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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How do you know a Christian?

Now, I know a lot of people who talk about being a “Christian.” They belong to the most attended church in town. They are active in the adult Sunday school; they even serve on the church council. Some of them are leaders in their communities, publicly recognized for their efforts. None of this is a put down. I congratulate them on their efforts. They might even give money to a homeless person if they knew he or she wouldn’t drink it or shoot it in their veins. Those are what I call christians.

One lady, I’ll never forget her. She worked at the food bank here in Sudbury. I really liked her, a writer. We bumped shopping carts at the local Food Basic and she asked me what I was doing since I wasn’t volunteering at the food bank anymore. At that time, I was working with the volunteers at the Elgin Street mission on Saturday mornings, serving breakfast. She commented, “Oh, I see. Well, you know, the school that I come from says that we don’t help people giving them food for free.” Yeah – to quote Bill Engvall – there’s your sign. She’s a christian.

On the opposite side of the aspen tree is Kate. Kate is one of those fiery Scots – probably from a long line of Presbyterians. She used to work the Highland games slinging cans of haggis for recreation. Since I’ve known her, she’s worked in a couple of different jobs and been part of at least two 12-step programs, maybe three. She’s got a cat that’s skirting the edge of mortality. She was one of the first people to recognize my ire at God because it was something we shared. All this mumbo-jumbo about God being nice; what’s up with that? God is the entity that brought us more misery than anything. Because all this time we thought we were doing good -- bad things were happening. Children turned away from us. Money dogged us at every turn and we spent years in financial insecurity. And here we were, praying like mad – to the maddest of Matter. Ok, ok… anti-matter.

Kate and I have had more than one discussion that ended with, “I don’t know why God doesn’t like me.” The thing I find so odd about her is that she’s the one who gives me books about Father Tim, the Episcopal priest in Jan Karon’s Mitford series. Kate was the one who held my hand via email, telephone and any way she could when my son died. Every single time she showed up was when I was in the midst of a wrestling match with the Almighty – carrying messages full of “keep breathing, Scarlett, tomorrow is another day.” She doesn’t shy away from saying, “Yeah, your God… you know what the hell He did to me this time?” And I laugh and ask her to tell me all about what He did. If doubt were a religion – both of us would be elders in the church by now.

So, here’s a quandary. “Religious Tolerance says the most common definition of a Christian is one who is ‘a follower of Christ and his teachings.’”

I don’t know if Kate is a follower of Christ. If it’s the same guy I’m thinking of, she’s more of a bar stool mate. His teachings? Well, let’s give some examples:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” – Matthew 5:7

I know that every single time I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth to the point of swallowing my ankle, Kate didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:5-6

The story of Father Tim arrived on my doorstep when I was angrier with God than I had ever been in my life. I was so angry with Him that I wasn’t yelling anymore. I was silent in my rage because I didn’t have the energy or the will left to fight. A card and a book arrived in the mail. The card said, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.” On the inside, written in the prettiest cursive I know, it said, “I really do believe in you – you’re one of the toughest, most resilient people I’ve ever had the privilege to know…and remember the promises – it will get better!”

Recently, Kate was telling me that Charlie requires medication that she can barely afford, her physical pain is tearing at her and she doesn’t really know how much longer she can hold on to – well, anything. She’s tired.

Today, I came home from work and I’m tired. I think I’ve got a touch of the flu combined with a dose of the “I miss my children being in my house-itis.” Most of all, I think I miss my eldest daughter because she’s growing up and away from me. Hell, she was growing up and away from me at 12, but I didn’t mind it as long as I had charge over her laundry. I had some measure of control then, anyway, right? No clean underwear for you!

In the mail today was a package from K8’s Books and I knew, immediately, that Christmas had arrived on my doorstep. It was a copy of Fannie Flagg’s book, “A Redbird Christmas.” And Kate – I know that redbirds and cardinals are different, but my sponsor believes that when a cardinal shows up at your door, someone who has passed to Heaven is thinking about you. I believe that when a redbird from California shows up on my door, I’ve been blessed by a Scottish angel.

I’ve got something for you, my friend. God isn’t angry with you. God isn’t punishing you. God isn’t about that – and you already know all of these things. I think you shout them to me because you know that we are clanging… symbols. We are channels of His peace, teachers and students of the capital “C” Christianity. And no, silly, I don’t believe that Christ is, was or ever will be the only way to God. I believe he was a carpenter’s son – a fisherman’s and a whore’s best friend. Being a capital “C” Christian is not about spouting your beliefs – it’s about sitting, holding hands in the darkest days of doubt and waiting patiently for good things to return. You know, they always – in all ways -- do.

Here’s my Christmas certainty for you – my friend.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” - Matthew 6:25-26ish

Amen. <~~~ click, please….

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I keep trying to write this book about being happy. It’s only fair, right? You write a book about the darkest times of your living – and subject people to those night terrors; so, now, you need to show them the light in your living. The fact is that I’m not there right now. I’m in a place that I’ve revisited so many times in my living that I’ve lost count. I’ve removed my finger from the page in my heart and stuck it in my ear to futilely block the raging, internal dialogue.

One of the things that carried me in my life is my ability to keep track. When the controller of my company (note that word, controller) asks me where he put the piece of paper that justifies this purchase or that “clawback” – I walk into my office, know exactly where to lay my hand. It’s simple. If you always do things the exact same way, if you label the folder, if you staple the pieces together, it’s always easy to find. Then, I get my pat on the head or the back, my reward.

Why can’t I do that with my life? Why can’t I put away the pieces that hurt me? By this time, I should be able to take the story and neatly file it away, compartmentalizing it so that the tendrils of shame or self pity don’t wrap themselves around my arms and pull me headfirst into the filing cabinet, abruptly slamming in regret. I continue to offer my open arms to the past, to the things over which I had no control.

The song, “Parachute” has been non-stop repeat in my brain for the last month. I admit that it is “The Wind Beneath My Wings” kind of pop pabulum with a good, universal message.

“And when the world gets sharp and tries to cut you down to size
And makes you feel like giving in,
Oh, I will stay, I will reign, I will wash the words and pain away
And I will chase the way we push, the way we pull
You’re beautiful.”

My mind gyrates at 3:34 in the morning and I move from side to side trying to find comfort. Why did this person at work choose to send that piece of paper out into the void without asking my permission? Do I have the right to give them permission? I have the knowledge, I have the responsibility, I have the title – but not the respect. So I get in there and demand my respect because if no one in the entire universe is going to stand up for SueAnn, damn it… I will.

Wow. Now there’s a control freak on the loose if I ever heard one. Save yourself from the hurricane of “Cover My Ass” paranoia, find shelter! The truth of the matter is that the employee never thought about what kind of terrorizing effect this would have on my ego. Never took a split second before putting that piece of paper out to whoever it was and hit the “send” button on the fax. Much the same way that I didn’t have an inkling of what I was doing when I originated the same sin a couple months back in the reverse direction; the machine was in movement, get out of my way, I’m busy.

Friday morning I was in the bathtub and I had the entire day off. I was reading the last bits of a book, a cherished book, telling me to take care of myself. Not – “Hey, SueAnn, go out and seek a massage, a spa, a retreat in the Caribbean.” It was saying, “Be your own advocate.” Well, what’s the difference between an advocate and a bully? Perception. Again, and for the billionth time in my learning, it’s all about perception.

The people who have been reading The Truth About Whales get quiet. They don’t know what to say. I’m standing in front of them, as a child, a teenager and an adult with a ten foot sign that says, “I was harmed.” How long do I have to carry that sign? It’s an old sign. It’s been used a lot. And now, it’s out in print in a whirlwind of no control. The reviews I find most frightening are the ones that nail me as a survivor, as someone championing a cause. Yet, that’s the same printing on my sign, isn’t it?

Is the insanity ego? Tell me it isn’t ego because, well, that’s just embarrassing, common, and disgustingly normal. In the school of the human condition, I want to be an “A” student. I want my academy award. I want to say, in my best and most girlish voice ever, “You like me. You really, really like me.”

Secretly, the truth is that I’m sick of my sign. I’m exhausted from the worry and the anger of carrying it. I want, desperately, to take care of SueAnn and have not a clue on the face of the earth exactly how to do that. Re-runs of Glee and Hershey’s Kisses do not keep the stories at bay.

In that same book, the author says that we have to champion our thoughts. If we have no control over the things that enter our minds, or that happened to us as children; then we do have to find a way to think responsibly. Meditation might help. Taking a breath before the rant, or at least twenty-four hours before hitting “send,” might help. For me, putting down the sign and stepping quietly away from the past is a good start.

Please... by all means, go listen and buy that pop pabulum song, Parachute... it's just wonderful.

1 - Monahan, Pat and Gregg Wattenberg. “Parachute” Lyrics. Save Me, San Francisco. Columbia 2009.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How to Make Pierogies

Some people mark their family with baptisms and weddings. Others find one another again and again at the annual family reunion. I found mine in the half-moons of dough and cheesy mashed potato filling.

Lisa rings me up. My English friends say that and I love it... "rings me up." Lisa is my sister-in-law and she's back in the arms (and nosey goodness) of her family here in Sudbury. She calls and says, "We're getting together to make pierogies at Tracy's. Wanna come?" Do I want to come. Are you kidding? Going to Tracy's house with family is fun. It's laughter and Niamh, our then three or four year old niece, flooding the bathroom. She was standing there watching the water flow over her hands making tiny rivers to the kitchen. It's Brian's playful grabs at Tracy's apron strings and Tracy, full of a whole two glasses (or three) of red wine, falling asleep in his lap. My daughter, Sarah, calls the Lands the "Big Family." So, I've got the receiver in my hand and I'm laughing at Lisa's welcome call... saying, "Oh, hell yes, I'll come."

We've been threatening to get together and make pierogies from scratch since I got here in the winter of 2005. Aunt Polly is the most famous of the pierogy makers, she made them for my wedding as her gift to us. Barb, my mother-in-law, always says that making them used to be a six-beer job. Her children, then, were an assembly line of kneading, cutting, rolling and stamping out circular dough pieces.
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 large beaten eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup water
(Now, that's only dough for 1 1/2 to 2 dozen pierogies according to About.com...to do what we were doing you need a bit more than that)

When we got there, my sister-in-law, Steph was getting the baby, Deirdre, out of their new Dodge Grand Caravan. The woman has four children, she needs a Caravan. Isla was in her seat crying because her tummy wasn't feeling good and Daddy was taking her home. Rhys, their son, proudly showed my husband, Chris, how the speakers got turned on and off at the steering wheel and Jeff, Steph's husband, was showing me how the floor moved back to reveal hidden storage space for things like... Christmas gifts. Jeff, Rhys and Isla took off for home. Chris took off for the armories. I followed Steph and the girls into Tracy's house -- glad to be around family. Niamh and Sarah immediately took off for the playroom in search of tea sets and Barbies.

"Look, she's walking..." Lisa was following after Deirdre as she toddled around the kitchen headed straight for the same stairs that all of the kids had learned to come up and down upon. Tracy reached for the baby gate as naturally as reaching for a tea towel.

It's all the girls, minus Tracy's daughter, Elizabeth, who was hosting a movie night for the Women's Center and my sister-in-law, Martha, who was missing us, too, at her home in Cambridge. Both names were mentioned and they were counted among us, peeling potatoes. The stuffing for pierogies, one of them anyway, was mashed potatoes with cheddar cheese mixed in.
  • 4 pounds mashed potatoes
  • 1 pound shredded Cheddar cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
This is Mom (Barb) dispensing of the remaining peels, Lisa washing up and Steph grating the cheese because I didn't get a picture of us peeling potatoes, I had a knife in my hand, instead.

And this is what you have to stuff that dough with:
Tracy's Brian came downstairs long enough to eat supper and then fleetfooted it back upstairs to watch television. A kitchen full of five women is an earful for any man. All we have to do is say the word "penis" and they run for the hills. Lisa kept covering her ears... I poked at Mom, "Say it again..."

So the filling was made and our stomachs were growling. Tracy made dinner for us to that we could take a break in between shifts and Mom made rolls (some of which were immediately confiscated and put away for Libby when she got home). Her brother, Nick, walked through the door and immediately went for the rolls. There was only one left so Lisa willed him her roll and saved us all from the wrath of a roll-less Libby.

We try to get the adults to eat first so that the kids can go into the dining room -- no such luck. Sarah smelled the chicken and came out, looking at my plate with puppy eyes. Niamh followed right behind her because she had been promised that Sarah would share her Dr. Pepper. Brian wandered downstairs and Tracy joined him in the dining room with the children.

At Christmas and Easter, Tracy's house is filled to the brim with her two parents, three sisters, one brother and their spouses and their children. So, the kitchen and the dining room tables are always full. People move in between the rooms and it's always a shuffle as to what table you'll be at this year to talk with the person who was in the other room last year. The best laughter is when Nick and Jeff reenact whole scenes from Saturday Night Live's Jeopardy skits.

Alex Trebek: "What is the sound a dog makes?"
Sean Connery: "Moo."
Alex: "No, we would have accepted 'bow-wow' or 'ruff.'"
Sean: "Ahhhhh, rough is just the way your mother likes it, Trebek."

Dinner's finished, the dishes are washed and Mom is standing, counting out the ten cups of flour that we will use to make the dough. One... twooooo.... threeeeee....

Somebody starts talking about sex. It's not Lisa... And all the guys have gone back to their respective hiding places so it has to be...
Mom giggles and says, "Damn it! Now I lost count!" She begins again. One. Two. Three. Four. She punctuates each count with rapping the knife against the measuring cup and we count with her.
Below are Tracy and Lisa discussing springy dough:
Now comes the hard part and something that takes a master's touch -- rolling out the dough. Pierogy dough should be thin enough to become a casing for the potato and it tends to be a bit springy so you really have to knead it and roll it out smoothly. Not only that, but Lisa rolled out every centimetre of that dough so her arms and her back were sore by the end of the night.

See how thick that dough is? With Lisa, not for long!

Steph showed me how to stuff and seal the pierogies. You take the flat disk and spoon the stuffing on one side. You need to seal it with water. So you dip your fingers into a water bowl our a glass and trace your finger around the circumference of the circle. Then you fold half of the disk over the stuffing and crimp the edges, sealing them with the water on your fingers. It looks like this:
And this, this is me and Steph working at those wee buggers:

It was getting late...and all of us were tired but still laughing. Steph went home with Deirdre and Niamh because the baby was tired. Lisa drove them home because, unbeknownst to us, there was a freezing rainstorm going on outside while the kitchen was busy inside.
When the adults tuckered out or were busy cleaning up the pots and pans, Sarah got in the middle of it and learned to make pierogies!

I don't have a picture of this last part, so I'll just describe it to you. Can you hear, in your memory, the laughter -- the easy comfort of family? Have you had meals prepared by all the hands that have hugged you, tickled you, patted your shoulder or reached out when you needed it the most?'

That's the best recipe for pierogies I know.