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ready for the storm

5

We’ve not had our usual winter here in New England: very little cold or snow. Seems that’s about to change. A Nor’easter is blowing in tomorrow. By Sunday afternoon we could have about a foot and a half of snow on the ground and I will be out shoveling the driveway.

Though the mild days have been nice, there’s an air of disappointment, too. Surviving the long winter is part of what distinguishes us as New Englanders. We were ready and have not been put to the test. I feel like I worked hard to get ready for the big game and have done nothing but sit on the bench. We need cold and snow — piles of it — so we can name the storm and tell the stories and call out to each other as we clear our driveways and then go into warm fires.

As Dougie MacLean says, I am ready for the storm.

Part of being ready is having what I need to make the food that warms us as well.

So here’s a recipe for “Open-faced Chicken Pot Pie.

The great thing about the recipe is — though I have given you a specific list of ingredients — you can add or take away whatever you want. Ginger is not much for carrots, so, when I don’t feel like watching her pick them out, I leave them out. Broccoli works well in the mix also. Try sweet potatoes instead of the white ones. You get the idea.

Since our house sits in a wind tunnel between the beach and the marsh, the storm will swirl around us, making the house whistle. Since our house is a converted summer home, the windows do a little whistling of their own as they let in some of the cold air. We wrap up in our quilts, the schnauzers turn into little donuts that smell like corn chips, and — despite all of the inconvenience — we are still captured by the magic and wonder of the white stuff stacking up in the yard.

Peace,
Milton

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us vs. us

7

A couple of weeks ago, my brother left a message on my cell phone:

“I just finished a book you have to read. You’ll love it. It’s called Blue Like Jazz.”

Since recommending reading is not one of his usual things, I went and bought the book. He’s right. It’s good. I’m reading it slowly because I want time to think about what Donald Miller, the author, has to say. After wrestling with this chocolate stuff, I came back to his retelling of one conversation in particular. He and his friend Tony were discussing the genocide in the Congo.

“It’s terrible,” I told him. “Two and a half million people dead. In one village they interviewed about fifty or so women. All of them had been raped, most of them numerous times.”

Tony shook his head. “That is amazing. It is so difficult to even process how things like that can happen.”

“I know. I can’t get my mind around it. I keep wondering how people could do things like that.”

“Do you think you could do something like that, Don?” Tony looked at me pretty seriously. I honestly couldn’t believe he was asking the question.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Are you capable of murder or rape or any of the stuff that is taking place over there?”

“No.”

“So you are not capable of any of those things?” he asked again. He packed his pipe and looked at me to confirm my answer.

“No, I couldn’t,” I told him. “What are you getting at?”

“I just want to know what makes those guys over there any different from you and me. They are human. We are human. Why are we any better than them, you know?”

Reading through the comments on yesterday’s post, all full of great thoughts and feelings, I’ve been trying to come to terms with my own. No, I’m not going to give up chocolate. I don’t want to and it doesn’t solve anything. I am going to have to come up with an alternative for Valentine’s other than Reese’s Hearts, but there are alternatives. Thanks to Newman’s Own, I can find fair trade chocolate even in our biggest supermarket. It’s tucked away with the Kashi cereal, Terra chips, and flax seed oil. Meanwhile, the “candy aisle” stretches from the front end of the store to the back, and none of it fair trade.

We’ve got work to do. Miller’s words remind me the conversation has to be about “we” — about us. The coporate executives at Nestle and M&M/Mars who answer protests with form letters and dodge the real issues, the buyers and sellers of cocoa futures, those who abuse the children on the cocoa farms, the stock traders and stockholders who demand profits at all costs from their companies, the media who make one-day-emergencies out of chronic problems, the children who are forced into slavery: they are all part of us.

I’m no better than they are. I’m connected to them, if by nothing else than our common humanity. The only way things will really change is if we — WE — work on it.

Part of us are already out there. Check out the folks at Global Exchange. They have everything from information to educational resources to a fair trade on-line store. I’m challenged and encouraged by their approach because it offers me a way to respond beyond being angry, guilty, or resigned to this just being the way things are. They really believe we can change things.

I want to believe that, too.

When I named my blog, I was playing on the Buddha quote at the top of the sidebar: “There is no joy in eating alone.” Yesterday, one of the comments posted said, “The grocery store certainly is overwhelming when you start to consider the origins of what you eat, and justice. We really never do eat alone, do we?”

No, we don’t.

As I have said before, one of the things I love about coming to the Communion Table is I am coming to the table with all of those who have come before me and all who will come after me. I am not alone.

I’m learning that is true about any table, or any food for that matter. When I pick up a chocolate bar, or a cup of coffee, or a ham sandwich, I’m at the table with those who helped get the food to my table, those who have benefited from my purchases, and those who are harmed by my choices. I don’t ever eat alone.

The task, then, is for us to live and eat so none of us goes hungry.

Peace,
Milton

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we are what we eat

13


It’s hard to write when you feel stupid.

I’ve run up against something I didn’t know about that should have been on my radar. I’m deeply disturbed, convicted, and dumb.

It’s also hard to write when you have too strong an agenda.

I’m pissed. I want to preach, to rant, to tell everyone what they should do – not particularly compelling reading.

About thirty minutes after I heard the symphony of trucks on Monday, I heard a report on Marketplace that disturbed me, to say the least. The story had to do with a lawsuit filed against Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland for their connection to child slavery on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. The suit is being brought on behalf of three boys who escaped the horror, with hopes that it will become a class action lawsuit to move these corporations beyond “studying the problem,” which they have been doing for years, to moving to a fair trade model that would not allow for slavery in any form.

I had no idea.

Some of the specifics I heard in the story and found in some other material are:
70% of the cocoa used in America comes from Ivory Coast;
90% of the cocoa grown in Ivory Coast is connected to child slavery;
though new to me, it’s not a new problem.

I’ve spent the last hour chasing down links, trying to learn more. I’m overwhelmed by what I’ve found. Rather than repeat it all, I offer these links so you can read for yourself.
“Why slavery still exists: those along the ‘chocolate chain’ put blame on someone else”
“Chocolate and Slavery”
“Fair Trade Chocolate”

I’m just trying to figure out what to do with the fact that I’m killing children when I buy M&M’s.

Unfortunately, there’s no hyperbole in that statement. Tim Bergquist, president of International Chocolate Company, said it this way: “Every time one closes his eyes and buys a product made by children, then he is also responsible. He becomes an accomplice.”

Ginger, my wife, put it more succinctly: “No more chocolate.”

And Valentine’s Day is next week. This year we’ll be skipping the Reese’s Hearts.

Every trip to the supermarket, it seems, is a test of faith. Globalization means that my picking up grapes from Chile in the dead of winter means some poor farmer is taking it in the face. I have more fresh produce available to me in the dead of a New England winter than the people who live in the countries that grow the stuff ever get to see themselves. So I’ve joined the growing band of folks who are working hard to figure out how to eat more locally and challenge the big corporations.

But this chocolate thing goes to a whole different level.

Children are being sold as slaves, being beaten and killed for not working fast enough, just so I have ninety-seven inexpensive candy options when I step up to the register at CVS. Kids are dying for candy.

What in hell are we doing?

I know I’m late to the game in adding my voice to the chorus of concerned folks demanding change. But now I know and I can’t keep quiet.

When I lived in Dallas, my roommate and I decided to make a concerted effort to quit adding salt to our food, since both of us came from families with heart issues. We decided the best way to do it was to quit calling it salt; we called it “White Death.” If we wanted to salt our food, we had to say, “Please pass the White Death.” We soon cured ourselves of the desire to use the stuff.

Maybe it’s time to say, “You want a Child Killer?” instead of “You want a candy bar?”

I know this is raw. It’s how I feel.

Peace,
Milton

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once upon a time

7

In the early nineties, Robert Olen Butler wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection called A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. I read it for a Fiction Writing course I took while working on my MA in English. My favorite story was “Fairy Tale,” mostly because of the first paragraph:

I like the way fairy tales start in America. When I learn English for real, I buy books for children and I read, “Once upon a time.” I recognize this word “upon” from some GI who buys me Saigon teas and spends some time with me and he is a cowboy from the great state of Texas. He tells me he gets up on the back of a bull and he rides it. I tell him he is joking with Miss Noi (that’s my Vietnam name), but he says no, he really gets up on a bull. I make him explain that “up on” so I know I am hearing right. I want to know for true so I can tell this story to all my friends so that they understand, no lie, what this man who stays with me can do. After that, a few years later, I come to America and I read some fairy tales to help me learn more English and I see this world and I ask a man in the place I work on Bourbon Street in New Orleans if this the same. Up on and upon. He is a nice man who comes late in the evening to clean up after the men who see the show. He says this is a good question and he thinks about it and he says that yes, they are the same. I think this is very nice, how you get up on the back of time and ride and you don’t know where it will go or how it will try to throw you off.

Yesterday was the anniversary of when I climbed upon a time: Ginger and I had our first date on February 5, 1989. I was living in Fort Worth and she in Arlington. I had tickets to go see a new singer, Lyle Lovett, who was performing at Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. I had planned to take my best friend, Billy, but after I met Ginger I called and told him I would get him something else – I had met a girl. In 1989, February 5 fell on a Sunday night as well. Since I was working in a church that had a Sunday night service, my original plan was to cut out during the last hymn, shoot over to Arlington and pick her up, and then come back for the show. An ice and snowstorm hit and church was called off, so I called her and made plans to pick her up for dinner. I slid across town in my front wheel drive Toyota Tercel and we ate at Good Eats, a kind of comfort food place, and then went on to see Lyle.

The show was amazing. He had a cello player with him and they moved from country to alternative to blues to improvisational jazz seamlessly. The room was intimate and charged. As we reflected on the evening later, we both had a sense of awe and mystery that night.

We climbed upon a time and have been riding ever since.

The next day I sent her a card, using Lyle’s words:

if ford is to chevrolet
what dodge is to chrysler
what corn flakes are to post toasties
what the clear blue sky is to the deep blue sea
what hank williams is to neil armstrong
can you doubt that we were made for each other?

I don’t think we ever have. In April we will have been married sixteen years. Together we have moved across country, made our home here in New England. She has stayed with me through my seemingly endless vocational crisis and the ride down the wormhole that is Living With Depression. I was there as she got her doctorate, among other things. The ride has had its moments when we felt as if we had been thrown. But the best parts have been the meals and the movies, the walks on the beach or around our old Charlestown neighborhood, the memories we keep packing into our hearts.

I searched hard to find a Good Eats Café of some sort in the Boston area, but all I found was a cheap college pizza joint, so I opted for familiar food. We went to Bob’s Southern Bistro, based on reviews I found, and stumbled into another memory together. They were having a Super Bowl party (that’s what Feb. 5 meant to everyone else). When we got there, they were handing out shots of Crown Royal; after dinner they gave us homemade carrot cake. In between, we chased down fried catfish and chicken, some meatloaf, and all kinds of good southern side dishes.

And we told anyone who would listen why we were celebrating.

One of the last lyrics I wrote when I was writing songs is one that never made it to any sort of recording, but remains one of my favorites. It’s called “Well Worn Love.” The image I had was of Ginger and I after forty or fifty years. I kept playing with the image of a love well-worn, like the library steps worn from good use.

he pours her coffee like every morning
she kisses his nose as she passes
his hair is much thinner than back when they started
and she did not always wear glasses

she smiles with her eyes as he butters his bread
they talk about what’s in the news
he heads for the garden she gathers the laundry
and life feels familiar and true

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

he takes her hand coming out of the movie
they stop at a sidewalk café
he finds her a chair that is next to the window
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

she smiles with her eyes at the things he remembers
she touches the side of his face
the moments they share in the balance of time
are the heart of redemption and grace

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

she wears the ring that he put on her hand
some forty five years ago
and time is defined by the lines of the love they know

winter comes early with how shadows and snowfall
who knows how long it will stay
so he pours her coffee like every morning
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

Sometimes Ginger asks me where I think I would be if we had never met. My answer is always the same: “I don’t think I would be alive.” I am upon a time, rather than crushed below it, because Love found me when I looked in her eyes some seventeen years ago.

However bumpy the ride has been, Love has never let go.

Peace,
Milton

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how do we appreciate?

3

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

0

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

4

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

10

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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