Sunday, December 23, 2012

I don't like donuts.

It was Sunday, and we were all loaded in the car after church.  My dad joyfully announced, “Hey, kids!  We’re going to go get donuts!”  My siblings responded with the gratifying celebration my parents expected, while my face dropped and I said, “But, I don’t like donuts.”  Mom had a cold tone to her voice, as she doled out the most underused parenting phrase ever, “You are going to eat a donut, Emily, whether you like it or not.”

I can only imagine how frustrated my parents were, when I sat at the table poking holes in my donut, the way my sister and brother poked holes in their beets.  I remember the overwhelming powerlessness of being told that I could not get up from the breakfast table until my glazed donut was gone.  If only it could have been a slice of toast, or a bowl of broccoli, but no, it was a donut.  Dread.

I really don’t know what’s wrong with me.  I empathize with the exasperation of people around me, when they kindly offer me a token of delight, only to find that I’m not delighted.  I wish I could somehow muster a sincere appreciation for fried dough and icing, but I just can’t.  It’s not that I hate donuts anymore.  When I was a kid, I really hated them; I had to choke them down.  Now, I eat them with the same tolerant disinterest I feel when I eat oatmeal, or swallow medicine.  It’s not terrible, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.  And a good cup of coffee definitely helps make it feel worthwhile.

Before anyone gives up on me, I do want to be clear that this donut-thing has parameters.  I don’t like donuts, but I do love cake.  I love cheesecake.  Fudge brownies and chocolate chip cookies.  Ice cream.  Even the semi-dessert, semi-side-dish Jell-O salads people make for the holidays.  In most ways, I think I am a normal person.  But for some reason…donuts…uhg.
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 1 Timothy 4:4

Friday, December 14, 2012

The funny thing about aliens, Mayans, and the end of the world.

I love Signs.  My husband and I watched it at the drive-in when it came out.  We were actually parked in the back row, sitting in the bed of our pickup, under the stars, surrounded by a field of full grown corn.  It was deliriously creepy and we jumped every time we heard a stalk of corn crackle or brush up against something.  It was fun to let ourselves get swept up in the concept of how the world might end, and how human creativity and resilience, potentially coupled with divine intervention, might bring about pockets of survivors.

I’ve read articles about the zombie, Armageddon, end-of-the-world trend, and I find it kind of amusing.  Of course, there have been seasons of end-times obsession throughout human history; even the Bible includes such stories.  But there seems to be more widespread interest and fodder for it, perhaps more pessimism about our collective future, in recent times – what with the advent of the atomic age, the mega-storms and floods of our inconvenient ecology, and the nagging fear that computers might be devouring our souls, even as they edge curiously closer to Terminator-like self awareness.

I know people who spend time and energy pursuing these unfortunate possibilities.  They wonder about whether the government is covering up alien abductions.  They worry that the ice caps are going to melt and drown us.  They grow garlic to ward off vampires.  Sometimes they arm themselves, sometimes they stockpile canned goods.  Sometimes they don’t do anything, except for wring their hands and worry.

I thought the whole alien thing through a while back.  This is what I concluded.  If there are no aliens: awesome, there is nothing to worry about.  If there are aliens: they’re either benevolent, or keeping to a ceasefire.  If they have the technology to travel through space to our world, we are, by definition, at their mercy.  If the government is hiding them from us, they are either complying with an agreement that is keeping us at peace with them, or protecting us earthlings from the mass chaos that all the alien-fearing worriers would potentially incite.  Either way, we’re actually better off to go with it, than to fight it.  Again, there is really nothing for me to worry about.

Now we are reaching the end of the Mayan calendar, and the world, once again, sits with baited breath, waiting to see if this is really it.  I think for most rationally minded, healthy individuals, these subjects are all a matter of entertainment and diversion, but for the few who are still feeling anxious, wondering which day might be your last, I have some suggestions that might bring you comfort, or deeper anxiety:

1.       You are going to die.  I’m sorry to deliver the news so callously, but I hope you’ve been informed of this before.  Live each day with the full and transformative knowledge that your days and minutes are numbered, and it would behoove you to make good use of each and every one you are blessed to enjoy.  It could end for you at any moment.

2.       The world is not going to last forever.  Again, how long or how short it will go on is not for us to know.  It has been a beautiful, joyful place for humans to dwell, and I, for one, am thankful to have been born here, and not on Mercury, where my life expectancy would certainly have been much shorter – even if 12/21 is the end for Earth.

3.       Contemplating and preparing for events that are out of our control is futile, and distracts from #1.

4.       If the world ends next Friday, you will not care on Saturday.

Some people would say that I can be callous about the end of the world, because I have a Christian faith that asserts an afterlife.  For many, the promise of heaven is enough to sooth their fears about death and end times.  And I cannot deny that the Christian promise of an eternal utopia is both appealing, and potentially soothing.  However, my faith offers me something else that even some non-Christians, or Christians who feel less certain about Heaven might appreciate: my faith offers me assurance that I am in the care of a loving Creator, who intends well for myself and all humanity, regardless of what absurd trials may challenge us.  And my faith offers me a compass in life – an ethical measure and a foundation for my identity as a child of God – that gives me confidence to choose right and live meaningfully.  No matter what day is my last, I will come to that moment and know that I have done my very best to live well.  That, to me, is the best possible end to an earthly life, whenever it arrives.  I will rest in peace.  My dearest wish is for others to go through life with a similar knowledge and assurance.

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. John 13:1

Friday, December 7, 2012

I was a lousy cook.

I took Home Ec. in middle school and learned the basics of following a recipe.  I knew how to use measuring cups, how to boil water; I could crack eggs, flip pancakes, and whip up a mean batch of Hamburger Helper, by the time I headed to college.  But I hated cooking.  Along with various other forms of housekeeping, cooking was a chore I’d felt strapped with as a teenager, and I took no joy in turning raw ingredients into meals.  In fact, I survived college eating at the cafeteria, or whipping up microwave food, splurging occasionally on spaghetti, and feeding on snack foods throughout the day.

When I landed in Villach, Austria, after college, and hit the Spar store for rations the first time, I was shocked.  I felt like Ma Ingalls shopping at the general store.  The boxed dinners I had counted on were nowhere to be found.  Meat had to be requested by the cut, from the butcher; I didn't know what any of the cuts were called in English, let alone German.  The small rows of shelves were full of raw ingredients – flour, oil, starch.  The produce was locally grown, making small, pathetic piles compared to the enormous, shiny fruits and vegetables I was used to picking up at the store back in the U.S.  Even the eggs appeared to have been pulled out from under a chicken just that morning – sometimes feathers or bedding were still stuck to them.

I struggled to feed myself for the first couple months I lived in Villach.  I ate spaghetti three times a week.  Cereal and yogurt were daily staples.  A fellow teaching assistant turned me on to Brie cheese on zwieback toast, and I probably ate that twice a day.  I was walking several miles each day, back and forth to work and everywhere else I needed to go, so my pathetic cooking caught up with me.  I was hungry all the time.
Then my little sister bought a plane ticket and joined me in Villach.  While I’d been off at college, getting educated, she’d been developing her life skills in the school of hard knocks.  I thought, when she asked if she could come to Europe with me for a few months, that it was going to help her break out of her stagnation; I thought I was going to help open her eyes to the bigger possibilities in life and we were going to have a blast, touring the continent and spending time together.  What I never imagined, was that my sister – still a kid in my eyes – was going to head into that ill-equipped Spar store with me, and walk down the aisles putting spices and ingredients into our basket with a deft confidence that made my jaw drop.

That was before we even hit the kitchen.  It was there that I truly became her student.  She would grab a few staples and start opening the spice jars to give them a sniff before adding a bit of one thing, or more of something else.  She chopped vegetables and minced garlic. As she worked in the kitchen, I just watched her and learned.  She wasn’t afraid.  She didn’t need a recipe, and she wasn’t worried whether every dish turned out Betty-Crocker-perfect.  She just used her imagination to build a dish in her head, what the flavors would taste like together, how long to keep it on the heat to get it crisp, when to add salt and when to leave it out.  Of course, there was no pressure on the outcome: I was starving and thrilled to eat something besides zwieback.  What I got, though, were delicious meals, and a new attitude.  It was fun to cook with my sister.  And after she left, and later, once I’d come back to the U.S., it was fun to cook on my own.

I learned so much from watching my sister cook. The kitchen is no longer a chemistry lab, upon which I expect to be graded.  Instead it is an art studio.  There is now such a joy for me in experimenting with ingredients and techniques.  I see the cookbook as a guidebook, instead of a manual, and love looking over a list of ingredients and imagining the flavors, building the dish in my head and tweaking it to fit the groceries I have in my cupboards, or the preferences of who I am cooking for.  Sometimes everything turns out fantastic, and my kids rave about how much better my meatloaf is than the restaurant stuff.  Sometimes it doesn’t go as well, and we serve our dinner with lots of ketchup and barbeque sauce.

But the most important thing is that my kitchen has become a place of love and joy.  I enjoy making the menu and buying the food, I love to sit around the table with my beloved family and see them nourished by what I have prepared for them.  I think my sister got a lot out of her visit to Austria – but more than that, I still treasure the lessons I learned from her.

Anyone too lazy to cook will starve, but a hard worker is a valuable treasure. Proverbs 12:27