Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

22 February 2007

Recipes on the Web—A Lament, an Attempt at Obedience, and an Apple Cake Some of You May Want to Try

My editor told me the other day that they're probably going to want to remove most of the recipes from my upcoming food memoir. The book's too long, I think. They suggested that I post the recipes on my website instead. I'm sort of sad about this. I think that recipes are an integral part of one's story. Or mine, anyway.

And, personally, I prefer recipes in books to recipes on the web. I don't like that there are so many recipes out there in the first place. Whenever I google something I want to make, I get that sinking hopeless feeling akin to the one I get in bookstores when, having gone blithely in for something to read, it suddenly occurs to me that there are so many books. So so many forgettable books. How will I ever choose just one? (Worse, why should I even bother to add my little offerings to the pile?)

That said, I do bother to write, both books and this blog, and my attitude toward them is so different. The web is so ephemeral-seeming. Somehow it seems a waste of time. I keep thinking, I should be putting this in a book. And then, I start a new little collection of essays for some future book. Currently, I'm working on a collection of Genesis essays, which began with my last post.

I also don't like the relative lack of authority of web recipes. Of web anything. Recipes in cookbooks carry with them the personality and habits and voice of the writer of the cookbook. Reviews of cookbooks often include information about whether or not the recipes actually work. On the web recipes are just bodiless, personality-less voices, often without names. Often there is even a disclaimer that no one has tried the recipe out in a test kitchen, so the website is not responsible for whether or not they are reliable.

Then, on top of that, there are frequently comments, readers who have objections or suggestions about this or that. A recipe dialogue it becomes to me, rather than a real recipe, and, while that may sound like a nice thing, like those recipes of our grandmothers and great grandmothers passed down and edited in each generation, for me such recipes start to mishmosh together into something like the food at chain restaurants: a cacaphony of ethnic and personal influences that seems always to include cheese, pleasant sometimes, but in no wise distinctive or personal like the food from a friend's kitchen. I prefer to stop at each new edition of a recipe and get to know just that one entry into the food, before being bombarded with all the ways I could change it from how it was supposed to be. I like savoring not just the culinary instruction of each new voice but the personality and priorities that power it, the life behind the voice that wants things richer or lighter or quicker or more redolent of an almost forgotten memory of childhood.

And anyway, I never do exactly what a recipe says myself—even though I do listen to each voice, do weigh and consider each suggestion. So, having all those tongues weighing in on how the recipe might be better—or simpler, or lower in calories or fat or sugar, or more like some anonymous woman's dead aunt used to do it—makes my own contribution to the evolution of the recipefeel like just another of many, and thus voiceless. Recipes are important, I think, representing—no, incarnating—the evolution of a culture. Incarnating a memory of a particular woman in a particular kitchen. (Yes, I know there are men who cook, but that only really started being the case when cooking evolved from the love-chores of mothers and grandmothers into a profession that could generate glitz and fame and money. In the kitchens of the wealthy, the kitchens of kings and millionares and fancy restaurants where cooks are not cooks but chefs who are known by name, cooking became something I'm not particularly interested in. A confection. A set of rules. An oeuvre. A game for hobby-gourmets. Something with which to impress one's acquaintance and far removed from the homelier comforts found, if we are among the lucky, in the kitchens of our childhoods.)

If I want to use a recipe from the web—to get back on track here—I have to either print it up before I start cooking—a task often entailing copying and editing and pasting the recipe into a Word document so that it will print efficiently—or else run back and forth between my computer and the stove. Both tasks take me out of the kitchen, into the stress and chaos of that other life of mine, where I run here and there and cut and paste and fiddle with email and websites and all the voices of the world. Cooking is the opposite for me. It has always been, from my childhood, an escape from this sort of chaos. An inward act. I prefer to prop up the book right there in the kitchen with me, jotting down the changes I make to it as I go for future reference. A recipe isn't really a recipe, to me—isn't really one to which I will return again and again—until it's been baptised with spatters and rendered transparent here and there with droplets of grease and maybe even burned a bit at the edges, as most of my favorite cookbooks are.

So, I'm not sure where my editor and I will end up in this debate. I'm also not sure how many recipes are too many. But, in the spirit of obedience—or, in any case, a trial run—I have decided to offer you all a recipe for the cake I made for my students today. The class I'm teaching this semester meets only once a week, for two and one half hours, so we make tea and I always bake something.

My friend Susan gave me this recipe as "Washington State Apple Cake. It's widely available elsewhere on the web, and, if you want to google it, you will find versions probably closer to how the recipe started out in Susan's kitchen. Her recipe had a rich cream cheese frosting, but I think that's overkill and also covers up the pretty, crusty, meringue-like top that magically forms on the cake—the best part of the recipe. So, I have omitted the frosting here. I have made other changes to the recipe in my version, such as cutting down the cinnamon significantly. Now I usually leave it out entirely. And I put the nuts on top of the batter rather than in it so that they get all toasty tasting. And I only use canola oil, which lends the cake a curiously intense walnutty flavor. The resulting recipe is, in other words, entirely my own.

Also, to save time and dishwashing, I do the whole thing with my food processor, starting with the apples using a slicing disk, then chopping the nuts, then mixing the batter. However, you can use a hand held mixer to make the batter if you don't have a food processor and then just chop the nuts and slice the apples by hand.

Crusty Apple Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice, sprinkle with the juice of 1/2 a lemon, and spread out in a buttered, floured 9 X 13 pan:

  • 5 or 6 apples, skin and all—or peel them first, if you object to skins
Food process or beat until thick and light:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 c. sugar
Add and continue processing/mixing until light and creamy:

  • 1 c. canola oil
  • 1 t. vanilla

Add all at once and process/mix until smooth:

  • 2 c. flour
  • [1/4 t. cinnamon—I often leave this out, for a purer, nuttier, more intensely apple flavor.]
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • 1 t. salt

Pour, or rather scrape, batter over the apples, then top with

  • 1 c. walnuts, coarsely chopped
Press the nuts down slightly into the batter to make sure they will sink in enough not to fall off as they bake. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour—by which time the cake will have formed its distinctive meringuey crust. Cool in the pan. Unsweetened whipped cream—or whipped cream ever so slightly sweetened with sugar in which you have stored a scraped out vanilla bean—would be good with this, as a more formal dessert than the baked goods grabbed up in my class.

Hope some of you try this for the people you love through food. It makes a big cake—the sort of cake you might serve at a meeting of your friends or colleagues or at church more than at an intimate family meal (unless your family is huge). Whoever eats it will like the intense nut flavor and the interesting contrast of soft, tart apples with the crusty, nutty topping.

[Don't bother to tell me how it can be improved. I know it can and hope it will be in your kitchen. But let the details remain a matter between you, God, and the people you cook for. Do let me know what you think about getting recipes from the internet in your own experience. I'm not sure I'm on the right track on this. I know getting recipes from the web is widely practiced. So somebody out there must think it's the best contribution to culinary progress since—hm, got to pick just the right cliché here—poached eggs served on a bed of creamed spinach and onions, with a toasted and buttered English muffin on the side.]

14 February 2007

Getting Done—Waw!—My Struggles with Rest

Yesterday I started on a new plan of reading the Bible daily. Usually, such resolutions on my part last a couple of weeks or months and then peter out. Then follows a spiritual dearth, sometimes jolted into vibrancy by some closeby tragedy. Then a renewed resolution to read daily.

For some reason, I can never seem to get the bookness of The Book out of my head, and I always start at the beginning. Consequently, I have read the first chapters of Genesis probably a hundred times, always with the same desire for new enthusiasm. And the story of the beginning of everything never disappoints me. I cannot exhaust this book, not even the first chapter. I always find something new and important in it.

Yesterday it was this. God rests on the seventh day only after he has completed his work of creating. Rest, in other words, follows directly from the completion of work.

Here's the passage: "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." (Genesis 2:1-2 TNIV, my emphasis)

It would be nice if I could argue the causality evident in this and a few other translations—that God was finished working, so he rested. Unfortunately, however, most translations that I have looked at translate that so as a mere and. Also, I did some research on the word used here—actually the ubiquitous Hebrew morpheme waw, which, added to a verb, links it to a previous verb—and I discovered that Hebrew linguists (read: biblical researchers with agendas) fight wrathfully over whether the word actually implies causality or mere sequentiality and they use their theories to argue such hot theological topics as evolution vs. creationism and what, exactly, God's promised rest is. In this particular passage, for example, the waw-question is whether God ever finished resting and moved on to some other work or rather, as some passage in Hebrews suggests, having finished his work, he continues to rest to this day. I don't want to get into that waw stew, nor am I equipped to do so.

Let me say this, though, from my entirely unschooled reading of the Genesis writer's overview of the creation story (which for me begins in the first chapter and ends with the third verse of second chapter): God only rested when he had finished his work.

This is a totally new idea for me. Revolutionary, even. And worth looking at closely.

Not having finished my work is my main resting deterrent. I wake in the night worrying about some part of my current work that I have yet to do or that I forgot to do or that I was in the middle of doing when I went to bed.

Also, I have an abiding sense of never being finished with my work. Never. Even when I have finished some consuming project—as recently, for example, when I sent the manuscript for my second book to my editors—I am suddenly overwhelmed, it seems to me, with all the other things I wasn't able to do while I was working. Gardening. Sewing. Spring cleaning. Inviting students to dinner. Writing thank you notes to endorsers. Planning my next book. Soon, within minutes, I think, I am making to do lists and seized with stress. How will I ever get it all done?

Judging from the number of books out there on the subject of rest, I suspect many share my problem. Not long ago I read one such book called Sabbath Keeping, by Lynne Baab. It was a good how-to book on the sabbath: inviting, rather than prescriptive, for the most part, with exercises at the ends of the chapters that really made you examine the stress of your life and desire opportunities for respite. I found it particularly challenging that the sort of activity Baab recommends against doing on the sabbath was accomplishing anything—that is, getting something done, even if it's something you enjoy. If you find yourself thinking, I just need to finish..., then whatever would finish the sentence is a bad choice. Sabbath keeping, for the most part, was another job, of sorts: the daunting task of sacrificing the desire to complete.

I don't know and honestly don't care if God finished his rest and has moved on to another project—although my guess is that, in the spirit of Ecclesiastes, God's rest and work come in spells, seasons, a time for each. But I do know this: God did not get stressed immediately upon completing the creation of the world and everything in it. He rested. Ceased, as the word is translated in some translations. He stopped working. Stopped thinking about it—about the plants and animals and creatures of the sea and sky, each according to its kind. Stopped looking at it. Stopped talking about it. Stopped blessing it and calling it good, probably, since those actions appear to be key elements of his creative work.He could have taken naps here and there, throughout the process.

He could have slogged through it, making himself a cup of tea with which to rest, after a fashion, while he worked at the computer. Instead, he finished his work completely. And then, for some unknown period of time, he stopped. Totally. Entirely. Gloriously.

Think of it. Stopping. It is hard for me even to imagine. I envision a sensory deprivation tank, in which I am forcibly prevented from accomplishing anything, and the thought nauseates me. Not just the forcible part or the nasty microbes and fungi that probably live in those tanks. Not the claustrophobia or the metallic smell of the water or the dark. Simply the inactivity. The helplessness of it.

Some part of me longs for it, though. For resting that comes as a natural consequence of being done, rather than as an artificial or sacrificial activity of its own. Resting that is not something I do, but something that just happens, like how, when we were first married, Kris and I used to sink into the most refreshing sleep at night after a long day of weaning calves and trucking the bulls to the sale barn. Or after raking and baling a field. Or after spearing the bales, one by one, onto the bale trailer, then toting them off to wherever we were storing them that year and, one by one, lining them up in tidy rows for the winter.

Something about farming was conducive to the kind of rest I'm thinking God takes. Getting done. Perhaps it's because the tasks of farming are so much like God's work in the first place. Globbing everything together into a formless dark mass of cattle or cut grass. Separating them into male and female, young and old, fescue and good clover, windrows and bales, square bales and round bales, each according to their kind. Looking at them. Blessing them. Pronouncing them good. Getting our check at the end of the day, or knowing the cows would have plenty to eat when the weather got cold.

Getting done, totally done, I'm thinking, is the key to rest. Not just stopping. Before we can honor the sabbath—an act of holiness so important in the old law, mind you, that not honoring the sabbath was punishable by death—we have to actually finish what we're doing. How to do that is my next struggle, in the area of rest. But for now, it's just good to be finished thinking about it.

09 February 2007

My Ongoing Struggle with Prayer

I don't know how many friends and preachers have told me that prayer is as much about listening for God's response as about speaking to God. That my words are just one half of a dialogue with God. Still, I continue to struggle—oh how I struggle—with the notion of prayer.

I won’t apologize for this. After all, even the disciples were all about failure to pray. Like us, they had Jesus himself as a model. They saw him go off by himself to pray. They listened to him pray publicly. They overheard those weirdly private public prayers of his in which he told his father stuff like, I know you’re already doing this, but I am just saying this for the benefit of those listening. And yet, they didn’t pray enough—or perhaps the correct way—to cast out demons on at least one occasion. And they fell asleep instead of praying in Gethsemane. And, most importantly, they questioned Jesus about how to pray. They were, in other words, just like me in this. They were worried about prayer. They decided, or feared, or fantasized, that there might be some right way to pray—the way John the Baptist prayed, perhaps, or Henri Nouwen, or the way some dorky self-help book on morning devotions described what the author did each day, or the way some preacher told them was how prayer was supposed to be done—and they weren’t doing it that way. Their prayers felt inadequate, somehow. I know they did. This is how I perpetually feel about prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. I pray. I prayed as a child. Nowadays, as then, I pray on mostly on an as-needed basis. I worry on behalf of others, a kind of intercessory prayer, I think. (I call it pray-worrying, often in emails, as in, Sally, I've been pray-worrying about your insomnia, and here's what occurred to me.) I also get great relief, many nights, from silently talking to God, so to speak, and knowing that he’s listening. (It’s more like thinking than actually talking. If I talked, I'd wake Kris, beside me in the bed, sleeping the rest God promises those who love him. And I don't generally consider what I think to or about others to be actually talking to them.) In my years of atheism, the prayers of my lost faith were what I missed most. Asking. Complaining. Being comforted. Feeling heard.

But. I don’t know what to say here. How to transition from this obvious knowing how to pray that I have had from babyhood—and there is this sense that we all, deep down, actually do know how to pray without being told—to the abiding conviction that my “prayer-life,” if there is such a thing, is somehow faulty? Is it just the influence of the sort of people who use such terms as “prayer-life” that devalues my habits? Or is there really some better way to pray, some more mature way of praying beyond the crying out like a newborn and being comforted?

I keep thinking about this, toying it. It’s a deceptively easy subject, it seems to me. Kris says I worry about it too much. A lot of people tell me this about a lot of things, and they are surely right. Every one of those Fear-not!’s in the Bible was intended for me, I think. Kris, in any case, says, "Prayer is just talking to God. Like in a normal conversation."

But here’s the thing. In most of the conversations I have with anyone else but God, the person responds. Out loud. In audible words. In my language—or at least in a language which I can understand and recognize as language. Which is not how God does it. (Unless, of course, my experience of God really is far more limited than I know about, oh worry, worry, worry. Please, whoever’s reading this, do NOT tell me that you hear an audible voice. It will upset me and cause me to worry even more and covet your greater faith and holiness and such.)

So, I have decided here to consider the way those other conversations I have had—the ones that did not involve the other person audibly responding in recognizable words—to see what might be found there about the nature of prayer. Aside from mental telepathy, which I can't seem to make it work the way it's supposed to, and talking to the radio, which poses similar difficulties, these one-sided conversations fall into two categories for me. Well, three. Conversations with babies. Conversations with animals (mostly dogs and cows, but also hurt birds and moles I have found in the yard and the emaciated lizard that lives in an aquarium in Lulu's room). And conversations with dying people who are able to hear and process what I am saying but are not able to respond.

In all of these instances—with babies, with animals, and with people rendered mute as a result of disease—I held conversations, first of all, by paying attention to nonverbal responses. Eye rolling. Smiling. A look of request or gratitude. Wailing. The cessation of wailing. “Was the baby wanting Mama? Does she have a poopy diaper? Mama’s going to change it. Yes, Mama’s getting rid of that old nasty diaper. Oh, what now? Does Baby want the keys? Here are the keys. Here they are. Yes, Charlotte likes the keys, doesn’t she?”

Also, as you can see with that baby, I asked a lot of questions. Similarly, a “conversation” with a cow was usually a series of questions—“Does it hurt? Do you want it here, or here? Oh, sweet one, are you looking for your baby?”—followed by a few reassuring answers, or, better, by dragging the hay or the water or the newborn calf where the cow could reach it.

Finally, I typically supplied answers for my silent conversation partner. The best example is with the mortally sick person in the hospital. When my husband’s aunt lay dying, she couldn’t close her mouth, and her chemotherapy-blackened tongue was cracked and dry-looking. I knew she was desperately thirsty. She panted heavily. Every time I caught her eye, she directed her gaze meaningfully at the table by the bed, where, in the days before, we had kept a cup of ice chips to give her. But she could no longer swallow or even keep the ice in her mouth, so the nurses gave me a swab to wet and stroke her poor black tongue with. “You’re thirsty,” I told her. “There, you like that. That feels good, doesn’t it? That’s enough now. You’re wondering where George is. He’s gone to get something to eat. Yes, that’s good. He had your Jell-O at lunch. That was all. He wasn't hungry. Too worried about you. You don't want him to worry, I know. You want me to tell him that. Yes, he doesn't need to worry, does he? It's going to be okay.”

These are inadequate examples of conversations with God, I know. God’s not a baby or a cow or a dying person. And he’s certainly not incapable of responding. He's not incapable of anything, except maybe not loving us. But what I get from thinking about these conversations with the mute is something relevant, I think, to how we, of necessity, talk to a silent, invisible, conversation partner like God.

First off, in praying, we have to pay attention to non-verbal information rather than direct responses. Events. Preexisting evidence of truth. Divine gestures, like awe-inspiring weather conditions, a potted plant suddenly blooming, or an auto accident involving the child of friends that suddenly thrusts one’s pettier complaints into perspective. I say we have to pay attention to these things, but, in truth, I think we often do it unconsciously. Sometimes, even, to an obsessive degree, resulting in superstitions and misguided notions about how God works, or ought to work, in our lives. Nevertheless, I believe God does respond to us in such gestures. This idea especially bothers a non-believing friend of mine, who makes much mock of Christians’ egotistical notion that God would cause rain or redirect the attention to a car wreck or orchestrate a bright pink sunrise just for one person praying. Absurd, yes, but, I think, true. (What a burpy little “sentence,” with all those commas. I like it.)

Second, prayer, like conversation with a mute partner, inevitably involves questions. Lots of questions. Sometimes nothing but questions. Questions one is forced to answer oneself, usually with a reassuring offer to take some action. I’m coming. I’m here. I’m ready to do what you want me to.

Finally, if engaging in more involved discussion with God than the prayer-equivalent of reassuring a baby or offering to swab a tongue, one has to be ready to supply both sides of the conversation. Supplying another’s unspoken response is possible only to the degree that one is familiar with that person and can recreate what he or she is likely to be thinking. The ability to predict another’s thoughts is, of course, dependent on some degree of previous interaction with that person. Knowing what the person likes and despises, what topics are important to the person, what the person has said in the past.

God’s past utterances, of course, are helpful here. And luckily, lots of them are recorded where we can check and make sure we’re right about them. We can look them up and cross-reference them and read them in all kinds of translations, get down to the word level, parse them. That, then—our rehashing, if you will, of God’s side of the conversation, of his gestures, the history of our relationship with him, his words on the pages of our Bibles—is what, for today, I have decided that my more experienced Christian friends must mean when they say that prayer is “just being quiet and listening to God.”

It’s the being quiet I take issue with, in part. I mean, unlike in a real conversation, even a conversation with someone who can’t speak aloud, prayer is usually conducted in complete silence. Neither part—not my speaking to God, not his replying to me—is noisy. Or, if we consider our own wordless input to be the opposite of “quiet,” the noise of the prayer that we must silence in order to hear God speak, then God’s input—that is, his wordless response housed in our own thoughts—is no less noisy. If prayer is to be conceived of as a conversation at all, I think, then it’s all about speaking. Speaking for ourselves and speaking, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, for God.

One last thought. Interestingly, one doesn’t make many requests of babies, animals, or dying people. But prayer does involve requests of God. Or, at least, all of Jesus’ recorded prayers to our Father did.

So, conversely to everything I have written here, perhaps, in praying, it is we who are the mute ones—the babies, the animals, the one who lies dying on the raised bed. We think we are doing the speaking when we pray—casting our thoughts out to some invisible, silent troller of words—but actually we are the ones lying awake and voiceless, listening, trying to respond, wanting to cry out and make our needs known, but, ultimately, silent, while God leans over us and speaks and speaks and speaks and speaks.