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I hate to be a walking cliche, but the truth cannot be denied:  I wrote a blog for a few weeks, then stopped.  Now I am back, and hope to redeem myself by writing a kick-ass, sublimely beautiful post that will make you weep with emotion.  No?  Okay, I’ll settle for words strung together that make some sort of weird, demented sense and don’t make you nauseous.  That might be achievable.

So, we have made our big move from Los Angeles to the ridiculously gorgeous Santa Cruz mountains.  It feels like an epic movie now in my memory, a Ten Commandments-style Charleton Heston saga.  Our saga included the following:

  • losing Little Bird’s beloved pillow pet pig;
  • running to the vet after our dog’s delightful pre-trip dog fight left him with a torn ear;
  • fixing our broken-down car on the I-5 in the middle of East Jesus;
  • bad colds and sinus infections galore;
  • living in a hotel for two months — TWO MONTHS! — while we sweated out escrow on our condo and new house.

Finally, we made it to the land of milk and honey.  The very first house we looked at with a realtor was our house, with a third of an acre of sunny, useable land, solar panels, the kitchen of my dreams, and to top it all off, a play structure and sandbox for Little Bird.  We left the hotel and moved in mid-January.

More on all that in another post.

What I really want to talk about is this:  there is always a dark side to any bright dream.  If we are to live this dream called life with grace and presence, we must acknowledge — as far as we are able — the shadow side.

I find that life provides plenty of opportunities to encounter the shadow side, if I am open to it.   A simple event can trigger a cascade of challenging emotions.  The day or two before we left L.A., I realized that we had lost Little Bird’s pig, which I was counting on to help ease the transition for her.  As I drove from place to place looking for it, I cried buckets of tears.  Buckets, I tell you.

That one little thing triggered all of my overwhelming grief at leaving dear friends and our long-time church home. I felt unbearably sad at leaving the place of Little Bird’s infancy, and more, at realizing anew that Little Bird was growing up, was no longer a baby.  And underneath that is my grief that everything changes, that everything must change for life to continue.

Change!  I’m against it.

It would certainly be more comfortable to ignore or push down all those hard feelings.  In the short run, that is.  The problem with that plan is that it blocks healing.  All those repressed feelings coalesce into one big ball o’ pain, and everything freezes up inside.

So, the next time hard feelings well up inside of you, try welcoming them, as far as you are able.  Although it seems counter-intuitive, welcoming the crap in life actually transforms it into gold in some weird kind of alchemy.  (Please note that “welcome” does not mean “enjoy.”  It simply means making a space for those feelings.)

It is embracing all of life, the hard and the good both, the sorrow and the joy both.  And in the embrace, God has an opportunity to heal your deepest wounds, which is God’s greatest desire.  As St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is the human person, fully alive.”

It’s good to be back.

Cliff Diver, MAZATLAN

It takes radical trust to live a life based on love rather than fear.  It takes a freefall dive off the Cliffs of Insanity (I do love my Princess Bride references) into the flowing waters of God’s mercy, not knowing for sure whether you will ever surface again.

When Big Change is happening — as it is in my personal life and as it is happening in the world — it is easy to live in fear.  It’s all around us, almost in the air we breathe.   The world encourages us to feel that there is no security, either for ourselves or for our children.

It doesn’t help that life seems to be arranged so that we can only see a step or two ahead of us.  We can’t see what will happen, and no matter how hard we try to control things, life often refuses to cooperate with our plans.  One of my favorite prayers, written by Thomas Merton, acknowledges this truth:

MY LORD GOD,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

The fearful honesty in this prayer is both frightening and comforting at the same time.  Frightening, because in order finally to admit that we don’t know where we are going, a part of ourselves has to die.  Comforting, because once we do accept that truth deep in our bones, we find that we are held and supported in ways that are unseen, yet tangible.

A year and a half or so ago, My Guy and I were driving back from the Bay Area to Southern California, with Little Bird sleeping in the back seat.  We talked about how we wanted to live a life that was more aligned with nature.  We wanted to grow at least some of our own food and have some outdoor space for a change.  We wanted to be closer to family in the Bay Area.  It seemed impossible.

Now comes the part that will make my non-religious peeps cringe:  we prayed about it.  We asked for help.  We let go of the idea that we could make this happen.  And now here we are, getting ready to move to a house in the Santa Cruz mountains with a third of an acre of usable land, a chicken house, and solar panels.  It defies belief.

I know a lot of people who are going through some dark times.  I have gone through some dark times myself, and have wondered when the light would shine again.  Right now, however, the sun is shining, and I simply want to shout out from the other side, “You can trust in the goodness of life.”

I know that everything could change tomorrow, but that God would be with me still.  And because I know that, Hildegard of Bingen’s reassurance rings true:  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I’m feeling low on inspiration.  I’ve spent this week seeing real estate agents, drawing up “punch lists” (gah!) for crap that must be done to our condo to make it appealing to buyers, trying to trim down our belongings, take care of Little Bird, cook, clean, do laundry, and all the other things that make up everyday life.

Real estate agents, you say?  Yes, change is in the wind.  After 21 years of living in Southern California, I am moving with My Guy and Little Bird back to Northern California, where I grew up.   We are moving for family reasons, for work reasons, and for quality of life reasons.  L.A. feels too crowded, too noisy, and too polluted for us now.

Instead of a small condo less than a mile away from a major freeway, we are looking for a bit of land where we can grow vegetables, raise chickens and a goat or two, and have some fresh air.  I would also like a donkey, if it’s not too much to ask.  They’re just so cute, with their big ears.  I will name it Delmer.

Donkey

Image via Wikipedia

Anyways, life feels a bit crazy and out-of-control right now.  Therefore, it must be time to bake muffins.  Muffin-baking for me is a meditative endeavor with a big payoff.  You whisk a little of this, a little of that, mix it all together into cute little cups, and blammo!  You have a delicious, hot-from-the-oven carb blast to coax those little endorphins out of their hiding places.

These muffins feature an exotic ingredient called mesquite flour, which has a slightly smoky, slightly sweet and nutty flavor.  I first learned about mesquite flour in David Lebovitz‘s beautiful blog, Living the Sweet Life in Paris.  When I read his post about Mesquite Chocolate Chip Cookies, I became obsessed with finding mesquite flour — not an easy task.

I finally found some at Casa de Fruta, of all places, which is an overgrown fruit stand near Hollister, on the Pacheco Pass between the I-5 and the I-101.  It’s as corny a place as you will ever find; if Huell Howser hasn’t been there already, it’s only a matter of time.  After a long driving stint on the I-5 Central Valley wasteland, Little Bird enjoys the Casa de Choo-Choo and Casa de Carousel, while I make a beeline for the Casa de Restrooms and Casa de Coffee.

Casa de Fruta

Image by ldandersen via Flickr

But I digress.  After giving three whoops of joy that I had finally found the great white caribou called Mesquite Flour, I made the cookies.  The flour gave them such an odd, interesting flavor that I wasn’t sure whether I liked them or not.  So I ate one.  Then another.  Then another.  After eating about 5 giant cookies, I concluded that they were pretty darn good.

To bring this rambling post to a close, I had some extra zucchini and some leftover mesquite flour, so I decided to slightly alter my recipe for zucchini muffins.  They turned out well, if I do say so myself.  Like the cookies, I had to eat a few just to be certain I liked them.  Yup, I did.

If you don’t want to bother getting mesquite flour (and it is pricey), just substitute regular white or whole wheat pastry flour, and they will still be delicious.  And as always, remember the cardinal rule of muffin-baking:  Do Not Overmix!

Zucchini Mesquite Chocolate Chunk Muffins

1 cup white flour

3/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (if you don’t have any, just sub in white flour)

1/4 cup mesquite flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil or melted butter

1 cup grated, unpeeled zucchini

3/4 cup chopped walnuts (if you want to go the extra mile, toast the walnuts for more flavor)

3/4 cup chocolate chunks

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Sift or stir the dry ingredients together in large bowl.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and oil, and stir gently into the dry ingredients.  It is very important not to overmix, or the muffins will be tough.  I usually mix until there’s just a bit of the dry ingredients showing, then I fold in the zucchini, walnuts, and chocolate chunks.

Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin either with muffin liners or with baking spray.  Fill the cups 2/3 of the way full.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Cram your mouth full and sigh with happiness.

One of several versions of the painting "...

Image via Wikipedia

“I’m so tired my face feels weird.”  I actually said this to my mommy group the other day, after a night of maybe 2-3 hours sleep.  And my face did feel weird — can eyes actually feel hollow?  Mine did.

Like I said — weird.

It got me to thinking about the different kinds of fatigue I have experienced since Little Bird came along.  Here are a few:

  •  “Zombie Effect”: caused by straight-on massive sleep deprivation due to infancy, illness, nightmares, etc.;
  • “Mommy Ears”: a state of sensitized hearing, such that the slightest noise results in extended sleeplessness;
  • “Frayed Nerve Syndrome”: brought on by the regular auditory onslaught of whining, screaming, and crying;
  • “Total Brain Collapse”: results from excess amounts of responsibility for extended periods (partner absence is usually involved here);
  • “Extreme Elmo Exhaustion”: no explanation necessary for parents of toddlers.

Fatigue is one of the shadow sides of being a parent.  Some days — many days — I’m just too tired even to think, much less be nurturing, playful and consistent in discipline vis-a-vis the adorable moppet who is sapping whatever meager portion of strength, energy and youth I once had.

But I’m not bitter about it.

It’s just that nobody warned me.  All you see in the magazines are glowing, dewy-faced portraits of the 40-plus celebrity moms who are just Over the Moon about their little addition.  Everything in our culture celebrates the cult of momhood, with nary a sideways glance at the sometimes significant downsides to this role.  Let’s face it, parenthood is a mixed bag.

It helps to laugh.  And that’s why my mommy group is essential to my self-care.  Over coffee and tea, we complain, laugh, and sometimes cry as well.  We try to be real with ourselves and with each other.  If we’re having a hard time, we say so.

So to my fellow moms there as well as moms and dads elsewhere, I offer you this ditty, based on “There Are 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (with apologies to Paul Simon):

The problem is all inside your bed
She said to me
The answer is easy if you
Stop and count your sheep
I’d like to help you in your struggle
To get sleep
There must be fifty ways
To feel exhausted.

She said it’s really not my habit
To think of you
Or your needs, which
are just irrelevant too
But I’ll repeat it many times
Until you come unglued
There must be fifty ways
To feel exhausted
Fifty ways to feel exhausted

[CHORUS:]
You just throw up your snack, Jack
Get real sick, Nick
Let go of the toy, Roy
Now listen to me
Stop making a fuss, Gus
Would you please just hush
Go learn how to pee, Lee
In your little potty

She said it peeves me so
To see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do
So you would play with me again
I said I appreciate that
And would you please explain
Why you won’t let me rest

She said why don’t we both
Just stay awake tonight
And I believe in the morning
You will fall apart, all right
And then she hit me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways
To feel exhausted
Fifty ways to feel exhausted

[CHORUS]

Ugh, that’s horrible.  I must really be tired.

To those wonderful folks who subscribed to my blog and received an email last night:

In addition to my face feeling weird, it also looks weird because it’s got egg all over it!  I accidentally clicked on the “Publish” button, which is situated inconveniently close to the “Save Draft” button.  As a result, I published a post that was far, far from being finished.  Oops.  Oh well, welcome to the human race, right?

I immediately “trashed” the post, but of course those darn emails had already gone out.  Please stay tuned for the finished version, which will be much better than what you got.

Chalk it up to being a WordPress newbie.

Peace, CenteringMama

Centering prayer meditation and temper tantrums don’t normally go together, but sometimes, they do.  This is my story, and I swear it’s true:

Here’s What Little Bird Did

Little Bird had her very first public temper tantrum this week.  We were at a local kid’s museum, where they stamp your hand on admission.  Although she adores stamps, when I went to get her, she did the two-year-old thing:  “NO!!” and ran away in the store.  The guy said it was okay if she didn’t have a stamp, so I just let it go.

Naturally, she wandered back around, wondering why I wasn’t chasing her to give her a stamp.  Here’s how the exchange went:

“Mama, I ready for my stamp.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to have a stamp.”

“I want a stamp!”

“I’m sorry, honey, but it’s too late for a stamp now.  You can’t have one.”

And that’s when all hell broke loose.

She had always pulled back from the brink before in public, but not this time.  She went the whole nine yards — screaming, crying, flinging herself on the ground, kicking.  I gotta give the kid credit; she gave it her all.

Now, those super-moms who home-school their six kids while blogging regularly and selling artisanal organic free-range hemp cookies on the side could deal with this in their sleep.  But I’m a first-time mom with no experience.  The one burning question in my mind was, “WHAT DO I DO NOW?”

Here’s What I Did

She was in a public walkway, so I tried to pick her up and move her out of the way.  She went limp and slid to the ground, kicking and screaming.  I looked around, saw the other moms looking at us, and . . . decided not to care.  Hey, if they haven’t dealt with it yet, they soon will.

Since I couldn’t pick her up, I said, “I’m walking away.”  She immediately leaped up and grabbed onto my leg, still screaming.  With her clinging to my leg, I hobbled, Quasimoto-like, over to some tables outside where it was quiet.

I unpacked the snacks I had brought, and then I was simply present with Little Bird while the emotional storm passed through her.  I didn’t feel particularly bothered by the screaming or the difficult feelings.  After a while, she climbed on my lap and kept crying.  And a while after that, she said, “Mama, I want a snack,” and started to eat.  We talked about the stamp and why I didn’t let her have it.  And then we went on about the business of enjoying our day and having fun.

How Centering Prayer Helped

Okay, so here’s the deal.  If this had happened before I started practicing centering prayer, I would have become unhinged.  My nervous system would have zapped out and bad things would have happened.

However, after ten years of practicing centering prayer, apparently some stillness has seeped over into my daily life.  I’m certainly not this calm all the time!  However, in this particular situation, I dropped into a zone of quiet that I have come to recognize as the presence of the Infinite.   Only one thing mattered to me: being a non-anxious, non-reactive presence for Little Bird while she worked through the emotions raging inside her.  My drama didn’t become her drama.  And that made all the difference.

It’s still warm in Southern California during these first days of October, but signs of autumn are here.  Winter squash has started to show up at the local farmers’ market.  Halloween candy is in the stores, and the local pumpkin patch is setting up for business.  It’s time to pull out my soup pot and make pumpkin-lentil soup.

To me, soup is soul food, the steamy essence of comfort and reassurance.  The act of eating soup connects me to the story of the human family, for soup is as old as cooking.  According to Raey Tannahill in Food in History, Iron and Bronze Age humans regularly ate soup, as did the Romans and Greeks. Witness the following quote from the play The Frogs by the satirist Aristophanes (Perseus-Tufts website translation):

Dionysus: . . . “did you ever feel a sudden urge for soup?”

Heracles: “Soup? Ten thousand times so far.”

My sentiments exactly.

Soup also connects me to my individual story.  When I was growing up, my mother served pumpkin-lentil soup every week at her restaurant, The Orange Horse Gift Shop and Tearoom.  The Orange Horse was practically my second home; I worked every job at some point, from dishwasher to waitress to cook to baker.   This soup not only connects me to my own history, but also to my mother and her love of cooking.

Pumpkin-lentil soup was the very first meal I made for my then-boyfriend, now-husband.  I needed something bomb-proof, because I really liked him and I was nervous.  As I recall, it went over pretty well — well enough, anyways, not to scotch the deal.

In any case, I’ve made this soup many times over the years, and now I pass it on to you.  Enjoy!  It’s a ridiculously simple and humble soup, yet somehow, much more than the sum of its parts.

Pumpkin-Lentil Soup

1/4 cup butter (it seems like a lot, but it’s worth it)

1-2 onions, diced

1/2 cup lentils

5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 1/2 cups pumpkin (canned is fine)

1/4 tsp. dried marjoram

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

dash Tobasco sauce

1-2 cups half-and-half (optional)

toasted almonds and sour cream for garnish

Instructions

Melt butter in a large soup pot or kettle.  Add onions and saute until lightly brown.  Stir in lentils and chicken stock.  Add pumpkin.  Crush herbs and add to soup along with black pepper, salt and Tobasco.  Simmer until lentils are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

At this point, the soup can be cooled and refrigerated overnight.  At serving time, puree with handheld immersion blender.  Heat to simmering and either serve as is, or add half-and-half to make a creamy soup.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  Top with almonds and/or a dollop of sour cream.