A Little Liver for Thanksgiving

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‚Ķwell, 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.

 

 

 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Thankful

You can find my entry in this week’s photo challenge on the photography blog I share with Michael R. Beck, at http://theviewfromtwocities.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/weekly-photo-challenge-thankful-jenifer/.¬† Hope you enjoy!

Ineffable Gratitude

This week we have been experiencing fog. I love fog, the way it takes the familiar and makes it strange and mysterious. The way it hides some things completely, yet reveals others in striking detail, highlighting these objects so that you see them with new eyes. Fog makes sound confusing, muffling it and disorienting the listener (on a walk Tuesday, a friend and I kept hearing a sharp report like gun fire, yet we looked in opposite directions for its source). I don’t have a word for the effect fog has on my psyche. It is enchanting, disorienting, occasionally even frightening. All at once.

The same words can be used to describe how I have experienced this year. 2012 has been odd for me, full of true peaks and desperately low valleys. Yet both have primarily been experienced on an interior level, visible only to me. It has been as if I have been walking in my own emotional landscape during a prolonged season of fog. There are occasional signposts, infrequent landmarks that suggest I have been here before, that I do in fact know this terrain. Still, it has felt strange.

I have often been reminded, this year, of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Zeroing In”. In it, we listen as two people discuss their interior landscapes.

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony…

They suggest that there are places that we come upon, wandering our emotional landscapes, which without warning sink us in a quagmire or (worse) jump at us like a biting dog.

“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”

They say we learn to leap away from unexpected contact with these places:

¬†¬†“Yes, we learn that
It’s not terror,¬†it’s¬†pain we’re talking about:
those¬†places in us…
…that are bruised forever”

(read the entire poem here)

Fog. Internal landscapes. Emotional pain. Not exactly the traditional fare of Thanksgiving posts. That said, this post is, indeed, about thanksgiving – mine. My gratitude for the unexpected breadth and depth of feelings experienced in this ethereally fogged-up landscape of my soul.

For many years of my life, I kept myself well-defended within a fortress of walls too thick to allow much feeling to permeate. Those of you who have been on this journey with me know that, by grace, those walls were sent crashing down a couple of years ago. In the aftermath, there was a rebound into joy, liveliness, excessive positive energy. It was lovely, but even as I experienced it I suspected it wasn’t sustainable. I had no idea what to expect on the next leg of the journey, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remain at those heights.

It turns out that the current segment of my life’s path is the one that reminds me I am an ordinary human. I am being reacquainted with the reality of the human condition – we can use many means to escape into numbness, but numbness is not our natural state. Our natural state includes both joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and loss, high and low. And not just these opposite endpoints, but the full spectrum of each.

Does it sound strange to say, “I am grateful for the lake of tears I have shed this year” or “Thanks for the epic roller coaster ride of emotions?” I suspect it does, and in some ways I surprise myself by saying it – because there have been days when I desperately missed my fortress of denial.

There is something ineffable here, though.

Ineffable: ¬†1. ¬†Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
2.  Too sacred to be uttered.

Wow, did you catch that? Too sacred to be uttered. The gift of our humanity, of full participation in this life we have been born into and made for. It isn’t so much that I am at a loss for words, as that the right words cannot be found, cannot be uttered. And so Thanksgiving finds me able only to offer humble thanks for the bounty of a difficult (and fulfilling, and happy, and challenging) full- spectrum year.

3 Beliefs, 3 Wishes

Hard to believe that another Thanksgiving has dawned! Another whole year has flown past at dizzying speed. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about today, and inspiration eluded me. To give you an idea where my head and heart were last night when I sat down to write, I began a post titled “Thanksgiving, Bah-Humbug” in which I intended to share 5 things I wasn’t thankful for about myself, and 5 I wasn’t thankful for about other people. At a certain point, I realized it wasn’t actually very funny – in fact, it was mostly snarky – so I gave up and went to bed.

Upon waking this morning, I had the thought that looking back at¬†last year’s “Happy Anniversary” piece¬†which I posted on Thanksgiving might help. I read the first paragraphs, then stopped just before the list of 12 things I had learned. I wanted to think about the past year and share what I feel are insights I’ve gained since that last Thanksgiving entry. Then I re-read the list of 12 insights. Its a good list, and I am happy to say I wouldn’t change the items on it – in fact, I should probably have read it a few times over the past months when I was feeling at low ebb.

My list this year is shorter. Three beliefs that I hope will hold as steady as the 12 thoughts I shared last year. Then, for good measure, three wishes for the coming year. After all, I have said more than once that voicing what you want is one of the most essential steps to making it a reality.

Three Beliefs

1. ¬†I believe it is important to keep challenging myself to move forward. The key words here: challenge and forward. I’ve learned that without that challenge to myself, I won’t try new things, won’t step outside my comfort zone. And there’s no such thing as stasis. If I’m not moving forward, it isn’t that I am just treading water and staying in the same place. I start to move backward – in the fitness realm I lose muscle and tone, in the diet area I start to regain weight, in my spiritual life I stumble back into self-defeating beliefs. It is hard and time consuming work to change habits and behaviors, yet it is surprisingly easy and quick to undo that hard work.

2. If I continue to challenge myself,¬†I believe that growth and forward momentum are occurring even when, to all outward appearances, nothing is changing. This one is tough, because outward appearances are such a nice, easy way of measuring things. We all want to be able to point to measurable outcomes – it’s supposed to be part of the reward for hard work. This year I’ve learned a lot about perseverance: “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition”, (according to Webster’s). Learning to maintain the effort, to put in the work every day, despite the lack of desired results has been hard. I say desired results (i.e. significant weight loss) because there have been positive results of this perseverance. But they’re less tangible, less definable. For one, the fact that an inveterate quitter, like me, has not quit is pretty amazing.

3. I believe you cannot connect the dots going forward. This is something Steve Jobs said in his now famous and oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford. He said we can only connect the dots in our life path when we look backwards. So, that means that we have to take a step to whatever dot calls to us next – and we take that step with trust that in the big picture of our lives, that dot will lead to the right next dot. An example from my year is the whole RAGBRAI experience. The desire, almost the need, to successfully prepare for and complete that 75-mile ride came from out of the blue. It became a compulsion. Did it connect easily with what I had been doing? Or lead directly to someplace I was headed? Not really. Looking backwards, I can see some of the dots leading up to it, but I don’t know yet how/whether it connects to my future – still, I gave it most of my focus for the best part of this year. Commit to the next dot, and worry about how they all connect later. I looked for the definition of commitment, just as I did (above) for perseverance, and found this amazing, and fitting, piece from the Urban Dictionary:

Commitment is what 
Transforms the promise into reality. 
It is the words that speak 
Boldly of your intentions. 
And the actions which speak 
Louder than the words. 
It is making the time 
When there is none. 
Coming through time 
After time after time, 
Year after year after year. 
Commitment is the stuff 
Character is made of; 
The power to change 
The face of things. 
It is the daily triumph 
Of integrity over skepticism.

Once of the best definitions ever written, in my estimation! Challenge, perseverance, commitment – these are big words, and they tell the tale of a year which posed many difficulties for me, but which also forced me to stretch further than I knew I was capable of doing. Another great year to be alive.

And now, for my three wishes.

1. I wish for myself: wisdom. It is the same wish I have made since I first learned, in high school bible study, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom to choose well, to love deeply, to act rightly. Wisdom to live from my heart and soul, not from capriciousness or whim. Wisdom to, as I said last week, live with abandon.

2. I wish for you: joy. Both the joy of experiencing fully the moment you are in, and the deep joy of living the life you are meant to live. Whatever form that takes. I will help in any way I can – you have a friend in me!

3. I wish for the world “An environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on the planet”. A really big wish – but the idealist in me feels its possible.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!