A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

26 11 2015

Today is Thanksgiving, and as I sit in my kitchen drinking coffee, I am not thinking about turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. Instead, I can’t stop thinking about liver and onions.

When there are eight people seated around your dinner table every night, most of them growing children (but one of them a fairly picky adult eater), and your grocery budget is woefully tight, you rarely cook a meal that you love. Instead, you make a lot of meals that spring from your creative imagination and a combination of hamburger, tomato sauce and pasta. This was my mother’s nightly conundrum, for more years than anyone cares to count.

Which is why it was such a big deal the night she made liver and onions. My mother loves liver and onions. The entree plate was brought to the table, and as Mom carved the liver into portions for each of us, my father cleared his throat. “Now kids,” he intoned in the voice he used when we were expected to pay attention. “Your mother worked hard on this meal. This food is good for you, and I expect every one of you to eat it without complaints. Is that understood?” Six sets of wide eyes looked around the table at one another soberly (even Matt, the baby in a high chair, looked solemn). We passed our plates around the table until each one had a serving of liver sitting pristinely in front of us.

My mother began eating. The baby, whose goopy food we surreptitiously eyed longingly, ate. But the rest of us sat quietly, attempting to figure out a way to meet my father’s dictum without actually consuming the liver.

Until my sister Chris, the oldest and boldest among us, spoke up, “Dad, why aren’t you eating any liver?”

My parents’ eyes met down the length of the table. My mother’s held a challenge, while my father’s looked slightly panicked set above the embarrassed flush that had bloomed on his face. He reached out with his fork, stabbed a piece of liver off the serving platter, and plunked it onto his own dinner plate. Cutting off a large bite of the meat, he put it in his mouth and chewed.

And chewed. He kept chewing for minutes. All activity at the table stopped, every set of eyes focused on my dad’s chewing mouth. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he attempted to swallow. And gagged instead. Despite several valiant efforts, he simply could not swallow the well-masticated liver. Eventually, he got up and spit it into the wastebasket. Turning back to the table, he declared, “Shirley, you will never serve liver to this family again!” Six kids, including Matt, whose baby face was wreathed with uncomprehending delight, erupted into victorious cheers.

And so, despite her own love for liver, my mother never served it to us again.

I’ve told this story many times – I can’t remember if I’ve shared it on this blog before, but chances are I have. Every family has its defining moments, the stories they tell over and over that are evocative of who they are, what their shared story might be. For the younger kids in my family, the liver story is likely what it seems to be: a story about how we conquered the dread enemy, liver. But for my parents and the older ones of us children, it has a number of layers. Layers we don’t explore when we tell the story, laughing around holiday tables when we are all together.

First, there’s the layer of my mom’s sacrifices to her family. Liver is symbolic of the many things she gave up, without complaint, in service to her family. Not that she never complained, she’s not an actual saint after all. When she did complain, though, it usually wasn’t about what she gave up (liver, a winter coat, nice things). Instead, when she complained, it was generally in response to an unwillingness on the part of others in our family to cheerfully acquiesce to the family’s greater good.

Then there’s the layer of my young father, trying to do what was right but underprepared to head a household so large in times of change and upheaval. His sense of fun was a joy to us kids, but his ideas about being a husband, a parent, a “patriarch” as my sister named him, required aging. Like the proverbial fine wine, he mellowed with age and into his role. In the years while that was happening, it was sometimes a wild, raucous, ride.

There’s even a tiny layer of ambivalence about liver. After all, throughout my childhood we happily ate braunschwager sandwiches and the liver spread served on appetizer trays at the supper clubs of the day. Apparently, onions weren’t enough of a disguise. Liver with cream cheese…well, cream cheese (like a spoonful of sugar) makes lots of things go down better.

A layer that runs deep underneath this story is one about money and hunger. My folks worked hard, every single day. They took care of us kids, they loved us and each other through the chaos and incredible noise levels, and they even managed to stay involved and contribute to their community and their church. And they did all of this while balancing precariously on the edge of a precipice – the chasm of poverty right there, where one toe inched in the wrong direction found only air rather than solid ground. Fear of that chasm informs much of my family’s story, especially in those early years when we were all young.

It was not an unfounded fear. Most nights, the hamburger-tomato-and-whatever casserole was served in a dish that would more reasonably feed four. It was supplemented by white bread and peanut-butter (some years, the peanut butter and blocks of cheese were provided via cheap government subsidy). Each night, we took turns passing the food from my Dad to his right or to his left, so that no one was consistently at the end of the line, when the serving remaining was a bit meager. Sometimes, we drank milk made from powder and orange juice made from powder (years later, when we could afford to purchase real orange juice, my younger siblings complained that it didn’t taste right – they wanted their Tang back!)

In spite of all of this, we always had a bountiful meal for Thanksgiving. I can remember my mom purchasing items well in advance, one or two things each pay period in order to spread the cost out. Happy were the years when Dad’s company or one of his vendors was giving away turkeys or hams as part of a holiday bonus! Our excitement over the feast – over the honest-to-God-more-food-than-we-could-eat meal, knew no bounds. Our anticipation was exquisite. And it was born of the knowledge that this was special, outside of the daily tightrope we walked between enough/not enough.

Today, as I sit in my apartment remembering, I am incredibly thankful for all that I had and all I now have. In particular, I am grateful for the times in my life I’ve lived at the edge of that chasm of poverty – close enough to know how lucky I was not to fall in, far enough not to have grappled with the true reality of hunger.

Today, as I sit in my apartment anticipating a feast later, surrounded by loved ones and worried about over-doing it, I can’t help but think about the world we live in. A world in which those with enough are seemingly filled with fear of those with not enough. A world in which the two eye one another as if they are alien, rather than also human beings. A world in which we are busy protecting what we have from those who have not. I can’t help thinking about that, because that isn’t what my parents taught me. They taught me to care about the greater good, not just my own satisfaction. They taught me to remain open to growth and change. To appreciate a little good stuff mixed in with the liver. They taught me to act well in spite of fear and the anxiety of what that chasm next to us might hold.

These are the layers of my family’s story that we don’t talk about when we tell the one about the liver. These are the layers that make me want to do more and be more. The layers that make me want to call out the false ideologies being espoused all around us. These are the layers for which I am truly thankful today.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 





Knitting Spoons?

17 04 2014

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” – Brene Brown

I want to share a story about something that happened at my knitting group last night. But first, you should know one thing about knitting group: I don’t knit.

You might think that fact would somehow preclude me joining such a group. And in other circumstances, you would probably be right. But I was invited to join the group late last fall, at a time when I was hungry for human contact – and I was grateful that these very nice ladies were willing to include me. I immediately discovered that, although the group is self-described as a knitting group because knitting is something most members do (and it’s easily done in a social setting in a coffee shop), most of the women who attend also love beads and beadwork – a serendipitous connection that allowed me to feel less self-conscious about my yarn-free lifestyle. My second discovery was that no one really cares what I bring to work on, in fact, last night I showed up basically empty-handed.

To say no one cares gives the wrong impression. I should say, no one judges. They clearly care, because whatever I have brought has occasioned curiosity and interest. Like most loosely affiliated groups, the attendance at these gatherings ebbs and flows, so in the three or four monthly installments I’ve been able to attend, the faces have varied. I’m not yet entirely sure of everyone’s names, and last night was the first time I met the infamous Anna (who brought a treasure trove of handmade beads for show and tell).

The day had been a busy one for me, and I arrived at knitting group still in the clothes I had worn for a late-afternoon job interview (also why I was sans project). After everyone had caught up and most were beginning to work on the projects they had brought, I started to excuse myself saying I needed to get home to write my blog post for today. One of the women, Anne, asked me what my blog was about. I’m never certain how to answer that question. What is this blog about?! So my friend Kathe, who was my connection to this group, piped up and shared her thoughts then said, “Jen, tell them how your blog got started.”

When I finished sharing what I hope was an abridged version of the hunger challenge/weight loss journey chronicled on Jenion, Anne spoke up again, sharing that she had participated in a hunger-related charity called “Empty Bowls“. For the fundraiser, Anne made a copper-enamelled bowl which raised over $2,000 for the organization. She said, “I was at a friend’s house who does copper-enamelling and she asked what I wanted to do, so I made three items. The first was the bowl, and I’d like you to have whichever of the other two you like.” With that, she handed me two enameled pieces strung on thin leather chords. Both were lovely. I didn’t know what to say – I was so moved by her generous impulse. I removed each necklace from it’s protective plastic bag. As I turned them over in my hands, trying to decide, Anne commented that the larger of the two reminded her of a spoon, which was a fitting connection to both the hunger issue and the Empty Bowls fundraiser. The piece was crafted with a beautiful iridescent enamel, and two holes for findings to connect. The bottom one has a simple piece of leather chord attached, but Anne said, “You can attach whatever you want to the bottom of it.” And next thing I knew, Anna of the wondrous bead display had plopped a glass lamp-worked bead down in front of me, saying, “This one would look perfect!”

And that’s how I left knitting group with a beautiful piece of handmade jewelry that I will always treasure.

There are so many lessons for life contained in this story. The first is about openness – mine AND that of the knitting group. When I told Mike I was invited and planning to participate in knitting group, he asked me in surprise, “Do you even know how to knit?!” I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders – not being a knitter seemed surmountable, whereas remaining lonely and disconnected did not. That the women in the group have been open and accepting of someone who shows up with odd projects unrelated to knitting (or none at all)  is cause for gratitude.

The second lesson I see in this story is one of true connection – which only happens when you are able to get beneath the surface of things. Kathe is a great one for nudging me to share authentically in a variety of ways. She rarely allows me to leave things at an off-hand comment. Had she not encouraged that I share more than a surface-y response to the question about my blog, Anne and I would not have discovered our connection to caring about hunger issues.

The third lesson is about freely sharing our gifts. Kindness and generosity are traits that come naturally to some. The rest of us need to cultivate them with mindfulness and attention. Sometimes those gifts are tangible, like the gorgeous handcrafted items I held in my hands as I left knitting group last night. Other times, the gifts are intangible but deeply felt, like the gifts of friendship and connection that I carried home in my heart.

The spoon-shape of the necklace brings to mind a story I first heard at a youth group meeting in high school. The story goes that, in hell, everyone sits at a table set with an incredible feast. Permanently attached to their hands is an impossibly long-handled spoon. All at the table are invited to eat to their hearts’ content – however, they find the spoon handles are so long that they can’t actually bring food to their mouths. So they sit at a feast, frustrated, starving, and unable to eat. In heaven, the story continues, the scene is set in exactly the same way: a table groaning under the weight of a sumptuous feast. Each person has a long-handled spoon attached to their hand. The difference: in heaven, the guests at the table use the spoons to feed each other. I love this metaphor, not so much as a story about heaven and hell but as a way to approach life today: be open to the opportunities to be fed by the generosity of others. At the same time, be as open to expressing your own heart through generosity toward others. That reciprocal flow of energy can, I believe, not only benefit the direct participants, but will also add to the measure of good in the world. Every time I wear my new necklace, I’ll be reminded of this and spurred to act accordingly!

 

The two pieces haven't been united yet, but here you have an idea (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)!

The two pieces haven’t been united yet, but here you have an idea what the final necklace will look like (and can see the generous gifts from Anne and Anna)! Trust me, the photo doesn’t do justice to the enamel-work.

 

 

 

 

 





I Am Hungry

29 08 2013

As I sit here, staring at a blank computer screen, my stomach has most of my attention. Why? Because I’m hungry.

There is food in my house, but I am deliberately not eating it right now. I’ll explain why in a few minutes. First, a trip down memory lane….

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Mornings at my house when I was a kid were chaotic. They started quietly enough: my dad would get up first and put the coffee on.  Dad would wake my mom with a steaming hot mug of joe. She would sit up in bed and have her first cigarette of the day with her first coffee.  This was Mom’s sacred time, and we were not to bother her before the second coffee/cigarette combo. From my bed in the room I shared with my three sisters, I would hear Dad in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, doing deep knee bends at the sink (I heard these because his knees crackled the whole way through each squat), shaving. Around this point in the day’s progression, all six of us kids would finally be roused and sent scurrying to get ready for school or to eat breakfast. Weekday breakfasts, before school, were invariably cereal and milk. We fought over who got to have which box in front of them as we spooned the sugary goodness (Honeycombs, Sugar Smacks, Rice Krispies, etc.) into mouths which appeared to our parents to be perpetually open.

Once the older kids were done with breakfast and our school uniform attire had been at least cursorily inspected by Mom, we took off running to St. Raphael’s Cathedral Grade School, about a mile away. At school, the BVM sisters and a few lay teachers provided excellent, if strict, instruction. Our lunch program was uninspiring, made up of surplus commodities (such as the driest peanut butter ever produced) and casseroles that were easily prepared in large quantities. We were not allowed to leave the cafeteria for recess until our plates were clean – not a hardship for me because, truthfully, it never occurred to me NOT to eat every bite I was served.

After school, my sister Chris, my brother Jeff and I would make our trek home. The good sisters at the Mary of the Angels Home liked little boys, so if Jeff went to the basement kitchen window they would sometimes hand him a treat – a homemade cookie fresh from the oven perhaps. Sometimes he even shared with his sisters! Then we’d stop at the Post Office, take the elevator to third floor, and drink from the hallway water fountain (the coldest water in town). A few blocks further along, we might stop at the corner bar where they had hard-pack ice-cream – if we had scrounged up a dime to purchase a cone, or if it was report card day (they gave us a free cone if we had A’s). Two doors down from the bar was a bakery. We stopped most days and asked after any “day olds” they wanted to get rid of. Sometimes they charged a reduced rate (a nickle for a snack pie) and sometimes they just gave them to us. Once, they gave me a whole pie because of my stellar report card.

At home, snacks were regulated, and were generally homemade. We always had to ask before helping ourselves to any food item. Some afternoons we were told to wait until dinner (which, if our begging up and down the streets on the way home had yielded few results, seemed almost unbearable). Dinners were always delicious, served relatively close to 5:30 p.m. Many times, they consisted of one pound of ground beef, a package of some sort of pasta, and a can of tomato sauce (remember, this entree served 8). There was always bread and butter and a canned veggie of some sort to round out the meal. 

In the evenings, we didn’t always snack, though Mom or Dad would often pop up a roaster pan full of buttered popcorn. On special occasions, we got to split a bottle of Pepsi – one bottle, six kids. To make it appear that we had more pop in our glasses Dad simply added some water. We all considered it a special treat.

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I’m not quite sure how my parents did it – feeding and clothing eight people on my dad’s salary, plus all the other expenses associated with management of our family’s life. We kids were aware that money was a concern, but it didn’t occur to us to think of ourselves as poor. And while there sometimes wasn’t enough food to feel completely satisfied, there was always more than enough to prevent us from experiencing real hunger. One time, a few years back, my siblings and I were reminiscing about our circuitous route home from school, and my brother Jeff suddenly exclaimed, “Oh my gosh – we were ragamuffins!” It was the first time it occurred to us that, perhaps, the kind people working at those businesses where we routinely stopped for handouts actually saw us as poor, hungry children in need of a handout. It was a humbling realization.

Which brings me back to this morning, and why I am hungry now. Last night, just before I was about to amble out to the kitchen and rustle up a snack after a late bike ride, I stumbled upon this report:  Hunger In Our Schools. It’s a short report of a survey conducted with teachers and school principals, which discusses both what these professionals are seeing in their schools (73% of teachers say they teach students who regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home; 87% of principals say they see hungry kids in their schools weekly) and what they are doing about it themselves – teachers and principals spending their salaries buying food for their students – on average $37 a month for teachers and $59 a month for principals  who regularly see hungry kids in their schools.

The report talks about how difficult it is for students to be in school and hungry – the effect on attention, mood, alertness. I wondered, if I didn’t eat a late-night snack, and I didn’t eat in the morning until after I had written this blog post, how would I feel? So, that was my experiment this morning. Kind of silly, since I am not experiencing chronic hunger nor am I spending my morning in a structured environment. But the truth is, I am a little bit cranky. Even more, my brain is foggy and I’ve been easily distracted – which may be the hunger and may simply be me on a hot Thursday morning. But it is difficult to ignore the feeling of being hungry, even in this silly, short experiment. My stomach has my attention, meaning that I’ve already spent several hours on this post and I’m not done yet. I want to hurry it up, so I can eat.

The Hunger in Our Schools report, published by No Kid Hungry/Share Our Strengths, advocates for “Breakfast After the Bell” programs in schools, which have proven to increase school breakfast program participation and which remove the stigma associated with such programs. To me, these seem to be a great stop-gap measure, but they don’t really address the systemic reasons these children are hungry to begin with.

The World Hunger Organization provides a lot of great information. Their website says: “There are two key ways in which you and other people in the United States can help reduce hunger and poverty: understanding— this implies learning— and action. Action can take three key forms: influencing public policy, contributing financially, and working directly with poor people.” (World Hunger Notes)

In the past couple of weeks, I have loved watching the parade of “first day of school” pictures on my Facebook feed. I have enjoyed reading my teacher friends’ posts about getting their classrooms up and running, getting to know their new students. These posts point out that in the United States, such experiences are shared across socio-economic boundaries – by parents, teachers, and children in urban and rural, wealthy and poverty-stricken, public and private schools across the country. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all did what is in our power to do to ensure that no kid sitting in a classroom tomorrow morning, or next week, is unable to focus due to hunger?

I am hungry for food right this minute. But, happily, this kind of hunger in my life is transitory and will soon be abated. I have a spiritual or moral hunger that is so much greater and more important. It needs to be fed a steady diet of compassion, understanding/learning, and action.

Four of six "ragamuffins". Note, Chris and I are still in uniform skirts, despite strict instructions to change as soon as we arrived home!

Four of six “ragamuffins”. Note, Chris and I are still in uniform skirts, despite strict instructions to change as soon as we arrived home!





Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

13 12 2012
Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
 
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“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”
 

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!