Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Living Within My Means

     "This is painful," says I.
      He leans in to see what I'm viewing on the computer screen.
     "What's painful?"
     Learning to live within my means. I'm viewing a friend's blog. She's covering some very lovely items at upscale resale shops. She's talking wants vs. needs. She's celebrating loveliness in the painful way I learned is required. It is enough to admire a beautiful thing. I don't need to possess beauty to enjoy it.
      At a house blessing last night, I found myself admiring the spare loveliness of arrangements. The house has half the pictures, half the knick knacks of my home. It's getting on spring and I have the urge, which kicks in after every Christmas, to purge.
      The urge to purge. I want to, but don't, do the house-cleaning I should. I want to comb my books and give away what I don't read or need any more. There are prisons ministries accepting books for exchange. I could donate and give reading to hungry minds. I want to relinquish some lovely framed photos, some old pottery, etc. But I'm afraid I will only treat my decor like my wardrobe. I purge, then replace.
I didn't realize until recently this seasonal urge may be linked to Lent and Pascha. My Romanian friend says that every Holy Week, Orthodox Christians in Romania, clean house. They dust, polish, and purge. They beat the rugs and polish floors. Spring cleaning, says I. But during the exhausting, service-filled week of Holy Week? Really? It would be a nice way to end the season of Lent, which is a spiritual house-cleaning. It would be so wonderful to come to Pascha with a tidy home and tidy soul. I know I get a bit jiggered about cleanliness and shopping, baking and wrapping up preparations for the Easter Feast. Could I manage it all? I can when Easter and Pascha coincide, when I get my week beforehand off. I can do the services and the work. It feels rigorous and good. It compliments fasting. I know cause I tried last year. I have sallow eyed photos of me with pans of Pascha Bread for senior baskets at St. Basil's. I had a clean house too. I had a weak attempt at a tidy soul. It worries to think what suffered. I'm better at some disciplines than others. Then again, if I can't give out of my desire for neatness and order and surplus, am I?
     Here comes Lent. Here comes a few weeks of fasting. I'm clearing out the wine, the olive oil, the faux cheese powders that a girl with restricted diet indulges with.  I'm also shopping for gardening, seed starting and spring repairs. It's at odds with the sparity I seek. Forgive me for making up a work. It's creating disparity.
It's also painful because I can't quite afford those seeds yet. I can't give up what I've got and I can't buy more. Ah, the spiritual state I bring to Great Lent. Could it be a better time to get started?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Departures Department

Every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, and a good day to write about death.  It's remarkable to realize that no one in our little parish has died, though our parents, cousins, siblings and spouses have. The funny quality of an all-convert parish is that so many loved ones can be remembered in prayers, but no funeral has ever  been held within our four walls.

It goes without saying, but I need use the device anyway, that this is not funny in a ha-ha sense. I need to point out that death and joy create a conflict for me. I've been three great funerals/wakes in my life and all of them have had elements of joy. Okay, there is maybe a fourth, but that's another story.  One of those was this week. I was called back to my childhood church, which is so hard to name that the pastor, Martin Turner, just called it "The Church in Fort Wayne", or TCIFW. Only recently did he have to add "Christ" to the end. I can't recall what explanation I received for the addition.

It was non-denominational and at times bordered on charismatic, almost pentecostal. At its founding, I think it had an element of communalism, aided by the fact that Poppa T housed the church in a former nunnery he bought from the Catholic church door. It had space for the misfits and lost young adults he rescued from time to time. It had a school in the basement and, oft-times, a feeding program of one sort or another.  In my teen years, it felt haunted by an element of cultishness, but time and circumstance unthreaded that tangle.  Not before I left and not before I left with some baggage, that in my mind, I molded into monstrous proportions, as I realized this past week.

It was Poppa T himself who died. I didn't call him that. He was always Pastor Turner for me. Mom and Dad wouldn't have such informal reference for a person so many generations removed from their children. Nevertheless, most adults knew him as such, so that it was written on the memorial cards at the wake.

I went hoping and fearing that I'd see all those old faces of the past. I left fearing I'd turned a man's wake into a reunion. I left having seen almost all the people I could long to see. One or two missed me. One girl said she saw me across the room. "[I] looked good." Of course I did. I run like a banshee from the stress in my life. I needed those moments, to make life less about work and more about people. It's my tireless struggle. To think I dreaded getting out of my car, and repeated "Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me a sinner" several times before thumbing my prayer knots, locking my car and going inside.

Little had changed in there. Outside the houses in surrounding blocks were boarded up.  The streets were as impassable coming and going as the worst in any Pennsylvania mountain town- and this is flat Indiana. Inside it was older, more stained. The ceiling tiles sagged. The carpet is fading to green-grey. Sheets divide rooms now. The same plywood doors. The sidewalk which led the way to two and three hours Saturday night and Sunday morning services was shorter than I recalled. The mobile classroom next door was caving.  The snow still blocked the door to the basement worship center; it had been sealed years ago when the neighborhood crime skyrocketed.  The same flowers were tucked into the soap holders in the bathrooms. The same tiles were unpolished in the hall leading past bathrooms. The ancient wall hangings, betraying their felt 1970's doves and gilded painted canvases graced the walls. I forgot to see if the edition of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey was still on the shelf.

There was no sign of the body of Pastor T at first. I'd just finished watching the Japanese "Departures" that morning, while jogging on my treadmill. In this film, a body is carefully laid out in a spiritual and communal manner before the family altar. Caretakers lead a ritual to wipe and prepare the body for casketing, inviting the family to wipe the face and participate in solemnity. It's nothing like the Irish wake with liquor, raucous family chatter and the body, propped in the corner. Both of these strike me as very visceral ways to approach death, which I've come to embrace since my conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Both of these traditions do not shrink or hide from body, not divorcing or making dualism of body and soul. I'm struck at the way American ceremony, with its consumeristic funeral element, tends us towards a dualistic understanding of body and soul. We dress the body, but it doesn't matter who does it. The soul is gone already. The body doesn't really matter as much anymore.  In ancient Christianity, creation is redeemed. The corporeal is redeemed. We maintain a long connection between the physical manifestations of our ancestors and saints because those are saved and will be part of the final Resurrection.

This body was in the corner, solemn in its casket, except for the alligator his foster daughter tucked under his arm. Around the room we were yucking it up like a high school reunion without liquor, in a church, with some sad emotion niggling in the back of our minds. I can't decide if it was joyful sorrow. Some of what we talked about included what would happen to the church, school and grounds. What I really clung to was the story his kids told. He was delivering bread with the Salvation Army on eight days before he died. He had the cancer, but he didn't stop delivering food. That was why it didn't feel egregious to enjoy seeing all those people.

I didn't get to chat long enough with anyone and still ran out of words when it came time to talk to his daughter who is the mother to my elementary best friend.  I didn't know what to say because I'd had a very bruising conversation and I was skulking behind a guilty conscience. I'd been hurt that the ways in which I've grown apart theologically and sociologically in the past seventeen years has fomented a facade. A facebook farce. Facebook is the only place we see each other now and on that, a person can know half a soul and make a 100% judgment. In this case I was upset that I'd been judged for defending Palestinian Christians, but I was harboring just as cheeky a misjudgment about another person's character.  His daughter looked me in the face and said, "We miss you Reynolds. We used to laugh so much with you." What words of healing. I think it was the other way around. We laughed with them. They are people of joy. I have tons of good intentions and deep convictions, but little joy. You can hear their laughter in the grins on their facebook pages. I see it in the crooked finger one uses to gesture at a sibling or the giggle in the smile on another's face.

I left sated. I couldn't find words. There still aren't many. I said earlier this was one of three great funerals I've attend. The first was my grandfathers. He laughed a lot too. He served to the end. He was a minister and friend and mentor to hundreds of people with not distinction in their usefulness or social class. The other was my father-in-law. Same kind of man. Not a minister formally, but janitors and pastors, police men and kids from all over came to his funeral. Papaw made them laugh. Papaw listened. He cared.

In retrospect, I'm sad my siblings couldn't come to Pastor T's funeral. They would have loved it. I wish I could have shared that moment with more people. It's a testimony to a life well-lived, regardless of whatever false baggage I've built in my head. This is not to say things were rosy, just that real ministers and people are so complex that its unfair to play judge or jury, even after the moments of death.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Meat is Messy

    Meat is messy. That's one of the first lessons of the kitchen I learned from my mom. Meat got its own shopping bag because the reddish juices often seeped out of the plastic wrap. It never shared with the celery, onions or potatoes.
    Meat got its own cutting board and knife, which were to be cleaned promptly in very hot water, while the chicken breast roasted or the tenderloin browned. When we butchered the first time, our fix and mix tupperware bowls overflowed with gizzards and thighs, the cast off yellow claws and innards. One for each. The table was covered with a plastic picnic table cloth.  It took hours just to clean it all up, boil down the necks, cool and freeze all the usable parts.
     Can you tell I have exhaustion just thinking about those days? It's a bit a relief to cook vegetarian, where I can share my knife between the carrots and tomatoes, as long as it doesn't matter if the veggies come out perfectly julienned or simply pared. Yes, the tool makes the difference.
    I don't mind mess. I can yuck it up in the kitchen with the best of them. It's just nice to sail through dinner prep without the extra steps. Bonus: it's cooking without all the killing and dying and stuff.-- Unless you find the the following joke a side-splitter: "I'm not vegetarian because I like animals. I'm vegetarian because I hate vegetables."
    This is an allegory about flesh, and mess, not about meat as murder. I'm writing it because there's either a kitchen contaminated, some messy or careless cooks, or there's a a good stew a boiling with some crazy cooks flailing their knives while whooping it up together. I'm a patient girl. I'll wait to see if someone's gonna get sick, cut or we just sit down together to a bowl of chicken soup.
     On the surface this is a story about being asked why I'm vegetarian, and it's a pilgrim's progress. It's sure to be full of over-the-top slaughter metaphors, though. Even a vegetarian can't resist a little jab now and again: "a little jab-- get it." Clearly I have a burden to drop and river to cross, or die in.

    So meat still gets me into some stews. Signing up for my CSA at the farmer's market this summer, John asked if we'd ever buy his free-range chickens or turkeys. "If we ate meat, I'm sure we would. That's the best kind," I try to answer with something like this since free-range and antibiotic free is all the rage in my milieu. I want to affirm the superiority of this choice, without committing to a delicious hen. "But we don't." I guess I don't need to add that last part, right?  Maybe that's what invites the "You don't? Why not? I mean, do you not eat meat because of the health thing or because of the animal rights thing?" Even my dad emailed me a couple months ago. I guess he was checking in on my reasoning after fifteen years. What? No change. Okay, just checking.  No change.
    My kids get to choose for themselves. My daughter gave up meat at five, to some hilarious kindergarten romps. My son still hacks a load of smoked turkey off grandpa's serving platter at Christmas, eats a bite or two just to prove he's his own man, then deserts the rest for yeast rolls and potatoes, carrots, and veggies.
 Meanwhile, my husband and I used these years to hone our answer. The false dichotomy that my interlocuters employ is a put off. Give me some respect, meaters, even Ponderosa offer more meat on the buffett than I get. This puts me in an awkward position. They dumped some kind of problem onto me and I have to figure it out so I answer without offending them. It's all in how I choose to hear them:
1. Are you one of the ridiculously obsessed with your health people, who don't really know you may be robbing you body of key protein and B-Vitamin nutrients? or
2. Are you one of those off-the-rocker PETA types who worries that animals feel pain and forgets that God gave them to us for our use?
     In the back of my mind, I hear them formulate their rebuttals based upon the two false choices from which I'm permitted to select.

     Stop here. This is where I have to check myself. Early on, I unleashed all sorts of facts on the pounds of grain to pounds of meat ratios. These are horrendous for beef, not to mention the gallons of water usage. I prattled on about number of grams of protein in a steak vs a cube of cheese vs a half a cup of tofu or red beans.  I waxed prosaic about the storage functions of muscle, any muscle, for the varieties of injections that factory farms use to 'beef up' and make flesh safe.  I still get into these, if the conversation draws out. But what I've had to learn is what my audience is seeking to hear, what they want to say next and what really matters about not eating meat.
     As time has passed my reasons are more simple, or complicated. Ultimately, I don't eat it because I'm fine without it. I like my diet without it. I enjoy a wide variety of fruits and veggies that puzzle the cashiers and amuse my friends. Sure I have lots of personal convictions that I get to assuage in teeny-tiny ways by choosing veggies not meat, but I don't turn the tables and ask, "Why do you choose to eat meat? Is it because your indoctrinated by a protein-obsessed culture or because you just don't care to learn about dark side of meat?" Come to think of it, it's a lot like we heterosexuals who ask "Why do you like people of the same gender?" but never ask each other, "Why do you like kissing someone of the other gender?" I'm offended just thinking up these questions. These questions presume so much about another person. What if others eat meat just because they like it, and they do it all the right ways? Are we enemies because I don't eat it?

     On these occasions, I've had to train myself to pause and listen to the heart of the person. Why is he asking me? Does he feel judged because I don't eat meat? Does he misunderstand my motives? Perhaps he believes I will not forgive him for enjoying flesh. It's this assumption that I harbor something within me, or my assumption that he believes I'm putting on false piety that keeps us talking about anti-biotics, free-range, portion control, amino acids and cholesterol. Pretty soon we're just parsing numbers and questioning sources. It's this talking past each other that made "Why can't we all just get along?" the whine of our time.
     Even that we slap against one another, like there's a gospel side and not. I started answering, "Oh, you know, I just don't like having to worry if I gutted the chicken with this knife or that? It cuts down on the constant rinsing with soap and water, which just doesn't a number to my skin."  This works like it works on a toddler, a distraction. It doesn't cut to bone of contention, and since in my membership, there is honest contention, my allegory needs a complication.
    Maybe that was the twist that arose with my father's short facebook message, why do you not eat meat, paired with the usual menu of reasons. Maybe the lesson in this complication is simple- you can't pick your nose in public and you can't pick a facebook fight in private. Two or three messages later, I  thought I'd hemmed and hawed above the offerings to a truer litany of reasons. He wrote back about my teenage daughter, who had sharpened her logic on a captive audience of one nine-year old cousin. He said he was worried about offending members of the family by eating meat. Shortly the thread stopped. I think I had replied about my brother taking offense. I was still sniffing another scent, another reason, why my dad wanted to understand our vegetarianism. I never got it. Facebook silence. I erased that thread of messages about two weeks later, having given up hope that something more might be resolved from it.
     I wonder if I bedded down whatever motivated him to ask again, or if this thread will re-appear, in ages hence. I will find the hunger was never assuaged. I will wonder if he ever forgave me for a thousand presumed sins I may have committed or judgments I implied. The truth is, I don't mind him asking since I should review my motives periodically. He has no idea how long the line of people who'd like to help me review and see a different light is. Yet, asking time and again, has a kind of potential. It can be healthy for relationships. It doesn't have to be an unwashed knife, used to peel the crudites. It could be we get into a good stew. Two people-- one who will go to his grave with smoked lime-vodka salmon on his palette, and one with smoked applewood tofu on hers-- might stop saying 'can't we all get along' and cook up a darn good meal. Oh, in this case, we have.
In my membership, there's a bigger piece of flesh at stake. I suppose that could be true of even minor differences- like to meat or not to meat. Anything can become a reason for conflict, but this one is Eucharistic. It affects the Theotokos Threads Society. Like all conflicts, some people want to frame it as either-or. Others hear the menu and assume they are being forced to consume something they don't even like. In their minds, they suspect there are more recipes and ingredients from which we can work- more nuances and motives than have just been trumpeted. In another day in this kitchen, another two-piece menu might be offered. It's all very dissatisfying and very confusing.  Some will start to bicker and flail their knives, proclaiming, "This kitchen is a mad house, or sick and poisonous." They will come to their wits end and cry "Can't we all just get along?" That's when the last group shines. They know there are just too many cooks... but Thank God, there might be a killer stew to sit down and feast over, when this is all said and done.