preacher, I found a recipe for Breakfast Cookies, which I adapted a bit for my purposes. (You can read her recipe here.)

For lunch I made an Israeli couscous dish, a winter salad, pumpkin apple soup, and this lentil vegetable soup.

While I cooked and cleaned, they met. I could not hear specifics from the room, but I could pick up a vibe. What I loved most was, as the day wore on, the level of laughter increased.

Peace,
Milton

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this is me in grade nine, baby

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My friend, Mia, responded to my post, “re-member, then” with this comment and quote:

Your post made me think of a James Hillman quote – “our lives my be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods”.

James Hillman is a new name to me, but he’s on to something.

Mia and I were a part of a group of folks who spent time growing up in Nairobi, Kenya and all attending Nairobi International School (now International School of Kenya). All of us are what they call “third culture kids“: people born in one culture, raised in another, and belonging to neither. Two years ago, thanks to the tenacity of our friend Martha, we all got back together after not seeing each other for thirty years. The reunion was full of healing for us all. I think it was one of the few times any of us had been in a room where everyone understood us. We are getting back together again this summer.

The over arching self-image of my adolescence that lives in my memory is I was a short, fat kid. Now, as an almost-fifty-year-old who struggles with my weight, I have often viewed my battle of the bulge as a life long war because I’ve always been chubby. I grew six inches taller in college, but I never got over feeling fat.

After we got back from our gathering, Martha sent my a picture she took of me in ninth grade. I remember her taking the picture. I am sitting in an armchair with one leg crossed over the other. I have on a sports coat, a pink shirt, a turquoise patterned tie that’s about nine inches wide across the bottom, and red socks.

Here’s the thing: I’m not fat in the picture.

It’s right there in all it’s Polaroid reality. I was a normal sized kid. I was short, but I wasn’t fat. Yet, somehow, the way I learned to imagine my childhood led me to grow up with a different picture in my brain.

In tenth grade, my family was on leave from the mission field and we lived in Fort Worth, Texas and I went to Paschal High School, my sixth school in ten years. My youth minister at University Baptist Church was a guy named Steve Cloud. He was everything I was not: athletic, tall, handsome, together. I was (felt) short, fat, and completely out of place. I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed at 3362 Cordone, looking in the mirror, and wishing I could be anyone else but me.

One day after school, I went by the church to see Steve. He called me “Flash.” He suggested we go out and shoot some baskets on the church parking lot. I am the world’s worst basketball player, but I went with him. One of my lame two-handed set shots missed everything and the ball rolled across the parking lot.

“You get it,” I said disgustedly.

I can still see him walking across, picking up the ball, and walking back toward me with the ball on his hip. He put his arm around me and we turned to go back to his office.

“Flash,” he said, “One day Trish and I are going to have a kid and I hope he turns out exactly like you.

That day, Steve gave me a way to imagine myself that helped me live through high school.

One of the images of my childhood that is hardest for me to shake is that love is earned. Feeling worthy of love has never come easily for me. As I have said before, one of my deepest fears is that I don’t belong. In both my head and heart, I can hear the voices of those, from Ginger on down the line, who love me deeply. I know I am loved and the imaginings of my childhood that Hillman points to tell me it’s all conditional because I haven’t done enough.

Then someone else left another e.e. cummings poem in the comments:

out of the lie of no
rises the truth of yes

I wonder sometimes what might have happened if Steve had not said that to me. But he did. In that brief moment on the parking lot the truth of yes found a foothold and hung on for my dear life, giving me a chance to grow into a different image of grace, love, and hope.

This past weekend marked seventeen years since Ginger and I met. I have been with her longer than I lived in Africa. I know most of what I know of grace and love because of the way she incarnates it to me. If life was about getting what you earned, I would not be lying next to her at night. She continues to give me new eyes with which to see myself.

And I need her to keep doing it because, Polaroid or no, the fat kid just won’t go away.

Peace,
Milton

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building a mystery

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One of my memories of teenage trips to Six Flags Over Texas was bridge made of barrels across some fabricated pond. The barrels meant each step had its own tilt: the walk was not straight or easy, but at least you had ropes along the sides to hang on to.

The last couple of weeks have felt like that barrel bridge for both Ginger and me, each day tilting a different direction than the one before, though the side ropes have not been as apparent. Most of the reason for the random pitch has been my life: there’s a lot going on. We are not deathly ill or facing a major life crisis. I have not felt significantly depressed in some time now, thank God. But the day in, day out, who’s in the hospital, what needs to get done, I have three meetings tonight circumstances of our existence, it all adds up.

On top of all that, instead of a New England winter we have been dealing with a bizarre progression of days where one is 40 to 50 degrees warmer (or colder) than the one before. It’s just hard to keep balanced.

In the midst of all the tossing about, I feel these are very pregnant days, if I might change metaphors. We’ve been busy before. We’ve had weeks with more on our plates than we know how to eat; this is not that. As Bill said to Ted (or the other way round), “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” Something is happening. Something is growing. Something is about to be born.

That’s about the best I can do.

I am walking in the dark, but a different kind of dark — not the bottomless pit, but the unfathomable mystery.

My spiritual director, Ken, offered me this e. e. cummings poem this week during our time together:

(no time ago)

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus) my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed (as

close as i’m to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

One of Ginger’s favorite quotes is from Nietzsche: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” (If he’s right, we’re about to give birth to a whole freaking galaxy!) I do love the sentiment. When life swirls around us, we can see it – or perhaps we can decide to see it – as a destructive force or as creative energy waiting to take form.

Five years ago next week was when my depression first ambushed me in a way I could name. Actually, my English Dept. Director at Winchester named it first. I lost 150 essays and she pulled me into her office and said, “We need to talk about what we are going to do about your depression.”

I am ever grateful for her courageous act of friendship.

Five years later, January feels different: energetic, chaotic, hopeful. Things are changing. The plates are shifting. The Spirit is stirring the waters.

I can’t name it much more than that. For now, I’m content to tumble along in the swirl of the mystery, keeping me eye out, of course, for any red shoes along the way.

Peace,
Milton

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re-member, then

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When I was growing up, Saturdays meant Taco Salad for lunch.

My mother made this wonderful mixture of beef, beans, lettuce, cheese, and Fritos that may have mostly consisted of opening cans and packages, but tasted like home. We never got tired of Saturday lunches. It is still one of my favorite meals. I don’t make it every week (more like every couple of months), but even for Ginger and I it connects to something beyond the ingredients in the bowl.

But what?

My mother is the other cook in my family of origin. We still swap recipes and remind each other of meals gone by. How she re-members those Saturdays (how she puts the pieces of our family back together) is not the same as my re-membrance. For her, a bowl of Taco Salad recreates the memory of a family once closely knit and now scattered to the winds. I recall a family that ate and laughed together but one who did not know much how to really tell each other who we were.

Let me rephrase: I did not know how to tell them who I was.

Saturday lunch bounced back into my consciousness because I’ve been reading Suffer the Little Voices, a new book of poems by my friend, Nathan Brown, published by Greystone Press. (Read a review of his first book of poetry here.) This morning at breakfast, I read “Soul Savers”:

I gaze back at the pain and
disdain we felt for “the lost”
in covert planning sessions
we called Bible studies. Then

I turn my head away with a jerk
from the sight of my old church
in a weak and strained attempt
to push down the past stupidity —

a stupidity constructed through
millenniums of bad dogma,
which was “not busy livin’ . . .
just busy dyin’,” as Bob Dylan,

a theologian of different cut,
tried to tell us in the years
we couldn’t look past his
prophetic, soul-felt addictions.

My sighs and shaking head
signify the inevitable departure
from that, from them, not Jesus
[still my favorite hippie socialist

and, yes, Son of God].
But, I do realize, I’m afraid,
that in the nouns and verbs
I now choose to express myself,

I’ve certainly lost them,
the “they” I once was.
And I’m struck with the fear
that now. . . it’s me they’re after.

Like Nathan, I grew up Southern Baptist. After years of watching the denomination implode and finding my faith community elsewhere, I am surprised how often I go back to those days to re-member them with something other than anger or disdain. I put back together the memories that helped shape me and taught me how to live in the grace of God, much like I go back for another helping of Taco Salad. Though it is not a place I could stay, it is where I am from.

The choice, it seems, is between re-membering my life — putting the pieces together in some meaningful fashion — and dis-membering it — cutting off the sections that aren’t comfortable, I’m not proud of, or embarrass me. But I don’t want to live as an emotional or spiritual amputee. I need all of my days stacked up to help me remember who I am.

In my weaker moments, I look back on my family days and think, “They didn’t understand I was not like them.” Yet, I am “them.” To say so doesn’t mean buying into an idealized memory of what family was; we were not perfect, but we did make memories that marked each other. We are family.

I have the recipes to prove it.

Peace,
Milton

PS — If you would like to get a hold of Nathan’s books, you can contact him at nub@ou.edu. Tell him I sent you.

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how was your day?

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My friend Patty sent me a link to an article in the Boston Globe which began:

“Last year around this time, a Cardiff University psychologist named Dr. Cliff Arnall scored some publicity with his declaration that January 24 is the most depressing day of the year.”

Alex Beam’s wonderful column went on to describe the mathematical formula this guy had configured to deduce today was going to be The Suckiest Day of the Year. Beam had an alternate formula designed to bring a different result: read the Globe, ditch work, watch rerun of the Daily Show and the last half of the Law & Order rerun, take a nap and eat at Anna’s Taqueria.

Our local NPR station annouced this morning the Globe was taking a chain saw to their staff and gutting the paper to try and save money. I hope Alex springs for the grande burrito.

Today was a good day for me because I got to go back to my iconography class after a long break of six months. My teacher, Christopher Gosey, lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, so I had a bit of a drive. We met in the basement of the Russian Orthodox church. I am trying to finish an icon of St. Nicholas for a friend. Chris was playing a CD of an Orthodox liturgy as he guided me through the process of laying down the layers of paint that will make up the shading on the face. This particular step always freaks me out a bit because the first couple of applications make the face look a lot like Tammy Faye Bakker. Yet, somehow, with each application of the colors, a face begins to emerge and the icon takes on personality.

I drove back for staff meeting and then met Ginger at the home of some folks in her church where the deacons were meeting for a fellowship dinner. Once again, church folks around a table together; I knew it would be good. Jim and Nancy, our hosts, served Spaghetti Pie — good comfort food. And a good time was had by all.

Law & Order:SVU just came on and The Daily Show will follow, but the formula for my day was head north, write icons, take a quick nap with the schnauzers, and have dinner with friends.

January 24 turned out pretty well.

Peace,
Milton

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malcolm and noah go shopping

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Years ago I wrote a children’s story called Malcolm and Noah Go Shopping, based on an old Far Side cartoon. I sent it to a couple of publishers and got one response that said my story was not publishable because the snakes did not act consistent with their species. In the story, the snakes end up making friends with a hamster. This week, BBC News ran this story about a snake in the Tokyo Zoo who befriended his “snack hamster.”

In light of this new information, I offer my story

Peace,
Milton

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goodbye, my friend

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When we were in seminary, my housemate, Burt, and I lived on very little. We were school bus drivers when we weren’t in class, which paid about $400 a month in the late seventies. We each budgeted $10 a week for food, which meant we bought our bread at the Mrs. Baird’s Thrift Shop (day old) and counted out slices of the world’s cheapest lunch meat to make our sandwiches. Whoever got to the kitchen first got to make the lunches — and got to write a note to Miss Landers (Beaver Cleaver’s teacher) on the outside of the bag. Here’s one example I remember (Burt’s work):

Dear Miss Landers,
I’m sorry for the incident with little Milton on the playground yesterday. I hope none of the children is psychologically scared.
June Cleaver.

We cracked ourselves up.

We needed all the help we could get. We felt like outsiders in the restrictive world that was (is?) Southwestern Seminary, and our humor was one of the ways we stayed sane. Another way was looking for voices that fed us. One of those voices was John Claypool.

I found out last night he died in September. I didn’t know. His death is not news, but my grief is fresh. You can read a wonderful tribute here.

I met him a couple of times. He was a contemporary of my parents. I never really talked to him, but he felt like a friend because of his writings. The book I remember best was Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, which told the story of the death of his young daughter. In a time when most Baptist preachers were telling everyone to get right or get left, Claypool was talking about how his faith intersected his life. His resonance with my struggle to live out my faith was profound for me.

One day I told one of my professors how much Claypool fed me. He responded, “The only people John Claypool speaks to are the walking wounded and those in adolescent rebellion.”

“Is there anyone else?” I asked.

And I thought, to myself, if I could reach those people I would be doing pretty well.

One of the joys of the Communion table for me is I am sitting down to the meal with all those who have come before and all who will come after. It is an eternal moment where time is of no consequence. I’m sad John’s voice is no longer speaking in our time. I’m grateful for the legacy he left and that we still share a Meal together now and then.

Peace
Milton

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