Friday, August 26, 2016

Vegetable Lasagna from Love Your Leftovers

As I've slowly gotten back into cooking, following my long hiatus (can you call it a hiatus, when it was a break enforced by cancer and chemotherapy? hmmm...) I am experimenting with some new recipes. Some are from my cookbook collection here at home, and others are from cookbooks that I've borrowed from the library, my favorite resource for culinary experimentation.

Today's cookbook is Love Your Leftovers by Nick Evans, published by Lyons Press in 2014.

I came across mention of this cookbook while perusing recipes online, and was able to get hold of it quickly because of my terrific library system.

The premise behind this cookbook is a neat and practical one that I'm surprised I've never seen before. Author Evans offers 14 chapters in which he begins with a very basic food and then builds recipes off of it for the rest of the chapter. For instance, he gives you a good recipe for roast chicken and then proceeds to show you all the ways you can use leftover roast chicken in a variety of yummy ways.

The fourteen basics that he builds off include a nice variety for both carnivores and vegetarians (and everyone in between, including pesce-pollotarians like me -- look it up: I didn't invent the word!). The basics are:

  • Roast Chicken
  • Black Beans
  • Flank Steak
  • Potatoes
  • Tomato Sauce
  • Lentils
  • Bread
  • Pulled Pork
  • Grilled Tofu
  • Granola
  • Rice
  • Roast Salmon
  • Beef Stock
  • Ice Cream

There are 16 chapters in all, because he includes a "Kitchen and Pantry Basics" at the beginning, and a "Meal Planning 101" at the end. I haven't gotten to those yet; I dived immediately into the of the book, and started with the recipes.

I thought I would go first for a black bean recipe, as I recently made a huge pot of beans from dried and have been trying to use them up. That's actually how I found the cookbook, while hunting for recipes in which I could use black beans. I still want to try the Black Bean Burgers and the Crunchy Black Bean Tacos.

But once I had the book in hand, I found myself drawn to the tomato sauce chapter, perhaps because I've made that from scratch a couple of times recently too. I decided I wanted to try the Vegetable Lasagna, partly because I hadn't made a lasagna in a long time (two years?) and it sounded yummy.

It was, though I ended up tweaking the recipe a bit. Former veggie lasagnas I've made have featured things like spinach and carrots. This one is all squash, probably another reason I gravitated toward it, since I had yellow squash on hand and knew I could quickly pick up eggplant and zucchini, the other two types this calls for.

Basically, you slice all your squashes thinly on a horizontal, bake them with olive oil and salt for a few minutes, then layer them between cooked lasagna noodles, marinara sauce, and a cheese mixture.

Besides the baking the squash before you layered it (an interesting move that makes it drier and a little saltier than the veggies I usually layer) I found the cheese mixture most interesting. Most of my lasagna cheeses are your basic mix of ricotta and mozzarella with maybe some salt and pepper (and I think I once made one that called for egg). This is the same mix of cheeses but it includes a good deal of lemon -- interesting, yes? -- both juice and zest. I used less than the recipe called for because I realized that for my little family of three, filling up my 9 x 13 rectangular pan was going to be quite enough of a noodle bake, thank you very much, which meant that I only used about half the noodles he called for (and fewer veggies, and less cheese).

I cut the lemon he called for in half or even less, and I still think I could have cut it a bit further, though I did like the citrus note it added to the cheese. I think that's what really set this dish apart, along with the deliciousness of the summer squash and the fun of the three colors -- green, yellow, purple -- that the multiple squashes brought to the party.

Here's a similar veggie lasagna recipe from Macheesmo, Nick Evans' blog. Clever blog name, yes?  I notice it doesn't include the lemon, which I guess is a tweak he came up with later. I'm glad he added it.

We served this hot with a bit of a green salad on the side (mixed greens and some cucumber). It was a a hearty meal and left us plenty of leftover lasagna for another dinner. 

Poetry Friday: Metropolis by Billy Collins

I haven't joined in on a Poetry Friday in a long time, but today I felt myself wanting to share this gem of a poem that I shared on FB four years ago. I love it when FB reminds me of what I shared, especially when it brings me back around to lovely words like these.

I think one reason I love Billy Collins so much is that he captures so many ordinary kinds of moments, and yet he always adds that one observation or one feeling that makes you catch your breath in wonder and think "oh yes!" or "me too!"

Here's his wonderful meditation on wandering through a museum on a rainy day.

by Billy Collins

These are my favorite museum rooms,
the out-of-the-way ones on the upper floors,
usually unpeopled except for a single guard
who appears and disappears in the maze of walls
where these minor American paintings are hung.

I like the calm rustic ones: a surface of lake,
the low bough of an oak like a long arm,
a blue smudge of distant hills,
anything with cows, especially if they are standing
in a stream, their large, vacuous faces
staring into the warm, nineteenth-century afternoon.
And if one has lowered her head to drink
and the painter has indicated with flecks of white
the water pouring down from the animal’s mouth,
then the day, I feel, has achieved a modest crest.

And if it is raining outside that day
and low clouds press down on city buildings
while people under umbrellas climb the marble steps,
I usually find myself in front of the still lifes,
those painstaking devotions to objects,
agreeable possessions laid out on the altar of a table.

The rest of it can be found here at the Billy Collins Facebook page.

The poetry roundup today is at My Juicy Little Universe. Happy reading! 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Great British Bake off Series 7, Episode 1 (Recap with Spoilers)

Thanks to someone lively and enterprising, I got to watch the first episode of series 7 of the Great British Bake off on YouTube today.

I love this show, and waiting a year or longer for episodes to come to the States (some series have never aired here) is difficult. I don't know if I'll get to catch every week as it airs, but I plan to watch it as often as I can. This is the first time I've managed to catch a new series right as it starts, so for fun I thought I would blog my thoughts about the contestants and the baking. If you're a fan of a show, but not watching this series yet, be warned....spoilers ahead. Each week I manage to watch, I'll post who the star baker was and who left the show, as well as my thoughts about who's looking like a likely winner.

So let's get right to it, shall we?

What a delight it was to see the beautiful white tent in the distance, the green countryside, and our loopy but lovable emcees Mel and Sue, not to mention our eminent and respected judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.

As usual, we start off with twelve brand new contestants, all of whom have a bad case of nerves. The first show of each series always seems to give us insight into how each one handles stress, because there's always some to be had the first time they try a technical bake or face the judges.

Getting to know the different personalities of the bakers is at least half my fascination with this show, but the first hour there are really too many of them for all of them to make a strong impression. As usual, a few stood out more than others.

First, the women and how they came across: Jane Beedle, a 61 year old who designs gardens, radiates humility and unflappability. Val Stones, a 66 year old retired primary school teacher, is charmingly ditzy but her smiling vagueness sometimes translates into baking mistakes. Kate, a 37 year old mum, likes to bring fresh ingredients from her own farm, a little reminiscent of Ian and his wild ingredients in series 6. Candice Brown, a 31 year old physical education teacher, is slender and striking looking, partly because of the way her brown lipstick (a nod to her name?) defines her expressive mouth. Benjamina Ebeuhi has my favorite name and my favorite eyes, which tend to look anxious a lot. The anxious bakers are often the best ones. Louise Williams, a 46 year old blonde hairdresser, somehow looks as though she has more strength and warmth than her initial nervousness let us see.

Then there are my first impressions of the series 7 men: Rav Bansall, a 28 year old who works with university students and wears a nice smile and a handsome turban (exotic headgear reminiscent of Nadiya's headscarves last year). Tom Gilliford, a 26 year old who works as a "project engagement manager" (not fully sure what that is) for the Royal Society of Arts, and who likes to add booze to his bakes -- there's always one of those every series, it seems! Then there's Lee Banfield, a gray-haired 67 year old pastor whose gentleness is evident. He's the oldest contestant this year. The youngest is Michael Georgiou, a 19 or 20 year old university student, who has a nervous grin and ears that stick out sort of sweetly. Selasi Gbormittah is a muscular 30 year old financier, whose laid back attitude allowed him to take things in stride even when they didn't seem to be going his way. Andrew Smyth, a 25 year old aerospace engineer, has flaming red hair and sometimes flaming cheeks to match. He seems mild and easily embarrassed; you get the sense that he was probably an awkward boy genius in his not too distant adolescence.

I'm always interested to see how the contestants connect with each other early on. The main connection I noticed was the kind give and take between Selasi and Candice. Candice helped him out with winning advice when he forgot an ingredient in his signature bake (she suggested he put the cinnamon in his syrup, instead of remaking his whole cake, something Paul Hollywood later lauded him for). When Candice fell apart in the next day's showstopper, her face looking tragic and teary, we heard Selasi whisper words of encouragement to her.

Tears this week? Yes, at least two bakers out and out cried -- the aforementioned Candice and Benjamina, also in her showstopper -- and two more seemed glinty with near tears: Jane when she got a good word from the judges and Louise when she didn't.

Paul seemed unusually harsh this week, even for Paul. He says that they're going back to "basics" this series, but that it means judging will be even harder since they're keeping the challenges simpler. I'm pretty sure I heard him use the words "awful," "terrible," and one more pronouncement I can't remember exactly but which made me wince. Mary was her usual gentle self, saving most of her kinder come-downs for a green-tea cake that she said tasted like grass and a shiny blue icing that was just...well...too blue.

The bakes this week included a drizzle cake in the signature (cake made moist with a drizzle of usually fruit flavored syrup), odd little chocolate iced cakes called jaffa cakes in the technical, and a genoise sponge cake iced with mirror glazed icing -- any flavor, any decoration you wanted, but Paul was hoping for simplicity. Any GBBO fan is bound to remember that the genoise sponge was the downfall of terrific baker Paul in series 6, and it was almost the downfall of several bakers this week, who couldn't seem to get the consistency right. If I didn't lose track, five of the twelve had to start over and bake cakes from scratch when their first batches came out rubbery or like pancakes. Paul actually encouraged Candice to toss one of her first cakes against the tent siding, and she actually did it (it crumbled into a mess, but plucky Sue said she'd eat it anyway).

Star baker this week went to unflappable Jane, with Selassi coming in what I guess was a close second -- they don't award second, but they do show us Mel and Sue conversing with Paul and Mary about who's in the top tier. Selassi made a gorgeous raspberry mirror cake, but I guess it couldn't top the loveliness of Jane's chocolate orange one, and she seemed more consistent overall. Quiet Pastor Lee made the first exit, having fallen significantly short in every bake. His genoise especially seemed to offend -- it was too dry, and he tried way too many layers, adding in fresh fruits instead of the cream that Mary thought it needed. Sunny Val, who likes to exercise while she bakes and says she listens to her cakes, was also in the bottom tier (Mary actually said she would need to "pull up her socks" next week, a Briticism that made me laugh).

I enjoyed watching the skills of Jane and Selassi this week and think they definitely bear watching in weeks to come, but there are some other bakers I think showed great promise even though they didn't have a perfect start. Benjamina reminded me a little of both Flora (series 6) and Ruby (series 4) in that she was terribly worried that she'd messed up royally in the showstopper and then turned out this gorgeous shiny white chocolate cake that apparently tasted delicious. Also watch out for redhaired Andrew, boy genius, who came in dead last in the technical but wowed them with a gorgeously simple but beautiful chocolate cake with lovely caramel work in the showstopper. Remember that eventual winner Nadiya, in series 6, came in last during her first technical too.

And thank goodness it rained at least once. I always love it when it rains outside the tent, giving the show's cinematographer a chance to show off a distant misty shot followed by a close up of some trailing raindrops. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Maybe All I've Got is Hope

I wrote a song this morning. That doesn't happen too often. It spoke to my heart. I hope it speaks to yours.

On the muted video she’s mouthing words in silent rage
And the comments on the post below uncover an uncivil age
And while I know the world is broken and unjust and filled with pain
Right now I lack the wherewithal to muster my disdain
For the mongers and the stokers and the ones who stir unrest
Even though I know among them may be prophets and the blessed
So much though sounds unrighteous, so much just looks plain wrong
And I’m longing for compassion to become our louder song
And I think that if we learned lament we’d find a better place
For our anger and our sorrow and the things that we can’t face

Maybe I’m just tired, maybe I’m just worn
Maybe I’m just praying for the world to be reborn
Maybe I’m on tiptoes for a kingdom yet to come
Maybe all I’ve got is hope or else I am undone 

Sometimes I think I cannot look at one more shattered life
Or read another story about warfare, about strife
I’m pretty sure the ink on the Psalms is not yet dry
And the anger that they shout out is as potent as the “why”
It seems that asking “how long” is a heart cry from of old
That reminds me when I bow my head, it’s time to make it bold
I’m praying for the energy to sing that kind of song
In the midst of my own brokenness and my own “how long”
Some days all I can manage is a limping move toward grace
Where I sit before the beauty of the world’s more loving face

Maybe I’m just tired, maybe I’m just worn
Maybe I’m just praying for the world to be reborn
Maybe I’m on tiptoes for a kingdom yet to come
Maybe all I’ve got is hope or else I am undone 

(~EMP, 8/19/2016) 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Take These Few Fish and Crumbs of Bread

When I got my recent good news from my scans, and learned that there is indeed some healing beginning to take place in my body, this is the song that began to play in my head: Michael Card's "Make Me a Miracle."

The song is from his recording "Close Your Eyes So You Can See," which we used to listen to a lot when the sweet girl was little. The songs are all written about, or sometimes from the perspective of, children in Scripture. In "Make Me a Miracle," he imagines these words coming from the boy with the loaves and fishes:

"Take these few fish and crumbs of bread,
It's all that I can do.
But most of all, Lord, take my life,
and make me a miracle too."

I sang that the other day while I cried a little over the miracle God is doing right now in my body. I don't even feel I've got anything on offer really, not even what the little the boy had, but God is able to work with nothing as well as with very little. So thankful.

I was thinking of the feeding of the five thousand this morning as I read the scene in John 6 for my morning quiet time. As much as I love Michael Card's song -- I love imaginings based on Scriptural scenes, especially when they are as creative and faithful as Card's imaginings always are -- the boy doesn't really feature much in the story. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that he did interact with Jesus that day, and that his life was forever changed by what he saw Jesus do with his lunch. But it's the disciples that the text is concerned with here, especially Philip and Andrew.

I find this intriguing because neither of those disciples gets much attention in the gospels, at least not nearly the amount that the big three (Peter, James, and John) get.  Of course we know from the gospels themselves that Jesus defines greatness very differently from the world, so ranking the disciples in terms of importance isn't what I'm going for here, though I think we have a tendency to do that sometimes. All of the people chosen by Jesus were honored and blessed to be chosen. They had a unique place in his mission and were given the opportunity to be trained in his service by staying "up close" with Jesus for the years of his ministry.

Still we don't hear much from or about some of them, and it feels significant when a gospel gives us a story in which some of the lesser known disciples feature. In this story, Jesus first "tests" Philip by asking him "where are we going to buy bread for all these people?" even though, John tells us, Jesus already knew what he was going to do. Philip offers a pragmatic answer that isn't really an answer. He just points out the impossibility of feeding them given that they don't have enough money to buy food so that each person can get even a little.

"And speaking of a little..." is what Andrew seems to say next. He jumps into the conversation feet first with "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish...." It doesn't take much imagination again to picture the rest of the disciples looking at him like he's crazy for opening his mouth and making such a suggestion. I can practically imagine at least one of them frantically shaking his head at Andrew, sort of behind Jesus' back, as if to say, "Be quiet, don't be stupid!"

But I also love Andrew's finish. Again, I sort of picture him seeing the incredulous looks on his friends' faces over his dumb observation, and I think of him trailing off lamely as he adds "...but what are they for so many?" The question in the second half of what he says seems to call into question the beautiful boldness of the first part of his statement. Because Andrew was on the right track with that first part, wasn't he? He was pointing out, to Jesus, what they had -- not focusing like Philip on what they didn't have.

I relate to Andrew here. Sometimes I see the possibilities, small as they are, and I want to offer them in great excitement to my Lord. Then I hear the audaciousness in my own voice and I get afraid of looking silly, I get afraid that whatever is on offer can't possibly be enough. I doubt myself and I doubt God. Offering our little (or pointing out someone else's little) can be so hard sometimes, because what if God doesn't come through? What if a little stays a little?

It helps when we remember that God can work, even from nothing, to bring about what needs to be. It helps if we keep our eyes on Jesus and not on our own fears or even at the well-meaning friends frantically mouthing at us "don't say that, don't go there, don't be so bold, are you crazy?"

It helps if we remember that Jesus is the one who can literally set a table in the wilderness.

And so he does. Andrew's question turns out not to be rhetorical (as it looks at first glance) and it turns out not to be crazy. "What are they for so many?" directed to Jesus becomes a solid answer. They are enough. They are more than enough. Give them to me, Jesus essentially says, and watch what I will do.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vacation Notes from New Normal

We did it!

We managed our annual three night/four days vacation at Presque Isle.

If anyone had told me back in February (or March, April, or perhaps even May) that I would make it on this year's trip, I would have said there wasn't any way. That I was able to makes me feel grateful beyond imagining.

It was a lovely trip, though very tiring. Since I now dwell in the land of "new normal," there were things about the trip that were harder than I expected, or just plain different.  A sampling:

* We couldn't stay at our usual campgrounds, both because they were booked pretty solid by the time we realized we could attempt the trip, and because we weren't sure I could handle the beds and cramped accommodations of our usual trailer. We missed the rustic camp, especially the starry nights outside and the campfire we usually lit each night to roast marshmallows. I didn't have to don a long-sleeved jacket once while we were there, and nobody came home smelling like smoke.

* We stayed in a very moderate priced hotel not far from our campgrounds. While it wasn't rustic (we had wi-fi and cable, for goodness' sake) the beds turned out to be an adventure for me anyway. They were incredibly high off the ground, high enough that I had a very hard time climbing into them without leg pain. I felt like I should get a pole and vault into bed (an idea borne of the fact that we spent most of our late nights watching the Olympics on the aforementioned cable). I devised a kind of leap-into-bed-drag-your-bad-leg-behind-you style that probably would not win me many points for athletic form, but which amused my husband and daughter (and me) no end.

* Speaking of the bad leg (and I feel badly calling one leg "bad" when it's trying just as hard as the other leg that doesn't have bone cancer) the hotel had only two floors...and no elevator. And non-smoking rooms were on the second floor. Whoops. I had stairs to manage up and down whenever we left or arrived or when we went to breakfast. I got used to standing aside to let other people go ahead of me on stairs so I wouldn't hold them up. The first morning we were there, I was going down a short flight of steps toward the dining area, holding onto the railing and carefully bringing my right leg (that's the "bad" one) down to the step where I'd already placed my left leg. It's a very halting way to walk, but it's the only way for me to tackle steps responsibly right now, especially with my feet so numb from neuropathy. An elderly gentleman coming my way saw me managing the steps and called out cheerfully, "That's the way I have to do stairs! Bad knee, eh?" I just smiled and said, "Well, bad leg, anyway."

* No campfires meant no s'mores. We compensated by heading to Sara's (the beach themed hamburger/hot dog joint we love to frequent while there) for ice cream cones. More than once. Oh, okay. Pretty much every day. It was HOT, and ice cream hit the spot.

* The car wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Once upon a time, riding in a car meant pain for my hip. Now it's mostly just achey and uncomfortable but bearable. It was worse for my feet than my hip. I should have followed a friend's suggestion and taken my weight balls so I could have something to roll my feet against and keep them moving.

* Speaking of moving, movement in the car makes me really drowsy. I am more drowsy than usual because of medications, I think, but I wasn't aware how long stretches of time in the car would affect me. I basically couldn't keep my eyes open. I struggle with that at other times too -- including sometimes while I'm typing (which can make for some comical spelling errors, especially if I'm typing on the Kindle keyboard). I think the combination of medicines and deep down physical tiredness, which seemed deeper than I expected once I "let down" for vacation, kept me really sleepy much of the time we were away. I slept a lot on the beach.

* The beach! So beautiful on the peninsula, as always. So lovely to hear the waves and feel the wind and chuckle over the antics of the gulls and pick up rocks worn smooth by the lake water. I did all of those usual things, but I didn't walk much. The hot, gritty sand hurt my feet, and when I attempted to get near the water, just the waves coming in made me very unsteady. So I kept to my chair and read a lot (a reading round-up of my beach fluff probably coming soon). I slept a good deal in the sun, which made me feel a bit like a cat.

* I did have one wonderful beach walk with my dear daughter, who woke me up for the express purpose of meandering over to "our dune" -- the sand dune we have always explored together since she was very little. I'm so glad it meant enough to her to ask me to do that with her. She patiently took my arm and helped me manage the walk. I even made it up the incline to the top of the dune, where S bent down and unstrapped my sandals so I could feel the softer sand of the dune as well as I was able (not terribly well, but it was such a sweet gesture, I couldn't refuse, and I could tell, even with my neuropathied feet, that it was softer -- or perhaps my brain supplied the softer sand memory).

* I wasn't the only one who "let down" my emotions while we were there. The sweet girl discovered that trying to relax after this long, hard year meant some tears. They came at odd times (perhaps because she fights so hard to keep them in at other times, bless her heart). But they came, and I think it was good. 

* Time with friends was also was just so good to see them and to spend time in their presence. Some parts of New Normal, thankfully, look and feel a lot like Old Normal. I'm glad, or otherwise I'm afraid I'd get lost a lot more often!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

In Memory

Yesterday, a local musician/singer passed away at the age of 65.

We had seen him perform a few times at the Shaker Festival we attend in Ohio every fall. Actually, when I say see him perform, I really meant we would sometimes stroll past the stage and listen to a song or two. Because it was a "Christmas in October" festival theme, sometimes he was performing Christmas carols. Other times he just covered popular tunes. He had a nice voice, and we liked him, but we knew local friends who had grown up in the area who really adored him. I think there was a special "western PA" connection that people had with him which we, as native Virginians, never quite felt.

I mention this because we saw him again recently, not on stage, but at the cancer center where I am regularly treated. We were in the treatment area so I could get my immunotherapy, and he was in the next chair getting chemo treatments. He looked familiar to us, but we couldn't quite place him. Then some local fans started coming up to introduce themselves and to say how much they loved his work, and the penny dropped.

Even though we then recognized him, and it would have been easy to say, "Oh, we've heard you several times at the Ohio festival!" we opted not to. He seemed very tired that day, and something he said to a woman who was a bit gushing with him indicated to us that he was not entirely thrilled that people were coming up to him while he was in the middle of treatment. He wasn't rude - in fact, both he and his wife, sitting next to him, were very gracious to everyone who talked with them. But you just got the sense that he would have preferred a little privacy, or so D and I agreed when we talked about it later.

I am thinking of his wife a lot today. I know how much love the people who sit in those accompanying roles have. I know they are often the anxious looking ones, the ones who jump up and fetch what the person in treatment needs, the ones who ask the nurses questions and advocate with the doctors and sometimes leap into the middle of patient-doctor conversations to say "well, this is how he's been feeling lately," or "she said last week she felt this way." I know from all that my husband and sister have done for me, how much every cancer patient owes to anyone who comes with them and sits with them through treatment, loving them through the moments when they are allowing toxicity into their bodies in the hopes that it will kill what needs to be killed without hurting anything else.

And I am thinking of him too. The obituary said he had an inoperable brain tumor and was diagnosed in 2007, which means he and wife had been living with the reality of that for nine years. Nine years is a long time to fight, a long time to stay on the mat. A long time to go through treatment, particularly in the knowledge that it might or might not make much difference in the end. I don't know, but I hope it made some good difference. I hope it gave him some years he wouldn't have had otherwise, and some pain relief. I hope it gave him more time to sing his songs and more reason to sing.

And now I am thinking of -- and praying for -- not just this family affected by cancer, but every family afffected by it, including my own. I am remembering that every time I go to the cancer center, the person I sit next to has a story to tell whether or not they choose to tell it (sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic smile and a question for some people to tell their story, or sometimes they ask you for yours and then tell you theirs, and sometimes they'd obviously rather not talk at all). I am remembering that the person sitting next to me may have been on their journey a long time or a short time. They may be facing the incredible news they are on the road to healing,  or the news that they will soon die. They all need prayer, every single one of them, just as I do. They are all thankful for the love of whomever is with them and for the incredible care from the nurses and doctors.

It takes courage to get through illness, courage I never thought about very deeply until I needed to find it, and until I spent time watching other people find it too.

From Mary Oliver today:

"No, I'd never been to this country
before. No, I didn't know where the roads
would lead me. No, I didn't intend to
turn back."

Saturday, August 06, 2016


Speaking of Chesterton's "monotonous memory," I was at the library with my husband and daughter on Thursday when I came rushing up to them in great excitement, holding onto a book.

"Look!" I gushed. "It's Mary Oliver's new poetry book!" (Felicity, published in 2015).

The sweet girl looked at me a little strangely. "Mom," she said, "you've read that."

"I have?"

"Yes," she said patiently. "You had it months ago. I remember seeing it in the house. And I think you read it."

I looked at the book in some consternation. And then light began to dawn....

She was right. I checked Felicity out months ago. It was in January, and I did read some of it. (I figured this out because I'd added it as "currently reading" to my Good Reads shelf at the time.)

But late January was when I ended up in the ER, which started the whole spiral of events that led to my surgery in early February and my diagnosis and beginning of treatment later that month. I think the book went back to the library without me ever finishing it. And in the ensuing craziness of the last several months, it somehow escaped my mind that I'd ever picked it up.

It's been a long road! And Mary Oliver gets long roads (and short ones, and all the beautiful things you see on roads, even hard ones.)

So I am getting the wonder of re-discovery. A few of the poems are coming back to me as I read them again, but mostly it's just a brand new experience.

And speaking of rediscoveries, I'm finally beginning to sort through some of the piles I've not touched in months either, and at long last, I found my 2016 desk calendar. Most years I can't make it without my little calendar/planner, and I knew I'd bought and started one last year, but I couldn't find it and I couldn't even remember what it looked like. (Yes, it's been a weird year.)

Turns out it's a lovely Monet one -- right! I remember! So strange to flip through and see the busyness of the days in January, and the sprinkling of work deadlines I'd penned in for February, March, and April. And then the blankness of everything else. It feels good to have it again. Just in time to pen in next week's vacation days, and my next treatment days too.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

"If the world is good, we are revolutionaries..."

I recently signed up for an e-book service where they send me daily notification of good e-book deals. Most of them I ignore (except to jot down titles that look interesting enough for me to try to get from the library) but the free deals are often interesting, because it turns out they are mostly for older books.

That's how I've begun to read G.K. Chesterton's book of essays entitled The Defendant. I haven't gotten very far yet. In fact, all I've read is the preface to the "new" edition, which was apparently a new edition back in Chesterton's day, since he wrote the preface. Chesterton may be one of the few writers who could catch my attention ~ and be quote worthy! ~ in a preface.

He did this not once but twice. The first time was a rather profound line he penned while making the humorous observation that the reissue of the book might be necessary because people had "completely forgotten" the essays from their original publication and thus could read them again with some profit because it would be like they were reading them for the first time.  He joked that great writers like Balzac and Shakespeare might not mind being forgotten if it meant that people would ultimately re-discover and re-read their works. Then he adds: "It is a monotonous memory which keeps us in the main from seeing things as splendid as they are." By which I think he means we sometimes simply forget how splendid something is and thus cease to see its grandeur or beauty, perhaps because we grow too used to ordinary splendors. Which I guess does give us the joy of re-discovering them!

The second part of the preface that I found thought-provoking was toward the end, when he was mentioning how a critic had taken him to task for an overly optimistic view in the essays. Then he wrote the following:

"At first sight it would seem that the pessimist encourages improvement. But in reality it is a singular truth that the era in which pessimism has been cried from the housetops is also that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into decay. The reason of this is not difficult to discover. No man ever did, and no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful.  There must be some germ of good to be loved, some fragment of beauty to be admired...The cause which is blocking all progress today is the subtle skepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not good enough to be worth improving. If the world is good we are revolutionaries, if the world is evil we must be conservatives."

And he goes on to add that his essays "seek to remind men that things must be loved first and improved afterwards."

I thought first of the political truth of those statements today, when we are seeing the demise of a major party that has succumbed to a dark and pessimistic vision. And then I thought of the theological ramifications of what Chesterton says. Because it struck me at first that God is better at improvement (and revolutionary visions and actions that lead to improvement) than we human beings are. It struck me at first that while Chesterton says that no man can make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful, God can, and that in some ways that is the very picture of what he does for us in providing salvation.

But on second or third thought, Chesterton's reasoning strikes me as a beautifully catholic sentiment. While I appreciate and even subscribe to (in some measure) the reformed notion of depraved humanity, I believe that the image of God in us is bent and broken but not totally obliterated, and that God loves us, remembering that we are made very good, and it is his love that makes us beautiful. He doesn't demand that we clean ourselves up first before we come to him, somehow trying to improve ourselves or make ourselves worthy before he will love and save and shape us into what we're meant to be. We come to him damaged and broken, unable to fix ourselves, yes. However, surely there is  "some germ of good" or "some fragment of beauty" left in us. God remembers that we are but dust, but he also remembers that he created us very good, and made us to know, love, and serve him, to live in ways that bring him glory. In other words, he sees beyond what we are, not just to what we once were, but to what we will one day be. And it's that's kind of radical vision we need if we're to begin to find ways to love in tandem with his love and to love our world back (and forward) into wholeness.

Because let's face it, part of the reason we often despair over the brokenness of our world is not because it's so broken and ugly we can't stand it, but because we've seen enough glimpses of its goodness and beauty that we long to see more and more of them. That vision of goodness and beauty drives us forward in ways getting stuck in despair never can.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Not Without Pain, But Without Stain

A few minutes ago I was scrolling through my FB feed and saw a quote posted by a friend that stopped me in my tracks. It was credited to my beloved C.S. Lewis (whose name all by itself is guaranteed to make me pause and read). Here is what it said:

"God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."


I was so blown away by this quote and the way it spoke into my life experiences this year that I immediately went to Google to discover if Lewis had actually said it, and if so, where. I know that sounds cynical, but I've run into wrongly attributed quotes on social media once too often to fully trust them, especially if it's printed as a meme (what I call a "sight-bite") and doesn't list a source. In this case, it also seemed to be missing a comma or two (it was; I've corrected it above) which didn't seem Lewis-like, but could obviously be a copy error.

Happily, this one does seem to be something Jack said. Thanks to this blog post by a scholarly looking blogger who seems to have actually read the quote in a book, I now know that Lewis wrote this in a letter to someone named Mrs. Lockley, and that it's in the collection Letters of C.S. Lewis on page 394.

I'm not surprised that Lewis wrote this in a letter. He often seemed at his warmest and wisest when he was giving counsel to a friend or to an admirer who had written him to share about their life and to ask him questions. This bit of counsel packs a wallop. It makes me wonder what precisely Mrs. Lockley was going through, given that Lewis hoped to strengthen her with the strong tonic of these words.

They comfort and strengthen me. I've been thinking lately about the fact that the cancer diagnosis that took me by such surprise did not take God by surprise. I was meditating just the other day on my favorite Jessica Powers poem, "The Cedar Tree" in which she writes:

In the beginning, in the unbeginning
of endlessness and of eternity,
God saw this tree.
He saw these cedar branches bending low
under the full exhaustion of the snow.
And since he set no wind of day to rising,
this burden of beauty and this burden of cold,
whether the wood breaks or the branches hold
must be of His devising.

And at the end of the poem, the final powerful lines:

I clasp this thought: from all eternity
God who is good looked down upon this tree
white in the weighted air,
and of another cedar reckoned well.
He knew how much each tree, each twig could bear.
He counted every snowflake as it fell.


(I've come close to putting the whole poem here, but have resisted the urge because of copyright. You can see the entire thing at the link I gave above. But there's enough here to chew on for quite a while.)

The poem is now dancing in my head with Lewis' more prosaic but still musically lilting advice that "God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."

The pain is not always withheld. This can feel like an unfathomable mystery, especially when we have long held onto God and know him deeply for his goodness and loving-kindness. But in allowing the pain, in knowing it will come, even perhaps so heavy that it bends us with "a burden of cold," God does not leave us abandoned. He arms us to go through the tribulation and suffering, to go through the pain, but to do so without stain. What I read there is that suffering need not diminish our souls.  They may remain healthy, hearty, and whole even in the midst of the worst and heaviest times of tribulation. Times that may surprise us, but don't surprise God, because he knows what "each twig could bear" and even counts "every snowflake" as it falls (like he numbers the hairs on our heads!) sometimes in a wild or heavy blizzard of falling.

Did you notice that the "burden of cold" is simultaneously a "burden of beauty"? More mystery. More truth.

On Monday, I went to the cancer center for treatment but also for scans. I was supposed to have CT scans of my chest, abdomen, and pelvic area, as well as a full body bone scan. They ended up holding off on the bone scan, because the CT scans provided evidence, real evidence that I am experiencing some healing. There is still no sign of cancer in the bladder (the site of origin). There has been no spread to other organs (they've been particularly worried about the lungs). And in the secondary site of the cancer, the bone near my hip, the change since I've begun immunotherapy has been pretty dramatic. One of my wonderful oncologists, the one who bounded joyfully into the room to announce the good news, told me what a "big, ugly mess" that site was three months ago, with the largeness of the cancer and the erosion of the bone.

And in this Monday's scan? That area of the cancer had shrunk by 20-30 percent, and there is evidence of healing around the area, including new bone growth. New bone growth! I felt like Ezekiel was standing in the room with us -- along with Jesus, of course! As I wrote to friends later that day, I am being re-knit!

As we celebrated this good news with both of my amazing doctors and later with nurses and other caregivers, one of my doctors reminded me of the day back in the early spring when I had faced the decision they gave me to go ahead or not go ahead with a fourth round of chemotherapy. I was so exhausted that they felt they needed to give me that option. As my doctor said, the chemo treatments they gave me are some of the hardest, most intense that you can give. (I told her that she didn't need to convince me, I remember!) She added that in looking back on that day, she was so very glad that I had decided to go forward.

And so am I. I can hardly remember the thought or prayer processes that went through my mind and heart that day. I remember my head was bowed (partly with tiredness) as I thought through the possibility of not going on for a fourth round of the exhaustion and nausea. I had been hospitalized twice already during chemo treatments, and unbeknownst to me would be hospitalized yet again after making the decision to go on, and I'd already had at least one of my two blood transfusions. I had never in my life felt more bowed down with heaviness and weariness as I did that day.

I don't know if I remembered the Powers poem, but it's been a part of my heart for many years, so maybe somewhere it was whispering to me the truth that God knew my burden of cold, knew what each twig could bear, and was indeed counting every flake that fell. At any rate, I said yes to going forward, both to the remaining chemo and to the mostly as yet untried (for my kind of cancer) immunotherapy, and right now I am so grateful that I did. Thanks be to God, so far the branches under that full exhaustion of snow are holding.

"God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain, but without stain."

That's a new line for my heart to hold onto, one I have a feeling I will need to remember again and again as I continue to go forward on this healing journey.