Stones of the Heart

Pope Francis has a loving spirit and a poetic heart. He’s not a poet in the traditional sense, as Shakespeare was. He doesn’t sit back and observe, then delight or sober us with fresh, new language that brings to life characters whose traits remind us of ourselves, or of people we’ve met in our own lives. No, he’s a different kind of poet.

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  Pope Francis

He gets around, he sees wrongs, he understands that time is short, both his and ours. Therefore, he sings a new song he hopes will get in our heads and drive us to see what he sees before time runs out on us all. He’s pushy that way. In this world where hate and violence have become commonplace, Pope Francis rarely says things we’ve heard before, like “Love your neighbor” or “Turn the other cheek.”  He realizes we need something more to work with here. “Well, what can I do, right here and now?” He knows we want to know.

So he picks us up where we are and places us in a metaphor. He joins it with what we’ve seen on TV, on YouTube, on Facebook, or wherever we go for news of the human condition. Then, like the poet he is, he turns it so we see ourselves in its reflection, as in this lovely caveat: If our heart is closed, if our heart is made of stone, then the stones will end up in our hands and, then, we will be ready to throw them at someone.

He’s gently telling us to soften up, or we may become what we say we hate. And here’s a definition of love that says what it does today: Love dispels ideologies.

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Feeling woozy? Have some cucumber!

That weird, sort of pre-woozy feeling you sometimes get after a dry spell out in the heat is often the beginning of dehydration, so take along a little plastic container of crunchy sliced cucumber to eat with your plain old bottle of water. What’s that? You don’t like cucumber? I hear you–not crazy about it myself. However, this lowly veggie tops the list of water champions among fruits and vegetables in the article “Eat Your H2O”, from the healthy foods newsletter, Strive.  If you find it hard to get your kids to drink water, this may interest you:

  • Cucumbers are 97% water
  • Celery, zucchini, and tomato are all 95% water
  • Spinach, strawberries, and watermelon? 91% water
  • Cantaloupe is 90% water
  • And the Apple? This favorite American fruit is 86% water

High water content is also why these sweeties leave you feeling pleasantly full. Fruit is sticky because of its sugar content, and if you’re concerned about this, here’s my doctor’s quick no-numbers rule of thumb about the sugar in common fresh fruits:

  • Berries are lowest on the sugar scale, but go easy on the blueberries.
  • Tree fruits like apples, peaches, and cherries are medium.
  • Oranges and tropical fruits are higher yet, but grapes are sugar content champions.

So drink  and EAT lots of water to have a safe and happy summer. And as for fruit sugar?  You can go by my mom’s old maxim: “Everything in moderation.”

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Our New World

Growing up, as we’ve all heard, is hard to do. During these recent mournful weeks, TV, radio and online commentators, candidates hoping for high public office, and just ordinary people on the street have expressed opinions about what is wrong with our country. Then they either go on to tell us, usually angrily, how we can fix things, or they just look sad and say they don’t know how. Our problem is that humanity has been slowly growing up together since the beginning, and right now we’re in a particularly difficult, adolescent period.

Adolescents often have trouble adjusting to the idea of growing up, and humans around the world seem to be having teenage temper tantrums. They want things nice and comfortable–like they used to be–so they pout and kick and scream and rant. Why can’t we go back there, where men were men, and women knew their place, and there was no such thing as LGBT? Where lines were drawn in the sand, and our army gave us a sense of safety? Where people stayed in their own countries? Where we had no responsibility except to protect ourselves and our families from change?

However, we cannot go back to the way things were, any more than we can go back to being children. The world is on the move, shifting its weight and looking for new human balance. People are leaving home and arriving at new shores with religions and languages and cultural practices that the citizens already there do not understand. Like adolescents, our task is to adapt and grow and expand our vision. Somehow, we must find a way to stop colliding and mold ourselves together into a new world community.

It won’t be easy, but we cannot elude adulthood. We cannot hide from the need to ask each other what our beliefs, desires, and feelings are; to meet each other as fellow humans, and to share the work of preserving what we love about our lives as we grow together into new world roles. Certainty and selfishness are the wishes of children; fury, name-calling, and striking back are the growth pains of adolescents. We need mutual respect, shared responsibility, and peaceful co-existence to live together as truly human adults in our new world. We all have hearts; we just need to open them to each other.

 

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A Language of Joy

The other day I had lunch with a retired friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. Apparently, last year about this time she decided out of the blue that she wanted to learn Spanish. Now, I’ve always heard that the best time to learn languages is infancy and early childhood. After that, the brain appears to get disgusted with the process and tries to throw a sort of Wet Blanket over the whole venture–as if it just can’t be bothered anymore. When she reported that after a year she hasn’t learned a lot of Spanish, I just smiled (a little smugly, I’m not happy to admit).

Then she told me about her method. She said she thought about it for a long time before setting it in motion, because it entailed stepping out of her comfort zone–something she wasn’t crazy about doing in her mid-70s. But her only real chance at this late date, she figured, was to go where she could hear Spanish spoken by native speakers. That’s Mexico, of course, but she just wanted to STEP out of her comfort zone, not do a GIANT LEAP off of it.

So she started out by going to Mass at a Spanish-speaking Catholic church–IN ENGLISH, though. After all, she didn’t want her head to explode. And it didn’t. However, she said she realized by the end of the English Mass that Spanish isn’t just a language. There’s a whole culture with it, even if the priest speaks entirely in English. So she had a new culture to learn, too. One wasn’t going to make sense without the other.

“You mean like food and music?” I asked her. But she couldn’t quite explain. She just knew she had to go to Mass in Spanish, which was kind of a scary prospect for her. But what could happen? Just embarrassment of the kind kids must feel when they go to a brand new school, she figured. And they get over it by going back day after day.

“So,” she said, “I just went back week after week. And in the past year, a whole new world has been opened to me. And I’ve learned that Spanish isn’t the main thing about learning Spanish. Even though that’s what I set out to do, it turned out not to be the main thing I’ve learned.” I still don’t quite get what she means, really–do you?

But I sense something about what she said. Maybe it’s a new kind of joy, expressed in a language you don’t have to be a kid to learn. Maybe we’re never too old to be unafraid; to go somewhere new; and give it a chance; and after that, another. And maybe one day a whole new world will open to us, too, as it did to my friend. Maybe it will come tiptoeing up behind us, speaking a language of joy we never knew was waiting there. We were so busy looking for the thing we came to get. And then we’ll notice…and understand…a little.

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Strawberry Jello Cookies & Apple Betty

On January 1st, my goddaughter Cassie landed in this sunny spot in the Sonoran Desert to attend college, and our staid, retired-people basket has been overturned and quickly refilled with joy, fun, texting, smiles, plans, lively meals, and wonderful weekend visits –despite the fact that we live on the other side of the city from her university. This Presidents Day Monday, we baked all day, and I want to share these tasty-treat recipes with you. If you’re trying to control your sugar intake (me, too), just have one cookie in the morning so you’ll have all day to burn off those sweet baddies of the bloodstream. Also, you don’t really NEED to press those little candy hearts into the centers after you take these softies out of the oven, but they do add a fun taste –a little lemon, grape, or orange surprise mixes with the strawberry flavor on your tongue. 

CassieValentineCookies2016

Cassie and Darth show off the Valentine cookies.

This recipe comes from Jan D’Atri, who rescues old recipes and publishes them in the Arizona Republic newspaper. This one ran in the February 14, 2015 issue, and Jan uses the original, now 119-year-old spelling of jello throughout: “Jell-O”. I’ve shortened it for convenience, and you can use any brand of gelatin, though Jan advises NOT sugar-free. It’s easy to see how this recipe can be adapted for any holiday or season. Just use a different flavored/colored jello and holiday-themed cookie cutters:

JELLO COOKIES

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Ingredients3/4 c. butter, slightly softened; ½ c. granulated sugar; 1 small (3 ounce) pkg. jello–NOT sugar-free–we used strawberry for Valentine’s Day; 2 large eggs at room temperature; 1 teaspoon salt; 1½ teaspoons baking powder; 2½ c. flour. Use a little more flour if dough is too sticky, and add food coloring if you want a deeper color. Cassie and I did not need to do either, and our cookie pictures have not been color-enhanced.

Directions: In a mixing bowl, cream together butter, sugar, and jello until well blended. Add eggs and cream well. Add salt, baking powder and flour, mixing well. (Add food color a few drops at a time if desired.)  Scoop batter into a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours to harden. We just put the dough on wax paper, elongated it a bit, and wrapped for chilling. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough ¼” to ½” thick. Use cookie cutters to cut out patterns. Sprinkle with decorative sugar, same or contrasting color. Place on baking sheet about 1″ apart. Jan suggests covering baking sheets with parchment paper first, but we just set them down on ungreased air-bake sheets, which are great if you like softer cookies. We also tried a regular baking sheet and lowered the baking time by 2 minutes. These cookies came out light tan on the bottom and crisper than the air-baked cookies.  

Bake 12 to 15 minutes. Cassie and I recommend 12 minutes for ¼” thick cookies or 10 minutes on a regular cookie sheet for slightly crisp ¼” thick cookies.CassiesValentineCookies2
We didn’t try ½” thick cookies, but they may need the 15-minute time.  If you want to use candy hearts, press them into the warm, soft cookies just out of the oven. Cool slightly and then remove to wire cooling racks. Cassie and I used a ruffle-edged 2½” cutter and smooth-edged 2¼” cutter, and this recipe made 38 heart cookies. 

Our cookies have a delightful, mild strawberry taste. We can’t wait for what’s next–lime green for St. Patrick’s Day? Lemon and grape for Easter? Should we hunt down blue jello for the Fourth of July? Lemon and orange for Halloween and Thanksgiving? Strawberry and lime for Christmas? Or maybe raspberry for Santa’s special plate!

APPLE BETTY

CassiesAppleBetty2016

One of our favorite recipes from the 1972 edition of the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook

Apple Betty is an easy dessert to make and goes well over ice-cream, or just eat it plain. We haven’t tried it with cream, as the recipe suggests. There is a goodly dose of sugar here, but you can always scoop out just your portion of the apples and leave the sweet, cinnamony, buttery topping for the runners and bikers in the family, who can melt it away before it does too much harm. The recipe calls for tart apples, but I’ve made this for many years using any apples at hand, and haven’t had anybody refuse it yet. I quit categorizing apples long ago when a produce person reacted to my comment, “I love Rome apples” with “You’re not supposed to eat those! They’re for cooking!” Well, as we used to say all the time as kids, “It’s a free country!” So just use any apples you want and decide for yourself which ones are best.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. As I pare the apples, I always put the slices in a big bowl of water that has been spritzed with lemon juice, then drain when finished, but you don’t have to. You’re going to add orange juice soon, and this will help keep them from turning brown.

Ingredients: 4 c. sliced, pared tart apples OR one 1-lb. 2-oz. can pie-sliced apples, drained (I’ve never tried this with canned apples, but go for it!) ; ¼ c. orange juice; 1 c. sugar; 3/4 c. flour; ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon; ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg; a dash of salt; 1 c. cold butter. (You can substitute 3/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon and nutmeg, if you have to.) I usually use 6 apples and a deep ceramic dish, but always place a cookie sheet under the pan, as they may decide to overflow during cooking.

Directions: Mound apples in buttered 9-inch pie plate; sprinkle with the orange juice (keeps the apples from turning brown). Combine sugar, flour, spices, and salt; cut in the cold butter till mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle it over the apples. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes or till apples are tender and topping is crisp. Cassie thought this might be too long at that temperature, so ours stayed in for just 40 minutes. Makes 6 servings. I think this is best served warm, but it seems to disappear fast around here no matter the temperature!

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A Happy and Blessed New Year

JesusToddler

http://www.neilsoncarlin.com

This exquisite Neilson Carlin portrait appears on a Christmas card I received this year. I have rarely seen Jesus portrayed as a toddler, which He certainly 0nce was–notice how securely Mary holds her little barefooted runner! And I’ve never seen a picture of the Holy Family which includes His grandparents, Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary. Jesus has learned how to hold His small fingers correctly for the bestowal of a blessing. Perhaps this is because He is already aware of who He is. His gentle yet piercing eyes look, to me, like those of an old soul. Perhaps in His heart, He is already the 3o-something who will one day offer the world a radical path to follow toward Peace on Earth. A Happy, Peaceful, and Blessed New Year to all my WordPress and Facebook friends. 

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A Reflection on the Meaning of Christmas

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Christmas is a good time to reflect upon the startling impact that the birth of Jesus has had on an unsuspecting world throughout the ages. Here is the Christmas story told from the unique perspective of one of its traditional familiar figures. Notice, in the second paragraph, the eerie references to images related to the death of Jesus. (Sorry to take liberties with your lines, Mr. Eliot) :

The Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

“A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey. The ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter. And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, and the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, and the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly and the villages dirty and charging high prices: a hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches, with the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; with a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, and three trees on the low sky, and an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, and feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued, and arriving at evening, not a moment too soon finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember, and I would do it again, but set down, this set down, this: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly. We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.”

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