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Breakfast in Bed by Mary Cassat

There are several sites I frequent when I'm searching for poetry. Poets.org is where I found this offering by William Bryant. In "A Song for New Year's Eve," Bryant encourages us not to make the move too quickly to the New Year. Instead, the poet implores us to remain present to this current year, "long companion of our way," to stay "yet a moment" in honor of the gifts we've received during its tenure.  

The poem holds a certain poignancy for me, as I've been walking this past week with a friend through the impending death of her mother. As a life comes to an end, the promise of future joy, those strong and high hopes, has dissipated. Now is the time to remember liberal gifts and calm, bright days, to be thankful and present until the parting strain.

A Song for New Year's Eve
 William Cullen Bryant 
 
Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay—   
Stay till the good old year, 
So long companion of our way,      
Shakes hands, and leaves us here.           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One little hour, and then away. 

The year, whose hopes were high and strong,      
Has now no hopes to wake; 
Yet one hour more of jest and song      
For his familiar sake.           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One mirthful hour, and then away.   

The kindly year, his liberal hands      
Have lavished all his store. 
And shall we turn from where he stands,      
Because he gives no more?           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One grateful hour, and then away.   

Days brightly came and calmly went,      
While yet he was our guest; 
How cheerfully the week was spent!      
How sweet the seventh day's rest!           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One golden hour, and then away.   

Dear friends were with us, some who sleep      
Beneath the coffin-lid: 
What pleasant memories we keep      
Of all they said and did!           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One tender hour, and then away.   

Even while we sing, he smiles his last,      
And leaves our sphere behind. 
The good old year is with the past;      
Oh be the new as kind!           
Oh stay, oh stay, 
One parting strain, and then away.
 

A week or so ago I came upon this TED talk by Charlie Todd. As Todd describes during his presentation, he and his compatriots have been behind some wonderfully delightful "pranks" over the past ten years. The goal? To cause a scene in a public space that is a positive experience for other people, something that will give them a story to tell. One thing that I especially like is how playful Charlie's ideas are. These "shared experiences" are not offensive, and show that humor doesn't have to dig into a gutter for a laugh. One of the simplest pranks (9:11 into the talk) involves 6 people and 5 pieces of cardboard and provides thousands of smiles for early morning commuters. I love watching the faces turn from confusion into expectation and then into delight.

As Todd states in his conclusion, play used to be something we were told to do, without any particular reason other than the fact it was supposed to be good for us. This version of creative play, a valid use of leisure time, Todd argues, isn't only good for us, it's good for the community around us. A reason to smile is a gift that's always welcome.
 

The New Year is on its way, reminding us of the power of new beginnings. I've been thinking of what it means to officially dismiss the person I used to be and embrace the person I am now. In the past I've had certain ways of coping, habits of behavior that have been downright harmful - not only to others, but also to myself. But I've been busy these past years: growing, learning, and changing. And it's good to remember that, to consciously switch up my profile picture, so that who I see myself as - and who I present to the world - more accurately reflects who I am now, not who I was then.

And when I've done it for myself, my next task will be to gently encourage others to see me in this new light. Over a family dinner last week, I made a comment about how one of my daughters had reacted in the past to a certain situation, back in those pre- and young teen years. Her face grimaced. But I'm not that way anymore, Mom, she protested. And it's true. It's painful for her to be reminded of that old person, just as it's painful for me to remember what it was like when she was in that stage. But we can just let it go, delete it from our pages. Because the new reality is the new reality. And the more we live out of it, the more true it becomes.
 
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and all authority will be given to him. He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to his rule.  Isaiah 9:6


As I sat in the service yesterday morning, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the first day of Christmas, I found myself struck again by the first line of the opening prayer:

Lord, to you all hearts are open, all desires known and from you no secrets are hid.

There is no heart, no desire, no longing that is unknown to God; no language not understood, no experience that God cannot imagine now that He has lived among us. He became a child for all of us, so that each of us could become a child of God.
 
Today, December 21st, marks the Winter Solstice. From now on, the days will lengthen, bringing more of the light that is necessary, not only for our well-being, but for life itself. Today is also the second day of the  celebration of Hanukkah, and as I turned on the radio this morning, I was caught by the phrase of a Hanukkah medley.  “Don’t Let the Light Go Out” was the refrain, pulling my mind back to the miracle which is the basis of this Jewish
holiday. During the “Festival of Lights”, Jews celebrate the miracle of provision of oil, a small flask containing only enough fuel to light the temple lamps for one day, but wondrously refilled so that the flames could continue burning for the eight days necessary for the purification of the temple.

Keeping the light of one’s faith alive in the midst of darkness requires a commitment that at time may feel impossible. In the following poem, taken from Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays, Charles Reznikoff takes up the seemingly ludicrous call to life and faith while “swollen fish float on the water” and “dead birds lie …trampled to feathers.” How does one find the strength to offer psalms and celebrate days of dedication when the surrounding decay brings on a bone-numbing weariness and seeks to crush all hope?

The answer comes from the same God who encourages songs in the darkness. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” declares the Lord, speaking through the prophet Zechariah to Zerubbabel, newly returned from exile to oversee the building of the same temple the Maccabees will rededicate years later. For those who struggle to put one foot ahead of the other, God promises Spirit to provide the strength needed. This may be the true miracle, states the poet, not that”the oil lasted as long as they say but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day.” It is that thought which “nourishes his flickering spirit.”

Who hasn't at one point prayed for a miracle, for magical transport from the place and situation in which we find ourselves, weary, hopeless, and bereft of resources? And upon rare moments this request is granted. More often, however, the miracle comes not from being pulled out of the darkness, but, as Reznikoff suggests, by being given strength to stay the course. Fueled by a power beyond ourselves we are able to move forward, step by step, if only able to offer a word or two of praise.

Hanukkah
Charles Reznikoff
 
The swollen dead fish float on the water;
the dead birds lie in the dust trampled to feathers;
the lights have been out a long time and the quick gentle hands that lit them --
rosy in the yellow tapers' glow--
have long ago become merely nails and little bones,
and of the mouths that said the blessing and the minds that thought it
only teeth are left and skulls, shards of skulls.
By all means, then, let us have psalms
and days of dedication anew to the old causes.

Penniless, penniless, I have come with less and still less
to this place of my need and the lack of this hour.
That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power--
for a blade of grass, for a reed.
 
The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light--
in a little cruse--lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.

Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two--
not by might not by power
but by Your Spirit, O Lord.
 
You've probably already seen more Christmas cookies than you want, given that Christmas parties often start in November, but here are some tips and a recipe to help deal with all the sugar that's coming your way over the rest of the holidays.

1. Make your sugar count! Since tons of sugar isn't good for anyone, make sure when you have something sweet, it's really good, and not just empty calories. Some store bought goodies really don't have much flavor, so what's the point? I'm often disappointed when I hit a dessert buffet or sample a plate of cookies; something that looks amazing tastes like cardboard. I'm learning to take a bite, and if it's not really yummy, to just put it aside.

2. Pair your sugar with protein. There are at least two reasons for this. First, protein is harder for your body to digest than sugar, and slows down the release of insulin. Too much insulin can cause you to store unused calories as fat. For more on this, you can check out this article. Second, sugar makes us sleepy and protein wakes us up, according to a recent article in "Wired" that you can read here.  And we need all the energy we can get around the holidays! If you have a hard time finding protein, you may want to carry a few sticks of celery in your purse (although not protein, they do have a high fiber content and help me balance sugar lows). Other easy options are nuts and cheese, which are often available at parties.

And on to the recipes: These both come from my mom via my grandfather who worked during his high school years as a baker, and was the family confectioner. We loved to visit their house at Christmas where tins of fudge, caramel corn, chocolate covered nuts and myriads more goodies were scattered throughout the living and dining rooms. Enjoy!

Baked Pop Corn (ss good as Cracker Jacks, really!)

4 quarts popped corn
1 c unsalted peanuts
1 c brown sugar
1/2 c butter
1/2 c corn syrup
1/2 t salt
1/2 t soda
1 t vanilla

Heat oven to 250. Place the popped corn and peanuts in a large pan. (I use my turkey roaster.) Combine sugar, butter, corn syrup and salt. Heat til boiling and boil for 5 minutes. (You can do this on the stove or in the microwave). Add soda and vanilla. (This is fun to do as it starts to puff up.) Immediately pour over popcorn and stir. Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 5 or 10 minutes. When done, pour out on waxed paper so the corn doesn't stick to the pan.

Butter Cookies (our favorite cut out cookies)

Cream:
1 c butter
1 c sugar
1 egg
1/4 t salt
2 t vanilla (I think this is what makes them so yummy!)
Blend in: 2 2/3 c flour

Chill for one hour. Then roll out 1/8 inch thick and cut with cookie cutters. Bake at 375 for 7-10 minutes or until edges just start to turn golden. Ice with your favorite frostings and sprinkles.
 
As any mother knows, there is a time in the pregnancy when you are weary of the wait. Your body needs navigational lights to maneuver around furniture, your ankles start swelling, and the body parts (feet and elbows, perhaps even the head) of the darling unborn child are jamming themselves into uncomfortable places between ribs or on top of a bladder. The once glowing face starts looking pale, as broken nights of sleep pile up on one another.

I imagine that Mary's pregnancy was not much different. Besides the physical discomfort, she had the additional burden of the suspicious and gossip-producing manner in which her pregnancy began. I wonder if the Nazareth community ever bought the story of the angel, or if she and Joseph moved through their days in a pesky buzz of snide comments.

The Epistle reading from yesterday's lectionary included this phrase: "to God who is able to strengthen you." Did Mary feel she was on the edge of her endurance as she rode her way into Bethlehem, jostling amongst the family and relatives attempting to deal with the influx of out-of-town visitors? It is true that the power of God came upon her to bring about the conception of the Godchild, and yet it was the ongoing power of God that she would need from that day forward: physical stamina, emotional strength, determination of will to stand firm in her commitment to be the Lord's "handmaiden."

"Breath of heaven, hold me together, be forever near me," begins the familiar song by Amy Grant. And this is our prayer when we are stretched to the point of thinness, nerves raw, emotions spent, and still the pain of childbirth to endure. We pray for grace while we continue to ask: Will the waiting ever end? Will the end be worth the wait?

The mother knows the answer to this question. Pushed to the edge, she is grateful for the pain of contractions signaling an end to the period of gestation. Anything is better than this infernal heaviness, awkwardness, sleeplessness. She is ready, as was Mary, as are many of us. As we move into this last week of Advent, perhaps we find ourselves praying, as Mary must have, for the strength to make it past the transition pains, through the pushing, and on to the birth. For we believe, as did the mother of God's Christ, that the promise is worth the wait.
 
The third Sunday of Advent is the only one with a name; Gaudete comes from the Latin and means to be joyful. As part of yesterday's liturgy, we read Mary's song, the Magnificat, in which she rejoices in the news of the angel.

My soul glorifies the Lord 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful 
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name. 

The homily, drawn from the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, encouraged our imagination as we lean into the good work that God is doing on our behalf. This morning I discovered this poem by Madeleine L'Engle. In it, she reminds us that there are seasons when being irrational are exactly right. For at times reason can stifle the imagination, and shut down the possibility of God's coming.

After annunciation
Madeleine L'Engle

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd been no room for the child.

 
Back on Monday.
 

Several weeks ago a friend of mine started posting on her Facebook page a list of things she was thankful for. She called it the Daily Ten. Part of the Teach America program, this young woman works in a school where most if not all students are part of an Indian reservation. There are plenty of challenges. But even on days when it was a stretch, the combination of humorous, poignant and homey items, made for inspirational reading. I found myself looking forward to the end of each day when I could check it out. And I found myself thinking, this is really an idea worth imitating.

So last week I started. While my daily ten hasn't always made it to paper, I try to rehearse it at night before I go to bed. Although honestly, I think writing it down makes it even better. Here's what I'm noticing. I think of myself as a pretty grateful person, or at least a positive person, but even I have struggled this past year with bouts of depression or low energy. The first night I sat in bed thinking through my weary day about good things that had happened and it was difficult.

The next morning, realizing I would like to have 10 things to be thankful for by the end of the day, I decided to get an early start. Was there anything to be thankful for right now? Soon the list was started: breakfast with my daughter, a yummy omelet for the breakfast, slowing down enough to make smoothies which make any day special, healthy legs which made sweeping the floor a breeze. And so the day continued.

Not only did I find myself storing up things for my daily ten, I realized I was enjoying the moments, the individual moments that together stitch up a day. I was giving myself specific reasons to smile, which elevated my endorphin level and made me feel better. It's something as simple as which makes me realize there's a big difference between knowing what is good for you, and actually practicing it. 

And there's the rub. We know the things that make us healthy, but it takes time to slow down and add them regularly into our days. That's when having a list, or starting a routine is helpful. Like realizing that I need more iron, so grabbing a steak out of the freezer, and adding a large helping of kale, which I did last night. Now I think, I should just make one night a week steak and kale night, so I don't forget. If it's part of my routine, I'll know I'm getting what I need.

Adding iron to my diet, giving thanks, regular yoga. If I add one practice at a time it doesn't have to be overwhelming - just like making bread, kneading a little bit of flour at a time until it's just part of the loaf. And in the meantime I can be grateful for the progress I'm making. Wait - is that number 3 or 4 for today?