Sunday, June 18, 2017

on hope

 I preached this sermon this morning, and I thought it was pretty okay.  Maybe it can speak to you.

Romans 5:1-8
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  (NRSV)

When was the last time that you let yourself hope for something?  Not just a little hope – like for a good parking spot, or for a friend to get over being mad at you.  I mean a big hope.  One that really changes some things about what you want and how you act.  A hope on which some big stuff hinges.  I have hoped for a couple of things recently, and been disappointed in the outcome.  I will tell you about one of them.

I have shared with many of you, over time, that I feel that God may be calling me into the field of teaching, in a seminary or college setting.  Nothing brings me more joy than being able to dig into a text of some sort, and bring out the ideas that I think are meaningful and useful to a body of people.  I have been able to do a lot of this sort of work here at City Road – in creating curriculum for Vacation Bible School; in teaching the Thursday morning Bible study; in studying scripture and drawing out themes for preaching.  But I have felt for several years now that perhaps this is the work that God wants me to do with my whole heart and life:  writing and research and teaching and helping prepare other leaders in the church.  One of my goals in my upcoming year of leave is to discern more fully where God might be calling me in this way, and to apply to many programs for doctoral work, which would be necessary for this kind of teaching.

As I began to dig deeper into the scholarship that I’m interested in (which is very boring – church history and British Wesleyan studies!), I found a woman at Stanford University who is doing the very thing that I want to be doing.  I read her books.  I read her articles.  I contacted her.  I visited with her in Palo Alto.  I felt sure that my future was opening up in her direction.  I began to think about what it might look like to move my family to California.  I had hard and heartfelt discussions with Jeff and other family members about how we might maintain our family structure in this scenario.  And, last December, I made my application for doctoral work there.

Then, the waiting.  I waited for what felt like six millennia, but it was really just a couple of months.  I got the email on a Friday, and I opened it immediately.  And it began: “we regret to inform you . . .”  I was completely deflated.  I had allowed myself to experience this hope so deeply, so totally, that when it wasn’t fulfilled in the way that I preferred, it was a really hard blow to me.  I spent at least a month in a mode of self-pity, wondering why I had ever let myself think I could get into such a challenging program.  I allowed the outcome of this situation I had hoped for to determine my self-worth, and so my self-worth suffered badly.

It’s my instinctual response to decide, in these down moments, that I will just stop hoping for anything.  Easier that way, right?  If you don’t dare to hope for what you desire, then you will never be disappointed by not having it.  Or at least that’s the logic of this world.  But in our Scripture today, Paul tells us something radically different:  hope will not disappoint us.  More fully: “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance; character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us.” 

Paul exposes for us the idea that suffering is inherent in our current world.  We know this to be true – just look around.  Do you see and sense that things aren’t right?  Do you wonder why there is so much hurt and injustice around us?  We know that suffering is part of life.  God never desires us to seek additional suffering, no; what life gives to each of us will be plenty.  But the suffering that we will inevitably encounter produces perseverance.  There is only one way through suffering – you have to hold on.  As Vicki Jo tells me when we play, “I’m Going on a Bear Hunt,” and we come to the river: “Can’t go under it, can’t go around it, can’t go above it.  Have to go through it.”  And then that perseverance produces character.

I want to stop for a moment to discuss character.  It’s all the rage these days to talk about “character education” in schools.  That means helping kids learn to be good people, basically, in addition to all the academic skills that they need.  But when I think of what have been the “character building” experiences in my life, they have all involved failure and suffering.   Breakups, mistakes, bad gambles, wrong calculations, death and separation.  These have built character.  Suffering (and, to be honest, sometimes self-inflicted suffering) has produced this character.  So, if we want our children to have strong character, we have to allow them to fail in ways that sometimes seem terrifying to us – ways that have high stakes and real consequences.  As a parent, I understand exactly how difficult it is to allow kids to fail and suffer, especially when we know we can swoop in and save the day.  But how, then, will they ever develop the character that Paul describes?

Indeed, Paul is acting like this kind of parent in the letter that he’s writing to the Romans.  He is reminding them that the hope we hold as Christians is patently absurd.  We hope for the day when Christ will return, and we continue to hope that God is in the process of healing the brokenness of this world.  This is the hope that does not disappoint us.  But Paul was also working with a group of early believers who had very specific expectations about how that hope was going to be fulfilled.  They were quite certain that Christ would return within their lifetimes, and so the organization of a church and a set of guidelines around that church was really not high on their agenda.  But this kind of attachment to outcome is what leads to disappointment.  Paul is outlining for his listeners the process that will lead to hope (suffering, then perseverance, then character, then hope).  But he is careful to specify that this is the hope that does not disappoint. 

This was my problem in my situation with Stanford, I’m afraid.  I had become far too attached to one very specific outcome of my hope.  That attachment produced expectations, and when those expectations were not fulfilled, it was crushing for me.  But I think what Paul is getting at in our scripture is that it’s not the outcome of our hope that is particularly important.  It is the kind of people we become when we continuously hope for something, without disappointment.  It is the actual process of hoping, rather than the goal orientation of seeing a specific end result to that hope.  Hope is such a crucial ingredient to the human spirit.  We have all known someone who has simply given up hope, and has died.  Even in the absence of all other disease or affliction, the loss of hope is fatal to life.  It’s not too much, I think, to say that hope is necessary for life. 

Emily Dickinson wrote a beautiful poem about this. 

Hope is the thing with feathers /
That perches in the soul, /
And sings the tune without the words, /
And never stops at all, /

And sweetest in the gale is heard; /
And sore must be the storm /
That could abash the little bird /
That kept so many warm. /

I’ve heard it in the chillest land, /
And on the strangest sea; /
Yet, never, in extremity, /
It asked a crumb of me.

I love how she describes hope as “singing the tune without the words.”  This is the kind of nonattachment to the outcome of hope that I believe Paul is encouraging for us.  We know the tune – we feel it inside of us.  But we aren’t quite sure of the words.  God will provide the words that we need in the time that is right.  Meanwhile, our task is to become refined by suffering into people of perseverance and character who hold this kind of hope, for ourselves and for our world.

Hope also involves waiting, at which I am absolutely the worst.  In researching this text, I read a sermon that my favorite theologian Paul Tillich wrote, entitled “Waiting.”  He describes the tension that waiting produces, but he also encourages us to remember that waiting for something implies that we already have some part of it inside us.  He writes, “Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny.  And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity.  All time runs forward.  All time, both in history and in personal life, is expectation.  Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal.”

We do hold that hope that does not disappoint, and that hope enables us to wait patiently for the way that God will work this whole mess out. 

And what about me, then, and my disappointed hope?  Well – it’s a funny thing about hoping.  You think that you’re just completely done with it.  You think you can just stop.  But we are programmed, as healthy humans, to hope for things.  It’s an instinctual urge that is a necessary ingredient for the human spirit.  So I will be throwing my hat back in the ring this December, to Stanford and to a slew of other schools.  I have earned some character stripes in this whole experience, and I have learned an important lesson about hope:  when we can cease a tight attachment to an expected outcome of our hope, it will never disappoint us.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


I looked at my Facebook "memories" today and realized it would have been my anniversary.  May 23.  Jeff and I would have been married 8 years today.  (Except we had already been married since April when we got married, but whatever.  Long story.)

I checked in with myself.  Am I sad?  Angry?  Anxious?  What feelings do I have today?

Jeff and his partner Abby have a new baby.  He was born last week.  His name is Noah and he is the sweetest, most precious little one I have ever held.  (And I say that with full knowledge of my own children.  They were never all that sweet and precious - they were pretty demanding and vocal.  But that's why I love them!)

When Noah was born, I also searched myself.  Did I feel jealous?  Nervous?  Pushed out?

I have really wanted to confront whatever feelings I might be having because in the past, I may have just claimed to be okay and fine, and then five years later had a crazy disproportionate response to some more or less quotidian event in my personal or professional life.  That's a typical Emily way to work these situations.  But I don't want to be like that anymore.  I want to have my feelings when I have them, and realize that they won't overwhelm me.

So I searched.  And a lot of people asked me.  I got some of those concerned texts from friends:  "How are you feeling about the new baby and everything?"

And can I tell you:  I literally have not a single negative emotion.  Not one.  I feel joy and contentment when I'm around the baby.  I feel happiness and peace when we are all together.  I truly feel that Jeff and I are in the kind of friendship and co-parenting situation that we are meant to be in.  I think that Abby is a great partner for Jeff.

As I was drifting to sleep the other night, I was having a conversation with God, as I often do in that twilight time between waking and dreaming.  I was pondering why it has been so easy and peaceful to fit this complicated network of relationships together.  Lord knows I have my share of extremely difficult and conflict-ridden relationships, as well.  I have relationships that are so damaged and badly deteriorated that I'm not sure they can ever be repaired.

But it seems that, for whatever reason, the relationships that matter most (family; people who will parent my children) are safe.  And it's not even a case of "oh we just want to get along for the kids."  (Although that makes me sound very noble and self-sacrificing, doesn't it?)  I honestly think that Jeff and I would have a great friendship even if we had never had children and divorced.  I just earnestly enjoy being around him, his family, Abby, and Noah.

I have been joking with my friend Amanda about the abuses of the #blessed idea.  No, God doesn't want you to be #blessed by your new car or business success or whatever.  But when I consider this intertwining of lives and the ways that things have worked out, I cannot help but call upon that idea.  God has #blessed me with the most unconventional family imaginable, and somehow it just . . . works.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"you'll never be the prettiest girl in the room . . .

but you'll always be the smartest."

With those words, my mother laid the cornerstone on the foundation of my personality.  It has been both exceptionally sturdy and also very weak.  (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I was standing in the downstairs bathroom, the one with the little statue of W.C. Fields.  I was probably seven.  I was observing a ritual that had been repeated thousands of times already in my short life:  standing next to the sink, watching Mom put on her eyeliner.  We were late for church, and I knew that we would go in the side door on 10th Street and go through the library and slip into the back pew.

I had asked Mom a question that was so seemingly benign and innocuous.  It was one that I have imagined every little girl asks at some point.  "Mom, do you think I'm pretty?"

In the last six years I have spent a lot of time drinking in the beauty of my own two children.  I know how you stare at the curve of her cheek or admire his gait.  I know how every mother sees her child as the most gorgeous thing imaginable, and how you think to yourself, "If they resemble me at all, in appearance or personality, then I am more beautiful than I thought."  So now, I know what my mom was thinking.  But standing at the sink, she contemplated the question for so long that I thought she probably hadn't heard me.  I was about to ask again when she simultaneously deflated me and fed my arrogance with her straightforward statement.

And thus my course was set.  I removed myself from the "prettiest girl in the room" competition and set my sights on "smartest."  By anyone's estimation, I did very well.  National Merit Scholar Finalist.  Ivy League (where I also found out that I wasn't, actually, the smartest girl in the room).  Turner Scholar.  Lewis Fellow.  Free Doctor of Ministry.  Perfect verbal score on the GRE.

But no matter how well I do in the "smartest" category, that seven-year-old is still in there asking if I'm pretty.  She is so persistent that in every serious relationship I've had, once I trusted him completely, I had to sheepishly ask my partner if he thought I was pretty.  Usually he has said yes.  Sometimes he has even told me how beautiful I am, unprovoked.  But there's a silent understanding that it's not my strong suit, and that if you really like me, it's probably for reasons other than appearance.

I have wondered often, over the years, what caused my mom to make that pointed remark.  Mom has been gone for almost thirteen years now, so I can't ask her.  But with my own daughter now six, I think I know.  She wanted me to estimate myself far beyond whatever value society might place on my beauty.  She wanted me to invest in myself in ways that would not necessarily be physically apparent.  But in doing so, she also created a little quagmire that sucks in bottomless amounts of attention and reassurance.

So last night, as little Vicki wanted to snuggle on my lap, I held my lips against the side of her forehead and whispered, "You're so beautiful."  Tomorrow, it might be, "My God, you're brilliant."  And the next day, "You cannot control anyone but yourself."  They are all true, and however she chooses to define herself - whatever competition she decides to throw her hat into - I want her to know that she has the internal resources to win at being her best self.  Always.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

dating profile

Here is my fictional online dating profile.  Like, what I wish I could actually say to anyone who is potentially interested:

What I want:  someone to play Scrabble with me, walk to the record store, make really good suppers, perhaps go on some weekend hiking adventures.

What I'm not looking for:  a replacement dad for my kids (they have a great one, although additional loving adult influences are always (eventually) welcome!), someone to distract me from my Goals, someone who will subsume my identity into theirs.

Need not apply:  people who paint with exceptionally broad brushes about politics, faith, or culture.  Must be willing to have thoughtful conversation and be challenged in a number of ways.

Seriously - I feel like this isn't too much to ask!  If you know someone great, send them my way.

Friday, April 28, 2017

chicken pot pie

I discovered the beauty of roasting a whole chicken and making stock from the bones long ago.  However, when I started buying chickens that were raised out on grass by a farmer, I realized I had to change my cooking technique a little bit.  These birds tend to be better-worked, more muscular, and a little more prone to getting dry.

The other thing I realized is that they are expensive!  Contrary to popular culture, chicken has become our family's special-occasion meal.  A well-raised bird can easily run $3-4/pound, and at 4-5 pounds each, you are now talking about a $20 bird.  We save those for when we have guests for dinner, and then we stretch them into two or three or four meals.  (You know what's cheap?  Ground beef or stew meat, that's what's cheap, relatively speaking here.  And eating vegetarian, like using beans or paneer as your protein, is cheapest of all!)

I roasted a bird the other night for some company, and here's how it went:

First night:  roast chicken

Second night:  chicken tacos

Third night:  chicken pot pie

And then I tossed the carcass in the freezer to make stock later.

And then I realized I had never shared my chicken pot pie recipe!  It's a true favorite in our house.  A full meal in one pan (vegetable, bread, protein).

Chicken Pot Pie
1/2 an onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
1-2 ribs celery, diced (optional)
2 T butter
2 T flour
1 C chicken stock (may need more)
1/2 C milk
1/2 t dried thyme
1/4 C frozen peas
1 C diced cooked chicken
salt and pepper
1 C flour
1/3 C frozen butter
cold water as needed

Oven - 400.

Start by frying the onion, carrot, and celery in butter over medium heat.

Let them get really soft - no one wants a big crunchy carrot chunk in their pot pie.  Drop the heat a little if you need to, and add a little stock if it starts to get too brown.  I probably let this go for 10 minutes.

Add the flour and stir it into the butter and vegetables, making sure it is completely combined and no more white floury areas are visible.

Add the chicken stock and stir very well.  It will start to bubble and thicken right away.  Add the milk and keep stirring.  Add thyme, frozen peas, and chicken, and combine.  Taste it and season with salt and pepper.

Once everything is all warmed up and thick, scrape it into a casserole dish and set aside.

Now, make the pie crust.  This is my standard pie crust recipe.  I love freezing the butter and grating it - it takes all the mess away and gets the butter the perfect size without you having to get your hands all dirty.

In a small bowl, put the cup of flour and a pinch of salt.  Using a cheese grater, grate the 1/3 C frozen butter into the flour, stopping occasionally to toss the butter around in the flour.  Once it's all grated, grab a fork.  Pour in ice-cold water about a tablespoon at a time, stopping to stir it in after each addition.  Once it's come together and there is no more dry flour visible, turn it out onto the countertop.  Press it lightly into a disk, then used a floured rolling pin to roll it out to the size needed to cover the pot pie.  You may have more crust than you need - just freeze whatever is leftover and use it whenever you need a little pie crust!

Cut a couple of vents on the top of the pot pie, then pop it into the 400 oven for about 30 minutes.  It will get brown and bubbly.  Pull it out and let it cool for a few minutes, then enjoy!

Serves 2-4, depending on age and appetite.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

hallway season

So now that my formal leave request is submitted and we have announced to the congregation and etc etc, I can answer the big question:  what on earth am I going to be doing after June 30?

Some of you are familiar with our itinerant appointment system in the United Methodist Church.  Some of you are not.  Let me explain briefly:  I am an ordained elder in full connection with the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Essentially, this means I belong to one of the strongest unions still in existence.  It's a closed shop.  I am tenured.  Unless I do something ridiculously unethical (or choose to surrender my credentials), I will retain that tenure for the rest of my life.

The covenant that I have made, in exchange for this lifetime guaranteed appointment/job/minimum salary, is that I will itinerate.  This means that the bishop and cabinet will assign me to a church somewhere within the geographical confines of middle Tennessee.  I get some input into this decision, but at the end of the day:  I am assigned.  There are a hundred reasons why John Wesley thought this was such a good idea in the late 1700s, but that's not really what I'm gonna talk about today.

There are some accommodations that can be made in the case of those who need to take leave, while retaining full connection in the conference.  You can be placed on leave (involuntary), or take voluntary leave for transitions or the care of family.  I have submitted a request for one year of voluntary family leave, to begin July 1 of this year.  After seven years under full-time appointment, I will not be taking an appointment for 2017-2018.

So, what will I do with this year?  

1)  work with an area church and Vicki's elementary school to complete my Doctor of Ministry project, which focuses on increased engagement and investment in neighborhood schools to stem the tide of charterization in middle Tennessee.

2)  spend pretty much all of July on an epic family road trip, touring the West.

3)  complete a 200-hour yoga teacher training at Kali Yuga Yoga from August through November.

4)  take my daughter on her first trip to New York!  To see my best friend and her baby and her husband and Brooklyn and see the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  This is such a rite of passage for us, introducing her to The City.

5)  spend a lot more time with my son and daughter, cat, dog, and chickens.

6)  take a German class at Vanderbilt (modern languages . . . ugh).

7)  apply for about 15 more Ph.D. programs in Religious Studies/Theology.  Including reapplying to Stanford.

8)  take my kids to DC in May of 2018 for my graduation at the National Cathedral.

Big questions I've been asked:

1)  How can I do this, financially?

I am by no means independently wealthy (have you seen my house/car/life?!), but I have enough saved from inheritance and cheap living that I can afford to do one year this way.  We won't be able to live extravagantly, but I can take a year to breathe.

2)  Will I return to church ministry?

I have no idea, honestly.  I am trying to be as open as I possibly can.  I have spent a lot of my life rushing through whichever door opened easily and quickly, because I couldn't stand the ambiguity and discomfort of standing in the hallway.  But this is my hallway season.  This is the time to stand and observe the doors and see which one cracks open and which one shuts and which one can be the door that is wisest and most accommodating for all three of us.  Perhaps I am accepted to the perfect Ph.D. program, and that is the door that opens.  Perhaps I am not, and I realize that God is pulling me back to the church.  Perhaps God pulls me in some other direction entirely.  I have to take the time to see.  There is no substitute for time, not even hard work and determination and grit.  Not even pushing as hard as I can.  I have not done a good job in my life of respecting the role that simple, observant, engaged time plays in any given situation, and now I need to do that.

3)  Will I miss City Road?

Um . . . yes!  This place has been my home in ministry for the last five years, and they have seen me through some of the most horrific and celebratory times in my life.  They have seen my son born, my marriage disintegrate, my heart be broken about seven times.  They have seen me grow as a leader and a person.  They have accepted my vulnerabilities and flaws.  This church is far from perfect, but the people here are as good as any people I have met in my life.  They have cared for me in a way that is truly Christ-like:  challenging and nurturing and trusting.

This is an exciting season for me.  I am somewhat terrified, but I feel ready.  Open and ready and accepting.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

being a marlee in a lila jane world

In Todd's class at the King's Daughters Day Home, there is a girl with little blonde ringlets named Marlee.  She is everything.  She is loud and forward and always charges the door whenever anyone walks in.  She is darling and precocious and forceful.  She demands to know my name and what I'm doing in their classroom, every single day, for the last two years.  She is frequently having some sort of absolute meltdown when I drop Todd off or pick him up.

There is also a little wisp of a girl named Lila Jane.  Her hair is straight and fine and brown.  She is quiet as a mouse.  I've never even heard her whisper.  She hangs in the background.  She looks fearfully at the door when I come in.  She could be a ghost - I'm not even really sure I've seen her name listed on the sign-in sheet.  Her eyes are big and soulful.  

I sensed some sort of triangle happening between Todd and Marlee and Lila Jane about a year ago.  Marlee wanted lots of hugs from Todd when we walked in one morning.  He seemed standoffish about it.  I asked him about it later, when I picked him up.

"Yeah, Marlee always wants to sit next to me at morning circle . . . but I want to sit by Lila Jane."

UGH.  Of course you want to sit by Lila Jane.  The Lila Janes of this world - mysterious and withholding and dropping you little crumbs of their personality every now and again - they always get the guy.  The Marlees may get everything else, but the Lila Janes get the guy.

Me (and my daughter) - I'm a Marlee.  What you see is what you get.  I will show you everything, even if you don't want to see it.  I will go as far as you will let me.  I don't know any other way to be.  I have no idea how to be a Lila Jane, but I have always sensed that those little wisps are what men want.  And . . . I hate myself for even having this line of thought.  I'm a Marlee - I don't care what men want, right!?

Right. . . . right.

No shade on the Lila Janes.  I'm sure that most of them don't know any other way to be, either.  We are all just doing the best we can with what we've got.  But what is it about the men that makes them want the Lila Janes?  Do they feel non-threatening?  Like a challenge?  Uninterested in you?

I will probably never know.  And I'm chronically unable to act like something that I'm not.  But it still feels like I have spent most of my life stomping while everyone else was tiptoeing, and I'm not sure how to stop stomping, and sometimes my feet hurt.

Monday, April 10, 2017

career day

It was sophomore, or maybe junior year of high school.  (So, 2000 or 2001.)  In a ritual familiar to high school students everywhere, we were invited to find some adult who would take us along on a day in their work environment.  Ideally, it would be something that we saw ourselves doing.  I was fairly uncertain about what I wanted to be doing with my life, aside from reading a lot and talking about ideas.

I was super-interested in the idea of skipping school for a day, though.  So I asked my youth pastors from Lawrence First UMC, the inimitable Jan and Mitch Todd, if I could come along with them for a day at seminary.  (This was when St. Paul School of Theology was still its whole own free-standing thing in Kansas City, before it became just another tentacle of the Church of the Resurrection Octopus.)  They were both studying for the Master of Divinity degree and it seemed like they could give me some pointers about ministry as a career.

It was a fun, if unremarkable, day of poking around the library and sitting in on classes and eating lunch in the refectory.  I filed it away in my memory box and moved on with life.  I was accepted to Columbia a year or two later and proceeded to do a lot of reading and talking about ideas.  (And a whole lot of other much less responsible stuff.)

In a few more years, I found myself in my own theology classrooms at Vanderbilt Divinity, studying for that very career that Mitch and Jan had led me into.  I poked around the library and sat in many classes and ate lunch in the refectory.  When I graduated, I moved into full-time ministry.

And there I have been for the last seven years.  In churches that have loved and supported and infuriated and challenged me.

This morning, after I dropped off Todd at his preschool and I was driving over to church, I remembered that Career Day for some reason.  I realized:  I had always thought I was going on that day to learn about becoming a pastor.  But what I really did was wander around an institution of higher education.  I was doing the work of an academic on that day:  reading, studying, germinating ideas, discussing, writing.  And today, that realization is freighted with meaning.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

paneer tikka masala

As promised in my last post about elementary cheese-making, here is one of my favorite uses for paneer!

Chicken tikka masala is the "national dish" of Britain, funny enough, because it was an Anglicization of Indian food during Imperial times.  It's a favorite of mine at buffets.  Once I realized how easy it was to make at home, I decided to stop paying for it.  Making it with paneer is even easier!

Paneer Tikka Masala
12-16 oz paneer
3 T butter
1 T olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2 serrano peppers, minced (seeds removed if less heat desired)
2 T tomato paste
8 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced (about 3 cups - or 2 15-oz cans diced tomatoes)
1 t garam masala
2 t paprika
2 C water
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 c cream

Melt about 1 T of the butter in a large skillet (I always use cast iron).  Fry the paneer on all sides until nicely golden brown.  Remove from the pan and set aside.

Melt the remaining butter and the olive oil together in the same pan.  Add the garlic, ginger, and peppers.  Fry and stir until it is lightly brown - about 3-5 minutes.

Add tomato paste and fry until it darkens in color - about 2 minutes.  Add garam masala and paprika and fry together for another minute or so.

Stir in the tomatoes, water, and salt.  Bring to a boil, then lower heat and let it simmer 20 minutes (now is a good time to start basmati rice).

Let the curry cool slightly, then blend it in two batches in the blender, until completely smooth.  Return it to the skillet, add the cream and stir it in.  Add the fried paneer cubes back into the curry and let it all cook together for about ten minutes.

Serve over basmati rice with cucumber raita, mango chutney, and/or green chutney!  Also, this is delicious served with a mango lassi to drink.  Serves 4.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


I promised this recipe post long ago, when I posted a photo of my paneer and butter on Facebook and had lots of interest from friends, wondering . . . what the hell is that stuff?

We have belonged to a milk co-op for about four and a half years.  We partner with an old-order Mennonite farmer in Kentucky, and about 8-12 families participate at any given time.  We take turns driving up there, visiting with Joseph, and bringing back milk, cream, and eggs.  It has been a phenomenal experience, and I'm so happy to be a part of it.  I love showing the kids the farm and the animals and where our food comes from.  Plus the drop point has been my backyard for the past few years, which makes it pretty easy for me.

The upshot, though, is that I pretty much always have a gallon of milk and a pint of cream waiting for me to do something.  We don't drink a ton of milk straight-up in my household.  Todd likes a glass here and there (he demands "fresh milk"), I like it in coffee.  But I get a gallon every week, rain or shine, and so I have had to get creative with how I use it up.

I skim the cream from the top of the gallon, combine it with my pint of cream, and make butter every week or two.  This has made me into a huge butter snob.  I only like my bright yellow butter now, and a lot of mornings the kids just have bread and butter and honey for breakfast.

I also make and freeze a lot of paneer.  I got super into making Indian food in the last couple of years.  It's pretty easy and it makes your house smell like exotic heaven.  Paneer is kind of the Indian equivalent to tofu.  It's a vegetarian protein staple that can pick up pretty much any flavor you combine it with.  Making it is an adventure in easy cheese-making:

Paneer . . . to the left, to the left.
You will need milk, lemons, a big pot, a colander, cheesecloth (or an old clean pillowcase), a couple of plates, and some heavy cans.

Pour 8 cups of milk into a large pot.  Heat over medium until it begins to boil.  (This may take about twenty minutes - stir continuously near the end so it doesn't scald to the bottom.)

When it boils, pour in 1/4 C fresh lemon juice (no seeds! - you can also use bottled in a pinch).  The milk should begin to curdle immediately.  If it doesn't, add a little more lemon juice.

Drop the heat to low and stir the curds together gently for about five minutes.  You want to stir in such a way that you are sort of bringing them together, rather than smashing them apart.

Wet the cheesecloth and put it in the bottom of the colander.

Drain the curds into the lined colander.  Tie the ends of the cheesecloth together to make a little sack of curds.  Hang it from your kitchen faucet to drip for five minutes.

After the curds have drained five minutes, take the cheesecloth ball and twist it so that the ends are off to one side.  Place the ball on one plate, smash the ball down a little and put another plate on top of it.  Weight the top down with a couple of cans and let it drain for another twenty minutes or so.

Once the draining is over, remove the cheesecloth and dice the paneer into 1-inch cubes.  Use immediately or freeze for later!

How do I use it?  It's great in pretty much any Indian recipe!  Saag paneer, paneer tikka masala, and matar paneer are my favorites.  I will post a recipe for one of these in the next few days - this post already seemed too long and overwhelming!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

zooming out

In yoga practice, the balancing poses usually occur sometime after the standing poses and flows in a vinyasa.  They come before we move to the floor and snake through stretches leading to savasana.  During the balancing poses (tree, dancer, bow, eagle), the teacher will often instruct us to focus our gaze on one point in the room; something that doesn't move.  (So, not yourself in the mirror.)  This focused gaze is called drishti in Sanskrit.  It's a place that you can send your thought and energy while you allow your body to balance itself.  Drishti is a necessity to maintaining poise and grace during the balancing poses.  It's also a powerful concept to apply to larger issues with balance in life.

I suffered a major setback in the last few months.  I was rejected for a doctoral program at Stanford.  It makes me feel like a real idiot to even write that, because . . . most people get rejected from Stanford.  There is nothing special about me that makes me different or unique because this happened to me.  There are a thousand idiosyncratic reasons this could have happened, and perhaps there is really just one salient reason:  I'm not qualified.

But it still just sucked.  Rejection is so unbelievably hard, especially because I tend to take others' dislike or indifference for me as a challenge to show them how much they secretly love and need me inside.  (Analyze that one for a little bit!)  I have a very hard time flouncing and detaching in these scenarios.  Rather, I tend to double down on convincing the party who rejected me that I'm actually the choice they want.  They just don't know it yet.  This kind of persistence has generally yielded great results in my life, but at significant personal and emotional cost.

When I shared about my experience of rejection from Stanford, my old friend Andy Piper popped up and reminded me of something I had shared with him during a challenging time in his life many years ago.  He said, "You once told me that in times of distress, you "zoom out."  I have thought about that nearly every single day since then."  Zooming out has indeed been my strategy of choice for escaping the pressure cooker.  It's like a release valve.  I picture myself floating up from the dense underbrush of whatever is entangling me.  I begin to see a pattern from the tree canopy.  As I get further away, I see that the dark tangle is just a little blip.  The forest is so beautiful and rich.  There are gorgeous areas just beyond whatever I was struggling with.  The way things are won't last forever - I can escape the dangerous endlessness that threatens to overwhelm me.

"Feeling are intimate, but not infinite."  My best friend Amanda shared this with me a few months ago.  Yes.  It's so true.  Finding perspective and zooming out, fixing your gaze, using drishti, is terribly challenging in times of disappointment and distress.  But it's a skill we have to cultivate if we are to maintain any kind of balance in the poses.

Monday, March 27, 2017

old favorite

There will be times when all the things she said

Will fill your head.

You won't forget her.

Friday, March 24, 2017

let it be

This year, for the week I turned 32, I decided to head for the hills.  I had booked four nights at the Hermitage at St. Mary's Sewanee.  I was feeling emotionally drained, tense, anxious, not eating much, and had suffered some significant personal stresses lately.  I left the number for the center with Jeff, kissed my kids good-bye, asked a neighbor to feed the chickens, packed some clothes and books, turned off my phone, and retreated into the silence.  I was both excited and terrified.  Would my mind be too loud?  What if I got lonesome?  Wouldn't I get bored?

I made the 1.5 hour drive, threw down my bags, observed a breathtaking misty sunset over the bluff, and set off to find something to eat.  I turned the wrong way out of the center and drove to Alabama before turning around and coming back.  Life with no phones - how did we survive?

As I was scaling back up the mountain, "Let It Be" seeped into my ears from the stereo.  "When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me . . . there will be an answer:  let it be."

Let it be.

I scampered into a little burger joint in Sewanee just before the kitchen closed.  I ordered a cheeseburger and a beer.  I finally felt hungry - for the first time in months.  I drove back to the Hermitage and drank some wine and drifted off.  I had troubling dreams.  But I did sleep for hours and hours.

I don't remember much about the next day.  I did some hiking and a lot of reading.  I did my prayers in the morning.  After I made a big steak and Brussels sprouts for dinner, I sat down in a chair and cried and cried.  There is someone I miss cooking for, and I don't think I will ever cook for this person again.  Food is love for me.  Making it and sharing it.  Knowing just how someone likes things.  Kneading the dough that will rise into the bread that will become the French toast.  Stirring the milk that will be pressed into the paneer that will get mixed with spinach and yogurt.  Perhaps I have been avoiding eating because it reminds me of these meals that will go unshared?

I slept with the windows open that night; that's a tradition I've been keeping on the night before my birthday for at least 20 years.

On my birthday, I went into town and read for awhile after I hiked some of the backtrails on campus.  I went to evening prayers at St. Mary Convent, and met a community of women who immediately became special soul friends.  Also one man (a priest), who is dedicated to their Benedictine way of life, but lives nearby with his wife.  A huge storm blew up during prayers.  The sky had that greenish cast that all Kansas schoolchildren fear, because it means one thing:  tornado.  The poor little convent dog, Penny, cowered under the kneelers.  I waited out the storm and walked home.

The next morning the air was fresh and the ground was spongy.  My prayers had a theme of peacemaking and reconciliation.  Ouch.  It can't be forced, can it?  One of the appointed readings was 2 Corinthians 5:18-19:  "All this is from God, who reconciled himself to us through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation."

All day long I pondered:  how does it all fit together?  Peacemaking, forgiving, forgiveness, reconciliation?  Is there an order to it?  How do I know that I have forgiven someone?   I went to the noon office, and - surprise - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 was the reading from the Office.  Am I getting the message?

I went into town to read at the coffee shop again.  Over the speaker:  "There will be an answer:  let it be."  Ah.  Ask forgiveness, and there will be an answer.  Let it be.

That afternoon, I went to hike the Perimeter Trail around the edge of the Sewanee University property.  I got about five miles in and realized I had completely lost the trail.  The daylight was fading.  No phone, no map, no compass, no flashlight, no water.  Why did I think this wasn't going to be a big deal!?  It wasn't too cold, and I wasn't too panicky - yet.  I found a gravel road that I was sure must lead somewhere.  Followed it about a mile.  Then, I was rescued by an Episcopal priest and her husband, out for an evening jog.  They were the first people I had seen in miles.  I realized that I don't have time to waste in asking forgiveness.  I got home, showered, got the feeling back into my hands, went into town, and tore into a huge order of fish and chips.

The next day, my last day, I went for morning Eucharist at the convent and shared spiritual conversation with the sisters (and father) over breakfast.  Sister Hannah gave me the literature about becoming an oblate.  Either they felt the same thing I did, or they just really need some more oblates.  Either way, the place already feels like home.

As I drove home that morning, I felt fresh and alive.  It felt as if it had been winter in my soul when I left, and that spring had come into my heart in those few days.  I did get lonesome, and bored, and my mind was too loud.  But I think that was the point.  Only once I learned to endure through those sensations, did I receive any insights.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

mindfulness for the over-full mind

"Mindfulness."  It's the answer, right?  It's the way to still yourself and keep your brain from making you absolutely crazy with what-if and why and when and how.  It's easy.  Just stop thinking about stuff.

Uhhh . . . .WHAT!?  Have you ever tried this?  If you are literally able to just not think about stuff you don't want to think about . . . well, I just don't believe you.  I don't think anyone can do that, unless it's your brain cutting up and stuffing highly traumatic memories to protect you.  Maybe you can will yourself to stop thinking.  I absolutely, positively, cannot.

I have struggled with fixation and repetitive thoughts since I was a child.  Delving deep on things has been a hallmark of mine, and it has yielded expertise on a lot of subjects.  Ask me about nearly any topic, and I will have considered it carefully, and usually have some kind of theory regarding it.  This predisposition to mulling has also yielded endless amounts of suffering, as I'm unable to release my mind from thoughts of certain situations and people.  

Sometimes it's struggling with regret about how I handled certain things (depression).  Most of the time it's fretfulness about what the future holds (anxiety).  Most of us will tend in one of those two directions.  Neither of which allow you to hold a soft focus on what is happening right now.

I know that disciplining my mind is part of the path toward freedom from this.  However, self-discipline is not my strong suit.  I have needed a lot of help to even begin on this journey.  The following techniques have been pretty crucial for me to kind of get some "handles" on this whole "mindfulness" idea.  

1)  check in with your senses.

This is going to sound so simple that it's painful.  I'm a Myers-Briggs INTJ.  That N stands for iNtuiting,  This basically means that I'm more concerned with meaning-making than with sensory input.  I have always been this way.  I take a little bit of information and extrapolate HUGE amounts of crap from it.  So, something that's helpful for me to get out of this endless cycle of thought is to just ask what my five senses are apprehending.  When my brain gets a little circle-y, I literally ask myself:  "what do I taste?  what do I smell?  what do I see?  what do I hear?  what does my skin feel?"  I try not to chase "why?" in response to any of these senses.  I just get the sensory input.

2)  twelve-step.

I have long posited that pretty much anyone on earth could benefit from being in Al-Anon.  It's just an all-around good way to live your life, focused on yourself and your potential and what you can control (which is most decidedly NOT other people).  One particular part of the program that is great is the focus on today.  I tend to get in a really bad place when I start thinking about endlessness.  What if my current feelings continue forever?  What if my life never changes?  What if there is never resolution?  One of the foundational pieces of recovery-based thinking is that you just can't live this way.  Sometimes, you can only think about what's going to happen in the next hour.  Maybe the next few hours.  Maybe the whole day.  But don't think about tomorrow or next week or next year.  "Just for today."  For an addict this may look like:  "I won't use until after lunch."  After lunch:  "I can make it till after dinner."  After dinner:  "I can make it until bedtime."  Just sub in whatever is your current fixation or struggle.  

3)  Headspace.

Many props to my best friend Amanda for suggesting the Headspace app during my recent struggles.  You can begin with ten-minute chunks of guided meditation.  Andy, the guide, has the most soothing and pleasant voice.  He really makes you feel that things will be okay.  (Those who know me know that since my Mom died, I've been searching for someone to tell me that things are going to be okay.  This is going to sound insane, but I believe Andy when he tells me.  I haven't believed anyone else in 12 years.)  It feels really good to watch your cumulative time meditated begin to pile up, as you build a good habit.  And when he allows you to just "let your mind go" at the end, you can really feel that you have exercised your mind-disciplining muscle.  It's amazing.  Try it!

So, from one mindfulness seeker with a horrendous monkey mind to another, those are my suggestions.  Do you have any?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

there is no happy ever after

When we were married, Jeff and I had our fair share of "normal" marriage problems, in addition to his addiction issues (which were the straw that ultimately broke my back).  You know, things like financial disagreements, communication issues, everyday annoyances, not fulfilling promises or changing in the ways that we had hoped we would.  These are things that kill marriages every day, although on their own they probably would not have killed ours.

One of the most surprising and affirming things for me, after we separated, was how light and free I felt.  I realized how burdened I had been for those years, by all those issues.  Jeff and I continue to be great friends and co-parents.  Indeed, we function much better as friends than as spouses.  (After we separated, I joked that I had found the secret to a perfect marriage:  don't live together or share finances.)  But during those years we were together, I did my absolute best to work at it.  As a coping mechanism, I had gotten really good at telling myself that "happy ever after" is just a mirage.  Every marriage has issues.  Every marriage loses its luster at some point.  You can't stay as intensely "in love" as you were at the beginning.  It's just not physically possible, like from a neuro-transmitter perspective.

But as time has worn on, I have begun to be seduced by "happy ever after" again.  After almost four years, I have lost the immediacy of my marriage experience and the knowledge that that kind of sublime, transcendent love for the long haul is a myth.  I have allowed myself to desire it again, and (even more alarming) I have begun to be upset and entitled about it.

I'm so great . . . I want to share myself with someone . . . I deserve that kind of love in my life.

Do you hear what I'm saying?  I'm allowing myself to get upset that I'm not experiencing a myth.  Absurdity.

Almost all of my friends are partnered or married, so I still get a big glimpse into what the marriage struggle is like.  And I regularly find myself congratulating myself that I'm not married anymore, when I hear about the kinds of mundane, daily ridiculousness that they have to put up with from each other.  And then there are also the big, capital-P Problems.  My friends' marriages have those, too.

For instance:  in my home, there is no question about who will be taking care of the children.  Because I'm the only one in my home who is going to be taking care of the children.  Of course, this can be stressful and wearing.  But, at least there is no additional friction from another adult about who is supposed to be in charge.  Know what I mean?  There is no resentment about who buys groceries or cooks dinner or takes out the trash or folds laundry.  I do all that because I can't expect a 3- or a 5-year-old to do it.  And thank God I don't have to do all that, on top of arguing with someone.

I never, ever have to call someone to ask about why the bank balance is so low.  I'm the only one who can make the bank balance low.  So I only need to ask myself about that.

I have begun to forget about how nice it is to be the only one in charge, the only one who is responsible for either getting things done or creating problems.

If I were to marry again, I would suddenly have to renegotiate all of that.  And then my warm, rosy "happy ever after" feelings would vanish, for sure.  It would be back to work.  Would it be worth it?  Perhaps.  But it certainly wouldn't be "happy ever after."

Friday, January 20, 2017

the dress

Forgive me for what you're about to read, as it is maddeningly vague.  Trust me that it's as specific as I feel I can be, given a variety of different situations in my life.  (The metaphor of the dress applies to two or three somewhat separate things that I'm going through right now.)  I want to share a breakthrough that I've had recently - a sense of peace that is so pervasive that I wish I could bottle it and keep it in the medicine cabinet to take a dose when life gets stressful.

You see, I had this dress.  The dress was perfect.  The fabric was silky and soft against my skin.  It was elegant and perfect for every occasion.  In fact, I longed for more occasions when I could wear the dress and show off how lovely it made me look.  I always got so many compliments every time I wore it.  The color and the cut and the pattern made it like the Platonic ideal of a dress to me.

Every time I wore it, I stood in front of the mirror admiring myself.  But then, when I went out in it, I would start to get uncomfortable.  It was like the dress only fit right if I was standing up straight.  When I sat down, it pinched.  If I gained five pounds, it was all wrong.  When I tried to lift my arms up high over my head, I feared that I would tear the underarm seams.  I had to wear certain shoes so that my legs looked right in the dress.  Suddenly, I couldn't wait until I could get home and take it off.

But I remained committed to the dress.  Maybe if I could just change myself a little, or even alter the dress, it could fit right.  I could nip here and tuck there and suck in.  I could wear different undergarments.  Nothing radical, just some little changes.

But it just never fit.  And the dress not fitting caused me to doubt myself.

So, I gave it away.

No more dress.  And that is the peace that I'm talking about.  Was it sad?  Yes.  Do I miss the dress?  Yes.  Do I worry that I may never find another dress like it again?  Of course.  A girl needs a dress like that!  But no matter what I tried, it wasn't the right one for me.  It's probably going to look just perfect on someone else.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

a day in the life

I'm back!  I found this entry that I never published from last March (the 22nd, to be exact), and it really got me thinking.  I find it hilarious that I never made it past 12:50.  A bunch of stuff has changed in the last nine months (I didn't end up moving appointments, for example, and Jeff is out of the halfway house and doing awesome - he just got his one-year sobriety chip), but the hectic pace is still the same.  It's really very telling that I could only keep up with cataloging what I do until early afternoon.

I just got back from a little vacation to visit my best friend outside San Francisco.  One of the things I love most about spending time visiting with him is how slow and simple life is.  We linger over coffee in the morning.  We walk the dog in a great big loop.  We have time and space to just talk about ideas.  I spend all day shopping for and fixing dinner.  And it's so, so not how my life is every day.  I don't know if I would like my life to be that open and simple all the time (and I don't really get much of a choice, anyway), but it makes for a perfect place to reflect and get my mental life in order.

I love these kinds of zoom-in posts to see what the warp and weft and weave of the fabric of a person's life is like.  Forgive me if you just don't care that much, but I thought some of you might find it kind of amusing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

7:15 - we wake up late.  Todd has his allergy-induced coughing this time of year, so he kept me up a lot of the night after coming to sleep with me at about 11:30.  The dog is tucked tightly into my armpit on the other side.  I love this feeling of being pinned between two warm little lumps who love me.

8:20 - after showering, getting the kids dressed, fixing them six hundred different things for breakfast, realizing I'm slightly hungover after I had three drinks and no dinner at this storytelling thing (don't worry, my senior pastor drove!) for my birthday last night, eating some homemade granola, and forgetting to take the dog out, we pile in the car.

8:30 - we pick up my ex-husband at the halfway house where he is living.

8:50 - we drop the kids off at their preschool.

9:00 - I drop Jeff off at a Burger King so he can meet his boss and go work for the day.

9:05 - I call my attorney to discuss the eventuality of my moving and needing to renegotiate our custody agreement.

9:15 - I walk into church, wave at everyone, finish the call with the attorney, and answer emails and texts for awhile.

9:30 - I'm interrupted by a few folks needing bus passes and food bags.  No big deal.

9:45 - time for chapel with the daycare kids!  I go to the Sanctuary and meet them, light candles, tell the Easter story, sing a few songs, pray, and answer some of their very thoughtful questions about why we have purple in the Sanctuary right now (Lent), why where are so many crosses in there, why there is a screen behind the cross (vents for the organ speakers), and why we light candles.

10:00 - I come back to see that the Moroccan woman who doesn't speak any English and is being divorced by her husband and has no recourse or resources is back speaking with the Senior Pastor.  She has been in a lot lately, and we have no idea what to do about her situation.  I remember that the son of some congregants is fluent in Arabic and try to reach him.

10:15 - edits, edits, edits.  This is Holy Week, plus there is a funeral today, so there are a million things to proof and edit.  Early and late service bulletins for Sunday, funeral order of worship, Good Friday bulletin, children's bulletins for Sunday.  I also miraculously find the Easter offering envelopes that I thought I was going to have to sell my soul for at some Christian bookstore this week.

10:20 - the family of the deceased for the funeral later is here and setting things up for the visitation to follow, and I have to text the custodian a bunch to get things squared away with them.  They set up a chocolate candy bar display that looks, frankly, phenomenal.

10:25 - interrupted by some more folks needing bus passes and food bags.  They need to get down to Metro General Hospital for some appointments.

11:00 - I realize that I need to eat before leading the Madison Homelessness Commission meeting at one.  I also need to call another District Superintendent about a possible move.  Multitask.  Panera sounds good.  On my way out, I notice that the Moroccan divorcee is gone.  I also remember that I haven't brushed my teeth yet today, but I did pack my toothbrush and a little travel paste in my bag this morning.  After lunch then.

11:20 - I talk to the DS.  I remember that I need to text my mother-in-law and tell her I left Todd's medicines in the preschool office when she picks him up later for his sleepover.  I order French onion soup, a veggie sandwich, chips, and water.  I get out a book like I'm going to do some reading for my D.Min. program, all studious, but then I just Facebook the whole time I'm eating.

12:30 - I get back to church.  The office volunteer tells me about a man to whom she gave a food bag.  I realize I need to move the Homelessness Coalition meeting from the gym to the library.  I contemplate a third cup of coffee and decide to live dangerously.  I brush my teeth first though.  Then I give some thought to how I'm going to lead this meeting.

12:50 - I remember to starting downloading the episode of "GIRLS" I'm going to watch tonight on my iPad after bedtime.