Saturday, September 30, 2017

Making applesauce in a world falling apart

That's not meant to be a cute title or anything. It's just... what I'm doing these days.

Today the last family moved away from the Christian intentional community we lived in, which has folded. Well, the last family for awhile; but the other two families that remain are a steep four minutes' walk from us through the woods, and we're now sitting among four empty houses. Some of which need cleaning, which I suppose I will do. It's a sad day. A lot of people's hopes and dreams went into this place and it's hard to lose those. But mostly at this point, it's a tired day. The dissolution process has been so slow and long.

It's very quiet here now...

This used to be her house
Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. The community, the world. I couldn't believe my eyes when I found out just how bad it is in Puerto Rico. They say the death toll could rise into the hundreds--not from the storm but from the aftermath, no power, no clean water, no refrigeration for medicines--in Florida a few people died because a generator failed, and here millions of people have no power. I don't know how you make the government listen, convince them that these people are entitled to just as much help as Texas and Florida, just as much help as all other American citizens (and I certainly don't know how I would do it, I who never could reconcile myself to people having different rights depending on whose jurisdiction they were born in.) But I found a couple of places to donate where the money goes directly to help as fast as possible...

And then to cap it all Trump has capped the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. at 45,000. I mean listen, I'm terrible with numbers, they usually mean nothing to me till I find another number to compare them with, but even I knew the moment I heard it that 45,000 is ridiculous. I honestly just re-googled it before writing this because it looked so puny I wondered if I'd forgotten a zero.

We are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. And we're accepting fewer than ever. WHY? I can't even. I really should write a screed about this. I just don't have the energy. I guess I'll have to make do with--if you're newer to this blog or just haven't read them before--directing you to my post "If they hadn't welcomed refugees, they would never have hidden Jews." And/or to the story of Varian Fry, the American hero who saved thousands of people from the Holocaust by breaking U.S. law and smuggling them in under the nose of the State Department, an act of civil disobedience I salute with both hands.
Refugees outside U.S. consulate in WWII France

Refusing refugees has real consequences. People die.

We're in the midst of the worst refugee crisis and the worst famine year (click here to donate) since World War II, and not only our President but also our news media barely mentions it. Maybe I should just start getting my news from Oxfam. You know, there's a game I play in my head sometimes of imagining a perfect world. It's like Heaven or the new earth, except without the parts I can't imagine, immortality and bliss and all that. It's just ordinary life with one difference--we all trust each other. No evil. (Imagine the sheer amount of resources freed up, even in what we consider nice stable countries, with the need for protection from each other removed. What would we do with all that time? Garden? Create? Make sure everyone had enough food, maybe?) One day I imagined what the news media would be like in that world. Supposing there were still natural disasters & all--they would be messengers letting us know where to send help. That's what they would be. The thought almost made me cry. Maybe I should just start getting my news from Oxfam.

So what do I do with the world and the community falling apart around me? I make applesauce. It doesn't seem the best response, but it's the job in front of me. I've done what I could think of to do for the world, which is precious little, I've given the money I could give. I've done what I could think of to do for my neighbors, mostly little, practical, daily-life things for those who remain; little, practical parting gifts for those who are gone, and help loading the moving truck. And here I am, looking out my front door at four empty houses, a vineyard, and three laden apple trees. Not to mention, a little further off, an acre of raspberries that are theoretically dying of disease, but are giving off quite a decent crop as they do so. And my garden full of tomatillos and green beans that have ripened so slow in the strange cool August we've had (I'm not complaining... but sweet fall weather in August was sort of eerie) that they're only just ready to preserve now. So I preserve. Cook and can and freeze. What else is there to do?

You see, we're staying here. For the known future, at least, but that may be quite a long time. When the community folded, it gifted the land to a new non-profit called Hungry World Farm. It's local people who are starting it, people from the local Mennonite church--friends. We've gradually moved into caretaking this place, and we have an agreement with HWF to continue doing that through the transition and beyond.

So I make grape juice. Thirty quarts for us, forty quarts to place in the old communal "Food Room" to be shared by people I know and people I don't yet know, people who will come. (That's an estimate. I don't want to count them! I would be OK with never seeing or smelling another steaming quart of grape juice right now.) So I make applesauce, and sock away apples in the root cellar believing someone will eat them. It's what you do, in the country. You take what God and the land have given you, and you preserve it against the coming cold. The coming storms. It's what you do, when the storms are all around and haven't reached you yet. There's precious little I can do but put my roots down and hold, and take what I am given and make food, but I'm grateful to be shown what's given me to do. And it's plain enough. You should see those apple trees. I've made sixteen quarts of applesauce already without picking a single apple. I swear. I just picked a bushel and a half of windfalls up off the ground. I may need to learn to make apple butter.

When life gives you fallen apples--remember that they're apples, I guess. Sweet and precious, and a gift. I am so grateful for the kindness of the land, the fruit and flowers it gives. I am so grateful for the firewood stacked by the driveway, that we will be warm this winter. I am so grateful for the quarts of applesauce lining the shelves of my pantry. And I wish I could send them to Puerto Rico or to South Sudan, but I can't; but I hope and I look to the future, and I believe someone will come with whom I can share them, if only I wait.


Image credit for apple tree in winter: Elena Elisseeva

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Eowyn and the feminism of all things that grow

Do you remember the first time you read Lord of the Rings? Do you remember when you first learned (and was it a shock?) that Eowyn had ridden in secret to battle before the gates of Gondor? I remember.

I was just a kid making a puzzle on the floor, as my Dad read us the entire trilogy, night after night after supper--it must have taken years!--and I was listening with all my heart. Come not between the Nazg├╗l and his prey, the Witch-King hissed, and Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!

And Dernhelm laughed a clear laugh like the ring of steel. No living man am I! he said.

And I thought, Oh no, he's some kind of undead!

(Yep, that's me--paragon of feminine and writerly intuition.)

I realized my mistake pretty quickly, of course. Eowyn stepped forth and I was swept up in wonder. Tolkien gives us such vivid images (not nearly equaled in the movie, to my sorrow): Still she did not blench (as the great beast strikes at her): maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt... A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.

From that time--unless it was even earlier--I loved Eowyn. That never changed. But on this reading (I'm listening to the audiobook as I garden this fall) I noticed something I had never noticed before.

At the end of her story Eowyn changes. (This is not the new thing. I'm getting there.) She comes to the brink of despair after her great battle, heals slowly and finds a man whom she can love, and she makes a choice and changes her life.

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

"I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun," she said; "and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren." And again she looked at Faramir.

There are those who feel that this moment destroys her as a strong character, that Tolkien is relegating her to "a woman's proper place"--that by becoming a wife, (and presumably mother,) and a healer rather than a fighter, she becomes proper and feminine and acceptable. She becomes small. It's the view that changing from a warrior to a healer is a demotion. That serving life, rather than death, is a demotion.

Some people call that feminism.

I am a feminist. I rather think I was born one. I have never, not once, been able to stomach the view that a man is more important than a woman. And fundamentally that's what feminism means to me: equality between men and women. I'm told the term is falling out of fashion, that young women no longer call themselves feminists for fear of being labeled man-haters; I don't agree with this trend and will not bow to it. But there's something else I can't stomach, and that's the equation of violence with importance. The idea that nothing is to be more admired than the ability to kill. The idea that Eowyn's life becomes pitiful when she lays down her sword.

And Tolkien agrees; I only realized on this reading just how explicitly Tolkien agrees.

It comes in Faramir's talk with Frodo, as they sit together in the secret caves behind the waterfall in Ithilien. As their conversation ranges across many things, Faramir begins to speak of the culture of Gondor, its roots and the changes that have come to it. In their lore, he explains, they reckon three races of Men (and stay with me here, because I may talk about the problems inherent in this sometime but it won't be today): the High, the Middle, and the Wild. The Numenoreans or men of the West, the founders of Gondor, are the High; but the Rohirrim are reckoned among the Middle Peoples.

Yet now, says Faramir, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarcely claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother Boromir; a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor.

...And favored above himself, Faramir does not add, by their father--and by others. Someone else (I believe it's one of Faramir's men) later comments that as a man who loves learning more than war, Faramir is less respected than his brother by most people in Minas Tirith; but the men who serve under him love him. And there's no doubt his creator does too. This is the man who refuses the Ring, though (even besides its terrible inherent pull) he knows how much his lord and father wants it. He passes the ultimate test. I knew that--but it had passed me by, until this time, just how much Faramir is meant by Tolkien to be a representative of Numenor, of all that is "highest" in human culture. A fictional culture, of course. He couldn't use a real one, to represent the ideal. That does not exist.

Rohan, on the other hand, is a real culture--one that Tolkien loved and admired, but with reservations. It is absolutely the culture of the Angles and Saxons, transposed from the sea onto wide grassy plains and onto horses, speaking the same Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) that my first college English class twisted our tongues around trying to read Beowulf. (Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and knew the culture and its sagas intimately.) It struck me vividly, this time, just how much that culture glorifies battle--in a deeply attractive way, full of bleak but blinding beauty and pathos.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.

Eowyn, as we first meet her, embraces her culture wholly, even as she burns to break free of the darkness and dishonor she feels her royal house has sunk to in the days of Wormtongue and the weakness of Theoden. She speaks of battle in the same glorious, steel-bright terms as any man of Rohan, and the word renown is often on her lips. Only one fault does she find with her culture: that it does not allow her the same chance at great deeds as the men. All your words, she says to Aragorn when he speaks of valor without renown in the last defense of her people, are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. Though Aragorn is not wrong to praise it, valor without renown is not what is offered to her brother, and she will not have it for herself. In this she is just; she is, after all, his equal and more. Though it's not right for her to abandon her post as leader of her people in hiding at Dunharrow, it struck me this time that she begs to ride with Aragorn after she has failed to convince him to ride another way--she begs to go with him on the Paths of the Dead. The very mention of that place fills absolutely every rider of Rohan with abject terror, including the king and Eomer, who beg Aragorn not to go. Eowyn is braver than her brother.

She also, we are told, goes seeking death. Oppressed and darkened in her heart by her long role as "dry-nurse" to a shamefully weakened king, by being shut in the house with Wormtongue's whisper always in her ear, by the great change Gandalf works bringing liberation to--it seems--everyone but her, she sets her heart and her love on Aragorn as her hope for a larger life. A life (as Aragorn says later) "of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan." When he rejects her, she has nothing left to fall back on, and in her despair she takes her culture's way out: she will die in battle, gloriously.

But she does not die. She does the great deed she has always hoped to do, with the help of a humble hobbit, and she lives, though sick with the Black Breath, in the darkness of her mind with her vision of her future empty before her. She is healed. She meets Faramir. I stand upon some dreadful brink, she tells him, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet.

Then the wind changes, and Shadow passes, and the Eagle comes out of the East crying the news that the Ring is destroyed and peace is come again to Middle-Earth.

And she turns.

I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.

Not take joy only in the songs of slaying. This is the very thing Faramir said about the deterioration of his own culture, which he still hopes to reverse: that only war and warriors are admired.

This, then, is the change Eowyn makes when she turns from her darkness towards Faramir: she lets go of the culture she was raised in, the culture of glory and death. She makes her choice, and she stands with a man who does not desire to be a king, but to go "dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden." (It's not for nothing that Faramir earlier says to Frodo and Sam, with great respect--even with awe, and because they were the only ones able to carry the Ring and not to use it--Your land must be a realm of peace and content, and there must gardeners be in high honour.) She is a hero, and has killed a being second only to the Dark Lord in power and evil; she has fulfilled the greatest dream of any warlike Middle Man; she is free now to choose the High. Which paradoxically is also the humble. Gardening. Healing, and all things that grow.

Tolkien names as High the cultures that honor and do not disdain those things of peace and nurture that are traditionally the woman's realm.

I am a feminist. But I have the same uneasiness about my own culture, and (at least sometimes) feminism within it, that Faramir confesses to about Gondor. So often, "feminism" in movies is an attractive young woman felling a dozen men with karate moves or guns. So often, fans are quick to scorn a female character who is insufficiently prepared to hurt people, or to consider her demoted if she marries or (worse) has children, or consider her ill-treated by her creators if she is not put in harm's way and allowed to show off a few moves. (Have we now experienced so much false and choreographed violence--and so little real--that lethal fighting appears to us to be the best part of life?) As if violence were the only kind of strength.

But this is feminism to me: not only that women should be admitted to the realm of the traditionally masculine, but also that men should learn to honor the traditionally feminine as it deserves. Who will care for all things that grow--children, gardens, human bodies, homes, the earth? Some people answer "unpaid women," others "low-wage workers." There is no good answer till we learn to say "all of us as we can, in honor and in love." There is no good world till men cease to think themselves "above" the profound and humble work of life, till all people cease to think the work of death is better. Yes, the glass ceiling is wrong. The worship of money and power, and the dismissal and overriding of the vulnerable of the earth, is worse. But these things are tied to each other. Till we stop shoving off the tedious work of care onto "unimportant" people we do not honor for it--whether it's women or the poor--till we cease to scorn or condescend about the care of small things that grow, we can never be equal. And we can never be free.

So that's my dream, I guess. The feminism of all things that grow. It believes in equal rights and in the right of women to use their gifts in every place and way that men do--to share fully in the work that is called "real" in our society. But it does not stop there or accept that so-called reality. In the end its dearest wish is not to take women away from home so much as to bring men back there, working together in equality to make it a place of life. It honors gardeners. It honors the giving and preserving of life, and all things that grow. It honors and does not scorn the uncounted millions of traditional women whose main work in life has been to nurture other human beings and help them survive--and men the same. (I think for instance of subsistence farmers, their work as repetitious, full of care, and ignored by the so-called great as any housewife's.) It honors love and respect, kindness and humility, and a Man who kneels and washes other people's feet.

For thus spake Ioreth, wisewoman of Gondor: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.


Image credits, in order:

Eowyn fighting the Nazgul: Cory Godbey
Eowyn versus the Witch-King:
Eowyn of Rohan:
Eowyn with sword: New Line Cinema
The Healing of Eowyn: the Hildebrant brothers
Eowyn and Faramir kiss on the walls: Catherine Chmiel

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Scars: a reading from the Gospels

I'm listening to the Lord of the Rings on audiobook these days, and have a lot of thoughts forming on the story of Eowyn and the meaning of her deeds and her transformation at the end of the story. I almost wrote about it for today, but I want to take the time to make a good job of it, so that'll be next week. (Stay tuned.)

So I'm sharing another of my readings today, the short Biblical pieces I write. I wrote this one for a spiritual retreat we hosted, for which Paul had selected the story of Thomas as a theme. As a doubter myself, I've always been fascinated by Thomas, but this time--and I don't quite remember why--I chose to take a step back, or maybe sideways. I wrote the story from the point of view, not of Thomas himself, but of one of his fellow disciples: Simon the Zealot. It was interesting, writing from the point of view of a somewhat hardened freedom fighter. It didn't actually occur to me till halfway through the story that such a person would know exactly what a mortal wound looked like. This is one of the things writing does for me: it shows me things I would never see otherwise. I never pay such profound attention to Scripture as when I'm writing one of these readings; I can't. The writing itself takes me to a place I can't otherwise reach.



All of my scars have stories. But there's none of them I like to tell.

The oldest two, on my arms, are from my father. You can barely see them now. I can see them just like they were, if I think about it. I can see his face just like it was, too. Why would I want to think about it?

The mess on my left leg and arm is from the Romans. I was fifteen. Some officer, going somewhere important in his long red cloak, just rode me down on his horse. I was in the way, and what did he care about some Jewish boy? The rocks on the slope beneath the road took chunks out of my leg, and my arm up to the shoulder. The wounds turned bad. I was sick with fever for a week and they thought I would die. But I guess he got where he was going on time.

The men in our village talked about it for weeks. But there was nothing they could do. What did Rome care?

It's not exactly the kind of story you brag on.

I suppose that's part of why I joined the Zealots, in the end. Why I decided to fight them. There were other reasons. I wanted to free our country. But the look on my father's face when he said “There's nothing we can do,” and the pain and anger in my belly when I saw it, those things are burned into me as hard as the thick hard lines and ridges on my skin.

I suppose that's why I don't like to tell the stories. There are other scars. The ones you can't see hurt longer. I don't know how long. I don't know if they stop.

The other scars are from the fights that came after that. Battles, I suppose you could call them. The one on my face is one of those, the one people ask about. They generally expect me to be proud, to want to talk about it. There is some of it I'm still proud of, but I don't care to talk about it. One memory brings back another. Believe me, putting a sword into another man and pulling it out is not a thing a man wants to remember.

Those days are gone, of course, since I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to fight for a different kind of freedom. He sent me out preaching, going around the country with the others, telling people the kingdom of God had come. He taught us so much. We saw the power of God in him, and the kindness of God; we saw lepers healed and the dead come to life. We saw him come into Jerusalem in triumph, not at the head of an army, but riding on a donkey with the people all shouting for joy and waving branches. And then the Romans got him after all. The Romans and our own people, our so-called leaders, the cowards. I've seen death enough to know it, but I saw Hell that day.

When the women came to us three days later and said they'd seen angels, when Peter and John came and said he was alive again, I thought hard. He was different from any man I'd known, and I had believed God was in him. If anyone on earth could do such a thing, it wouldn't be anyone but him. But I held back. I'll admit: I held back because I was afraid to be a fool. To be made a fool of by hope.

He came to us that night, very late. We were still awake, with one lamp burning. He wasn't there, and then he was. Someone cried out. He looked like a spirit in the flickering light, like his spirit come to say goodbye on his way to God. That's what we thought he was.

Then he spoke.

He spoke, and his voice had life and blood and strength in it, as much as it ever had when he'd stood up on a hill and shouted his teaching to the crowds. “It's me,” he said. “I'm alive. Look at my hands and feet. Touch me. See if it's me.”

I lit another lamp. I cupped the flame in my hands till it blazed high. And there in the flare of light I saw it. He was reaching out his hand to Matthew, and there on his wrist was the place they'd driven the nail through. It was healed. He'd been dead three days, and it was the clean pink of a fresh-healed scar. And then I looked further, and there in his left side I saw a thing I'd never seen in my life—a thing I could swear no-one had ever seen. I saw the scar of a mortal wound, fresh-healed just like the other.

No-one could have survived a blow like that one. I've seen men take wounds like that, and I know. It went in, right to the heart. And there it was, that awful hole in his side, new-healed just like all the other scars. Testifying. It was him. He had been killed, and he was alive. God was in him, and all our hope had come again.

I believed. The scars did that for me. But I don't know that I would have learned the other thing, the stranger thing, if I hadn't seen what they did for Thomas.

Thomas wasn't there that night. He was afraid, I think. I don't know where he hid, but he came back to us at dawn, and when he heard what had happened he accused us of lying. Then changed his mind on the instant, before we could get angry, and said we must have dreamed it, it couldn't have been real. He said he'd believe it when he'd touched those scars we spoke of, when he'd put his hand in that hole. I saw the tears standing in his eyes, though he turned away to hide them.

It was days before Jesus came again. We stayed together, talking of what we'd seen, of what we ought to do. Thomas said nothing at all. He barely ate. When the others tried to tell him again that it was true, he turned away.

Thomas was my friend. I seem like a hard man to most people, I suppose. But I know how hard life can be when you're young, and it was hard for Thomas. I did what I could for him. It wasn't much.

Then Jesus came to us again.

He wasn't there, and then he was. And he was standing by Thomas. Thomas staggered to his feet. Looking at him. He never took his eyes off his face. I saw the tears start in them when Jesus said “Peace be with you.” And he still stood there just looking at him, looking into his eyes. He never looked down at all till Jesus told him outright to look at the scars.

“Put your hand in my side,” he said, and Thomas looked at him, and I saw his hand reach out, just a little, and draw back. It was shaking. But it wasn't fear. His eyes were wide. He seemed not to be sure it was allowed. Not to be sure he was allowed.

And I looked again at that wound, that open path into his heart. Those holes torn in his wrists and in his feet. He would have them forever, by the look of them. I realized I was rubbing one of the scars on my arm; one of the ones the Romans gave me before I could even fight back.

I remembered what he'd said, what we hadn't understood till later: that he would give his life as a ransom for many. That was the story of these scars. The story of how he had been killed and yet here he was alive. Of how—though I didn't quite understand it all yet—he had saved us all.

But it was also the story of how men drove nails through his wrists, and he could do nothing to stop them. It was also the story of how he hung there nailed to a beam, and a soldier put a spear into his heart.

Thomas reached out his trembling hand, awe in his eyes, and put his hand into that wound. He looked like he was touching something holy. Something that had death in it, and life. The power of God, and the kindness of God.

And standing there watching him, I saw that he was. And he knew it. He saw those scars for exactly what they were.

And I wanted to touch them too.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Ballad of the White Horse

It's the longest poem I've ever read--and enjoyed from beginning to end. The Ballad of the White Horse--G.K. Chesterton's epic poem about King Alfred re-conquering England from invading Danes--is more than 2,500 lines long.

And it's wonderful.

Welcome to another edition of "here is a thing I love, maybe you'd enjoy it too." I know people don't go in for epic poetry so much anymore. I have a book of Chesterton's poems--which I love--and it was years before I took the plunge and actually read the 80 pages of it that were the Ballad. But there's another way. Epic poetry was meant to be listened to. There are recordings out there--free ones. (More on that in a minute.) For an audiobook, the Ballad of the White Horse is actually quite short! I've listened to it three or four times by now while gardening. It always give me a boost.

Chesterton is an old-fashioned poet, in my favorite way. People mostly don't even know he wrote poetry, it's in a style that's so unfashionable today--but I love it. Ringing, rolling stanzas of iambic pentameter that thump and rock under you like a galloping horse; images clear and bright in heraldic colors... or primary colors, as we call most of them now... Yeah, it's not subtle, but he can write an incredible stanza:

Not for me the vaunt of woe;
Was I not from a boy
Vowed with the helmet and spear and spur
To the blood-red banner of joy?

So the Ballad is about a time when the Danes (in the poem they're sometimes called pirates--if I understand rightly these were not technically Vikings but close enough) had invaded England and driven the Anglo-Saxon tribes off most of their lands. Alfred the king of Wessex was still fighting them, but it looked hopeless. Alfred is a bit of a figure of legend in England--there's quite a bit that isn't known for sure (though a lot surer than, say, Arthur--he definitely did exist!) and Chesterton feels free to weave his own heroic, idealized version and cast Alfred as defending civilization against the dark age that came with the fall of Rome.

And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope;
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass
Hardened his heart with hope.

Alfred soon hits his lowest point--a "conquered king" driven off his lands completely, taking refuge on an island in a river--and just at the moment when he concludes that "God has wearied of Wessex men" and is now on the side of the Danes, everything changes.

In the midst of a childhood memory that follows on his despair, he looks up stunned with a strange sense that the world has changed when he wasn't looking:

Fearfully plain the flowers grew
Like a child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked, and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

(Mary plays a big role in the poem; Chesterton was Catholic. I love that image of her stroking the grass.)

Alfred asks her if he will ever win England back from the Danes. She tells him this is the one thing he cannot lawfully be told; that pagans seek sure knowledge of the future, but Christians are not allowed to know it and must instead rely on courage, faith and hope. Then she says:

I tell you nought for your comfort,
Yea, nought for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

It's a little hard to analyze these words. (They weren't--nor is any of Chesterton's poetry--meant to be analyzed. They were meant to ring like music, or steel.) What do those last two questions actually mean? What I know is, the stanzas function as a challenge. It's worse than ever. What will you do? Do they stir you? They stir me.

(It's said that during both World Wars the Ballad was immensely popular. It was apparently so much part of public consciousness in the U.K. that twice during World War II newspaper headlines were simply quotes from it. One, after a great defeat, was "Nought for your comfort.")

They stir Alfred's allies too. When he seeks out three local leaders--a Saxon, a Roman, and a Celt--to ask them to gather their troops for another fight, all three of them refuse at first. The Celtic chieftain says that Alfred's people keep prophesying a victory that never comes, and Alfred replies that he has no such prophesy this time: "The thing I bear is a lesser thing, but comes in a better name." He quotes Mary's words--which set the man's heart on fire. The hosts gather for battle.

There's a lot more. Alfred spies out the Danish camp pretending to be a harper and sings a song identifying his cause with the White Horse of Uffington, a prehistoric chalk shape cut into the turf of a great hill; because his people cherish and maintain the Horse despite not even knowing who made it, he says, and because the invaders have instead let it go to ruin, he knows God will be on their side--the side of care and love of all things, not carelessness and destruction. Then comes the battle, with many moments that ringingly dramatize faith and persistence and hope. (And, a little anachronistically, democracy.) Should I tell you how the battle ends?

Maybe you can guess. But it's worth a listen.

You can find it here at Librivox--ah, Librivox my old friend. I've gotten so many hours of wonderful listening there. Classics and books I'd never heard of--all older works, in the public domain now--read and uploaded by volunteers and available entirely for free. Have a look round. I may post something myself there one day. Shouldn't say more yet.

Here's a little preview embedded--the section I quoted from:

And, for fun, here is the trailer for, apparently, a movie someone is making of it. Very much a homemade movie, but it's kind of fun:

And the whole darn thing embedded from Youtube, just in case that's the way you'd like to play it:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet,
And the sea rises higher.

Let's pray for everyone the sea and sky threaten today.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Cucumber-Raspberry Ices

I was making this yesterday with my friend Brandie, and found it was easier to put the recipe up on the blog than to print it out before running out the door to her house! I'll leave it up here in case anyone finds it useful.

It's a recipe I invented by accident, based on a recipe for cucumber-lime paletas that I found online due to having way too many cucumbers. (It's odd that only zucchini has the reputation for overproducing in the summer. I've found cucumbers keep up with them very well.) I made the recipe as a granita (sort of like a sorbet made without benefit of an ice-cream maker) for a party I was going to. I didn't have lime juice (so I used lemon) but I did have a few raspberries, and threw them in for color. Then I stirred it, and their pink color bled through the whole pale-green mixture. It didn't look great like that, so I blendered it, and added a handful more raspberries. Now it was all pink--and it was delicious. I never looked back--I've actually never made a cucumber-lime paleta yet! Maybe someday.

This tastes like raspberry with a subtle refreshing melony hint. Really discerning palates can sometimes guess it's cucumber. To me it's reminiscent of watermelon. Which might also be worth trying...

Refreshing Cucumber-Raspberry Ices

  • 1 large cucumber (10–12 oz.), peeled
  • 1 cup simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, boiled till mixed & then cooled)
  • ⅓ cup lemon juice
  • ½ to ¾ cup raspberries (fresh or frozen) or more to taste

Puree cucumber, adding some of the simple syrup if necessary to get enough liquid in the blender for it to work smoothly.
Strain the pureed cucumber, keeping the liquid part. You can do this with a sieve or, for the easier method, a slotted spoon. It doesn't have to be perfect.
Mix all the ingredients in the blender and puree. You can save out a few raspberries to put them in, or on top, whole.
Freeze. There are several possible methods:
  1. Process with an ice-cream maker if you have one.
  2. Put the mixture in the freezer, and pull it out at intervals and stir it thoroughly. When it gets almost too difficult to stir, you can leave it, it'll retain its texture in the freezer indefinitely. (This makes a slightly grainy sorbet texture, but it's perfect after about a minute of thawing.
3. Simply freeze the mixture, then take it out of the freezer about ½ hour before serving, break it into chunks with a knife once it's thawed enough, and puree the chunks in the blender until smooth and icy. This makes quite a smooth texture but you'll need to serve immediately.
4. Simply make popsicles.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Elderberries, and seeking your food from God

I biked a couple of miles to the Hennepin Canal this week, to pick elderberries. (Not actually for exercise; if I'd had a car I would have driven, but I don't and I wanted the berries. My carless condition is a story for another time, but I'll say this for it: it's easy to stay close to the earth when you don't have a choice!) I've been getting my manuscript in shape to send in to the publisher for the second time after some revisions—one reason I'm not up to any other really heavy writing this week—but elderberries wait for no-one. It was now or never.

Elderberries like to hang out over water. In French they're called sureau, which literally means “over water.” I noticed this year, picking some of my harvest from the bushes beside the road near home and some from the bushes hanging low over the canal, what a difference water makes to them: the road berries are puny, mostly seed, which I used to think the natural condition of elderberries—but the canal berries are fat and black and shiny, and when you squeeze them you can feel the juice. I'll be making that canal trip again next year. The berries hang so low over the water that the fattest clusters tempted me right into the canal—but it turned out to be barely ankle-deep at the edge. I'm in.

There aren't actually that many wild foods I regularly gather. More than the average person, I guess, but less than most enthusiasts. Elderberries for syrup; nettles for nettle soup (a French country recipe) and nettle tea (which tastes rather like spinach tea but is an excellent natural iron supplement); fiddleheads and ramps one time each spring, stir-fried together; and once, a solitary morel. (Maybe it'll happen again someday!) I hope to try acorns this fall—I'll have to look up the process, but I believe it involves soaking them and discarding the water to leach the bitter tannins out—largely because in playing with the Boy I once split an acorn open with a knife to show him the inside and I swear it smelled exactly like brown sugar. I couldn't stop smelling it; I still have it around somewhere to take a whiff from every now and then. I just have to find out how they taste, if only once.

There aren't that many wild foods I gather, but they're important to me. The process is important to me. There's something about the haphazardness of it, the searching—gathering rather than picking—that suits my notions of how life truly is. There's something about the wild itself, the unplanted place, whether woods or ditch or hedgerow; there's something about that unplanted place holding out food to you, for you to pick. Food out of the ground already seems a miracle to me, even when I work hard for it; I can't make a pumpkin or a raspberry, and the fact that they swell and ripen on the plants at all seems like a bounty and a gift. But foraging goes a step beyond: in the place God chooses, not in the place I choose, grows the thing I need. My only work is to search.

In my favorite psalm, Psalm 104, it says “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God.” I've never hunted, but I can see it. Foraging is like that too, and I'm sure hunting is even more so—especially if you do it for hunger, not for fun. There's so much hope involved and so much chance. You seek for the gift, but in the end the gift is given. There is no certainty. We walk out to seek our food in a world we don't control. Even if it's only a gallon or two of berries, it's a reminder of sorts: that our food, and ourselves, are not products of our making. That the earth and the Lord are the matrix of our lives; that we are creatures and not gods.

Every year in September I make elderberry syrup. The berries are reputed to have immune-boosting properties, and I believe it; if it happens not to be true, the syrup makes a truly delicious placebo (which you'll know, if you've read much about the placebo effect, is nothing to sneeze at.) I arm for the winter with elderberry syrup and echinacea tincture, the one from the wild and the other from my herb garden. Here's the recipe I'll be using for the syrup. Please note that if you ever try elderberries for yourself, it's important to cook them in some way no matter what you're making with them (some people dry them in an oven for instance) because heat rids them of some mildly toxic properties that can cause an upset stomach.

Elderberry syrup

2 quarts fresh ripe elderberries
¼ oz grated ginger root
½ tsp ground cloves

Put the elderberries in a large pot with ¼ cup of water and simmer on low heat until they're soft. Strain out the pulp and reheat the juice in the pot; add the ginger and cloves. Simmer till the liquid is reduced to half its original volume. Measure the liquid and add an equal amount of honey. Stir the hot liquid and the honey together till thoroughly combined. Let cool.

This syrup will keep 12 weeks in the fridge, or all winter in the freezer. (The great thing about the honey is, it stays runny in the freezer, so it's very easy to dole out the freezer syrup a few spoonfuls at a time.)

When you're fighting a cold or flu, take 1 or 2 tablespoons of the syrup several times throughout the day (on pancakes if desired!)