5 Book Reviews

Here’s a sprightly introduction to my reviews of the books I’ve read in the past month.

The God We Never Knew by Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg is a theologian and Biblical scholar who admits that he got well into his adult life and graduate studies before he realized that his understanding of God was warped by assumptions he’d picked up as a child in church.  He proceeded to explore and learn more about God.  He explains how God is in everything and everything is in God.  Because God is always and everywhere present, “…we are already in relationship whether we know it or not,” so prayer is not a magic spell addressed to a distant genie but is simply “consciously entering into and nurturing a relationship with God.”  He explains how this God is easy to reach yet heartbreakingly easy to ignore, describing his own surprising realizations that he’s “forgotten” to pray for a few days in a row even while he’s writing a book about God–that makes me feel better about my own lapses!

A debate over inclusive language brought him a startling insight: Read more of this post

Become a Temporary Vegetarian!

This is one of the easiest things you can do to make a positive difference in the world.  Every time you choose a vegetarian meal instead of meat, you conserve some resources.  You don’t have to be vegetarian full-time or forever to make a difference.

Meat production has a huge environmental impact.  Growing plants and feeding them to meat animals uses more water, fuel, pesticide, and fertilizer, per calorie of person-food, than just eating the plants ourselves.  The waste products of meat animals pollute our drinking water.  The use of antibiotics on meat animals contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can kill people.

Lent begins this Wednesday, March 1.  Whether you’re a Christian or not, you can use Lent as a 40-day free trial period to make the small sacrifice of changing one habit to a less wasteful habit.  You will make a difference, and you will learn something.  After Easter, you can reflect on what you learned and decide whether to keep the new habit permanently, modify it, or go back to your old ways and try making a different change next Lent.

Daniel and I gave up meat (including fish) for Lent 15 years ago.  It led to a permanent change in our eating habits.  We’re really glad we tried it!

Click here to read my article at Kitchen Stewardship with lots of advice on trying a less-meat or no-meat diet!  I’m always available for tech support on this topic, so please feel free to ask me about your specific meat-replacing questions.

Visit the Hearth & Soul Link Party for more great food-related articles!

lessmeat

6 book reviews and Peyton Place GIVEAWAY!!!

p1040349I thought it was time to reread Peyton Place because I hadn’t read it in years–I couldn’t remember how long.  But I found that I remembered it too well to thoroughly enjoy it again, and that’s why I decided to give away this book, which I read 3 or 4 times years ago.  This is a Book-of-the-Month Club facsimile of the first edition of this classic novel of scandalous secrets.  It looks great on the shelf but is lightweight for carrying around with you.

Giveaway is open to anyone with a United States mailing address.  To enter, leave a comment on this article.  One entry per reader, even if you have multiple comments.  Winner will be selected by a random drawing on March 1, 2017.

Peyton Place is the story of a small New England town and dozens of its inhabitants, many of whom have secrets: past decisions they regret, plots to deceive each other, or unacceptable yearnings.  Set in the late 1930s through the 1940s, published in 1956, it vividly evokes a society with strict taboos and enormous fear of gossip.  The character development and dialogue are excellent, and the scene-setting prose really pulls you into each moment.  The book became famous because it was so shocking by 1950s standards, but it’s become a classic because it’s really a compelling story!

Trigger warnings: Murder. Incest. Abortion. Gruesome poverty. Profanity and hostile language. Sexy teenagers. Lewd jokes.

Now, on to the six new books I’ve read in the past few months!

The Bronze King by Suzy McKee Charnas

Tina is on her way to school in Manhattan when she hears an explosion in the subway station.  She decides to take a bus instead.  Nobody’s heard anything about any explosion, and she wouldn’t think any more of it, except that her tuna sandwich is mysteriously missing.  Next day, her sneakers are missing.  Then it’s a statue in the park, then her bathroom medicine cabinet–and then she’s assaulted by a guy on a skateboard whose jacket says Prince of Darkness.  Tina remembers her grandmother’s advice to “make a wish by running water and seal it with silver,” and she wishes the statue would come back and set things right.  Then she meets a mysterious subway fiddler and a semi-annoying boy, and together they save the world from doom!

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

I’ve now fulfilled my pledge not to read this book until I could get a used copy for free–thus, no impact.  I heard about Colin Beavan’s attempt to change his family’s lifestyle to zero environmental impact when he was doing it in 2007, but because I’d been on the greener-living journey for about 17 years at that point, I figured there would be no surprises for me in his blog or the book he wrote after completing the year.  I was wrong.

You see, I was raised in a family (and Girl Scout movement) that valued “using resources wisely,” so I always was thinking about it to some extent, and then I started gradually trying one thing after another to conserve more and produce less waste.  It’s been a very gradual and mostly comfortable journey.  Colin Beavan, and even more so his high-fashion, grew-up-rich wife Michelle, started with a carelessly wasteful lifestyle and suddenly tried to change everything really quickly.  They tried things I never have, like living without electricity.  They had to learn skills I picked up as a child and have never set aside for any length of time, like cooking from raw ingredients.  Their insights and personal growth are really impressive.

The experiment began with Colin waking up in the morning and realizing that he couldn’t blow his nose on a disposable paper product.  He eventually realized the answer was handkerchiefs and that he could use cloths he already had.  But by the time he figured that out, he’d realized that he’d been thinking of this project as a battle against his “selfish” needs and desires, but it was really about learning new habits that fulfill the same needs and desires.

What’s most remarkable about this story is the changes in what Colin and Michelle began to think of as rewarding, fun, and normal, especially those that came from tuning in to what their toddler was doing or from listening to their own minds instead of television.  Although they didn’t continue the most extreme of their changes after the year ended, they made many permanent changes.  Can one family’s choices really make a difference toward slowing global climate change?  Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Just because our individual actions are not remembered doesn’t mean they’re not crucial.  The straw that breaks the back requires all the rest of us straws.  The domino that begins the domino effect requires each of us to be in line for the chain reaction to take place.

The one thing I don’t get about this book is the author’s hostility toward the many people who asked him what he used instead of toilet paper and his refusal to answer that question.  He seems to think people were asking with intent to portray his project as disgusting and crazy.  Gosh, isn’t it possible that they were asking so that they could switch to this greener habit themselves?  They can’t do that if you won’t tell them how!  Well, don’t worry: I will tell you.  (I’ll also tell you what his daughter used instead of disposable diapers and what his wife used instead of tampons.  He didn’t mind putting those facts in the book….)

The Survivalist’s Daughter by Hazel Hart

Kindra is the sixteen-year-old daughter of homesteaders who live in an isolated mountain cabin, home-school her, and attend a very conservative church.  She’s restless and wants to see more of the world, but her parents barely allow her to talk to the guy working at the general store.  Suddenly, one morning, federal agents raid their home, kill her mother, arrest her father, separate Kindra from her one-year-old brother, and take her in for questioning about her father’s illegal gun sales.  The grieving teenager so sheltered she’s never eaten fast food is suddenly plunged into the real world and the custody of relatives she never knew she had.  The adults want to integrate her into the family’s everyday life by pretending everything’s normal and there’s no time to talk, but Kindra wants to understand why her father lied about her family and to find her brother and take care of him.  She and her newfound sister hatch a plot that ends up having unintended consequences.

This exciting story really pulled me along, and many of the details were well-written and realistic.  But some of the dialogue and characterization and plot points felt amateurish.  The author teaches community college, and this book reads a lot like something somebody wrote for school–but an A+ effort!

Trigger warnings: Violent death of a parent.  Otherwise, this is a surprisingly tame story considering the plot–scary ideas more than graphic scary action.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

This interesting set of essays on Christianity comes from the perspective of a guy from Texas who barely knew his father and barely knew God, despite lifelong church attendance, but slowly things started to change, and now he’s been on a long road trip and lived in the woods with hippies and ended up in Portland, Oregon, where he spends a lot of time at the famously liberal Reed College.  He’s become a Christian in a whole different way than he was before, and he’s still learning.

Throughout the book, I wondered how old the author is, because he writes in an innocent way that sounds young, yet he’s clearly had a lot of experiences.  One of my favorite parts is the story of how he started tithing, giving 10% of his income to the church.  It’s so much like my “magic penny” experience of quadrupling my contribution that it gave me chills.  He does a great job of explaining the weird feelings of being a Christian “outside the safe cocoon of big Christianity” so that you find yourself explaining your beliefs, like this:

I believe in Jesus; I believe He is the son of God, but every time I sit down to explain this to somebody I feel like a palm reader, like somebody who works at a circus or a kid who is always making things up or somebody at a Star Trek convention who hasn’t figured out that the show isn’t real.

Wolfy & the Strudelbakers by Zvi Jagendorf

Wolfy Helfgott is a little boy when he and his parents, uncle, aunt, and cousin flee Nazi-occupied Vienna and settle in London–only to be bombed out in the Blitz and evacuated to a little seaside village.  They return to London after the war, and Wolfy grows into a teenager juggling British everyday life with the demands of Orthodox Judaism and the eccentric customs of his family.  Some of the chapters are from the perspective of other family members.  As an adult, Wolfy–who’s now changed his name to Will Halfgo–travels to Israel to meet the other part of the extended family who fled Vienna, and he repeats the traditional cemetery visit that connects to so many threads of his past.

This book combines zany humor and eccentricity with deep grief and worry in the way only twentieth-century Jewish stories can.  I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long time.

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Korobi Roy is a college student in Kolkata, India, raised by her grandparents after both parents died.  She’s engaged to marry her true love, Rajat Bose, whose parents own an art distribution business with a New York City gallery that’s struggling in the aftermath of 9/11.  Everything seems perfect as Korobi and Rajat prepare to marry–but then Korobi has an argument with her grandfather, and later that night he suffers a fatal heart attack.  Her grandmother now feels released from her grandfather’s insistence that they keep secret from Korobi the truth about her parents.  When Korobi learns that her father is not Indian and may still be alive in the United States, she feels compelled to travel to find him.  While she’s away, things go wrong for both the Roy and Bose families, both Korobi and Rajat are tempted by other people, and then Korobi discovers a terrible secret about the New York gallery and then learns that even her grandparents didn’t know all the truth about her parents.

I love this tensely plotted novel, thick with descriptions of Indian life both traditional and modern.  It has so many plot twists yet never seems over-the-top.

Visit the Quick Lit linkup for more book reviews!

A Person Who Deserves to Wear This Dress

A few days ago, I was unpacking my winter clothes and putting away my summer clothes, and I realized that there was a small section at the very back of my closet that had gone untouched for years.  The garments hanging back there literally had cobwebs and a thick layer of dust on the shoulders.  It was the Haunted Zone!

I pulled out these garments to decide if there was any justification for keeping them any longer, since I obviously hadn’t been wearing them frequently.  One was the skirt-suit I bought for a friend’s wedding in 2000 and wore a few times after that, but it’s out of style now.  One was a silk blouse I bought in a thrift shop, which is nice but too big for me.  One was the red velvet micro-mini cocktail dress I bought in 1992 and wore to a couple of college parties, but I really thought I’d passed it on years ago!  (I found that I still can squeeze into it, but it’s absurdly tight in the hips, and it always was uncomfortably short!)  All these things need to be given away.

p1030859But then there was this dress, this sort of elegant party dress that I’d totally forgotten I ever owned.  As best I recall, this is the story behind this dress: I was shopping for an outfit for a special event, a springtime event, and I wasn’t finding anything appropriate that fit me, but then in the downtown Macy’s this dress was marked down to an extremely reasonable price, like $20, and it fit so well that I bought it anyway.  I thought that although it really wasn’t a springtime style, I could wear it to the event if I couldn’t find anything more suitable.  But then I did find a nice springtime dress at another store, so I hung this one in the closet, thinking I’d wear it to some other special event in the future.

The event I was shopping for may have been my brother’s wedding, which was 7 years ago!  Not only do I not attend a whole lot of dressy events, but I really had forgotten that I had this dress.  Now what? Read more of this post

Did you find Jesus anything to eat?

Eleven days ago, I launched a challenge to my readers to prevent food waste in some way, big or small, and report back after Easter.  Now it’s the Tuesday after Easter, and I haven’t heard from anyone yet.  Did you accept my challenge?  Tell me about it in the comments, or link to your own post on conserving food.

My own plans went differently than expected.  I knew that Holy Week and this week would be a very busy time for me because these are my last two weeks of full-time work, so I have a lot to do and thought I might need to work some overtime . . . but I was still involved in coordinating the food for my church’s receptions after the Easter Vigil and Easter morning services, which always includes some repurposing of leftovers.  Life threw me a curve ball of digestive mayhem that initially seemed to be just a symptom of the migraine that struck on Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, but then as the headache got better my stomach continued to get worse.  From Friday through Sunday, I wound up preventing food waste by not eating much!  But I couldn’t resist eating small amounts of reception food, including grapes and raw veggies with hummus–and apparently those were just the foods to anger my innards.  Instead of making an innovative Easter dinner out of leftovers, I spent Sunday night in misery, and yesterday I ate only rice and yogurt.  Blah.  I’m finally getting better today.

It wasn’t a superstar week, but I can tell you some things I did do to use food wisely: Read more of this post

Have you anything to eat? a food-waste prevention challenge!

According to the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead and appeared to his disciples, he said, “Have you anything here to eat?”  He must have been really hungry after being dead for three days!  In that spirit, as Easter approaches, I’m challenging all of you–Christians and everybody else–to do what you can to see that all the food gets eaten and appreciated.

The only rules for this challenge are to look for food that might go to waste, make use of it, and report back after Easter (March 27, 2016).  You might start right now and do everything you can for the next nine days, or you might focus on it just on Easter Sunday.  You might serve the salvaged food at a homeless shelter, donate it to a food pantry, turn it into something for your holiday celebrations, give it to that recently-dead guy who suddenly appeared among you, or just incorporate it into an ordinary meal for your family.  You might be scavenging leftovers from huge church or family events, or you might be a non-observer of Easter spotting waste in your ordinary routine.  It might be tons of food or just that sandwich you couldn’t finish at lunch.  You might write a whole article about the food you saved or just post a brief comment here.  Whatever you do to reduce food waste, you will be making a positive difference!

For inspiration, here’s how I made use of leftovers from my church’s Holy Week events three years ago, and here are 70+ recipes and tips for reducing food waste.  Although I didn’t post about it, last year I made more than one gallon of fruit sauce by simply putting fruit left over from church into a soup pot, attacking it all with the immersion blender, and then cooking it–we had delicious fruit sauce with our yogurt and granola for breakfasts for a couple of weeks!

What will you serve if Jesus shows up at your house, asking, “Have you anything here to eat?”–fish fingers and custard?  I look forward to hearing about it!

Please share this challenge anywhere and everywhere you like!  I’m linking up to Faith Filled Friday and Real Food Friday and That Friday Blog Hop and Friday Finds and Favorites and No Rules Weekend Blog Party and Motivational Monday and Thank Goodness It’s Monday and Meandering Monday and Hearth and Soul Hop.  (I’m trying out some new ones here, so if you came in from one of these, please let me know!  And if you’re a reader who’s never clicked on one of these linkups, what are you waiting for?  Each one is like the title page of a magazine filled with articles by different writers from all over the Web!  You never know what great wisdom you’ll find–maybe some more frugal food-using tips?)

That Time I Caused Trouble in Sunday School

This is a story I’ve told my son Nicholas many times.  It’s entertaining for him, but it’s also a story that really gets him thinking about right and wrong, temptation and resistance, punishment and forgiveness, what those kids who get into trouble all the time might be thinking, and many other interesting issues.  It’s inspired some great discussions!

I’ve been thinking for a long time about writing some “storytelling” style posts like this, to share some of my better anecdotes from my visit to Earth.  Please comment below or contact me if you would like to read more stories like this!

I was a mostly well-behaved child.  I liked to learn rules and follow them.  I liked to do things that made adults approve of me.  Sometimes I was disobedient or obnoxious at home or in other familiar places with familiar people, but because I was very shy my behavior in public situations like school was calibrated to attract as little attention as possible.  It was very rare for me to “get in trouble” in school even enough to have a teacher take me aside to speak to me, and I certainly never got sent to the principal or anything like that.

This was true also in Sunday school, which I attended at a church so large that there was a separate class for each grade, which might have as many as 50 names on the attendance sheet and 20-30 kids present on any given day.  Our classrooms were much like those in a school, with a big chalkboard at the front and small bulletin boards alongside it.  Each grade had a different curriculum theme, but they varied widely–some were vague, so the teachers scrambled to put together random activities to keep the kids busy and maybe sort of relate to the theme; other years had structured activities and worksheets for every week.

Fifth grade spent the entire year pondering the question, “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”  This was a Unitarian church, so each week we studied the perspective of a different religion or culture.  One of the first ideas presented was that bad things happen to bad people who deserve them.  That idea was quickly refuted by kids thinking of examples of good people who’d had bad things happen to them, and vice versa.  But there was also a tangential discussion of whether people who do bad things are always bad people and whether there really is any such thing as a bad person, or we’re all just people who sometimes do bad things and sometimes do good things.  Many of the kids talked about believing that they were basically good people, or at least medium people, but once in a while “something comes over me” such that a bad thing just had to be done and they were powerless to resist.  When a later lesson brought up the idea of evil spirits that possess people and force them to behave badly, most of the class agreed that even if this weren’t literally true, it was a good description of what the urge to misbehave is like.

I didn’t argue aloud, but I was skeptical.  I was a good girl, and badness was not tempting.  Read more of this post

Seder and Holy Week: Family Traditions, Old and New

Welcome to the April 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Family History This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, lore, and wisdom about family history. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants. ***

My children’s ethnic ancestry is five-eighths Yiddish: All of their father’s grandparents, and my maternal grandfather, were descendants of Eastern European Jews.  We aren’t Jewish–my ten-year-old son Nicholas and I are Episcopalians, we’re bringing baby Lydia to church with us, and my partner Daniel does not practice any organized religion–but Jewish/Yiddish customs are an important part of our family background. seder plate

Daniel’s grandfather, Herschel, is 99 years old and still hosts a Passover seder in his home.  I’d never been to a seder before I started living with Daniel.  Now it’s our annual connection to our Yiddish roots, and I missed it very much the few years we weren’t able to attend.  Daniel’s mother always comes to spend Passover with her father, and she makes the dinner.  Family friends, the Feldmans, come over for the seder and bring dessert.  We don’t make it as formal and reverent as we could, but we all respect the basic structure of the ritual and try to follow the traditions.

Nicholas was three months old at his first seder.  He sat calmly in my lap and even slept through part of it.  Of course he doesn’t remember it.  He was too young to sample any of the food.  But it was very special to all of us that he could participate in this family tradition with his great-grandfather.  (An extra bonus was that my brother happened to be in town that spring, so he got a chance to attend the seder, too, and to meet Daniel’s extended family.)  Herschel exclaimed many times how glad and amazed he was to be a great-grandfather.  Although he knew we wouldn’t be raising Nicholas as a Jew, still we were welcome at the seder table. Read more of this post

Elsewhere on Earth

This photograph, which was in Sunday’s newspaper, is the image I’m keeping in my mind this Good Friday.

A Syrian Kurdish boy sits on a destroyed tank Friday in the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab. Photo by Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images.

That is a place on this very same planet where I am sitting comfortably in my office.  That is a boy who is growing up in the very same time as my son Nicholas, who is visiting me at work (it’s his spring break from school) and looking forward to a pizza lunch.  Odds are nobody’s going to shoot at us as we walk down the street, and there won’t be any rubble.  The trees here are preparing to open sweet new green leaves.

It is only by luck that we live here and not there.

What is it like to go out to play in that wasted landscape, to find an interesting big thing to climb on that happens to be a recently-disabled killing machine?  I am grateful that I don’t know, but I think sometimes I need to make myself think about it.  I need to think about this one boy, to will him strength and courage to be a better person than many around him.

Today I am thinking of this picture and of these words sung by Phil Collins:

This is the world we live in,
And these are the hands we’re given.
Use them, and let’s start trying
To make it a place worth living in.

The Power of Purple Is Real!!!

I am putting this post in a variety of categories because it’s kind of silly but I’m kind of serious, too.  I would like to believe that in this very complicated world, my actions truly do make a difference, even in unexpected metaphysical ways.

Purple is my favorite color.  At this point in my life, I feel like I finally own enough purple clothing.  On my fortieth birthday, which in various ways did not go very well, I was wearing an all-purple outfit when Daniel and I went out to lunch and he (very uncharacteristically) spilled an entire glass of ice water on me.  When we got home, I was able to change into another all-purple outfit.  That’s the way life should be!  I am happily on my way to being that old woman in the famous poem by Jenny Joseph.

Monday, I wore a purple sweater.  This was really just because I had finally gotten around to washing this particular sweater, so now it was available again, and at this point in the year I am kind of tired of most of my sweaters, but it had been at least two weeks since I’d worn this one.

Tuesday, I wore a purple and white striped knit top.  As I took it out of the drawer, I thought, “But I just wore purple yesterday!” like I might be enjoying myself too much or something, but then I remembered that my church was hosting the East End Lenten Series supper and service that night, and purple is the color for Lent because purple is the color of sadness in church tradition.  It works all backwards with me and is one of the reasons why I like Lent.

Tuesday morning’s e-newsletter, for employees of the gargantuan “health system” where I work, encouraged us to wear purple on Wednesday to support patient safety. Read more of this post

Get Up and Eat: 3 Years of Replenishment

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, I wrote this article about the renewal we can experience during Lent.  I had no idea what was coming my way!

You may have heard of the idea of choosing one word as a theme for your year.  You’re supposed to place this word around your home or on a bracelet, where you’ll see it regularly and be reminded of your intention, and it will inspire you and serve as a guiding principle.  Maybe you make some collages or something based on your word, for further inspiration.  Maybe you use it like a mantra for meditation.  Some people tell stories of amazing growth that resulted from this simple choice.

It sounds like a fine idea, and in January of 2012, when several bloggers I read were writing about what word each of them chose, I found that a particular word came into my mind as a goal for my own life.  The word was replenishment.

Almost a year earlier, during my church vestry retreat, I’d thought of replenishment as the one word that best expressed what I wanted for my church: We were worn out from years of struggle, and many people had left, so we were down to a small core of mostly old-ish people working really hard to keep our parish going.  I prayed for replenishment of our individual souls and strengths to keep us working toward the replenishment of our parish with new people and new energy.  It’s working!!  Our church is growing and getting really wonderful now!

But as 2012 dawned, I realized that I could use some replenishment myself.  Not only was I working really hard on the vestry, but I was still working my way out of being a migraineur, which is a deceptively elegant word for “chronic horrible headache victim” or, at least in my case, “person with a massively fucked-up tendency to allow her brain to malfunction and get some kind of bizarre power trip out of it.”  My New Year’s resolution for 2010 had been to battle the headaches from every possible direction, and that really helped: I went from having about four headaches per week to more like two per month!  But that battle had worn me down, what with various lifestyle changes and medical appointments and facing stuff in therapy and attempting to ask for what I need, so although I was suffering less pain, I was very depleted and had this awful sense of being so busy all the time yet never getting everything done.

So: 2012, my year of replenishment!  I didn’t write the word everywhere or make a collage, but I prayed about it a lot and, when faced with choices about what to do, considered what would be the most replenishing choice.  It was going pretty well for the first couple months, and then it was time for Lent, and I decided that I would fast from the idea, “I don’t have time to get things done.”  Well, guess how that turned out? Read more…

How to Get Kids to Behave in Church

Welcome to the February 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Do It Yourself

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of
Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code
Name: Mama
. This month our participants are teaching us how to make
something useful or try something new.

***

By the time my first child was born, I’d been attending a small, liberal Episcopal church in my neighborhood for eight years.  Church is very meaningful to me, so I wanted to continue going, but how would I manage with a needy little baby who would become a wiggly toddler and then a child with his own ideas? Nicholas is ten years old now and has a baby sister, Lydia, and I’m able to manage both of them pretty well while still soaking up church myself.  I’ve learned a lot along the way!

I’m saying “church” but many of these tips would apply to other religions’ worship, and many of these strategies for church behavior also apply to any situation where we need to sit still and listen, like performances and meetings.  I’ve put them approximately in the order that you can start using them, beginning with things that work from birth–so if you have an older child and you’re just now trying to get back to church, skim along until you see something that seems feasible for your child now.  Read more…

The Common Cold and the Common Cup: Does Communion spread germs?

I’m an Episcopalian.  In almost every service at our church, we receive Communion this way: The priest tears a morsel off of a round, flat bread and places it in the palm of your hand, and you eat it.  The chalice-bearer holds the silver cup of wine as you sip from it, then wipes the rim of the chalice with the purificator, which is just a fancy name for a cloth napkin.  There are two chalices, and in our typical service maybe 30 people drink from each one.

Why would I share a drink with 30 other people?  Isn’t that just asking for trouble?

Honestly, I’ve never worried about it much, for three reasons: Read more…

Planning, Parenting, and Perfection

Welcome to the December 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: The More Things Change . . .

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about life changes.

***

As a teenager, I went through several phases when I spent a lot of time daydreaming about my adult life.  I “planned” which neighborhoods I would live in at each stage, chose homes from architecture books and decided where I would put all the furniture, and selected names and birthdates for my child(ren) and their father(s).  Some of the details changed as I experimented with different possible futures–one child or two? Would I really be happy with just one man for decades?–but I was certain about a few things: I would become an architect, I would live in New York City, and I would give birth to a daughter within a few months of my 30th birthday.

Why 30?  Well, my parents are 30 calendar years older than I am and 30 years ahead in school, and that’s really neat!  It’s always been easy to figure out how old my parents are now, what year they were my age, and when they were in which grade.  It just feels right.  Also, 30 seemed to be a good age for parenthood: old enough to have experienced some adult adventures without kids, young enough to enjoy plenty of adventures with kids.

I was 20 when I admitted that I could not become an architect.  I changed my major to psychology, finished college, worked at a few assorted jobs, and eventually became the data manager of a social science research study–a career I’d never heard of when I was in high school that turns out to be very well suited to me.  Meanwhile, I’d decided not to move to New York, because I really love Pittsburgh–a city I’d never even considered visiting until Carnegie Mellon University sent me a recruiting brochure.

So I’d totally failed to meet my goals for my twenties, but I was very happy.  Also, oddly enough, I’d managed to do something that my cynical, depressed ninth-grade self had discarded as a dream too painfully impossible even to think about: I had found That Guy with the red curly hair and the beard who actually loved me in all my weirdness and understood and agreed about the kind of relationship I wanted to have with a man!  Daniel isn’t always in every way exactly what I wanted, but he’s much, much closer than I thought I would ever find.

We started trying to conceive shortly after I turned 29.  I knew that, with my long and irregular cycles, it would probably take several months to get pregnant, but that was perfect: I would be 30 when our baby was born!  It was all working out just as I’d planned!

But it didn’t.  Months passed, and I got more and more agitated about tracking everything precisely, trying to make my body do what I desperately hoped it could do–what if it couldn’t?  What if I could never be a mother, or if I could do it only with scary technologies that I wasn’t sure were really quite ethical in this crowded world?  I diligently prayed for pregnancy and was rewarded by getting my period on my 30th birthday–gee, thanks a lot, God!  I got more and more bitter and desperate.  Finally we started getting the tests to determine just how infertile we were, and I gave up on conceiving naturally.

That lasted two months.  Is it because I gave up control, or because the right time just was not quite when I thought it was?  I was 31 years 7 months old when Nicholas was born; he is 32 years behind me in school.  And he’s a boy.

Yet the timing was perfect!  He was conceived on 04-04-04, obviously a lucky day, and then my baby boy emerged into the world on Christmas Eve!  I was joyful and triumphant!  I completely forgave God for all the delay and worry (it took me much longer to admit what a jerk I’d been about it and to forgive myself) and accepted that this was the child who was meant for me, arriving at the right time. Read more…

Advent Prayer Tip

The four weeks before Christmas make up the contemplative season of Advent, in which Christians are supposed to prepare our hearts to welcome the newborn Prince of Peace.

The four weeks before Christmas are a time of frenzied shopping, cooking, housecleaning or travel-planning, and festive-event-attending for most people.

There are various ways to calm the chaos and have a less materialistic and stressful Advent and Christmas season, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.

A few years ago, I saw a simple tip that has helped me to work in some prayers amid all the things I’m doing in preparation for Christmas:
Whenever you find yourself waiting, pray.
Advent is the season of waiting. But when we feel very busy with lots of things to do, waiting is hard–we get impatient and frustrated! Using that waiting time to do something can help, especially if it’s something you can do in your head with no special materials and it’s something that makes you feel a bit more holy and less humbuggy.

When you are waiting in the check-out line . . . waiting for the bus . . . waiting for the water to boil . . . stuck in a traffic jam . . . waiting for a fellow shopper to move out of your way . . . waiting for the elevator . . . waiting for the waiter to take your order . . . waiting for the computer to start up . . . waiting for your kid to cooperate . . . waiting for your toast to be done . . . waiting for the traffic light to turn green . . . scrubbing a crusty pan waiting for all that gunk to come loose . . . waiting for the rest of the family to get ready to go somewhere . . . waiting for your turn to see the doctor . . . pray. Because hey, why not? It’s something to do instead of just rolling your eyes and sighing.

Use a prayer you have memorized, or just make it up as you go. Pray for grace and peace in your soul. Pray for guidance as you decide what to do next and get your priorities in order. Give thanks for all the things that are going right–you may find that there are more than you thought. Ask for help with the things that are worrying you–they may seem smaller once you lay them down. If you can’t think of anything else to pray for, look around you, choose a person, and pray that whatever she needs will come to her today.

Like a lot of things, it works for me when I remember to do it! Here’s my reminder. I hope it works for you, too.

Why my kid never believed in Santa Claus

He never believed in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, either.  There are three important reasons why Daniel and I decided, before Nicholas was born, that we were not going to pretend that any of these characters were real.

The first is that we didn’t like the idea of lying to our child.  We felt that claiming these characters were real, when we know they aren’t, would kind of make us feel bad.  Our child should be able to trust us.  Now that we’ve met the individual child we got, we know he’s a very analytical type who easily figures out what’s going on and demands full explanations of processes.  He was hard to confuse with things like Piaget’s famous conservation experiments even when he was a toddler.  The first time he ever saw a stage magician, he immediately started trying to figure out how to do those tricks.  If we’d presented the fables as truth, we’d have been interrogated with years of questions about exactly how those reindeer fly to every house in one night, where the bunny gets the eggs, etc., etc.

The second reason is that we wanted him to appreciate, from the very beginning, that holiday magic is something we all make for one another.  Christmas gifts aren’t brought by a guy in a sleigh to whom money is no object; we spend hours choosing or making gifts for our loved ones, thinking about what each person would like, as a way of expressing our love and respect for each other.  Easter isn’t about a magic bunny who brings us candy for no apparent reason; Easter is about Jesus and the springtime renewal of the world, and Grandma likes to send us some candy.  Losing a tooth is an exciting step toward maturity that is honored with a little treat, and there is a traditional routine for collecting this treat from your parents overnight using a special marsupial (Tooth Beary) crocheted by Grandma.

The third reason is that I wanted to teach my child my religion.  (Daniel does not belong to an organized religion, so the deal was that I could take Nicholas to church and teach him my faith until such time as he might tell me he didn’t believe it and didn’t want to go.  By age 3 he had decided he definitely wanted to be an Episcopalian, and he was baptized.)  If I told him Santa Claus was real, and he then found out otherwise, he would then logically doubt what I’d been telling him about God being real.  After all, the invisibility and super-powers of God are not all that different from what people attribute to Santa.  As I mentioned last week, Nicholas has shown no signs of doubting the existence of God but has remarked on the oddity of people believing in these other entities while not believing in God.

So, without Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, poor Nicholas has had a really dreary, cynical childhood, huh?  Read more…

Answering a child’s questions on human origins

A while back, another mother asked my advice:

Tonight my five year old asked me, “Where did the first people come from?”

“Well,” I replied, “Different people believe different things.  Scientists think that humans evolved from gorillas.”

“What is evolved?”

“That’s when things change from one thing to another, like a caterpillar to a butterfly.  Other people believe in God, that he is up in the sky watching over us all and he created the first people. . . .”

So, what do you say when your child asks you about God for the first time? How do you incorporate scientific evolution?

These big questions are daunting!  Try not to worry about giving the perfect answer the first time; kids come back to these questions again and again.

My son Nicholas asked where people come from soon after he turned 3.  First he was asking how babies are made; I gave a basic explanation that satisfied him for the moment.  Then he asked about death.  A week or so later, he thought of “the chicken or the egg” question and asked how the FIRST baby could ever have been born.  I said something like this:

“Well, we can’t know for sure how that happened because the first people hadn’t invented writing yet, so they didn’t have any way to write down their story. Scientists who have studied the fossils say that all animals are related, and over millions of years, one family of animals kept having babies that were a little more like people than their parents were, and another family of animals kept having babies that were a little more like cats than their parents were, and another family of animals kept having babies that were a little more like turtles than their parents were, and so on until each kind of animal was very different from the others.  There are some things that are still the same among lots of animals, like backbones and fingers.  God is very smart, and maybe God made one main pattern to turn into all the kinds of animals and people.”

That gave Nicholas a lot to think about for a while!

Next time we talked about it, I asked if he would like to hear a story about the first people, and I told him the story of Adam and Eve.  This is consistent with my personal belief that the stories of the Old Testament are traditional legends of our people that contain important truths for us today but are not literally true representations of exactly what really happened.  Nicholas requested “the story of before the beginning” on a regular basis for several years; he enjoyed both my telling the story and my reading it from the Bible.  Not only is it a satisfying story of humans originating from the loving care of God, but it goes on to an important lesson about temptation, obedience, and experiencing the consequences of one’s actions, which led to lots of interesting discussion for us.

As for “when your child asks you about God for the first time” . . . all his life I have spoken of God as if we both know God and God’s existence is simply an underlying fact of reality.  We’ve discussed specifics of belief and practice as they come up, but Nicholas has never asked who/what/where is God.  He did not seem aware that there are people who believe God doesn’t exist until he was in kindergarten, when he commented to me that it’s funny how some people believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy but don’t believe in God–gee, that’s wacky, huh?  (We never spoke to him of Santa or the Tooth Fairy as anything other than fun traditions of pretending.)

I know that many people struggle with the idea that evolution and God-creation are two separate viewpoints.  To me, it’s easy to believe in both: Evolution is God’s Plan.  I love to read the creation story from Genesis because, although I don’t believe it all happened in six days as we understand days, I believe that it unfolded in that general order (there was light, and then there was matter, then water separate from solid land, then plants, then animals, all before people came to be) and that every moment of it was planned, presided over, directed, loved, and approved by God.  All the science is true.  But there’s More.  

(By the way–evolution is not like the transition from caterpillar to butterfly.  That’s one individual changing from one form to another the same way her ancestors did it and her children will do it.  Evolution is a species changing in a way that makes future generations different from the previous ones.)

Telling my child that we are both evolved from animals and created by God worked for me!

But why should your tax status be based on your sex life?

Last week, the United States Supreme Court decided that federal laws that apply to married people apply to same-sex couples who are married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal.  As a liberal person who supports equal rights, I’m supposed to rejoice in this great victory for equality and diversity.

In a way, I am glad.  Making certain federal benefits available only to people whose permanent monogamous sexual partner is of the opposite sex was unfair to people who feel sexual attraction only to their own sex and therefore could never enter into a heterosexual marriage except in a half-hearted or deceptive kind of way.  If marriage is linked to government benefits, those benefits should be available to all people who choose a married relationship.

If.

What bothers me about this court decision and nearly all the discussion of the issue in the past few years is that very few people ever seem to consider that If or to consider what it really means.  This decision does not “make the benefits of marriage available to everybody,” as I’ve heard many people exclaim happily.  Read more…

Easter: Is it just a believing?

Huh, why am I still talking about Easter on May fifteenth?  Everybody knows Easter was way back in March this year!  Well, yes, Easter Sunday, the commemoration of the day when Jesus rose from the dead, was on March 31, but Easter actually is a season that lasts seven weeks in the Episcopal Church and some other denominations.  Our Easter celebration doesn’t end until Pentecost, next Sunday.  Alleluia!

A few years ago at this time, when my son Nicholas was four, he suddenly asked me, “Is it really true that Jesus got killed dead and then came back alive again, or is that just a believing?”

I was shaken.  I had been so impressed at his developing faith and thought I had done a good job telling the Easter story so that he could understand it, yet he was doubting.  Did he think it was just another story like “Cinderella”?  On the other hand, the fact is that believing is the main point here; we believe because we believe, because we have faith, not because we have scientific proof.  Hmmm, how to answer? Read more…

What to Serve for a Big Reception or Party (specifically, Easter)

I noticed my article What to Serve for Coffee Hour drawing more readers as Easter approached–probably people looking for ideas to make their church coffee hours following the Easter services particularly festive.  I have often taken charge of coordinating my church’s reception after the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter Sunday), and this year’s went particularly well, with the contributions of several parish chefs and the assistance of my extremely helpful eight-year-old Nicholas.  I’m going to explain what we served, where it came from, and where the leftovers went.  This might be useful in planning any kind of party for about 100 people. (We didn’t have that many at the Vigil, but we did on Sunday, and as you’ll see, the food stretched!)

The interesting thing about the Easter Vigil reception is that this festive, late-night party is just one of the events of Holy Week.  Our church commemorates the Last Supper with a simple meal of bread, cheese, fruit, and wine on Maundy Thursday, and the leftovers from that meal can be used in the Vigil reception.  Then, leftovers from the Vigil reception may be suitable for serving at coffee hour after the Easter morning service, when we have a big crowd to feed!  However, we can’t count on specific leftovers, so we have some people sign up to bring food specifically for the Vigil and for Easter morning.

According to the Gospel of Luke, when the resurrected Jesus came to visit his disciples, he said, “Do you have anything to eat?”  I bet if I had just come back from the dead, that would be the first thing on my mind, too!  So when we get to the end of the long Easter Vigil service and “The Lord has risen indeed!  Alleluia!”, I want to make sure to have a good spread.

This year, here’s what we served after the Vigil: Read more…